29 July 2008

House Apologizes for Slavery & Jim Crow

The US House issued a formal apology today for slavery and Jim Crow.

So everything's fine now. Move along, nothing to see here.

My gut reaction: Gee, mighty white of them. An apology. That helps.

On the other hand, they can either apologize or not apologize. It's not like the choice is apologize or ... go back in the magic congressional time machine and just nip that nasty little horror in the bud before it starts. Oh, and while you're back there time traveling, guys? Don't colonize. Just don't colonize this time around, mm-kay?

Unfortunately though, that's not the choice. The choice is to apologize or not. And we will not be able to move forward to address the system born from that "peculiar institution" until we publicly acknowledge our part -- as a nation -- in slavery, and the fallout that still affects our nation today. So let me put my disgust and cynicism aside for a minute and say yes, I'm glad they apologized. It's a step, as they say.

After stumbling across this news online, I made the mistake of trying to find out more. Inevitably, there were a whole lotta online comments. Those in the "against" crowd, predictably, had the same tired arguments. Like these:

I believe the blacks owe America an apology for tearing our moral, economic and social fabric. The illegal immigrunts can join them.
My ancestors owned slaves and I have no desire to apologize for the actions of my ancestors. In fact, I think that the federal government should give me reparations for the lost assets caused by emancipation and the confiscation of my ancestors' lands as a result of the War of Northern Aggression. How about that?

Wonder what the black folks in Africa think of the living conditions of blacks in America? They might say you were done a favor.
How many times do these people have to be apoligized to? They were apologized to at the end of the Civil War, they were apologized to during civil rights movements, again during the intergration of schools and all other places. I never owned slaves and neither did my parents. I don't think anyone alive today was ever a slave. It seems to me that the race card is being played only by the African-Americans who just want more and more free handouts from the government. I am sick of it.

Tell all those a-holes to vote to drill for oil and forget about the apology.

I haven't done anything to apologize for. Blacks have got it made here in America and they know it. Everything gets handed to them. They work for nothing and I'm sick of it. Like someone else said here, where are the "thank yous" from these people.

These people couldn't care less about equality, they want DOMINANCE!

Who gives a rats-rear what happened to the slaves over 150 years ago. Where is my apology from them for me having to listen to this bullsh-- on a daily basis living here in Atlanta? . . . Get over it. The Civil War is over. Get a job. Get a life and stop throwing slavery up in my face. You may not like what you hear if you don't. Idiots...

We are going to make a black man king of America. When is enough enough.

You White people better wake the hell up or youll be the next American 'negros'.... Im not apologizing and I'll laugh at the faces of these inadequate and inept beings and hope it ****es them off enough so I can practice my second amendment against them. What a glorious day that will be!!...

You get the idea.

So the argument of the day is -- say it with me, boys and girls:
I didn't own slaves, my grandparents didn't own slaves, I had nothing to do with slavery!

Any time the subject of race relations comes up, so too does this argument. Even "nice white people" use this one. I used it too, back when I believed myself to be colorblind. Why, I remember when the Bohemian was a four-year-old little tyke, and we were reading My First Book of Africa from the library. Everything was fine until we turned to the double-page spread of a slave ship cut-away. I was not prepared to see my daughter go very quiet, touch the pages with her little fingers, and ask, "But ... who would do that to people, Mommy?" So, in trying to explain this atrocity to my four-year-old daughter, my African American daughter, I heard myself saying, "... but Mommy's family didn't believe in that. Remember, Mommy's family came from Norway? Well, they settled in the North, they came much later, after slavery was over." Then I launched into how lots of white people were abolitionists, lots of white people fought against slavery, not all white people's families were slave owners ... ad nauseum.

I needed to justify it. I needed to remove myself, in my daughter's eyes (and my own), from that horrible history. It was important to me that she know that I, and by extension, she, had nothing to with this. It was those bad white people what did that. The racists. Not us. Not me.

Here's what I didn't understand: it is not about individuals. It's about a system. It's about laws.

Let me be clear -- this is about the legalized system of oppression put in place by our government, not about whether individual white folks owned slaves or not. If you think we became a superpower so quickly because we're just that good, think again. We got here by stealing Native land, working it with free human labor, and enacting laws to back it up. No start-up costs, no overhead, just pure growth and profit. That's what put us on the fast track to superpower status.

Here's what else I didn't understand: if you are a white person in the United States, you and your family have benefited from this system.

