The issue of white privilege and black disadvantage has lately gained much-needed attention in American and international media due especially to:
- The fatal shooting of Trayvon Martin by neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman in Sanford, Florida, on February 26, 2012, and
- The fatal shooting of Michael Brown by police officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri, on August 9, 2014.
Two more incidents have also cropped up recently in the news and on social media:
- The fatal shooting of John Crawford III by police officers in a Walmart store in Beavercreek, Ohio, on August 5, 2014, and
- The non-fatal shooting of Levar Edward Jones by police officer Sean Groubert in Columbia, South Carolina, on September 4, 2014 (more on this story below).
In each case, a black man was shot by a white man (or Hispanic, in the case of George Zimmerman).
Obviously, these cases involve racial politics—and they have evoked strong responses from the black community. Whites in America are often blissfully unaware of the double-standard, and often simply assume that race has nothing to do with stories such as these. Meanwhile, black Americans live every day with the knowledge and the fear that they or someone in their family could be unfairly and even lethally targeted simply because they are black.
Though some of the individual cases are complicated, the general picture is clear enough: blacks—especially black men—are often subject to harsher responses from police and other authority figures than whites who are engaging in the same actions.
This pattern of harsher treatment of blacks than of whites is an example of abuse of power. Of course, it is only one of many examples of abuse of power. But since it’s been prominent in the news, it offers an opportunity to look at the bigger picture of why we humans mistreat one another when we get into positions of power over one another.
Hold on. That’s not quite accurate.
Yes, I know, Lord Acton (1834-1902) famously said:
Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.
But as catchy and oft-repeated as this aphorism is, it’s based on a mistaken idea. Power does not corrupt people as Acton thought. Rather, it is people who corrupt the power. Fortunately, not all people.
We’ll get to that in a minute. First, let’s take a look at the most recent incident-gone-viral of a man getting shot for “driving while black.”
Levar Edward Jones gets shot for a seatbelt violation
Okay, maybe that title is a bit sensationalized. But not by much. Here’s the video of the incident, recorded by a dashboard camera on the police officer’s cruiser:
The video is especially hard to watch because the victim is so nice. After he’s just been shot and wounded by a police officer for no apparent reason, Mr. Jones continues to address the officer as “sir.” In complete confusion, he keeps asking what he did wrong and why the officer shot him. He even apologizes to the officer. After the officer has shot him!
This time, the abuse of power and the violation of proper police protocol was so clear that the officer, Sean Groubert, was immediately fired, and has been arrested and charged with assault and battery. This video of a newscast from WIS News 10 TV in Columbia provides more background and analysis of the incident:
For follow-up reporting, including a longer version of the dashboard camera video in which Groubert recounts the events that led up to the shooting in a way that is completely at odds with what had just been recorded by the same camera, see this page on WIS TV’s website.
Does power corrupt?
This raises the question: if there had been no camera reporting the incident, what would the story have been?
In former years, before today’s ubiquitous video cameras, when incidents of white on black violence took place, the story told by the whites—who were the ones in power—usually prevailed. And for nearly two centuries in the United States, whites routinely oppressed, maimed, and killed blacks with impunity.
Isn’t this a clear case of Lord Acton’s aphorism that absolute power corrupts absolutely?
- When whites had absolute power over blacks during the years of legal slavery, the corruption of whites oppressing blacks was truly horrific.
- During the years of legal segregation, when the power of whites over blacks was not quite so absolute, the oppression was reduced incrementally, but still continued wholesale.
- Today, when the power of whites over blacks is largely social rather than legal, the corruption of whites oppressing blacks has been reduced still more. And yet it persists.
Wouldn’t it be logical to conclude that if the power differential were erased entirely, the corruption would cease? Isn’t the simple fact that whites have power over blacks what causes all the corruption and oppression?
In a word, no.
If it were the power itself that corrupted people, why haven’t all whites treated blacks badly?
- Why were there powerful white voices, such as those of William Lloyd Garrison, John Greenleaf Whittier, and Harriet Beecher Stowe, calling for the abolition of slavery in the 1800s?
- Why did many whites join with powerful black leaders such as Martin Luther King, Jr., in the movement to abolish segregation and establish civil rights for Americans of every race?
