Members of Congress this week approved a measure offering the country's first apology to the black community for more than two centuries of slavery and for the segregation laws that entangled the US South well into the 1960s.
The House of Representatives adopted a non-binding resolution that apologised for the "fundamental injustice, cruelty, brutality and inhumanity" of slavery and segregation but stopped short of offering reparations to the descendants of slaves. Passage of the measure, introduced by Steve Cohen, a Tennessee Democrat who is one of the few whites to represent a majority-black congressional district, will likely contribute to the growing national debate on race relations as Barack Obama vies to become the country's first black president.
Black leaders welcomed the formal apology on Tuesday. "Today represents a milestone in our nation's efforts to remedy the ills of our past," said Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick, a Democratic congressman from Michigan who serves as chairman of the 43-member Congressional Black Caucus. "We must now continue our efforts to free African-Americans from the shackles of inferior education, inadequate health care and lack of jobs."
A similar measure was proposed in the House of Representatives in 2000 but failed to reach a floor vote. This year, the Senate approved a formal apology to Native Americans, who endured centuries of abuse, including "extermination, termination, forced removal and relocation, the banning of traditional religions and the destruction of sacred places". That measure is awaiting a vote in the House. The passage of Mr Cohen's resolution came after six state governments made similar overtures. In Feb 2007, Virginia, once the seat of the Confederacy, which sought to secede during the civil war, expressed its "profound regret" for its role in slavery. Five other states have followed suit: Maryland, North Carolina, Alabama, New Jersey and Florida, which issued an apology in March.
This month, the American Medical Association apologised for decades of past discrimination against black doctors, who were routinely denied membership. The latest measure, which was first introduced in 2007 and is meant to "help Americans confront the ghosts of their pasts", said nothing on the controversial subject of reparations. The resolution seeks to "rectify the lingering consequences of the misdeeds committed against African-Americans under slavery", but does not lay out specifics.
The transatlantic slave trade operated from 1619 until 1865, when it was abolished by the 13th amendment to the constitution. By the 1860s, there were close to four million slaves in the United States, according to census data from the period. The bloody and bitter war that divided the North and South was fought over the issue of slavery. Segregation laws took hold in southern and border states after the war and denied blacks the right to vote and other basic civil liberties. The laws are often referred to as "Jim Crow" laws, so named for a popular and stereotypical minstrel song from the 1800s.
Hilary O Shelton, the director of the Washington bureau of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, said Mr Cohen's measure was a good start and could be more meaningful given the success of Mr Obama's presidential campaign. "It will hopefully begin by fostering dialogue on race relations and the residual effects of slavery in the United States," Mr Shelton said, adding that Mr Obama's popularity "shows that America is ready to move forward and to advance in many ways its focus on diversity".
William A Galston, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, who served as a policy adviser to Bill Clinton when he was president, said the apology comes as race relations are evolving. "The American people and the Congress are readier for this than they have ever been," Mr Galston said. "Whether this means they are ready enough, remains to be seen." Other ethnic groups have already received apologies from the US government.
In 1988, legislators apologised for the internment of 120,000 Japanese-Americans during the Second World War. The government awarded US$20,000 (Dh74,000) to the 60,000 surviving detainees. In 1993, the government formally apologised for overthrowing the kingdom of Hawaii 100 years earlier. Governments in other countries have likewise handed down public apologies for discrimination. In February, Kevin Rudd, the Australian prime minister, apologised in parliament to Aborigines for policies that "inflicted profound grief, suffering and loss". Stephen Harper, the prime minister of Canada, apologised to natives who suffered abuse in the residential school system. Public reconciliation also played a key role in helping South Africa move past apartheid.
Mr Galston said such apologies had symbolic meaning, even if reparations are not offered. "A society is about more than material interest, it's also about moral relationships," he said. "When an individual apologises to another individual, it may change their relationship, so it does make a difference." * The National