Slavery apologies are empty rhetoric, not a real way forward

Slavery apologies are empty rhetoric, not a real way forward
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This week Charleston, S.C., became the latest city in the United States to apologize to African-Americans for its role in the slave trade. This port city, to which about 40 percent of America's enslaved Africans arrived, promised tolerance and proposed an office of racial reconciliation in its resolution.

Will this apology be beneficial to racial healing in America? Will it make a difference to African-Americans?

The first question is difficult to answer since it depends, statistics notwithstanding, on the perceived distrust and fissures between whites and African-Americans in this country and whether a single act such as an apology could play a role significant enough for any healing process. But undoubtedly it will make a difference to some African-Americans, most notably those who believe they are the legatees of an evil tradition that still confers harm and injustice. Others see themselves as free citizens of a republic that recognizes their inalienable rights and safeguards them against the encroachments of others, and they have long passed the  need for an apology.


Looking at this philosophically, the issuance of an apology cashes itself out as an act of symbolic sentimentality that is the political equivalent of an empty set. Let me explain. We have political actors unauthorized to issue an apology because they were not the perpetrators, on a personal or state level, of any such evil. And the beneficiaries of the apology, descendants of slaves who are held up as eternal certified moral icons of state victimization, are not in any way the actual victims of chattel slavery.

The notion of a collective apology — by servants of the people in the name of past state actors to whom they have no relation — attempts to speak for dead men who literally might not have wanted to apologize for practicing and promoting slavery. The apology purports to exonerate guilt from the conscience of those who legitimized and legalized slavery by issuing them a moral dispensation. Politicians today can acknowledge the moral harms done to individuals and groups of people, but they cannot apologize on behalf of the perpetrators.

A sincere apology relies on a logical corollary: forgiveness by those to whom the apology is issued and a pardoning of the wrong. The moral conundrum here is that descendants of slaves cannot be the deputized stand-ins for their ancestors. The apology, in essence, is being issued to a freed people — among the freest people on earth. What qualifies a descendent of a slave to accept an apology made by a current iteration of the U.S. government that has no ties to the overseers of a nefarious form of human trafficking?

The apology itself strikes me — a descendant of slaves and an immigrant from the Caribbean — as implicitly, if unintentionally, racist. It is predicated on a theme of guilt-by-association. Let us be clear about the existential nature of the apology. It is meant to not just abstractly acknowledge the role played in the slave trade by Charleston and other jurisdictions that have issued apologies — such as Macon, Ga.; Annapolis, Md.; and New Jersey, Virginia, Florida, North Carolina and Alabama — it is also meant to explicitly indict white people today for the moral crimes that their ancestors may or may not have committed against the ancestors of African-Americans.

Any predication of ancestral guilt is problematic. It asks one to bear the moral responsibilities for crimes one has not undertaken, and to be responsible for the sins of his or her ancestors. But how can we know that each white person’s ancestor was an owner of slaves rather than, say, an objector or simply a skilled or unskilled laborer? If collective guilt is, as I have argued, a disguised form of codified collective ancestral guilt, then this type of codified guilt and its inverse corollary — collective entitlement to an apology — is based on the crudest form of racism: biological collectivism.

I see no way that this can lead to racial healing among blacks and whites, and, concomitantly, I see no reason why any African-American would accept this.

The debt to African-Americans has been paid. The implicit apology was issued in the “Third Founding of America” (taking Lincoln’s promise at Gettysburg as the second) with the momentous passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the legal ending of Jim Crow-based segregation in the South. The inclusive promise of “We The People” was delivered to all peoples in this country and, legally, blacks now enjoy the same freedoms as whites.

An apology to African-Americans might be necessary, for example, if the United States were a white supremacist society. However, it is not. It does not have an official ideology of the superiority of the white race and there are no laws explicitly preferring whites, or laws that are exclusionary or punitive of nonwhites simply based on race.

The United States no longer needs to apologize to African-Americans for slavery. It abolished slavery, set the slaves free, conferred upon them all of the inalienable rights, and recognized them as equal. Let us not now engage in empty rhetoric that seems more like a publicity stunt than a real way forward to a progressive future where we all respect each other’s rights and dignity.

Jason D. Hill is honors professor of philosophy at DePaul University in Chicago. His areas of specialization include ethics, social and political philosophy, American foreign policy, cosmopolitanism and race theory. He is the author of several books, including “We Have Overcome: An Immigrant’s Letter to the American People” (Bombardier Books/Post Hill Press, July 2018). Follow him on Twitter @JasonDHill6.