- Why are so many whites today outraged and sickened by news stories of injustice and blatant racism perpetrated by people of their own race against blacks and other minorities?
All whites in America, and most whites throughout the world, benefit from white privilege, and do not have to live under the yoke of black disadvantage. So if whites historically and even in the present have been in a position of power and privilege over blacks, why haven’t all whites been corrupted by that power? Why have some whites campaigned against the unjust power that they hold over blacks? (Because it is unjust for one race to have power over another.)
What does corrupt?
The answer is that power doesn’t corrupt people.
It’s just the opposite: people corrupt power.
Or to put it more accurately, corrupt people corrupt power.
A recent research report by Katherine A. DeCelles of the University of Toronto, along with several colleagues at other schools, suggests that power is used either well or badly depending upon the moral identity of the people who wield it. The report, titled “Does Power Corrupt or Enable? When and Why Power Facilitates Self-Interested Behavior,” was published in 2012 in the Journal of Applied Psychology.
The general conclusion from the studies these scholars conducted is that among individuals with a weak moral identity, having a sense of power leads to promoting the person’s own self-interest at the expense of others’ wellbeing. However, among individuals with a strong moral identity, the sense of having power actually prompts a greater sense of moral awareness and a broader sense of responsibility for the good of others.
The authors of the study define self-interested behavior as “actions that benefit the self and come at a cost to the common good.” That’s what corruption is all about, isn’t it? Benefiting oneself and one’s own group at the expense of others and of the common good.
As the research of DeCelles et al suggests, power itself is neither immoral nor moral. Instead, it enhances and empowers the immorality or the morality that already exists in those who wield it.
In short, it is the quality of the character of the people who wield the power that determines whether the power will be used well, or will be corrupted into the many abuses of power that hit the news every day.
Two kinds of power
You see, there are two different kinds of power. One comes from selflessness and love for other people. The other comes from selfishness and arrogance.
Here is how Emanuel Swedenborg (1688–1772) put it over 250 years ago:
There are two kinds of power. One comes from loving other people, and the other comes from selfishness. In essence, these two kinds of power are complete opposites.
When our power comes from loving other people, we wish well to everyone. We love nothing more than doing useful things for other people and helping them. (Helping other people is doing good and useful things for them from good motives.) This is our love, and it is our heart’s enjoyment. When this is our state of mind, we are glad when we are placed in a high position—not because of the high position itself, but because we can be useful in many more ways, and on a larger scale. This is the kind of power that exists in heaven.
But when our power comes from selfishness, we do not wish well to anyone besides ourselves and our family. We do useful things only to increase our own status and fame, which are the only things we consider useful. We work for other people only to get them to work for us, and to gain status and power. We strive for high positions not for the good we can accomplish in them, but so that we will be prominent and famous, which is our heart’s delight. (From The Heavenly City: A Spiritual Guidebook, #72)
When power is corrupt, it is because the people wielding the power are acting primarily from arrogance and self-interest. Corrupted power involves people exercising power over other people, and over the earth, in order to gain benefits and possessions for themselves, and to enhance their own sense of status, reputation, and power. This is the source of all the corruption and oppression in the world.
When power is not corrupt, it is because the people wielding the power are acting from a desire to help and benefit others in addition to themselves, and to do greater good for their community, their country, and the world. And though history and the news tell us of many powerful and corrupt people, history and the news also bring us stories of people who were powerful voices for and doers of good for the benefit of humanity.
Power and the people
Are all the whites who hit the news for maiming or killing blacks immoral, selfish, and evil people? That’s a matter of debate. However, the general abuse of power by white majorities to oppress black and other minorities is certainly a case of immorality, selfishness, and greed corrupting power into injustice and oppression.
At the same time, the many voices of people of all races calling for an end to injustice and the abuse of power is a case of morality, selflessness, and a desire for the common good turning power toward justice and the good of all people.
In short, power is merely a tool in the hands of those who wield it.
The question we must face both as individuals and as a society is this:
When we have power, will we corrupt it for evil purposes, or use it for good purposes?
Will our arrogance and greed corrupt our power as we use it to harm and oppress others? Or will our moral sense and love for our fellow human beings lift up our power as we use it for the good of all?
For further reading: