In pursuit of a project that may or may not bear any fruit, I’ve just been watching some sermons about racism from evangelical megachurch pastors. I want to briefly highlight two.
The first comes from Craig Groeschel, pastor of the humongous Life.Church based in Oklahoma. In a sermon series on “How to Neighbor” delivered in May, 2016, Groeschel taught his congregation how to love your neighbor of a different race. There are three steps:
1. “Recognize our prejudices.”
2. “Seek to understand others.”
3. “Love those different from you.”
“Racism,” Groeschel informed the congregation, “is not a skin issue; it’s a sin issue.” When Christians have prejudice toward someone of another skin color they are sinning against God. Groeschel hammered this point repeatedly with a great deal of passion and bluntness. After all, he said, “There is one race; that is the human race!”
The second message comes from Robert Jeffress, Pastor of First Baptist Church of Dallas, one of the largest churches in the Southern Baptist Convention. In June 2020, at the height of the protests after George Floyd’s death, Jeffress gave his congregation three simple propositions:
1. “God hates racism.”
He says it’s completely impermissible to hate someone because of their “skin color” and that he has to admit that First Baptist was “on the wrong side of history” and the “wrong side of God” in the civil rights era. Wow! It was shocking to me that he said this.
2. “God hates lawlessness.”
He says that calls to defund police are directly disobedient to the word of God (citing Romans 13, of course). He would do well to read Esau McCaulley on Romans 13 and policing.
3. “Racism is not the root problem in America today. Lawlessness is not the root problem in America today. Racism and lawlessness are symptoms of the root problem. The root problem in America today is sin…”
He says that if anyone asks what First Baptist is doing to deal with racism, you can tell them they’re preaching the Gospel. Only by changing hearts can the symptoms of racism and lawlessness be resolved.
Now my job is to be a party pooper. These forceful denunciations of racism do mark change over time, for sure. White conservative Protestants a century ago did not tend to speak in these terms. But these statements should not be mistaken for robustly Christian anti-racism.
For one thing, neither man appears to understand what race is. They naturalize the association of skin color and race (which is contingent and arbitrary). The only hint of society here is in the thinnest, most interpersonal terms. So Groeschel thinks racism comes from ignorance or from bad teaching or hurtful interpersonal experiences. The possibility that material inequalities on a wide scale might reproduce race has very evidently never occurred to him.
Both Groeschel and Jeffress rely on tropes that white evangelicals used 60 years ago to oppose the civil rights movement. The idea that racism is a sin problem rather than a skin problem is a pithy (and perhaps even unconscious) way of saying that race-conscious activism to change structures is missing the point. One has to get at the heart. That’s how white evangelicals in the 1960s used the term to oppose racial change, and Groeschel is so accustomed to this water he doesn’t know he’s wet.
Tropes like “There’s only one race, the human race!” might have been prophetic in Oklahoma a century ago, but race and racial claims are nothing without context. The context has changed a lot, and it’s been a long time since these tired cliches carried any hint of challenge to them. Instead, white evangelical audiences readily eat them up: “Why are those liberals always talking about race? Like Pastor Groeschel said, there’s only one race. Why are those black Christians trying to reform police? Like Pastor Jeffress said, the only solution is changed hearts.”
Groeschel’s emotional condemnation of racism and Jeffress’s frank admission that his own church had been “on the wrong side of God” on racial matters in the past is a measure of how much has changed. Yet at a deeper level, that both men are using old and reactionary tropes without even realizing they’re doing so is a sign of how shallow white evangelical learning has been.
It’s like Jeffress is saying, “We were wrong in the past, but I have no idea why.”
If you say racism is a sin, your white evangelical audience will nod along with you. After all, they’re not the one’s always drawing attention to people’s skin color and making judgments of whole groups of people. Pastor Groeschel warned that making judgments based on skin color is sinful, but look around you: it’s the liberals who do that all the time, not we good ol’ conservative Christians.
A prophetic word in a white evangelical church would not be so quick to confine racism in the comfortable box of sin. It would do the hard work of taking an ancient text that didn’t even have the category of racism and translating it to the particular material context of our own moment, where an ideology of difference has been created to deploy power and structure social relations. It would try to explain how Christians must endeavor to live in a system of domination that is unnatural and contrary to God’s purposes.
