The Blog Squad

Friday, February 02, 2007

Sorry seems to be the hardest word

My husband and I disagree.

He feels Virginia does not need to apologize for slavery. He believes the eradication of slavery and the change to the U.S. Constitution reflecting it were the most concrete acknowledgement of wrongdoing a country can offer. Game over. He's an "actions-speak-louder-than-words" guy in all areas. But of course I am a word person and I say, let’s go ahead and apologize. Words and gestures are meaningful and they can help heal us all, even those who have no connection to slavery whatsoever. At the very least, I don’t see how apologizing could hurt anything. Reasonable people can certainly see this in different ways and I do consider my husband and myself to be reasonable people. (There are times of course when he puts that to the test, like the other night when … oh, well, never mind.)

Anyway, the problem with an issue like this one in which the great Commonwealth of Virginia is on the brink of making history by becoming the first state to ever apologize for slavery, is that it is so filled with emotion that reason must fight to be heard. Emotion belongs in this argument; it does. But if you read some of the comments coming out about the slavery apology it’s clear that emotion also dredges up a lot of awful stuff -- prejudice, indignation, resentment, bitterness and weary apathy.

Slavery may be a dead institution but you needn’t look any further than Sen. Joseph Biden’s bone-headed remark about Sen. Barack Obama to know that we still have a tremendous race problem in this country. He can say he meant “fresh” instead of “clean” all he wants, but to me that exposed the worst kind thinking that some white people still hold about black people. And Del. Frank Hargrove’s remarks just show a blinding ignorance to the world around him. And on the other end of the spectrum is the fact that in this presidential campaign, Obama is likely to receive a pass by some of the harsher critics -- and by that I mean the late-night comics and Jon Stewart -- partly because he is black. And in the midst of all this parsing of Biden's comment you have Al Sharpton being held up as a former presidential candidate who is highly articulate. Meanwhile, I'm watching him last night on MSNBC butcher the English language (including saying “conscrew” for “construe”) but who, exactly, is going to call him inarticulate? Who’s got the guts to say, “That guy is inarticulate. It has nothing to do with his being black. He’s just inarticulate.”

We have a problem, friends. It is not something one group or another can just “get over.” And no one thinks an apology is going to fix anything when there is inequality at nearly every level of American life. Of course, I wouldn't want an apology if it came from someone with a stone in his throat. There are a lot of people out there who echo Hargrove's remarks -- I've done nothing to apologize for. Well, no one is asking you to apologize. No one is asking me to apologize. This is coming from the Commonwealth of Virginia for the wrong it did. Where is the harm in that?


At Fri Feb 02, 03:23:00 PM EST, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Love the blog, and this was a great post. I think it's difficult to write well about racism and prejudice -- and this post does a good job of laying out the problems involved. Kudos.

One thing you didn't address at all, though, was the question of slavery reparations. Why not? It's (maybe literally) the $64,000,000 question. If Virginia apologizes for slavery, it may pave the way for reparations, and sadly that's the problem.

The injustice done to Africans brought to America as slaves, and that lives on in the lives of their descendants, is irreparable. No amount of money will ever be enough to counter it.

If VA apologizes, it opens the door for financial reparations. Where do you stand on that? Are you willing to risk the possibility that the state will go bankrupt repaying the debt it owes to its African American citizens? That it will no longer be able to provide services to its citizens because it simply has no more money?

An apology is not just an apology in this case -- it's an admission of guilt that could lead to hard times for every Virginian, regardless of race.

At Fri Feb 02, 06:37:00 PM EST, Blogger Janet Giampietro said...

Thanks for your nice words about the post. You're right. It is very hard to write about this subject and I appreciate that you realize I didn't just toss off this post lightly. Which brings me to the reparations issue. I haven't studied it closely enough to feel comfortable staking a position on it. My gut tells me it would be impossible for a state or nation to make monetary reparations such as these. I for one, even supporting an apology, would not at this point support my tax dollars used in that manner. To ask the state, as an entity, to apologize is one thing. To ask the citizens of that state -- many of whom have no ties in any way to the institution of slavery -- to foot the bill for reparations would never be tolerated. But I'm not sure I agree with you that an apology necessarily leads to reparations. That's the part I haven't studied, though. I'd love to hear your further thoughts.

At Fri Feb 02, 08:51:00 PM EST, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agree that it wouldn't necessarily lead to reparations, but I think it would definitely lead to civil suits with that aim. Even if the wording of the apology were crafted to evade litigation, the very fact that VA is the first state to come this close to apologizing would make it a promising target for people seeking reparations.

To ask the citizens of that state -- many of whom have no ties in any way to the institution of slavery -- to foot the bill for reparations would never be tolerated.

While I'd like to agree with this, I'm not sure it's a matter of toleration. If VA admits that it's "guilty," or says something that could be construed as such an admission, I'd think it would establish a foothold for lawsuits. I'm no legal scholar, but I think it's unlikely that the legislature would be able to make any sort of "cap" on reparations stick from a legal standpoint.

Wait and see, I suppose. People are always talk about things "getting better" in Richmond and Virginia, and it would be wonderful to see it actually happen.


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