The Great Divide (Pt.6)

Michael Metzger

The Great Divide might even explain the inefficacy of America’s anti-racism efforts.

I’m all for eradicating institutional racism. And, in some cases, we’re off to a promising start. But two black leaders recently suggested many efforts will prove ineffective. The first is Saida Grundy, a black feminist and professor at Boston University. She recently wrote an article titled “The False Promise of Anti-racism books.”

Grundy challenges the efficacy of “collective awareness,” that “broader knowledge of systemic racism will bring about meaningful social change.” Collective awareness is known as “consciousness raising.” In the 1960s many radical feminists were critical of consciousness raising. Grundy says it amounts to little more than navel-gazing. Eradicating racism requires “systemic, structural change.”

Grundy’s right. The idea of consciousness, or mindfulness, was largely unknown in the western world before 1800. The problem is that it generally doesn’t translate into meaningful action. We can be mindful of many bad things yet do very little about them.

Before 1800, the appeal was to conscience. Thomas Clarkson, called the conscience of the Clapham Sect, is a good example. In 1785, the university vice chancellor at Cambridge chose this for its annual essay contest question: “Anne liceat invitos in servitutem dare?”Is it lawful to make slaves of others against their will? Clarkson’s essay won first prize.

Shortly after claiming the prize, Clarkson’s conscience convicted him. He was tortured by the awful visions of the traffic in human lives. At one point, falling to the ground in anguish, he determined that if what he had written in his essay were indeed true, it led to only one conclusion: “It was time some person should see these calamities to their end.”

That required systemic, structural change. On May 22, 1787, Clarkson brought together 12 men to plot the course. Alexis de Tocqueville would later describe the results of that meeting as “extraordinary.” This tiny group, which named itself the Society for the Abolition of the African Slave Trade, took on the institution of slavery.

Clarkson took on the role of systemically gathering data. He logged 35,000 miles on horseback, crisscrossing the British countryside, that William Wilberforce used in parliamentary debate. But note that this effort began before the Didactic Enlightenment (1800-1815) that resulted in C. S. Lewis’ Great Divide (1816). After the divide, consciousness replaced conscience.

The second article is “The Condescending Dehumunization of White Fraglity” by John McWhorter, a black professor at Columbia University. White Fragility is the title of a book written by Robin DiAngelo. It’s all the rage in Corporate America.

DiAngelo’s premise is that when we look at outcomes (e.g. in education) we see disparities between blacks and whites. She’s right. But DiAngelo attributes this to institutional racism. White people generally have difficulty recognizing this because they’re fragile.

McWhorter says that’s dehumanizing. He’s right. White fragility gives black people a pass as “endlessly delicate poster children” too fragile to take responsibility for their actions. It treats white people as too fragile to handle the truth that they’re racist.

Before 1800 and the Didactic Enlightenment, it was understood that people of good conscience are frail, not fragile. We see this in the Lord’s Prayer. “Deliver us from evil” recognizes we’re frail – prone to sin – but can face the worst truths about ourselves and not fall apart.

Fragile people can’t. Scripture defines fragile people as having a weak or defiled conscience (c.f. I Cor.8). They’re like Humpty-Dumpty. They fall, they shatter. All the king’s horses and all the king’s men – and all our consciousness raising – can’t put fragile people back together again.

As I said, I’m all for eradicating institutional racism. But if history is any guide, the most effective course of action is appealing to human conscience rather than raising consciousness.



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One Comment

  1. I find it interesting that there is silence in the comment section. No “Great Job!” or “made me think” comments…:-(
    Mike, I agree with what you have said, but I also think that making our conscience more sensitive requires imagination and empathy. Empathy to understand the feelings of others and imagination to “walk a mile in their shoes”. Statistics do not build either. We need more stories from different angles of this debate. Hopefully it will convict us of our blind spots and make us more willing to reach across the divide to help each other.
    Great Job!…:-)

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