It was that especially appalling crime in Texas this month that brought up the question of group apologies. As a white guy, I said, I felt some impulse to tell black Americans how deeply I regretted that those three white men had dragged a black man to so hideous a death earlier.
"Not me," my interlocutor said. "Sure it's a terrible crime. But it has nothing to do with me. Why should I apologize for something I didn't do? I don't believe in collective guilt."
"I don't either, but still... Do you mean to say that if you were watching the news report of this crime with a black co-worker, it would feel no different for you than if they reported some similar atrocity from, say, India, committed by three Hindus against a Muslim?"
"A crime is no more mine just because the perpetrators, like me, were white Americans," he answered. "And it doesn't make sense for me to apologize for slavery either, or for the land being stolen from the Indians. My people weren't even over here yet."
"Neither were mine," I replied, "but still, when I've been around Native Americans, it's been my sense that they still see me as if my ancestors had come to Plymouth Rock instead of to Ellis Island. And I feel like apologizing for the lousy treatment they've had all these centuries."
"If they lump everyone with white skin together, that's their racism. I'm still not going to apologize for what other people did."
"Not ever? Here, how about this. What if you're at a restaurant with a group. And what if another guy in your group - someone you didn't even know, maybe a friend of a friend - starts being abusive toward the waitress by humiliating her, complaining loudly, sending things back to the kitchen. You see that it bothers her, and she can't wait to be finished with serving your party. Wouldn't you feel like apologizing to her, at least privately, for the behavior of the guy in your group?"
He seemed to hesitate, so I continued: "I mean, wouldn't it feel different than if you were witnessing this abusiveness from another table? And here's what I think the difference is: In the waitress's eyes, because the jerk is in your party, you're connected with the offender. Not that you're guilty, but that the injured party sees you as part of what caused the injury. Right?"
"Yes," he said, after thinking a bit, "It's not that I did anything wrong, but that the person who was hurt connects me with the wrong that was done to her. So I'd feel like saying something conciliatory because I'd sense that I was in a position to help make things right."
"Right. It's not about collective guilt, but about the collective work of healing. The kind of healing that's needed when the injuries are seen as done not just between individuals but between representatives of groups. Like the racial murder in Texas."
"And another thing occurs to me," the fellow said. "I realize that I take pride in being part of some 'we's' when they do great things. Like my pride as an American in "our" establishing the Constitution, winning World War II, and putting a man on the moon - even though I myself did none of the things. So I guess it doesn't make sense for me to be so adamant, when it comes to the evils done by some 'we' I'm part of, that those crimes of others have nothing to do with me.
"Good point," I agreed. "Don't want to be like those fans who say 'We won' when their favorite team does well, but 'They blew it' when the team stumbles."
* Andrew Bard Schmookler is a writer living in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley. More of his ideas can be found at his website at www.worldwide-interads.com/schmookler/
As a white guy, I felt an impulse to tell blacks how deeply I regretted the Texas slaying of a black man.