By Ed Reed and Merica Whitehall, Guest Writers
As the 400th anniversary of the foundation of Jamestown neared this year, another stride was made in Virginia’s effort to overcome its segregationist past. For some, the resolution that was passed by the House of Delegates—acknowledging and apologizing for Virginia’s role in the atrocity of the slave trade—marks a positive step for our country. For others, it is a pointless rehashing of an unpleasant history that has nothing to do with white people or Black people living today. Supporters like Virginia Delegate Donald McEachin say that Virginia’s apology “is meant to be a resolution that is part of a healing process…that still needs to take place.” Although the slaves and the users and abusers of slaves in Jamestown are long dead now, “Virginia is alive and well, and Virginia was built on the backs of slaves.” But opponents like Delegate Frank Hargrove argue that present-day Virginia “has nothing to do with slavery.” In other words, they’re saying, “Stop kicking the dog!” If it’s lying there and it appears to be peaceful, why wake it up? Black people, as Hargrove said, should just “Get over it” because “By golly, we’re living in 2007.”
Slavery in the United States is over. So, why an apology now if slavery was abolished in 1865? Because, though slavery ended, the exploitation of African Americans did not. It continued through Reconstruction and through the Jim Crow years. It led to the Civil Rights Movement. And racism embodied in institutional policies and practices that disproportionately and negatively impact certain races while benefiting others continues today “by golly.”
The reality of American society is that African American children are denied the opportunity to excel because they are victims of prejudicial systems of resource allocation that provide less for students who need more. Fewer books and computers are provided where higher literacy and access to information and ideas are needed. Less academic and social guidance is provided where higher achievement and positive reinforcement are needed. Even teachers, willing to fight the obstacles of working for less with less, become less effective. On a visit to Seattle, education expert Jonathan Kozol realized that school assignment practices and federal court decisions make the dream associated with the late Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall all but attainable at the local public school named in his honor. “Inequalities of education finance remain unabated and take on new and more innovative forms,” says Kozol. The children that poverty holds captive in the public schools that have less, give less, and expect less will be less than they might have been if given the same opportunity as kids in public schools that have more and expect more.
The reality is that the African-American family has been systematically dismantled since slavery. In 2007 it takes the form of racial profiling by law enforcement that leads to the imprisonment of a disproportionate number of African American men. According to The Sentencing Project, one in every three Black males born today can expect to be imprisoned at some point in his lifetime. Jerry Large of the Seattle Times points out that Blacks are seven times more likely than whites to be arrested and are far more likely to do serious time.
In Seattle, far more users and sellers of methamphetamines, heroin, and cocaine are white, according to a University of Washington study. Still, according to the same study, Black people are being arrested in numbers out of proportion to their participation in the drug market. The New York Times and the Washington Post reported on federal statistics showing that Black and Hispanic drivers were more likely than whites to be searched by law enforcement and less likely to be harboring contraband. In a highly acclaimed book, Norm Stamper, a former Seattle police chief, has called the drug war the most dysfunctional policy since slavery.
Should we expect Virginia’s apology to impact African Americans today? The reality is that slavery did not end because former slaveholders had an epiphany and a change of heart. Slavery ended, as Donald Boudreaux of George Mason University points out, because industrial capitalism was emerging as a better way to do work on a grander scale while protecting the means of production and increasing the wealth and prosperity of those that controlled the means of production. Supporters of reparations understand that economic interests drive the creation and prevention of change. The call for reparations isn’t just about slaves and masters. It’s about material acknowledgment of a cyclical economic system of power that has endured to oppress African Americans in this society.
An apology without acceptance that a price was paid and a debt is owed really just serves to ease a guilty conscience. Is that what we need in 2007, by golly?
Ed Reed, Ph.D. is a professor of Political Science. Merica Whitehall serves as the Administrative Assistant, of Professional Development at Seattle University.