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Being Bush Means Never Having to Say You’re Sorry

During his extended Africa visit in 1998, President Bill Clinton’s kind of, sort of, apology for slavery satisfied no one. Though it was not a formal apology, conservatives said it went too far. Though it was the first time a sitting American president forthrightly acknowledged the colossal and continuing damage of slavery, black activists said he didn’t go far enough.

Now it was President George W. Bush’s turn. In his visit to the old slave fort on Goree Island off Africa’s west coast, he called slavery “one of the greatest crimes in history.” But we already knew that. Bush refused to do what Clinton did and express his personal sense of shame and disgust over slavery. Worse, he refused to formally apologize for slavery.

A Bush apology and a call for Congress to fund education programs to study slavery’s effects, establish a national slavery museum, and most importantly, set up a commission to study the feasibility of reparations, would have forced many Americans to face bitter truths about slavery and its hideous legacy.

The U.S. government, business, and the majority of whites, not just a handful of Southern planters, profited and benefited from slavery. The U.S. government encoded slavery in the Constitution, and protected and nourished it for a century. Traders, insurance companies, bankers, shippers and landowners made billions off of it. Their ill-gotten profits fueled America’s industrial might.

Meanwhile, for decades after slavery, white labor groups excluded blacks from unions and the trades and confined them to the dirtiest, poorest-paying jobs. While many whites and nonwhite immigrants did come to America after the Civil War, they were not subjected to decades of relentless racial terror and legal segregation, as were blacks. Through the decades of slavery and Jim Crow segregation, African-Americans were transformed into the poster group for racial dysfunctionality. The image of blacks as lazy, crime- and violence-prone, irresponsible, and sexually predatory has stoked white fears and hostility and has served as the standard rationale for lynchings, racial assaults, hate crimes and police violence.

The fact that some blacks earn more and live better than ever today, and have gotten boosts from welfare, social and education programs, civil-rights legislation and affirmative-action programs, does not mean that America has shaken the gruesome legacy of slavery. Countless polls, surveys and reports on race relations during the past decade have found that blacks are still overwhelmingly the victims of racial discrimination, and that young blacks are far likelier than whites to be imprisoned, to have the highest or near-highest rates of poverty and infant mortality, to be victims of violence, and to suffer HIV/AIDs affliction than any other group in America.

They are more likely to live in segregated neighborhoods, be refused business loans, and attend decrepit, failed public schools than other nonwhites. The police beatings of black motorists Rodney King and Donavon Jackson, the shooting of Amadou Diallo, and unarmed young blacks in Cincinnati and other cities, the torture of Abner Louima, and the racial profiling of young black males by the police are ample proof that blacks are still at mortal risk from police violence.

Bush also almost certainly knows that there is nothing new about state and federal governments issuing apologies and payments for past wrongs committed against African-Americans. In 1997 the U.S. government admitted it was legally liable to the survivors and family members of the two-decade-long syphilis experiment, begun in the 1930s by the U.S. Public Health Service, that turned black patients into human guinea pigs. The victims of a blatant medical atrocity conducted with the full knowledge and approval of the U.S. government, they received $10 million from the government and an apology from Clinton.

The state legislature in Florida in 1994 agreed to make payments to the survivors and relatives of those who lost their lives and property when a white mob destroyed the all-black town of Rosewood in 1923. This was a specific act of mob carnage that was tacitly condoned by some public officials and law-enforcement officers. Florida was liable for the violence and was duty bound to pay and apologize. The Oklahoma state legislature is now considering reparations payments to the survivors of the Tulsa massacre of 1921. And city councils in several cities including Chicago and Dallas have backed a congressional bill by Michigan Congressman John Conyers to bankroll a commission to study the feasibility of paying reparations for slavery.

The brutal reality is that America’s great curse continues to be its enduring mistreatment of blacks. This can be directly traced to the monstrous legacy of slavery. A Bush apology would not have erased that legacy. But it would have formally acknowledged the U.S. government’s responsibility for creating and perpetuating it.

—Earl Ofari Hutchinson


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