The New York State Legislature is considering one bill that would have the state formally apologize for its role in slavery and another that would study and recommend remedies for the descendants of slaves.
An Assembly member who represents a district in Harlem, Keith Wright, has introduced the bill in which New York would apologize for slavery. State Senator Dale Volker, a Republican who represents a district in western New York, sponsored a companion apology bill in the Senate on March 5. Mr. Volker told The New York Sun that he expected the bill would get strong bipartisan support.
Both apology bills are technically amendments to Chapter 137 of the laws of 1817 relating to slaves and servants ó laws that imposed penalties on those who harbored runaway slaves.
Mr. Wright said slavery was the "bedrock" and "foundation" of why New York is a financial capital. "It's New York's dirty little secret," he said. The bill would also establish June 19 as a day commemorating those who were enslaved.
"If Don Imus can apologize, I think New York State could apologize," Mr. Wright said, referring to the radio talk show host who has apologized for demeaning remarks about the Rutgers women's basketball team.
An assemblyman whose district includes Clinton Hill, Fort Greene, and Bedford-Stuyvesant in Brooklyn, Hakeem Jeffries, likewise sponsored a bill in February to establish a commission to study reparations for slavery.
Both bills are currently under consideration by the governmental operations committee in the Assembly. A spokeswoman for the governor's office said that once either bill passes both houses, the governor would review the legislation and act accordingly. The office of the speaker of the Assembly, Sheldon Silver, told The New York Sun it was their policy to wait until bills have gone through the committee process before commenting.
Maryland and Virginia have expressed "profound regret" about their roles in slavery. Mr. Jeffries said he found those examples encouraging. He also said it would be "tough" to get a bill for a reparations commission passed this year, but hopes its introduction in this state with "a great progressive tradition" will generate discussion and debate to gain support for passage in the near future. (Mr. Jeffries' predecessor, Roger Green, had introduced a previous bill.)
The Jeffries bill would also revise the state's civil laws to make it possible for the heir of a person enslaved in New York before December 31, 1827, to sue to recover damages for unpaid labor.
Regarding a state apology for slavery, Guillermo Martinez, who is the legislative director for Assemblyman Peter Rivera, one of the sponsors of Mr. Wright's bill, said there were a lot of receptive ears in the Assembly.
If the subject of apologies or reparations has renewed interest, why now? A professor of sociology at the CUNY Graduate Center, John Torpey, said the issue of reparations "fell off the map" after the attacks of September 11, 2001. Reparations has a long history, though, he said, going back to "40 acres and a mule," a phrase associated with payment that was to be awarded to former slaves after the Civil War.
Slavery existed in New York until 1827. The subject of New York's role in slavery was given enhanced visibility by a recent two-part exhibition at the New-York Historical Society.
The author of "Making Whole What Has Been Smashed: On Reparations Politics" (Harvard), Mr. Torpey said reparations were not particularly likely to pass, but said they are one way of thinking about the "ongoing issue of racial inequality" in America.
A former mayor, Edward Koch, told the Sun he had no objection to a state or federal apology for historical tragedies such as slavery but said reparations for slavery were not feasible.
An assemblyman who represents a district in the Bronx, Josť Rivera, one of the sponsors for the bill for an apology, said today America is a great nation but should not shy away from acknowledging mistakes made in the past. He said the bill was movement in the right direction and hoped it will spur dialogue.
A fellow at the Manhattan Institute, Heather Mac Donald, said slavery was truly an awful crime but that the people doing the apologizing were not the ones responsible for it. An apology for actions that no one alive today either perpetrated or suffered, she said, was at best a useless diversion from the problems of black America and at worst a contributor to those problems.
Ms. Mac Donald said the reparations bill is a foolish enterprise and a "clear shakedown of businesses." She said that given the already hostile tax and regulatory environment in New York State for businesses, a law starting a commission to investigate reparations would be sending a further bad signal that New York is a business-hostile environment.
She said it was also unclear who should be the beneficiaries of reparations.
The Jeffries bill charges the commission with recommending "genealogical and historical methodologies to confirm that a claimant is an heir of an enslaved person," but also says, "in recommending methodologies the commission shall acknowledge and factor in the historical experiences which prevent the overwhelming majority of people of African descent from knowing, learning, or tracing their lineage to enslaved ancestors."
Not just states have been examining their past connection to slavery. A committee at Brown University last year recommended that the university start a study center of slavery, erect a memorial, and step up minority recruitment in response to the wrong of slavery in its history. In 2005, the U.S. Senate apologized for not passing anti-lynching legislation.
Regarding New York acknowledging its role in slavery, Mr. Wright, a graduate of Rutgers Law School, said it was an adage that "in order to cure cancer, you must expose cancer."
Both bills cite as part of their justifications findings of the U.N.-sponsored "World Conference Against Racism" held at Durban, South Africa, a conference that the Secretary of State Powell pulled out of when it became clear the event was designed as a forum for Israel-bashing.