Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Apology Accepted (Captain Needa)

If you don't get the reference, watch The Empire Strikes Back, and come back. I'll wait.

Finished? Good. Okay, so the latest guest-poster at Blackprof, Marc Lamont Hill, has a really interesting post up on the dynamics of apology. Using Mel Gibson's drunken anti-Semitic tirade as a launching pad, he notes the danger of being too quick to accept apologies from parties who have consistently wronged. This is especially true when the underlying factors that caused the offense can and will continue to perpetuate the harm even if the most egregious violations are reined in.
For Black people, the politics of apologies is particularly dangerous, as mea culpas are often used to end public discussion about complex and consistent problems. For example, what good is the Senate's 2005 resolution to apologize for lynching if the modern day prison industrial complex is replicating the conditions of the very slave industry that enabled Black people to hang from trees? After such apologies are offered and accepted without concrete concessions (such as reparations), further public conversation is considered excessive, and persistent activists are conveniently tagged as race card players and pain pimps .

This is probably true on a systematic level. But I will confess my anxieties when reading this call as a White male. It should be clear why: If I inadvertently cause offense, I want to be able to rejoin the progressive racial community, not be shunned and excommunicated.

I want to be clear that I don't read Mr. Hill as calling for such "one-strike you're out" standards. But it is a complex situation (as race issues so often are). For example, White people do consistently cause racial offense--as a community, we have not done nearly enough to get beyond this. But it is quite difficult to determine whether any individual White person is making a genuine effort, i.e., whether the mistake is truly that and an aberration. This is a double bind, because it's just as problematic to say "judge each White person individually," when we're dealing with systematic injustice. But I think that discussions of this issue at least have to acknowledge the sentiments amongst some sympathetic and/or progressive Whites that delving into race is akin to stepping into a minefield.

Ultimately, I feel like we should hold public figures (and especially government officials) to higher standards than Joe-average-citizen on this respect. And, perhaps more on point to the issues of past racial injustice, when we're dealing with corrections of policy rather than of mindset, it is perfectly justifiable (and wise) to demand remedy for the ailment, and not merely an apology. As Critical Race Theorist Taunya Lovell Banks wrote in response to the Trent Lott/Strom Thurmond affair, "focus on...remarks, rather than on...opposition to civil rights for black Americans, probably cause[s] many white Americans to be reluctant to discuss race, for fear of similar misstatements" [Exploring White Resistance to Racial Reconciliation in the United States, 55 RUTGERS L. REV. 903, 948 (2003)]. A two-tiered approach which differentiates between person-on-person racism and policy- or structurally-supported racism would help mediate this conflict (though I doubt it would eliminate it entirely).

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