Brecon, Wales. Even in grainy black and white film, the atmosphere in the Cambridge Union debating chamber remains palpable. A field of impeccably turned out students packed densely into that grand nineteenth-century theatre; an almost uninterrupted field of white faces directed with eager anticipation towards the gaunt, slightly nervous looking African American sitting on the left-hand side of the central aisle. Across from him, exuding the confidence of a virtuoso in his natural element, sat his blonde-haired opponent. The topic for that evening’s debate was “The American Dream is at the expense of the American Negro.” The two debaters were James Baldwin and William F. Buckley, Jr.

That 1965 debate has since become famous. You can view it on YouTube or see clips of Baldwin’s speech in I am Not Your Negro, Raoul Peck’s stirring 2016 documentary woven from Baldwin’s own eloquent words and narrated by Samuel L. Jackson. It was probably the first time those students had heard a personal account of American racism, certainly in such evocative fashion—the expressions on their faces during Baldwin’s speech and the subsequent almost unheard-of standing ovation speak to how electrifying they found his performance.

Buckley’s own speech is well worth watching as well, and not just to admire the adorned rhetoric of an orator in the tradition of Cicero. Despite what some commentators have later said, Buckley did not attempt to defend segregation (in a moment of elitist humour he even suggested disenfranchising a great many white Southerners). Instead, he evoked a high vision of an America yet to make its own dream a reality, still on the long road towards becoming a more perfect union. Were it not for Baldwin’s disarmingly personal and honest account of American racism, Buckley’s high Americanism would be almost convincing—it must have been doubly so during those fraught days of the Cold War when America seemed to be coming apart at the seams.

Through the eloquence of Baldwin and Buckley the well-heeled Cambridge students were administered a full dose of an America at its height: a black recipient of America’s animus against a white recipient of her largesse. Described as a poet against a patrician, the debate was also a clash of two American impulses, the one towards iconoclasm and the other towards privilege and power. For all that, it evinces a bygone era where words carried weight and two opponents could meet on a rhetorical battlefield without stooping to slogans and crass characterizations of each other.

While history has decided in favour of Baldwin’s speech even more resoundingly than did the students on that February evening (the vote was 544 to 164 in Baldwin’s favour), there is a moment in Buckley’s reply that still deserves consideration, though not for the reason he had in mind. It comes in the midst of his preparing his audience for the meat of his argument: that American and European ideals provide the most effective engine for the improvement of black lives. Buckley concludes:

I would thank you please not to deny the fact that a considerable amount of effort went into a production of a system which grants a greater degree of material well-being to the American Negro than that … enjoyed by 95% of the other peoples of the human race.

Whether or not he realised it, Buckley was presenting his audience with an updated version of a venerable argument. One of the main defences of slavery made by slave-owning planters and slave traders—a defence that the Church to its everlasting shame heartily endorsed—was that it improved the lives of “savage” Africans. According to that argument, slavery ultimately civilized Africans despite its many obvious cruelties. As Robert E. Lee succinctly argued in 1858 in a letter to the New York Times, the “painful discipline they are undergoing, is necessary for their instruction.” The supposed benefits granted to people of colour by white European civilization remained a mainstay of a kind of noblesse oblige white supremacy until recent times, as Buckley’s own words demonstrate.

For all that, Buckley’s claim was and is accurate. According to many recent statistics, African Americans generally fall within the top 10% of the world’s financial elite. For all the abuse and inequalities that the black community faces in America, it enjoys a “greater degree of material well-being” than the vast majority of the people on this planet, two-thirds of whom make less than $5 a day.

Buckley’s claim may be accurate, but is it right? What he could not see from his privileged perch was how damnable his claim actually is. That America and other western countries should find themselves in such an unimpeachable position of material dominance is no accident, nor is it straight-forwardly (as Buckley contends) the result of hard work, at least not of the honest kind. The standard of living Americans enjoy is the fruit of more than three hundred years of extraordinary racial injustices. Slavery, imperial conquest, colonialism, and the genocide of native peoples (especially in the Americas) are the foundation stones on which western prosperity (at least, as we now know it) was built. Without the rapacious racism of Europeans, we could not now enjoy our material advantages nor, indeed, a great many of our social advancements and scientific discoveries.

Baldwin anticipated and answered Buckley’s point when he argued:

From a very literal point of view, harbors and the ports and the railroads of the country – the economy, especially in the South – could not conceivably be what they are if it had not been (and this is still so) for cheap labor. I am speaking very seriously: I picked cotton, I carried it to the market, I built the railroads under someone else’s whip for nothing. For nothing … therefore some power in the world was created by my labor and my sweat and the violation of my women and the murder of my children. This in the land of the free, the home of the brave. None of you can challenge that statement. It is a matter of historical record.

