No racial progress without virtue

Race Issues
by Anthony Bradley

Posted on Friday, November 13, 2015, at 3:11 pm

One of the distinctive elements of the black church–led civil rights movement was its capacity to appeal to America’s Judeo-Christian consciousness to make the case for ending Jim Crow. Policy changes had an anthropological context. The Southern Christian Leadership Conference was formed in 1957 to address not only the unconstitutionality of Jim Crow laws but also the immorality of racism in general. In light of the recent protests at the University of Missouri and Yale University, it seems that concerns about the immorality of racism have been exchanged for cosmetic changes that are ultimately about power.

The president of the University of Missouri system and the chancellor on its main campus both resigned on Monday amid student protests regarding the lack of response to racial incidents on campus. On Sept. 12, 2015, the school’s black student body president, reported on Facebook that “some guys riding on the back of a pickup truck decided that it would be okay to continuously scream [the N-word] at me.” These and other concerns led to a graduate student hunger strike and the African-American members of the football team threatening not to play their next game unless the president resigned.

Minority students at Yale University are currently embroiled in a controversy about Halloween costumes and other racial tensions on campus. The costume debate erupted when the university’s Intercultural Affairs Committee sent out an email asking students to be careful about wearing costumes that might be culturally offensive. Offering a different perspective, Erika Christakis, who serves on staff in one of the residence halls, wrote an email raising questions about the wisdom of the university preventing students from exercising the freedom to wear whatever they wanted to wear. The student reaction to the email in a video confrontation is one of the most depressing displays of uncivil discourse I’ve even seen.

The most disappointing aspect of the proposed solutions to these real or perceived racial tensions is that protestors are too satisfied with materialistic solutions to moral problems. Racial slurs and offensive costumes reveal a lack of character and wisdom more than anything else. Establishing diversity committees, hiring more black faculty, forced affirmative action, and banning costumes and free speech will never address the root of the problem: Our culture lacks moral virtue.

If we cannot appeal to transcendent cultural virtues, or even values, we are left to settle our tensions through coercive tribal power and entitlement wars. Diversity hires, forced resignations, and “safe, trigger-free spaces” for students do nothing to instill moral virtue in these students. It should come as no surprise that 50 years after the civil rights movement, and 50 years after a concerted effort by progressives to purge Judeo-Christian virtues from the public square, racial tensions persist and coercive policy changes are viewed as our best means of progress. Trading off power positions without concomitant advances in moral virtue will never bring about the type of change that protestors at Missouri and Yale seek in the long run. Moral virtue was the genius of the civil rights movement that is lacking today. 

Anthony Bradley

Anthony is associate professor of religious studies at The King's College in New York and a research fellow at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty.

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