Paul wrote an entire treatise trying to work out how the Gospel could be brought to bear on Gentile and Jewish relations in a world of Roman domination. We must wrestle with how to live against white supremacy. Anything less is a cop-out.
This is an optimist’s case for the following proposition: one of the dumbest and deadliest inventions humans have ever devised is getting its butt kicked. Folks, the racists are losing.
We may come to remember the Trump presidency as a pathetically weak attempt to roll back the cultural, demographic, and ideological change that is rising to a nearly inexorable force. The effort to Make America Racist Again has already failed miserably. Give it another four years and it will still fail.
To drive home the point that my optimism does not rest in this year’s election results, I’m posting this before knowing whether or not Trump has been defeated. My case for optimism certainly doesn’t rest in the election of a longtime moderate Democrat with a habit of cozying up to white supremacist senators back in the day. My hope does not depend on whether this Trump interlude proves to be of the four or eight year variety. My optimism rests in a broader global-historical sweep of the twentieth century.
At the dawn of that century, Senator Ben Tillman stood on the floor of the United States Senate and said this: “We took the government away. We stuffed the ballot boxes. We shot them. We are not ashamed of it. The Senator from Wisconsin would have done the same thing. I see it in his eye right now. He would have done it…The brotherhood of man exists no longer, because you shoot negroes [sic] in Illinois, when they come in competition with your labor, as we shoot them in South Carolina when they come in competition with us in the matter of elections. You do not love them any better than we do.” Some might have deplored Senator Tillman’s candor but, as the kids say these days, where was the lie?
A century ago, racism was the coordinating principle of global affairs. W.E.B. Du Bois indulged no idle speculation when he wrote, “Are we not coming more and more, day by day, to making the statement ‘I am white,’ the one fundamental tenet of our practical morality?” The world-embracing hubris of it is what most stood out to Du Bois. People had found reasons to dominate each other since the dawn of time. But now, Europeans and their settler state descendants had not only come up with a bizarre conspiracy theory called whiteness, they used it to organize society and politics across the globe!
The ideology of whiteness fueled ecstatic visions of earthly conquest as divine calling. From Afrikaner ministers in the Dutch Reformed Church to prominent social gospelers in the United States, many white Protestants eagerly awaited the consummation of God’s plan, when their divinely chosen white race would fulfill its mission. Josiah Strong supposed that “God, with infinite wisdom and skill,” was “training the Anglo-Saxon race” for the day it would “spread itself over the earth.” In that glorious day the “inferior tribes” would be revealed as “only precursors of a superior race, voices in the wilderness crying: “Prepare ye the way of the Lord!” These days, the Christians imagined as white are more likely to be embarrassed and uneasy about it than to be carried away by fanciful flights of eschatological genocide.
Horror at the depths to which racism could take humanity in the Holocaust, and even more important, the challenge of anti-racist and independence movements all across the Global South in the second half of the twentieth century, dealt a body blow to white supremacy from which it has never recovered. Henceforth, denial moved more than ever before to the very center of racist ideology. As the late George Fredrickson pointed out, the Holocaust was so discrediting that the classic racist position is not to defend it, but to deny it had ever happened!
To be sure, denial has always been part of any racial order, even the most brutal ones. The paternalist defense of slavery, for example, provided the planter a psychological shield when his brutalized conscience accused him. And Germans carried out their genocide more in a spirit of fear than hatred. Indeed one might say racism is denial. As Frederick Douglass put it in one of the great speeches of American history, “Man is man, the world over. This fact is affirmed and admitted in any effort to deny it. The sentiments we exhibit, whether love or hate, confidence or fear, respect or contempt, will always imply a like humanity.”
Our case for optimism, then, must not ultimately rest in the perennially confused psychology of the racist. But the centrality of denial, its organizing role both on the level of psychology and systems, seems to me relatively new. And, crucially, it suggests an exhausted ideology. Racism is losing its power to inspire, much less organize coherent political projects.
