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Apologize for Hypocrisy
by Jean Hay

June 1997

An apology is long overdue from our government for the hypocrisy embodied in the institution of slavery as it was once legally practiced in the United States of America. No, the Civil War and the Emancipation Proclamation are not enough. And anyone who has spent any time south of the Mason-Dixon line knows it.

The story of slavery in this country is a tale of duplicity and denial of the American promise contained in the Declaration of Independence. Educated white men of privilege emphatically held ``these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal,'' yet turned around and declared in the first Article of the Constitution that a slave was to be counted as only three-fifths of a person. Founding father Thomas Jefferson refused to free his own slaves.

These same white men of privilege articulated unalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness for themselves, yet perpetuated the buying and selling of human beings.

Blacks could not legally be married, even to other blacks. In fact, the last southern laws forbidding blacks and whites from marrying disappeared under Supreme Court pressure only a few decades ago.

Under the law, slaves were property, which meant they and their children could be sold at any time. No attempt was made to keep families together. Slaves were bequeathed to relatives in wills.

The same body of Revolutionary men who charged King George II with obstructing justice refused to recognize testimony by blacks in courts of law, and declared that promises -- verbal or written -- given to a slave were not legally binding. Even freed blacks could not bring suit against whites in a court of law, no matter how egregious the offense.

Members of the same group of privileged white males of America who indicted King George ``for transporting us beyond seas to be tried for pretended offenses'' bought blacks who had been captured and transported from Africa against their will for no offenses whatsoever, and forced them to spend the rest of their lives in involuntary servitude. If slaves attempted to run away, they were hunted down with dogs, and whipped upon capture.

Recognizing that knowledge is power, whites refused to educate blacks beyond what was needed for them to do their slave work. There were laws against it. After all, if slaves could read, they might stumble upon the Declaration of Independence, where they would find that the founding fathers of their new country believed that ``governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed'' and ``that whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it.''

It was a sick male mentality that condoned human slavery, one that used violence and incredible cruelty to maintain that self-serving economic system and the myth of male supremacy.

Furthermore, the system promoted sexual deviants, men who practiced concubinage and the open cuckolding of their white wives. These church-going men used the bodies of black women, whom they saw as subhuman, for their own sexual gratification, practicing what had to amount to bestiality in their minds. They accepted as a given that the offspring from such activities, their own children, were less than human, were their legal property, and as such could be sold to a speculator on a whim or in a fit of rage.

Sick, sick, sick. Yet this was the reality of slavery in American before the Civil War.

Despite several Constitutional amendments, Reconstruction, and civil rights laws in the 1960s, we as a nation are still living with the aftermaths of that system of injustice. Racism is rampant, as groups of whites continue to assert their supposed superiority through violence. Equality is a hard concept for some people to accept.

And then there's our prison system, where reportedly one in every four black men in the country is either incarcerated, under arrest, or on parole. In prison, as in slavery, these blacks are told when to sleep, when to get up, how to spend their days, what to eat and when to eat it, what to wear. And, if incarcerated for a felony (many of them drug related), they often lose the right to vote upon their release.

But, you argue, men are not just grabbed off the street and put into shackles, the way American slaves were trapped in Africa. They must have done something to warrant their prison time.

With some, that's true. But the scandal of greater conviction rates, fewer plea bargains, and tougher sentences for blacks compared to whites who commit the same crimes has been documented in numerous studies. The white men who make the laws apparently see nothing distorted in declaring predominantly black crime (such as the use of crack cocaine) more dangerous -- with greater penalty -- than comparable white crime (powdered cocaine of the same potency). As for losing the right to vote -- what better way to legally disenfranchise a large segment of the population who might want to vote the offending lawmakers out of office?

The Declaration of Independence stated the promise. Slavery was the reality. The slaves were held primarily in the south, but the northern factory owners relied on that cheap cotton to supply their mills. And, white or black, the grotesque economic system that required unpaid, forced labor and the abominable treatment of a whole race of human beings to prop up its existence has had a profound effect on us all, even now.

The President of the United States of America should stand up there and admit that the promise of the Declaration of Independence was deliberately and shamefully violated when it came to slavery. History demands it. We as a nation need to recognize the legally sanctioned evil in our history, and its subsequent ramifications, or we are doomed to perpetuate its remnants.

The President of the United States of America should stand up there and say we were wrong back then, that the Declaration of Independence was right, except that all PEOPLE, not just all men, are created equal, and that we as a nation are going to make that promise a reality from this point on.

When the President of the United States does that, a whole generation of children will be educated on a very important and profound chapter in our collective past.

And speaking of education, there is a solution for those who don't want the President to apologize because it might bring up the ticklish subject of restitution.

I watched the demeanor of Maine's native American population shift from shame to pride in their ancestry when the landmark Indian Land Claims case was settled two decades ago. Suddenly the heritage which had subjected them to taunts and abuse for generations was bankable.

Blacks have no broken land treaties. It was their spirits that were deliberately broken, their minds intentionally dulled.

I propose we establish a national education fund, one that can be tapped by any and all slave descendants for full tuition to any college in the land. The perfect counter to the old laws that forbade blacks an education would be one guaranteeing each of them that forbidden fruit -- knowledge.

Freelance political commentator Jean Hay spent two years living and working near a Navy base in Mississippi in the 1960s, while her then-husband was in Vietnam.

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