A recently amended resolution asking the Virginia General Assembly for a remorseful acknowledgment of slavery has sparked discussion among members of the University of Richmond community about how issues of race still pervade society.
The original resolution, which had asked the assembly to "atone for the involuntary servitude of Africans and call for reconciliation among all Virginians," was modified because opponents believed it would result in reparations, according to a Richmond Times-Dispatch article Tuesday.
Glyn Hughes, director of Common Ground, said: "I think white people have a lot of work to do to ... recognize the way our present is haunted by our past. Opposing the resolution minimizes and dismisses the idea that racial healing and reconciliation is an important endeavor."
Hughes, who taught sociology at Richmond for four years, said there were huge wealth disparities between whites and blacks today "not because of present policies, but because of history." These policies are related to the segregation that existed and the institution of slavery once in place, he added.
Opposing the resolution is "a violent rejection of the fact that history affects the present," Hughes said.
Del. Frank D. Hargrove, an 80-year-old Republican, was among those who strongly opposed the original bill. According to a Charlottesville Daily Progress article, he said: "I personally think that our black citizens should get over it. Nobody can justify slavery today, but it's counterproductive to dwell on that. Political correctness has kind of gotten us into this area."
After hearing the delegate's comments, Virginia's black leaders wanted an apology from the Republican Party and an official censure of Hargrove, according to a Times-Dispatch article.
Political science professor Ellis West, who teaches "Civil Rights and Civil Liberties," said he did not have a problem with Hargrove opposing the resolution, "but what he went on to say was completely unacceptable.
"It would be like asking Jews to get over the Holocaust," he said. "There are certain things that happen in history that you can never get over. The point of the resolution is that black people are still suffering from slavery. If Hargrove doesn't see that, he has problems; he's not looking at the real world."
This issue comes at a time when the state of Virginia is celebrating the 400th anniversary of Jamestown, the first permanent English colony in America. Jamestown played a significant role in the country's history, but it also played a significant role in the Atlantic slave trade by bringing over the first African slaves to the North American colonies in 1619, according to the resolution.
The document describes some of the harsh treatment that slaves faced and the racism that followed slavery's end. It states: "For many African-Americans the scars left behind are unbearable, haunting their psyches and clouding their vision of the future and of America's many attributes.... An apology for centuries of brutal dehumanization and injustices cannot erase the past, but confession of the wrongs can speed racial healing and reconciliation and help African-American and white citizens confront the ghosts of their collective pasts together."
Paul Negrin, a sophomore at Richmond and the chairman of the College Republicans, supports Hargrove.
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"I think Hargrove did a courageous thing to say he didn't think the idea was a necessity," Negrin said. "Why should I be accountable?"
Negrin, who is a political science major and leadership minor, said Hargrove could have phrased his comments differently. "The point that he made was legitimate, but what he said was not something you hear everyday," he said.
Negrin said he does not condone slavery and that he looks at every human as though they are equal, but added, "To apologize for the color of my own [skin] would be saying I'm inferior myself."
He said the issue was both a racial and a generational one, and that he should not have to apologize for things that were done three or four generations ago.
"We don't like the idea [of slavery] anymore, and we just have to move on," Negrin said. By leaving the issue alone, he said, there would be more cooperation and appreciation between the black and white populations, and tensions would mend faster.
"Our acknowledgment has happened already in that there's no state-sponsored segregation," he said.
West said that the reason so many people were opposing the resolution was because of the words that were chosen.
The press had presented the issue as though the General Assembly was being asked to apologize, West said. People were objecting to the idea that they can and should apologize for something done a long time ago.
The original resolution had asked the assembly to "atone for" slavery, and by definition, atone means "to make amends" or "to reconcile."
Making amends is saying that slavery was wrong and that you're trying to correct its harmful consequences, West said.
It would have been received differently, he said, "if proponents of the resolution were to make it clear that they're not literally calling for an apology, but an acknowledgment."
Poor word choice can result in major public controversy, West said. People do not like to apologize because they think that once they apologize, they will be obligated to show that their apology is genuine by providing things such as reparations for descendants of slaves.
To eliminate this ambiguity, the wording of the resolution was changed. The word "atone" was replaced with "hereby acknowledge with contrition."
Sen. Henry Marsh III, the chief sponsor of the resolution in the senate, said the words were changed to clarify its meaning, according to a Times-Dispatch article.
As an alternative to the original resolution, on Jan. 22, Hargrove suggested that Virginians celebrate Juneteenth, the June 19 observance of the end of slavery, according to a Times-Dispatch article.
"It is better and much more appropriate to celebrate the day that black Americans were set free from the bondage of slavery than it is to apologize for its evils," Negrin said in support of Hargrove's suggestion.
Hughes also said it was great to celebrate the end of slavery.
"I also think it's important to recognize that the history of slavery continues to shape our present," he said. "In the case of Hargrove's suggestion.
Hughes also said it was great to celebrate the end of slavery.
"I also think it's important to recognize that the history of slavery continues to shape our present," he said. "In the case of Hargrove's support, it seems more a way of denying that slavery is relevant to our present"
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