Jennifer James’ Essay: Apologies
This cultural anthropologist addresses racism, reparations, land restoration and national and corporate apologies in this thought-provoking essay


One of the headlines in my newspaper keeps coming back. “African Americans Want Reparations” for past injustice. Lots of other groups do too. Holocaust survivors want corporations to apologize and compensate them for not paying insurance claims after WWII or using slave labor to build their industries. Iraq will want an apology one day, from us, not Saddam. No one asks dictators for apologies.

Carl Jung, the brilliant psychoanalyst, concerned himself for much of his life with the memories of injustice that follow a society. He believed that injustice becomes embedded in the psyche and passed on from generation to generation. If a group (South Africans, Germans, Cambodians, etc.) see their own past and provide resolution for its victims they move toward a more moral civilization. If they cannot (Serbia, Israel, Northern Ireland/England, etc.), then the conflict slowly corrupts their culture. Societies squander their moral capital as decades without resolution pass.

Jung believed that there was only one way to create a stable moral society, only one way to become a moral individual. A nation must be aware of the crimes it has committed, something as simple as accurate history books in the schools. An individual must be aware of the crimes he or she is capable of committing. Awareness comes thorough acknowledgement of the crimes you have already committed. That means an apology.

This is a familiar process. We made reparations to the Japanese Americans interred during World War II. The Canadians have recently provided their own resolution acknowledging the wrong done to Japanese Canadians whose property was confiscated and never returned. The British returned Hong Kong as they have other colonies. The Australians have apologized for taking more than 100,000 Aborigine children. A group in Oregon invited the Wallowa Band Nez Perce to return to their ancestral home.

The problem with reparations or land restoration is that these measures, while important, never quite resolve the personal or spiritual crimes. Money and goods don’t provide a new moral start. We learn as little children that only an apology, an admittance of guilt, an “I’m sorry” with a hug or handshake, seems to do that.

We did apologize to Japanese Americans and pay reparations; the amount is rarely the significant part. Each Japanese American got $----.. The Southern Baptists have apologized for their historic racism. The Promise Keepers and the Million Man marchers apologized to their wives and children as part of their ceremony. Most faiths provide a system of penance.

Meeting the growing reparations demands of African Americans would, without an abject and deeply felt apology, just postpone justice and deny the racism that we still live with every day. A true apology for our history would make reparations demands shrink.

Sometimes I think there should be a national day of memory, a day spent reminding us what a long and difficult path civility requires. The day might start with a chronological listing of apologies, beginning with Native Americans and ending with (you fill in the blank).

Why this orgy of confession and regret? Because, as with religious rituals, you must humble yourself before your God if you want to live a good life. Remember the Biblical story of Job, stricken with disease, seeking refuge on a pile of ashes. Only when he had reached complete humility did God return to him his life, his family, and his goods. Neither individuals nor societies can live steeped in their own arrogance. They must bow before higher moral powers or lose their souls.

Think about your participation in discrimination, don’t rationalize, don’t confuse race and class issues. Look around at your congregation, club or co-workers and explain what you see. As Theodore Shaw of the NAACP reminds us, “…you have to be willfully blind not to see it.” Apologies are symbols, they let racists and fascists know that they are out of step with their nation.

We will no longer be able to insist that racism doesn’t exist when we confront our own behavior and apologize for it. If you want the race talk to stop, if you want this “problem” put behind us, then it is time for you to stop, look into your heart and your history and say you are sorry. Bear witness, apologize, and try with all your might to stop your racist ways.

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