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By Derrick Z. Jackson, 7/11/2003
THERE IS a simple reason American presidents will not apologize for slavery. An apology for the past means asking white Americans to take responsibility for the present. One hundred and forty years after the Emancipation Proclamation, that remains a task too heavy for presidents to perform. The truth remains too terrible for Americans to bear.
Twice in five years a president has gone to Africa. Both said how terrible slavery was. In 1998, Bill Clinton said, ''going back to the time before we were a nation, European Americans received the fruits of the slave trade. And we were wrong in that.''
This week President Bush called slavery ''one of the greatest crimes of history.'' Bush went so far as to speak directly about the ''captors.'' He said, ''Small men took on the powers and airs of tyrants and masters. Years of unpunished brutality and bullying and rape produced a dullness and hardness of conscience. Christian men and women became blind to the clearest commands of their faith and added hypocrisy to injustice.''
Bush admitted that while physical slavery is dead, the legacy is alive. ''My nation's journey toward justice has not been easy, and it is not over,'' Bush said. ''The racial bigotry fed by slavery did not end with slavery or with segregation.''
That sounds like progress, except for one thing. It might be novel for American presidents to go on political safari to Africa to condemn slavery. But they are not the first to say slavery was bad.
This is not merely from the usual suspects of Cliff Notes history, like Lincoln's emancipation and Jefferson's laments of slavery even as he allegedly made a baby with one. John Adams said, ''Negro slavery is an evil of colossal magnitude.'' The slave owner James Monroe still called the international slave trade ''abominable.'' John Quincy Adams in 1820 called slavery ''the great and foul stain upon the North American union.''
Even though he was a slave-owning president, James Madison called slavery an ''evil'' and a ''dreadful calamity.'' After he signed the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850, President Millard Fillmore said, ''God knows that I detest slavery, but it is an existing evil, for which we are not responsible, and we must endure it.''
James Buchanan, who preceded Lincoln as president, said 31 years before he took office that slavery was ''a great political and a great moral evil.'' He added, ''It is, however, one of those moral evils, from which it is impossible for us to escape, without the introduction of evils infinitely greater. There are portions of this Union in which, if you emancipate your slaves, they will become masters.'' As president, he realized too late that his denial did not stop the infinitely greater ''evil'' of disunion.
A century and a half later, presidents are still calling slavery evil, but we endure the legacy partially because presidents do not hold Americans responsible for fully understanding it.
It all starts with understanding. Understanding starts with an apology. An apology would be the start of a new America. Anyone can acknowledge that evil existed. An apology is personal. If a white president of the United States were to apologize for slavery, it would say that the nation officially recognizes that white wealth before the Civil War came from what this nation did to black people (and Native Americans in the process).
It would officially recognize that European-Americans, whether they come from a long line of American citizens or whether their parents came over dirt poor from Europe in the 20th century, continue to benefit from a white privilege that allowed them to move up the ladder into the suburbs. Meanwhile, slavery's replacement, segregation, blocked generations of African-Americans from building up wealth because of redlining, intellectual capital through inferior public schools, and political capital through disenfranchisement.
As Bush came amazingly close to saying - perhaps because he said it from the safety of his safari and not in front of racist Bob Jones University in the 2000 campaign or while filing a Supreme Court brief against affirmative action - racial bigotry is not over. Because of that, an apology would mark the official end to the I-didn't-own-any-slaves denial of this country. An apology would say not only yesterday's wealth, but today's wealth, was built on yesterday's evil.
An apology would acknowledge that slavery's damage still requires repair. To some people, the repair would be cash reparations to black people. Some call it fully funded public schools. Some call it affirmative action. Some call it serious enforcement of antidiscrimination laws. Whatever form the repair takes, the president needs to deliver his message in America, not just Africa, to Americans, not just Africans.
Calling slavery evil is as old as the Founding Fathers. It would be original to tell America that the white privileges bestowed by the tragic mistake of the Founding Fathers are over. The reason one of the greatest crimes in history has not yet resulted in a great apology is because the reward for the crime remains too great.
Derrick Z. Jackson's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
This story ran on page A11 of the Boston Globe on 7/11/2003.
© Copyright 2003 Globe Newspaper Company.
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