What to do with racist dead white men

Should we repudiate dead white men who made racist comments?

To make it a Unitarian Universalist question: Theodore Parker was an abolitionist. But as has been documented by Mark Morrison-Reed and others, Parker also believed blacks were inferior to whites, and he espoused views that today many would define as white supremacist views. Should we repudiate Parker for his racism?

There’s a strong argument to be made that Parker is morally suspect because of his racism. But in an article on Aeon titled “Why sexist and racist philosophers might still be admirable,” philosopher Julian Baggini argues that we should be careful about condemning dead thinkers out of hand:

“Why do so many find it impossible to believe that any so-called genius could fail to see that their prejudices were irrational and immoral? One reason is that our culture has its own deep-seated and mistaken assumption: that the individual is an autonomous human intellect independent from the social environment. Even a passing acquaintance with psychology, sociology or anthropology should squash that comfortable illusion. The enlightenment ideal that we can and should all think for ourselves should not be confused with the hyper-enlightenment fantasy that we can think all by ourselves. Our thinking is shaped by our environment in profound ways that we often aren’t even aware of.”

In other words, progressives in the early twenty-first century have our own blind spot: we still believe in the myth of hyper-individualism — what Baggini terms the “hyper-enlightenment fantasy.” We believe this myth, or fantasy, even though it is so patently false.

This doesn’t mean that Parker gets a pass. It does mean that, even though he was really smart, Parker could not entirely transcend his social environment.

Rather than rejecting Parker for his racism, I think about the fact that even though he couldn’t transcend his social environment, he pushed as hard as he could along the moral arc of the universe towards justice. And I’m pretty sure that if I could measure his progress along that moral arc of the universe, I would discover he moved further from where he started to the ultimate goal of justice than I ever will. That same statement would be true of most people alive today: I imagine there are very few people alive today who are righteous enough that they are in a position to condemn Parker (I know of none personally); it is given to very few to transcend their social environment that far.

This tallies with an observation I’ve made about how progress is made in the fight against racism. I’ve seen more than one congregational program to get white people to understand how they personally are racist; in my experience, those kinds of programs lead to some personal enlightenment for a few individuals, but don’t really change the system. What works better is setting up policies and procedures in a congregation that dial back the institutional racism; in my (limited) experience, this is more effective than consciousness-raining exercises. We can and should think for ourselves; but lasting change is more likely to happen through changing the social environment than through changing individuals.

One thought on “What to do with racist dead white men”

  1. I’ve been trying to articulate what you said here about hyper-individualism for some time now. Thank you for doing it, and for the pointer toward the “hyper-enlightenment fantasy”.

    The paradox I’ve seen is that we demand action from people, not words; yet when someone who acts well says something questionable, their actions stop mattering. Theodore Parker was prepared to pick up a loaded gun and kill to keep another human being free. He probably participated in the anti-slave-catcher rioting and he helped pay for John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry.

    His actions speak louder than his words.

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