New Jersey’s “Profound Regret” for Slavery Ignores Structural Racism

By Julianne Hing Jan 17, 2008

On January 8, New Jersey’s State Assembly issued a formal apology for the state’s involvement in the slave trade and the lasting effects of slavery on New Jersey residents. The apology is, to be sure, long overdue, but the state deserves recognition as being only the fifth US state, and first northern one, to apologize for slavery. In the resolution’s preamble, the authors acknowledge, "the vestiges of slavery are ever before African-American citizens, from the overt racism of hate groups to the subtle racism encountered when requesting health care, transacting business, buying a home, seeking quality public education and college admission, and enduring pretextual traffic stops and other indignities." Yet when it comes time to actually, well, say sorry, the resolution’s authors only manage to offer their ‘profound regrets’ for the state’s participation in the slave trade and their ‘deepest sympathies’ to the descendents of slaves. New Jersey followed the cue of the Virginia legislature, which changed its own bill’s language to express ‘profound regret’ instead of an explicit ‘apology’ so as to limit the statement’s usefulness in future legal action that might seek reparations. Indeed, the bill also explicitly says, “this resolution shall not be used in, or be the basis of, any kind of litigation.” It seems the apology should have been an uncontroversial statement to issue. And it passed easily, 29-2 with eight abstentions, yet considerable debate arose when lawmakers realized that a sincere apology would involve actually admitting some collective culpability for enduring racial injustice today. The truth is there’s not much to be against when it comes to voting on something like this. States’ benign announcements are purely symbolic and ultimately do nothing to actually address the litany of racial inequalities the NJ state legislature itself laid out — yet another well-meaning, if empty gesture. Still, several Assemblymen had some strong words against apologizing. Joseph Pennacchio of Montville, had this to say. “I think I can make a point that this type of resolution doesn’t have a place in public discourse. I can’t in good conscience apologize on behalf of 215,000 constituents who didn’t have anything to do with slavery.” Assemblyman Michael Patrick Carroll joined Pennacchio in his dissent of the apology. Yet Carroll, a fierce opponent of the bill, called for something wholly different. Carroll said, "If slavery was the price that a modern American’s ancestors had to pay in order to make one an American, one should get down on one’s knees every single day and thank the Lord that such price was paid.”