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Monday, January 25, 2021

After the apology — pass the Conyers bill

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I am not sure how I feel about the United States Senate unanimously passing a resolution apologizing for the historic mistreatment of African-American people.

The resolution “acknowledged the fundamental injustice, cruelty, brutality and inhumanity of slavery” and “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 laws.” Unanimously passed!

Could that have happened a decade ago? Part of me is appreciative for the apology. Part of me says too little, too late, and what’s next. The apology is especially tainted by the refusal to deal with the issue of reparations, but the apology is a step forward.

A North Carolina friend and colleague, Lenora Billings Harris, sent an email to her list that says “acknowledgement…the first step for healing and change.”

There is a necessary next step. It is not to pay out reparations. It is to understand exactly what the Senate (and Congress) are apologizing for. Congressman John Conyers has, since 1989, introduced legislation to simply study the impact that slavery had on contemporary African-American life. Last time I checked the cost of the Commission to Study Reparation Proposals for African-Americans Act had a modest price ticket, something around $12 million. Lots in a recession? When do we settle up? How long do we let this simmer?

I know that there are those who say, “Just get over it.”

Last time I checked the descendents of slaves are the only ones asked to get over our history. Of course this is a history about which so many Americans have much ambivalence. How can we, on one hand, tout education while accepting the fact that more than 15 southern states actually had the temerity to pass laws that prevented slaves from learning to read?

“To teach a slave to read is to excite dissatisfaction to the detriment of the general population,” reads the 1831 law that passed in North Carolina. The excitement of mass dissatisfaction, then, was perhaps postponed for 135 years until cities sizzled in response to the injustice that had base discrimination at its roots.

Even if we could “get over” slavery, what about contemporary disparities, such as the growing wealth gap? Are we supposed to get over that, too?

The Conyers Commission would “examine slavery and discrimination in the colonies and the United States from 1619 to the present and recommend appropriate remedies.”

What’s wrong with that? What’s wrong with getting it all out? The remedy might not be reparations as in write a check to every African-American. The remedy might be community repair, as in upgrade inner city high schools and HBCUs. An apology without a remedy is only symbolic, which is possibly why it garnered a unanimous vote.

Let’s get past the symbolism to really review and repair aspects of our history.

Congressman John Conyers is to always be commended for his tenacity. He keeps introducing his bill, every legislative session. He keeps talking about it.

He can’t even get the full support of the Congressional Black Caucus, and that’s some kind of a shame. For him, though, it does not matter. He believes in this study.

The Senate apology, passed just two days before Juneteenth, the anniversary of the day that Texas slaves were informed that they were free (June 19, 1865, more than two years after the passage of the Emancipation Proclamation) represents growth for the United States senate and the possibility of healing for our nation.

It does not close the door, however, on a history that can only be described as shameful. Passing the Conyers legislation brings us closer to closing the door.

Julianne Malveaux is president of Bennett College for Women in Greensboro, N.C. She can be reached at presbennett@bennett.edu.

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