US House apology for slavery revives reparations call

August 1st, 2008 - 9:21 am ICT by IANS  

Washington, Aug 1 (DPA) The apology by the House of Representatives for slavery has renewed discussion in the United States about reparations for descendants of African-Americans who were enslaved for more than two centuries in the early years of the country. But the decibel level was remarkably low on the topic after the US House Tuesday adopted a resolution apologising to black Americans for the “fundamental injustice, cruelty, brutality and inhumanity of slavery” and the subsequent segregation that kept them out of schools, jobs and neighbourhoods.

News coverage of the non-binding resolution - passed by a simple voice vote - slipped to page three in the Washington Post and barely merited note in the country’s other major newspapers.

The vote came months after the US Senate apologised for atrocities against native Americans, and two decades after Congress apologised to Japanese Americans for internment in World War II concentration camps - and paid $1.25 billion to 60,000 camp survivors and their descendants.

In 1988, the US government paid eight Sioux Indian tribes $122 million for tribal lands illegally seized in 1877.

To some critics, like Roger Clegg, president of the Centre for Equal Opportunity, a conservative think tank, the apology represented political grandstanding by the chief sponsor of the vote, Representative Steve Cohen, who is Jewish.

While Cohen rallied co-sponsorship from 42 members of the Congressional Black Caucus, according to the Post, none of them have endorsed Cohen in his bid for re-nomination by Democratic voters in his home district in Memphis, Tennessee. Cohen’s chief challenger in the August 7 intra-party primary election is a black lawyer, Nikki Tinker.

Nonetheless, reparation advocates viewed Tuesday’s vote as a “very important first step” toward reparations.

“The bill does acknowledge the history of slavery and Jim Crow legislation and how it continues to impact African-American lives today,” said Kibibi Tyehimba, co-chair of the National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America (NCOBRA) in Washington, in a telephone interview.

The group is part of an international reparations movement founded in 2002 in Bridgetown, Barbados, a year after participants in a UN conference on slavery in Durban, South Africa, sidestepped the issue of payments and even failed to agree on the need for an apology for past exploitation.

John Conyers, a left-wing black congressman from Michigan, is the hero of the US reparations movement for his annual attempt to earmark $8 million to establish a commission to determine if slavery has a remaining impact on African-Americans - such as disproportionate imprisonment and higher death rates from disease.

His resolution has never received support from Congressional leaders, even in his own party, but Tyehimba said Tuesday’s apology “opens the door for continued discussions” of Conyer’s bill.

The NCOBRA leader noted that not only Japanese-Americans but also Jewish Holocaust survivors have received the benefit of US tax money. She said Holocaust victims living in the US were exempted by Congress from paying taxes on reparations from the German and Austrian governments since the late 1990s.

Clegg told DPA that the slavery apology as well as possible reparations do “not heal wounds” but keep “wounds open.”

“It’s backward looking rather than forward looking,” he said.

Noting the diverse makeup of the US population, he said, “It doesn’t make sense for part of us to be apologising to another part of us. The slave owners are all dead. The slaves are all dead.”

Clegg believes the hurdles facing African-Americans today cannot be blamed on slavery but rather on elements such as the fact that “seven of 10 are born out of wedlock. That’s a figure that is much worse now than it was 40 years ago.”

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