A proposal to make a formal apology to black Americans whose ancestors suffered under slavery proves too hot to handle.
Forty acres and a mule. That was the package promised to freed slaves after the Civil War in the United States. But like so many promises, it largely went unkept but not forgotten.
In June 1997, Congressman Tony Hall of Ohio proposed a simple resolution: "the Congress apologizes to African Americans whose ancestors suffered as slaves under the Constitution and laws of the United States until 1865" (when slavery was formally abolished throughout the union). Hall's reasoning was clear: "when a brother wrongs a brother, he apologizes. That is the foundation for beginning again. That is the price for restoring lost trust.. It has been 135 years since slavery ended. Since that time, Congress has taken proud strides forward, including civil rights laws. But they are not enough... "
However, as many were quick to point out, it's easy to say 'I'm sorry'. Who needs another empty gesture? But "if it was so meaningless," asked Hall, "why has the resolution erupted into a firestorm of controversy throughout the nation?"
Indeed, the resolution sparked a charged debate over collective and individual guilt. On one side, Americans harked back to their immigrant ancestors whom, they said, bore no connection to the slave owners or legislators responsible for legitimizing the trade.
The opposite side saw the black community continuing to suffer from the legacy of slavery with glaring inequalities in income, education, employment and housing. They reminded that collective apologies were nothing new in the United States. Just one month before, the president apologized for the Tuskegee experiment in which government doctors used about 600 black men as guinea pigs in the 1930s and 40s by not treating them for syphilis in order to study the disease.
According to a Gallup poll, two out of three whites objected to a formal apology, while two out of three blacks supported it. But the issue was not so simple.
"The Congressional Black Caucus does not have an official position - and we should not have one," said Congresswoman Maxine Waters of California. "We should carry on as proud African-Americans demanding justice and equality ... To apologize or not to apologize - it is for white America to answer."
Many civil rights groups like the National Urban League and the United Church of Christ (UCC), were concerned that the controversy surrounding the apology would overshadow the real issues. "It's a little difficult to take seriously all the talk about apology from a nation which is quickly retreating from the closest thing we have had to restitution - affirmative action, " wrote Bernice Powell Jackson of the UCC Commission for Racial Justice (The Civil Rights Journal, July 14,1997).
Affirmative action refers to legislative measures ensuring that minority groups are appropriately represented in universities., government and business. Although under fierce attack in state legislatures and a republic an -controlled Congress, it is still considered a cornerstone for reducing inequalities by many civil rights groups representing the black community. For these groups, if the Congress really wanted to atone for the sins of slavery, it could begin by taking the steps needed to reduce those inequalities. After all, when the government apologized for the forced internment of Japanese Americans during the Second World War, the victims were awarded $20,000 each.
"Reparations are probably politically problematic," wrote Jackson of the UCC. "But if Congress is serious about apology, then restitution might take the form ofcollege scholarships, job training programmes, prison intervention and alternative programmes."
But the talk of reparations transformed the apology issue into a defence lawyer's worst nightmare - a Pandora's box of indemnities. How do you convert suffering of such a massive yet diffuse scale into dollars and cents?
President Clinton originally expressed interest in the apology, but later steered clear of the issue. "Slavery has left deep scars on our nation," he said. "Together we will continue to address these issues, but at this time, I do not believe that an apology or a discussion of reparations is the best way to move the country forward on this issue." Instead, Mr Clinton focused on his new Race Initiative with a commission set up to find ways of offering "real opportunities to Americans who work hard, but who continue to face barriers of discrimination based on race. We want to highlight successful examples of Americans coming together across racial lines to overcome the divisive legacies of our past."
In the meanwhile, the proposed apology sits in a judiciary committee, awaiting a hearing which is unlikely to take place. According to a spokesperson at Congressman Hall's office, the resolution will probably be reintroduced next year. And what is another 12 months to apologize for the sufferings of several generations.