The idea that the horrors of the Holocaust discredited racist ideology has often been overdrawn (indeed, I’ve made this case myself elsewhere). If racism was no longer fashionable, a disturbingly large number of Europeans missed the memo. In the 1960s, during my parents’ lifetime, the Portuguese dictatorship busily sent tens of thousands of white settlers to Angola in a classic case of racist settler colonial domination. In the 1980s, during my lifetime, racist South African security forces and commando units wreaked havoc across southern Africa. A British Commonwealth committee estimated they contributed to 1 million deaths and made 3 million people homeless. But these political projects have been so thoroughly discredited that people are shocked to discover they even existed in a world so close to our own.
Even in the most obvious state of exception in a decolonizing world, South Africa, denial ruled the day. The regime not only portrayed itself as a bulwark against communism. It established native “homelands” and granted them fictive “independence” in an elaborate bid to deny and obfuscate the essentially racist character of the apartheid state. Even the prototypical exemplars of modern racist social organization did not want to admit what they were doing.
And so this stark fact remains: racism crested in the era of global war and has receded through the era of decolonization, civil rights movements, and the rise of global human rights.
Against this sweeping historical change, what do the racists offer? In 2017 a motley crew of a few hundred demonstrated in Charlottesville before one of their number launched a terrorist attack and killed Heather Heyer. Organizers promptly retreated, concluding they had made a strategic error because the American public was so revolted. Trump’s equivocations about the terrorists became a political albatross rather than a source of strength. He and his enablers quickly spun new tales of denial to try to bury the episode.
Terrorists used to be able to take over whole states and defy the federal government to do anything about it. Now their would-be sympathizers recoil in disgust. I know the headlines often seem scary today, reading of proud boys and boogaloos and militias. But these lonely cosplayers can only dream of the power and acclaim racists like themselves used to amass a short time ago. Social media is not our friend in our efforts to achieve perspective. A Florida man yelling “white power!” as he rides by on his golf cart is not the stuff of which racist revolutions are made. For racists, times are hard, even with one of their own in the oval office.
Trump’s invocations of racism have often been startlingly old-fashioned. This is, I admit, infuriating. From the blood and soil nationalism evoked in the “send her back” chants, to playing on stereotypical racist fears of racial pollution through rape and housing integration, to crafting an immigration policy of which even the Dillingham commission could be proud, it often seemed as if Trump was trying to play racism’s greatest hits. Yet even as his fans got a thrill out of it, they experienced this pleasure within a carefully maintained framework of denial. Not only did they deny the fact that they had joined a racist movement, they continued to imagine that they didn’t like racism at all.
Anti-racists often treat this stunning blindness as a sign of racism’s entrenched position in American life. From one vantage point that’s true. This “colorblind racism” often feels intractable, and it really does cause profound pain and suffering for people of color, not to mention psychological strain for white people. But from another vantage point, this denial is a flashing red light declaring that racism as an ideological project is exhausted. These folks aren’t even good at hating people anymore. Their heart isn’t all the way in it.
A century ago—far less, in fact—populist demagogues could mobilize a crowd with a proud message of white supremacy till kingdom come. Now, even Trump’s most loyal mass constituency—white evangelical Christians—declares an avowed belief in a brand of Christian universalism. Christ died for all and anyone who accepts Jesus as savior is headed to the same heavenly destination. The doors of the church are open to all, regardless of color. Believe me, I’ll be the first to say this Christian universalism tends to be remarkably immune to practical ethical content, but I argue it does make these white Christians feel cross-pressured. Their racism makes them uncomfortable. This is not a confident ideology ready to make new converts. It’s a tired and fearful perspective on the world, and the demographic groups most likely to cling to it are shrinking.
My students at Temple University are black and white, Asian and Hispanic. Their families come from India and Vietnam, Cameroon and Armenia. They tell me they’re prepared to disrupt racism. The historian in me says this is the conceit of the young. But then, maybe I’m not thinking historically enough. Is it really so hard to believe that the most diverse and racially integrated generation in American history will turn out to be the most anti-racist generation?
I’ve been skeptical that the massive black lives matter protests of this summer signify much. But let’s at least stipulate this: never in American history have so many people of such diverse backgrounds come together to demand racial justice. It remains to be seen how much this will matter in the long run, but for now, let’s take a moment to be grateful this good thing has happened.
The burden of an optimist’s case is that it must not become another species of the denial it claims to critique. It must not descend to that point of wishful nonsense where, as Kimberlé Crenshaw has put it, “sober assessments of how far we have come” are replaced “by congratulatory declarations that we have arrived.”
