How to Apologize for Slavery

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If America were ever to apologize for slavery, Benin’s approach would be the most logical to follow. Not only does the model appeal to America’s deeply ingrained religious sensibilities, but it would cost taxpayers virtually nothing. As a result, such an endeavor might prove personally rewarding for citizens and politically palatable because it wouldn’t come across as a race-based entitlement. Most importantly, it would be a confession of wrong in service to a higher belief, and thus devoid of the normal interpersonal implications that attend apologies. Research has shown, as psychology professor Cindi May wrote in Scientific American, that “those who refuse to express remorse maintain a greater sense of control and feel better about themselves than those who take no action after making a mistake.”

Yet embracing the Benin method would require a political impetus for an apology to occur at all. A recent YouGov poll shows that 54 percent of Americans do not support a formal government apology for slavery, and another 18 percent are unsure. Further, 68 percent do not support reparations payments to descendants of slaves, and 57 percent don’t even support reparations in the form of education or job-training. For many Americans, like many Nigerians, the country is facing more pressing concerns than the ills of slavery or racism. Besides, as some thinking goes, voting in a black president twice must count for something.

Slavery itself did not end because of U.S. moral obligation or Lincoln’s sense of guilt, but because a large swath of the country felt it was in the nation’s strategic, and eventually military, interest to emancipate black people. It is not a coincidence that America’s chief European peers and rivals abolished slavery decades before the Civil War. Likewise, even Western nations’ prohibition on international slave-trading was a product of political and economic calculus, not born of moral imperative.

Similarly, segregation was not outlawed because the U.S. suddenly felt black people were equals, but because integration was in the national interest. During World War II, Germany dropped leaflets on black American troops reminding them that they were fighting for a country that subjugated them. Japan established “Negro propaganda operations” that sought to damage America’s international reputation, destabilize the U.S. by deepening its racial divide, and dissuade black soldiers and sailors from fighting in World War II. The Soviet Union utilized racial propaganda during the Cold War; for example, the Russian newspaper Trud circulated a story of a Louisiana lynching where “a crowd of white men tortured a negro war veteran … tore his arms out and set fire to his body,” and “the murderers, even though they are identified, remain unpunished.” As a 1961 issue of the Afro-American noted: “As long as any type of racial discrimination remains in the United States, the world will know about it, for, this senseless and indefensible practice is superb fodder for anti-West propaganda mills.” Over time and in combination, these trends spurred America into action and led to a decade of civil-rights legislation and Supreme Court rulings that served America’s national interests in repairing its image as a nation of liberty and justice for all.

In 1961, after Kennedy apologized, a couple of black newspaper reporters decided to test the desegregation order along Route 40 and dressed as African ambassadors to see if they’d be accepted in the restaurants there. With some consternation from frustrated owners, they were served at each stop they made. However, they were disconcerted to learn that local black college students had been refused service as recently as the night before the reporters’ experiment.

The change, in other words, had only reached as far as the international politics and national interest required. Absent these catalysts for an American apology for slavery, even the power of spiritual reckoning will be insufficient to summon the nation to action.

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Theodore R. Johnson is a writer and naval officer. He has served as a military professor at the Naval War College and as a 2011 – 2012 White House Fellow. 

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