It doesn't matter whether Grandpa Beauregard's granddaddy owned slaves or whether his house was a station on the underground railroad. The laws were on his side. Grandpa Beauregard, if he so chose, could read. Go to college. Live where he wanted. Get a loan to buy land, a house. Pass that property down to his children who then start off a little bit farther ahead in life than he did. And Grandpa Beauregard likely wasn't worrying about being lynched, either.

Land and education. White folks had access to it, Black folks were legally excluded from access. Property equals wealth. It appreciates and is sold for profit or passed on. Education equals opportunity and increased wealth. It raises the probability that your children will also be educated. Now, would you rather be the great-granddaughter of the guy with access to the land and education (not to mention better health care), or the guy who didn't have jack shit and wasn't allowed to build it? Which side of that system would you choose?

Oh, please. Don't even play like you're hesitating.

Which brings us to our next recurring theme: They just need to work harder and quit expecting handouts. Nobody gave me a handout; everything I got, I earned with hard work and effort.

I'm sure you do work hard. And I'm sure you believe no one ever has given you anything. Did your grandparents pass property on to your parents? Did your parents go to college? Do they own a home? Do you? Do people really believe that two men -- one black, one white -- both equally motivated and working equally hard, would get the same results while operating under the legal confines of this system in 1910? How about 1940? 1960? Today?

What about the 2000 Housing Discrimination Study? They sent out 4,600 pairs of testers, separately, in 23 US cities. The testers were identical on paper, but one was white, the other black. Consistent preferential treatment for white testers occurred 21.6% of the time.

Now ... if you rented an apartment tomorrow, you'd have no way of knowing if a black applicant with your same qualifications had been turned down the day before, would you? You'd have no way of knowing that you'd just benefited from a racist system, would you? You didn't choose to benefit from it, you didn't put it in place, you may even be outraged by it; but that doesn't matter. You'll sign that lease thinking you got that apartment solely on the basis of your good credit and consistent work history. But did you earn it? Did you earn it any more than the black applicant who was told it "wasn't available", or who was quoted a price $400 higher than yours?

And did we really work for everything we have? What about unearned wealth?

[As of 2002], 24% of whites receive an inheritance, just 11% of blacks do so. Among those who get an inheritance, whites receive $115,000 on average compared to $32,000 for blacks.15 And these figures do not reflect the gifts children receive during their parents' lifetimes.
To illustrate the significance of these disparities, whites on average are more than twice as likely as blacks to be able to provide a healthy down payment on a home even in the nation's most expensive housing markets or to pay tuition for four years at almost any college or university for one child from an inheritance.

~Gregory D. Squires,
Reintroducing the Black/White Divide in Racial Discourse

Okay, I know some of you are like, "Shoot, I never got $115K, or even $30K, you're crazy!" We're not talking about individuals -- everybody has a story -- we're talking about a system set up to benefit some and oppress others over time.

My own story, you all know: I'm a single mom, three kids, money problems, yada-yada. But even with all that, I've benefited from a system that has historically been better to my family than families of color. My dad lent me money to put down on my house. Without that, I never could've owned a home. And without his college education and occasional loans from his parents when he was young, he probably wouldn't have been in a position to loan me that down payment. No idea how I'm going to pay him back now that the market has tanked, and I can't imagine ever being able to help my kids like that, but I'm in the house. I was approved for a loan, even though I probably shouldn't have been. (excellent credit, shit for income, but hey, white! Just don't let Citimortgage see the kids.)

How about this one: Okay, things may have been bad after slavery, or even in the '50s, but now there's affirmative action! Now I'm the one discriminated against! Where's my apology? A white man can't get a job these days!

Right. Check out the 2005 Princeton University study in which they had white, black and Latino men with comparable résumés apply for jobs. You know what they found? Employers would hire a white convicted felon before they would hire a black man with a clean record. Yes. This was 2005, people. That playing field is not level.

And then there's the always-dependable: Slavery ended 143 years ago! It's over! Why can't they just move on and get over it?

Yes, technically slavery ended in 1865. The system did not magically change with that announcement, though. Matter of fact, new laws were put in place to strengthen the system! Slavery was over, but it gave birth to segregation, unequal education, Jim Crow, sundown towns, redlining, and lynching.

