Leading By Example

In my previous post, I criticized Nathaniel’s ethic of unilateral charity as being ineffective or even perverse under certain institutional arrangements. An abolitionist who merely bought slaves to free them would only cause the evils of the slave trade to increase while enriching the slavers. However, I don’t want to be seen as being overly critical of Nathaniel’s ethic, because it’s truly beautiful. In fact, I should say that it should be the default ethic. We should always strive to act unilaterally and directly first, and only fall back to collective action when it’s obvious an institutional failure prevents our unilateral action from having positive effects.

Again, to keep things concrete, I will use the example of chattel slavery in the American South. This institution was obviously evil in pretty much every way, so there can be no reasonable debate as to whether a virtuous actor should strive to end it. The question is: how? My contention was that Nathaniel’s strategy of simply buying them and setting them free is naive, and probably harmful.

My suggestion, were I to travel back in time and find my opinion on the matter requested for some reason, would be to work on improving the white culture in the South, and their perception of blacks as people. Cultural and legal change would then flow from the majority’s view that “Hey, blacks are people too.”. Of course this process eventually did happen in America, over a hundred years or more, but there might be opportunity to speed that along. This task would not be Sisyphean (there’s an end goal that’s possible to reach), but it was indeed Herculean and required much charitable effort. And notably, the laws that eventually made a real difference in improving black lives (such as the Civil Rights Act, and ending the poll taxes and literacy tests) did not happen until after this process had reached a critical mass of American voters.

How would I have speed up this process? This is where Nathaniel’s ethic of using sympathy to end the cycles of injustice comes into play, but we apply it slightly differently. Rather than buying up all the slaves, I would pass the hat around at the local Abolition society in order to buy a few dozen slaves. Of course I would offer these slaves their manumission and the choice to simply walk away (otherwise, what sort of abolitionist would I be?), but I would make the argument to them that they can best help their own situation, and their children’s situation, and the culture at large the most by becoming a champion of black dignity and charity. Notably, by helping whites. Yes, whites.

Slavery is was a problem for blacks, but was a problem of whites. Slavery was a white problem, and its ending is a sign of white progress. It was the English communities that legalized, condoned, and practiced slavery that bear the flaw. You have to fix that flaw, and the only way to really fix it is encourage brotherly love from whites to blacks. To end slavery most effectively, whites have to love blacks; which is to say, blacks must make whites love them.

Does this sound fair? It’s not fair. Life ain’t fair. Get over it.

Imagine, if you will, if the Abolition Society took it upon itself to teach a freed black slave a trade such that he was able to provide for himself in early 1800s America. Maybe he’s a carpenter. And every couple years this carpenter takes on a white (yes, white) apprentice. This youth, raised in a racist culture, probably doesn’t have a high opinion of the black carpenter, but he needs a job and this one is on offer. Over the course of several years, no matter how derogatory the apprentice may behave, the black master treats him with dignity, pays him fairly, and makes an effort to teach the young man the ways of carpentry. After a few years, the master lends the young man a bit of money if necessary for him to get started with his own tools and business.

Now imagine that happening with dozens, or hundreds, of black professionals every year turning out many young whites on the world that see them as fair and dignified people. In this way I think the process of love between the races could be speed up quite a bit.

You’ll notice that the path I have described (based on Nathaniel’s ethic of redeeming the sinners) is very different than what actually happened, which is why our poor nation has had such a hard time of it on race relations. The Abolitionists seemed more concerned with using legislative tactics and war (but I repeat myself, as law is force too) to simply compel the rest of white America to comply with the Abolitionist view of the world. Even if the Abolitionists were morally right on slavery, they caused unnecessary loss and strife in their impatience and desire to achieve ends rather than change hearts. Further, the black community has often taken a view of having “black institutions” like Howard University or the NAACP help black people, feeding into the “us vs them” atmosphere that has poisoned race relations all these years. More action by both parties at the local and personal level, and with a goal of changing the heart of the racist rather than forcing his lips to comply, would, I think, have helped a great deal. It certainly would have set a great example.

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