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Jack Johnson was the first black heavyweight boxing champ. His victory over James Jeffries in 1910 sparked race riots and apparently even killings. Famously he is supposed to have said: “I’m black and they never let me forget it. I'm black all right. I'll never let them forget it!”

To those of us sympathetic to oppressed minorities Johnson’s words get all round approval. They represent the voice of vengeance putting the wrong to right. I wonder. Is it not a voice that inverts racism and makes the same mistake over again merely compounding the problem?

When the oppressed fight back successfully there is an inescapable feeling that some greater justice has been served. It is understandable and fair enough. As I said before, an eye for an eye is usually about as good as it gets. But it is still a low grade response, a primitive morality which often adds to further injury. As moral endeavour it is no more than the first step. It is what follows that counts, the hard work of building bridges.

Truth be told, if history had turned a different corner and black people had come to rule the world, then there would have been oppressions just the same. For the powerful group to dump on the less powerful one is the way of things. It takes a considerable effort of moral intelligence to hold that back.

I’m not saying that such intelligence is impossible, just that it is not typical. The Jesus imperative is something radical but also something difficult. Most are not capable of it and Johnson’s remark, apocryphal or not, isn’t it.

if black people had ruled the world

there would have been oppressions just the same



philosophy • 26.04.11