Michael Donald was lynched in 1981. This was during my lifetime, people, not ancient history. It was my 15th birthday to be exact. Of course, I didn't know that at the time. I was obliviously blowing out my candles in small-town Ohio, comfortably deluded in the belief that slavery was over and things were fine now, the day 19-year-old Michael was hung from a tree in Alabama. In 1998, James Byrd Jr. was chained to the back of a truck and dragged for miles until he was decapitated. One of the guys who did it had a tattoo of a black man hanging by a noose. In 1998. Just ten years ago! This was during my youngest child's lifetime, people. 1998.

And the President vetoed the Hate Crimes Act just last year. Slavery might be "over" but the fallout poisons our country to this day. Is a lousy apology really too much to ask?


Today's apology is not about whether individual white people owned slaves or not. It is about our government acknowledging that the racial inequities existing today are a direct result of slavery and the legalized system of oppression that came from it.

It's about how that system has affected people over the course of generations.

It's about facing the uncomfortable reality that some people continue to benefit from this system today -- whether we choose to or not, whether we consider ourselves racist or not, whether our people owned slaves or not.

Judging from the last four statements from our online commenters above, it's also about fear, power, and not wanting to shift the existing arrangement. Usually the people wanting to keep a given power structure in place are the ones sitting on top of that structure. Just sayin'.

That's why this apology was so long in coming, and why some people feel so threatened by it.


  1. I've already heard reporters ask this of Obama. Did the House pass a resolution or a bill? Will it go to the Senate then the President? I hope so...then Obama can say he supports the President and keep from getting swift boated with it.

  2. G: From what I understand, it was a non-binding resolution, they did it by voice vote, and the Senate is "talking about" jumping on board by doing the same.

    However, the Senate actually did apologize to the Native people now within US borders back in February, and the House made noise about matching it, but I haven't heard anything more about that.

    Bush would probably veto anything just like he did the Matthew Shepard Hate Crimes Act.

  3. An amazing post Cowbell!

    I just don't get why people are threatened by this, but then I don't get most people.

  4. this was one of the smartest posts I've read in ages...very well done and thought out..now if the rest of the united states only thought like you ..good luck with that..
    I am saddened by my country more often than not..mind set...I swear it's all about mind set..sigh*

  5. Just minutes ago I finished reading about a buddy of mine from high school who proudly raised the largest confederate battle flag in the country near interstate four in Tampa. He has decent qualities. Really. Still, it is difficult to imagine how he, and so many people, can do things that most rational people immediately recognize as hateful and ridiculous. I work at a public defender's office in SC. It's pretty obvious to me that my black clients do not get the same break that most of my white clients get. Some of it is cultural, and not strickly racial. I tell all of my clients to dress like the judge dresses. Leave the baggy pants and thug life shirts at home. But not all of it is. Anyway, keep fighting the good fight.

  6. Great post.

    What unsettles me is how I get boxed into the "white" category recently (no more "F-Mexican" when you choose your ethnicity!) when my folks? They've been treated like the unwanted evil red-headed stepchildren all their lives (in the US). What is super sad is they think I super lucky cuz I am so pale I glow in the dark...

  7. Whim: You and me both, girl.

    YDG: Thanks! I could never get paid because I'm too damn wordy. Editors would have a field day with me. Oh, and better watch it with that "saddened by my country" bit --- before you know it, they'll lump you in Michelle Obama, and you know how radical and unpatriotic she is! (Conservatives: that was sarcasm.)

    SuperDave: Oh, I remember reading about that flag when it went up. Bigger than a semi-truck, if I remember correctly. Folks sure were crowing about that one.

    As far as your buddy, that's the thing, it's not usually black and white (so to speak). It's hard, especially with family members, to reconcile a person's wonderful qualities with blatantly racist attitudes. I almost think it's easer w/ the Confederate flag crowd -- they're up front about their racism. But the "I'm not a racist" crowd, who genuinely believe they are not, yet hold attitudes expressed by some of the commenters I quoted ... that's hard. The "bootstrapper crowd".

    And I'm thinking that even the "cultural prejudice" you mention is rooted in racism. It's a belief that white is right, our way of _____ (dressing, speaking, acting, conducting business, etc) is superior and correct. The belief that assimilation is better (and desired!) by those whom we consider "other".

    TW: Yes! It's really interesting how humans feel we have to classify people, we have to know what box they fit in. They see/treat you differently based on what they think you are. My kids deal with that a lot, especially my middle daughter. People are all smiles and on about how "exotic" she is, she must be " Egyptian, with those Cleopatra eyes!" or a "Persian princess!" When they find out she's African American it's "...Oh! Well you can't tell!" With a big ol' smile pasted on. Like they think that's a compliment, like she's supposed to say thank you or something! Assholes.

