We all know that race relations are toxic in our society today. Debates over statues, critical race theory in education, police reform, and election reform are only the tip of the iceberg.
Some would have us believe there are only two routes to ending racial alienation: Either we take a passive, colorblind approach, or we take an aggressive, antiracist approach. But there is a third and better way to solve the problem. To understand that path, it is valuable to understand first how we use reason, power, and moral suasion to affect others’ actions.
By way of illustration, let’s say that you have a child unwilling to clean up his room. How do you get him to do start doing that? Or you have a friend dating a guy who is mentally manipulative and even abusive. You fear for her safety. How do you get through to her? Or you are teaching a student who needs to put more time into his studies. Can you get him to do that? Or your aunt is picking up some of the most toxic QAnon philosophy. How do you show her the error of those ideas?
One option is to not try to convince your son, friend, student, or aunt to change. But we often are in situations when we believe that we must change the perspective of others.
If we want to persuade someone to change, we have the options of using power, moral suasion, or possibly reason. But to be honest, I think using reason to convince others is overrated. Most of us are not as driven by reason as we’d like to think. Confirmation bias and groupthink tend to interfere with our ability to rely on just our intellect to make decisions. We easily mistake our emotional desires for rational conclusions.
If reason is not reliable, then we are left with the other two options: power and moral suasion. We can change people’s ways by using some form of social, political, legal, or other power. Or we can find a way to persuade individuals that making those changes is the right thing to do. Except for rare circumstances, when people make changes due to the influence of others, there is typically some degree of power or moral suasion in play.
There are many forms of power that can be used. A parent obviously has some power over a child. Legal power can be used to hand out punishment. Social power can be used to stigmatize anyone who does not submit to demands or change their attitudes. Those with material resources can withhold those resources. In these battles over power, people either fear losing it when they have it, or they fear not getting it from the person in control.
There is a time when power needs to be used. I want the police officer to use power to stop the bank robber. As a parent, I need to exercise my power to stop my young kids from making foolish decisions, such as only eating candy. I have used physical power to stop a physical altercation.
Power is a necessary tool when there is a need to deter. But there is a cost to using it. People who alter their beliefs or actions due to fear are likely to go back to their old habits when the fear is removed. If we rely upon power to get what we want, then we will continue to overpower others to get our way.
For example, Cubans justifiably used power to throw off the oppressive regime of Fulgencio Batista. But the movement installed Fidel Castro, who went on to use his newfound powers to continue the oppression in a different format. Those who gain power through power often are unwilling to relinquish it once they have it. Those who gain power will not always use it for righteous means.
But if reason is ineffective and power brings its own dangers, then what we have left is moral suasion. We can persuade individuals that it is right to change their mind or to take certain actions. Once people become convinced that the new actions are the moral thing to do, then change is likely to occur.
When some people think of moral suasion, they may think of a wild-eyed evangelical preaching incessantly. Or they may think of a liberal professor indoctrinating students. Nothing could be further from the truth. Real moral suasion requires that we build rapport with those we want to persuade. It means we must accurately understand their point of view. We must also learn to admit when they are correct. And we should be willing to find areas of agreement with those we are attempting to persuade.
In other words, real moral suasion is about relationship-building, not browbeating.
Moral suasion, done properly, has the power to unite us by making us want to identify with and care for each other. It can make us want to work with others and find out what is good for them. It is not about forcing people to believe what they do not want to believe. It is about coming together to find common ground and moving forward together. When people change through moral suasion, then they are likely to maintain their new attitudes regardless of changing social attitudes.
Of course, sometimes we still need to use power. My experience of raising three boys under seven illustrates this point: I must use power to get them to eat what they should, get bathed, avoid dangerous play, avoid mistreating their brothers, clean up after themselves, and so on.
But as they get older, I must rely less on power and more on moral suasion. I must convince them that it’s right to eat the proper types of food, bathe, treat their brothers well, and clean up after themselves. Beyond learning how to make smart decisions, when they get older, I will no longer have the power to enforce those views. Then they will do what they want instead of what I can force them to do.
What does all of this have to do with our dysfunctional race relations? We have had hundreds of years of racial abuse in this country. While we do not have the same degree of racial abuse today, we are still suffering from the effects of that abuse. The big questions is: What are we going to do with the enduring effects of that abuse? Disagreement on that question is a major source of our racial alienation.
There are those who believe the best way to answer that question is to ignore race. This has been called the colorblind approach. There are others who emphasize an aggressive, proactive tactic to address racism in all its myriad forms. Much of this effort falls under a general rubric of antiracism. Racial conflict in the United States is often tied to the enduring argument about how aggressively we should tackle modern expression of racism.
For the most part, individuals in both groups rely on power to move their perspectives forward. Whether it is political, social, or cultural power, supporters of colorblindness and antiracism seek to force individuals to accept their particular point of view. If supporters on either side of this debate gain enough power to force their perspective on others, then history teaches us that they will do whatever they need to do to maintain that power. They will do so not because they are evil but because they are all too human.
But what if we looked in a different direction? What if moral suasion and relationship-building became our approach to constructing our racial future? What if we worked at understanding the perspective of others and collaborating to find functional compromises? What if we built rapport to create unity around common identity rather than fear? Would that not be a better path?
What would it look like if we relied on moral suasion, instead of power, to put forward our racial vision for society? There would be less saber rattling in social media and on political talk shows and more discussions that attempt to understand the perspective of others. We would learn how to actively listen and express ourselves in ways that communicate our desires to others. We would figure out solutions that do not denigrate others and that others can help us to implement.
Bringing people together to solve problems rather than argue with each other would qualitatively alter our race relations for the better. Trying to use moral suasion in a healthy way brings people together rather than driving them apart.
We know this from other areas of our lives. In our interpersonal relationships, we know it is not healthy to just overpower each other. There are marriages where one spouse consistently overpowers the other spouse. And we have seen how unhealthy those relationships become.
We know those marriages would be qualitatively better if the spouses learned how to communicate with each other and find solutions that meet the needs of both. While sometimes power is necessary, we know that good relationships depend much more on using moral suasion than force.
Yet in our current society, we often deal with race by consistently trying to overpower our “enemies,” rather than by finding ways to communicate and persuade them of our perspective. Why can’t we work at finding common values and agreements? Why can’t we listen to each other until we accurately understand the interests and desires of others? Should not everyone be “quick to listen, slow to speak,” as James 1:19 reminds us?
Sometimes I think that we already know what we need to do to improve race relations but we simply don’t want to do it. But we are going to have to live in this society together. We are going to have to find answers to the racial issues of our day. We can choose to remain in a power struggle with each other, or we can begin to learn how to dialogue in a healthy fashion.
Many people on different sides of these racial issues have a vested interest in continuing our unproductive fighting. But if we learn to stop listening to those voices and start listening to each other, we can finally take important steps toward real racial unity and equality.
George Yancey is a professor of sociology at Baylor University and author of the forthcoming book, Beyond Racial Division (IVP).
Speaking Out is Christianity Today’s guest opinion column and (unlike an editorial) does not necessarily represent the opinion of the magazine.