From racist policing to a yawning wealth gap that shows no sign of closing, racism remains an urgent burden that is a matter of life and death in the present day. Most worryingly for the future, these material forces are reproducing race as we speak. The future will belong to the anti-racists insofar as we put a wrench directly into these systems of power and finally interrupt the reproduction of their ideological justification. This is what freedom movements across the global south did. They didn’t wait around for Europeans to have a change of heart. They served notice the old systems of power weren’t coming back and they ushered the racists off the stage to the margins of history. Many a racist settler died embittered and resentful. For the world’s future it didn’t matter if they never learned their lesson. What mattered is that they were pushed to the sidelines where their racism no longer commanded armies and bureaucracies.
The racists are losing. This is a case for optimism, not complacency. The only thing that ever moved the world toward freedom was people acting together to make power, take power, and use it to free human beings from domination. In the fog of war it can be hard to tell if one is fighting a depleted enemy in a rear-guard action, or a well-supplied force waging the next phase of a long campaign. Trumpism is a desperate defense of an exhausted and pathetic ideology. In its heyday, racism killed millions and held the globe in its thrall. Today, it’s the succor of a lonely man and his feeble hangers-on. They, too, will be ushered off the stage of history.
In November 1922, the Pentecostal publication Gospel Trumpet published this observation:
Notice how familiar the frames of argument are to you. They’re all there:
–It’s not really about race in the end.
–If you don’t break the law you probably don’t have anything to worry about.
–Of course [fill in the blank] is bad, but we’ve made so much progress and most people are trying to help.
–Only in the U.S. would these people have such opportunities in the first place.
And they’re talking about lynching. The white Christian gaze could make even the most horrific atrocities seem like merely regrettable mishaps on the road of progress in the good ol’ USA. Defenders of contemporary American policing are just as blind as these white Christians were a century ago.
A movement for racial justice captures the nation’s attention and puts white evangelicals on the defensive. Shocking brutality spurs demands for reform, black evangelicals press for a more inclusive brand of evangelicalism, and white evangelical elites acknowledge the need for change. A major white evangelical periodical announces that the time for “platitudes” is over.1 Is this the moment white evangelicalism finally rouses itself to support black freedom?
I am speaking not of 2020, but of 1963. The white evangelical response to that epochal year of civil rights protest reveals enduring patterns in the ways white evangelicals engage racial issues and suggests the prospects for an anti-racist white evangelicalism in 2020 are dim.
The Birmingham campaign in the Spring of 1963 brought police brutality home to American living rooms through indelible images of dogs and fire hoses. In September, a terrorist bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church left four black girls dead. If some white evangelicals were too set in their ways to hear the anguished cries for change, perhaps the younger generation would lead the way. One white evangelical college student declared that there was no longer any “middle ground.” There were only two choices left: “One either actively protests injustice to the black man or hates him.”2
But white evangelicals seemed determined to test this proposition. Perhaps they could find a middle ground amid the storms of protest. White evangelical leaders were absent from the largest protest of 1963, the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, because, as one put it, “Our folks are sympathetic with solving the race problem, but we feel that this wasn’t the way to go about it.”3
What was the evangelical way? Embracing systemic reforms and street protests carried the risk of cutting white evangelical elites off from their populist and conservative white constituency. In the pews, a powerful blend of God, country, and race made white Christian identity sacred. But white evangelical elites also worried that failure to act would discredit their movement with the rising generation. If reform threatened to splinter the evangelical coalition and stasis risked limiting its future growth, what could be done?
White evangelical elites found the answer in a path between reform and reaction. They increasingly spoke of the need for Christian love and unity across the color line, not as a complement to systemic reform, but as an alternative to it. While black evangelicals called for a church that knew no bounds of color and worked to meet practical social needs, white evangelicals declared that spiritual unity in Christ trumped institutional reform in both church and society. A revival of Christian love was the surest solution to America’s racial crisis.
This theology of race should be understood not as a simply reactionary stance but as a creative effort at evangelical coalition-building. Cross-pressured by conscience, evangelistic calculations, and disparate demands from without and without evangelicalism, white evangelical elites searched for an updated theology of race that could grow evangelicalism’s appeal in the new racial era that was dawning.