    A friend of mine is Chicana. Her high school aged daughter's Spanish teacher (white lady who can't speak Spanish for shit) told her in front of the whole the class that her people must be from from Spain, not Mexico, because of her nice fair skin. WTF? She then launched into how Mexicans are mixed with Indians (horrors!) but the Spaniards were fair ... the young lady was humiliated and angry. It's almost like the teacher wanted to rescue her from the fate of being Mexican! Like, "Oh thank god I'm descended from the colonizers instead!" Blech.

    See ... wordy. >sigh<

  8. Having just mentioned Obama:


  9. You constantly amaze me with your writing and your prescient observations.

    I hope you become commissioner. That would be so sweeeeeeeeeet!

  10. Y|O|Y: Thanks for the link. Well ... mixed feelings. No way in hell would he get elected in THIS country if he supported traditional reparations publicly. African Americans are what, 12, 13% of US population overall? White America is NOT going to vote that in on their own. People at the top of the power structure never voluntarily change it out of the goodness of their heart, right? And we've done such a good job historically of the whole "divide & conquer" thing to keep communities of color from coming together too much ... too threatening and scary!

    I do think that at this point, reparations would have to be much different than just throwing some cash at Black people with a "Can we all move on now?" That wouldn't fix things any more than the stimulus checks fixed the economy. Obama's idea that it needs to involve education and health care is good, I think, but I agree w/ the lady in the end of the article who said the disparities between White/Black people would still come right along with any broad program.

    I agree it has to be directed to specifically address the inequities left from slavery and the systems it put in place. I think it has to - in REAL and tangible way - address education, health, and property. I'd also like to see anti-racist teaching and ways of looking at things become more part of corporate cultures, and of course to include everyone's histories being taught from the get-go in the schools. I'd also like to see it become a requirement that anyone holding public office must have gone through some in depth anti-racist education.

    RG: Thanks, sweets! And we'll find out soon -- City Council on Monday, baby.

  11. Oh, Cowbell. You don't shy away from the tough ones, do you honey? I remember talking to my oldest two girls - who are ethically Southeast Asian, and darker-skinned than your kids - about slavery. Very difficult, because I don't even have the "nice white person" route to crawl on. My family owned slaves, fought on the wrong side in the Civil War, helped start the North Carolina KKK (to divide poor whites from poor blacks, and so maintain power) after the war was over. It is one of the most miserable feelings in the world to tell your innocent little children that the world was, and is, full of people who commit inexcusable atrocities out of their own greed and then justify it to themselves in all kinds of ways. And to then tell your beautiful brown children that the people who did this, who benefitted from this dehumanization, were your own ancestors.

    And yes, of course, we, their descendants, have benefitted immensely from the money made in the enslavement of others. It is so difficult, so sad. And an apology is better than nothing. It's a tiny motion in a better direction. But it doesn't answer any of the thorny questions about how to create a more equitable America now.... All we can do is talk about it, as you are doing here, with openness and candor. And tell our children is was wrong, wrong, wrong.

  12. Great post MC! Having grown up with a Southern boy, racist as a father I know those people you quoted. It scares the shit out of me that those people even think that way in the 21 century, let alone express themselves in a public forum. It makes want to pull out my shotgun. Asshats!

  13. Excellent, kick ass work! You know I already agree with exactly everything you said, so I won't rehash. But of course I will still write a book. Two things I loved, the first was:

    "Here's what I didn't understand: it is not about individuals. It's about a system. It's about laws.

    Let me be clear -- this is about the legalized system of oppression put in place by our government, not about whether individual White folks owned slaves or not. If you think we became a superpower so quickly because we're just that good, think again."

    So key. If people don't see that, the discussion stops and we once again polarize, despite what may be very honest and anti racist intentions.

    The other part that stuck out for me was in explaining the picture in the book to your as of yet, slavery naive four year old child. Powerful, and once agin shows the importance of a tangible connection on these types of issues. Theoretical awareness is never enough.

    I'm so glad you wrote this! I know how much feeling and baggage went into it. I'm more than impressed with the responses, and actually pleasantly surprised. It's easy to get bogged down by the blogs and web sites that treat a post like this as if it is written and spoken in tongues, but the comments here reflect the fact that things are slowly changing. That, even though it is too slow, is still a good thing.

  14. This is a great post. I have been looking for those Squires numbers on inheritances for a while, and was glad to find them here. Thanks.


I've got a fever ...