Apologizing for Slavery is Small Price for Peace

Posted: Apr 03, 2002 12:00 AM
Slogging through the slavery reparations debate is an exercise in whiplash. One side of the brain says, "This is ridiculous," summoning all the usual arguments and obstacles to a legal resolution, including: the statute of limitations on a "crime" committed hundreds of years ago; the implausibility of descendants proving their slave heritage; the massive confusion surrounding disbursement of funds - how much, to whom, by whom, and how? And the fact that, though abhorrent, slavery was a legal institution during the times targeted in recent lawsuits. Corporations named in lawsuits filed last week for profiting from slavery - Aetna, CSX and FleetBoston - weren't breaking any laws at the time. By what standard can today's stockholders be held accountable for the centuries-old transgressions of dead people? That's the logical side of the brain talking. Then there's the other side that says, "Well, they do have a point." Slavery is so unconscionable that it's hard even to think about. Where do you begin to compensate people who were kidnapped, beaten, tortured, separated from family members and who are now, in fact, dead? But how do you, in good conscience, do nothing to heal the wounds of such an immoral past? I'm not soothed by the usual "Hey, what about the Jews?" arguments against reparations. Or others insisting that affirmative action has been sufficient compensation. Enough already. Myron Magnet of the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research recently wrote what many whites as well as blacks believe: "Instead of looking back and wallowing in victimization, let's just look forward and say that America has turned itself inside out to become a colorblind society of equal opportunity." It is true that America has worked hard to be colorblind, but it's dishonest to say that we are. Yet it's also dishonest to say that only whites are to blame. Certain black "leaders," whose baiting voices dominate any discussion of race, make it hard for whites to feel sympathetic toward perhaps-just causes that are purposely divisive vehicles for their self-aggrandizement. Basically, the problem for many whites comes down to three things: Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton and Johnnie Cochran. As soon as the dastardly dudes of doggerel ride into town, the flavor of fairness turns sour. Their entry is usually the signal for otherwise decent folks to begin talking unattractively about slow boats back to Africa. Which, in turn, is our signal to slam on brakes and acknowledge that reparations is not a black-and-white issue. And I'm not talking about skin pigmentation. To the extent that we, in becoming Americans at some point along the historical continuum, inherit and embrace our nation's heritage, we need to resolve the "peculiar institution" of slavery, as it was once called. But forcing today's corporations to pay for yesterday's legal "crimes," while forcing blacks into the perennial posture of victims-for-eternity, becomes just another form of slavery - forced servitude to the past. This is not a simple issue, and people who insist otherwise are not contributing to a solution. For instance, it is ludicrous to deny that slavery has had a detrimental, trickle-down effect on subsequent generations that can't be solved in one, two or three generations. Some extra help is necessary and fair. Observers of the reparations movement theorize that the corporate lawsuits are part of a strategy to force the federal government to create a legislative remedy. Others say that African-Americans mostly want the U.S. government to apologize. Skeptics rightly intuit that once the first penny is paid, more will be demanded. Enough is never enough when victimhood is the plaintiff. What then is the solution? This part really is simple: President George W. Bush. Whatever his flaws, it seems clear that the man comes equipped with a good and fair heart. He's the perfect actor for slavery's final curtain call. Bush should take command of the slavery reparations issue immediately and bring an end to the debate. Apologize for slavery in a clear and unequivocal voice, create a commission to study slavery and its effects on today's African-Americans, as well as on whites weary of being blamed for whatever ails others, and continue the discussion for long as it takes for Americans of all stripes to say, "Well and done." In so doing, he might help put the corporate compensatory issue in its proper perspective, which is too much too late. As a rich bonus, the president's taking charge would force into repose - or at least appropriate comic relief - those predatory hitchhikers always on the lookout for new vehicles to self-glorification. Without victims, the race-baiting crusaders would be forced into silence - a priceless finale to the tragedy of slavery.