What he articulated less clearly was that this isn’t just an American problem but a global one. Those who benefit from living in western economies enriched by slavery and imperialism also benefit from the continued exploitation of cheap labour, be that the illegal immigrants working in our fields, the southern Africans sweating out miserable incomes in mineral extraction, or the Asians working long hours for next to nothing to supply us with cheap clothing. We continue to share Buckley’s moral blindness.

Moreover, the enormity of past racial injustices is such that there now can be no truly just political or economic solution. Slavery, genocide, and colonialism are too woven into the DNA of our modern world for us now to undo them without also forsaking many of the benefits we’ve gained from them. Perhaps the greatest injustice we must face is that meaningful justice is now unreachable. Correcting our historical interpretations without also addressing the unjust benefits we continue to enjoy because of that history does little to solve the problems of race. Progressive guilt does no more than conservative intransigence to benefit the Native American on a reservation or the Haitian struggling with the ongoing consequences of their ancestors’ enslavement.

More importantly, however, too many supporters of greater racial equality don’t seem to realise its necessary connection with ecological justice. The socio-economic order that was evoked through slavery and imperialism is the same one that is now destroying the planet. At least in the rhetoric now often employed, many appear to suggest that a happy solution to systematic racism would be for western ethnic minorities to gain access to the same standard of living and security as whites. Salvation for people of colour still requires them to become effectively white. Ideals of success remain as white and European as ever—they are also highly destructive to our planet and its complex web of local communities.

In economic terms, success for African Americans would result in their moving from the top 10% of the world’s elite to the top 2%. Obviously, that 8% difference covers a multitude of sin: the financial, social, and legal disparities between non-white and white Americans are enormous and demand immediate attention. But can the solution really be black and other ethnic minorities participating more equally in a system built on past injustices and perpetuating those injustices on three-quarters of the world in the present? Would greater inclusion of people of colour in the ecological destruction of the planet truly be a success?

In his 1988 essay, “Racism and the Economy,” Wendell Berry addresses these questions directly with a clarity probably beyond the reach of the shared metropolitanism of Baldwin and Buckley. He begins by diagnosing the “contagion” of racism as a form of hubris or pride: “The root is in our inordinate desire to be superior – not to some inferior or subject people, though this desire leads to the subjection of people – but to our condition. We wish to rise above the sweat and bother of taking care of anything – of ourselves, of each other, or of our country” (47). This allows Berry to set racism against people of colour in the wider context of the exploitation of cheap labour. In essence, he agrees with Baldwin that the American Dream has been too often built through the sweat of others.

One of the ways we manifest this desire for superiority is in a hierarchy of labour. Many Americans enslaved Africans to do the kind of work they refused to do themselves, “what used to be known as ‘nigger work’—work that is fundamental and inescapable” (48). Berry argues that this impulse to force others to undertake menial work infects even those who push for greater racial equality and hence taints such aspirations. Berry writes,

The “success” of the black corporate executive, in fact, only reveals the shallowness, the jeopardy, and the falseness of the “success” of the white corporate executive…. It only assumes that American blacks will be made better or more useful or more secure by becoming as greedy, selfish, wasteful, and thoughtless as affluent American whites. The aims and standards of the oppressors become the aims and standards of the oppressed, and so our ills and evils survive our successive “liberations.” (49)

In short, the socio-economic order created by European expansionism and racism not only tilts systems and structures against people of colour, it also defines the goals towards which they strive. Though Berry does not explicitly make this connection, fundamentally western economies – and especially corporations – define the beata vita, the happy life, for everyone.

Berry argues that racism can only really be tackled by first recognizing four fundamental problems. The first two are urbanization and land dispossession, which he believes have encouraged the deskilling of African Americans (as it has whites) so that many moved only from being “competently poor” to “dependently poor” (50). He quotes a statistic that whereas in 1920 nearly a million black farmers worked fifty million acres, in 1988 only thirty thousand black farmers worked three million acres. While some African Americans have subsequently risen to the heights of American society, many more are locked into menial roles or cycles of unemployment. In essence, blacks have simply been integrated into a white-dominated world that perpetuates a kind of “master-slave” dynamic: “as long as there are some people who wish to believe and are economically empowered to believe that they are too good to do their own work and clean up after themselves, then somebody else is going to have to do the work and the cleaning up” (53). Usually, they are people of colour.

The third underlying problem is that most economic solutions to racism are compromised by our “destructive economy.” Within this economy those at both the top and the bottom engage in work that’s “unproductive” and “spiritually desolate” (52). Executives are effectively dehumanized by growing rich on “work they do not do, and would disdain to do,” that typically degrades the environment, cultures, and society. The waste collector is dehumanized by being compelled to undertake work that is meaningless: “There is no art to it, no science, no skill. Its only virtue is in necessity…. It is work, then, that is entirely negative in its value” (53-4).

