Saturday, October 4, 2008

In July, the House of Representatives passed a resolution that “apologizes to African Americans on behalf of the people of the United States, for the wrongs committed against them and their ancestors who suffered under slavery and Jim Crow.” Senators must agree on an apology before a president can make it official. Is an apology necessary? Is it appropriate? Is it appreciated?

“As a young black male, it really irritates me,” wrote a 20-year-old poster to the New America Media website named “Christopher.” He considered the resolution disrespectful because those who suffered under slavery and so many who lived through Jim Crow are dead. “It’s too late,” he added.

His youth belies his wisdom, but some claim America owes a debt to present-day black Americans suffering economic hardship allegedly linked to the legacy of slavery. Some are trapped in inner city poverty spirals or rural stagnancy, but others are taking advantage of unprecedented opportunities not available to previous generations.

Consider the thriving black middle class in the overwhelmingly black Prince George’s County, Maryland. The median household income there in 2006 was near $66,000, which is well above the national median of just under $50,000. Poverty rates were below average while educational achievement was above average.

With this diversity of outcomes in mind, how are activists and lawmakers dealing with an apology for slavery? They are doing what they do best — playing politics.

Rep. Stephen Cohen, Tennessee Democrat and the resolution’s chief sponsor, was derided for staging “a stunt.” That’s what Philadelphia NAACP President J. Whyatt Mondesire called it. That’s also what Nikki Tinker alleged. The black Miss Tinker ran against the white Mr. Cohen in a primary to represent the majority black Memphis congressional district (Mr. Cohen won handily).

Initial support by the Congressional Black Caucus may have appeared tepid, but it later offered full support. Caucus Chairman Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick, Michigan Democrat, called the apology’s passage “a milestone in our nation’s efforts to remedy the ills of our past.” Likewise, Rep. Elijah Cummings, Maryland Democrat, said it is “a large step forward in reconciliation for the offense of generations past.” In calling it just “a large step,” Mr. Cummings skillfully leaves open the door to ask for more — namely, reparations. A Toledo Blade editorial made clear the apology cost nothing, calling it “an empty gesture” of “little use to the victims [it is] meant to make feel better.” Quoted in the Final Call, Professor Michael Eric Dyson said: “Reparations are certainly one of the signals that America can send if they are serious about reconstituting American culture.” Indeed, the resolution itself calls an apology a “first step” and promotes a “commitment to rectify the lingering consequences of the misdeeds committed against African-Americans under slavery and Jim Crow.”

Reparations proponents champion a proposal by Rep. John Conyers, Michigan Democrat, to create a commission to study the links between slaves and their successors and assess compensating for past wrongs. A valid question is just who deserves the apology (and possible reparations)? Middle class blacks in Prince George’s County? Through continued immigration, economic stratification and interracial marriages, the country is becoming increasingly heterogeneous. The lines dividing the perpetrating class and victimized class are blurred.

The problem with the apology debate — and the ensuing racial backbiting — is the consequent neglect of the pressing matters of the present day. Columnist Christopher Caldwell notes there are no more slave owners or Jim Crow laws. Segments of black America, however, are currently trapped in cyclic poverty. What can be done for them that does not involve historical naval-gazing or polarizing stereotyped groups that no longer technically exist?

What “Christopher” posted is similar to the thoughts of playwright and blogger Keith Josef Adkins, who told National Public Radio: “I’m already on a path toward full ‘descendant of slaves’ recovery, meaning I work, I love, I fight for my human rights, and although I appreciate the federal apology, hey Uncle Sam, it’s a bit too late for this brother.”

Politicians and activists should knock off the finger-pointing and get to work on the more difficult problems of the present day.

Stephen Roberts is a research associate for the Project 21 black leadership network and seminary graduate.

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