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An apology has an essential value.   it enables the apologizer, the perpetrator of a transgression, to reclaim its moral character in the aftermath of the transgression. By apologizing, the perpetrator is attempting to reclaim its humanity, its place in the community of civilized individuals or institutions. In a real sense, then, an apology is as much for the perpetrator as it is for the victim. In some instances, it is more for the former. What this means, of course, is that an apology must of necessity be voluntary. It cannot be coerced, made under force or duress, given by judicial settlement or through political deal making. Freely bestowed, a true apology comes from the heart. It cleanses the perpetrator’s character.

When I think of a genuine apology, what often comes to mind is the image of Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV standing barefoot and repentant in the snow at the castle of Pope Gregory VII at Canossa in 1077. The excommunicated emperor sought forgiveness from his papal adversary for having defied him over the question of lay investiture. This image is embedded in Western culture as a symbol of remorse. From it, I extrapolate the conditions constitutive of a genuine, well-crafted apology. The perpetrator “confesses the deed; admits the deed was an injustice; repents; and asks for forgiveness. All four conditions are essential to taking personal responsibility” (Brooks 2004, 144). So defined, a genuine apology is “an acknowledgement of guilt rather than a punishment for guilt” (144; emphasis in original).

A genuine apology—an acknowledgement of wrongdoing and its seriousness, repentance, and asking for forgiveness—is durable.

Both the duty it imposes upon the perpetrator and its effectiveness survive the victim’s death. There is no statute of limitations on the duty to apologize or the relief it brings to the perpetrator. Because we are dealing with a matter of morality rather than a question of legality, the duty to apologize and its effectiveness remain until the requisite apology is made.

This point is critically   important   in   understanding   the   duty to apologize. So long as the perpetrator or its successor-in-interest is alive (a family or institution, for example), the transgression’s moral stain does not perish with the victims. The perpetrator still has some- thing for which to apologize. It is only  the  tender  of  apology  that retires the moral  duty  to  apologize.  For that reason,  I  would  argue that Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski did the morally correct thing when he apologized at a ceremony honoring  1,600  Jews  murdered by Polish civilians on the eve of World War II. Although all the victims were dead, he offered this apology: “For this crime, we should beg the souls of the dead and their families for forgiveness. Today, as a man, citizen, and president  of  the  Polish  republic,  I  ask  for  pardon in my own name and in the name of those Polish people whose con- sciences  are  shocked  by  this  crime”  (Fisher  2001).  The imposition of a statute of limitations on the Polish government’s duty to apologize would be improperly legalistic.

Other considerations add further support to my view that the unfulfilled duty to apologize and the apology’s effectiveness survive the death of the victims so long as the perpetrator or its successor-in-interest is still alive. It would be a cruel irony if the perpetrator could absolve itself of the moral duty to apologize by simply wiping out all its victims. Here, the murderer would be benefitting from its dastardly act. Also, the perpetrator should not be denied the opportunity for redemption if, for example, its living victim decided, for one reason or another, not to come forward and make his or her presence known.1 Finally, people typically do not want to carry personal guilt to the grave. To say to one who is dying that your apology means nothing because the victim died years ago seems rather cruel. Laches, a legal concept meaning you waited too long to assert the relief to which you are entitled, is misplaced here. The need to unburden oneself in the final minutes of life is fundamental and ought to be respected in a humane society.

The perpetrator’s request for forgiveness is one of the elements of a genuine apology. But if an unaccepted apology still brings redemption to the perpetrator, why should the perpetrator be required to seek forgiveness? Why is apology’s fourth element necessary? Others also believe the perpetrator must request “forgiveness from the person harmed” (Newman 1987, 155). Elie Wiesel’s rabbinical reflection on the matter is most insightful. Wiesel’s thinking on the subject was expressed in remarks given at the dedication of a Holocaust remembrance site at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin. The New York Times reported them as follows:

Mr. Wiesel concluded by urging Parliament to pass a resolution formally requesting, in the name of Germany, the forgiveness of the Jewish people for the crimes of Hitler. “Do it publicly,” he said. “Ask the Jewish people to forgive Germany for what the Third Reich had done in Germany’s name. Do it, and the significance of this day will acquire a higher level. Do it, for we desperately want to have hope for this new century. (Cohen 2000)

