Moral Repair: a bridge from betrayal to freedom

Another one bites the dust 

Last week Johns Hopkins University announced that its founding benefactor was not the principled abolitionist portrayed in its institutional mythic history. Johns Hopkins, the wealthy Baltimore entrepreneur, industrialist, and philanthropist, was a slaveholder. 

For some members of the Johns Hopkins community the news was a devastating moral betrayal of an institutional mission of discovery aimed at sharing knowledge and healing throughout the world. For others, the revelation was just one more myth-busting episode in the long journey of reckoning with a troubled past of human rights abuses that many Americans would rather bury in vacuous patriotism. Unsurprised by the truth, Lawrence Jackson, a Baltimore native and Professor of English and History at Johns Hopkins, recognized the public acknowledgement of the founder as slaveholder as a call to action and deeper resolve to dismantle the structural racial injustice that permeates American society and the global economy. For Professor Martha Jones, whose research uncovered the 19th century historical records of Johns Hopkins’ claim to ownership of four men, the bitter truth inspired a renewed commitment to historical research and formation of the Hard Histories at Hopkins project. These resolute exemplars of moral courage invite everyone associated with Johns Hopkins to embrace the truth and lean into the words embedded in its academic seal: Veritas vos liberabit – the truth will set you free.

Moral betrayal

Moral betrayal is serious, harmful wrongdoing that damages trust in shared moral norms and relations. As social creatures, we all rely on moral communities of people and institutions to foster and validate shared values as well as our self-worth as individuals. But humans and human institutions can and do fail. Moral betrayal is especially egregious when it causes irreparable harm and is immeasurably devastating when repeated moral failures have been suppressed to promote false reputational virtue and moral standing: the beloved religious leader preying on vulnerable children; the sought-after physician billing false insurance claims; the award-winning journalist whose sources are fictional; the lionized CEO of a toxic work culture; the wildly popular narcissistic mentor. Moral betrayal disrupts our sense of self, safety, and order in the world, prompting us to question ourselves and the meaning of everything. Sometimes the questions are so terrifying that we close our minds.

  • How does my sense of self-worth depend on the virtue and value of my personal and institutional affiliations?  
  • How willing am I to examine facts that contradict my assumptions of virtue and value? 
  • How do I maintain or recover a sense of moral integrity in the wake of moral betrayal?  
  • Where is the bright line of moral duty between loyalty to institutions and allegiance to values? 
  • At what tipping point does moral betrayal outweigh and render the good worthless?

Among the hard truths of racism for White Americans is that we are both the betrayed and the betrayers. We are all betrayed by institutions, traditions, and leaders that normalize the failure to honor the constitutional rights, freedoms, and human dignity of all persons. But White Americans are the betrayers in our failure as citizens to acknowledge, expose, and correct the persistent moral wrong that still, nearly 250 years after our foundation as a nation governed of, by, and for the people, denies Americans of color the full exercise of constitutional rights, freedoms, and dignity of citizenship that is their due. We need to own the truth of our betrayal.

The facts are friendly

The truth will set you free. Hard truths don’t often appear friendly. Psychotherapist Carl Rogers firmly insisted that by facing facts, however hard that might be, we gather the body of evidence that enables us to live our lives fully and freely in reality rather than in an imagined world that distorts reality to accommodate our fears and fantasies. Facing the facts of moral betrayal without demonizing or making excuses for moral failures is the first step in a transformative process that leads to a new, more whole reality. In his years of work with adults overcoming daunting challenges, Jack Mezirow found that facing the disorienting dilemma of hard truth enables people to examine their feelings and assumptions, freeing them to discover new ways of understanding the problematic situation, their personal value and integrity, and expanded capacities for action, roles, and relationships. 

As we close out 2020, the entire country is faced with hard facts that don’t feel very friendly: A brutal pandemic and months of enforced quarantine with uncertain hope for vaccine relief; ugly partisan politics; a harshly inequitable economy; a global climate of destructive fires, floods, and weather patterns; structural racism rooted in a whitewashed colonial past that can no longer be morally justified by contemporary norms of human rights and justice. We cannot claim the freedom we treasure as Americans without facing the hard truth of moral betrayal visited upon people of color, especially African Americans whom we enslaved and Indigenous Americans whom we slaughtered and whose lands we now occupy. It is centuries too late for Americans to return to their ancestral lands. Stuck together in the messy muddle of moral betrayal, we need to work our way through it to discover the truth that frees us. 

Moral repair

Moral repair is the unavoidable task of repairing relationships damaged by wrongdoing. Margaret Urban Walker focuses on the responsibility of wrongdoers to set things right for the people they have wronged. Americans tend to think of morality as a matter of individual conscience, but she emphasizes the role of communities in establishing and upholding norms of responsible behavior and social practices that define good lives and orderly society. It may be a long while before Black and White America have their epiphany of mutual trust, but establishing and holding one another accountable for reliable, trustworthy behavior is a strong start for White America to begin repairing the moral damage of racism. A few suggestions adapted from Walker shape steps White America can take to begin moral repair: 

  • Strenuously encourage and support Americans of all colors, backgrounds, and experiences to participate in defining and establishing moral norms, standards and practices of racial justice and equity that reflect US constitutional dignity, rights, and freedoms of citizenship. Listen appreciatively and respectfully to how Americans of color experience and think about racial equity and justice.
  • Authoritatively establish or reinstate moral norms, standards, and practices of racial equity and justice in communities where racist wrongdoing may have caused fear, confusion, cynicism, or despair about the authority of those standards. Trust the experience and credibility of Americans of color when they express their thoughts and feelings about racist wrongdoing.
  • Scrupulously hold people and institutions accountable for the wrongdoing of racism. Do not give a pass to your uncle, neighbor, friend, or office mate. It takes a village.
  • Encourage and support victims of racist wrongdoing in reporting incidents, people, and institutions that violate norms of racial equity and justice. Volunteer to stand in solidarity with them through the process.
  • Require wrongdoers to acknowledge and redress the wrong, harm, affront, and threat caused by their racist actions and practices. Again – no passes. 
  • Encourage wrongdoers to apologize and seek forgiveness. Let them know that this is what you expect.
  • Encourage victims of wrongdoing to grant forgiveness. Moral repair is about restoring relationships, so be gentle, but don’t push it. They may be willing to forgive, but don’t expect them to forget.
  • Restore trust in shared moral norms, standards, and practices of racial equity and justice by supporting people who express, practice, and enforce them. Support and invest in businesses, organizations, performances, and projects led by people of color.

Hope for the future

Racism in America is the wrongful system of White benefits paid for with Black burdens. To repair the wrong, White Americans must face the facts: If you are White, you effortlessly enjoy benefits that burden Black people; you will bear the moral burden of racism until you fix it. Stop excusing yourself because “I’m Polish (or Italian or Irish) and my family wasn’t responsible,” or “I can’t be responsible for what my tenth great grandparents did.” When and how your family came to America is irrelevant. You may feel overwhelmed by the burden, but by owning the disorienting dilemma of White wrongdoing, you take your first transformational step towards moral repair and freedom.

And you are not alone; you are part of a growing community of White Americans who are ready, willing, and able to work for a racially just, equitable, and free America.