This present moment is a bizarre crossroads for race relations in America. In between honoring Martin Luther King Jr. and inaugurating Donald Trump, we remember one of our greatest civil rights leaders and anticipate the presidency of an unabashed exploiter of racism, arguably a racist himself.
We sense we are regressing. Even if we are in a better position in absolute terms now than in the 1950s—no more Jim Crow, for example—racism has recently become more open, prominent, and vicious than ten years ago. I saw this recently in the live comments on the Fox News Youtube stream of Obama’s farewell address.
My question today is: what’s the right reaction emotionally to racism?
I now want to engage that issue in more depth.
We live, it seems, in an age of outrage, both on the political right and left. The formula for scoring political points has become straightforward: focus on, exaggerate, or even invent flaws in your political opponents, and then get outraged.
In so behaving, people implicitly subscribe to the view that feelings of outrage carry inherent moral weight—as if outrage itself were such a reliable indicator of moral injustice that its mere presence is enough of an argument. In the present political climate, then, the easiest reaction to racism (or at least racism in others) is outrage.
Is it the best emotional reaction?
The tempting answer is yes, and I’ve been inclined toward outrage myself. But for another perspective, consider this passage from Booker T. Washington’s Up From Slavery:
I would permit no man, no matter what his colour might be, to narrow and degrade my soul by making me hate him. With God's help, I believe that I have completely rid myself of any ill feeling toward the Southern white man for any wrong that he may have inflicted upon my race. . . . I pity from the bottom of my heart any individual who is so unfortunate as to get into the habit of holding race prejudice. [my italics]
That last line suggests a strikingly different emotional reaction to racism—and immorality in general—from the presently popular outrage. Instead of hating we should pity racists—in other words, feel sorry for their sorry state. Washington’s opposition to hating racists also accords with Dr. King’s famous dictum, “Hate cannot drive our hate. Only love can do that.”
But why pity? Washington continues:
I am convinced that the most harmful effect of the practice to which the people in certain sections of the South have felt themselves compelled to resort, in order to get rid of the force of the Negroes’ ballot, is not wholly in the wrong done to the Negro, but in the permanent injury to the morals of the white man. The wrong to the Negro is temporary, but to the morals of the white man the injury is permanent. I have noted time and time again that when an individual perjures himself in order to break the force of the black man’s ballot, he soon learns to practice dishonesty in other relations of life, not only where the Negro is concerned, but equally so where a white man is concerned. The white man who begins by cheating a Negro usually ends by cheating a white man. The white man who begins to break the law by lynching a Negro soon yields to the temptation to lynch a white man. All this, it seems to me, makes it important that the whole Nation lend a hand in trying to lift the burden of ignorance from the South.
To me, three main ideas stand out in this remarkable passage.
First, in doing something immoral, such as committing perjury out of racism, one debases oneself, and anyone who is debased deserves pity. This is a powerful point and reminds us of Socrates’ myth at the end of Plato’s Gorgias, in which every immoral action puts a scar on one’s soul that makes it hideous. Should we not pity a hideous soul?
Second, racist wrongs are counterproductive even from an entirely selfish, instrumental standpoint. Racist immorality causes immoral habits generally (dishonesty, cheating, etc.), so it indirectly causes whites to demean other whites too, which is contrary to the entire point (if it could be called that) of the initial racist behavior.
Third—familiarly—ignorance causes racism. I think Washington means not just ignorance about people, but also ignorance in thinking there are advantages in demeaning others. And this point resonates today. Just think of the Brexit voters who hindered their country’s economic prospects out of ignorant racism. Or consider “conservative” voters in the Louisiana Bayou, who vote for politicians who stoke racial resentment but end up allowing destruction of the very environment those voters cherish. Ignorant people, including racists, shoot themselves in the feet.
So Washington identifies good reasons for cultivating pity. Pathetic people deserve pity, and racists are pathetic. I would elaborate that insofar as pity is a form of good will, it will motivate us to help to alleviate the relevant ignorance through direct engagement. To this, I’ll add a point of my own: outrage is often the tactic of racists themselves (those people are taking our jobs?!?), so in embracing pity, we differentiate ourselves from them.
All of this should be a subject of debate. No doubt, in some circumstances (but not others) outrage is appropriate. And as W. E. B. Du Bois would emphasize, we should not be lulled by emotions of any sort into accommodating racist behavior or policy. But Washington is right to make us think twice about our emotional state. And somehow, it seems that contemplating his words will put us in a better place to honor Dr. King’s own legacy—but still to face the clouds ahead of us.