Character Matters More

Remarks at Martin Luther King Service - January 20, 2014

“Judged not by the color of their skin, but judged by the content of their character.” Here are the words forming one of the best known phrases in one of the most famous speeches in American history. These paired ideas return to this hour as a relevant, difficult, and severe measure. The world has moved gradually toward better judgments, yet still, a horizon stretches too far from home.

Fifty years ago from last August, Martin Luther King spoke from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC in which he had set in the soaring flight of a church fugue two lines of the human story in America—color and character. That same day, W.E.B. DuBois died at the age of 95 in Ghana, long estranged from the nation of his birth. As a boy, my family had been very close to a remarkable woman, practically a godmother to me, who had once been DuBois’s assistant. She and my father were co-authors of a book, so I knew something about DuBois early on.

The psychological depth of understanding expressed by DuBois in The Souls of Black Folk is haunting; no one can read that book and not be convinced that race is America’s unfinished business. DuBois described the “double environment” and “the weaving of worlds” that African-Americans inhabited. He interpreted the insidious pressures of managing the surrounding white world while simultaneously entering “the veil” within, leaving one constantly restless and fatigued in the struggle to preserve the human soul. The intellectual roots of Dr. King’s dream are planted solidly in this older ground that has produced the American dichotomy of color and character. That ground, while becoming a better soil over the last half century, has never been completely plowed under to let the green stalks of character stand alone.

Years before he entered national public life, Barack Obama wrote a coming-of-age memoir called Dreams from My Father. In one of the sincerest passages of the book (98-100) addressing deep and raw frustration, a younger Obama writes of a feeling early in his professional life, “…most of us were tired of thinking about race all the time…It wasn’t a matter of conscious choice, necessarily, just a matter of gravitational pull, the way integration always worked, a one-way street. The minority assimilated into the dominant culture, not the other way around. Only white culture could be neutral and objective. Only white culture could be non-racial, willing to adopt the occasional exotic into its ranks. Only white culture had individuals.” Color may matter less, but it still matters.

The irony that color still matters, even as voters elected an African-American twice to be the U.S. president, is one thing. But that irony nearly doubles when coupled with the quieter irony that character may also matter less, at least in appearances. The irony is especially acute in colleges and universities because they have become increasingly reticent over the years to believe that they are also in the business of developing a young person’s moral framework. Most campuses have unofficially defaulted to a Swiss foreign policy of neutrality on the question of taking an active part in lessons of moral reasoning as it affects individual character. Nevertheless, character refinement along an intellectual journey is what we are subtly accomplishing at St. Lawrence, turning out better people, even if we are shy about claiming to do so.

In my high privilege of speaking today at our annual Martin Luther King observance, I am placing myself in a position of high reputational risk. First, I am a white man talking about color. Many would advise me to take a polite pass on the topic or they would hastily dismiss me as an illegitimate poseur acting in the most gratuitous ways. And second, I am a university leader talking about the politically loaded terms of character that can rend asunder any conversation of two or more who stand between Ayn Rand and John Rawls or between radical objectivists and situational relativists. With a few possible exceptions, most colleges and universities in America are a little vague, sometimes indifferent, about their intentions or responsibilities in the making of good character. And yet, Dr. King had his own theory: “intelligence plus character—that is the goal of true education.”

Because I am white and grew up in a majority white society, I have been spared distraction, anger, pain, frustration, and basic unfairness by an accident of birth that gave me one skin color and not another. And what feelings I myself have been spared, I know that unknowingly I have caused them in others. I believe many white men and women in America have been able to evade the question of race by keeping themselves at a convenient distance from experience or thought, perhaps safely claiming for themselves a hill-top perspective of judging no one. They may rationalize that laws, courts, policies, and popular culture have given sufficient cover to the once unfinished business, so that if it’s less unfinished, we can move on.

We’re not done. And while I can’t possibly know this from being black or brown in this world, I can say something about being white. Over the years of my life, I have studied history, read theology and philosophy, examined individual biographies, and observed closely people in my communities of work and home. Most human conflicts are less about hate than we think. Put into a compact thesis, the opposite of love is not hate, it is fear. And that is why color still matters. We continue as strangers to a dream time and place that has buried such judgments.