In the ensuing decades, the growth of predominantly white evangelical churches indicated the success of this strategy. Positioning themselves comfortably in the white mainstream in an ostensibly colorblind post-civil rights era America, white evangelicals promoted interpersonal kindness, voluntary church-centered initiatives and an evangelistic message that emphasized a personal experience of salvation with few social implications. This strategy not only helped hold together the white evangelical coalition, it enabled it to make inroads into some immigrant and African American communities.
White evangelical efforts to grow their coalition with an appealing racial message reached their peak in the 1990s with the so-called “racial reconciliation” movement. As Americans became skeptical of the capacity of government to promote racial progress, white evangelicals went on the offensive. Their longstanding message that racial healing was a matter of the heart rather than the state struck a chord. White evangelicals gained much positive media coverage for their willingness to tackle the nation’s enduring racial divisions when all else seemed to have failed.
In reality, white evangelicals were fine-tuning a decades-long strategy: a message of church-centered racial healing as a means of evangelical coalition-building. Major initiatives of that era, such as the Southern Baptist Convention’s apology for racism and slavery, had their origin not in racial justice activism, but in renewed efforts to bring people of color into the evangelical fold.
For half a century, white evangelical elites navigated shifting racial currents with a view toward maintaining the unity of their movement, preserving its credibility, and expanding it into new communities. But the last decade has made this balancing act difficult to sustain. Moments of mass protest and systemic reform—whether in 1963 or 2020—put the evangelical coalition under enormous strain. It is probably not possible for evangelical leaders to please at once the enthusiastic Trump supporter and the black lives matter protestor.
If the past is prologue, white evangelical elites are likely to try to thread the needle anyway. Crucial to their calculations will be the knowledge that there are far more Trump supporters in their midst than black lives matter activists.
To be sure, there have already been somehigh-profilegestures that suggest this moment might be different. But it is sobering to realize that white evangelical elites have been making progressive racial statements for decades. These statements temporarily roil the white evangelical base but tend not to move it in any enduring way.
There has been much chatter about 2020 as the new 1968. In that year of crisis the Southern Baptist Convention called on its members to “undertake to secure opportunities in matters of citizenship, public services, education, employment, and personal habitation” for African Americans and declared, “Words will not suffice. The time has come for action.”4 Whatever became of that?
Behind the banner headlines made by denominational leaders and magazine editors, most white evangelical pastors’ message in this moment of crisis is likely to be pared down to the lowest common denominator acceptable to their white populist base. If their constituents cannot agree on the merits of racial justice protestors, at least they can agree to love each other and keep the church door open. This message might save the evangelical coalition from fracture, but it will not promote black liberation. Indeed, it was never designed to do that.
1 “Let’s Face up to the Race Issue,” Eternity, August 1963, 5-6.
2 Harold Bontekoe, “The Alternative To Hate,” Calvin College Chimes, September 27, 1963, 2.
3 “The Washington March and the Negro Cause,” Christianity Today, September 13, 1963, 27-28. See also, “Desegregation,” Covenanter Witness, September 11, 1963, 163.
4 “A Statement Concerning the Crisis In Our Nation,” June 5, 1968.
The police killed George Floyd and are not being held accountable for their actions. The core fact from which all events flow is George Floyd’s precious life senselessly snuffed out on the pavement. It is a galling and egregious example of the world African Americans live in every day under the suspicion of the militarized state. Black communities face a policing system utterly unlike the one most white Americans experience. It is punitive, intrusive, and harsh; yet for all that, does not protect.
The death of George Floyd once again raises in the national consciousness the urgency of black liberation and the need for wholesale policing reform. The abolitionists, too, must be heard. They expand our imaginations and help us think anew about the restorative communities and systems we might build together.
But now we’re in a cycle we’ve seen many times before. Police violence, with almost inexorable logic, produces a community response. When that white moderate slips into our newsfeed and says, “Sadly, all this rioting and looting is undercutting the legitimate concerns people have,” what should we do?
Don’t get upset with them or get sucked into a big argument. If you’re debating the merits of rioting, you’re losing.
