Skip to main content
Find a Lawyer

Congress Passes a Resolution Apologizing for America's History of Slavery and for the Jim Crow System: Why This Symbolic Gesture, like the Recent Senate Resolution Regarding Native Americans, Falls Woefully Short of True Justice


Thursday, Jul. 31, 2008

Yesterday, the House of Representatives passed a non-binding resolution apologizing for the nation’s history of slavery, as well as for the “injustice, cruelty, brutality, and inhumanity” of Jim Crow, the system of law that pervaded the South between 1875 and 1965, segregating public life and denying blacks the right to vote and other basic liberties.

In decrying this history, the House recognized that "African-Americans continue to suffer from the consequences of slavery and Jim Crow -- long after both systems were formally abolished -- through enormous damage and loss, both tangible and intangible, including the loss of human dignity and liberty, the frustration of careers and professional lives, and the long-term loss of income and opportunity…." The House also committed itself to stopping future human rights abuses.

This apology followed a similar expression of regret in a resolution passed by the Senate a few months ago. There, the Senate said it was sorry for the many acts of “violence, maltreatment, and neglect” carried out against Native Americans.

It is hard not to sympathize with the impulse behind these resolutions. They address the original sins of our history – that fact the our nation, though it proclaimed itself to be conceived on the ideals of liberty and equality, nonetheless countenanced the vicious practice of slavery and racial oppression for most of its history and was built at the expense of native tribes robbed of their land, health, and way of life.

But at the same time, there is an empty symbolism about such expressions of remorse that rankles. Coming in 2008, decades after the sentiments expressed might have felt truly meaningful, these gestures seem to be more about assuaging the residual guilt of the white folks (like the politicians who sponsored the resolutions) than about taking meaningful steps to address the still-lingering effects of the country’s historical acts of degradation and cruelty.

The Irony of the Native American Resolution: A Jarring Contrast With the Limited Public Sympathy for Tribes

Despite the Senate’s apology, I cannot think of a period in my lifetime during which genuine sympathy for Native Americans was any lower. Over the last decade or more, we have been bombarded by news stories about Indian tribes, a number of them with populations counted in the dozens, growing extraordinarily rich on gambling revenues. Whatever sense of collective guilt we once felt about decimating the tribes was powerfully diluted by resentment over their newfound riches and over the special legal protections afforded the “domestic dependent nations” whose casinos draw us in.

Obscured by the images of slot machines raking in the dough, there is another native America. In this America, tribes distant from urban areas, who cannot exploit our hunger for games of chance, struggle against crushing poverty, disease, and the other tragic maladies of the reservation life that our history bequeathed them. Yet somehow, our apologetic impulses do not readily translate into the healthcare legislation or other measures that would palpably improve the lives of these Indians, or of those who long ago drifted into the vortex of the inner cities near their homelands.

Thirty years ago, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee was a runaway number one bestseller. Apology notwithstanding, that would never happen today. And our legal system reflects the point. Whereas once federal courts and the Supreme Court were eager to recognize tribal rights, they are now decidedly hostile to claims of tribal sovereignty and the special status once accorded tribes by dint of their original occupation of this land.

The Irony of the Slavery/Jim Crow Resolution

Some of the same ironies surround the House’s recent apology directed at the descendants of those who were victims of our slave tradition and of the apartheid that followed the failure of Reconstruction. In the last 40 years, we have made enormous strides towards racial equality and tolerance. Government-sponsored racism is dead. Public expression of racist sentiments, or even sentiments smacking of racism, meets with near universal opprobrium. African-Americans run some of our largest companies and hold some of our most important public offices. An African-American may well be the next President.

But if we were really serious about our apology – that is, if we really wanted to continue the campaign to eradicate the vestiges of our racist past – there’s a lot more we’d be doing. Although the last few decades have seen the rise of a healthy black middle class, it remains true that blacks suffer disproportionately from the social ills that afflict our cities. In too great numbers, they lack adequate healthcare and the means to pay for it; they are forced to send their kids to blighted public schools; and the poor education young people receive ill-prepares them to succeed in our ever more competitive economy. But healthcare legislation is nowhere in sight and the possibility of serious investment in our urban schools is equally illusory – and so the problems, many more than I’ve listed here, fester.

Recognizing Racist Legacies Is One Thing; Remedying Them Is Very Much Another

Of course, not all of these ills are fully traceable to slavery, or even to a more recent history of segregation. But that legacy is hardly irrelevant, and as a nation, we’ve started to think that all the hard work of remedying the past is done. From the Supreme Court on down, we want to think of ourselves now as a color-blind society, even though most of us believe in our hearts that, sadly, in myriad ways, race still matters in defining an individual’s destiny and limiting his or her choices and hopes.

An apology amidst this reality has a tinny ring. This is not because the statements are insincere. Those who voted for the Native American and slavery apologies surely are genuinely regretful. But apologies – certainly, apologies of this magnitude – ought to hurt a little bit to make, and ought to mean more to the recipients than to those who offer it. And in this case, where symbolic politics too often substitutes for genuine action, the balance is all wrong.

Edward Lazarus, a FindLaw columnist, writes about, practices, and teaches law in Los Angeles. A former federal prosecutor, he is the author of two books -- most recently, Closed Chambers: The Rise, Fall, and Future of the Modern Supreme Court.

Was this helpful?

Copied to clipboard