It is a grand paradox that with all the advantage, protection, and privilege a white person in America has assumed for 400 years, that there is a persistent undercurrent of being afraid. Perhaps it’s a fear of never being forgiven by people of other skin colors. Or it’s the fear of what our resentment may cause in us by being coerced to own all of history, not just the easily reenacted heroics.

In the last few weeks, the world has been considering the life and times of Nelson Mandela. Many years ago, while living in Washington, DC, I remember talking with white South Africans who firmly believed that any postcolonial change to majority rule would result in revenge and massacre. That kind of violence, after all, has occurred in other countries in other centuries. And yet, in the end, when the transfer of power came in South Africa, it was accomplished without a bloody revolution. It was Mandela’s genius to understand their fear.

The sequence of Dr. King’s dream is often misinterpreted. Listeners or readers may know that speech like a national anthem as American idealism at its best. But they may mistakenly hear that we have to get past color, get it behind us, as it were, before we can fully appreciate the content of character. I believe his intentions and hopes were grounded in the exact opposite order.

If we at St. Lawrence are going to have conversations in our courses and within our campus about differentness and diversity, a discussion that will undoubtedly be stimulated by a report this semester from the Commission on Diversity at St. Lawrence, then we dodge a discussion about ethics and values at serious peril to our shared mission.

At a gathering of college presidents during our January recess, I heard the New York Times columnist David Brooks speak about fostering virtue in our students. When Brooks finished his remarks, the president of Morehouse College posed a question that led Brooks to make an unexpected rejoinder, what is a Morehouse man? This college president had the wit to say off the cuff, “A Morehouse man is a man who moves through the world in a distinctive way, not only competitive in the current world, but imaginative about the world that must be created.” (CIC, Presidents Institute, 2014).

What is a St. Lawrence man or woman? We know you are smart, ambitious, and capable of high achievement. Your transcript and letters of recommendation given by your professors will sufficiently document your abilities. But in case no one asks you specifically, let me have the honor—What is your character? What virtues and principles guide you—and why? You can bank on it that these questions are actually like a microchip baked into every course syllabus and team playbook and incidental conversation on campus. This is not too remote from the original idea of character in the Greek source of the word; it’s what got impressed into a metal coin.

Some people would prefer their college studies to be at arm’s length from the “virtue business.” Professor Sheldon Krimsky at Tufts University is not one of them. When he spoke to the Phi Beta Kappa chapter at his home institution, he put in front of the honored students some pointed questions:

Are more educated people likely to lie less? To express more humanitarian values? To be more beneficent to others? To show more empathy? To make more complex moral decisions? (quoted in Peter J. Gomes, Strength for the Journey, 59)

His point? Knowledge without character is scary. The St. Lawrence Latin motto, Fides et Veritas, is not prescriptive, but it is irreducible, even though some may prefer we were only about veritas, or a lighter mistranslation of simply knowing something or having consciousness. The conjunction “and” is the vital word between values and reason, faith and truth, the inseparable fides et veritas.

In January 1912, the 44 year-old W.E.B. DuBois, increasingly radicalized by the American experience, published resolutions to live by in the coming year. Over the next century in the lyric of tempered protest and tortured progress, of dreams undaunted and hopes unfulfilled, the traces of principle transcend the damaging force of color. Behind the voice of Dr. King, fifty years earlier, Dr. DuBois said to himself for all to hear:

I am resolved in this New Year to play the man—to stand straight, look the world squarely in the eye, and walk to my work with no shuffle or slouch.

I am resolved to be quiet and law abiding, but to refuse to cringe in body or in soul, to resent deliberate insult, and to assert my just rights in the face of wanton aggression.

I am resolved to defend the poor and the weak of every race and hue, and especially to guard my mother, my wife, my daughter, and all my darker sisters from the insults and aggressions of white men and black, with the last strength of my body and the last suffering of my soul.

For all these things, I am resolved unflinchingly to stand, and if this resolve cost me pain, poverty, slander and even life itself, I will remember the Word of the Prophet, how he sang:

“Though Love repine and Reason chafe,/There came a Voice without reply,/ ‘Tis man’s Perdition to be safe/ When for the Truth he ought to die.”
(DuBois, Writings, Library of America (1986), 1137)

In the spirit of all personal resolutions, not only is this a good place to stop, but it is a better place to start again. Welcome back for the spring term.

January 20, 2014