Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Should New Jersey apologize for its roll in slavery? (explain)
  • Yes
  • No
Vote in the poll!

More than that, the state is going to issue apologies for Bon Jovi, Christie Whitman, and for Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band as well. Still, while it may be true that New Jersey is crowded, and it has official corruption, high property taxes, and a high cost of living -- at least it's not New York. And thank God.

In all seriousness, my concern is that the apology won't go far enough, that it will merely be an intellectual statement of guilt but will not do anything to indicate true repentance or a desire to right the wrongs.

Invariably when this issue surfaces, as at the federal level a few years ago, someone objects on the grounds that slavery ended throughout the nation 140 years ago. All the slaveowners are dead, and every person who once was a slave has died. There is no one left, the argument goes, to apologize to, nor anyone left who owes an apology.

When we make those arguments, I think we miss an important spiritual truth: The sins of the fathers are visited upon their sons. Slavery ended in the blood and fire of the Civil War, but it swiftly was replaced by more than a century of segregation and jim crow justice, and by a dark legacy of racism. Even today, when we have a serious contender for the presidency who is black, opportunities and education remain slanted very measurably on a racial basis. The sin that led to the institution of slavery remains.

although slavery was a disgusting thing, aren't most of the descendants in the US better off because of the slavery?

One of the common responses to this sort of proposal is to argue that African Americans are better off than they would have been had they been born in Africa. Who can say for certain? We only know the story we have, not the story that might have been told. The current state of many African nations doubtless is due in some part to their own role in the slave trade, and the heightened conflicts and predation that went into capturing people to sell as slaves. If the pre-existing conflicts had not been exacerbated by the slave trade, perhaps those nations would be stronger and more cohesive than they are now. I lack the training or knowledge to say with anything approaching certainty.

However, all things being equal, I'd have to say that they probably are. I remember back during the Rwanda genocide, reading an op-ed piece by a columnist whose ancestors entered the United States not through Ellis Island but in some unnamed port, and not looking forward to a life of freedom and opportunity but to one of brutal exploitation and degradation. Yet as this fellow looked at the mutilated bodies floating down the river, he was glad that they had come, because if they hadn't, he wouldn't be living where he was.

If it's true that some of America's contemporary wealth and state of advancement is due to the labor provided by slaves in the South before the Civil War, and in the Northern states before they proclaimed their own emancipations, it's also true that both blacks and whites have received those economic benefits.

God does bring good out of evil, and he can even sew a silk purse from a pig's ear. But that doesn't mean that the evil doesn't continue to exact its toll, nor that the silk purse does not in some manner remain a pig's ear.

For the apology to be more than empty words, it needs to be accompanied by some meaningful action: a stronger commitment to schools in urban areas, for instance; greater incentive for business and industry to invest in our inner cities; and a greater celebration of the African American culture than token nods its way with Black History Month and Kwanzaa. It's great that kids today know prominent black performers like Will Smith, Denzel Washington and Oprah Winfrey; it'd be much better if their knowledge extended back to Sammy Davis Jr., Gregory Hines, Louis Armstrong, Ray Charles, Paul Robeson, Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Huston, to say nothing of the many blacks who have contributed to America's politics, military, civics and everything else.

If the New Jersey government really wants to make good on an apology for slavery, what it will need is to make a deliberate effort to serve the black community and elevate it to equal footing alongside the Caucasian community; i.e., "Our ancestors debased yours, and it was wrong. To correct the heritage we received from them, we will now abase ourselves before you and serve you."

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