by Daniel A. Morris
It is strange to use “in the age of Charlottesville” in the subtitle of a post on racism in America. As if what happened at the “Unite the Right” rally in August were something new or extraordinary. One might as well write “in the age of Long Island, Cincinnati, Charleston, Ferguson, Oakland, Los Angeles, Boston, Money, Tulsa…” and so on. One might as well write “in America.” Nevertheless, I use Charlottesville as the point of reference because it is the clearest example from recent memory of the way that the Trump presidency has emboldened and crystallized white supremacy in America. Charlottesville and the normalization of white supremacy give us white people an important opportunity to think about racial oppression.
Billy Graham and other white Christian leaders have often suggested that social problems are best addressed through inward personal change, rather than through the reformation of oppressive systems of power. In that vein I want to think about what white virtue looks like in a country built on and beholden to white supremacy. I am a white person, writing for white people who believe this topic is meritorious enough to keep reading. I offer these reflections on virtue as someone who believes that we white people bear responsibility for racial oppression that is proportionate with our power and privilege.
Which virtues must white people possess in order to destabilize white supremacy? By “virtue,” I mean a quality of character, cultivated through and exhibited in habit, that inclines its possessor toward the good. In this specific context, “the good” is clear understanding of racial oppression and pursuit of a social reality in which racism is diminished or eradicated. We white people can and should try to cultivate several virtues in order to address racial oppression, such as courage, solidarity, humility, justice, and others. For now, though, I want to suggest honesty as a virtue that white people must possess in order to dismantle structural racism. Indeed, systemic racial oppression thrives on our dishonesty.
Aristotle treats the quality of character that I call “honesty” under the heading of “truthfulness.” As he does with all moral virtues, Aristotle believes this quality of character avoids both excess and deficiency. “The boastful man,” he writes, “is thought to be apt to claim the things that bring glory, when he has not got them, or to claim more of them than he has, and the mock-modest man on the other hand to disclaim what he has or belittle it, while the man who observes the mean is one who calls a thing by its own name, being truthful both in life and in word, owning to what he has, neither more nor less” (Nicomachean Ethics, IV, 7).
We white people have not been honest about racial oppression in the United States. Even in the early 21st century we are not willing to call things by their names. Using Aristotle’s categories, we have been both boastful and mock-modest in our engagement of white supremacy.
It is easy to see white boastfulness in the era of Charlottesville. Richard Spencer offers the easiest example of white boastfulness, with his agenda of white nationalism and calls for ethnic cleansing, which are based on a view of white superiority that cannot be supported with any facts. If we truly possess the virtue of honesty, we white people will reject these lies every time we encounter them. After all, if one possesses a virtue, one demonstrates it whenever circumstances call for it. Nor are these views limited to Richard Spencer. Elected officials like Steve King propagate the same lies. Being honest means, in part, standing up and saying no whenever we hear such claims.
It is less easy to see what Aristotle calls mock-modesty in white people’s approaches to racial oppression today. Nevertheless, this vice is present, too. We disclaim or belittle the actual power and privilege that we possess on the basis of race in many ways. Sometimes we do this by making comments that simply dismiss claims of racial oppression and white privilege.
For example, responding to police brutality against black bodies with comments such as “You should always do what the police tell you,” dismisses the fatal escalations of state force that have taken black lives and demand our serious moral attention. Responding to the mass incarceration of black men with comments such as “If you don’t want to go to jail, don’t sell drugs,” ignores the fact that black and Latino men are jailed for drug use much more frequently than young white men are, despite similar rates of possession and usage.
Both kinds of comments are mock-modest, and therefore dishonest, because they minimize both the injustices that people of color face and also the power that simultaneously protects white people from the same injustices.
We are also guilty of mock-modesty when we defend and protect white supremacy behind the shield of “freedom of speech.” Invoking “freedom of speech” to conclude that speakers like Richard Spencer must be allowed to say whatever they want in public without any disturbances belittles the white power that puts him on stages in the first place. To be truthful, in the Aristotelian sense, free speech advocates need to ask themselves whether all speech is equally free. And why the Black Panther Party doesn’t enjoy the same audiences and protections today. And why protestors’ freedom of speech is apparently not worth noticing when they shout over Spencer’s words. And why people of color know that they simply cannot “speak” comparable arguments about white inferiority without legitimate fear of reprisal. Those are the kinds of questions we white people must ask ourselves to be honest.
White people, let’s be virtuous and not vicious. Let’s take the short and basic step of being honest as we engage racial oppression in 21st century America.
Daniel A. Morris is an independent scholar living in Northfield, Vermont. His training is in ethics and American religion. In 2015, his book Virtue and Irony in American Democracy: Revisiting Dewey and Niebuhr, was published with Lexington Books.