Seeking forgiveness enriches the moral quality of the apology. It makes the apology more believable and, hence, the prospect that the transgression will recur more unlikely. There are times when a genuine apology is inadequate, when simply saying “I’m sorry” is not enough (see Brooks 1999). Where the perpetrator’s transgression causes serious injury, physical or psychological, to the victim, a genuine apology by itself is insufficient to allow the perpetrator to reclaim its moral character. Justice demands that perpetrators who cause injury must be held accountable both criminally and civilly. An apology rings hollow, for example, if a murderer can avoid incarceration by merely apologizing for the killing. The apology, in fact, seems more opportunistic than genuine (see Gibney and Roxstrom 2001, 911, 931).

Other moral precepts can, however, override retributive justice, making the apology self-sufficient. A case in point is South Africa. The South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission made the decision to grant amnesty to apartheid perpetrators who made public confessions. This presented an intense conflict between retributive justice and other moral precepts, most specifically “truth, reconciliation, peace, [and] the common good” according to Willem (or Wil- helm) Verwoerd, a South African philosophy professor involved in the proceedings. Verwoerd argued that, “in the context of a fragile transition to stable democracy,” amnesty combined with “public shaming” and institutional restructuring is the right, morally correct thing to do (Verwoerd 1999, 479–82, in Brooks 1999). Without amnesty, there would have been no prospect of racial reconciliation and democratic government in South Africa. In addition, many leaders of the victims also committed transgressions, making amnesty all around seem like the moral path to take.2

When the perpetrator is the government itself, retributive justice is a nonstarter. The government as a corporate entity cannot be sent to jail, and compensatory damages, let alone punitive damages, are barred by the government’s sovereign immunity unless such immunity has been expressly waived. It is quite a different matter with individual government perpetrators. Under certain circumstances, they can be sent to jail. But even here, morality is not always served by sending government officials to jail. John J. McCoy, one of the chief architects of the removal and internment of Japanese Americans during World War II, was alive when Congress enacted legislation apologizing to Japanese Americans in 1988. Of what benefit would it have been to place a frail old man in jail, especially after the government had apologized for the removal and internment? Sometimes it is wise to forgo retributive justice in the interest of humanity or other moral considerations. Sometimes an apology will have to do.

In the civil context, a genuine apology alone in the aftermath of the victim’s injury cannot achieve its essential purpose of reclaiming the perpetrator’s humanity. When physical or psychological injury has occurred, repair and reconciliation become important aspects of the requisite apology. True, an apology is neither necessary nor sufficient for repair and reconciliation. Harms caused by the transgression can be repaired without a prefatory apology from the perpetrator. Victims who “have forgiven before they have been injured”—the “forgiving disposition”—do not require an apology before reconciling with the perpetrator (see, e.g., Downie 1965, 128). But I would ar- gue that where the perpetrator has injured its victim, an apology can only effectively cleanse the apologizer’s moral character if it self-consciously seeks repair and reconciliation. Under these circumstances, a verbal apology cannot stand alone. A genuine apology must be linked to a redemptive act and, taken together, these may constitute the perpetrator’s atonement. This redemptive act is generally termed a “reparation.” In other words, in the context of atonement, a reparation serves a specific purpose—namely, it solidifies a genuine apology, it concretizes it, makes it believable. Following an apology, a reparation, in short, is the revelation and realization of the prefatory apology. It makes the apology more than rhetoric. Again, sometimes saying “I’m sorry” is not enough.

A genuine apology and a  sufficient reparation  (atonement) lay the foundation for reconciliation.  Atonement is a  precondition for reconciliation. The perpetrator’s request for forgiveness, one of the elements of a genuine apology, starts the reconciliation process. Thus, the focus here is on the victim’s side of racial reconciliation. The request for forgiveness arrives on the victim’s desk like a subpoena; it must be answered. How it is answered depends on the sincerity of the apology. The victim calculates the sincerity of the apology by the weight of the reparation. This determination is made over a period of time through constant good-faith negotiations be- tween the perpetrator and victim. The victim must be satisfied with the reparation before coming forward with forgiveness. Thus, forgiveness, a direct response to the perpetrator’s expressed request for forgiveness, can be understood as the victim’s willingness to respond affirmatively to the perpetrator’s tender of atonement.

