In light of the recent and ongoing controversies surrounding the subject of race here in the United States, I have endeavored, at least a couple of different times, to comment on the issue, but I have always censored my own posts rather than publish them. The emotion, the agony and the anger, surrounding such a topic led me to remain quiet and allow other voices to do the talking. Indeed, the veritable uproar has so overwhelmed the news cycle, social media, and other online avenues that it did not seem appropriate for me to add to the noise.
Yet, a recent Vox article by Margaret Biser caught my eye this past week, and the interesting complexities latent within her piece led me to want to interject my opinion into this maelstrom.
One concept that tends to surface in these discussions is that of guilt over oppressions from ages past, typically framed within the perspective of majority white populations against minority non-white populations, usually deemed “white guilt.”
This notion appears within Biser’s article in a few places, but it is most explicit here:
In many other cases, however, justifications of slavery seemed primarily like an attempt by white Americans to avoid feelings of guilt for the past. (paragraph 29)
The term guilt can be a slippery concept to nail down depending on one’s understanding of its meaning, i.e. whether one intends a mere sensation or one connotes a solid grasp of culpability in a certain action. When it comes to America’s tortured past of racially driven slavery, however, neither use of the term guilt in referring to how today’s Caucasian population should feel or understand that dark period of American history adequately serves the lofty purpose that those who advocate for white guilt typically have for it.
Given the fact that next to no white person living today owns or at any time ever owned black slaves (or even argues that such activity would be a moral or pragmatic good), the sensation of guilt that a white person might experience in relation to slavery would be illogical and misplaced. This is not to say, however, that a white person should be insensible toward the horrors of American slavery; instead, he or she should be incensed by it!
I wouldn’t disagree with Biser that attempts at justifying slavery, for many people, serves as a means of placating a sense of guilt, but I heartily disagree that contemporary white Americans should be made or expected to feel guilty for the sins of her country’s (even her ancestors’) past. Should we, as whites, be broken and urged to weep over the injustice of it all? Absolutely.
Yet, whenever this new type of activist, the self-proclaimed “social justice warrior” (SJW), seeks to make a white person feel guilty about the past, that person has mistakenly sought a morale victory rather than a moral one. The aim for the SJW is to make him- or herself feel better about an ever-elusive, ill-defined cause rather than to see true Justice established.
I need to say (and probably should have said earlier) that Biser does not explicitly argue that imbibing whites with a sense of guilt should be a priority in absolving the escalating racial tensions so prevalent in America today. Unfortunately, many people (the majority of whom hold to a Left-leaning worldview) do see this as a viable part of the solution. At least, that’s often the sense that I get when surveying Internet “discourse.”
What so many of these SJWs miss, however, is how such an endeavor permeates an atmosphere of what might be called race warfare and only exacerbates the tension. Rather than promote and rely on a real virtue of Justice, so many of today’s voices that speak to these issues advocate merely for this or that subset of the larger population (whether it’s blacks, whites, cops, etc.). For an example of this, do a quick survey of a white nationalist website and compare it the Black Lives Matter movement’s “guiding principles.” Substitute white for black or black for white on either of those pages and you wouldn’t be able to discern which site was advocating for which group. With tactics like these, none of these problems would ever be solved, and the various tensions would never be eased.
So, what makes race warfare a seemingly impossible issue to overcome? Why, despite numerous efforts, does the problem seem only to be getting worse and worse with each passing week? Though it’s not the sole factor, a postmodern aversion to truth plays a major role in the difficulty. While terms like justice, equality, and diversity are utilized now more than ever, the definition and vision of those terms differ from social/ethnic group to ethnic/social group. Injustice certainly is everywhere, but rather than appeal to a transcendent Justice, social groups have become obsessed merely with justice as it relates to those who qualify as “their own.”
During the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, Martin Luther King, Jr. faced a similarly difficult task in fighting the injustices of segregation and racism, but he had a tool in his arsenal that today’s SJWs lack. Dr. King appealed to a higher sense of Justice that, even in the face of imprisonment and persecution, he would rely upon and expect to plead his case and win the day. After reading Malcolm Gladwell’s David and Goliath, I came to realize that a part of the strategy of the Civil Rights Movement was to actively put themselves in harm’s way so that, whenever they suffered injustice, the true light of Justice would shine all the brighter and testify to the integrity of their cause.
Many today avoid such an approach to tackling society’s ills because we might not appreciate the way we might look in such a Light. It’s easier to cling a postmodern, relativistic understanding of truth and justice that allows us to heap scorn and guilt upon our enemies while we come out clean and clear by our own lights.
That is, of course, the nature of using a flashlight in a dark world. We can control and point such a light at others, a light that usually casts ugly shadows. When in our hands, that light never has to be turned back on ourselves, and we can ridicule the warts and wrinkles of guilt and shame on the faces of our enemies without ever recognizing the need to turn the light upon ourselves. Bring in the sunlight, though, and all bets are off. That true Light reveals everyone’s inconsistencies and prepares the way to resolution and lasting peace.
Truth and Justice really should be for all. “Justices” and “truths” can deliver only for one.
Biser’s article in Vox actually grasps at such an appeal, and her response to America’s disease has promise but ultimately suffers from the plague of postmodern relativism:
Addressing racism isn’t just about correcting erroneous beliefs — it’s about making people see the humanity in others. (paragraph 33)
While there is Truth wrapped up in her sentiment, she directly contradicts herself in the above sentence; “making people see the humanity in others” implies “correcting [the] erroneous beliefs” of people who do not see the humanity in others.
What’s missing from Biser’s assessment is an understanding of what it means to be human and why seeing another person’s humanity would alter a racial supremacist’s behavior. There’s an assumption in her argument that within humanity, within every individual person, rests something of great value that ought to be respected and cherished.
In a secular humanist account of the universe, however, there’s little to no basis as to why that would be the case. Though Biser herself may not be a secular humanist, she has made her case in this article as if she were. Dancing around the ramifications of a felt truth about human dignity will not yield lasting results, though it may ease the tension for a season. We must ground the ramifications in a real Truth and then cling to that Truth if our aim is lasting change.
A Judeo-Christian understanding that humanity has been made in the image of God accounts for that intuition concerning the value of human persons and provides a grounding not only for human dignity but even for Justice itself. If that understanding gripped our hearts, minds, and souls, then we might be able to move toward healing America’s racial tensions.