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You ever leave a conversation and then wanted to kick yourself because you did not say something you wanted to say? I think we all have done that. Well, I can do one better than that. I have written a book titled Beyond Racial Division. The book is published, and yet the other day, while riding my bike, I realized that I left out a great personal story that I should have put in the book. So let me do a little backtracking and discuss that story here. On MLK Day, this story is especially appropriate.

Even though it is not in the book, it might give you some understanding about what may be in my book. In Beyond Racial Division, I discuss using moral suasion instead of power as often as possible. Moral suasion is when we convince people to do what we see as a moral good because they see that moral good as good. In other words, when we convince our kid to not smoke because we convince our kid that smoking is wrong. Power is more self-explanatory in that we use power to force individuals to do what we think is right. That power can come from legal means, physical strength, social pressure, or other ways we can force people to conform to our moral expectations.

Moral suasion is best done working with someone to do the right thing instead of forcing that person to do what we want because of our power. Research has shown that the best way to engage in moral suasion is through relationships. In those relationships, we can build rapport, find areas of agreement, and clearly understand the other person’s perspectives. If we want people to change at the intrinsic level and not simply conform to pressure, then we should use the techniques of moral suasion instead of just overpowering that person.

But that does not mean that power is never to be used. I found that out one day when I was an adjunct in San Antonio. One day on the way home from work, I stopped to get gas. As I was pumping gas, I noticed some junior high kids outside of the 7-11. Three of them were picking on a smaller guy. I looked around, and there were only women and an old guy at the station. They would make for an easy physical target if they intervened. Those of you who have never seen me, I am 6’3″ and at the time had some muscles. So I knew that nothing would be done if I did not do anything.

So after I finished pumping my gas, I went over there and told the boys that if they did not leave him alone, I was going into the store and have the clerk call the police. They looked me over and then went back to harassing the other kid. But I had read the room. None of them were going to attack me because of my size. They may outnumber me, but none of them wanted to be the first one to get hit. So I repeated myself and moved closer to them. At that point, they glared to save face and then left. The other kid went in a different direction. The older guy and one of the ladies who had watched the encounter thanked me, and I got in my car and left.

I used power, or at least the threat of power, to stop the harassment. That was the only way to get some measure of justice at that time. I did not have the opportunity to sit down with the boys and find out why they were bullying the kid or develop relationships with them that I could use to help them see why what they were doing was wrong. I did not have the time to see what may be legit in their grievances and build rapport. I wanted to stop an injustice, and power was the best way to do it at that time.

Although I stopped an injustice, I am under no illusion that I changed those boys. The moral framework for those boys remains. They are just as willing to victimize another kid after my encounter with them as before our encounter. For all I know, they caught up with that kid an hour later and beat him up. I may have only delayed the inevitable. I hope not. I hope what I did saved that kid for good. But even if I did stop harassment of that boy for good, the emotional forces that troubled those kids did not go away because I stopped them from attacking that kid at that time.

Power is sometimes necessary, as it was in this particular situation. But power rarely creates intrinsic change. In the short term, we may need it to deal with a specific problem, but we fool ourselves if we think that it permanently stops the problem. If we use power for a short-term emergency, we can often accomplish the goal we seek. Power is sometimes necessary for justice. But power usually is not sufficient to produce lasting change.

I know that some people disagree with me. They see power as the primary, and perhaps only way, to change society. They figure that if they and their allies gain power, they can set up society the way it is supposed to be. I find such optimism short-sighted. What often happens if power is used too frequently is that people rebel. They find ways to counter the power, and when the time is right, they will fight against that power. They will do so because they have not changed their moral values and only conform because they do not want to experience the consequences of opposing the powerful.

For example, what if I decided to make more changes than my one encounter with those boys? What if I followed those boys and kept interrupting them when they harassed others? At some point, because their values have not changed, they would work at rebelling against my attempt to alter their behavior. Perhaps realizing that it is three against one, they all might attack me at once. I am not Bruce Lee, and I probably would not be able to hold up against three angry preteens. Or maybe they have a teenager friend big enough to attack me. If they are friends with the defensive end on the high school football team, I may have some problems. If power is the only thing keeping people in line, then we should not be surprised when they find a way to resist that power and do what they want.

