A friend and I were catching up. She is very social and gets a lot of visitors in Key West. But she was dreading her upcoming visit with her nephew.
“He’s very bigoted,” she explained. “And he is a tenured teacher in an urban neighborhood. He claims that he learned his racism through his job.”
“He is actually a good person,” she continued. “He’s kind to his parents, tithes, and does a lot of volunteer work for his church.”
I was instantly appalled (and judgmental), that this person teaches people he hates.
We know that racism is not limited to just black and white. I attended my niece’s Bat Mitzvah, where an ultra-conservative rabbi preached that reluctantly he concluded that we need to kill people who violently (and that definition was broad) oppose Israel’s right to exist. My appalled brother-in-law never attended that Synagogue again. On another occasion, I remember listening to my cleric-uncle preach a sermon supporting racism. My father, visibly shaken, mumbled that there is a special place in Hell for people who preach hate from the pulpit.
This raises the question, can someone who is racist, an abuser, or misogynist be a good person?
This question has haunted me for some time.
There is another side to this coin as well. Tumblr has a site Racists Getting Fired whose goal is to find people who post racist comments on the Internet and notify their employers. Remember, Amy Cooper? She called the police on a Black man (who was a bird watcher in Central Park) indicating that an African-American was dangerously threatening her (when he merely asked her to leash her dog). He filmed the incident, and his post went viral. She lost her job, temporary custody of her dog, and was charged with attempting to file a false police report (it was later dropped).
Do these tactics assist in the battle for social injustice, or do they simply represent a new kind of abuse and create further division?
About 20 years ago, I decided that I would no longer call a racist, abuser, or misogynist a “good” person. Instead, I can describe his/her good characteristics and also clarify that s/he is biased.
But is this merely judgmental virtue signaling? (Namely, I am better than you because I am against racism.)
What do religious leaders and ethicists believe? Can racists, abusers, or misogynists also be “good” people?
Christians believe in “hating the sin” but “loving the sinner.” The Bible clearly states that only God can judge; and since are forgiven, we must forgive others. But what if the sin hurts so many people? Racism brings everyone down, both its targets and people share the same skin color as the racist.
Rabbis believe that the Torah compels us to make society a better place, so we must engage racists to help them understand that this point of view is not God’s teaching.
Ethicists are more nuanced. Most give advice on how to confront a person with racist views (use “I” words not “You” words). Others ask if it is “right” that we decide that our views are correct and those against us are not.
Should we remain friends with racists, misogynists, or abusers. Many Ethicists, following Aristotle, believe that friendship must err on the side of tolerance. But Aristotle also believed a friend’s character matters to a friendship. So if you believe that this is too great a character flaw, you can decide that the vices outweigh the good.
All agree that you it is very unlikely that calling out racism will change someone’s views – only they can. By just saying to someone, for example, “Your views are racist and you’re wrong”, you may have done the “right thing” in your mind – but have you changed anything?
Research on implicit bias suggests that people are much more complicated that just dividing us into racists and non-racists. All of us can be very quick to generalize about anyone who we perceive to be “the other.” This bias can be based on many characteristics: ethnicity, gender, race, age, religion, nationality, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, etc.
In fact, calling out others as racists, is little more than judgmental virtue signaling. (I am good, and you are “bad.”)
So, after all this, I still cannot find an answer. I guess that all that I can do is live with my choices, recognizing that I do not get to hold the “virtue wand.”
Angela Rieck, a Caroline County native, received her PhD in Mathematical Psychology from the University of Maryland and worked as a scientist at Bell Labs, and other high-tech companies in New Jersey before retiring as a corporate executive. Angela and her dogs divide their time between St Michaels and Key West Florida. Her daughter lives and works in New York City.