Mea Culpa

Lessons on Law and Regret from U.S. History

256 pages

January, 2015

ISBN: 9781479899623



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Steven W. Bender is a Professor of Law and Associate Dean for Research and Faculty Development at Seattle University School of Law. He is the author of Greasers and Gringos: Latinos, Law, and the American Imagination (NYU Press, 2003), and One Night in America: Robert Kennedy, César Chávez, and the Dream of Dignity.

All books by Steven W. Bender

In Mea Culpa, Steven W. Bender examines how the United States’ collective shame about its past has shaped the evolution of law and behavior. We regret slavery and segregationist Jim Crow laws. We eventually apologize, while ignoring other oppressions, and our legal response to regret often fails to be transformative for the affected groups. By examining policies and practices that have affected the lives of groups that have been historically marginalized and oppressed, Bender is able to draw persuasive connections between shame and its eventual legal manifestations. Analyzing the United States’ historical response to its own atrocities, Bender identifies and develops a definitive moral compass that guides us away from the policies and practices that lead to societal regret.

Mea Culpa challenges its readers. In a different era, might we have been slave owners or proprietors of a racially segregated establishment? It’s easy to judge immorality in the hindsight of history, but what current practices and policies will later generations regret?

More than a historical survey, this volume offers a framework for resolving some of the most contentious social problems of our time. Drawing on his background as a legal scholar, Bender tackles immigration, the death penalty, the war on terror, reproductive rights, welfare, wage inequity, homelessness, mass incarceration, and same-sex marriage. Ultimately, he argues, it is the dehumanization of human beings that allows for practices to occur that will later be marked as regrettable. And all of us have a stake in standing on the side of history that resists dehumanization.



  • "The book challenges readers to ask if we are as enlightened as we think we are."

    The Seattle Times

  • "Bender, through the prism of regret for policies enacted as a result of dehumanization of particular groups, presents an admirable intersectional synthesis of current and past legal marginalization."


  • "A fascinating book that explores how American government has come to adopt policies that it regards in hindsight with great regret. Bender does a superb job of exploring both historical and current regrettable decisions and shows that they are all based on dehumanizing others. He offers a path forward based on a law founded on compassion. Through powerful examples and clear writing, Bender has written a book that is profound in its observations and conclusions and that deserves a wide readership."

    —Erwin Chemerinsky, Raymond Pryke Professor of First Amendment Law, University of California, Irvine

  • "Bender is a prolific author-activist whose work always commands a reading. One is rewarded for doing so because of the scope and complexity of Bender’s thought as well as his gift for prose.  That he speaks and writes credibly in so many different conversations enhances the contribution of his work. . . . One need not be a natural law doctrinaire to recognize that law, jurisprudence, and morals have more than an accidental relationship. [Bender] zeroes in on this and shows precisely why this matters."

    —John Shuford, Director of the Institute for Hate Studies, Gonzaga University

  • "Bender articulates a bold challenge to those who value inclusive democracy: confront dehumanizing policies and media images with individual moral courage and collective compassion. Mea Culpa is an energizing elixir to revive our commitment to a broad definition of community and thus to avoid the sorrow of personal regret and the tragedy of national regret."

    —Hazel Weiser, former executive director, Society of American Law Teachers

  • "Steven W. Bender’s Mea Culpa provoked deep sorrow and profound anger in me, as it will in most thoughtful readers. Professor Bender, one of the more nuanced listeners writing in the fields of immigration narratives and the codification of hate, has produced one of the more interesting books I have read in some time, paradoxically both troubling and hopeful. Of course, the many depredations he chronicles—examples of sin verguenza, or shamelessness—are dismaying, and have caused great harm to the stigmatized groups and the body politic, but he also notes that the deep shaming of past mistakes has often led to personal and official expressions of genuine regret, reparations, and reconciliation. He is no Pangloss, but his transformative work is ultimately uplifting, despite its documenting such hateful and spirit-murdering narratives."

    —Michael A. Olivas, William B. Bates Distinguished Chair in Law, University of Houston Law Center