What We’re Doing When We Call A Neighborhood “Bad”

Rebuilding homes in an older neighborhood isn't all bad - Inman

My dear brothers and sisters, listen! Hasn’t God chosen those who are poor by worldly standards to be rich in terms of faith? Hasn’t God chosen the poor as heirs of the kingdom he has promised to those who love him? But you have dishonored the poor.

               James 2.5-6

Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.

               Acts 11.9

A poor person’s land might produce much food,

    but it is unjustly swept away.

               Proverbs 13.23

Those who mock the poor insult their maker.

               Proverbs 17.5

We recently moved from a “bad” neighborhood to a “good” neighborhood. Or so I’m told. What exactly are wealthy and middle-class Christians doing when we call a neighborhood “bad”?

1 We’re hiding how the world works

When we say a neighborhood is bad we’re making a commentary about class, crime, schools, and, very often, race. “Bad” is not our shorthand for how these factors actually work. It’s our blunt instrument to hide all the most pertinent questions.

Why is it socially acceptable for local, state, and federal governments to deliberately create communities of concentrated poverty?

Why do police fail to keep some communities safe?

Why do white parents fallaciously use race as a heuristic for school quality?

Why have wars on drugs and crime targeted people based on their race and class positions rather than focusing on drugs and crime?

Why did white people, businesses, and all levels of government deliberately segregate our metropolitan areas on the basis of race?

Why do middle class and wealthy people oppress the poor by supporting restrictive zoning and opposing investments in public goods?

Why are racism and classism so socially acceptable in middle-class white communities?

We’re just getting started. We might ask dozens more questions. But when we say that a neighborhood is “bad” we are not calling these questions to mind. We are, instead, refusing to ask them. When we call a neighborhood bad we are naturalizing that condition and making a commentary about the people living there. We are telling a lie.

2 We’re rejecting how God’s kingdom works

The discourse of “bad” neighborhoods doesn’t just hide an enormous number of implicit ideological and historical claims. It also make a theological statement. With casual cruelty and complacency, it suggests that the way the Christian scriptures talk about wealth, poverty, and faith are not meant to be taken at all literally. We assume that the divestment Jesus demanded of the rich young ruler has little bearing on us.

Isn’t it just possible that when James said God has arranged the world to work in such a way that the materially poor are rich in faith, he actually meant it and the world really does operate in precisely this way?

Isn’t it possible that when the Apostle Paul said that God has chosen what is weak and despised in the world to shame the strong, he really meant it? When he told the Corinthians that not many of them were rich or important, couldn’t it be that he described not only their particular situation but a common theme running through God’s upside-down way of doing things?

When we say that a community is “bad” we are probably saying something about how safe it seems to be there, how nice it is to raise children there, how readily one might find a good job there and make money. Our units of measurement have nothing to do with the things Jesus told us.

Take a community that is rich in faith, vibrant in neighborliness, God-blessed in its orientation to people rather than things, but has a higher than usual crime rate. That community is “bad.” In contrast, a neighborhood oriented to things, tasks, and success that also happens to be wealthy and safe is “good.”

What does it mean when the standard discourse among middle class American Christians calls spiritually barren places “good” and spiritually rich places “bad”? Part of the problem, of course, is that our classist and racist imaginations cannot comprehend the facts of ordinary life in “bad” neighborhoods. What God has called good we call evil.

This unconscious hostility to the kingdom of God is so common among American Christians that parents who purposely raise their children in a “bad” neighborhood are likely to be called foolish, if not guilty of child endangerment. Meanwhile, parents who raise their kids in spiritually impoverished neighborhoods imagine that we are giving our children the best upbringing our money can buy. We are molding our kids to be striving, success-oriented collectors of things, human doers who disdain the kingdom and the people who inhabit it.

But at least we didn’t expose them to a bad neighborhood, right?

What Do You Want for Your Students On Day One?

