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.


  1. It’s a sign of the strength of white supremacy. That’s about all the strength that’s there. Of the 7 comments, at least were ridiculous. The most ridiculous being that no one has the right to apologize on behalf of someone else. I guess this is a person who’s spouse or kids or parents are always “apologizing” for him/her. The idea that the US of 2009 should apologize for it’s first 233 and a half years or so as a nation is a logical fallacy.
    As for the apology itself, until it acknowledges everything that happened and educates the populace, it means less than nothing. It’s like someone taking a Hummer across the lower half of your body, apologizing for breaking your foot, then refusing to pay for medical treatment – especially since the accident was all of an hour ago and the ampatated foot is dead is dead and can’t be replaced. When it comes to reparations, that is should be dismissed is insulting. To dismiss out of hand the appropriateness of reparations is, if nothing else, to deny the fact of generational wealth exchange and the fact that whites have benefited from it. I’ve said this so often, I’ve probably written it previously on other threads. But I like it so I’ll write it again: people die; money gains compound interest!

  2. Dave Paul

    I agree with No1KState. The problem with this resolution is that is feeds the contemporary white racial frame and its resultant view of racism. It fails to acknowledge the persistent racial inequalities that plague our nation and are born out of centuries of unjust wealth transmission (from black labor to white capitalists). Until we realize that our current standard of living and all the petty luxuries we have come to depend on are born directly out of racist, capitalist exploitation of both African Americans and people of color the world over, we are no better than our forebearers. We cannot continue to rationalize our wealth and privilege with individual character traits. This nation is founded on exploitation; we need to fight our human impulse to take advantage of other human beings. Each and every one of us needs to do a little soul-searching and we need to come together as a nation and right our wrongs, both past and present.

  3. Joe

    NO1 and Dave, good points. Thanks for the thoughtful responses. The Senate is a mostly white male, good ole boy club, and it is probably the world’s most powerful legislative body. Yet it is undemocratic in the way it is elected, and the way it operates, and in its composition. The founding (often slaveholders) fathers wanted it that way, undemocratic…. So, no surprise on this timid apology.

  4. Shari

    And so the legacy bearers offer a watered down apology for slavery and continue oblivious and silent to the original and continuing genocidal bloodbath that acquired the land which made slavery possible and necessary.

    No surprises here, business as usual. Meanwhile nuclear energy proposals continue while the birth defects and cancer from uranium mining continue to annihilate native populations.

  5. Rich Author

    agreed: no surprise in the “apology” which actually restates white supremacy in the muted tones of a white racial frame reworked in the face of struggles for equality and inclusion. although unique for its visibility and sentiment, something we might find in the spectacle surrounding michael jackson’s death as well, the resolution reminds me of the ubiquity of white racism and its distinctive impacts. some in congress have proposed apologizing to native americans as well, but again without a true grasp of settler colonialism and no attention to structural changes that might begin to ameliorate the force of anti-indian racism.


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