Cleansing the Soul

Public apologies are all the rage these days, so much so that it’s hard to find a celebrity or newsmaker who hasn’t visited the high priests of the secular confessional, Larry King and Oprah Winfrey, to beg for forgiveness for some petty offense. But the trend is hardly limited to individuals. Entire nations have issued apologies, through their public institutions or representatives. The collective apologies, usually offered for historic misdeeds, are just as easily dismissed or satirized as those offered by celebrities. Curmudgeons delight in asking how far we ought to go in dredging up past injustices. Should non-native Americans apologize to the tribes that were displaced and decimated after 1492? Should the West apologize to the East and South for imperialism? Should the Yankees apologize to major league baseball for exploiting the assets of lesser teams?

If you follow the politics of public apology at all, the above arguments and tone, the smugness and trivialization will sound familiar. I’ve read more than a dozen columns over the years from commentators who believe no good comes from acknowledging past errors. So when Bill Clinton apologized for the internment of Japanese-American citizens during World War II, when Tony Blair apologized for British indifference during the Irish famine of 1845-51, and when Pope John Paul II apologized for centuries of anti-Semitism, professional skeptics wondered what good might come of all this public breast-beating.

A new round of apology-bashing is about to begin, as Southern state legislatures debate the idea of apologizing for slavery. Virginia, birthplace of the slave trade in the United States and home of the Confederate capital, set the tone earlier this year when its legislators approved a formal statement of contrition for the state’s role in enslaving millions of African-Americans. Several legislators in Georgia announced in early March that they will introduce a similar measure, and politicians in Maryland and Missouri may follow suit.


In fact, the movement to apologize for slavery may go federal. A congressman from Tennessee is circulating a bill on Capitol Hill calling for the nation as a whole to apologize for its race-based slave past.

Slavery, the American republic’s original sin, was abolished after the Civil War. But as all Americans surely recognize, the effects of this pernicious crime against humanity remain with us still. Race-baiting has not disappeared; racial discrimination and prejudice still walk hand in hand in many parts of the country.

What’s more, the central role of slavery in the Republic’s foundation remains poorly understood. It is an uncomfortable subject, and not just for white Americans. Not long ago, some African-Americans in Washington objected to a planned exhibit on slavery at the Library of Congress because they believed it would be demeaning by definition.

Sweeping slavery under the historical carpet works well for those who would prefer nice and tidy narratives. Slavery remains unmentioned on many plantation tours in the South, in part because any discussion of slavery inevitably leads to a discussion of race. And that means arguing not only about the past, but about the present as well.

So if Congress and the nation begin debating an apology for slavery, we will be forced to confront issues we would rather ignore. Would an apology put food on the table of a poor black family in the inner city? No. Would it improve the underperforming schools to which so many minority children are consigned? No.

But could it cleanse our national soul and begin an honest discussion of slavery’s legacy not just in the South, but throughout the country? It might. So why not try it?

Some years ago, I might have argued to the contrary by pointing out that my family, like millions of other white Americans, had nothing to do with slavery in the United States. My family was in Ireland until long after slavery was abolished. Other American families were in southern or eastern Europe until the 1880’s or later, long after the American Civil War and passage of the Reconstruction amendments to the Constitution.

Why, then, should white Americans whose ancestors never owned a slave feel obliged to apologize for that crime? It’s a fair question, until you consider the legacy of slavery and the pernicious role that race, the basis of slavery, played in American society long after slavery was abolished.

As Catholics, my family might not have received the warmest of welcomes when they arrived in the United States in the middle of the 19th centurylikewise the Jews, Poles, Italians and other Catholic immigrants of the late 19th century and early 20th century. There were few advocates for those newcomers, other than that sorely misunderstood institution, the urban political machine.

Nevertheless, those immigrants, poor as they were, were better off than native-born blacks. The second-generation immigrant success story is part of American folklore; but that story is for the most part a white story. Generations of blacks born after slavery did not see the same astonishing rise to the middle class and beyond. Racial discrimination, the legacy of race-based bondage, kept blacks poor and apart.

I see that now, after extensive reading about this troubling part of our history. I understand that my immigrant ancestors had advantages denied to the children and grandchildren of slaves. No apology is going to change that. No apology will change history.

But it may change attitudes, and thus, the future.

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