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Published: Sunday, 8/3/2008

An empty gesture on race

APOLOGIES are nice, especially when they are heartfelt, but they don't amount to much unless they result in substantive changes in behavior on the part of those who apologize.

That principle seems to strike at the heart of the latest example of collective breast beating in which the U.S. House of Representatives has issued an apology to African-Americans for slavery and Jim Crow legislation that over nearly four centuries made America somewhat less than the land of opportunity for millions of blacks.

One might argue that in recent decades we have become a nation - or at least a government - frequently adorned in sackcloth and ashes.

In 1988, for example, the government apologized to Japanese-Americans for having put them in internment camps during World War II. Our leaders also apologized in our behalf to native Hawaiians in 1993 for having overthrown the island kingdom's rulers 100 years earlier, largely at the behest of American business interests.

And Sen. Sam Brownback (R., Kansas) has called several times for an official apology to native Americans for past "instances of violence, maltreatment, and neglect," not to be confused with a collective "my bad" for taking their continent away from them.

But while contrition is, as they say, good for the soul, it's not very useful - unless you're Rep. Steve Cohen (D., Tenn.).

The freshman lawmaker from Memphis, the first white representative from this black-majority district in three decades, is in a tough primary battle. That alone is sufficient to explain his interest in the official House mea culpa for past wrongs suffered by blacks in America, although he might point to loftier motives.

What all of these apologies have in common, however, is that they cost nothing. Indeed, they often are worded specifically to avoid any suggestion that something more than an apology might be owed for these past wrongs. As a result, they are of little use to the victims they are meant to make feel better.

Sadly, Mr. Cohen's resolution and the House's well-meaning vote may even have negative effects. Some people may see it as an opportunity to demand reparations, a discussion likely to lead only to recrimination and bitterness. Others will view it as a harbinger of the demise of "white America" and use it as another reason to call on voters to reject Barack Obama. Certainly, that narrow-minded view ought not to be fueled by empty gestures.

If Mr. Cohen and his colleagues in the House really are interested in making amends for slavery and institutionalized discrimination, there are better ways to go about it.

They could, for example, invest more in African-American neighborhoods - both urban and rural - to improve education and increase economic opportunities. And they could invest their time, effort, and the resources of government in helping to eliminate the subtle prejudices in everything from housing to loans to jobs that still deny many African-Americans their full portion of the American dream.

Actions such as these would speak much louder than simply saying, "We're sorry."

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