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Behind the Headlines: APA News Blog

Academic Version: Applying my personal experiences and academic research as a professor of Sociology and Asian American Studies to provide a more complete understanding of political, economic, and cultural issues and current events related to American race relations, and Asia/Asian America in particular.

Plain English: Trying to put my Ph.D. to good use.

July 31, 2008

Written by C.N.

Congress Apologizes for Slavery and Jim Crow Segregation

In an earlier post, I wrote about how the Australian government has issued an official apology to their native aborigine population over the historical and systematic practice of forcibly separating aborigine children from their parents and subsequently trying to raise and socialize them as Whites.

That post also included a news story describing Senator Sam Brownback’s (R-Neb) introduction of legislation that would officially apologize to the Native American Indian population over our country’s systematic discrimination of them over the decades and centuries.

Along the same lines, as MSNBC reports, the House of Representatives has just passed legislation that officially apologizes to African Americans for the history of slavery and Jim Crow segregation:

The resolution, passed by voice vote, was the work of Tennessee Democrat Steve Cohen, the only white lawmaker to represent a majority black district. Cohen faces a formidable black challenger in a primary face-off next week.

Congress has issued apologies before — to Japanese-Americans for their internment during World War II and to native Hawaiians for the overthrow of the Hawaiian kingdom in 1893. In 2005, the Senate apologized for failing to pass anti-lynching laws.

Five states have issued apologies for slavery, but past proposals in Congress have stalled, partly over concerns that an apology would lead to demands for reparations — payment for damages. The Cohen resolution does not mention reparations. It does commit the House to rectifying “the lingering consequences of the misdeeds committed against African-Americans under slavery and Jim Crow.”

It says that Africans forced into slavery “were brutalized, humiliated, dehumanized and subjected to the indignity of being stripped of their names and heritage” and that black Americans today continue to suffer from the consequences of slavery and Jim Crow laws that fostered discrimination and segregation.

My first reaction is — to echo Jay Leno’s comments in his monologue yesterday — wow, it’s not a moment too soon! What’s it been — a 150 years now? It’s a good thing they did this right away, so that there wouldn’t be any lingering problems or bad feelings, right?

More seriously, as I wrote in that earlier post, I commend the House for taking this courageous, albeit largely symbolic step. As I and many other human beings can attest to, one of the hardest things to do in any kind of relationship is to apologize.

In fact, there seems to be an inverse relationship between the severity of the wrong committed and the likelihood that the perpetrator will apologize for it. With that in mind, Rep. Cohen and all those who voted in favor of the resolution have earned my gratitude.

I will also point out that this apology actually seem to go against the larger trend in American society in which many Americans (particular White Americans) increasingly see the U.S. as a “colorblind” society in which racial minorities are perceived to be equal to Whites in terms of their socioeconomic opportunities. This mindset is reflected in recent opinion surveys which seem to show a lingering divide between Whites and Blacks over various social issues and perceptions about American society.

As I’ve written before about this colorblind trend, in theory, the motivation to be colorblind is very noble — treating people equally without regard to their skin color, race/ethnicity, or national origin. The problem is that this individual-level motivation is not reinforced at the institutional level, where people of color are still disproportionately underrepresented in positions of power and in fact, still encounter many forms of discrimination and inequality.

It is worth noting that as quoted from the MSNBC article above, the apology resolution explicitly acknowledges this ongoing inequality. In other words, it seems that at least in this case, Congress actually seems to know more than what many Americans would probably give them credit for.

With that in mind, my hope that our government can once again lead the way in facilitating a more racially equal society has been rekindled — for now.


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Copyright © 2001- by C.N. Le. Some rights reserved. Creative Commons License

Suggested reference: Le, C.N. . "Congress Apologizes for Slavery and Jim Crow Segregation" Asian-Nation: The Landscape of Asian America. <http://www.asian-nation.org/headlines/2008/07/congress-apologizes-for-slavery-and-jim-crow-segregation/> ().

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