When Virginia legislators voted unanimously in February to express "profound regret" over the Old Dominion's role in promoting slavery and Jim Crow, they seem to have unloosed a flood of demands for official expressions of white contrition. Maryland recently followed Virginia's lead, and similar actions are now being debated not only in Georgia, Missouri, and North Carolina, but far from the South, in states like New York, Massachusetts, and Vermont. Tennessee Democratic Congressman Steve Cohen has even introduced a House resolution calling for a national apology.
The arguments in favor of such legislation are certainly heartfelt. Apology advocates--particularly the NAACP, which has been at the forefront of this issue--insist that a simple "acknowledgment that a wrong took place" is long overdue and that such an admission will lead to a better understanding of the enduring disparities in education and income between blacks and whites. Virginia State Senator Henry L. Marsh III, a black Democrat who played a key role in getting the apology resolution through a majority Republican legislature, explained that he foresaw no "true progress in this country until we get a reconciliation and an honest dialogue about race and slavery." Reacting to Georgia's proposed legislation, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution editorialized that, while an apology "will not change Georgia's past," it would "confirm that Georgia is committed to a better future for all its citizens." What would be so bad about that?
Well, plenty, perhaps. Addressing racial inequality is definitely a good thing, but pursuing official slavery apologies as a means of doing so could hurt blacks more than it may help them--particularly those whose circumstances most reflect the disparities that apology advocates seek to address.
Debates over controversial topics like slavery have a tendency to tie up legislatures whose time could be spent more productively. Only a last-second stopgap tax increase spared Georgia a severe fiscal crisis in 2003, after the legislature had spent an entire session arguing about the appearance of Confederate symbols on the state flag instead of addressing the budget and other issues such as health care and educational reform. A statewide poll suggested that nearly 70 percent of Georgians thought the flag debate was either a negative or divisive influence or simply a waste of time. This year, the legislature was similarly forced to come up with a temporary bailout of cash-strapped PeachCare, a health insurance program for children of the working poor, at the eleventh hour. It's doubtful that the 41 percent of black families in Georgia earning less than $25,000 per year really wanted to see their lawmakers butting heads over a symbolic initiative when such a crucial substantive one should have commanded their attention. In Maryland, meanwhile, when an Annapolis councilman called for the former slave port to apologize for the "perpetual pain, distrust and bitterness" caused to black people, a writer to The Baltimore Sun allowed that she would "prefer that the aldermen have a resolution to atone for the lack of a decent middle school curriculum in Anne Arundel County."
The NAACP's push for apologies has similarly distracted it from more pressing issues. As black columnist Leonard Pitts has put it, the NAACP's insistence on action that is both politically polarizing and largely symbolic has made the organization "stagnant, static and marginal to today's struggle." Bruce S. Gordon, the NAACP's recently resigned president, attempted to expand the organization's mission to encompass self-help initiatives such as pregnancy counseling and various mentoring programs. But his efforts met stiff resistance from a board of directors intent on restricting the group to its traditional role of aggressive social advocacy on behalf of African Americans victimized by racial discrimination, and Gordon was forced to step down after just 19 months.
Even diverting attention from social programs wouldn't be so bad if slavery apologies actually provoked lawmakers to address social inequalities, as apology advocates suggest. Regrettably, that doesn't seem to be the case. In Virginia, for example, a Republican member of the House of Delegates who voted for the official apology must have had a dramatic change of heart--he had suggested earlier that black Virginians should simply "get over" slavery. In Georgia, State Senate President Pro Tem Eric Johnson, a white Republican, initially found the NAACP's demand for an apology "rather silly," but agreed to go along with the proposal, presumably because the word "apology" itself was not used. "An apology is from someone who did wrong to someone who was wronged," Johnson explained. "That's not going to happen." More than anything, Johnson admitted, he just wanted to "get it over with." His Republican colleague, State Senator Jeff Mullis, went a step further in demonstrating just how meaningless the whole business was to him, reportedly offering to attach the slavery apology resolution to his oft-submitted bill calling for April to be designated "Confederate History and Heritage Month" in Georgia. All of this seems a far cry from the kind of sincere, remorseful acknowledgment envisioned by Georgia NAACP leader Edward O. Dubose that "whites benefited from slavery and the inhumane treatment of African Americans."
To be sure, even symbolic debates have their merits. Whether adopted or not, apology legislation can raise awareness of racial inequality, even if it does little to address the problem directly. And the ability to lobby successfully for slavery apologies, particularly in southern states governed overwhelmingly by white conservatives, reinforces the idea that blacks are a constituency to be taken seriously--a positive development, without doubt. Still, the vague, half-hearted expressions of regret that the apology initiatives have thus far managed to extract hardly bespeak significant influence, and black leaders run the risk of expending their political capital on an issue that will have little tangible effect.
White lawmakers and their white constituents clearly feel little real responsibility for the actions of their ancestors, and even less for the actions of someone else's (in Georgia, well under a third of the white male population in 1860 owned slaves). Thus, instead of promoting further discussion of the obligations of the present to the past, apology legislation may be having just the opposite effect as savvy conservatives are simply using it as a quick and relatively painless way to achieve cloture on a debate whose end should not be anywhere in sight.
Because the politics of symbolism can never be isolated from the politics of substance, perhaps we should ask ourselves what, in practical terms, can a formal apology for slavery really be expected to accomplish? Would it, as some opponents charge, lay the groundwork for a renewed call for reparations, and if so, would it really lend any more credibility to what seems nothing more than a politically divisive pipe dream? The aim here may well be nothing more than an honest dialogue on the historical roots of contemporary racial problems, but, so far, apology legislation has produced not genuine debate, but back-room wrangling over language that white conservatives will deem acceptable. Such apologies might , as advocates like Senator Marsh contend, give us a chance to "move ahead." The question is, how far and at what cost?
By James C. Cobb