As Black History Month nears an end, I’ve been impressed by a cavalcade of apologies for “racial insensitivity” and outright racism. Hardly a day has passed without one.
For the offended, however, the challenge is to determine whose apology is sincere and who is just blowing smoke.
Let’s see if you can tell.
The principal at Madison Trust Elementary School in Loudoun County, Va., sent a letter to parents on Feb. 12 apologizing for a “culturally insensitive” lesson on the Underground Railroad. Kids, black and white, were supposed to use cooperation and devise strategies to get everyone to freedom. A school spokesman said students were not assigned the role of slaves. The parents of an African American student contacted the president of the Loudoun chapter of the NAACP, however, to say that their son had played a runaway slave.
Teaching about slavery: right direction, just the wrong train. The school made a mistake and learns from it.
“I extend my sincerest apology to our students and school community,” wrote David Stewart, the principal.
On Monday, a white lawmaker from Harford County apologized to the leaders of the Legislative Black Caucus of Maryland for using a racial slur. Del. Mary Ann Lisanti (D), while talking to a white colleague at a bar in Annapolis earlier this month, allegedly referred to an area of Prince George’s County as a
Del. Darryl Barnes (D-Prince George’s), who chairs the Black Caucus, told Washington Post reporter Ovetta Wiggins: “She apologized several times. She recognizes how she has hurt so many within the caucus, and she hoped to repent from this.”
But when Wiggins questioned Lisanti about using the n-word, the delegate told her: “I don’t recall that.” And when asked whether she has ever used the slur, Lisanti said: “I’m sure I have . . . I’m sure everyone has used it.”
Sincere? How can you repent if you don’t know what you did? How can you repent when you admit that you’ve used it before and are sure everyone else has, too?
At the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore, President Samuel Hoi released a campuswide memo last week acknowledging and apologizing for racial segregation in its admissions policy from 1895 to 1954.
“An institutional acknowledgment in the form of an apology, no matter how sincere, is empty unless it is rooted in a systemic commitment for change and unless it represents meaningful action that is in progress,” Hoi said.
It’s an honest assessment of past failures and recognition of the work ahead, and that counts, too.
On Feb. 1, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D) acknowledged appearing in a “clearly racist and offensive” photograph in his 1984 medical school yearbook that shows a man in blackface and another in a Ku Klux Klan robe.
Although he had just proclaimed the start of Black History Month, Northam would spend much of the time participating in black apology month activities.
“I am deeply sorry for the decision I made to appear as I did in this photo and for the hurt that decision caused then and now,” he said.
Then, 24 hours later, he said he wasn’t in the photo and had been too eager to apologize, although he also acknowledged wearing blackface as part of a Michael Jackson costume that same year.
“When you’re in a state of shock like I was, we don’t always think as clearly as we should,” he said later. “I will tell you that later that night I had a chance to step back, take a deep breath, look at the picture and said, ‘This is not me in the picture.’ ”
A Post-Schar School poll found that 58 percent of Virginia’s black voters want Northam to stay in office and not resign.
Accepted by some, smoke to others.
And then there’s one that made me wonder why even ask for an apology.
During the American Federation of Government Employees conference in Washington last week, several members visited the Capitol Hill office of Rep. Drew Ferguson (R-Ga.). On display was a book, “Gen. Robert Edward Lee: Soldier, Citizen, and Christian Patriot,” along with some of Lee’s medals.
Ferguson had the book under a glass case and opened to a page that read, “The blacks are immeasurably better off here than in Africa, morally, societally, and physically. The painful discipline they are undergoing is necessary for their instruction as a race.”
“As a black man and constituent, I can say that nothing makes you feel more unwelcome in your own member of Congress’s office than seeing such racist memorabilia,” James Miller, AFGE Local 554 legislative political coordinator and steward, said in a statement.
In the same statement, Jeremy Lannan, AFGE national vice president for women and fair practices, said: “It is heinous to me that a sitting member of Congress elected by the people, for the people, would display such hateful materials in his congressional office. . . . Rep. Ferguson must immediately explain why he chose to display this book and the medals, and issue a formal apology for offending the countless constituents who have been forced to see it.”
Ferguson told The Post that the book was placed in his office by someone on his staff who he said decorated his office. He said he didn’t even know the book was there until AFGE members complained.
Later, when asked about the book on CNN, he said he had already apologized — in effect, been there, done that.
Only a day left in the month. So many apologies still to be made, so little time.
To read previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/milloy.