America Struggles with Issue of Race Slavery Apology: Meaningful Contrition or Cynical Politics?

By Nicole Gaouette, writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, June 2, 1997 | Go to article overview

America Struggles with Issue of Race Slavery Apology: Meaningful Contrition or Cynical Politics?


Nicole Gaouette, writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


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.

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. "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. …

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