Exactly what it means to forgive is a historically important question in search of a historically good answer. There is an incredible volume of writing on the topic. Indeed, one gets the sense that authors have written more on forgiveness than on most any other subject. Having endeavored to make sense of what can only be a tiny sample of these writings, I will express my views on this fascinating subject.

Forgiveness is an omnipresent theme in literature,  religion, and culture. For example, many of Shakespeare’s comedies explore the inadequacy of forgiveness (Pafford 1974, 105, 106, agreeing with Felperin 1972). Yet Shakespeare also saw something good and whole about the cognate notion of mercy. In The Merchant of Venice, Shakespeare gives Portia these immortal lines: “The quality of mercy is not strained / It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven / Upon the place beneath” (Act IV, I, 178–224).3 In her eloquent essay “Forgiveness ‘Written Within & Without’ Law,” Jeanne Moskal argues that “Blake came to view forgiveness as a new dispensation, along the lines of an ethics of virtue, almost achieving an independent conceptual status, written successfully ‘without’ the dispensation of law” (Moskal 1994, 12). An African proverb proclaims, “He who forgives ends the quarrel,” and a Shawnee chant goes, “Do not wrong or hate your neighbor; for it is not he that you wrong; you wrong yourself.” And a famous Chinese aphorism states, “He who opts for revenge must dig two graves” (see, e.g., Henderson 1999, 4–5; Newman 1987, 155; see also Borowitz and Schwartz 1999; Von Hildebrand 1953; Peterson 2001). Although people universally have a  general familiarity with the idea of forgiveness, it is actually a rather complex concept. Forgiveness has been defined as, inter alia, “the overcoming of moral hatred,” “the overcoming of resentment,” “forbearance,”  and empathy for the perpetrator’s humanity. If there is a consensus definition, it is perhaps “the overcoming of resentment.” Although he was certainly not the originator, Bishop Joseph Butler is generally deemed to be the most important early scholar to have defined forgiveness as the overcoming of resentment. Butler gave sermons on forgiveness some three centuries ago. Paul Newberry, however, argues that Butler’s notion of forgiveness centered on “checking revenge or forbearance” rather than on the forswearing of resentment (see Newberry 2001, 233).4

Paul Lauritzen brings much clarity to our understanding of forgiveness. He defines forgiveness as “a two-part response to a situation of injury; negatively, it is the remission of an attitude of resentment evoked by the injury; positively, it is an effort to re-establish a broken relationship” (Lauritzen 1987, 141, 150). Michael Henderson is in essential agreement with this understanding of forgiveness. He maintains that forgiveness requires the “surrender [of] the desire for revenge.” Forgiveness “asks you to reappraise the hurt and its source and to go through a shift in how you think and feel about the offender and yourself. Forgiveness can be a truly transforming experience that allows us to move beyond our selfish desires and needs” (Henderson 1999, 4, quoting Huston Smith).

In addition to knowing what forgiveness is, it is equally important to know what forgiveness is not. Forgiveness does not equate with mercy, pardon, or amnesia. The elimination of resentment, which Lauritzen sees as the negative side of forgiveness, distinguishes forgiveness from mercy and pardon. “Forgiveness is essentially restorative; mercy and pardon are essentially palliative” (Lauritzen 1987, 143). Nor does forgiveness mean the victim is supposed to forget about the atrocity. As Lorna McGregor asserts, “the horrific acts endured by the victim will never be erased from [the victim’s] memory” (McGregor 2001, 32, 37). The theme of “forgive but do not forget” was a constant refrain in Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s leadership of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission (see Tutu 1999).

While some theorists see virtue in  “a  forgiving disposition” and vice in withholding forgiveness, as I mentioned at the beginning of this writing, there are those who do not believe in forgiveness. These hard-liners argue that a forgiving disposition exhibits weakness. Nietzsche, for example, believed that forgiveness manifests a “slave morality.” S. J. Perelman once quipped: “To err is human, to forgive supine” (Becker 1992, 381).

