It's so difficult to say the words I was wrong—and mean them, feel them. Partly it must be rooted in childhood, when a parent says, "Bad girl!" Whatever the roots of this aversion, it seems to me that it's universal: we humans don't like harboring negative feelings about ourselves.
So, yes, it's difficult. But it's also sometimes necessary to say "I was wrong"; otherwise, the damage done by the wrong is imprisoned, barring any chance for real, true contact with others. This applies to interpersonal relationships and to our relationships with leaders and politicians, though it seems nearly impossible for politicians to utter this phrase. And I think this accounts for a lot of the falseness in political life and is partly why politicians so often don't seem like "real people." Our political leaders are guilty of, among other things, the mass incarceration of harms done. These are locked away, apparently on death row, never again to see the light of day.
There are millions of examples of this throughout our American history, but most recently, in this presidential campaign season, Bill and Hillary Clinton come to mind. During the Clinton presidency of the 1990s, Bill Clinton's "three-strikes" policy led to the mass incarceration of young black men. And Hillary used that phrase super-predators in the mid-1990s to refer to some youthful black criminals. Some Black Lives Matter activists have paroled that particular harm, and in February 2016, a young woman disrupted a fundraising talk by Hillary Clinton, demanding an apology on behalf of youth of color. Watch the video on YouTube.
Clinton's response to the disrupting woman starts out reasonably enough: "We'll talk about it." But as the woman continues to press for an apology, Clinton moves from being dismissive to being combative, until the young woman is escorted from the room. Once the woman is gone, Clinton returns to being dismissive.
In a follow-up video, the young woman explained that she wanted Clinton to take responsibility for the ways in which she (Clinton) has been complicit in contributing to the problems of mass incarceration and contemptuous racial stereotypes.
The dynamic on display in these two videos is familiar to all of us. I'm sure we've each been in the position of pressing for an apology as well as the position of defensively sidestepping accountability.
Further, Kevin E. Hooks argues that blaming the Clintons today for policies of the 1990s ignores important context:
[O]ur rear-view vision is clouded as we blindly reach back for historical liability that scapegoats two individuals while disregarding those of us who either stood by and did nothing or begged for crime reduction....Kevin E. Hooks
I continuously say "we," because we wanted change, we wanted solutions and we wanted a president to lead the change and be tough on crime. And now that the pain and urgency we felt has dulled, we want to make Hillary Clinton culpable for everything that went wrong....
If we focus our energy and efforts on assigning blame rather than forcing long-term systemic change, we do a disservice to the poor, the black and the brown who still languish unnecessarily in the hundreds of for-profit correctional facilities. Of greater importance, we fail to recognize a valuable teaching moment. One that begins with honest self-reflection.
While I do agree with Mr. Hooks, I also think the teaching moment can be extended. If we can find the courage to step out from behind our defenses, then we have the opportunity for real, true connection with others. If we hide behind our defenses and lock away our empathy to another's sense of wrong, the connection never happens, and the hurt never heals.
Paring down these complex issues to just the single instance of Hillary Clinton calling black youths "super-predators," I have to ask: Does she acknowledge that her words caused harm by inflating racial stereotypes? And if she doesn't, why not? Is it because she can't tolerate the feeling of being wrong, or does she have some justification to offer? And even if she has a justification, can't she acknowledge this young woman's sense of being wronged? Where is Clinton's empathy?
I doubt Clinton will ever answer any of these questions, but I've got a suggestion: maybe Clinton could work up to I was wrong by saying something less uncomfortable, like: "I have learned more since then. Then, my focus was on decreasing rates of crime and violence. Now, my focus is broader, and I understand more about the fallout that occurred in the wake of our efforts to curb crime. I didn't anticipate that my words would fuel racist action and racist policies. I regret that my words were used that way, and I do apologize to black youth who have been harmed by the incendiary phrase super-predator.
It comes down to, among other things, taking responsibility for one's thoughts, feelings, actions, and speech . . . and it includes saying I'm sorry to those we've hurt—even when the hurt is entirely unintentional.
Thank you Mary for this most informative blog. The two videos as well as Kevin Hooks' wise words emphasize the great need in the political arena for informed and truthful presentations. Unfortunately too often politicians will speak words and perform actions they believe will influence voters in their favor. Of note is that it is a black woman who so courageously confronted Hillary Clinton. This country needs more women-- Black, Hispanic, Asian and White to ferret out the truth of what is and speak up in its behalf. Thank you again, Mary, for being an inspiring woman by writing in such an accurate and revealing way about this topic and sponsoring this blog.
I'm curious, Jeannette: are women more likely or better equipped to ferret out truth ? I know you have studied and written on gender issues and I'd welcome your insights.
Thank you for joining this conversation!