This commentary was prepared for this site by Roy L. Brooks, Warren Distinguished Professor of Law, University of San Diego School of Law
On July 29th, the House of Representatives passed a resolution apologizing for centuries of American slavery and another 100 years of racial segregation mandated and sanctioned by the federal government’s Jim Crow laws. This first-time-ever resolution holds forth the promise of a post-atonement America; a society marked by racial healing and reconciliation.
But envisioning a post-atonement American is not easy. The difficulty does not lie in visualizing the acts of atonement themselves. Other governments have atoned for their past atrocities, including Germany (for its persecution of Jewish and other the victims of the Holocaust) and South Africa (for its subordination and murder of blacks under Apartheid). The U. S. government has itself atoned for a least one of its past atrocities. Congress and the President passed legislation in 1988 apologizing for the internment of 120,000 Japanese Americans during World War II. Congress and the President made the government’s official apology believable by including in the legislation a $20,0000 reparation to the 60,000 detainees who were alive in 1988.
The problem in envisioning a post-atonement America lies in the more abstract and elusive aspect of understanding the true shift in perception that comes when a person, or in this case a government, feels genuine remorse for the atrocities it has committed.
Like all atrocities, slavery and Jim Crow were not historical accidents or mishaps. Founded upon the principle of liberty, the government of Washington and Jefferson—the government formed under our extant Constitution—denied liberty in a most blatant way. More than that, the U.S. government perpetuated a practice that was clearly in decline. The founding fathers breathed new life into the morally moribund institution of human bondage. Adding insult to injury, slavery was soon followed by a calculated attempt to impose the badges of slavery on 4 million manumitted blacks. Slavery and Jim Crow, in short, were committed knowingly and purposely. The U.S. government was not simply a passive receiver of illicit traditions
The volition with which atrocities of the magnitude of slavery and Jim Crow were conceived and executed raises doubts about the willingness of our government to pursue atonement. Will the government make only a perfunctory effort? Judging by the House Resolution, the early indications are that the government’s atonement might indeed be half-hearted.
Perusing the Resolution, one must come to the sad conclusion that the U.S. government has yet to tender a meaningful apology, let alone propose a single reparation, for slavery or Jim Crow. While Congress and the President have issued a formal, binding legislative apology for the internment of Japanese Americans, the House Resolution offers but a feeble apology. The apology is “nonbinding” and no other organ of government is considering a similar resolution. In addition, while the government’s internment apology was prologue to its internment reparations, the House’s apology is a preface to nothing—it is not followed by a single reparation. Without being backed by reparations, apologies are meaningless. They lack concreteness. Reparations, in other words, turn the rhetoric of apology into a material reality. They make apologies believable, more than mere words.
Curiously, the House Resolution itself makes the case for reparations. It expressly acknowledges not only the “injustice, cruelty, brutality and inhumanity” of slavery, but also that the effects of slavery and Jim Crow are still present today. The victims of Jim Crow are as alive today as were the victims of internment in 1988.
By failing to atone for slavery and Jim Crow, our government reinforces white ignorance and complacency about the racial hierarchies we see in our society today. By failing to atone, the government makes it clear that, despite its words of apology, if fails to see slavery and Jim Crow “as the basic reality, the grim and irrepressible theme governing both the settlement of the Western hemisphere and the emergence of a government and society in the United States that white people regard as ‘free.’”
It is the government’s steadfast resistance to undergoing this mental transformation that creates conceptual difficulty in envisioning a post-atonement America. What does this shift in the understanding of the significance of slavery and Jim Crow mean for our citizens? What does it means in terms of the organizing principles–mainly law and politics—-that shape our society?
Judging by the House Resolution, it means very little.