Saturday, March 29, 2008

All Apologies

Florida recently apologized to black people for slavery. This raised a debate about whether the United States as a whole should formally apologize as well.

Are they kidding?

Look, slavery is an awful part of America's past. But nobody tries to deny it. Any eighth-grade social studies student will tell you that it's hardly been forgotten, and reparations are still given to this day to black Americans whose ancestors were enslaved. That said, I think it's a little late for a formal apology.

It almost seems insulting. It's certainly unnecessary. "Hey blacks, sorry about the whole slavery thing. We just passed this useless piece of legislation though, so the wounds should all be healed. Now we're going on vacation; have fun with the housing crisis." Nobody--at least, nobody in our government, or anywhere besides the most backwater regions of the South--thinks slavery was a good thing, but does the government really have to apologize to hammer home that message?

I'm not a fan of formal apologies anyway. When Germany apologized to the Jews about the Holocaust, I, well...didn't really care, and saw it as a little patronizing. Hitler was responsible, not the current German government. (And the Holocaust was a lot more recent than America's slavery, anyway.) Just like perhaps our ancestors were responsible for slavery, not us. Sending a formal apology is just a diplomatic gesture intended to appease a racial segment of our population; I think it would be much more fruitful to spend time addressing the current racism in our society and working to make that go away than to apologize for something that happened over a hundred years ago, something that we all recognize as shameful, something we have passed laws about to make sure it never happens again.



Alex said...

I think an apology is a tad ridiculous. When it comes down to it, the people who would even deserve apologies are long past dead. While it's insulting to apologize, it's more insulting that some people still think that they are owed an apology. We're different generations. It's sad that we hold on to this so much--it really prevents us from going on any further.

Marshall said...

This obsession with slavery 150 years ago when there is still slavery going on on this planet (and in this country) is absurd.

Furthermore it opens up discussion again for "reparations", an idea I dont need to tell you is fucking ridiculous. These state and national governments think they are heading that off with this nonsense, but they're actually opening the door.

James said...

To be honest, I think there's something a bit odd about these objections to an apology for slavery.

Legislatures pass resolutions apologizing, expressing regret, acknowledging, commemorating, and so forth all the time. Why, with this particular issue, would you object strongly on the grounds that an apology is "unnecessary" and "a little late"? This hardly seems different from much legislative business.

I've also never heard about any other apology or commemoration being objected to because no one tries to "deny" or "forget" the issue. In fact, most such issues are precisely ones that people haven't forgotten about.

Hitler was responsible, not the current German government

True. But I suspect the German government was trying to apologize for the role of Germany and the German government, not Hitler, in the crimes of the Nazis.

Certainly the Florida legislature, and the half-dozen other states which have apologized for slavery in the last year, and the proposals before the U.S. Congress, all involve apologies for the role of the state legislature or government.

In a very real sense, these are the same institutions which endorsed and benefited from slavery. We often speak about past successes in this country as if our state, country, or government today were connected with the actions of those institutions in the past, when different people were alive; shouldn't we also have them take responsibility for their less-than-noble actions in the past?

Sending a formal apology is just a diplomatic gesture intended to appease a racial segment of our population

That may well be. In which case, the sentiment is still appropriate, and the harm minimal. And you don't seem to be considering the many blacks who say they look forward to such apologies, as a sign that Americans are finally acknowledging the full weight of the past and rejecting those aspects of the past without ambiguity.