Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Slavery: the House apology lacks logic

The U.S. House of Representatives has apologized for slavery and segregation.
Full text (click)
Besides dozens of "Whereas" sentences summarizing and emotionally interpreting some random historical events whose precise role is unclear to me, the resolution says:

That the House of Representatives
  1. acknowledges the fundamental injustice, cruelty, brutality, and inhumanity of slavery and Jim Crow;
  2. 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; and
  3. expresses its commitment to rectify the lingering consequences of the misdeeds committed against African-Americans under slavery and Jim Crow and to stop the occurrence of human rights violations in the future.
The point (1) is kind of fine except that the same things have already been pretty much done in the 1860s and 1960s, respectively, when the previous legal system was changed. So the point is redundant. Of course that as the society diverges from the old order, many things will look increasingly more alien to the newer generations. Is that surprising? Does America need a resolution about it? Will the Congress also denounce scalping by Native Americans as fundamentally cruel, brutal, and unjust? By the way, if it won't, what's exactly the difference? Why is it that segregation is denounced but scalping is not?

It is the point (2) that is logically confusing and morally controversial. The U.S. Congress, a body that includes black Americans, is apologizing for slavery. Either these black lawmakers are apologizing to themselves or the U.S. Congress implicitly (and incorrectly) states that it is still exclusively controlled by the descendants of slaveowners who are the only ones who have the "credentials" to apologize.

Clearly, the U.S. Congress in 2008 has nothing to do with slavery. None of the current lawmakers helped to codify slavery or segregation. Moreover, the ancestors of many current lawmakers have never seen (or participated in) slavery because they didn't live in America 140+ years ago. The U.S. Congress hasn't even inherited slavery because it's been abolished a long time ago. Moreover, much of the slavery occurred before the United States were even created (together with the Parliament). So in what sense the U.S. Congress has the right to apologize?

Who is apologizing to whom?

I suppose that at the end, the only meaningful and remotely justifiable interpretation is that the descendants of white Americans who used to own slaves (or at least those who indirectly helped the slaveowners) are apologizing to the descendants of black Americans who were the slaves (or their relatives).

At least I would find it fundamentally unjust and crazy if e.g. the typical Russian or Chinese Americans - and let me not forget about them: Czech Americans, too! - whose ancestors have never owned any slaves were apologizing to anyone. They have nothing to apologize for because they haven't done anything wrong - and even if you argued that a person is responsible for all the acts of his or her ancestors, not even their ancestors have done anything wrong to the blacks.

Should they apologize just for being white, i.e. for having this unpopular (white) skin color? For having "cousins" (as defined by common ancestors who lived a few thousand years ago) who had something to do with slavery? This would be an extremely flagrant case of racism, indeed. In that case, it would be equally "justified" for all blacks to apologize e.g. that their crime rate has always been much higher than for whites. Moreover, blacks and whites are also cousins, as long as you believe Darwin. ;-) You must just go tens of thousands of years further to the history to find the common ancestors.

That means that in order to see who is apologizing to whom, one must trace the family roots of each individual back to the 19th century, look at those who lived in America at that time, and apologize. Does someone expect that such a profound return to biological ancestors who lived 140+ years ago will help to further reduce the boundaries between the races? I beg to differ. The historically created boundaries only disappear when the past becomes irrelevant.

What the resolution can do is to increase the tension between the races. The point (3) sketches how it may take place. The blacks will suddenly be able to argue that whatever they don't like are "lingering consequences" of slavery and segregation, as described in the third point, and they will demand to have "higher" human rights than all the whites in order to "rectify" those consequences. The precise extent to which one can "rectify" is obviously ill-defined (and this ill-definedness is a very bad thing in the legal system) but some of your black employees or students may start to do these things all the time. Of course, sensible whites will object because such a new form of racism would be unconstitutional and outrageous. Some white PC people may wish to declare a new era of reverse racism but I assure you that not everyone in America is PC or crazy and it is both non-democratic and dangerous for the PC people to assume otherwise.

This arrangement with asymmetric human rights of individuals can't lead to anything good, especially not under a black president. The only way to protect a nation against injustice is to have and enforce laws that guarantee justice and to gradually move all the historical injustice from the current life to the history textbooks where it will be written forever. History cannot be overwritten, sorry.

Collective guilt

Finally, I want to express this opinion of mine in one more way. The resolution is an obvious example of collective guilt because it intends to punish people for their skin color. You know, the principle of collective guilt is an extremely subtle and potentially dangerous paradigm. For example, in 1945, the Czechoslovak politicians and judges decided it was impossible to individually punish every individual Sudeten German for their Nazi acts before and during the war because there have been way too many of them and the number of Czechoslovak courts and prisons wasn't infinite.

So the expulsion and other forms of collective punishment were chosen instead, in order to "approximately" settle the injustice that has taken place in between the communities. The most peaceful exceptions - the Germans who could prove that they fought against Nazism - were exempt and they could stay in Czechoslovakia. But these policies - the Beneš decrees - were still based on the principle of collective guilt. I am convinced that back in 1945, it was a very sane decision to do these things and it is extremely dangerous to question the decrees today because one could revive the ghosts of many old conflicts that should be forgotten or, more precisely, disconnected with the current political issues. But a descendant of Czechoslovak citizens who supported the post-war policies certainly can't feel 100% saint about the decrees. They were only justified by the exceptionally difficult situation a few months after the greatest world war ever.

But if someone replaces a few months by 140+ years (today, when all the actors in the theater of slavery are safely dead) and applies the same principle of collective guilt to slavery, it is clearly a decision that cannot be justified by any exceptional situation and that cannot do anything good for justice and for the peaceful co-existence of people of different skin colors. So I believe that the resolution is an act of racism and it suppresses the individual rights and the individual responsibility for people's acts.

And that's the memo.


  1. It seems that the apology speaks not for individuals. Instead, it may offer an abstracted apology from the Nation for allowing unconstitutional wrongs on some of it's citizens. For example, did you know that in the 1800s a successful town on the coast of North Carolina that had black leadership was overthrown at gunpoint by a group of angry white citizens. I know some of your readers may be sarcastic about this, but I think that the Federal or State government should have stepped in the protect the elected government--but they just turned a blind eye... So to reiterate my previous point--it's not that you or your ancestors did anything wrong. The system the country her self, as it were, intentionally failed to live up to her constitutional statues for certain citizens for over 300 years.

    Take Care and may God bless you. Maybe an apology wasn't necessary. But, I can understand why some African Americans may welcome it.