For those scholars and theologians who stand somewhere be- tween Nietzsche and the forgiving disposition, the question becomes: Is forgiveness the victim’s duty or prerogative, and what is the nature of that duty or prerogative? Some religious traditions regard forgiveness as a moral duty conditioned upon atonement. Louis Newman makes it clear that “traditional rabbinic authorities regarded the duty of one individual to forgive another as conditional upon the repentance of the offender” (Newman 1987, 155). Once this condition is met, forgiveness must be granted, because the Judaic view treats forgiveness “as a moral imperative … shaped decisively by the beliefs in a compassionate God whom we have a duty to emulate and in the special covenantal relationship established between this God and Israel” (155).

In similar fashion, many secular scholars regard forgiveness as a conditional moral duty. They see in forgiveness a moral quality, but only after the perpetrator demonstrates remorse. Unconditional forgiveness, they maintain, is not a virtue; it is a vice—the “vice of servility.” It reveals the victim’s lack of self-respect (Becker 1992, 381). “Forgiveness is possible only after someone has renounced what he has done wrong, corrected it and compensated for it” (Peterson 2001; see Govier 1994, 10). Forgiveness, in short, is conditioned upon apology and reparation—atonement.

Even after atonement, some scholars and theologians would not say that forgiveness is immediately forthcoming.  Thus,  even when viewed as the victim’s moral duty, forgiveness would be premature were it to come at the very beginning of the negotiations, before the talks started in earnest. The seeds of forgiveness must be planted and harvested over time in the relationship between victim and perpetrator. Forgiveness grows out of the re-establishment (or establishment) of a healthy relationship between the victim and perpetrator.

This can take some time, as David Heim states: “At some point, there will be forgiveness, but it will take place when we [the victims] have a relationship with them, [when we] are working together for a future together” (Peterson 2001, quoting David Heim, executive editor of Christian Century, an ecumenical journal of theological commentary).

Other scholars believe that, even when the perpetrator has atoned for his sins or has satisfied additional preconditions, forgiveness can never be a moral imperative. At most, it can only be a moral prerogative. Lauritzen is perhaps the leading scholar on this point. He argues that it can never be the victim’s moral duty to preserve or restore a relationship broken by another. This is most obvious, he says, in cases involving grave injustices or where the effects of the transgression are irreversible. The example Lauritzen gives is from William Styron’s novel, Sophie’s Choice:

In the incident from which the book has its name, Sophie and her two children arrive at Auschwitz, prisoners of the latest German round-up of Polish resistance members. Upon disembarking from the train which had brought them to this death camp, Sophie encounters the infamous selection process by which SS doctors determined those who were strong enough to work, and thus to live, and those who were to die. In a break with routine procedure, however, the doctor before whom Sophie is brought makes her the victim of a perverse plot to commit an unforgivable crime. He gives Sophie a choice: one, but not both, of her children may live; only she must decide or both shall be killed. Sophie chooses, and the burden of her choice ultimately destroys her, but what I want to bring out here is not the effects but the nature of the crime. Even if, miraculously, Sophie’s little girl survived, we would still, I think, want to say that no amount of restitution, no change of heart on the part of the doctor could make forgiveness a requirement in such a case. Indeed, it was precisely the doctor’s belief that such a crime was unforgivable that led him to commit it. As Styron portrays it, the doctor, having been pressed into the wretched service of the selection process, and despairing of the godlessness of his existence, plans an offence which he believed only God could forgive. His need for divine forgiveness, he hoped, would restore his faith. (Lauritzen 1987, 148)

It might be useful to summarize the philosophical thicket from which we have just emerged before I express my views on the subject. First, forgiveness is defined as a two-part response to an injury: the remission of an attitude of resentment toward the perpetrator (a negative response) and an effort to re-establish or establish a broken relationship (a positive response). Second, forgiveness does not equate with mercy, pardon, or amnesia. Third, some theorists believe in the forgiving disposition (based on a fundamental religious belief in a common identity with God or a philosophical belief in a common identity with human beings as ends in themselves), whereas others believe forgiveness exhibits a character flaw in the victim. Fourth, between these two groups, where the great majority of theorists lie, it is argued that the victim has a moral duty to forgive, but only after the perpetrator has met certain preconditions (e.g., atonement). Finally, other theorists within this middle group maintain that the duty to forgive simply does not exist. At best, the victim has a moral prerogative to forgive, because otherwise it might be impossible to forge the requisite relationship between victim and former offender. Even when the injury is minor, some would argue, “it is best to treat forgiveness like certain forms of benevolence: praiseworthy but not required” (Lauritzen 1987, 150).

