BY DEWAYNE WICKHAM
At long last, this nation is on the verge of apologizing for its greatest sin. During separate meetings in Las Vegas with members of the Trotter Group, an organization of black columnists, Democratic presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama embraced the idea of a national expression of regret for slavery.
That’s a good thing. But where does it leave us? For 246 years, slavery was a widely accepted part of the fabric of American life. The enslavement of millions of blacks – and the neo-slavery that emerged during the Jim Crow era after slavery was abolished in 1865 – fueled this nation’s economy for nearly three and a half centuries.
“I think an apology for slavery is a good idea to consider,” Clinton, the frontrunner for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination said. “A number of states are now doing it … like Virginia, the capital of the old Confederacy. So, there is an evolution that is taking place here.”
In fact, four states – Alabama, Maryland, North Carolina and Virginia – have formally apologized for their role in this nation’s slave trade. But so far, neither Congress nor a sitting president has mustered the courage to do so.
CLINTON CAME CLOSE
Then-President Bill Clinton came close during a trip to Africa in 1998. During a stop in Uganda he said, “Going back to the time before we were even a nation, European-Americans received the fruits of the slave trade and we were wrong in that.” Hillary Clinton, the former president’s wife, made it clear she’s willing to go further, if she makes it into the White House.
“What the states are doing could be given more prominence if the federal government were to say … we need to do this as well,” she told the black columnists. When we met with Obama a day later, he told us, “I could see the need for an expanded conversation about slavery because I don’t think that we’ve ever fully acknowledged the cost of slavery. If I’m president, certainly I could issue an apology. But I’m not sure … that’s what would transform the country.”
NO RIGHTING THESE WRONGS
A national apology for slavery from the president and Congress could have a cathartic effect for many black people, but it wouldn’t be enough to right the wrongs that racial inequities – the awful byproduct of slavery – have produced. What am I talking about?
For about as long as anyone can remember, the black unemployment rate has been double the rate for whites. Some will argue that black joblessness is driven by a lack of education. But that doesn’t explain how in July, the unemployment rate for blacks with a high school degree (7.3 percent) was higher than the rate for white high school dropouts (5.9 percent). And black people whose education extends beyond a bachelor’s degree were no more successful finding work than white job seekers who had attended college but didn’t receive a degree. Both groups had a 3.8 percent unemployment rate last month, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
NUMBERS DON’T LIE
As bad as this is, there’s more that an apology for slavery wouldn’t correct. In 2005, the most recent year for which data is available, black people with a bachelor’s degree earned $1,500 less, on average, than white high school graduates. Black people with a master’s degree earned an average $56,477 while whites with a master’s degree earned an average $69,535. And blacks with doctoral degrees were paid nearly $12,000 a year less than whites with the same education, according to census figures.
It’s good that several states have apologized for participating in slavery. And a formal expression of regret from Congress and the president could help heal some of the wounds that slavery opened – wounds that still fester. But words alone won’t be enough to undo this nation’s most troubling racial inequities.