Leadership and Apology: An Open Letter to POTUS

November 8, 2015

Dear President Obama,

In the same way Apartheid came to define South Africa and Nazism defined Germany during and directly after World War II, slavery has continued to define and denigrate the promise of the United States of America.

It is our national shame and I believe it is time for you to address it.

More than 150 years since Juneteenth when the last of the American slaves were set free and 50 years since the civil rights movement, one of our biggest challenges remains equal rights, fairness and race relations.

The bestselling book and National Book Award finalist Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates is a powerful work that has stirred up conversations that many Americans are uncomfortable having. Yet we can’t have meaningful dialogue about race without getting a bit uncomfortable. And that’s okay because we will come out better once we respectfully engage in it.

In this blog I typically write about workplace communication, organization development and overall leadership. An important element of leadership is admitting mistakes and errors—even those that occurred before us—and speaking up and addressing these difficult yet undeniable truths.

The integrity you demonstrate here would stand out as a positive model against so many recent examples of corporate leaders (e.g., Volkswagen and Exxon) choosing not to do the right thing.

As the leader of the free world entering your final year in office, I can think of no better person or time for taking this bold and important step.

On behalf of the American people, it is time for you to apologize to all African-Americans for the injustice that slavery was to their ancestors. This is not a new idea, but it is one you should strongly consider at this time of fractured race relations in America.

Last summer, on the 150th anniversary of Juneteenth, Timothy Egan wrote an editorial in The New York Times suggesting Obama should “apologize for the land of the free being, at one time, the largest slaveholding nation on earth.” Egan stated that conservatives might scoff at this saying you shouldn’t play the race card and liberals may complain that an apology doesn’t go far enough without reparations. You should do it nevertheless.

As Egan correctly pointed out the British, the Vatican, the Germans and the South Africans all issued formal apologies for their official cruelties, and in each case this had a cleansing and liberating effect. Though the U.S. Congress apologized to African-Americans for slavery in 2009, it did not have the wide reaching significance as would such a statement coming from you as President.

This is the right time and you are the right person to do this. And while I understand you may have reservations, let me address some of them here:

What good will it do?
By taking accountability for our forefathers’ actions, we as a nation can begin to heal the shame we continue to experience. Many will deny any shame at all, but it is undeniable when you consider the current state of race relations in our country. And if we compare our country’s actions with our standards for which we profess (e.g., that all men are created equal, etc.), we are not in congruence and this weighs heavily on our national consciousness as well as who we are as a people. Accepting responsibility for slavery means we own up to this grave mistake and learn from it so we can live together more peacefully.

Why do this now?
You were elected as our first African-American President and since we have witnessed the tragic deaths of so many young black people like Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown, stirring the #BlackLivesMatter movement. It is time to act. No one is better positioned, more articulate, and with the necessary credibility to offer such an apology. It is time because unlike those who may succeed you, only Senator Bernie Sanders stated that such a statement is even necessary. You doing this—perhaps strategically between next November’s election and the time you leave office—will help heal our national wound.

What about potential repercussions?
As a former law professor, I’m sure your biggest concern is that making such an apology will open the government up to being sued. This is a valid concern and therefore the apology requires careful language that admits our forefathers’ error as well as our past, present and future efforts to make things right. Not you or any currently living American is directly responsible for slavery, but we must all acknowledge and right the mistakes of those who preceded us.

Some may believe that without reparations of some kind, an apology is not enough. However, Coates and others have pointed out that reparations are not necessarily about remuneration, but about unequivocally acknowledging the wrongs the state has inflicted on black people. It is about accepting responsibility and apologizing.

This apology will admit the error of our collective past and, most importantly, commit to working together to move forward. It is about changing a fixed mindset rather than making restitution.

As the son of a Kenyan-born father and Kansas-born mother, you are uniquely qualified and positioned to help heal the wounds of American slavery. Make this part of your Presidential legacy and move America forward by healing the shame of our collective past.

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