Instead, shift the focus to George Floyd’s invaluable life and the injustice his death exposes. The state started this, and only the state can stop it. Indeed, the DA has it within his power to deescalate the situation whenever he chooses. He only needs to do the right thing and arrest the officers. But even if and when that happens, we will see the same cycles of violence play out in the future unless this country gets serious about changing its whole idea of policing. This is urgent.
If you’re a black resident of Minneapolis and you want to burn some shit down—especially a police station!—I’m not here to quibble with you. But if, like me, you’re a random white person watching events unfold from the comfort of your living room, I implore you to resist the urge to treat the life and death struggle of black liberation as an abstract moral debate. We need to speak and act strategically. This uprising is not here to serve your emotional catharsis or sense of moral superiority.
I’m seeing lots of people on social media resorting to this familiar brand of commentary: “If you’re more concerned about looting of property than the murder of a person then…” This line of argument is obviously correct. It rightly points out the racism, dehumanization, double standards, and hypocrisy in American ideas of violence, national myth, capitalism, and so on. But here’s the thing: if you’re debating the merits of rioting you’re losing.
You’ve no doubt also seen the famous Dr. King quote about riots being the language of the unheard. Even more provocatively, Dr. King said on another occasion that he was “not sad that black Americans are rebelling.” Why, then, did he work so tirelessly to prevent riots? Why did he meet with gang leaders, coerce and cajole and constantly seek to defuse violence? Because he understood that the uprisings harmed the cause more than they helped.
During the civil rights movement, the side perceived as being more violent was invariably losing. This was such common knowledge that it was bedrock strategy for the movement. Why did smart racists, from police chief Pritchett in Albany to Mayor Daley in Chicago, seek to hide the violence of white supremacy? Because they well understood the same calculus.
Anyone who has read movement speeches and writings knows that activists were constantly exposing the double standards of American life, including around questions of violence. But most of them also possessed a hard-headed sense of strategic purpose. Unless your plan was a pie in the sky vision of an armed revolution and black separatist republic, you needed to take actions that enhanced your movement’s political power, not weakened it.
The urgent necessity today is black liberation. What if, in fact, violent uprisings are harmful to that cause? There is strong evidence that they are. The self-satisfaction of being in the right and knowing white Americans are hypocrites is little consolation then. Omar Wasow has done important work showing that in the 1960s, nonviolent protest activity was associated with increases in Democratic vote share, while violent protest activity correlated with increasing support for law and order politics.
One way white people can be productive on social media in these days is to resist the urge to follow every rabbit trail in the predictable cycle of argument and recrimination that follows in the wake of state violence. We want justice for George Floyd. We want to change American policing. We want black freedom. That’s the message to hammer home again and again.
I would have despaired unless I had believed that I would see the goodness of the Lord In the land of the living.
We’re caught in a pandemic that is disproportionally killing black people. The violent and racist American policing system continues its rampage. New videos emerge, exclamation points on the sentences most of us haven’t bothered to read.
In our age of existential and eschatological confusion, where anything might be true, it is a challenge to cling to a hope rigorous enough to sustain action.
White Christianity can’t help us here. Indeed, if I thought for a minute that white Christianity represented God’s goodness I would not be a Christian. If I thought the passivity and silence of white Christians embodied Christian teaching I would know for certain that the invention of Christianity was a historic calamity.
But if the Christian story isn’t true, there are other bleak possibilities ahead. After all, whose to say so-called white people won’t win in the end? If the nation is all we have, whose to say the end of the story won’t be: we tried to establish an interracial democracy and failed. If humanity is all we have, whose to say the end of the story isn’t: we bounced around for a while, killing each other here and healing each other there, before finally destroying ourselves.
One reason I cling to Christian hope is because Christianity promises that whiteness will be overthrown. And that’s where James Baldwin comes in. Yes, Baldwin. Even though he eventually discarded the Christianity of his youth, he understood the subversive possibilities of Christianity far better than most Christians.
Baldwin’s first novel is a haunting coming of age story and a vivid picture of black Pentecostalism in 1930s Harlem. The main character is John Grimes, a black teenager wrestling with his sexuality and spirituality. In one astonishing passage describing John’s grandmother, a woman born into slavery, Baldwin shows his deep understanding of the black theological tradition. Against the theological heresies and social dehumanization practiced by most white Americans, John’s grandmother steadied herself with the truths of the Christian scriptures.
