What is the incentive to choose justice, even at the expense of one’s own privilege?

Over the weekend, I published a thought experiment: something we try on in our minds – often something that can’t actually be accomplished in real life, e.g., Schrodinger’s cat or Searle’s Chinese Room are two classics – to reveal something new.

My thought experiment turned on abolishing the police as they now exist and replacing them with something that would not have the mission James Baldwin characterized thusly in 1966: “to keep the Negro in his place and to protect white business interests.” I excerpted arguments that have come from key figures such as Black Lives Matter cofounder Alicia Garza, then asked this: “Reading the last few paragraphs, what was your response to the idea of drastically cutting – even abolishing – policing as it now exists?Did you think, “That’s crazy! Who will protect me?” If so, there is a colonizer in your head making you believe it is in your interests to perpetuate the system.”

The person who has this specific thought is on the other side of the line from the person who fears the police. Do I see myself as someone whose interests the police are here to protect, or someone who is in danger from the police? That seems like a pivotal and illuminating question in this moment, a powerful shot of self-knowledge and social knowledge. The balance of the essay advocated separating “from a system of white supremacy through word and deed.”

A reader responded this way:

I appreciate your honest appeal, though I feel it is lacking. Black people in America have been pleading with white people to accept us as dignified human beings for 400 years or longer, yet the ongoing police brutality against us is horrific evidence that white people are too vested in their own privilege to change their thinking toward us. Your final plea that whites have the “simple choice” to “[s]eparate yourself from a system of white supremacy through word and deed,” fails to acknowledge the simple truth that white people have no incentive to change their thinking about their privilege. While holding hands and singing “Kum Ba Ya” together has incentivized black people for centuries to forgive, believe the best of white people, go the extra mile to get along with white people, and (God forgive us), make ourselves more acceptable to white people, this ideal of living in harmony has never moved Whites to deny themselves of their privilege.

Perhaps your next piece on white privilege should be a confession that an internal incentive for Whites to give up their privilege in a racist society just does not exist – as well as a thoughtful consideration of what could possibly constitute such an incentive.

Let us take a moment to feel the reality of the moment in which this question must be asked.

I will try to take up the challenge.

It is rooted in a deep and ancient argument.Some philosophers espouse a doctrine of “rational egoism,” in which self-interest is the only valid basis for action. In this worldview, “What’s in it for me?” is more or less the only relevant question. It posits that human beings calculate the benefits to themselves of a particular action, then act to maximize them. In this frame, the suffering of others is negligible in comparison to the benefits the rational egotist derives from white skin privilege.

The alternative model can be summed up by reference to the Golden Rule (I’m citing Hillel’s version here): “Do not unto others that which is hateful to yourself.” The appeal to empathy is pretty pervasive, transcending all cultural barriers; here’s a link to an essay I wrote about it back in 2010 for an exhibit of artist Beth Grossman’s work that highlighted a dozen versions of this principle from as many faith and cultural traditions.

I can’t say “that an internal incentive for Whites to give up their privilege in a racist society just does not exist,” as the reader who commented believes, because the Golden Rule is a powerful incentive for me, one that speaks to me each day in a way I cannot ignore. Every Shabbat, we Jews are reminded that we were slaves in Egypt, that we must love our neighbors, that we must welcome and care for the other as we were others ourselves.

Of course, not everyone partakes of a spiritual practice. But, history demonstrates clearly that the passionate appeal to virtue by those who do has enough power to create a tipping-point. The Quakers are widely acknowledged as a catalytic force in the 18th and 19th centuries against slave-holding in Britain, France, and the U.S. In the mid-18th century, moral arguments for the rightness of slavery were common, and a hundred years later, the idea was repugnant enough to a huge percentage of the white population to provoke emancipation, even at the cost of civil war.

From a purely material calculation, white slave-owners could have gone on buying, selling, and torturing Black human beings forever. The incentive to stop? Empathy, decency, the fear of hellfire, the desire for heaven, the ability to look at oneself in the mirror and sleep at night. Or as the abolitionist Quaker preacher John Woolman put it, quoting Isaiah 17:11:

Wealth is attended with power, by which bargains and proceedings, contrary to universal righteousness, are supported; and hence oppression, carried on with worldly policy and order, clothes itself with the name of justice and becomes like a seed of discord in the soul. And as this spirit which wanders from the pure habitation prevails, so the seeds of war swell and sprout, and grow, and become strong, until much fruit is ripened. Then cometh the harvest spoken of by the prophet, which “is a heap, in the day of grief and desperate sorrows.”

The same moral arguments animated vast white support for ending legal segregation.When Dr. Martin Luther King drew on the words of the prophets in his remarkable call to moral justice, enough white people were also listening to bring about the end of legal segregation with the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

If self-interest were the only incentive, I doubt the Act would ever have been passed. We certainly know enough about the history of resistance to its implementation to see how long and hard rabid white supremacists will fight to keep from having to sit, eat, swim, and ride alongside Black people. But their desires did not prevail.

I do not cite these moments of history to say “look at all the progress, be patient,” as I have heard some others say.A quotation from the writer Adrienne Maree Brown is making the rounds. It states a truth I find irrefutable: “Things are not getting worse, they are getting uncovered. We must hold each other tight & continue to pull back the veil.” One of the things I want to help pull back the veil from is the idea that white people have no incentive to embrace justice at the cost of privilege.

James Baldwin is my ever-present guide in matters of love and justice. Despite the soul-crushing conditions he came up in – at war with his own powerful, persistent nature and vision, yet fearlessly speaking truth to power every day – he too believed the moral incentive was powerful and that love and connection could overcome. There are some amazing links in this essay I wrote about him in 2013, well worth clicking.

Baldwin’s righteous anger burned hotter as his too-short life unfolded. There’s an extended 1985 quote here that is mandatory reading. It ends with a powerful expression of the incentive for white people dismantling white supremacy: not only to right terrible wrongs to others, but to end the distortion and suppression of our own true humanity it has perpetuated:

The price the white American paid for his ticket was to become white – : and, in the main, nothing more than that, or, as he was to insist, nothing less. This incredibly limited not to say dimwitted ambition has choked many a human being to death here: and this, I contend, is because the white American has never accepted the real reasons for his journey. I know very well that my ancestors had no desire to come to this place: but neither did the ancestors of the people who became white and who require of my captivity a song. They require of me a song less to celebrate my captivity than to justify their own.

Bettye Lavette, “Worthy.”


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