Outside editorial: Facing slavery's legacy

Posted: Tuesday, April 17, 2007

This editorial appeared in the New York Daily News:

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The scourge that was slavery haunts America. In Albany, N.Y., lawmakers are backing legislation apologizing for New York's role in the country's deepest racial sin, while, in Alabama, Republican presidential front-runner Rudy Giuliani declined to criticize the idea of flying the Confederate battle flag over the state's capitol.

Two symbolic acts: one helpful, the other distressing.

The flag issue came up because, in a "60 Minutes" interview, Sen. John McCain called the banner "a very offensive symbol to many, many Americans." McCain also admitted that in the 2000 presidential race, he had pandered to conservative voters in South Carolina by saying that flying the flag was a states' rights issue.

When asked for his thoughts on the matter, Giuliani went trolling for support among conservatives who may be skittish about his stands on social issues. "We have different sensitivities, and at different times we are going to come to different decisions, and I think that is best left up to the states," Giuliani said.

Different sensitivities, indeed. For millions of Americans descended from men and women who were bought and sold and whipped like animals, the Confederate flag might as well have been a noose. Not to mention the fact that the flag embodies America at its most divided.

Giuliani also avoided taking a stand on whether the descendants of slaves are owed an apology. That, too, he said, was a states' rights issue. Virginia, Maryland and North Carolina have expressed official regret, and a bill with bipartisan support would do the same here.

Slavery was entrenched in New York for two centuries. In the 1740s, one-fifth of the city's inhabitants were slaves and two-fifths of households had at least one.

An apology is a small step toward redemption. It will not improve anyone's lot in life. But symbols do matter.



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