It’s high time to issue an overdue apology

By Nick Milano

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On Monday, the Senate passed the Indian Health Care Improvement Act which updated health care opportunities for Indians due to treaties signed with many tribes. Some 1.9 million Native-Americans rely upon the federal government for their medical care.

The bill attracted attention due to an official apology included from the federal government addressed to Native-Americans for decades of mistreatment. With this, an important recognition by the government for past evils, the Senate demonstrated that it still has the fortitude to confess to a mistake and take blame for it.

This does not mean the Senate can rest easy nor pat itself on the back and call it a day. There is plenty of work left to be done whether it is through oversight of the Executive Branch or with the passing of important legislation. But one act that should be considered and is long overdue is an apology to African-Americans for hundreds of years of slavery, segregation and racism.

The enslavement of Africans from the beginning of colonization of the New World through the American Civil War helped the United States to take many steps towards developing a stable economy and government. Once slavery came to a long-awaited end, African-Americans were incredibly disadvantaged.

The US government never apologized for this enslavement and killing of millions of Africans who were stolen from their homeland.

Following the Civil War, a brief era of hope in the form of Reconstruction came to a crashing halt when the federal government again abandoned African-Americans in the name of states’ rights.

Born out of the failed Reconstruction, Jim Crow reared its ugly head for many decades, even winning approval by the Supreme Court. The plaintiff in that case was Homer Plessy, a man who was only one-eighth black, but because of the one-drop rule in most Southern states, it did not matter. In addition to the laws that were blatantly and arrogantly race-based, there were also many social programs designed to help everyone left out.

The G.I. Bill is widely credited with creating the modern middle class. Hand in hand with the Federal Housing Administration, it helped guarantee mortgages on new homes for millions of Americans. In regard to the G.I. Bill, many African-Americans from the South were unable to navigate the bureaucracy to claim their benefits and even those who could had to attend schools that severely lacked in comparison to schools that did not open their doors to African-Americans. In regard to the FHA, there were provisions that blocked African-Americans from obtaining the very low interest rates that gave birth to suburbia. Once again, as many times before, African-Americans were left behind, forced to fend for themselves despite massive infusions of aid for white Americans and subjected to years of dehumanizing segregation and racism; they were given a most unequal opportunity for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

More disappointing than all of this is the fact that there are still signs of racism very much alive in the US today. Even with Senator Obama, a major contender for the Democratic nomination, hate crimes are prevalent with 5,020 racially motivated crimes last year alone, according to the FBI’s official statistics.

The vast majority of these were committed against African-Americans. Even at this most liberal college in the hippy hamlet of Amherst, a hate crime occurred this past month. The root of this hatred against African-Americans can be traced back to slavery; government has seldom done enough to fight notions of racism. An apology is the least that can be done; yet, no such act has occurred.

As the Senate’s actions on Monday showed, and when combined with apologies to both Japanese-Americans and Hawaiians, there is strong precedent for unilateral apologies for past errors and misjudgments. Reparations, an understandably controversial idea, were even granted to interned Japanese-Americans (noteworthy is that the two laws associated with reparations for and an apology to the Japanese were signed by Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, two of the most conservative leaders this nation has ever seen. In essence, there is a strong case for an apology to be made to African-Americans. Only Native Americans can claim to have been hurt more by the actions of the US government.

Of course, an apology will not heal all the scars. One does not kick somebody for a lifetime, then apologize and expect an immediate friendship. African-Americans have been the recipients of programs like affirmative action designed to help foster advancement, and though they are being terminated prematurely, such polices have to boost the proportion of African-Americans in the workforce and higher education.

Still, the US government has yet to apologize. In this Christian nation, in this time of Lent and Easter, asking for forgiveness for centuries of abuse and neglect should be a given. Why has it taken so long?

Nick Milano writes on Thursdays. He can be reached at [email protected]