Message given at Durham Friends Meeting, May 9, 2021
Despite our best efforts, all of us make mistakes from time to time, and sometimes they come at the expense of others. When that happens, we try our best to apologize in a meaningful way.
All good apologies include a statement such as “I am sorry for what I did.” Or perhaps you simply say, “I was wrong,” or “I made a mistake.” A true apology focuses on your own actions, and never on the other person’s response. And it never includes a phrase which to you justifies what you did. Never should you say “I’m sorry, but…” That is not a true apology.
Is saying you are sorry enough? A good apology should also include efforts on your part to make things right. Making amends. Doing an action to repair the damage you have done. In other words, some reparations are called for.
We should apply those same principles when considering a wrong done by our society to someone or some group of people. When the dominant culture in this country harms another group of Americans, reparations should be a part of an apology.
One of the most shameful moments in American history was establishing internment camps for Americans of Japanese ancestry, during World War Two. Innocent people were made to live in prison like conditions, solely because of their ancestry. After the war was over and when Americans came to recognize that the country had done wrong to those people, a bill was passed by Congress that gave some cash reparations payments to those who had suffered at our hands. This is an example of commendable governmental action in granting reparations when offering an apology for mistakes made by our society.
Alas, we have not done that in regard to the harm done to former slaves and other black and brown Americans. It is time we did so. There is in fact a bill in Congress that calls for just that. HR 40 is an act to establish the commission to study and develop reparations proposals for African Americans. It was first introduced by Representative John Conyers in 1989 and has been reintroduced each year since then. The current version recently cleared a subcommittee of the House Judiciary Committee and is headed for markup and then to the floor of the House. It seeks to provide money payments to repair the harm done both by slavery and by the Jim Crow laws that followed. It deserves our support.
Also note the excellent Friends Journal recent article by Harold Weaver of Wellesley Friends Meeting entitled, A Proposed Plan of Retrospective Justice. It is well worth reading.
We should also examine government treatment of indigenous people. Congressional proclamations have expressed apology for our treatment of Native Americans generally, but including no reparations have been proposed.
Here in Maine, we are currently doing something similar to offering reparations. A series of bills pending in the legislature will give the Wabanaki greater sovereignty. While not true reparations, enacting these measures will constitute a form of making things right after not doing so for many years. Unfortunately, the bills were recently tabled and will be acted on in the next legislative session, in 2022. The Peace and Social Concerns committee encourages lobbying for them both now and when they come up next year.
In summary, making things right should always be part of the apologies we offer when we have made a mistake, both as individuals and collectively.
[You may also be interested in a Pendle Hill Pamphlet (#465, October 2020) by Hal Weaver, Race, Systemic Violence, and Retrospective Justice: An African American Quaker Scholar-Activist Challenges Conventional Narratives.]