Civil Liberties

Peculiar Apologies


Is a perfunctory apology enough to atone for slavery? Connecticut—along with several other states—seems to think so. From the Hartford Courant:  

The state Senate unanimously gave final legislative approval late Wednesday night to a joint resolution with the House that formally apologizes for slavery in Connecticut…

Even today, [state Sen. Toni Harp, D-New Haven,] said, "many African-Americans, as myself, wear the brand of slavery internally," she said, and an apology "is something that will go a long way to making things different." She said she hoped the "symbolic move" reflects "a renewed commitment" to eliminating racially related disparities in society. 

The Old South's "peculiar institution" was hardly limited to the Old South. Until the mid-nineteenth century, northerners were holding slaves, transporting and milling slave-picked cotton, and (until 1808) profiting from the international slave trade. Perhaps, then, it makes sense for states like Connecticut (or institutions like Brown University) to say something about their historical involvement in slavery. New Jersey, Virginia, Florida, North Carolina, Alabama, and Maryland have all done the same.

We can complain that symbolic apologies are just that—symbolic, and therefore probably worthless. If the alternative, though, is a state legislature approving more "proactive" measures of atonement, then please, give us us empty symbolism.

As a bonus, this line from the Courant article reads like an inadvertent jab at the slavery reparations movement:  

The resolution did not allow for reparations or payments to anyone who might have been harmed by events during the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries.

Check out Jonathan Rauch's take on what African Americans should get reparations for, if not slavery.