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Saying sorry

Interview | Law professor Carol M. Swain on why she says conservatives should support a national apology for slavery

Issue: "Johnny Carson: In memoriam," Feb. 5, 2005

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?

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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.

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