Senate Apologizes for Slavery: 219 Years Late

On June 18, the U.S. Senate unanimously passed a resolution apologizing for slavery and segregation. A day later, on Juneteenth, commemorated annually to commemorate the date in 1865 when African Americans learned of their emancipation, President Barak Obama praised the Senate’s action. And, the U.S. House, which voted in support of a similar resolution previously, is expected to endorse the Senate resolution, perhaps as early as the coming week.

In offering an apology on behalf of the American people, lawmakers joined peers in other settler states, namely Australia and Canada, to express regret for and in some way resolve historic injustices associated with nation-building and capitalist expansion. They took a step, even if small, to come to terms with race, but importantly, did so on terms acceptable to White America and shaped by the very racist history they so wanted to escape.

Undoubtedly, the resolution says something important about how far the U.S has come since 1865, while diverting attention away from how little has changed. Indeed, while the overt racism and legally sanctioned discrimination that flourished under slavery and were reborn under Jim Crow have receded, racial stratification, black disadvantage, and white privilege are as pronounced today, if not worse than, they were in 1965 when the civil rights movement crested in the U.S. Worse, the apology avoids accountability as it bars reparations. Words stand in for action and once more structural remedies to the legacies of slavery seem unimaginable to most white Americans and unworkable to their elected representatives.

In the apology, one can glimpse a pattern that has emerged around race relations as well. Over the past ten to fifteen years, it has become common for white celebrities and politicians who make a racist statement to issue an apology in which they express regret, claim lack of intention or forethought, and point to their true character which is not racist. As I suggested in a larger discussion of such apologies, they have emerged as important ways of disavowing racism, deflecting attention from the ubiquity of racism and deferring individual and collective responsibility for racism. In many ways, this is what I see in the apology, an effort to deny the persist of racism, locating its ills and the past as we craft images of our better selves today.

Another sort of denial has accompanied the resolution: the palpable resentment of white Americans. Although the precise phrasing varies, the themes are familiar: “my family did not own or benefit from slavery as we immigrated after 1900 and lived in the North” or “race is only an issue because Blacks keep talking about it” or “I am unemployed, the economy is a wreck, and all they can do in Washington is pass meaningless, feel good legislation,” and so on. The material rewards and social privileges of being white discounted, trumped by a rhetoric of injury and angry identity politics.

In contrast with Ben Buchwalter, who reads the action as a sign of strength, for me, sadly, this historic resolution reminds me more of the persistence and power of white racism today.