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Is An Apology Enough?

With state legislatures in Maryland, Virginia and North Carolina offering apologies for slavery in quick succession, it seems that America may finally be ready to atone for its treatment of Blacks. Last week, the University of Virginia’s board marked founder Thomas Jefferson’s 264th birthday — April 13 — with an apology resolution for the school’s use of slave labor between 1819 and 1865.

But scholars are asking, so now what?

Compensatory measures are necessary as a follow-up to the apology, says Dr. William A. “Sandy” Darity Jr., a research professor of public policy studies, African-American studies and economics at Duke University. He recommends the formation of a national commission of the type proposed by U.S. Congressman John Conyers, D-Mich., to examine the long-term effects of slavery, Jim Crow and ongoing discrimination in American society.

“The apologies would be strengthened by acknowledgment of the damage and harm engendered by ongoing racial discrimination in employment, education, political participation and access to wealth,” he says.

Alfred L. Brophy is a professor of law at the University of Alabama, where an apology resolution was passed in 2004. Although he says he was shocked to learn about UVa’s decision to apologize, he welcomed it as a positive sign and a step in the right direction.

“Now we are right on the fulcrum where schools are beginning to do this, and now others are going to have to increasingly examine the past,” says Brophy. “We’ll see a discussion of slavery and Jim Crow all over the place, and this is important for universities because these are places where we expect to talk about ideas.”

However, Dr. Peter Carmichael, an associate professor of history at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro and author of The Last Generation: Young Virginians in Peace, War, and Reunion, says he fails to understand how the resolutions connect to the complexities of slavery and to the diversity of the school itself.

“Those who pass the resolution have nothing to feel guilty about,” he says. “It has historical significance, but apart from that I don’t understand how issues of racial and economic inequality today are connected to UVa’s past.”

He adds that White privilege today is a creation of capitalism and the apologies obscure the contemporary problems by pointing fingers to the past.

“Slavery has not been ignored in higher education, not been brushed under the rug,” says Carmichael. “Every introductory history course deals with it head on.”

Dr. Terry L. Meyers, professor of English at the College of William & Mary, started exploring his school’s ties with slavery “out of curiosity” since the past year. He has already found mention of a 1000 pound scholarship of which the college used 476 pounds and 4 shillings to buy “17 negro slaves to be employed in land.”

“I am just an amateur, but I imagine the provost would appoint a committee to do a more in-depth examination of the connections,” Meyers says. “An apology would be the right thing to do.”

Although UVa’s apology was appropriate, it is very abstract, Meyers says.

“They haven’t documented their involvement and I’d like to see what they’re apologizing for,” he says.

Meyers points to Brown University which appointed a Slavery and Justice Committee in 2004 to examine its slave history, and followed up with a recommendation report. 

“It’s easy to do an apology, but that’s hardly sufficient,” says committee member Evelyn Hu-DeHart, a professor of history and director of the university’s Center for the Study of Race and Ethnicity in America.

She says it was important to juxtapose the “small tidal wave of apology with another tidal wave of affirmative action.” There is no point in apologizing without taking follow-up measures, she says.

But how do we turn an apology into something more forward looking?

Brophy agrees that restitution is necessary if you can find appropriate groups that would raise positive steps.

“The challenge of this is disclosing the connection of the powerful and wealthy, and how that can help us move forward as a country,” he says.

–Shilpa Banerji

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