It is time America apologized for the crime of slavery, and President Joseph Robinette Biden Jr. is the man to do it.
It is hard to believe that a simple, national apology for the 400-year-old crime of kidnapping, trafficking, selling, and enslaving millions of free Black women, men, and children would even need to be debated.
We pride ourselves as a moral nation, and our parents taught us long ago that apologizing when you have wronged someone is the moral thing to do.
Plus, all those offenses are still crimes. Try any of that today, and you’re going to prison.
Those four-century-old crimes laid the groundwork for the America we all know. The cotton those Black bodies picked, the corn they planted and harvested, the turpentine they gathered from pine sap, and the very sale of their Black bodies raised the millions of dollars that founded and made rich many of the powerful banks and financial institutions of today.
According to a Brookings Institute report, in 1860, a year before the Civil War started, slaves represented some $3 billion in free labor and production to the country. That would be more than $99 billion in 2021 dollars. A year later cotton produced by slaves was valued at $250 million—$826 million today.
That’s a nation-building amount of money.
We cannot begin to put a price on the lynchings, beatings, rapes, and other abuses our ancestors suffered and painfully endured at the hands of their slaveowners.
Yet when our ancestors were freed in 1865, most left their plantation homes with only the rags on their backs. President Abraham Lincoln paid northern slaveowners $300 for each slave they freed, but the slaves got nothing. While many made a way out of no way, even with no money, we know many others had two choices: stay and work the land as sharecroppers or starve. We also know that from then to this day whole industries continue making money off free Black women and men.
Yet talk of apologizing for slavery, much less of paying reparations to the descendants of these abused workers, is a true point of contention for many people. Why apologize for something that happened so long ago, they say.
The thing is, America has apologized to a lot of people for its actions over the years, even to some Black people.
President Ronald Reagan apologized for putting Japanese Americans in internment camps across the country during World War II. Congress apologized to Hawaiians for the 1893 coup by American businessmen and sugar interests that threw out the Hawaiian royal family. And in 1997 President Bill Clinton apologized for the despicable Tuskegee Experiment, which saw hundreds of Black men who thought they were being treated for syphilis go untreated for over 40 years so doctors could see how the disease kills.
At least nine states have already made public apologies for profiting from slavery.
In its 2016 General Assemble resolution Delaware stated that it “…apologizes, on behalf of the people of Delaware, for the State’s role in slavery and the wrongs committed against
African-Americans and their ancestors who suffered under slavery and Jim Crow.” National apologies are unusual, but not unheard of.
But the main reason President Biden needs to make a formal apology on our nation’s behalf for the horrible crime of slavery has as much to do with 2021 as it has for how the nation, since
1865, has failed in its obligations to its Black citizens.
Apologies are new beginnings. They let those who were offended and those who took offense get past their differences and form new relationships as they move forward.
President Biden’s trillion dollar “Build Back Better” legislation contains unprecedented programs that once they get past Congress—and conservative Democrats—will change the lives of working-class Americans like President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal did in the 1930s. Today we celebrate how Roosevelt’s programs like the Social Security Administration helped Americans recover from the Great Depression. But we forget how controversial they were at the time. Roosevelt’s bold action so fundamentally changed how Americans live that the country before the New Deal was something entirely different after it took effect.
That’s what we need now, and what I believe a Biden apology for slavery can give us: a new beginning. An admission that the horror that was slavery was wrong would go a long way in affirming that our nation believes those powerful words of the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”
A presidential apology for slavery puts our nation on a new path that lives up to its founding creeds, and it’s long overdue.