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The right way to apologize for slavery

Delaware Governor Jack Markell wants his state to apologize for slavery.Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images/file 2010

Eight American states have apologized in recent years for their involvement in slavery. Delaware’s governor wants his state to follow suit.

"It's essential," said Governor Jack Markell on Dec. 6, the 150th anniversary of the ratification of the 13th Amendment that abolished slavery in the United States, "that we publicly and candidly and wholly recognize the everlasting damage of those sins." He urged legislators to approve a joint resolution declaring that Delaware "denounces and deplores" the slavery that existed within its borders for more than two centuries.

Of course nothing Delaware's political leaders say about slavery today can undo even a particle of that toxic, painful history. The inhumanity of slave labor, its cruel assault on human dignity, the generations of suffering and brutality it licensed — those stains on Delaware's, and America's, moral record are permanent. An apology will change nothing.


Yet that doesn't mean it shouldn't be made.

If done right, a sober statement of remorse and sorrow for the most terrible chapter in America's story is not a meaningless gesture. It is an acknowledgment that history matters. Just as it is never too late to celebrate and be inspired by the moral triumphs of those who came before us, it is also never too late to reflect on their gravest moral flaws. No living American bears any responsibility for what Lincoln called "the monstrous injustice of slavery," but every living American should know about that injustice and take to heart its fundamental lessons. Among them: that all men and women are created equal, that human beings must never be entrusted with untrammeled power over others, and that racial supremacism is a virulent evil that usually ends in horror.

Slavery was not a uniquely American barbarity, of course. It existed in every epoch and was a universal norm long before European colonists brought it to the New World. Nor is America the only society that continues to grapple with its slaveholding legacy. Just last week, Brazil's bar association released a lacerating report on the history of slavery in South America's largest country and called for a formal apology by the government. "Contemporary Brazilian society is still strongly haunted by the ghost of slavery," the report concluded. "The Brazilian state owes its confession of guilt."


Several West African states have also publicly voiced contrition for their historical role in the slave trade. Officials from Benin, for instance, traveled to the United States in 2000 to publicize their government's remorse over the millions of fellow Africans who were sold into slavery. "We cry for forgiveness and reconciliation," said Luc Gnacadja, a cabinet minister, during a visit to Virginia. "The slave trade is a shame, and we do repent for it."

To be sure, apologizing for slavery 150 years after it ended is symbolic. There is no perpetrator who should be doing penance, and no victim with the ability to absolve. But symbolism can be powerful. A somber and honest expression of anguish for the crimes of slavery has the potential to link Americans of all backgrounds in a recollection of historical truths from which all of us can learn. America tore itself up over the issue of slavery, eventually waging its bloodiest war to uproot it — a staggering 750,000 men lost their lives in the Civil War, nearly 2.5 percent of the nation's population. A century and a half may have elapsed, but the memory of slavery's awful toll should still evoke our tears, and reinforce our belief in liberty and justice for all.


But an apology for slavery must not be used as a partisan tactic or manipulated as a way of scoring political points. Our public discourse is far too bitter and polarized as it is; the last thing we need is to turn what should be a solemn act of sorrow and sadness over the nation's historical sins into just another instance of culture-war sniping. There are plenty of other venues for debating the merits of affirmative action, welfare reform, #BlackLivesMatter, and the death penalty. An apology should be a conscientious ceremony of reconciliation and healing — and nothing more. No ulterior motives, no finger-pointing, no playing to the cheap seats.

Apologize for America's entanglement with slavery? By all means — if we can reflect sincerely and contritely on the past, while resisting the temptation to play politics in the present.

Jeff Jacoby can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @jeff_jacoby.