What if Congress apologized for slavery and nobody cared?
The Senate late last week followed the House in voting to apologize for slavery and the Jim Crow segregation that followed it.
In other words, it only took almost 150 years and the election of an African-American who is not descended from slavery to move Congress to apologize for slavery.
Thanks, senators, but you're a little late. As "senior black correspondent" Larry Wilmore quipped on The Daily Show: "I thought Obama's election was our apology."
He was joking, but not by much. After all, part of the appeal of President Barack Obama's victory was its symbolic message of post-racial optimism. The slavery apology issue erupts at a convenient time for Congress but as an inconvenient distraction for Mr. Obama.
Talk of slavery apologies leads to the more volatile dollars-and-sense issue of monetary reparations, which counters Mr. Obama's come-together optimism with a taint of old-school "Where's mine?" political spoils.
To ease its passage, the Senate resolution contains a significant escape clause: It is not to serve as a basis for any lawsuit against the United States. That means the measure did not have to address the racially divisive issue of whether we, the descendants of American slavery, are owed any financial reparations.
Minus that thorny issue, the resolution passed quickly. With no political or monetary cost attached, opposition to slavery is so easy even a bipartisan coalition of senators can do it, especially by a voice vote.
The House apology did not contain a no-reparations clause like the Senate version. That's led to a talk of a reconsideration of the measure in the House to conform the resolution to the Senate version.
Members of the Congressional Black Caucus oppose the change. That could lead to an awkward situation of black members of Congress opposing a slavery apology. That's what you get for trying to score good feelings on the cheap.
Since the resolution does not require the president's signature, each house of Congress probably would be best off passing its own version. The senators and congressmen can pose for pictures, smile and quietly forget about their resolutions as they move on to issues that are affecting people's lives today - like jobs, the financial markets, health care, global warming and, oh, yes, two overseas wars.
The reparations issue is becoming more trouble than it is worth, partly because most of my fellow descendants of slavery don't have much agreement on what our reparations ought to be.
Harvard law Professor Charles Ogletree, a consultant for the Senate resolution, has helped waged successful lawsuits aimed at insurance companies, universities and others who profited from slavery. The courts are a better recourse than Congress when you have specific offenders and the paperwork to back up your case. But most of slavery's legacy is not so conveniently documented.
This long after the offense, it is not easy to assess damages. The original victims of slavery are long dead. With each passing year, it is more difficult to trace whose descendants might be owed what. "Forty acres and a mule," the suggestion offered orally but never legally at the end of the Civil War, doesn't mean what it used to.
Reparations for segregation are no less problematic. Some of us are old enough to remember legal segregation of schools, jobs, housing, hotels, public restrooms and drinking fountains. But how do you put a price on that?
Mr. Obama's got the right idea. The damage of slavery and segregation can best be undone by all Americans keeping our promises to the next generations. We need to help every child to have access to decent schools, housing and nutrition - regardless of race, creed or ancestral conditions of servitude.
Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. His e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.