Carol M. Swain is professor of law and political science at Vanderbilt University Law School and the founding director of the Veritas Institute for racial justice and reconciliation. She and some other Christian leaders are calling on Congress and President Bush to issue a national apology for slavery. In past years liberal Democrats have unsurprisingly called for such action, but so have a few conservatives.
Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), while a member of the House in 2000, co-sponsored Rep. Tony Hall's (D-Ohio) Apology for Slavery Resolution of 2000. The bill was never voted on, but three years later Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) pushed for the creation of a congressional committee that would, among other things, investigate the pros and cons of a national apology for slavery. Republican leaders quietly killed the legislation and aides in Sen. Brownback's office say he does not intend to reintroduce the bill.
WORLD: Why is slavery considered responsible for the African-American underclass today? In 1950 some 78 percent of black households featured a married couple; why shouldn't the social and economic policies of the 1960s and 1970s that led to a marriage breakdown be blamed?
CMS: It is a bit of a stretch to blame slavery for the contemporary problems decimating many black communities; certainly, many of the social welfare programs of the 1960s and 1970s had undesirable unintended consequences. Nevertheless, slavery and racism have had persistent, lingering effects. For example, discriminatory past lending policies of the federal government have contributed to racial disparities in wealth.
WORLD: Why do you put an apology at the top of your own priority list when other African-Americans emphasize problems of abortion, single-parenting, education, and economics?
CMS: African-Americans can work with like-minded individuals of all races to find solutions to some of the critical problems that you delineate. An apology for slavery, however, has its own intrinsic value for advancing the cause of racial justice and racial reconciliation. An apology for slavery is something that African-Americans cannot give themselves.
WORLD: What would be the benefits of the federal government apologizing for slavery?
CMS: Our nation would reap national and international rewards from making such an enormous gesture towards racial reconciliation. The greatest benefits would be to the Republican Party because it offers them an opportunity to reclaim the mantle as the Party of Lincoln and to begin the process of creating a new relationship with African-Americans, one not clouded by the shadow and spectacle of Willie Horton.
WORLD: What is the biblical justification for the government issuing an apology?
CMS: I am not aware of any scriptures that deal directly with national apologies-but many remind us of generational sins and curses stemming from the actions of our forefathers. If America wants to continue to hold itself out as a paragon of virtue to the rest of the world, then it behooves our leaders to forever close the chapter on slavery with an appropriate governmental apology on behalf of the nation.
WORLD: President Bush in 2003 called slavery "one of the greatest crimes of history" and noted specifically that "Christian men and women became blind to the clearest commands of their faith and added hypocrisy to injustice." How would an apology differ from that?
CMS: President Bush and former president Clinton each acknowledged the crime of slavery and its injustice on trips to Africa during their respective terms. The national apology that I envision for healing purposes would take place in Washington, D.C. It could be a joint resolution passed by both houses of Congress, or an Executive Order. The resulting document would be signed as part of a ceremony in which whites, blacks, and others came together for the purpose of forgiveness and a symbolic burial of the past.
The national apology would not simply be an apology of whites to blacks. Whites, blacks, and native Americans all participated in some aspects of slavery. Many whites who immigrated to the United States after slavery ended have benefited from the period of Jim Crow racism and the rampant anti-black discrimination that followed, which protected them from competing with blacks on an equal basis.
WORLD: The Southern Baptists have issued an apology. Why isn't it sufficient for particular groups that had clear responsibility to issue apologies?
CMS: A piecemeal approach of apologizing for slavery can never have the kind of lasting impact nor the historical significance and symbolism of the President of the United States creating history by acknowledging the wrongness of the historical act. Already, the lack of an apology for such a heinous act sets the nation apart from other great nations that have expressed public contrition for past misdeeds.
Consider Germany, a nation that has apologized twice for the suffering caused by its actions. Its first national apology came after WWI when Germany was forced to sign the Treaty of Versailles, accepting responsibility for losses and damages to the allied governments and for the payment of reparations. The second apology occurred after WWII when it accepted responsibility for perpetuating the "worst crimes against humanity." The apology was followed with actual reparation of billions of dollars to Israel and billions in separate payments to Holocaust survivors.
More recently, British prime minister Tony Blair apologized for the treatment of the Irish during the potato famine, Pope John Paul II apologized for the sins of the Roman Catholic Church, and Australia apologized to Aborigines.
WORLD: Why aren't the decades of affirmative action a sufficient apology?
CMS: Affirmative action was never a policy that benefited blacks exclusively. Women were included from the very beginning and by the early 1970s five protected minorities had been added. Affirmative action has benefited some people at the expense of others and created divisiveness in its wake.
WORLD: How do you respond to critics who say a national apology imputes guilt to all white Americans, including those whose ancestors lived in other countries?
CMS: I would respond that all of our ancestors participated in the heinous crime in some form or the other. Moreover, the whites that came to the country later reaped benefits from the system that kept blacks in a subordinate position.
WORLD: Some who are pushing for an apology say it should and would be followed by a program of financial reparations, but how could such a program be administered, given the biracial ancestry of many Americans?
CMS: I am not a proponent of monetary reparations for slavery for many reasons. African-Americans make up 13 percent of the total U.S. population. At least 5 percent of African-Americans and significant percentages of affirmative action beneficiaries are the offspring of more recent immigrants and are not direct descendants of American slaves.
Financial reparations for slavery would create an administrative nightmare for the government, it would be extremely divisive and counterproductive to promoting racial reconciliation, and most importantly it would not solve the most pressing problems affecting black communities. It is critical, therefore, that we distinguish the appeal for a national apology from the vociferous demands for slave reparations heard in recent years.
WORLD: You're not looking for reparations, but why wouldn't an apology further the cause of those who are?
CMS: A national apology for slavery is not an admission of guilt that could be successfully used in a court of law to justify the payment of monetary reparations. All indications suggest that the legal case for slave reparations has been put to rest by the failure of its advocates to prevail in a series of cases that have established important precedents. Insurmountable obstacles include the lack of anyone alive with the legal standing to bring forth a valid claim of injury, traceable to the actions of an identifiable wrongdoer. Moreover, the statute of limitations and the lack of an adequate remedy at law mean that a legal case would not be advanced by the president or by the Congress making a goodwill gesture on behalf of the nation.
In the end, it does not matter whether Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton, or the Congressional Black Caucus support the apology. What matters is that the goodwill gesture takes place during this century. A national apology from the current presidential administration would close the door on slavery and serve as a giant step forward toward healing the nation and reconciling the fractured relationship between blacks and Republicans.