I sense that almost weekly an individual, organization, company or government somewhere in the United States publicly apologizes for doing something wrong.
A few public apologies during just the last two weeks: Democratic strategist Hilary Rosen apologized to Ann Romney for saying she had never "worked a day in her life." Richard Land, a Southern Baptist leader, said he erred in accusing President Barack Obama and other black leaders of exploiting Trayvon Martin's death for political gain. Acura, the luxury carmaker, apologized for seeking a "not too dark" black actor for its Super Bowl ad with Jerry Seinfeld. And most notably, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta acknowledged to Afghanistan that U.S. soldiers were wrong to have posed in 2010 for photographs with the maimed bodies of dead Afghan insurgents.
As an undergraduate studying American history, I became interested in the culture of apology. I was particularly interested in public apologies to abused and marginalized minority groups, and I wondered if we overestimate the power of such mea culpas.
A clear definition of apology is offered by Aaron Lazare, author of the book On Apology. He writes that " 'apology' refers to an encounter between two parties in which one party, the offender, acknowledges responsibility for an offense or grievance and expresses regret or remorse to a second party, the aggrieved. Each party may be a person or a group or a larger group such as a family, a business, an ethnic group, a race, or a nation. The apology may be private or public, written or verbal, and even at times, nonverbal."
Many Americans do not know that our federal government and several states have committed atrocities against minority groups that warranted apologies.
President Ronald Reagan signed legislation in 1988 that apologized for the internment of about 120,000 Japanese-Americans following the Pearl Harbor attack. The legislation said government actions were based on "race prejudice, war hysteria and a failure of political leadership." The government eventually disbursed more than $1.6 billion in reparations to the victims and their heirs.
In 2010, Congress passed a bill apologizing to American Indians. The bill stated in part that the government apologizes "on behalf of the people of the United States to all Native Peoples for the many instances of violence, maltreatment, and neglect inflicted on Native Peoples by the citizens of the United States." The bill also ask Americans "to move toward a brighter future where all the people of this land live reconciled as brothers and sisters, and harmoniously steward and protect this land together."
Several months after Obama became our first black president, Congress grudgingly approved a formal resolution apologizing for the "fundamental injustice, cruelty, brutality, and inhumanity of slavery" of black Americans. The legislation also apologized for Jim Crow, the separate-but-equal system that followed emancipation. Unlike the Japanese legislation, the bill for blacks did not include reparations, still a major issue for millions of blacks.
During a White House ceremony in 1997, President Bill Clinton apologized for the government's role in the Tuskegee Syphilis Study. From 1932 to 1972, 399 black sharecroppers in Alabama were denied treatment for syphilis by physicians of the U.S. Public Health Service. With survivors of the study and their families present, Clinton addressed the racial animus and mistrust the experiment caused. "We can look you in the eye," he said, "and finally say on behalf of the American people, what the United States government did was shameful, and I am sorry."
And just last year, North Carolina apologized for sterilizing an estimated 7,600 young black victims, from 1929 to 1973, who had been deemed "unfit to procreate" by the state's eugenics board.
Have these apologies succeeded?
Lazare writes that "many offenses are experienced as assaults on the offended party's self-respect or dignity, and so a successful apology must somehow restore these vital aspects of the self in order to heal."
But restoring the self-respect or dignity of the offended party is only the first step. To be totally successful, apologies also must heal the damaged relationships between the aggrieved and the offender.
I do not know any Japanese and do not know how the internment apology affects them. I know that many American Indians dismiss the congressional apology as empty rhetoric. I know, too, that many African-Americans — despite the election of Obama — still feel debased and degraded by the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow and by daily racial insults and slights they encounter.
I cannot help but conclude that public apologies, even the sincerest, have not restored the self-respect and dignity of most victims of our atrocities. And I am convinced that we overestimate the power of such apologies.