Interestingly, I have already been interviewed twice in the last two days about the Florida House and Senate’s bold move to pass an official apology for black slavery. As described by the Southern Florida Sun-Sentinel:
In a watershed moment in Florida’s race relations, a solemn state Legislature on Wednesday apologized for the Florida’s long history of slavery, expressing “profound regret for the shameful chapter in this state’s history.” Described as a bid for “reconciliation and healing,” the House this afternoon passed a resolution apologizing for state slavery laws dating back to 1822 – decades became Florida even became a state – that “perpetuated African slavery in one of its most brutal and dehumanizing forms.”
Only four southern and border slave states (Maryland, Alabama, North Carolina, Virginia) have so far taken similar action, plus just one northern slave state (New Jersey).
The extreme brutality and life-shortening character of this slavery is hard to exaggerate, naive media commentators like Michael Medved notwithstanding. The Florida newspaper summarizes just some of this extreme oppression:
Slaves could be subject to 39 lashes of a whip, administered to a bare back, for raising a hand or addressing a white person with language deemed to be abusive or offensive. For crimes as common as robbery, slaves could have their ears nailed to wooden posts for an hour or even be sentenced to death.
Some white commentators on slavery forget or intentionally play down how many Americans had lives crucified by slavery:
By 1860, at the onset of the Civil War . . . some 44 percent of Florida’s 140,000 residents were slaves.
We are a relatively young country, just over 400 years old. For the lion’s share of this history we were grounded in the extreme racial oppression of slavery and legal segregation. We are the only “advanced” industrial society for which that is the true. The first English colony was founded at Jamestown in 1607, and just twelve years later in 1619 the first Africans were purchased by English colonists from a Dutch-flagged slave ship. Notice that it was exactly 350 years from that year to 1969, the year that the last major civil rights law went into effect ending legal segregation in the United States. Few Americans realize that for nearly 90 percent of our history we were a country grounded in slavery and legal segregation.
In time and space, we are not far from our slaveholding founders. There have been only three long human lifetimes, about 232 years, since the Declaration of Independence, which was principally authored by the slaveholder Thomas Jefferson. We are just two human lifetimes from the 13th amendment, which ended 246 years of slavery in this country. And we are just one human lifetime from the days when white mobs brutally lynched hundreds of black Americans over every few years and a great many whites, including government officials, were members of Ku Klux Klan, the world’s oldest terrorist group. For just four decades, half one long human lifetime, we have been legally and officially a “free country.” That is certainly not enough time for this country to eradicate the continuing impacts of nearly 360 years of extreme racial oppression. A serious social science analysis of most major aspects of this society quickly reveals the continuing impact and significance of this deep structural foundation of racial oppression.
Recognizing this long history of racial oppression, as in the Florida apology, is but a first step in dealing with the consequences of this oppression. But it is a necessary first step and one that media commentators should well pay attention to and seek out the data to better understand the nation’s racial foundation.