This week, the House of Representatives voted in favor of a resolution “apologizing” for slavery. And the House should be commended, not criticized, for it. [Editorial note: The resolution was sponsored by Rep. Steve Cohen, a Jewish American representing a majority-black Memphis congressional district.]

Unfortunately, ridiculous debates have raged for years amongst political commentators and op-ed columnists on the subject of whether or not it’s appropriate for Congress to take such an action. (If you doubt this, simply read the internet blogs on the issue.) Some people think the government has better things to do than apologize to African-Americans; still, others believe they themselves had nothing to do with slavery and therefore, the government should not apologize on their behalf. Even some black Americans disagree with an apology, insisting that it would be little more than a verbal pacification meant to distract citizens from more concrete efforts towards reparations.

In these debates, however, there’s been a disturbing tendency among people who are against such an apology—they often completely ignore what actually happened during slavery and Jim Crow. For example, many whites are quick to point out that most of those blacks who suffered these injustices are deceased, and so an apology to those people’s descendants can only misconstrue the identity of the victims and deepen present-day racial divisions, not lessen them.

But this argument is really quite stupid…


For the simple reason that many of the deceased victims died precisely because they were murdered by whites. Consider the following narrative.

Two women, one white and the other black, have a short exchange during a pre-arranged dinner…
“So you want the government to apologize for slavery, eh?” says the white woman, “But why should our government do that when it happened so long ago? We’ve come such a long way since then. Look at Tiger Woods. I remember when there were no black golfers, but there are black golfers now. I never used to see black professionals, but now there are black news reporters and lawyers and doctors. And look at Barak Obama—he’s even got a shot at being president!”
The black woman shakes her head in disappointment.
“What’s wrong?.. Did I say something wrong?” asks the other woman, now concerned.
“It’s not what you said,” responds the black woman. “It’s what you didn’t say. What is it we’ve come a long way from?.. And why do you say it’s so long ago when you yourself remember these things?..”
“Well, I’m just saying that there’s been progress, and we shouldn’t look so far back into the past that we can’t see that progress. We need to concentrate on the future.”

This is the “victims-not-alive” argument at its best. Ultimately, it boils down to a very racist form of thinking—that for blacks to remember their own experiences is somehow inappropriate. When did mere memory become such an obstacle to good relationships? For example, many people who say blacks should not emphasize our nation’s racist past are the same ones who will protest to keep flags and symbols of the Confederacy active in public rituals throughout the Deep South.

The contradictions are pervasive and thought-provoking. So not only does the “victims-not-alive” rhetoric amount to a distraction from the real focus of honoring people’s memories, it advocates a state of affairs in which racist practices—such as discrepancies in hate crime victimization, health care access, educational opportunities, etc.—continue to be legitimized.

Americans need to wake up. An apology for slavery and Jim Crow is not a task for people who lived one hundred years ago. It is a present-day gesture made in reflection on the past, not vice versa. It is an effort to heal racism’s wounds, not reopen them. To demonstrate, let’s take a look at the three summarizing points of the House’s resolution. They are worded as follows…

Be it resolved, That the House of Representatives– (1) acknowledges the fundamental injustice, cruelty, brutality, and inhumanity of slavery and Jim Crow; (2) 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; and (3) expresses its commitment to rectify the lingering consequences of the misdeeds committed against African-Americans under slavery and Jim Crow and to stop the occurrence of human rights violations in the future.

If for no other reason than to memorialize the lives of people who cannot speak on their own behalf, we should support this relatively small gesture. Just as it is absurd for the German, Russian or Chinese governments to not acknowledge their atrocities because the victims are dead, it is equally ridiculous to suggest that our government should not acknowledge its human rights simply because the victims are no longer alive. To illustrate, consider the following story about a member of my own family who suffered under Jim Crow—my uncle.

According to family lore, my uncle was a hard-working, kind-hearted man. But there came a time when the whites living in his area spread a false rumor that he had “whistled” at a white woman. So instead of immediately and haphazardly fleeing the state, my uncle decided to stay in his hometown until he was able to find a new, safer place to live for his wife and children. In the meantime, he told my grandfather that if he was found wearing only one shoe, it would be because he took it off and threw it away while in danger.

True to his word, a few days later my uncle was found… He was wearing only one shoe, and his body lay literally in pieces. Apparently, whites from a neighboring town had hunted him down, lynched him, poured alcohol on his open wounds, forced him to lay on railroad tracks and made sure his body was dissected by a train—all for allegedly “whistling” at a white woman (an accusation his children have, until today, declared to be false and ridiculous). Despite the warning exhibited by my uncle’s lynching, little did my extended family members know that in the near future, his former residence would be burned down during a race riot and hundreds of the town’s black inhabitants massacred and exiled.

It is common knowledge that similar incidents, affecting millions of African-Americans, took place all over the United States during the Jim Crow era. They were often sanctioned by local, state and federal officials in this country, and to this day, there are many people who remember these atrocities, either through first-hand knowledge or family narrative. In light of these events, it is unfortunate that many elderly African-Americans who personally witnessed these terrorist acts still tend to not speak publicly about their childhood experiences, and all too often, whites have used this silence to deny that these atrocities ever took place.

But whether the details are made public or not, we know black Americans have been racially segregated, exterminated, raped, and enslaved in this country. And for these reasons alone, it is absolutely reprehensible to discourage our government from merely “apologizing” for the American people’s—including black people’s—role in them. To suggest otherwise is tantamount to saying that what our government did in the name of Jim Crow apartheid was both morally and politically negligible… an assertion that my uncle and millions of others would surely contest, if only he and everyone else were alive to do so.