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Slavery Apology: A Sincere Step Or Mere Politics?

Rep. Tony Hall, below, proposed that the House apologize for slavery in 2000. The measure failed. Rep. Stephen I. Cohen, left, won support for a similar proposal this week. Nikki Tinker, far left, who's running against Cohen, said the move was a ploy to win black votes.
Rep. Tony Hall, below, proposed that the House apologize for slavery in 2000. The measure failed. Rep. Stephen I. Cohen, left, won support for a similar proposal this week. Nikki Tinker, far left, who's running against Cohen, said the move was a ploy to win black votes. (By Ron Thomas -- Associated Press)
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By Darryl Fears
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 2, 2008

Elton John said it best in one of his hit songs: "Sorry seems to be the hardest word."

You don't have to listen to the record. Just ask the House of Representatives. More than 140 years passed before lawmakers apologized for slavery this week. They put some fancy words and soaring language in a resolution, but it basically boils down to this: "We're sorry. Our bad."

The resolution confesses what we all know: that kidnapping millions of Africans, marching them through the savanna, sailing them across the Atlantic, selling them into bondage and canonizing the enterprise into law was more than just bad. It was evil.

Okay, so now what?

"One hundred and forty-three years may be too late," said Chad Dion Lassiter, who teaches a course on racism at the University of Pennsylvania. "A lot of people are saying, 'So you're apologizing, what does that mean? If slavery and Jim Crow are the original sin, why has it taken the United States so long to repent?' "

As Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) said defiantly before Tuesday's dinner-hour voice vote in the Capitol (built by slaves), no slave or slave owner is alive today. Born in 1865, the last slave probably died about 40 years ago during the civil rights movement, if she or he lived to be 100.

The resolution isn't about true contrition, but something else, King said: "White Americans wallowing in guilt."

The slavery apology does have symbolic power as the first to come from the federal government. And it arrives at a crucial time, with the emergence of a black American, Barack Obama, as the presumptive presidential nominee for a major party.

But does it signal something more, perhaps the first wobbly step toward the forbidden subject that no politician in his or her right mind wants to discuss -- financial reparations?

No, said Rep. Stephen I. Cohen, the Tennessee Democrat who sponsored the House apology. It's more like the start of a long national cleansing.

"Expiation," he said, guru-like, "is good for the soul."

Let's get it all out, Cohen said. "When people commit injustices and do bad things, they ought to apologize and ask for forgiveness. Just be a good human being. Countries should operate in the same manner. Slavery is abhorrent."


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