My own conceptualization of forgiveness greatly informs my sense of the level of sincerity the apology must demonstrate. Where there is physical or psychological injury, an apology must work harder to induce the victim’s forgiveness, the payoff being more than the perpetrator’s salvation—namely,  reconciliation.  The perpetrator’s salvation is made possible by the payoff. It is made possible by reconciliation between the perpetrator and the victim, by the fact that the apology is sincere.

Forgiveness, in my view, is not a moral imperative. Indeed, in the absence of atonement, I would argue that forgiveness is morally objectionable. As I said on another occasion: “The indiscriminate forgiver disrespects herself. Her forgiveness manifests an unjustifiable abandonment of the appropriate retributive responses to wrongdoing. The indiscriminate forgiver preserves an unhealthy relationship with her perpetrator. She, the victim, accepts the perpetrator in his identity as offender” (Brooks 2004, 168). For these reasons, atonement must be an absolute precondition for forgiveness. There must be a tender of atonement by the perpetrator, including a specific request for forgiveness. While my rejection of the forgiving disposition places me in the company of most forgiveness theorists, my views as to the nature of the duty to forgive makes me a bit of a loner. I do not regard the duty to forgive as raising a question of morality. It is neither a moral imperative nor a moral prerogative. The tender of atonement arrives on the victim’s desk not as a  religious or moral subpoena, but as a civic subpoena. Atonement imposes no correlative duty of a religious or moral nature on the victim to accept it. The tender of atonement (assuming an adequate reparation) creates an unconditional civic obligation on the part of the victim to forgive. Much like a judge has a professional duty to decide a  case according to law regardless of her personal feelings toward the parties, the victim has a public duty to act with civility toward her perpetrator after atonement has been made to her satisfaction. Forgiveness acknowledges that the civic relationship is worthy of respect and restoration. This does not, however, mean that the negative aspect of forgiveness—the forswearing of resentment—is entirely eliminated as an element of forgiveness. On this point, I would disagree with Peter Digeser’s intriguing attempt “to separate forgiving from the elimination of resentment.” Once atonement takes place, that should automatically cause the cessation of resentment; otherwise the resentment will poison the civic relationship (Digeser 1998, 703, 705).

Let us take a few examples of my thesis regarding the interplay between an apology and forgiveness. X accidentally steps on Y’s foot, causing no physical or psychological injury. They are strangers to one another. There is a transgression here but no injury. Assuming the transgression is serious, X has a moral duty to issue a genuine apology—an acknowledgment of wrongdoing, its seriousness, repentance, and a request for forgiveness—to Y and nothing more than that, no reparations. Y then has a civic duty, given the sincerity of the apology, to forgive a fellow human being. However, under all circumstances, the personal prerogative not to forgive must override the civic duty to forgive.  If the victim is not emotionally prepared to forgive, then civic engagement with the perpetrator should never be required. For instance, a rape victim unprepared to forgive need never have to forgive the perpetrator, no matter how genuine the perpetrator’s apology. Forgiveness must remain within her power; otherwise, the victim is re-victimized.

The civic duty to forgive would arise even if X intentionally stepped on Y’s foot, exhibiting bad behavior. Given X’s remorseful, genuine apology, carrying resentment around or refusing to be polite toward X doesn’t make civic sense under these circumstances. Though I am very much inclined to say that we ought to privilege the victim’s perspective as to what constitutes a serious enough transgression to require an apology or a serious enough injury to require reparations, I understand that one might want to argue that there ought to be some type of objective standard of perpetrator culpability, one that is external to the individual victim, such as a group-based standard (typical in legal circles) like the “reasonable” African American or “reasonable” woman. I merely acknowledge the opposing argument and make no attempt here to resolve the issue.

Suppose Y was physically or psychologically injured by X’s actions. Here we have a transgression, which necessitates an apology, and an injury, which necessitates reparations (again leaving open the question of who decides what is or is not a serious transgression or injury). Stated differently, atonement is required in this instance because a reparation is needed to make the apology believable. The redemptive act, negotiated with the victim or its representative, is limited only by the human imagination. It could entail a small act like self-education or confronting friends or family members when they make offensive comments in private. Alternatively, the reparation could involve a large act like compensating the injured party, contributing time or money to an organization, or actively supporting new laws. If the reparation is acceptable to the victim, then forgiveness—the remission of an attitude of resentment and a willingness to stay publically engaged with the perpetrator or its group (whites or men, for example)—is the victim’s civic duty depending on the victim’s emotional state.