I still can hardly believe I’m here. Today was the first day of classes for the Fall semester at Valparaiso University. What do you want students to get out of the first day? For me, it boils down to three things: I want them to feel welcomed (especially if they’re freshman); I want them to make some kind of human connection with me/each other; and I want them to begin to get a sense of what the course will be like. Preferably all of this can somehow happen in the context of exploring big-picture themes and questions the course raises. That’s a lot for day 1!

In my two history classes today, one of the things I asked students was who they would like to have a coffee with if they could meet anyone, living or dead, from the period of time the course is covering. A lot of students choose world-historical figures in response to this question–FDR, JFK, MLK, Erwin Rommel (Yes they did!). One takeaway after students are done sharing might be that they feel an implicit pressure to choose someone like that, someone they think of as being properly “historical.” But, as I tell them, they might have chosen a celebrity, and Instagram influencer, a relative, or anyone at all. History encompasses all of this. History isn’t just serious stuff, and the history of the ordinary matters, too.

I think this exercise was fairly boring and not particularly effective, especially with on-edge freshman students. I need to think of a way to spice it up next time. The “who you would have coffee with” question was the first of three. The other two questions students will return to me Friday: 1 ) how can I help you? (ie., what has worked for you in the past? what are you nervous about? what do you need from me?) 2) What are your goals for yourself in this course? It seems to me that both of these questions are at the core of the learning process, but we often leave them implicit. Also, students who express a serious goal have provided us with a great feedback tool for the rest of the semester, as we can refer back to that goal in future assignments (this won’t work for students who just make a goal up. It’s fine if they don’t have a specific goal).

I also want students to invest in the course, to feel that their interests play a role in shaping what the course will be. I set forth a few questions that, in my judgment, animate the course. But the course can change! So I asked them what questions they have about American history, what they would like to know more about. Some responses:

Are we more anxious than we used to be because of the media?

Have we ever been united?

Has America ever been the moral leader of the world? Should it be?

Why do gas prices fluctuate so much?

What is happening in Afghanistan?

How many wars could have been avoided with advance tech/communication, or are they inevitable? (my rejoinder: how many wars have been started with such technology! We’ll also be tackling that word inevitable for sure)

How does Covid compare to past pandemics?

What are the origins of contemporary problems?

What similarities are there between past and present?

Why was the space race so important and why haven’t we gone back to the moon?

Where do we go from here? (political turmoil)

What have we learned from the past? Have we learned?

This is potentially useful, but some students probably felt like they didn’t have any questions and were just trying to come up with something random. This exercise would be more effective if I leaned into the difficulty of asking questions and explained that this is central to historical thinking. An impressive thinker doesn’t have all the right answers. They have cultivated the ability to ask questions.

Finally, for the Core humanities class that all freshman have to take at Valpo [title this fall–The Human Experience: Empathy and Dialogue] I began the class with a new song from the Killers (“West Hills”). A risk! With almost no introduction I just told them to sit back and listen to the song and consider how it invited them into empathy and dialogue. I was pleased with the discussion it generated among strangers. At the same time, it told students a little bit about me, because I like The Killers and I don’t care who knows it! In the future, students will be able to nominate their own song to play at the beginning of class, on the condition that they facilitate a brief discussion about how it evokes the theme of empathy and dialogue. We’ll see if I get any takers. I think music is tailor-made for this stuff.

So, first day is done! Onward!

The Bible Told Them So: A Conversation with J. Russell Hawkins

J. Russell Hawkins is Professor in the John Wesley Honors College at Indiana Wesleyan University and author of the new book, The Bible Told Them So: How Southern Evangelicals Fought To Preserve White Supremacy.

What question(s) led you to write this book?