The final problem emerges from the first three: in an increasingly dispossessed and urbanized society based on a destructive economy, true economic justice eludes us because the health of the communities on which it depends has been undermined. Because we have become disembedded from our local communities, the value of our work is determined not by its quality or utility but purely by the power of the market. This effectively creates a slave economy where political power is aligned with wealth and all value is determined by the market:

It is increasingly apparent that we cannot value things except by selling them, and that we think it acceptable, indeed respectable, to sell anything…. [I]t is increasingly evident that we have replaced the old market on which people were sold with a new market on which people sell themselves (58).

Berry’s solution to these fundamental problems and, therefore, also to racism is the reclamation and restoration of our communities:

a community, properly speaking, cannot exclude or mistreat any of its members. This is what we forgot during slavery and the industrialization that followed, and have never remembered. A proper community, we should remember also, is a commonwealth: a place, a resource, and an economy. It answers the needs, practical as well as social and spiritual, of its members—among them the need to need one another. The answer to the present alignment of political power with wealth is the restoration of the identity of community and economy. (63)

Such communities thrive because people are confronted by each other face-to-face and find fulfilment in their mutual need. While Berry is open to the possibility of governments aiding in the revival of local communities, he is not hopeful because the decentralization of power and economy that it entails is antithetical to corporate power. Here he reveals without actually stating the fundamental assumption of his argument: that corporations aided by government have stepped into the role vacated by slave masters.

As a result, Berry ends his essay with a surprising and unintended echoing of James Baldwin who concluded his own argument with prophecies of warning and hope:

Until the moment comes when we … the American people are able to accept the fact that I have to accept … that on that continent we are trying to forge a new identity for which we need each other and that I am not a ward of America. I am not an object of missionary charity. I am one of the people who built the country–until this moment there is scarcely any hope for the American dream, because the people who are denied participation in it, by their very presence, will wreck it.

Berry likewise warns that because of governmental and corporate intransigence, we should expect a time when people reject the current world order so that they may preserve and strengthen their homes. He is confident that the present system must fail either with a swift collapse or a slow failure: “If it fails slowly, and if we have been careful to preserve the most necessary and valuable things, then it may fail into a restoration of community life – that is, into understanding of our need to help and comfort each other” (64).

Drawing from both Baldwin and Berry allows us to see that the racist and imperial policies of the past continue to do immense social, economic, cultural, and ecological damage around the globe. Racial injustice is among other things an ecological issue. The solution to the ecological problem of racism cannot therefore simply be reducing inequalities on a national scale; it must also involve addressing ecological issues and racial injustices globally. A corrupted, destructive, and greedy West must relearn from those we have exploited and oppressed the old arts of community-building. And that lesson must necessarily involve a cost to those of us in the West who for too long have been satisfied with feeling remorseful about our past even while continuing to reap its material benefits.

If Berry is right, then our response to the ecological crisis may also provide an opportunity to address our racism problem properly. By returning to the earth and undertaking the work ourselves of husbandry, family, and community, we can begin to heal the deep ecological and racial scars of the past six hundred years. As Berry notes, this is as much a religious, imaginative, and philosophical endeavor as it is an economic or social one, compelling particularly those of us in the West to embrace a more generous understanding of what it means to be happy. The threat of ecological collapse, which takes no notice of human power dynamics let alone race, should be enough to persuade us of our mutual need. Ultimately, we must discover a more convivial approach to life, in which individuals discover meaning and contentment in living well with the natural world and their neighbours no matter their colour. In that conviviality, as Berry notes elsewhere, is found healing: both of our communities and of the soil beneath our feet. Perhaps in a world like that, we’ll also finally find something more powerful than even justice—we’ll find peace.

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    • What parts do you not agree with? He was mostly spot on. Have you ever asked yourself how native Americans survived hurricanes and tornadoes before European colonization? That’s a question that can lead us to “relearn from those we exploited and oppressed.”

  1. There may well be a sense in which, however we mess with the system, the result is basically “oligarchy.” If so, the quality of life and evils we see may have more to do with the quality of our oligarchs, than the specifics of the system that put them in power.

    • I’m not sure you can entirely separate the two…surely, oligarchs crystallize by their power to act the culture that produces them. But in some ways I think you’re right, which highlights some overlooked merits of, for example, the late British imperial system of educating a “ruling class” into a strong sense of public service.

      At the same time, there are also better and worse systems for keeping the powerful in check. Those systems are ever in danger of corruption, but they’re good in themselves and can be maintained (though not perfectly) by a society and culture that prizes them.

      What I like about Berry’s essay is that he reminds us of some the hidden poisons of our current system–poison, I should add, that I think neither conservatives nor progressives account for in their vision of a better society.

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