Regrets, Apologies And Semantics

We think the current back and forth between China and the United States regarding the collision of the US spy plane and the Chinese jet fighter is very interesting - even fascinating. Just when many felt comfortable thinking of politics in terms of taxes, government spending, foreign aid and weapons of war, a problem between arguably the two most powerful countries in the world comes down to the careful use of language.

In a way it is refreshing to see world leaders, in a very public way, wrestling over the appropriate words to use in dealing with another state and the people who support that state. And of course, both the leaders of China and the United States are very much concerned with how their words are viewed at home.

For many in China it now has come down to whether the US will continue to express "regret" or whether it will "apologize" for what happened last week. One quick look at the meaning of the two words makes it clear why the US would like to continue to express regret rather than to apologize. It is not just a matter of whether there is anything to be sorry about. The bigger issue is what an apology would do to the dynamics of the relationship between the two powers and what it would lead to.

And that is why Blacks should be especially interested in this dispute over China. Why? Because it is the descendants of slaves in this country who have never received an official apology from the United States government over the maintenance and sustenance of slavery in this country. And Blacks have never even directly received an official expression of regret for what happened.

Now, of course, many Blacks will say that an apology, in and of itself, is meaningless. As Black Caucus member, Congressman Bennie Thompson (D- Ms) once said to me, "What can I do with an apology?"

Most Blacks recognize an apology as only a beginning. And that is why the United States is so shy to use that word. It leads to things. It opens the door for real deeds to be expected after the words are uttered.

If someone is sorry for something then the subsequent expectation is that something be done in an effort to help repair any emotional, spiritual or material harm done. An apology, quite often, is the basis of action. And that is why even though many White politicians, Presidents and Congresspersons have said that slavery was wrong, none have successfully pushed for an official apology to come from the United States government.

So with that in mind, it may be a long time before the Blacks or even the Chinese receive an official apology for real and/or perceived offenses.

Words are powerful.

Cedric Muhammad

Sunday, April 8, 2001