About That Slavery Thing
As we all know by now, our state Senate just blocked a resolution that would have apologized for our state’s role in slavery. I’ve got a few things to say about it.
To start, there are valid reasons to oppose the resolution; this is not one of them:
In an emotional exchange with black lawmakers, a Republican took the heat Thursday for again blocking the Alabama Senate’s consideration of a resolution calling for the state to apologize for slavery.
Sen. Charles Bishop of Jasper had the resolution sent to a committee for the second straight day, saying he feared that the wording could lead to reparation lawsuits.
Not gonna happen.
As a practical matter, if you think any judge anywhere in Alabama would ever consider for even a second allowing a lawsuit for reparations, well, you’re nuts.
Besides, nothing in the wording of the resolution even hints at establishing a legal cause of action:
BE IT RESOLVED BY THE LEGISLATURE OF ALABAMA, BOTH HOUSES THEREOF CONCURRING, That we express our profound regret as a state which participated in the process of slavery, that we further atone for the involuntary servitude of Africans, and that we call for reconciliation among all Alabamians.
Courts don’t litely infer the creation of legal causes of action. The legislature has to be fairly explicit about it. I don’t see it here.
Furthermore sovereign immunity would almost certainly bar any lawsuit against the state. That is, both Alabama’s constitution (Section 14) and the US constitution (the Eleventh Amendment) prohibit lawsuits against the state. I think sovereign immunity is a contemptable doctrine – what other employee is immune from penalties imposed by its employer? – but there it is.
Also a resolution has no legal significance. That is, the resolution would not pave the way for lawsits even if it said “Resolved, that anyone who has slave anscestors can sue Charles Bishop for punitive damages.”
Finally, even if it could and did create a cause of action, there would be innumerable problems at trial. Standing, for one; all the folks who were directly harmed are dead. Damages for another; it’s going to be tough to offer proof that something that ended over a century ago has caused concrete harm to a person living today.
In short, Bishop’s rational is so ridiculous that he is either: 1) an idiot, or 2) putting up a smokescreen.
There’s another rationale that I think is dubious, the “Why are we wasting time on resolutions” argument. If you oppose all resolutions, then this argument is valid. But given the amount of resolutions the legislature passes every year, including this year, I’m going to question the motives of someone who singles out this resolution as a waste of time. Senator Bishop, for example, has, according to ALISON, co-sponsored 11 resolutions this session. Among them, SJR 21:
BE IT RESOLVED BY THE LEGISLATURE OF ALABAMA, BOTH HOUSES THEREOF CONCURRING, That we are pleased to commend Carlile’s Barbecue for 52 years of exemplary food, service, and laughter, and by copy of this resolution, we extend best wishes to the owners, staff, and patrons who have treasured this special Birmingham landmark.
Don’t misread me, Carlile’s is worthy of all praise. But anyone who voted for this resolution is barred from ever again arguing that any other resolution is a waste of time.
By contrast here’s an argument against the resolution that is pretty much flat out stupid: “State X in the North allowed slavery. State X has not apologized. Therefore, Alabama ought not apologize.” I might, might, be sympathetic to that argument if State X was the one urging us to apologize. Even then, I don’t think State X’s hypocrisy has anything whatsoever to do with whether the apology is a good idea. But that is not even the case. There are no outside agitators; our own freakin’ legislature is debating the issue.
The final argument with which I am familiar is this one:
“I had nothing to do with those sad, tragic days,” [Senator] Bishop said. “I wish I could change the history of those days in this country. But should I be punished for it, my kids or my grandkids? I don’t think so.”
The simple response is that he is not being punished for it; we’re simply offering an apology.
The more complicated issue is why a person alive today should apologize for something that happened a century and a half ago. I think the answer is that you and I as individuals are not apologizing for our actions; we are apologizing for Alabama’s actions. That Alabama exists as an independent entity ought not shock anyone in this state. I mean, how many times have you heard cries about the “rights” of Alabama? Or the “sovereignty” of Alabama? But an entity like a State can only act through the people who comprise it. That’s why the resolution says we apologize as a state. I’m not apologizing for anything I did, I’m apologzing on behalf of what the state did.
And I have no problem with that. Slavery was awful. Alabama allowed it, protected it, and fought a war hoping to preserve it. Alabama needs to apologize, and the only way Alabama can apologize is through the words and actions of her people.