Share this story
Close X
Switch to Desktop Site

America Struggles With Issue of Race

Slavery apology: meaningful contrition or cynical politics?

Lately, it seems that being a politician means always having to say you're sorry.

Americans have seen the Energy Department take the blame for human-radiation experiments, President Clinton apologize to unwitting participants of the Tuskegee syphilis study, and the Florida legislature express remorse for whites' 1923 devastation of black homes and families in Rosewood.

About these ads

The "politics of contrition" may be fitting for a society steeped in the culture of weepy talk-show confessions. But Washington's proposal to issue a formal apology for slavery is provoking a nationwide debate over the risks and limitations of public penitence.

It involves complicated assumptions about guilt and repentance, and raises questions about whether the political mea culpa has been overused and devalued. If not handled well, analysts warn, an apology could deepen America's greatest and most enduring division: race.

Americans Debate Many Faces of Apology

"Apologies can be dangerous," says Aaron Lazare, a psychiatry professor at the University of Massachusetts medical school. "Properly given, they have the power to start reconciliation, but [Mr. Clinton] can run the danger of trivializing this if he doesn't do it properly. Since slavery is such an enormous thing, it requires an enormous apology. How do you do that?"

Rep. Tony Hall, a Democrat from Ohio, who is white and backing a bill in Congress expressing remorse for what has been called America's "all-commanding question," says an apology is needed before healing is possible.

"All Americans share this shameful part of our heritage, and we all suffer the consequences," he says. "Maybe we should start where it started and say sorry."

Few think it will be easy. "Slavery is the one compelling blot on the American psyche," says Kathleen Hall Jamieson, a University of Pennsylvania communications professor.

About these ads

"It precipitated the only moment our country fought against itself. Can someone fashion an apology that would help us revisit that past and move beyond it?"

International precedent suggests the US can certainly try: Germany has expressed deep remorse about the Holocaust, British Prime Minister Tony Blair recently apologized for Britain's failure to respond to the Irish potato famine, and South African leader F.W. DeKlerk formally apologized for apartheid.

When properly expressed, remorse can have real power. But there are risks too, says Dr. Lazare, who is writing a book on the psychology of apology. An apology could alienate blacks, if it sounds like a dismissal; it could also upset other groups who feel they deserve one as well.

Ms. Jamieson adds the concern that it could look like a "cheap way of dealing with this instead of feeding people."

In a confessional age, does saying sorry carry any weight? "I think we're becoming desensitized," says Los Angeles psychologist Robert Butterworth. "It used to be that an apology was linked with guilt, but somewhere along the line, it's almost as if the apology itself has become the act of contrition."

It has also become a preemptive strike for those looking to defuse awkward situations: To help stanch scandal and salvage his ambitions for the governorship, Massachusetts Rep. Joseph Kennedy (D) apologized for his brother's alleged affair with a teenager.

On the issue of race, some critics are already arguing that words are worth little. "A simple apology, without anything attached to it, seems a little hollow to me," says Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. (D) of Illinois, who dismisses Mr. Hall's proposal as "contrition without content."

The issue of reparations comes up often in reference to the 1990 redress to Japanese-Americans interned in US camps during World War II. Each surviving internee was given $20,000. "Japanese-Americans had a price tag attached to their apology," says Roger Daniels, a University of Cincinnati history professor and an adviser on that apology. "But the numbers [of people] involved were finite. This is very different."

The idea of reparation for blacks has been around since the 1866 Congress passed a bill to give former slaves 40 acres and a mule. President Andrew Johnson vetoed the measure.

More recently, Rep. John Conyers (D) of Michigan has tried unsuccessfully to introduce a reparations bill.

Reparation is essential to the apology process, Lazare says, but it doesn't have to be financial. "It can be an expression of 'what can I do for you?' " One suggestion he makes is that school textbooks include a detailed explanation of slavery so elementary school students can learn more about it.

But the apology proposal has also raised a few outright objections. Some conservatives have suggested that society today doesn't have to pay - or apologize - for something done by others in the past.

It's precisely this viewpoint that Christopher Edley, a Harvard University law professor and Clinton adviser on race, cites when he says he doesn't think the president should apologize.

"Apology isn't the issue; understanding is the issue," he says. "The power of an apology is that it reflects a moral understanding."

He adds that the assumptions about black inferiority that justified slavery are still evident in many modern attitudes about race. "So an apology would be cynical and symbolic, because it would not reflect a true moral understanding by the American people as a whole."

Instead, Mr. Edley says, Clinton "has to explain why now is not the time [to apologize] and use it as ... a teaching opportunity."

Clinton, who has just launched a year-long race initiative, has said he wouldn't back reparations but would consider an apology.

He's one of the few presidents who could pull it off, Jamieson says. "We need it to be someone from the South," she says. "It would be arrogant for a Northerner to do. It would just open new wounds."

An apology would commit the president and the country to reexamining race and race relations, Lazare says.

"Repentance commits you to a new beginning, to trying again," he says. "We don't have to beat our breasts, but just say we were wrong, we're moral people, and we'll try to do better."

Follow Stories Like This
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.