Honestly, answering this could easily turn into a book itself, so I’ll try to keep it brief.  I wrote this book, in part, to answer questions about my own history.  I grew up very much a part of the white evangelical subculture in the 1980s and 90s. I was in church twice on Sundays and every Wednesday night.  I sang along with Psalty and listened to the Music Machine on vinyl. I wore witness wear, subscribed to Focus on the Family’s Breakaway magazine and saw my fellow Christian high school students at the pole each September.  But this evangelical world was only part of my formation.  I also grew up in a racially diverse neighborhood in Kansas City, Kansas, attended racially diverse public schools from K-12, and grew up playing on racially diverse sports teams.  The racial diversity of a good part of the rest of my lived experiences stood in stark contrast to the homogeneity of my church on Sundays and Wednesdays.  And as I grew older, I began to be struck by how attitudes and conversations about race in my church were much different than in other areas of my upbringing.  Conversations about race with white Christians were often met with defensiveness, or hostility, or hushed tones.  They were usually short, with the implied message that it was better not to talk about such things. Occasionally, I even heard explicitly racist comments or jokes at church.  Now, to clarify, these things didn’t register with me as they were happening.  It wasn’t until later while I was in the midst of my graduate studies and started wrestling more seriously with questions about race and religion in American history that I found myself wanting to make sense of why so many white evangelicals seemed so weird about race compared to people I knew who weren’t part of that evangelical world.  I decided that if I was going to figure this out I would need to find a period of history when white evangelicals were talking about race and figured the civil rights era held promise for southern white evangelicals going on the record about their racial beliefs.  And it turns out, it did.  So while I’m not a direct descendant of the southern white evangelicals I cover in my book, I do believe a lot of the tendencies I have experienced in evangelicalism around race have roots in the civil rights period.

What is the argument of The Bible Told Them So?

I’m essentially putting forward two big arguments in the book. The first is that a critical mass of southern evangelicals were motivated to resist the civil rights movement because of their religious beliefs. These Christians read the Bible to say that God had designed the segregation of the races and doing away with Jim Crow violated God’s plan. I show in the book how such ideas were derived through a particular reading of the Bible and how the subsequent segregationist theology that arose from this hermeneutic was articulated, defended, and deployed throughout the classical period of the civil rights movement (1954-1965). The second argument is that this theological system wasn’t abandoned after 1965, rather in morphed into new forms to maintain segregation. As southern society was forced to change around them, these southern evangelicals who adhered to a theology of segregation had to change the way they articulated such commitments. I argue that they began using rhetoric of colorblindness and a defense of the family as tools to maintain segregation by the 1970s.

I especially want to zero in on that colorblindness angle. The idea that colorblindness follows hard on the heels of the civil rights movement is not new. But you draw a direct link between the rhetoric of segregation and the rhetoric of colorblindness in a way that seemed fresh and new to me. Can you explain the significance of that?

Yes, usually we think of colorblindness as emerging after Jim Crow’s defeat, or as you say, colorblindness follows hard on the heels of segregation as white folks are trying to make sense of their new post-segregation reality.  But what I found in my research were Christians who adopted the language and tools of colorblindness as a strategy of maintaining segregation rather than a response to integration.  Colorblindness for these white Christians wasn’t so much about making sense of a new reality.  Instead, it was using a particular kind of rhetorical device to maintain the segregation they had been practicing in their institutions all along (or since emancipation in the case of churches).  So as some Christian institutions and denominations started to make halting moves toward integration in the mid to late 1960s, there were white Christians who started saying that all this attention to race was problematic and the church and religious institutions would be better off if they just ignored the issue of race altogether.  But, these were the same people who had said a decade earlier that God made the races distinct and declared in Scripture that they should be segregated.  So it was almost as if these folks could see the writing on the wall and colorblindness for them became the final defense of a segregated system they believed God desired.   

In chapter 4 you detail the rise of colorblindness during the integration battle in the Methodist Church. I’m wondering how you think about the relationship between colorblindness in American politics at that time (with all the energy around affirmative action and busing) and colorblindness in the church. Were white Christians simply seizing on this concept that was out there in politics? Or were they developing a distinctive brand of colorblindness? In other words, do you think there was something Methodist about this colorblindness?