Take a moment to read this slowly. Let it wash over you:
I choose to believe this is true, and I could not possibly be more bored with the “god” of all the white Christians who tell us to calm down and stop talking about white supremacy. Sometimes people are most reluctant to talk about precisely those things that are most precious and holy to them. Think about that.
Baldwin was doing here what every good white evangelical claims to do with the scripture: applying it. There is a big gap in context and experience between the first century and twenty-first, and white Christians tend to be terrified of making that leap. So they keep the scriptures safely in an irrelevant time and place.
In recent weeks we’ve seen white people using guns to threaten legislators and pressure elected officials to end lockdowns. In large swaths of white America, it makes more intuitive sense to protest life-saving public health measures than to protest the death of a black person. This kind of moral illness is always a feature of the top of a social hierarchy. The struggle to dominate comes with costs to one’s own soul.
I have come to believe that the dark heart of socialization into whiteness is learning to devalue human life. You might think this would be a difficult lesson to learn, but learn it we do. It shows up in our materialism, our frenetic pursuit of accomplishment, our passivity in the face of injustice, our trust in racist institutions, and on and on. It shows up, too, in the way we enforce ignorance and callousness through social stigma. Go against the grain, defend black people without equivocation, and watch how quickly white Christians try to slap you down and make you bow to their god.
But folks, the people who here and now are white are on the edge of a steep place, with sightless eyes and stumbling feet. Whiteness loses, in the end.
D.W. Griffith’s Birth of A Nation, a historical epic of the reconstructed then redeemed South, debuted in the Spring of 1915. You may have heard of President Wilson’s probably-apocryphal remark that the film was like writing history with lightning.
The emotional core of the film, the part that grabbed audience’s hearts and left them stumbling out of the theater in ecstasies of white solidarity, was the lynching of a black man. In the climax of the film, a grim band of terrorists ride to the rescue of their absurd civilization, ready to do what they must to save themselves and their womenfolk from the horrors of freedom and democracy.
I’ve watched it so you don’t have to. While the NAACP boycotted and protested and successfully lobbied to ban the film in some cities, most people who saw it (and a lot of people saw it) seem to have thought the movie succeeded both as entertainment and as history.
The Chicago Tribune called Birth of A Nation “the greatest piece of work” ever done by an American filmmaker, and “in all essential episodes grounded on historical fact.” In London, the Observer enthused, “from first to last the story captivates with thrilling exploit,” and “remarkable realism.” Life magazine declared, “No one who cares for the history of our country should miss seeing this stirring exhibition.”
A 1921 retrospective in Life said that “movie history may be said to date from the day when The Birth of a Nation was first disclosed before the startled eyes of the multitude. It was so immeasurably finer than anything that had been done before that there was no possible standard by which to gauge its quality.”
As a technical filmmaking achievement, this judgment may not be far from the truth. But Life did not stop to ask what sort of country censored sex and profanity in movies while making an ode to terrorism its highest-grossing film to date.
But how did white conservative Protestants react to the film? My expectation would be that most objected to the theater in general, but not the film in particular. So I was surprised to discover yesterday a member of the Reformed Presbyterian Church who saw clearly what most mainstream reviewers did not.
Writing in The Christian Nation, the denomination’s news magazine, W.J. McKnight noted that “The colored population of Boston is greatly agitated” about the movie. I expected him to condescendingly explain why their agitation was unjustified. Instead, he pointed out that the film was based on Thomas Dixon’s popular novel, The Clansman, and that Dixon, “as everybody knows, hates the negro with all his heart, and soul, and strength, and mind, and would like to get all his neighbors, except, perhaps, the negroes, to do the same.” In other words, the black people of Boston had every right and reason to be agitated.
Well now, this was fascinating! Why did McKnight come to have these views, and how common were they in his circles? Certainly it has something to do with him being part of the slightly quirky Reformed Presbyterian Church. But why did he say “everybody knows” Dixon hated black people, when it was obvious most people did not know that (least of all Dixon himself)?
In contrast to mainstream reviews, McKnight called the film “a caricature of history.” How did he come to know this? How common was this knowledge among conservative Protestants? I’d really like to know!
