Self-Interest for White Anti-Racists

Recently in a class I teach at Boston College, I observed a young African American woman speak firmly and eloquently about her anger in the face of racism; in that context she challenged white students to be angry also. One of the women asked, “What should I do, as a white?” The answer was quick: “I can’t tell you what you should do… I’m not white… but do something!” A continuing exchange was punctuated by a plea for the white students to become active against racism, to do something, … and to do it because racism simply is not right. “It is not just; can’t you see that! Do something,” was the urgent theme.

As I watched the young whites in the class struggle to find how to become active anti-racists, I felt also their need to discover a motivation, something that would move them to act.

Reflecting on that exchange took my thoughts to another time, when I worked with other whites to identify a motive for anti-racist involvement.

About twenty-five years ago when I first became fully active in the anti-racist movement, a common discussion among whites centered in sharing our motivations for working against racism. I often stated my motivation in terms of wanting to see “justice.” Most others said this was too vague and ethereal; it never seemed that to me, since I could see the practical effects of injustice every day. Still, I understood the discomfort which others felt, and wanted to respond to what most of my colleagues articulated as a concern rooted in white self-interest.

Much of the concern to identify the self-interest which might motivate white anti-racists comes from a desire to avoid the paternalism which so often accompanies a concern to “help” people of color. I wanted to avoid that also, and was as eager as others not to fall into the trap of simply appearing to be a kind of white savior, working to release people of color from their state. So we began to look for reasons why anti-racism would benefit whites, and would therefore be in our self-interest.

Most of my friends thought that white self-interest would provide a more authentic motivation than “helping” or seeking “justice.” Yet I was never completely at home with the self-interest focus. It seemed just as logical for me to say that continuing racism was as much in my “white” interest as being anti-racist. In the short run of history, racism works very much for my advantage as a white male. From that point of view it could be argued that my self-interest would be better invested in keeping things as they are.

The long run would more easily entertain arguments about the self-interest of white people. Still, the idea of white self-interest as the primary motivation for anti-racism did not go down well! My motivation was, and still is, rooted in a concern for justice. It still does not seem ethereal or vague to me. It takes little to whip up a lot of motivating anger around that concern.

Today I work at Community Change, with a consciously-articulated focus on the need for white people and white-controlled institutions to change significantly the racism which prevails. Racism is unjust, it is simply wrong, and wrong because of what it does to people. With that articulated point of view, I know clearly what has troubled me about rooting anti-racist motivations in what is called white self-interest.

History helps me to understand the dangers in anti-racism which focuses on the negative effects of racism on whites, and subsequently on the benefits of anti-racism for whites. I caution against making white self-interest a primary focus of anti-racism.

Thomas Jefferson illustrates the reason for my caution. He was confused when it came to his feelings about both the institution of slavery and those whom it enslaved. He declared all “men” to be created equal, yet he believed whites to be superior to African people. He knew that to enslave another person was wrong, but he was a slave-holder. Confronting this terrible contradiction in his own head and heart, he wrote about what was wrong with slavery. In his writing he expressed his concern for his self-interest as a white man, and showed less concern about what enslavement did to the enslaved Africans.

Jefferson was mainly concerned about the fact that white children would see their slaveholding parents and neighbors doing something which was manifestly wrong, and, witnessing this daily exercise in tyranny, they would be “stamped by it with odious peculiarities.” He went on to express a concern that white morals would be depraved, leading then to the destruction of “industry” among whites. He “trembled” when he thought of God’s justice, knowing that “his justice will not sleep forever.” That “trembling” was in the context of Jefferson’s fear of slave rebellion, which he knew would bring death to whites and destruction to the white system of slavery. As a white, there was much articulated self-interest in Jefferson, but that self-interest did not lead him to end a racist system. Then there were white abolitionists; memory of them stirs me with respect and admiration. Yet when they were motivated by white self-interest they were weakest and least effective. Some wanted to end slavery as a way to rid the nation of the slaves. Thus they supported the Colonization movement which proposed to send freed, former slaves out of the country. The concern was not rooted in the system of enslavement and its affect on Africans. Rather, the Colonizationists were convinced that the two races were not equal and could never get along; therefore, it was best to release and remove the Africans. Clearly a motivation of white self-interest; just as clearly, racist. Other white Abolitionists simply wanted to get rid of a bad system, which in the long run was not economically viable and was poisoning the nation. White interest surely, but hard to call anti-racist!

Among the religious people, white self-interest led to two dominant stances in regard to slavery. Some religious leaders were eager to convert enslaved people to Christianity, insuring the slave owners that the new state of baptism would make their slaves more docile and obedient “servants.” That would increase the number of people on the role of church-members, each a kind of “notch in the belt” of soul savers! Clearly that was a matter of white self-interest! There was no need to worry that the new state of “grace” would change the status of the enslaved converts. They would remain slaves! The interest of white owners was served! Other white religious Abolitionists urged Christian slave owners to free their slaves, and wanted churches to take a stand against slavery because in each case it would remove the stain of an immoral system from the perpetrators of the system. Neither guilt nor taint was good, so get rid of both. Again, the concern was for the slave-owner rather than the enslaved, a matter of white self-interest; also, fundamentally racist in view and effect.

Forrest Wood’s lengthy discussion of the role of many churches led him to conclude: “Eternal truths notwithstanding, when it came to matters involving racial issues, Christianity’s readiness to accommodate secular interests was second to none. The only truth that was eternal was the truth of self-interest.”[1]

So history teaches me to be cautious whenever anyone puts a primary motivation for anti-racism into the context of white self-interest. It is much too easy for that white self-interest to undermine anti-racism. White self-interest often belies a naive view of the insidious propensity of racism to leave white self-interest mired in white self-interest. White self-interest too often becomes stalled in concern for whites, and may never move beyond that. When that happens, racism gets its way.

Others may argue that my concern for justice is not a solid grounding for anti-racism, fraught with its perils for the actual work. Help me to be aware of those, and I’ll try to keep you “honest” about white self-interest.

[1] Wood, Forest G., The Arrogance of Faith, Knopf, 1990, page 338.