I do think the colorblind defense I highlight in chapter 4 was a parroting of some of the rhetoric found increasingly in American politics at that time.  But, again, I think it’s important to keep in mind that the white Methodists I cover were using this colorblind argument for the explicit purpose of avoiding the integration of their denomination, which had been segregated since 1939.  The reason I think it’s so important to emphasize the linkage between early uses of colorblindness and the defense of segregation in the church is because of how ubiquitous the language of colorblindness would become among evangelicals within a generation after 1970. (Can’t wait for your book to tell this story.)  As you know, white evangelicals today are especially fond of the language of colorblindness when it comes to matters of race.  And while there are ample critiques of colorblindness, I think one of the most powerful indictments we can make against colorblind rhetoric is to show that in its earliest iteration it was wielded by white Christians who wished to maintain Jim Crow-style segregation in their churches and religious institutions.  So we shouldn’t be surprised that a white evangelical subculture who embraced the language of colorblindness remains hyper-segregated along racial lines.  Colorblindness has helped in part maintain the very segregation it’s early adopters had hoped and prayed for.    

Why does this history matter now?

I don’t think there have been very many days that have gone by in the past six months (Past year? Past four years?) when the importance of this history hasn’t been abundantly clear. I think especially with the unrelenting focus on CRT in American society in general and the backlash to “wokeness” among many white evangelicals in particular, the issue of race continues to hold immense salience. I’m hopeful my book can provide some additional light on how we got here.

What Can We Learn from Pauli Murray?

In recent years, there has been an explosion of interest in Pauli Murray, the black civil rights and women’s rights activist. Patricia Bell-Scott’s portrait of Murray’s friendship with Eleanor Roosevelt was published in 2016. Rosalind Rosenberg’s exquisitely detailed biography came out in 2017. A new edition of her memoir was republished in 2018. Last year yet another scholarly biography came out. A major documentary of Murray’s life premiered this year.

Murray appeals to us now for many of the same reasons she faced marginalization during her life. A black woman who recognized early on how race and sex were interlocking forms of oppression–Jane Crow, she called it–Murray was an unsung influence in both the civil rights and women’s movements. Not only that, her long struggle with her own gender identity and sexuality strikes a chord with us now.

“I will resist every attempt to categorize me,” she wrote in 1945. Readers must have thought she was just talking about race. Her private struggle to come to terms with her sense of herself as a man in a female body make her words more poignant than readers could have known at the time. Had she been born a century later, perhaps Murray would have identified as a transgender man. (What pronouns we ought to use when referring to Murray is a matter of some controversy). In her own time, such categories didn’t exist. Even if they had, perhaps Murray would still have said, “I will resist every attempt to categorize me.”

If the reactions of the students in my Black Politics and Black Power course are any indication, Murray’s ethos speaks powerfully to young people today. We read her 1945 piece, “An American Credo” in class.

Many of the students were enthralled. What can activists today learn from Murray’s “American Credo”? It’s one snapshot in time and doesn’t do justice to the totality of Murray’s thought and the way she changed over time, but here are three takeaways.

Claim America for yourself

It is fashionable today to point out America’s hypocrisy and injustice. Drawing on the black nationalist tradition and other radical movements, some activists describe the United States as a place that never has been and probably never will be a home for black people. These activists draw on a venerable tradition stretching back to Martin Delaney, Marcus Garvey, and many others. Activists in this tradition have often been prophets in the wilderness speaking the hard truths the powerful do not want to hear.

But for those who want to change this country rather than make a new one, there are costs to ceding home field advantage to the racists. (In some cases, this cession has been shamefully explicit: witness Marcus Garvey’s attempted rapprochement with the Ku Klux Klan). Most Americans consider themselves patriotic and have deeply felt attachments to the land of their birth. This patriotism might be even more deeply felt among many black Americans, who have long had a love-hate relationship with the country they have done so much to build. Not for nothing have black writers often described themselves as scorned lovers.

Those bonds of attachment ought to be leveraged for racial justice, not surrendered to the meanness of narrow nationalism. It is telling that a speech like Frederick Douglass’s “What to the Slave is the 4th of July?” (1852) is a touchstone in our moment while other Douglass speeches like “Our Composite Nationality” (1869) are little remembered. Historical context compels us to admit that the political economy of 1869–with slavery abolished and citizenship enshrined in the constitution–has more in common with our time than the slave society Douglass scorned in 1852. Yet Douglass’s audacious patriotism of 1869 is not in vogue today.

