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The First Step Toward Restorative Justice for Native Americans and African Americans Is an Official Apology

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Erik Devereux
April 30, 2019

This is the second in a series of columns related to achieving restorative justice for Native Americans and African Americans. These groups are living with the pervasive, negative consequences of crimes against humanity perpetrated against their ancestors during the foundation of the United States. You can find the first article in this series here.  

We are in the midst of a landmark, serious national conversation at the highest levels of politics about addressing the need for restorative justice. Jonathan Capehart, writing recently in the Washington Post, attributes this moment to the 2014 essay by Ta-Nehisi Coates in the Atlantic regarding, “The case for reparations,” and endorses the passage of H.R. 40 by the United States Congress to establish a commission for studying the matter.

Included within the language of H.R. 40 is the question of whether an official, formal apology should be made for the United States Government for slavery and the subsequent state-sanctioned violence and discrimination endured by African Americans. To that I add the question of an apology to the Native Americans for the genocide and discrimination they endured.

The answer to these questions must be, “Of course.” On behalf of all Americans, the United States Government should apologize unequivocally. Furthermore, those apologies are absolutely crucial to the achievement of restorative justice.

I would not have understood the importance of an apology a year ago. Over the past year, I have been working in Baltimore, Maryland, on behalf of a nonprofit that assists a primarily low income, African American population with such issues as employment and family stability. Every day on the way to work I pass the corner depicted in the photograph accompanying this column. The dilapidated buildings are just a few among thousands of structures in similar condition within a several mile radius. The corner is located close to ground zero of the rioting that commenced in 2015 after city resident Freddie Gray was severely injured while in police custody and soon thereafter died.

You could find similar signs of the long-term results of the damage done to the Native American population by searching for images documenting conditions in the reservations.

About 90 percent of the staff at the Baltimore nonprofit are African American. In my conversations with these colleagues, I learned about why many of them wanted the United States Government to make issuing an apology for slavery and its consequences a higher priority than offering financial reparations. Behind that preference is the tangible pain and suffering of living in a society that has lied, covered up and invented excuses for violence against the descendants of formerly enslaved persons of African origin. An official apology would establish that the Civil War was about slavery (and not “states’ rights”), that slavery was a brutal crime (and never “gentle” or “compassionate”), that Americans today are benefitting from trillions of dollars of labor performed by the slaves in the construction of the county through 1865 (and no one here today is exempt from responsibility), and that much of what transpired against African Americans after 1865 was state-sanctioned violence and discrimination (and not a reflection of the inherent capacity of various communities). As long as the lies are allowed to endure, African Americans are correct to be afraid for their future.

The exact same holds for Native Americans. They deserve an apology for the European invasion of the Americas, backed by superior military force, driven by the sole purpose of displacing the native peoples completely from their land. It is well documented that the ensuing genocide was a matter of policy. The architects of that policy, if alive today, would be disappointed to know that the Native American population in the United States continues to exist at all.

I close with two more points. The United States Government has issued formal apologies for other, similar crimes committed by the country including an apology to Alaskan Natives for their mistreatment and to the Japanese Americans who were forced into internment camps during World War Two. The precedents are there for issuing apologies of this type.

The need to take dramatic, unequivocal steps toward restorative justice is referenced by some current candidates for president when they describe “original sins” in the founding of the United States. The harm done by these sins affects everyone and continues to limit the country from achieving its full potential. Admitting and apologizing for such sins is painful but absolutely necessary, and is the proper next step for the United States Government to take in the journey toward restorative justice.

Author: Erik Devereux has worked for 25 years in the public policy and management field. Erik currently is an independent consultant to nonprofit organizations and to higher education and teaches applied policy analysis at Georgetown University. He has a B.S. from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (Political Science, 1985) and a Ph.D. from the University of Texas at Austin (Government, 1993). Contact Erik at [email protected].

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