Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Atonement for Racial Sins

Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Atonement for Racial Sins

Article excerpt

President Bill Clinton is considering an apology to African-Americans for slavery. Jesse Jackson, who risked his life in the 1960s for something sturdier than words, namely abolition of America's racial caste system, offered this assessment of the idea: "It's not dumb, but it's not a good thing. It has no substantive value to it."

Jackson is being kind. At a time when we face real problems of racial balkanization and intergenerational poverty, to create an issue that will be, at best, an empty gesture and, at worst, a totally gratuitous - source of friction between the races is indeed dumb.

Why is an apology bad? Not just because of its emptiness, but because it misconstrues how one rights a wrong. Apology is the the easiest way out of a wrong. Which is why it is now such a practiced part of the repertoire of the public figure of the '90s. Caught sucking the toes of a woman not your wife? Broke every campaign law on the books? No problem. Say you're sorry, then move on. We have to repair to history, to presidents steeped in a deeper sense of morality, to find the full measure of what righting a wrong entails. Abraham Lincoln spoke movingly of the transcendent meaning of the bloody Civil War that saved the Union and freed the slaves. He spoke of the war continuing "if God wills . . . until all the wealth piled by the bondsman's 250 years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword." He saw the agony of the war for what it was: divine justice, retribution, making whole through suffering. For something as serious as the enslavement of one race of human beings by another, apology is emptiness. Undoing requires action - and cost. One reason an apology for slavery issued in the 1990s is such an absurdity is that America already went far beyond apology to atonement - in the 1860s. Three hundred and fifty-thousand Union soldiers (and 250,000 Confederates) died for our sins. And we presume to improve upon their sa crifice with a cheap, cost-free apology? Apology implies a question gone unaddressed. It might thus be needed in a country in which slavery gradually disappeared (as in some Islamic lands) or ended with a slave uprising (as in Haiti). …

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