Diversity and Public Memory: The Politics of Apologizing for Slavery in the United States

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Diversity finds only uneasy expression in public memory, which is predominantly about concealing difference and decreasing conflict. On June 12, 1997 Tony P. Hall, a Democratic congressman from Ohio, proposed that the U.S. government make an official apology to African Americans for the abuse “their ancestors suffered as slaves under the Constitution and laws of the United States until 1865” (House Concurrent Resolution 96, 12 June 1997). Hall’s proposal generated a torrent of public discourse and conflict. Hall’s office received nearly two thousand letters and calls. Some supported the idea, but a majority of the responses ranged from disagreement to blatantly racist condemnations of Hall as a Congressional representative. Hall’s proposal was eventually defeated. He clearly violated the expectations for conventional public memory. This essay sheds light on the problems of race and diversity in America by examining the U.S. government’s refusal to remember and apologize for America’s slave past. It provides a hermeneutic analysis of the arguments both for and against Hall’s proposal. The analysis is contextualized by an exploration of public discourse concerning racial politics during the late 1990s. The essay addresses (1) the rhetorical strategies used both to support Hall’s proposal and to defeat it, (2) the problems that remembering slavery present to contemporary America, (3) how the idea of collective responsibility clashes with American individualism, and (4) what impact remembering and apologizing for slavery would have on the quality of racial relationships in America.


Keywords: Race, Diversity, Public Memory, Slavery, Apology
Stream: Race and Racism
Presentation Type: Paper Presentation in English
Paper: A paper has not yet been submitted.


Dr. G. Mitchell Reyes

Assistant Professor, Department of Communication, Lewis and Clark College
Portland, Oregon, USA

I focus my research in two general areas: The first falls into a category called public memory studies, which is the study of how groups, institutions, and nations remember certain events or people. Examples include how cultures remember the Holocaust, WWII, or Vietnam. The second focus is on the political impact of science and mathematics. Since obtaining my bachelors degree in mathematics at Willamette University, I have written and published research in the history and philosophy of mathematics. Here I am especially interested in how math and science, which are often thought to operate outside the realm of politics, become political. I’ve done research, for example, on the history of the Calculus and the invention of infinitesimals. In this area of study I’m interested in understanding mathematics as a filter for the world that has serious implications for how we understand ourselves and our environment.

Ref: D08P0258