In “Our Composite Nationality” Douglass refused to cede America’s founding and its future to the forces of racism and reaction. Instead, he demanded and prophesied that America’s destiny was to be a home for all the peoples of the world where people of all races and creeds could live together in complete equality. Which Douglass was more radical? The outsider of 1844 exposing the nation’s empty promises and shallow pretensions? Or the insider of 1869 with the audacity to claim ownership of the nation’s meaning and bend its trajectory to his will?

Murray operated more in the mold of Douglass circa 1869 than 1852. “As an American I inherit the magnificent tradition of an endless march toward freedom and toward the dignity of all mankind,” Murray wrote. “And though my country has not always loved me, yet in the words of the poet, Claude McKay, ‘I love this cultured hell which tests my strength.'”

Murray was not naive. She was not blind to the country’s failures. Instead, what we see here is a dogged insistence that America belongs to me. Its symbols and legends, its emotional resonance and power to inspire–they all are mine. I insist on defining America’s trajectory. “And so,” Murray declared, “with my feet rooted firmly in the moral precepts of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States and all the preachments of humanitarian tradition through the history of man, I take my stand against the institution of segregation and all of its incidents.”

Hold the moral high ground

The pull to get even, to give to your enemy what they deserve, is a basic human impulse. We all know it. In the humdrum of our daily lives, we’ve probably acted on this impulse more times than we’d care to remember. And in the history of societies and nations, this drive for revenge, the thirst to meet violence with violence, is part of the sad story of many cycles of war and hatred.

People who transcended this impulse are remembered as some of the great saints and sages of human history. And, in the 20th century, we remember political figures who combined this spiritual insight with a practical program of action that delivered tangible results for their people–Gandhi, King, Mandela. We can add Pauli Murray to their number.

Murray wrote that her struggle against segregation required “an individual revolution” in her thinking. “I cannot be rent asunder by harboring personal prejudices or racial resentments. I want to spend my time finding the common denominator of mankind, and prejudice or hatred is an emotional waste.” Murray understood that systems of oppression are always working to bring us down to their level. If I give free reign to my hatred and desire for revenge, if I look around me for scapegoats on which to vent my rage, I become spiritually and psychologically lost. Murray tried to remember that her oppressors were people, like her. “I seek to destroy an institution,” she wrote, “a disease–not a people.”

Oppression seeks to break human spirits. Resistance to it must always be spiritual (though, of course, not only spiritual). Murray took this spiritual imperative so far that it included “inviting the violence [of segregation] upon my own body. For what is life itself,” she asked, “without the freedom to walk proudly before God and man and to glorify creation through the genius of self-expression?”

Make your methods as noble as your goals

A common conceit of ideologues is that peace and justice will reign once they have gained power, but in the meantime some harsher methods are required. This isn’t how human beings or human societies work. We can’t turn off the hatreds we’ve unleashed like turning off water from the faucet. Those who desire a future of peace and justice must act in alignment with that vision now. The methods we use now are the methods we will continue to use if we gain power.

I’m reminded of one of Murray’s contemporaries, the civil rights activist Ella Baker. She was one of the best recruiters the NAACP ever had, but she resigned her post rather than submit to the top-down leadership style of the organization. She insisted that an organization struggling for a democratic society must itself be democratic. In a similar way, Murray did not agree with radicals who sought to overthrow segregation by any means necessary. For Murray, means and ends were organically connected.

“I do not intend to destroy segregation by physical force,” Murray wrote. Not only would that be wasteful of human life, it wouldn’t work. Instead, “I intend to destroy segregation by positive and embracing methods. When my brothers try to draw a circle to exclude me, I shall draw a larger circle to include them. Where they speak out for the privileges of a puny group, I shall shout for the rights of all mankind.”

In our era it sometimes seems that we’re drawing ever smaller circles. Murray shows us a better way.

