Gestures of collective repentance have become popular in recent years. In 1994, the pope offered an apology for past sins committed against non-Catholics. In the summer of 1995, the Southern Baptists, who number over 15 million, voted to express a resolution of repentance that read in part, "We lament and repudiate historic acts of evil such as slavery from which we continue to reap a bitter harvest." Last year, President Clinton apologized to the African Americans who were the unwitting subjects in the infamous Tuskegee study of syphilis, and he seriously considered the possibility of apologizing for slavery in general.

Reactions to Clinton's proposed mea culpa varied. Ward Connerly, an African-American entrepreneur, regent of the University of California, and architect of the California antiaffirmative action referendum, Proposition 209, pronounced this verdict on the idea: "Apologizing for slavery is probably one of the dumbest things anyone could do." Conversely, civil-rights leader Julian Bond maintained that an apology for slavery would be a good and important symbolic gesture.

Last summer, in between Little League baseball games in a largely white Minnesota town, I did some informal polling of my own. Though none of the people I talked to took the President's proposed apology to be an urgent matter, about half expressed mild support for the idea. Others scoffed at repenting for what they took to be ancient history. The wife of a professor commented, "Why should I apologize for something done to blacks more than a hundred years ago?" A fair question, which might be restated: "Why should I apologize for a crime that I had nothing to do with?" Or more to the point, "By what authority can I apologize for someone else's ...

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