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Professor asks students what they would have done if they were white Southerners pre-abolition

If you had to provide concrete evidence that you have "stood up for the rights of unpopular victims of injustice whose very humanity is denied," would you be able to?

Professor asks students what they would have done if they were white Southerners pre-abolition
Image Source: Tom Werner / Getty Images

It's easy to think that we would all do the right thing if we were confronted with egregious wrongs such as slavery even if they benefitted from such an institution. In order to see whether his students would actually risk their lives and livelihoods in order to fight for the greater good, Robert P. George, a professor at Princeton University, asked his students what they would do if they were white Southerners at a time when slavery was still legal. The answers he received, though well-meaning, were unrealistic and even performative. He shared his learnings via Twitter.



 

Professor George wrote, "I sometimes ask students what their position on slavery would have been had they been white and living in the South before abolition. Guess what? They all would have been abolitionists! They all would have bravely spoken out against slavery, and worked tirelessly against it." Obviously, these answers probably don't surprise you. No one would outwardly admit that they would have been slaveowners who benefit from the status quo. "Of course, this is nonsense," he continued. "Only the tiniest fraction of them, or of any of us, would have spoken up against slavery or lifted a finger to free the slaves. Most of them—and us—would have gone along. Many would have supported the slave system and happily benefited from it."



 

In order to really test their answers, the professor then made a deal. He shared, "So I respond by saying that I will credit their claims if they can show evidence of the following: that in leading their lives today they have stood up for the rights of unpopular victims of injustice whose very humanity is denied, and where they have done so knowing one, that it would make them unpopular with their peers, two, that they would be loathed and ridiculed by powerful, influential individuals and institutions in our society; three, that they would be abandoned by many of their friends, four, that they would be called nasty names, and five, that they would risk being denied valuable professional opportunities as a result of their moral witness."



 

This is all quite heavy, especially for an educator to navigate. Professor George concluded, "In short, my challenge is to show where they have at risk to themselves and their futures stood up for a cause that is unpopular in elite sectors of our culture today." It's likely that his students don't have much evidence to share. Nonetheless, this is an important exercise that highlights our personal roles in systemic injustices. If you had to play this little game, how would you score?



 

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