This process of engagement not only will lead to reconciliation between the perpetrator and its victim, but also will ultimately contribute to a healthy social order. Importantly, the process begins with a genuine apology. The perpetrator’s expression of contrition includes the request for forgiveness. At bottom, the perpetrator is asking, “what can I do to make amends?” And the amends that are made are what determine the genuineness of the apology, what makes the apology more than just words.

State apologies carry additional responsibilities as they are typically made in the aftermath of the government’s atrocity. An atrocity can be defined as an “exceptional act of human degradation” (Brooks 2004, 142). Most atrocities were legal under governing law when they occurred. Slavery and Jim Crow are examples. They were mandated by law (see generally Brooks 1999).

When a government apologizes for a past atrocity—Germany for the Holocaust, South Africa for apartheid, the United States for slavery, Jim Crow, Japanese-American internment, and Native Ameri- can genocide—a genuine apology must be linked not only to reparations but also to a statement clarifying the historical record. The government as perpetrator must set the historical record straight so that everyone understands why the apology and ensuing reparations are necessary. Clarification of the historical record provides the factual foundation for moving forward with a continuing relationship between the perpetrator and its victims. It results in a collective judgment regarding the magnitude of the injustice, including its lingering effects, and the extent of the perpetrator’s responsibility. Setting the historical record straight can, to borrow from Elazar Barkan, “fuse polarized antagonistic histories into a core of shared history to which both sides can subscribe”  (2000,  xxn).  It helps a  nation,  especially a heterogeneous one, to create what Jürgen Habermas (1993) calls “discourse ethics,” a set of norms on which people with different interests can agree. Donald Shriver describes “a series of meetings between Polish and German teachers and historians for the purpose of revising school textbooks of the two countries so that the story of their twentieth-century relationship would be interpreted to each other’s young people in mutually acceptable accounts” (1995, 91).

Clarification is desperately needed regarding the historical re- cord on American slavery. The telling of this story has been the mother’s milk of white misunderstanding about the peculiar institution and white complacency about its lingering effects. When the United States refuses to issue reparations to solidify its rather disingenuous apology for slavery,5 and does so on the ground that white Americans today had nothing to do with slavery, the government fails to understand and, therefore, is unable to teach the American people about the centrality of slavery in the socioeconomic development of this great country from which white Americans benefit more than any other group. When the government rejects reparations on the ground that there are plenty of successful and even wealthy Black Americans today, including the oft-mentioned Oprah Winfrey, Beyoncé, Jay-Z, Michael Jordan, and Colin Powell, it fails to see the millions of Black Americans who have not been able to overcome the lethal legacy of slavery. Nor does the government understand that even these high-profile African Americans are not at equal risk with white Americans. “Unlike Oprah Winfrey, Donald Trump has not had to deal with racism in his life. Nor has he ever had to admonish his sons, ‘it’s unlikely but possible that you could get killed today. Or any day. I’m sorry, but that’s the truth. Black maleness is a potentially fatal condition’” (Brooks 2017, 8). Our government’s failure to clarify the historical record of slavery, in short, reinforces white ignorance and complacency about slavery. The government, thus, fails to see “racial slavery and its consequences as the basic reality, the grim and irrepressible theme governing both the settlement of the Western hemisphere and the emergence of a government and society in the United States that white people have regarded as ‘free’” (Davis 2001, 168–69, emphasis added).

David W. Blight, one of the nation’s leading authorities on the Civil War, sounds this note in Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory (2001). Failing to face the truth about our racist past, the nation achieved a degree of unity after the Civil War at the expense of Blacks, he observes. White Americans North and South were able to come together in the aftermath of that sectional struggle by celebrating the bravery and heroism of white soldiers in both the Union and the Confederacy, all the while minimizing the importance of slavery and the significance of its destruction.

