Sunday, 14 January 2007
Ethics affected by divergent worldviews
By Randolph Meade Walker, Memphis Commercial Appeal
Ethics as perceived and practiced in the United States is an enigma to many
observers. Historically, the idea of right and wrong has most frequently
been interpreted along racial lines that reflect a contested divide. This
has been most obvious in criminal situations where the victim and accused
are of different ethnicities.
Yet beyond this conspicuous racial gulf, there is an ethos that separates
the races on ethics. In many instances the polarization is so extreme that
it is to a fault.
White Americans tend to be more judgmental and firmer on punishment for the
guilty. One who is indicted (never mind found guilty) for a crime is tainted
in the Anglo community. If that person holds a public position, usually the
mere accusation of wrongdoing results in a coerced resignation. Such
terminations frequently precede a hearing on the criminal charge, much less
On the other hand, African-Americans tend to react in just the opposite
fashion. Sympathy is often expressed for the accused. Unless outside
pressure is brought, the indicted public figure most often remains in his or
her office until the legal process runs its course.
Furthermore, in the African-American community forgiveness is often readily
bestowed even upon convicted transgressors. In the political arena, examples
of this are the election wins enjoyed by former mayor Marion Barry in
Washington, D.C., and City Council member Rickey Peete in Memphis after both
had served time in penal institutions.
Why is there this great divide between blacks and whites over ethical
manifestations? Certainly history has to contain clues to this puzzle. The
present always has roots that reach back into the past.
First, it needs to be noted that there is a different worldview between
people of African descent and those of European ancestry. Traditional
African thought saw ethics as a consequence of religion. One's concept and
motivation for right were tied to what one believed. This holistic
understanding gave religion and ethics a seamless bond. To consider one
without the other was tantamount to heresy, according to the traditional
African belief system.
Second, the western European compartmentalized life. A partition was
eventually constructed between the church and state. Classic philosophers,
such as Plato, thought ethics could be extracted from reason alone. The 18th
century's Enlightenment expanded and modernized the secularization of
It was in the Western Hemisphere under the rigors of slavery that the
African was forcefully introduced to this radically different worldview.
Commentators such as Frederick Douglass and the abolitionist publisher David
Walker saw this practice of ethics divorced from religion as hypocritical.
This was especially true of slave holders who worshipped on Sunday and then
beat female slaves on Monday, not for offenses they had committed but for
those they might commit in the future.
Under the slavocracy, authority was associated with such repressive slave
owners. Hence, authority was early seen by many people of African descent as
incompatible with authentic religion.
The legacy of this perception has been transmitted through the generations
since emancipation. Authority has traditionally been seen in the
African-American community as unjust and untrustworthy.
On the other hand, the person who is accused by the authorities is most
readily seen as a victim. This belief will almost instantly be displayed in
support for the accused. It is common to hear expressions among blacks that
echo a feeling of unfairness being shown to defendants by those in
This perception by blacks is not totally a baseless psychotic condition.
Slavery's scions of Jim Crow legislation, lynching and discrimination have
given a concrete validity to blacks' distrust of the system and its
The discovery through DNA testing that some people on death row in the
United States have been falsely convicted of crimes only gives credence to
black skepticism toward the American justice system. This cynical attitude
is frequently reflected in a sardonic joke among African-Americans that
declares American justice means "just us."
Only time and a determined demonstration of impartiality will rectify this
situation. Confidence cannot be gained just by mere words. Only repeated
proofs of ethics free of ethnicity will allow African-Americans to be
willing to accept a new ethos. Furthermore, an ethical code that is divorced
from religion will most certainly be suspect and considered inauthentic.
Randolph Meade Walker is pastor of Castalia Baptist Church. He also is an
adjunct professor of history at LeMoyne-Owen College and of church history
at Memphis Theological Seminary.
Source : Memphis Commercial Appeal