By Krissah Thompson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 19, 2009
The Senate unanimously passed a resolution yesterday apologizing for slavery, making way for a joint congressional resolution and the latest attempt by the federal government to take responsibility for 2 1/2 centuries of slavery.
"You wonder why we didn't do it 100 years ago," Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), lead sponsor of the resolution, said after the unanimous-consent vote. "It is important to have a collective response to a collective injustice."
The Senate's apology follows a similar apology passed last year by the House. One key difference is that the Senate version explicitly deals with the long-simmering issue of whether slavery descendants are entitled to reparations, saying that the resolution cannot be used in support of claims for restitution. The House is expected to revisit the issue next week to conform its resolution to the Senate version.
Harkin, who called the Senate's vote an "important and significant milestone," said he wanted the resolution passed yesterday to closely coincide with Juneteenth, a holiday first celebrated by former slaves to mark their emancipation.
This recent willingness to deal with the nation's difficult racial history has come about in part because of President Obama's election, said Rep. Stephen I. Cohen (D-Tenn.), who began pushing for an apology more than a decade ago when he was a state senator and pronounced himself "pleased" with the Senate vote.
Still, Cohen said, "there are going to be African Americans who think that [the apology] is not reparations, and it's not action, and there are going to be Caucasians who say, 'Get over it.' . . . I look at it as something that makes people think."
Even among proponents of a congressional apology, reaction to yesterday's vote was mixed. Carol M. Swain, a professor of political science and law at Vanderbilt University who had pushed for the Bush administration to issue an apology, called the Democratic-controlled Senate's resolution "meaningless" since the party and federal government are led by a black president and black voters are closely aligned with the Democratic party.
"The Republican Party needed to do it," Swain said. "It would have shed that racist scab on the party."
Republicans, however, were supportive of the resolution. "It doesn't fix everything, but it does go a long way toward acknowledgment and moving us on to the next steps to building a more perfect union, doing the things that Martin Luther King would talk about, like building a colorblind society," said Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.).
As with all congressional apologies -- but especially this one -- concerns about liability for restitution were part of the political calculations, in this case because of the long-running debate about whether the descendants of slaves should be compensated.
Charles Ogletree, the Harvard law professor who has championed restitution, was consulted on the Senate's resolution and supports it, but he said it is not a substitute for reparations. "That battle will be prolonged," he said.
Randall Robinson, author of "The Debt: What America Owes to Blacks," said he sees the Senate's apology as a "confession" that should lead to a next step of reparations. "Much is owed, and it is very quantifiable," he said. "It is owed as one would owe for any labor that one has not paid for, and until steps are taken in that direction we haven't accomplished anything."
Cohen said he and Harkin worked closely with the NAACP and other civil rights groups on language that would not endorse or preclude any future claims to reparations. "It will not harm reparations but won't give any standing to it," Cohen said.