“Moral Licensing” (You Need to Know About It)

“Why wasn’t there a whole new generation of Barack Obamas?”

It’s a question Audie Cornish asked Gwen Ifill during an NPR interview last week. A year after President Obama’s first election in 2008, Ifill wrote a compelling book: “The Breakthrough: Politics and Race in the Age of Obama.”

The thesis of the book was that Obama’s election would soon herald a generational shift in leadership among African-American politicians. More compelling, his election would clear the path for a whole new generation of African-American political leaders to rise through the ranks.

But the thing is, it never happened.

It’s almost seven full years later, and while many of the leaders Ifill identifies are still on the public stage, it would be hard to argue that Obama’s election has led to a golden age of African-Americans in American political leadership.

So, Cornish asks Ifill to look back at the premise of the book. And Ifill makes the following observation about Obama’s election (Listen here):

“I think with a black president, I think it took our eyes off of people who were coming up behind him. Also, there’s a cautionary tale in being the first. A lot of people looked at what happened and said, I don’t know if I want to go through what he went through. But I don’t know. I think that when Barack Obama’s no longer there, he’s no longer sucking up so much air, we’re going to see more and more people rise up. But you’re right. I can’t identify off the top of my head someone running for Senate, for mayor or governor who is a brand new name yet.”

Not only did that new Golden Age for black politicians not occur,  you could make a further argument that racial issues are more intractable than they were in 2008 when Obama was elected.

Between the Falll of 2008 and Obama’s re-election in 2012, a bizarre thing happened. Rather than usher in a new era of acceptance of African-Americans leaders, writer Thomas Edsall found that “anti-black” attitudes INCREASED. That’s right. Increased. In fact, by the Fall of 2012, anti-black attitudes were back over 50 percent, having fallen below that point in 2008.

Edsel noted the irony:

“Obama’s ascendency to the presidency means that, on race, the Rubicon has been crossed (2008) and re-crossed (2012).”

Further, there has been a well documented explosion of racist and hate groups during Obama’s presidency. The following graph from the Southern Poverty and Law Association illustrates the shocking rise:


And while not all “Patriot” groups name race as their primary issue, the facts are that anti-Black attitudes have dramatically worsened during the time when we have been led by our first Black President. Far too many horrific deaths of African-Americans, have given rise to the Black Lives Matter moment, and a sense that Black lives are devalued, even with a Black man in the White House.

What’s going on here?!

maxresdefaultEnter the brilliance of Malcom Gladwell, and his important new podcast, “Revisionist History.” His very first episode helps to explain this disturbing phenomenon.

The first episode is about the social theory of “Moral Licensing.” Moral Licensing suggests that past “good behaviors” don’t always indicate future good behaviors. In fact, the exact opposite. What tends to happen, instead, is that groups allow the “token” or “exceptional” individual to “break through,” only to slam the door shut on all those who follow afterward.

He uses the story of 19th century artist Elizabeth Thompson Butler, and modern-day Prime Minister Julia Gillard of Australia in our time to illustrate the issues. Along the way, he notes the ironic success of a few Jews in deeply anti-semitic Germany, in the pre-World War II era…as all illustrating the ironic dynamic of “Moral Licensing.”

Please give it a listen. It’s a deeply powerful hour of audio. I’ve listened to it several times now.

It seems to me to be a powerfully true theory about what drives groups of human beings, in almost every society and era. We human beings seem willing to allow the “token” to break through. But, ironically, that very “good deed” appears to give people moral permission to discriminate in their hearts in the future, against whole groups…Women….African-Americans….Jews. Many others.

Just look, as Gladwell notes, at the huge number of nations who have elected a lone woman to be their leader (President/Prime Minister), but have only done this ONCE…only to fall back into another long succession of male leaders.

The word “privilege” gets thrown around a lot today, but it must be named here too. “Moral licensing” is, in a sense, a fancy way to describe the moral justification through which the privileged keep their power and status, all the while feeling good about the fact that we elected a Black, or woman, President.


Moral Licensing is kind of society-wide version of the old “I can’t be racist…I have a Black friend” expression. But nothing will really change until we confront the real demons of racism and sexism, and stop pretending that one election, of one person, fixes these things.

Of course, I’m not at all suggesting we should avoid electing a woman. To the contrary, I think that would be an amazing symbol of genuine human progress, and American progress.

I mean, I cried at First Lady Michelle Obama’s speech the other night, when she talked about these things. Didn’t you?

Her point about waking up every morning in a house built by slaves?
Her point about her kids being able to play with their dog on the White House lawn?

My Lord. I was in tears.

Yes, that’s real progress. That’s not just symbolic.

And the point Michelle Obama made about how a Hillary Clinton presidency would be an amazing breakthrough for women and girls?

Yes. Also true, and deeply important. That’s real too.

But, just as the first Black President did not lead us into some “post-racial” Nirvana, so too our first woman President won’t usher in a new era of women’s equality and a “post-sexist” society either.

In fact, if history is any indication? Better batten down the hatches. “Moral Licensing” would suggest that all women will be in for a rough ride.

Progress is achieved in powerful and symbolic grand gestures, yes. But the really hard work isn’t accomplished by just electing any one token leader. The hardest work isn’t political at all.

It’s moral. It’s theological. It’s spiritual. It’s the really hard work is the hard-slogging work of changing hearts. Or better yet, inviting people to break open their hearts and celebrate that victories of equality for anybody anywhere are also victories of freedom for everybody everywhere.

President Obama, then, was deeply right, in his meditation following the Dallas shooting. President Obama called our nation to be more “open-hearted.”

And I think he’s right. We must be open-hearted and big hearted enough to do the hard work to heal society, to accept not just “the one” but “the many.”

We’ve got a lot of work still to do, don’t we?

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Eric Folkerth is a minister, musician, author and blogger. He is Senior Pastor of Kessler Park UMC United Methodist Church in Dallas, Texas. Previously, he was pastor at Northaven UMC in Dallas for seventeen years. Eric loves to write on topics of spirituality, social justice, music/art and politics. The entries on this blog reflect that diversity of interests. His passion for social justice goes beyond mere words. He’s been arrested at the White House, defending immigrants and “The Dreamers,” and he’s officiated at same sex weddings in his churches, in defiance of what some believe is Methodist teaching. Eric is an avid blogger and published author, and 2017 recipient of the prestigeous Kuchling Humanitarian Award from Dallas’ Black Tie Dinner. (Human Rights Campaign) Eric has led or co-led hundreds of persons on mission trips around the globe, to places such as Mexico, Haiti, Russia, and Nepal. He has worked with lay persons to build ten homes, and one Community Center, in partnership with Habitat for Humanity of Dallas. He’s a popular preacher, and often tackles challenging issues of social justice in his writings and sermons. His wife, Judge Dennise Garcia, is a State District Judge for Dallas, County. As judge of the 303rd Family District Court, she consistently gets high ratings from area lawyers, and was named “best judge” by The Dallas Observer. First elected in 2004, she was the first Latina ever elected to a county-wide bench in Dallas County, and is currently the longest service district judge in that district. She was re-elected for a fourth term in 2018. They have the world’s best daughter, Maria, and an incredible dog, Daisy. Find links to Eric’s music-related websites, at the top of this site’s navigation menu.

7 thoughts on ““Moral Licensing” (You Need to Know About It)

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