Apology: Is This the Next Step?
In the April-May issue of News & Views, Swain discussed reparations and objections raised to the notion of a national apology for slavery. In this issue, she describes the good that would come from such an apology.
What I envision is a governmental act of apology for slavery, acknowledged in a ceremony that includes black spokespersons offering acceptance and forgiveness.
A national apology need not impute guilt to individual white Americans. Blacks themselves are guilty as well. One rarely discussed issue is the evidence documenting the presence of around 3,000 black American slaveholders. In 1860, one source reported that free blacks held almost 20,000 slaves, and these slaves were not all family members.
Given these facts, it is clear that slavery was a national crime that all our ancestors participated in, including American Indian tribes, such as the Cherokees. I believe that a majority of Americans can be persuaded to support an apology if it is made clear that monetary reparations for slavery are not to follow.
The Power of An Apology
The power of an apology to promote racial healing should not be underestimated. The benefits of apologies have a proven value in social science and legal research.
Vanderbilt University Law Professor Erin O’Hara and Douglas Yarn of Georgia State University have done extensive research on the use of apology in dispute resolution at the trial and pretrial level. These researchers have found that it matters to people when and how a guilty party says “I am sorry for my actions.”
A sincere apology, or lack of one, can make a significant difference in whether people choose to pursue legal remedies in cases where they have been injured by the actions of others. Rather than being simply an empty gesture, an apology can disarm opponents and forestall legal action.
Hatred and resentment are known to be at the root of many health problems. A sincere apology followed by forgiveness has the potential to offer tangible benefits to many embittered African Americans. The immediate benefits would come from releasing anger and resentment towards white Americans. High blood pressure, depression, frustration, and perhaps some cancers can be related to individual attitudes and the stress that follows.
Precedents for Apology
The United States government should offer the apology, and black Americans should accept it. Already, the lack of an apology for such a heinous act as slavery sets the nation apart from other great nations that have expressed public contrition for past misdeeds.
Consider Germany, a nation that has apologized twice for the suffering caused by its actions. Its first national apology came after WWI when Germany was forced to sign the Treaty of Versailles, accepting responsibility for losses and damages to the allied governments and for the payment of reparations.
The second apology occurred after WWII, when it accepted responsibility for perpetuating “the worst crimes against humanity.” The apology was followed with actual reparations of billions of dollars to Israel and billions in separate payments to Holocaust survivors.
More recently, British Prime Minister Tony Blair apologized for the treatment of the Irish during the potato famine, Pope John Paul II apologized for the sins of the Roman Catholic Church, and Australia has apologized to Aborigines.
To its credit, the U.S. government has apologized and paid a token award to Japanese Americans interned in concentration camps during WWII. It also has sought to make amends to American Indians. What, therefore, would be the great harm in acknowledging responsibility for the actions that have harmed black Americans?
Evil, Abominable ... Forgivable?
In one fell swoop, we could forever remove the basis for the accusation that the U.S. government has never apologized for its greatest crime against humanity. Several U.S. presidents, going as far back as John Adams, have referred to slavery as an “evil of colossal magnitude” and an “abominable” action, but none has been willing to apologize on behalf of the nation.
In 1998, President Bill Clinton was roundly criticized for going on what many commentators dubbed an “apology tour” of Africa. Clinton earned the ire of numerous political conservatives for stating, “going back to the time before we were a nation, European Americans received the fruits of the slave trade. And we were wrong in that.”
This past summer , President George W. Bush went on his own African tour but stopped short of apologizing when he visited Goree Island, a holding place known as the point of no return for captured slaves. He condemned slavery as “one of the greatest crimes of history.” Bush stated that, “Small men took on the powers and airs of tyrants and masters. Years of unpunished brutality and bullying and rape produced a dullness and hardness of conscience. Christian men and women became blind to the clearest commands of their faith and added hypocrisy to injustice. My nation’s journey towards justice has not been easy, and it is not over.”
Bush could change history and set the nation on a different course by urging Congress to pass a joint resolution apologizing for slavery. Because he is a born-again Christian and most African Americans are Christians, it becomes more likely that blacks and other Americans would accept his apology.
Most Americans recognize the wrong inherent in the federal government’s forced transportation of American Indians, deportation of Mexican-Americans, and enslavement of blacks. Consequently, they could easily be persuaded that there is nothing wrong and plenty desirable in that same government showing contrition. If a wrong is recognized, is an apology not the next logical step? Bush could improve American race relations by urging Congress to remove from the annals of history the grievance that the nation has not apologized to blacks.
Both Democrats and Republicans have acknowledged serious problems with race relations. But neither party has been capable of formulating a plan of action that could move us beyond a stalemate. Given the recent histories of the two parties, the Republicans would stand to gain the most from such an overture. A carefully worded apology runs little risk of alienating its political base.
The apology would please many of Bush’s Christian supporters. Some denominations--for example, the Southern Baptists--have already issued their own apologies. In the Christian world an unknown number of people believe that black slavery has brought generational curses on the nation. Quoting Proverbs 26:2, a white friend of mine spoke of the need to break the curses caused by the enslavement of my people. “Like a sparrow in its flitting, like a swallow in its flying, so a curse without cause does not alight,” she said.
Although America is rapidly becoming a secular nation, it is not there yet. A majority of Americans still express belief in a common creator and a brotherhood of man. It forms the core of our Judeo-Christian heritage. America has a Christian president who has vowed to make the “promise of America real for everyone.” A national apology could open the door to forgiveness from African Americans and a release of the nation from real or imagined generational curses.
Time to Make Amends
Under no circumstances should the national apology be met with renewed demands for race-based remedies or for monetary reparations. An apology offers minority leaders an opportunity to take the high road as equal partners interested in the collective good, rather than as supplicants constantly seeking new ways to evoke white guilt.
More than it needs another museum on the National Mall, America needs an open dialogue on race and a new cadre of leaders.
Black communities continue to be plagued with high rates of violent crime, single parenthood, illegitimacy, infant mortality, welfare dependency, and infectious diseases. National, state, and local governments have tried with mixed results to address these conditions.
The solution for America does not lie in racial preference programs, the payment of slave reparations, or the establishment of a National Museum. What is needed is for more African Americans to take responsibility for improving their lives and the lives of their kinfolk mired in hopelessness.
America, despite its flaws, is a land of opportunity. The fates of white Americans and black Americans are intertwined with the fates of other groups. We owe it to each other and we owe it to future generations to make amends for our differences.
Carol M. Swain (firstname.lastname@example.org) is professor of law and political science at Vanderbilt University Law School and founding director of the Veritas Institute for racial justice and reconciliation. She and New Coalition President Lee Walker served together on a Philadelphia Society panel in August 2004 addressing “Black History and Conservative Principles.”