“While we bestow our earnest disapprobation on the system of slavery, let us not flatter ourselves that we are in reality any better than our brethren in the South.” So begins the final chapter of “An Appeal in Favor of that Class of Americans Known as Africans,” written by Massachusetts abolitionist Lydia Maria Child in 1833. With white nationalist groups threatening to convene in Boston this weekend, her words should haunt us still.
Child was the first to publicly diagnose what might be called “Boston Blindness” — an affliction not confined to the city, to be sure, but prevalent across the northern latitudes, where geographic pride makes it impossible for people to accept culpability for the country’s ongoing racial injustices. It’s a malady whose symptoms include shock when someone labels New England’s largest metropolis “the most racist I’ve ever been to.”
We in the North congratulate ourselves on the absence of Confederate monuments in our city squares. But we too easily ignore the mass incarceration, housing discrimination, and failing schools that are, as Child would put it, both foolish and sinful. By almost every measure, African-American citizens are less well off than their white counterparts. Let us not flatter ourselves.
Child — a writer of some repute who also penned the lines “over the river and through the woods” — devoted her life to exposing slavery’s evils and fighting for its eradication. But she also saw that the problem was not limited to the South. Although there was no slavery in the North, Child writes, the “very spirit of the hateful and mischievous thing is here in all its strength.”
Prejudice, she said, encouraged blatant contradictions. Blacks were accused of ignorance, but efforts to educate them were violently suppressed. They were described as lazy yet kept from employment. This was the hypocrisy that Child called both “foolish and sinful.” She concludes: “If the free States wished to cherish the system of slavery forever, they could not take a more direct course than they do now.”
When Child published the “Appeal,” her indictment of northern racism was more than the good citizens of Boston could stand. She was ostracized. Her book sales plummeted. She and her husband declared bankruptcy. The Boston Athenaeum cancelled her borrowing privileges.
Twelve years ago, I was teaching at a college near Boston when black students reported a posting on a white student’s Facebook wall, fantasizing about “drop-kicking” African Americans back to Africa where they could die of AIDS. The campus convulsed with outrage. The backlash was also fierce. At an open meeting, black students testified to the racism they faced, on campus and off, and to their fellow students’ deep racial ignorance. One student, weeping, said that her family had warned her against coming to Boston because it was the most racist city in the country. Now, she sobbed, she saw that they were right.
At that point, I had lived in Boston for fifteen years. I was in my thirties. I had three university degrees. I was involved in social justice work. And I had no idea what she was talking about.
I do not remember that student’s name, nor would she remember me. But she changed my life. I started with J. Anthony Lukas’ “Common Ground” and kept going. I know more now. But undoing habits of apathy induced by bad argumentation is a lifelong task. Racism isn’t innate in us; it has to be taught. And curing our own racial blindness requires work, too.
Now, I teach at Colby College in Maine. In the years since that Facebook post, bad college behavior on social media has become commonplace. When such incidents happen, I take time in my classes to discuss the convulsion and backlash that — then as now — inevitably follow. I am always struck by the patience and grace with which my black students explain facts about race in America to their white peers. I deeply admire their grasp of history, argument, and logic.
And I am struck by how difficult it is for those of us in the “liberal North” to accept these arguments. We are too ignorant of the history that Child so relentlessly exposed. We are northerners; we can’t be part of the problem. Assumed superiority in turn contorts reasoning and warps logic.
“The evil is gigantic,” Child wrote in 1833, “and its removal requires every heart and head in the commonwealth.” Michael Eric Dyson wrote this week: “Now is the time for every decent white American to prove he or she loves this country by actively speaking out against the scourge this bigotocracy represents.” The time for self-flattery is over. The time for change has long since come.
Lydia L. Moland is an associate professor of philosophy at Colby College.