David Brion Davis, the leading historian on the institution of slavery in the second half of the twentieth century and the found- ing director of the Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition at Yale University, offered a theory as to why the government and so many white Americans discount the enduring legacy of slavery. Davis argues that white indifference about slavery reflects the fact that the South won an ideological victory in the Civil War. What Davis means, according to Mark Alden Branch, who interviewed Davis for the Yale Alumni Magazine, is that the South convinced the rest of the nation that the role of slavery in Ameri- can history [should] be thoroughly diminished, even somehow as a cause of the [Civil War].” Thus, “while the Union … won the Civil War, the country gradually came to accept—or at least not challenge—the Southern version of history in the years after Reconstruction. ‘The terrible price of reconciliation and reunion was marginalizing slavery and race’” (Branch 2002, 34, quoting Davis). In The Myth of the Lost Cause: Why the South Fought the Civil War and Why the North Won (2015), Edward H. Bonekemper reminds us that the South has continuously mythologized its defeat in the Civil War, depicting the war as an unnecessary fight over state rights in which the North waged “total war” over an underdog South.

From the end of the Civil War through most of the twentieth century, mainstream historians portrayed slavery as a minor event in southern history. Slavery was seen as an institution that did not have much impact within the South, let alone the country as a whole. The standard work on slavery was written by a southerner with an unapologetically racist point of view. Ulrich Bonnell (“U. B.”) Phillips’s American Negro Slavery (1918) portrayed “southern slavery as a benign and paternalistic institution, ‘a training school’ and ‘civilizing agency’ ‘for the untutored savage’” (Davis 2001, 168; and see Phillips [1918] 1969). Phillips, whose book appeared on course syllabi at Harvard University and other leading universities well into the 1950s, also painted Reconstruction, in which Blacks were given civil rights and the opportunity to exercise political power, as a failure. Phillips and other white scholars ignored the works of Black scholars, such as W.E. B. Du Bois’s The Suppression of the African Slave Trade to the United States of America, 1638–1870 (1896) and Black Reconstruction (1935), as well as important primary sources, such as  Frederick  Douglass’s autobiography, The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass (1845; revised 1892). It is difficult to overstate the influence these scholars have had on American attitudes toward slavery and  Reconstruction.  “The writings of  Ulrich B. Phillips on slavery and of William S. Dunning on Reconstruction were so rich in scholarly documentation and so closely tuned to the nation’s ideological needs—exemplified by popular films from Birth of a Nation to Gone with the Wind—that their influence on textbooks, fiction, journalism, and other historians would be difficult to exaggerate,” Davis (2001, 167) observed. One indication of the extent of the South’s ideological victory is the fact that Frederick Douglass’s autobiography was out of print from the end of the nineteenth century to 1960 (Davis 2001, 14, n. 12; see also 6–7, 166–68; Branch 2002, 34–37).

It was not until the mid-to-late 1950s that an “anti-Phillips reaction” took root among historians.  Kenneth  Stampp’s  seminal  work on slavery, The Peculiar Institution: Slavery in the Ante-Bellum South (1956), sometimes called “the historians companion to Brown v. Board of Education,” depicted slavery as “harsh and brutal.” This book along with Stanley Elkin’s Slavery (1959) and Eric McKitrick’s Andrew Johnson and Reconstruction (1960) were the first of many attacks on Phillip’s southern perspective.

The problem with Davis’s thesis is that scholarly repudiation of the southern ideology is nearly  65  years old.  One would think that the South’s war ideology had become null and void as we move through the twenty-first century. But although “The Lost Cause” is being challenged as mythology by an increasing number of Americans, especially young college-educated Americans, in the aftermath of the myriad police murders of unarmed African Americans like George Floyd, most white Americans in and out of government continue to possess a collective misunderstanding regarding slavery’s lingering effects. Why do they not understand slavery’s importance to the nation’s development as a world power as well as its debilitating effects on African Americans? Ike Balbus (2002) may have the answer.

