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'Sorry' Is a Short Word

What's wrong with saying what Americans already know?

June 22, 1997

It says quite a bit about the state of race relations in the United States that a simply worded, four-line congressional resolution--mind you, such resolutions routinely pass--is causing such a national stir.

The resolution reads: "Resolved by the House of Representatives (the Senate concurring), That the Congress apologizes to African-Americans whose ancestors suffered as slaves under the Constitution and the laws of the United States until 1865."

Is there any doubt that most Americans regret that slavery occurred? Is there any doubt that it was one of the great moral wrongs in U.S. history? Then why the controversy over an official apology?

We hear opposition from liberals. "A meaningless gesture," says Jesse Jackson, "with no meaningful commitment to deal with the impact of something so serious as slavery."

It's true that an apology cannot act as a substitute for thoughtful social policy. But that fact does not render an official apology meaningless.

We hear opposition from conservatives: "Absurd," says Ward Connerly, a University of California regent and a leading black conservative. And from House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.): "Will one more child read because of it?" No, but the objection is a non sequitur. No apology can teach a child to read. It just might, however, teach a child that even great nations can do awful deeds and that they can own up to it, however tardily.

History matters. Acknowledgment of the past provides the basis for understanding the present and gives hope to the future. This is not a debate that should take up a great deal of the nation's time. Slavery and the laws and court rulings that sustained it were wrong. The nation knows it; there is no harm in Congress and the president actually saying so.

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