What's Behind Apologies for Slavery? Writer E.R. Shipp and New York assemblyman Keith Wright talk about how governments, universities and corporations that played a historic role in slavery are today setting concrete plans to make good on their slavery mea culpas.
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What's Behind Apologies for Slavery?

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What's Behind Apologies for Slavery?

What's Behind Apologies for Slavery?

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I'm Farai Chideya and this is NEWS & NOTES.

New York state is on the verge of saying sorry for slavery. The state assembly recently passed a bill that says New York regrets the major role it played in the slave business.

For example, the land that the World Trade Center was built on and New York City Hall both adjoined the city's slave burial grounds.

With the governor's approval, the bill will become an official apology.

In a recent article for BET.com, Pulitzer Prize winner E.R. Shipp reported that several other states have either passed or are working on their own apologies for slavery. At least one corporation and an Ivy League university are joining the apology chorus.

But what does it mean to apologize for the bondage, murders and economic disenfranchisement that ended almost a century and a half ago? Is saying sorry necessary or not enough?

For more, we've got E.R. Shipp. She's a journalism professor at Hofstra University School of Communication. We also have New York State Assemblyman Keith Wright who supported his state's official apology bill. Welcome.

Assemblyman KEITH WRIGHT (Democrat, New York): Thank you so much.

Professor E.R. SHIPP (Hofstra University's School of Communication; Journalist): Thanks.

Assemblyman WRIGHT: Pleasure to join you.

CHIDEYA: Well, delighted. And Assemblyman, I want to start with you. Your state, New York, played a huge role in the slave trade, and it's a role that many don't associate with northern states. I myself used to live in New York, walked by the burial grounds all the time. Is it important now for New York to issue an official apology?

Assemblyman WRIGHT: Yeah. Yes. And let me just say this. A lot of folks don't even know how involved the state of New York really was in the institution -the ugly institution of slavery. New York was the second largest importer of African slaves, save South Carolina. And New York officially ended its participation in slavery on July 4, 1817. However, it was so good to New York that they had to do a gradual withdrawal from the institution. And it finally, finally terminated by virtue of legislation in the year 1827.

But a lot of people don't even associate that slavery even happened in New York. And they just think that it's an institution just indigenous to the -below the Mason-Dixon line. But New York was a power player, if you will, in the institution of slavery. That's why I think it's important. And it's not even taught in our schools, especially in New York, that New York acknowledged, number one, its participation and, number two, to say to issue a formal apology from the chief executive officer of the state of New York.


Prof. SHIPP: That reminds me of a conversation...

CHIDEYA: Go ahead.

Prof. SHIPP: ...I had with one of my colleagues at Hofstra. And I mentioned that I was working on this piece for BET.com. And he said, why? New York doesn't have anything to do with slavery. So I sat him down.

CHIDEYA: Oh boy.

Prof. SHIPP: And I think he just turned about 80 years old. So he's an academic who's about 80 years old and had no clue of New York's role.

CHIDEYA: Well, E.R., you obviously did do this piece. And I want to quote something specific to you. Virginia was the first state to pass an apology but at the time, a 79-year-old Virginia lawmaker, Frank Hargrove, said African-Americans, quote, "should get over slavery." And he also made an analogy and asked whether folks would ask Jews to apologize, quote, "for killing Christ," -for killing Christ that is. Is he right? Should we all just get over it?

Prof. SHIPP: No. It's not that easy. But there are ways to move ahead. And I think this is kind of like the truth and reconciliation commission in South Africa. So that's a better analogy than anything this man in Virginia was raising. In that case, you knew that you couldn't set a dollar figure on the pain and suffering that people had undergone during the - during apartheid.

But you could get institutions to acknowledge their roles and then to come up with plans to make a better society. I think that's where this apology movement is headed. It's not necessarily going to end up with each of us having 40 acres and a mule. First of all, we wouldn't know what to do with the mule. And probably wouldn't know what to do with the 40 acres, frankly, since we're - a lot of us are so urban.

CHIDEYA: It depends on where they are.

Prof. SHIPP: It depends on where the 40 acres are. But I think...

CHIDEYA: Can I get 40 acres right outside New York City?

Prof. SHIPP: Hey - hey, that would be cool, too. But the whole point is that we need to come up with some substantial ways to make society better. After having acknowledged that a lot of what we are benefiting from now comes from that period of slave - slavery.

CHIDEYA: Let me turn to reparations, I want to ask both of you about this, first, Assemblyman Wright and then E.R. So you have all these apologies going on, you have insurance company Aetna, you have Brown University apologizing for their roles in slavery, it's not just states. Are these apologies meant to substitute for reparations and restitution or paved the way for them?

Assemblyman WRIGHT: I think that, well, in the case of New York the slavery apology bill is stand-alone bill. There's no mention of reparations in the bill, whatsoever. There happens to be a reparations bill lingering in the state assembly at this moment, but it's a separate bill.

But in terms of which you were talking about, the last, I guess, in the last segment there, you know, we live each and every day with the vestiges of slavery. In our inadequate health care system, our deficient educational system, and the fact that we have a massive pool of unemployed, in particular, black men in our urban centers. So the vestiges of slavery are still lingering.

If I were chief executive officer in the 1700s or the 1800s in New York, I could have made New York the financial capital of the world and the greatest city in the world if I had this pool of free labor. So, you know, the vestiges of slavery do linger on to this day and it's practically impossible for me to get over it, to answer Mr. - I guess Legislator Hargrove's question.

But, you know, reparations is a complete - it's a totally different question. You know, back in 1988, then President Ronald Reagan signed a bill, I guess apologizing for the interment of Japanese folks in California during World War II. As I said, Ronald Reagan signed this bill and then, I guess, soon thereafter, reparations were given to Japanese folks - the descendants of those Japanese folks - and I think they got about $20,000 apiece. So...

CHIDEYA: Let me ask you...

Assemblyman WRIGHT: ...the idea of this bill is not to seek reparations, it's to seek a formal apology.

CHIDEYA: E.R., we've only got a couple of minutes left. Briefly, your thoughts.

Prof. SHIPP: Well, I am not a supporter of reparations across the board, but where you can specifically identify people who have suffered through the vestiges of slavery, then I think they are in the same position as the Japanese and some others. And that, the two examples that come to mind, "Rosewood," I think you'd probably remember that film...

CHIDEYA: Absolutely.

Prof. SHIPP: ...where a black community in Florida was destroyed, those people received some reparations from the state of Florida. And now, we have a move to also compensate people who suffered from the Tulsa Race Riots of 1920s where a community that was considered the Black Wall Street was destroyed.

Though, some of those people are still around, I think the oldest person is about 105 or something like that, and some of their descendants of theirs, they lost land, they lost houses. So, in specific cases, I can see giving a monetary figure to individuals. Otherwise, there needs to be some program, such as what Brown is proposing to do, which is to change the curriculum, teach about this, build monuments, you know, do very concrete things. The Aetna Company is pledging to be a good citizen when it comes to health care for the poor.

CHIDEYA: All right, E.R.

Prof. SHIPP: So, we need to hold them accountable for those things.

CHIDEYA: Well, E.R., we got to go. Professor Shipp, Assemblyman Wright, thank you both.

Prof. SHIPP: Thank you.

Assemblyman WRIGHT: Thank you. Thank you.

CHIDEYA: We've been speaking to E.R. Shipp, a journalism professor at Hofstra University School of Communication, and Keith Wright, a New York state assemblyman.

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