Now I could counter the attempts of these boys to resist. Perhaps, I could find other adult men to help me police the situation. I can meet their increase of power with more power myself. Of course, the kids may find ways to increase their power as well. They could recruit more students and perhaps even adults to meet my increase in physical power. Is this not how gangs get formed and start to fight each other? But this is the nature of using power. When we use power, we have to keep using power to force people to do what we think is right. Since people do not like being forced to do something they are not convinced is right, they will seek to overthrow those with power. So both the group trying to make social changes and those who do not want to make changes concentrate upon accumulating power rather than asking questions about whether we can find answers that serve the greatest number of individuals. Ultimately when power is used too widely, it leads to power struggles that polarize us rather than efforts to find answers that build our communities.

I am not ashamed of what I did that afternoon, but it was not a lasting reform. Ultimately someone in those boys’ lives will have to engage in healthy practices of moral suasion to make fundamental changes in their lives. The use of power is necessary and sometimes vital. But if we want lasting change, we have to connect with each other and understand each other’s perspectives. We must communicate with others in a healthy manner. Then we can not merely shame or pressure others to change. Instead, we can encourage them to decide to change and to see perspectives they never saw before.

This focus on communication is precisely what we must do in our current racial tension. There are times when power is necessary. But the temptation to use power to consistently solve our racial problems brings with it power struggles and the need to build up our own ability to force conformity. Different groups have contrasting ideas about what we should do. The temptation is to try to force others to accept the solutions we want to promote. But this power-driven approach is short-sighted and will not produce intrinsic changes. Those changes will not happen until we engage in moral suasion consistently rather than seeking power to force compliance.

So why do we not use moral suasion? Well, think again about those three preteens. If I wanted to engage in moral suasion, I would have to seek them out and work at developing relationships with them. That effort would be time-consuming. It is easier to just use power and keep those boys in line. Easier but not lasting. Using moral suasion correctly will be a long-term commitment and will be costly. We must sit down with those with whom we disagree and try to understand their perspectives. We must seek out answers that meet their felt needs and show them respect. I find that few in the racial conversation want to do this. Until we are willing to have those conversations, we will continue to foster greater racial polarization in our society.

As I mentioned before, this story is especially relevant on MLK day. MLK focused on learning how to communicate the injustices of his time to whites who often did not care about those injustices. He used powers of persuasion rather than attempts at coercion to achieve his goals of justice. King taught us the power of changing minds, and once those minds were changed, social revolution became inevitable. It is appropriate on this day to make a commitment to engaging in the moral suasion that we need to create a beloved community.

This blog post originally appeared on MLK day last year on Patheos.  In light of George Yancey’s book winning a CT award for best book in Politics and Public Life, we asked if we could reprint this post on MLK this year.

George Yancey

Baylor University
George Yancey, Ph.D., is professor of sociology at Baylor University. He’s author of Beyond Racial Gridlock: Embracing Mutual Responsibility (IVP, 2006).


  • Marybeth Baggett says:

    Thank you for this, George. I found it a helpful way to think about our current cultural moment. And I think there’s lots of fodder here to bring to bear on teaching and education more broadly.

  • Gordon Moulden says:

    What is the right thing? In a society where individuals, groups, and the media are willing to use cyberspace and the airwaves to destroy the relationships of people they don’t like, and where so many mock or despise Biblical principles, getting people to agree on what is “right” may be the biggest hurdle. I am not opposed to moral suasion; people need to value each other AND their relationships for intra and interracial relationships to improve, and to value those relationships above any self-serving agenda. It is ironic that it took the near death of a black athlete to do more for interracial relations than over 90% of all comments on our social or mainstream media, comments that promote self-serving and too often interpersonally destructive agendas.