It's time for the United States to officially apologize to black Americans

The question of reparations for African Americans is one white Americans would rather avoid. It is much easier to declare February Black History Month, hang politically correct posters in public libraries and make sure all the books celebrating the accomplishments of black Americans are prominently on display. Public school teachers drum up lesson plans with a positive spin, hoping to avoid substantive discussion of the "s" word: slavery. Some private schools will choose to ignore the designation completely, while a percentage of home-schooled kids may never even meet anyone of color.

There is no separating a discussion of reparations from one of the racism still permeating our social, political, economic and cultural landscape. It is also a mistake to ignore the real phenomenon of white privilege.

If the concept of white privilege is unsettling or mysterious, you'll have to do your own research, but here are two mundane examples: White shoppers are less likely to be eyed by store security than black shoppers; given two applicants for a rental, one black, one white, the black is far more likely to be told the apartment has "already been rented."

Not enough has been written about the connection between racism and what philosophers and social scientists call "the Other." While there exists a body of scholarly literature on what has come to be called institutionalized racism, how our perceptions of the Other contribute to racism is less explored.

Michigan's U.S. Rep. John Conyers Jr. first introduced House Resolution 40 in 1989. At the time, he promised to reintroduce the bill at each Congress until it passed. The act is gaining support. As of April 2005, the bill had 40 co-sponsors. Several city councils have passed resolutions supporting it, though Tucson has yet to join them.

A section of the bill requires the commission to "examine ... the treatment of African slaves in the colonies and the United States, including the deprivation of their freedom, exploitation of their labor and destruction of their culture, language, religion, and families."

Another part of the bill asks the commission to determine whether the U.S. government "should offer a formal apology on behalf of the people of the United States for the perpetration of gross human rights violations on African slaves and their descendants."

It is beyond my comprehension as to why there would be even a shred of doubt as to whether or not an apology is warranted. I can only conclude our national failure to address an abiding moral wrong is rooted in our arrogance.

In a 2005 piece in The Washington Post, Carol M. Swain wrote: "Consider Germany, which has apologized for the suffering caused by its actions toward Jews and others. More recently, Tony Blair apologized on behalf of Britain for its treatment of the Irish during the potato famine of the 1840s. Pope John Paul II apologized for the past sins of the Roman Catholic Church against non-Catholics. Australia apologized for its mistreatment of the country's aborigine population. What, then, would be the great harm in our apologizing for slavery and the Jim Crow racism that followed?"

Harm? Why is Swain even posing the question? Perhaps we should reflect on the possibility that an apology would help us recognize the long-overdue debt the nation owes African Americans. This acknowledgment may just lead to the next step: reparations. Which brings us back to HR 40.

Conyers' bill asks the commission to consider whether "any form of compensation to the descendants of African slaves is warranted." If so, the commission is further required to determine "what should be the amount of compensation, what form of compensation should be awarded, and who should be eligible for such compensation." This is no minor undertaking.

Maybe Swain understood that an apology, by its very nature, acknowledges a wrong. Once the acknowledgment is made, amends are often required. Conyers' bill leaves the method and form of compensation open. This is a good thing. And I would hope that no self-respecting African American would settle for a one-time, lump-sum amount. I also hope no one is advocating for this inadequate form of expiation, or if they are, they reconsider the long-term consequences of merely monetary awards. Possible alternatives include free tuition for qualified students and/or shares in corporations that benefited from slavery.

But first things first: The United States government has an obligation to apologize to black Americans for the harm inflicted on their ancestors, for the loss of their original languages, for the decimation of families and the perpetuation of racism despite legal remedies. Once it's done, we can all get to work healing wounds older than the nation.