UN Conference on Racism

It's Hard to Say, I'm Sorry

The UN World Conference Against Racism in Durban, South Africa, ended after nine days of heated debate, and resolved two of its most controversial issues - Israel and the legacy of African slavery.

Regarding the recent violence in Israel, the WCAR negotiated an agreement that expressed concern over the "plight of the Palestinians." This declaration barely squeaked by after heavy opposition from Arab countries who wanted to condemn Israel as a "racist state."

Pre-conference efforts to label Israel as racist are what motivated Secretary of State Colin Powell not to attend. The Arab drive to hammer through the racist edict prompted the U.S. delegation to walk out of the conference early.

Meanwhile, African countries also pushed through a formal statement, negotiated by the European Union, that condemns slave trade as a crime against humanity, and asserts that states " have a moral obligation" to stop and reverse its effects. It also notes some countries have apologized and paid reparations.

Sometimes one has to wonder what the U.S. Department of State is thinking. How smart is it politically to walk out of a major international conference that addresses the most tenuous national and race relations among countries? Granted the United States has sworn by its protection for Israel, but it should not be at the price of turning its back on the world - and its host of difficult issues.

The action looks even more ridiculous when you realize the resolution that the WCAR edged through isn't offensive. Nowhere is there any statement that identifies Israel as "racist" - only a declaration of tolerance and an understanding that both sides in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict have suffered as well as caused suffering.

Analyzing its language, the resolution is a compromise that reflects both sides of the issue. While not blaming anyone, recognition of the "plight of the Palestinians" is significant. Though the United States' defense of Israel is important, if you look past the headlines, you have to wonder not just what makes Palestinians into suicide bombers, but what also makes 90 percent of their ethnic population support them.

But while Israel was, at least publicly, the overriding reason for the U.S. walkout, another factor promoted America's amazing display of international apathy. The United States explicitly rejected any kind of resolution mentioning any talk of an apology for slavery.

So how embarrassing is it now that we get the Europeans to apologize for us? Granted the European nations played a big role in fostering chattel slavery to North and South America. But the U.S. summit departure makes quite a statement - it says that we aren't responsible for slavery - and that we won't acknowledge slavery as a crime.

The United States' main motivation for rejecting any sort of slavery apology involves the potential for a whirlwind of lawsuits claiming reparations. While this is an entirely different issue, the suggestion made nobly by African-Americans at the conference is that it take the form of a scholarship.

Either way, it's wrong for the United States to persevere for almost 150 years without an apology. While many argue that an apology is meaningless since no one in the United States today was a slave or even a slave owner, the apology is directed towards the descendants of slavery on behalf of our country - and the U.S. government that allowed the institution to exist.

While the tangible chains and shackles have long since faded, the legacy of slavery persists in the form of poverty, discrimination and racism.

In Germany, they've constructed a new Holocaust museum. The Washington mall also has one but oddly enough, the Smithsonian dedicates nothing to the country's own crime. But you don't have to walk too far outside downtown D.C. to see what the vestiges of slavery have wrought.

Some say dwelling on the past opens new wounds that block the path to unity. The easy counter argument is that ignoring it allows the evils to recur. Ignoring this problem obviously won't make it go away, but it does allow it to remain an issue, as it has since 1865. For now, blacks in the United States still have to wait, even if the rest of the world has moved on.