Apologizing, race relations and the American Dream - Abdullah Ahmad

13 July 1997

Lee Kuan Yew has apologised twice and we have accepted that he did not mean to hurt our feelings. The Singapore Senior Minister and former Prime Minister had referred to Johor Baru, Singapore's nearest neighbour, as a place "notorious for shootings, muggings and carjackings".

I shall not go into detail what made him say that. I claim to no better insight than my perceptions.

President Bill Clinton, after defending Affirmative Action and urging for a year-long dialogue on race relations, has said he was considering extending a national apology to Black Americans for this nation's years of slavery which only ended in 1863. Tony Blair, the British Prime Minister has already apologized for his nation's role in the Irish potato famine of 1845. Perhaps, he is following Blair's lead. After all they like each other and share many similarities.

I do not suppose apologising for a clear wrong hurts. Indeed, it is an honourable thing to do. But in this case what good will it do?

James K. Glassman, a Washington Post columnist posed this question: "Who's supposed to apologise? The Confederacy or the Union? Recall that 136 years ago the Union which is to say the United States government, went to war, at a cost of 359,528 lives, to end slavery. Now, we're supposed to say we're sorry? May be some thanks would be in order."

The only reason this silly idea was getting attention, he asserted, was because there was not much else Clinton could think to do about race after that hazy, platitude-laden speech at the University of California in San Diego nearly a month ago.

The irony of the whole thing is that Clinton would be apologising on behalf of a nation in which all slaves and slave masters have long been dead, and when at the peak of slavery no more than 10% of White Americans, mainly in the South, had or owned slaves, to African-Americans who have never been slaves and on behalf on White Americans who never owned slaves

There is a rule of thumb in politics (and also in journalism) that if one is criticised by both partisans of the divide, then he must be doing OK; he is on the right track. Clinton is right this time because critics on both sides twitted him. Reverend Jesse Jackson and several other Black leaders and intellectuals said an apology was not necessary because it has no substantive value to it. I think the Blacks are right

Most decent people would agree that the practice of slave-owning and exploitation was the most disgraceful black-spot in American history, and in that context, an apology for slavery would not hurt. But apology won't be enough. What are needed are ideas and concrete programmes and action to make the United States a whole country.