Abolitionists’ Radical Empathy: A Message for Today

Abolitionists’ Radical Empathy: A Message for Today

We live in weird times. Our president delivers policy statements by midnight tweet, and the opposing political party seems poised, at least this week, to recruit their own TV star to run against him in the next election. Recreational marijuana use is now at least partly legal in twenty-nine states, including the largest by population, and yet the federal government is reversing its prior reversal of strict prohibition. Foundational tenets of the republic like birthright citizenship suddenly seem up for discussion again, 150 years after passage of the Fourteenth Amendment.

Perhaps our relatively stable postbellum political sphere is merely beginning to show its age. After all, whatever one might say about the Red Scare, the Cold War, 1968, or the War on Terror, Americans have avoided a second civil war. Nuclear warmongers and “doomsday preppers” aside, there are still thoughtful people out there willing to find political solutions to big problems. I think.

The political strife we face today in the American public sphere is similar, in some ways, to the debates in that past era of sectional and ideological strife that resulted in war over slavery. The issues are different, but lives remain at stake for many immigrants, for the abused, for young black men, and for poor and sick Americans of any age. Abolitionism won in the end. It might behoove us, left or right, to consider the ethos of a winning cause.

As enslaved people and abolitionists stoked the urgency of their cause with resistance, organizing, and electioneering in the 1850s, they saw that white Americans would have to look past their prejudices, at least far enough to respect the basic right of black people to live free. One of the ways abolitionists had always pressed their case was through “moral suasion”—a strategy that radical activists believed was too slow and inefficient a response to the terrors of human slavery. But this approach, drawn in part from the ideas of Quaker communities that sprouted many early white abolitionists, remained a key ingredient in the struggle to the end because it addressed a human need that political progress continues to demand: empathy. Abolitionists argued that white people needed to understand how it felt to be black—to have a “black heart.”

Mathew B. Brady, carte de visite of Susan B. Anthony, c. 1870. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Women’s rights, abolition, and temperance advocate Susan B. Anthony preached this message of radical empathy to white Americans in an effort to help them understand and feel what their complicity in slavery was doing to black people. In an 1859 speech, Anthony began by reminding her audience of the “four millions of thinking, acting, conscious beings, like ourselves, driven to unpaid toil” under “the sanction of this professedly Christian, Republican Government,” but quickly left figures behind as she described the lived experiences of enslaved people.

“Let us, my friends, … make the slave’s case our own,” she asked. “Let us feel that it is our own children, that are ruthlessly torn from our yearning mother hearts, and driven into the ‘coffle gang,’ … to be sold on the auction block to the highest bidder.” Anthony framed the problem of slavery in personal terms—narrative instead of numbers—that might help white people creatively imagine themselves in the place of their fellow human beings with different colored skin.

“Make the slave’s case our own,” c. 1859, Susan B. Anthony Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress. Courtesy of American Memory

“Were we, ourselves, the victims of this vilest oppression the sun ever shone upon,” she continued, “no appeal to the Bible or Constitution, no regard for peace and harmony in our religious or political associations … could for a moment quiet our consciences, silence our voices, or stay our action.” Reminding her audience members of their own desires for freedom and liberty, Anthony pointed to the hypocrisy of Americans whose respect for “law and order,” property rights, and political decorum would quickly crumble if they were the ones being victimized.

Recent debates over federal health care policy, tax rules, and spending priorities have demonstrated precisely the kind of “blind reverence” for the rules and preservation of our “political associations” that Anthony warned would fall apart the moment privileged folks experience the harsh realities their policies prescribe for others. Congress’s continued failure to fund the Children’s Health Insurance Program would surely be remedied if their own children were dependent on it. And how might immigration policy or climate change action have unfolded differently in the past twenty years if loyalty to party had not trumped the lives of DREAMers and citizens of tiny island nations?

Empathy is at least a part of the answer, and Anthony made a case that thoughtful white Americans could not in good conscience deny, though many still chose to do so.

Anthony and her white abolitionist colleagues were not themselves without moral taint, as recent scholarship has explained. After the war, white women’s rights advocates could not agree on the prioritization of black male or white female suffrage, causing an ugly rift that would take a generation to heal. Stanton aimed her own racism at immigrants in the later nineteenth century. Studies have rightly pointed out how abolitionists’ fetishization of black bodies in pain reinforced old tropes, tropes of which western culture has still not fully divested itself. We may still learn from the successes and shortcomings of “moral suasion,” nonetheless.

As in the 1850s, much of the responsibility falls on white people to engage in radical empathy to address our political logjam. Wealth, gender identity, citizenship, sexuality, religion, and many other factors determine who has the power to make change. As Americans work toward their ideal of “all people created equal”–by abolishing racism, sexism, poverty, and all inequitable treatment of human beings–we will likely find like Americans long before us that tweet-storms and self-righteous tirades of all stripes do little to persuade others who are, fundamentally, just like us.

Christopher H. Hayashida-Knight

Christopher Hayashida-Knight completed a Ph.D. in History and Women’s Studies at Pennsylvania State University in 2017. He is currently teaching U.S. history at California State University, Chico, as well as working in the nonprofit sector. He serves on the board of directors of the Chico Peace & Justice Center. His research considers the social construction of African American women’s national identity in the period between the Civil War and World War I.

2 Replies to “Abolitionists’ Radical Empathy: A Message for Today”

  1. Radical empathy sounds like it is exactly what we need. Thank you for an instructive article. Best wishes on your career at Chico State. Being a Lake County resident I feel like we are neighbors.
    I look forward to reading more articles from you.

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