While D.W. Griffith basked in the success of his film and declared that he “loved Negroes” (you know, some of my best friends are black) McKnight called the director “venomous.” McKnight had attended an interracial “indignation meeting” at an African Methodist Church where he learned that the film’s real message was “BACK TO SLAVERY.”
McKnight had apparently already been working among the black residents of Boston, though in what fashion I’m not sure. He mentioned that he had already given some lectures to crowds of hundreds and had more lectures scheduled. It is easy to assume that this ministry was carried on in a paternalistic fashion typical of the day. But that’s the thing about paternalistic ministry: it can’t control its effects in the way it purports to do. Sometimes the paternalist finds himself changing. McKight’s contact with African Americans may have given him insight to see the truth that most white Americans refused to see.
I’ll be teaching a 6-week online class late in the spring. The course will cover U.S. history from 1945-2020. I decided to organize it around ordinary things beyond the newspaper headlines. The themes for the six weeks are: eating, loving, growing, working, playing, and belonging. The students will be reading excerpts from this (provisional) list of books. I’m excited about it. I still need to choose a couple more.
I was born in the 1980s. We millennials have had a tough go of it.
First, the deadliest attack on American soil since Pearl Harbor.
Then the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression.
And now the severest pandemic threat since 1918.
Oh yeah, and there were two impeachments and the first black president.
It’s been an eventful life!
This is, of course, an American perspective on things. Globally, I’d say the most significant changes of my 34 years are as follows:
The intensification of climate change, huge improvements in global public health, China becoming a middle-income country, and the end of the Cold War (in that order).
Are we really living through an unusually eventful time, or does the immediacy of our own moment and time’s erosion of the harsh peaks and valleys of past experience deceive us? It’s often hard to tell.
What if I had been born in 1886 instead of 1986?
There would have been the economic crises of the 1890s and 1907. The triumph of racial terrorism and final overthrows of democracy in the southern states. A President assassinated. The Spanish American War. Counterinsurgency in the Philippines. Cars! Planes! Einstein’s theory of relativity! The astonishing immigration numbers. The Great War. The flu pandemic. I dunno. Maybe there’s always a lot going on.
After panning Sanders’ campaign yesterday, I offer this addendum today: the reinvigorated left is a wonderful development for American democracy and for all those who desire a more just society, even those of us who are not leftists.
Liberals who are sympathetic to the need for profound change in American society—though via reform rather than revolution—should be cheering the rise of the left for at least three reasons.
First, a visible and vocal left serves as a check on the invariable liberal impulse to tack to the center—no matter how awful that center is on the merits. With a viable left as an alternative, liberals must worry not only about appeasing the reactionary right. They must also address their left flank by making meaningful change on behalf of working people.
A rough analogy: As awful as Cold War era communism was, its very presence as a potentially attractive alternative was salutary in some democratic societies because it compelled the gains of capitalism to be widely shared. As I said, this is only an analogy—the American left’s desire to be more like Denmark does not portend gulags folks!
Second, a reinvigorated left challenges the American foreign policy consensus that has focused on imposing capitalism rather than prioritizing human rights. This consensus is grossly immoral, and makes the United States less safe besides. It also places an absurd faith in the power of military force to accomplish good in the world. Liberals, for all their supposed grounding in evidence and reason, have pursued this bloodthirsty militarism despite the overwhelming evidence of its futility. The left sees more clearly than do liberals that imperialism is coercive and inimical to human freedom, even in its supposedly benign American guise.
Third, a viable left serves notice to the American political system that liberalism is an ideology! It opens up a broader range of possibilities for Americans to imagine, and a larger field on which the American political debate can play out. It moves liberal shibboleths from the realm of common sense to their appropriate status of contested ideological claims.
There’s still a long way to go in making the left critique more visible and more effectual in American politics. Just this week a New York Times reported piece referred with a straight face to Pete Buttigieg’s “common-sense centrism.” Such nonsense was the norm when a dormant left was all but written out of the American political conversation. Liberals should be glad their claims are no longer common sense.
The polarizing style of the left is admittedly obnoxious, but then, it wouldn’t be a left if it thought liberals were its natural allies. Liberals are very good at explaining why gradualism is the only reasonable path forward. The left is needed to goad us, to remind us that this gradualism is not only a statement of what is possible; it is an ideological and temperamental disposition. The left is here to expand what is possible. May its influence grow.