Why Amy Cooper’s Central Park Incident Apology is Weak
On March 25, there was an altercation between a woman dog-walker and a bird-watching man in Central Park.
Amy Cooper was walking her dog unleashed in an area where leashes are required. Chris Cooper (no relation) was bird-watching. When Chris Cooper asked Amy Cooper to leash her dog, her emotional response created a media sensation. A video made of the event has been watched more than 25 million times.
What gave this altercation such an edge is that Amy Cooper is a white woman and Chris Cooper is a Black man. The video that Chris Cooper wisely made of the incident showed a struggle not over a leash law, but about white privilege and entitlement and racism. Without the video, the story would have ended differently, perhaps violently, and maybe even fatally.
Thankfully, the situation was diffused. Amy Cooper backed down and quickly offered an apology. This post is an evaluation of that apology. If you haven’t watched the video, I suggest you do so. It’s not possible to evaluate Amy Cooper’s apology without that context.
Amy Cooper’s apology came in two forms.
A written statement and then some media quotes. Here is her written statement released on May 26, 2020:
I want to apologize to Chris Cooper for my actions when I encountered him in Central Park yesterday. I reacted emotionally and made false assumptions about his intentions when, in fact, I was the one who was acting inappropriately by not having my dog on a leash. When Chris began offering treats to my dog and confronted me in an area where there was no one else nearby and said, “You’re not going to like what I’m going to do next,” I assumed we were being threatened when all he had intended to do was record our encounter on his phone. He had every right to request that I leash my dog in an area where it was required. I am well aware of the pain that misassumptions and insensitive statements about race cause and would never have imagined that I would be involved in the type of incident that occurred with Chris. I hope that a few mortifying seconds in a lifetime of forty years will not define me in his eyes and that he will accept my sincere apology.
Amy Cooper’s conduct was egregious in the context of race relations.
What Was Effective
She seems to get it. I appreciate that Amy Cooper apologized quickly. She accepted responsibility for being in the wrong about the leash. She took responsibility for making false assumptions. She recognized that her conduct was prejudicial and was part of a pattern that victimized people of color. I appreciate that she did not ask for forgiveness, a common mistake in apologies.
What Was Ineffective
The main shortcoming of this apology is the defensiveness that creeps in when Amy Cooper tries to explain her emotional reaction. I advise those who apologize against any attempt to explain offending conduct. It’s almost impossible, as Cooper does here, for the explanation not to come off as rationalization or defensiveness. The apology would have been much stronger without the explanation.
Finally, the apology falls short because it omits a restitution step. What is Amy Cooper going to do about the offense? You can’t talk your way out of a situation you acted your way into. Her apology would be much stronger if she referenced her determination to be educated or volunteer or make a donation because she recognizes that she clearly has work to do.
Consequences were swift. Franklin Templeton, where Amy Cooper worked, quickly fired her. The dog in question was taken away from her. Predictably and sadly, she received death threats. Her introduction to the world of cancel culture is just beginning.
I wish Amy Cooper’s apology acknowledged the real reason this incident is so frightening: the history of white women’s ability to accrue power against men, especially black men, via police enforcement.
Amy Cooper should have let the written apology be the last word on the subject until she gained a deeper perspective on her racism. Unfortunately. In an interview with CNN, she made two unforced errors. First, she said, “I am not a racist.” I encourage offenders not to argue with the facts. And invoking the offender’s intentions is always counter-productive. No one cares about intentions. The only thing that matters in the apology is the offender’s conduct.