on state apologies and the taking of offense

Around here, the facts of the following case have already been widely reported. But the short version goes like this …

Virginia Delegate Frank D. Hargrove Sr., age 79, when asked about a proposed resolution to apologize for slavery, expressed his opposition and added, “black citizens should get over it.” He then asked, “Are we going to force the Jews to apologize for killing Christ?” Several fellow members of the legislature remarked that his words were personally painful or harmful to them. Del. Donald McEachin “said that when he looks into the eyes of his 102-year-old grandmother, whose parents were slaves, ‘quite frankly, it’s hard to get over it.'” And Del. David Englin showed a picture of his 7-year-old son, saying that the boy is now “much more likely to be verbally attacked or physically attacked” because he is Jewish.

Hargrove replied that Englin’s skin was “a little too thin.” Speaker William J. Howell defended Hargrove and accused the press of having “blown [the story] out of proportion” in the hopes of sinking the Republicans with another “macaca” story. But Del. Brian Moran said, “It’s not up to Bill Howell to determine whether it’s been blown out of proportion. It’s about the hurt that’s been inflicted on others.”

Hurt has been inflicted on others, but that cannot be the end of the story. It is theoretically possible for people to have excessively thin skin, or to take offense at valid statements. Or people may fail to be offended by remarks that are unjust. Furthermore, the issues that Hargrove raised cannot be assessed only by considering their emotional impact on people who have enslaved ancestors or Jewish children. I happen to have a 7-year-old Jewish child myself, but that doesn’t give me special standing to complain–more than a WASP neighbor has. As a matter of fact, I find Hargrove’s statements laughable and pathetic and likely to redound to the benefit of my favored political party. Thus I have not been hurt by them. But that doesn’t make them acceptable.

We must decide whether his position on slavery is morally correct or just. (I concentrate on slavery, although he also seems to suggest views about Judaism.) In my view, an apology is appropriate and indeed obligatory. The apology would not imply that current members of the Virginia General Assembly own slaves or support the practice. Some members happen to be descendents of slaves. But the State of Virginia is a corporate entity that has been continuously operating since 1619. Each successive batch of leaders has taken over the assets and debts of the previous ones. For the first 246 of those years, the Assembly allowed slavery to exist in its jurisdiction. More than that, it enacted laws against fugitive slaves and abolitionists. It also directly profited by using slaves to build its own buildings and other possessions. An apology would come from that corporate entity and would go, not to people who happen to be descended from Virginian slaves, but to the deceased slaves and to the world. It would do nothing to right the original wrong. But if any situation requires an apology, this would seem to be it. And a deliberate refusal to apologize seems unjust–quite apart from whether that refusal happens to hurt anyone’s feelings.