On the day set aside to celebrate Juneteenth last week, the Charleston City Council formally apologized for the city’s role in the slave trade, its support of slavery and for enforcing Jim Crow-era laws.
For hundreds of years, the city was the entry point for at least 100,000 slaves who were captured from West Africa and shipped into the United States.
Given how far we’ve come, it’s hard to imagine such a time ever existed and harder still to think it was sanctioned by law, that the laws of the nation provided for segregation and enforced fugitive slave laws.
Charleston should be congratulated but it’s 2018. If you’re thinking better late than never, I get it.
What you might find ironic is the apology fell on June 19, which marks the day, more than two years after the Emancipation Proclamation was signed, that enslaved people in Texas learned that the Civil War had ended and they were free. It also happened to take place two days after the third anniversary of the mass murder at Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, when the pastor, Clementa Pinckney, and eight black parishioners were shot and killed by a self-described white supremacist.
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Charleston, S.C., now joins a long list of cities and states that have apologized for their participation in the slave trade, including Alabama, Virginia, Florida, North Carolina, Annapolis, Md., and New Jersey.
This latest apology, according to Patricia Williams Lessane, a cultural anthropologist at the College of Charleston and the executive director of the College of Charleston's Avery Research Center for African American History and Culture, was nearly a year in the making.
But it was more than just an apology. Rather the resolution calls for the creation of an office of racial reconciliation, which would help uncover racial disparities in the community and serve people who feel they’re being discriminated against. It also plans to memorialize unmarked graves of African-Americans and enslaved Africans, improve public education, and implement policies that encourage businesses to strive for racial equality in health care, housing and wages.
Still, some believe city leaders didn’t go far enough.
Anthony Greene, an associate professor of African-American Studies and sociology at the College of Charleston, called the apology symbolic and pointed to the double-digit disparities between whites and blacks when it comes to housing, employment, imprisonment and other measures of well-being.
“In some instances, these disparities reach 50 percent,” Greene said. “Until these disparities are addressed and real plans of actions are put in place, the apology will remain emblematic.”
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Lessane, who is a member of the Social Justice Racial Equity Collaborative — the group that drafted the resolution and was there to witness the passing of the resolution, agreed.
“My hope is that we don’t find ourselves mired in another year of conversations,” she said. “Sadly, that seems to be much of what has transpired since Mother Emanuel.”
In other words, talk is good, but our actions are what really count.
Lessane, who last November co-authored a racial disparities report on Charleston County, said the findings in the report paint a bleak picture of the obstacles black residents face daily, making it virtually impossible to break free of cycles of poverty, criminalization, and incarceration.
They found among other things, that while unemployment rates in Charleston County have declined since 2008, the black unemployment rate remains more than double the white unemployment rate; 56 percent of the black population has low or no access to healthy foods; as recently as 2016, black Charleston County residents were booked into Charleston County Jail 2.3 times as often as white residents; black students are disproportionately stuck in low-performing, under-resourced schools and face more out-of-school suspensions and expulsions.
Lessane said the city, county or school board has yet to adopt any of the recommendations for change laid out in the report.
“Given the horror of what happened at Mother Emanuel in 2015 and this second nadir we are witnessing, I can understand why the resolution passed,” Lessane said. “Black Charlestonians built this city and the wealth that built the South, yet are still shackled to the socioeconomic vestiges of slavery.”
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Greene said the city’s apology for slavery underlines some level of hypocrisy similar to ongoing events that have gained national attention. On one hand, the apology symbolizes efforts to recognize and perhaps reconcile with its own history, yet on the other hand, Charleston, as well as throughout South Carolina, has made sure its Confederate monuments, relics of the enslavement era, are not removed.
They both point to recent news of immigrant children held in cages as evidence of lingering injustices.
Pointing to the hypocrisy of Trump supporters is an easy task, Greene said. But the lack of outrage, or simply the silence of many white liberals regarding racial and social injustices, often reinforces complicity.
“To quote Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.,” he said, “he who passively accepts evil is as much involved in it as he who helps to perpetrate it. He who accepts evil without protesting against it is really cooperating with it.”
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Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com