Balbus offers an interesting psychological explanation.  He  argues that whites have an emotional interest in denying the fact that an American institution as horrific as slavery could have lingering effects in twenty-first-century America. “Arguments about what should be are rarely a match for the needs that negate them” (emphasis added), Balbus writes. The implication of this mindset on public support behind an effective government apology for slavery (an apology concretized by reparations) is clear to Balbus:  “Thus,  white  Americans are unlikely to be moved by principled arguments in favor of reparations if they have a  deep psychological stake in resisting them”  (2002,  2).  There is  in  most  white  Americans  a  “powerful  unconscious  resistance”  to the government’s atonement because of “the ‘depressive’ anxiety and guilt that inevitably accompany the awareness that we have harmed… [an innocent people].” The effort to reach whites is, therefore, “a work of mourning whose importance is matched only by its difficulty” (3, emphasis in original). Balbus and other psychologists explain that a psychoanalytic case for depressive anxiety and guilt “does not re- quire that any given individual white has actually harmed blacks but rather only that they have … harbored demonizing racial [beliefs],” or in other words, “that they have thought about doing so” (Balbus 2002, 14 n. 4, citing works coauthored with Melanie Klein).

If this analysis is correct, white Americans will have to cross a significant psychological barrier to reach a point of clarification regarding slavery and its lingering effects. That effort may be helped along substantially if whites today were to understand that they are not guilty of instituting, operating, or condoning the peculiar institu- tion. They were not even alive during its existence. So how could they be responsible for slavery? But while today’s whites are innocent of the charge of instituting, operating, or condoning slavery, they have, in my judgment, a responsibility to push the government to atone for slavery as well as engage in individual acts of appreciation for the incredible bounty slavery has provided for them. And as citizens, they have a civic obligation to support the creation of a virtuous society. Such a society is one in which the government atones for its most horrific atrocity and white Americans recognize that they have been unjustly enriched by that atrocity. Clarifying the historical record about slavery is, in short, an essential feature of the government’s apology for slavery and a necessary condition for moving toward a virtuous American society.

The tender of an apology is no trivial matter. It is an act fraught with deep meaning and important consequences. When the perpetrator has caused injury (physical or psychological), reparations are needed to make the apology believable. Reparations also lay the foundation for repair of a broken relationship between the perpetrator and victim when they are in an ongoing relationship. It is only after these conditions have been met that one can conclude that the apology has accomplished its main purpose—to reclaim the perpetrator’s moral character.

If my thinking about the anatomy of an apology is correct, then the myriad apologies being tendered these days by individuals and institutions, including the government’s apology for slavery, are woefully inadequate. What we are witnessing is not deep remorse but something less than that, such as perpetrators who are only sorry that they got caught, those who are only apologizing for show or who are only interested in scoring political points. Serious transgression and injury require a redemptive act to make the apology more than just rhetoric. Saying “I’m sorry” is often not enough.

Roy L. Brooks is the Warren Distinguished Professor of Law at the University of San Diego School of Law.

This essay was first published as “The Anatomy of an Apology” in Social Research Vol. 87, No. 4 (Winter 2020).


  1. The Comfort Women remained hidden during the early stages of their redress movement in Japan. See, e.g., Hicks in Brooks 1999, 113.
  2. The success of regime change in South Africa remains in doubt, however. While political power changed, economic power has not. Blacks remain at the bottom of the economic ladder in South Africa. See, e.g., Brooks in Brooks 1999, 443; Human 1999, 506.
  3. In The Complete Works of Shakespeare The Cambridge Text (1936).
  4. See also Shriver, Jr. 1995; Moor 1989. Murphy and Hampton 1988; Ewing 1970; Richards 1988, 77; Downie 1965, 128. Butler’s sermons were first published in 1726, and have been republished as Butler 1970.
  5. In 2009, both houses of Congress passed a concurrent resolution purporting to apologize for slavery and Jim Crow. The apology does not meet the conditions for a genuine apology as discussed in this article. Although it confesses the government’s responsibility for the atrocities of slavery and Jim Crow, it does not reflect upon the seriousness of the atrocity, which could only be demonstrated by issuing an extensive clarification of the historical record and promising to negotiate reparations. The apology is also deficient in that it neither reflects remorse nor asks for forgiveness. In fact, the rather short apology ends with the following: “(2) Disclaimer. Nothing in this resolution (A) authorizes or supports any claim against the United States; or (B) serves as a settlement of any claim against the United States.” See S. Con. Res.  26  (111th):  “A  concurrent resolution apologizing for the enslavement and racial segregation of African Americans,” Govtrack, June 18, 2009, sconres26/text.


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