A meditation from the Psalms

Katie Wright, the mother of Daunte Wright. Photo: Jeff Wheeler, Star Tribune.

The Lord watches over black people,

his ears listen to their cries for help.

But it doesn’t feel like it! How long, oh Lord?

How long must my neighbors, students, and friends have sorrow in their hearts every day?

Look at them! Answer them!

Now!

The Lord’s face is set against white supremacy,

to eliminate even the memory of it from the earth.

When black people cry out, the Lord listens;

he delivers them from all their troubles.

My heart is broken in 1,000 pieces, a black mother said.

The Lord is close to the brokenhearted;

he saves those whose spirits are crushed.

I just need everyone to know that he is much more than this, a black mother said.

The righteous know this, but the wicked do not understand.

Only a little while longer, and the wicked will be cut off!

White people plot against the righteous,

But my Lord just laughs at them

because he knows that their day is coming.

Black people will inherit the land,

not one of their bones will be broken.

For Those Who Have Ears to Hear: Anthea Butler’s White Evangelical Racism

Anthea Butler, White Evangelical Racism: The Politics of Morality in America (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2021).

My dear white evangelical reader, this isn’t the winsome, Billy Graham-style evangelicalism you’ve heard so much about. This is Graham the nationalist, the fear-mongerer, the coward who cared more for respectability than justice.

Graham’s status in the white evangelical firmament is such that if you take him down, you’ve pretty much put out the lights entirely. Anthea Butler writes that Graham popularized a religion based on “fear of the other.” Sound unfair to you? Watch as Graham browbeats his audiences with the specter of nuclear holocaust, which would inevitably come within 5 years unless Jesus intervened. Watch as Graham harshly criticizes civil rights activists while ludicrously proclaiming, “you will never find a true born-again Christian who is a communist…” Read an article from a Black communist about the Jim Crow South and then do tell me who the Christians were.

It might seem fanciful to imagine Graham going down to Mississippi during Freedom Summer and getting his hands dirty, putting himself at Bob Moses’ direction, registering black voters, inviting his followers to help. Ok, yes, it definitely does seem fanciful, but take a moment to ponder that. Imagining a really productive white evangelical anti-racism is not a matter of slight reinterpretation. It’s like spinning the most wildly speculative fan fiction.

It is time, Butler suggests, for white evangelicals and the scholars who study them to stop making excuses for a movement that is obviously racist. Not incidentally or peripherally so, but at its core.

Butler, an Associate Professor of Religious Studies and Africana Studies at the University of Pennsylvania, has a personal history with white evangelicalism that gives this book a welcome edge. Nearly thirty years ago she thought she was an integral member of a major white evangelical church. Then one day the pastor’s own mother turned to her and welcomed her as if she hadn’t seen her before. Hi Generic Black Person, in our spaces you will always be an Evangelical In Name Only.

Butler has an ability to deliver insights in plain language that cuts through the excuses and obfuscations of scholars and laypeople alike. “On the one hand, evangelicals wanted souls to be saved,” she writes. “On the other hand, they wanted everyone to stay in their places.”

Is it pedantic to quibble with such flaying prose? I’ll risk it. Butler would be even closer to the mark if she put these two propositions in direct symbiosis rather than in tension. Souls being saved was the means by which people would be kept in their places. Later, in a scorching and necessary conclusion, Butler does suggest precisely this kind of dark synergy.

Butler is especially strong in her analysis of how people of color became key validators of white evangelicalism’s supposedly colorblind credentials in the decades after the civil rights movement. At the same time, they often faced an inexorable pull toward the whitewashing of their identities. Bend the knee to white evangelicalism’s racial and cultural codes, or else.

But wait a minute! It can’t be all bad, right? What about all the good stuff? Butler is up front about her decision to ignore the abolitionist evangelical tradition (which, as she notes, was not guiltless anyway) and focus on its more racist and southern-dominated version. This is any historian’s prerogative. After all, deliberately including some stories while excluding others is one definition of writing a book. But in this case there’s even more justification for her decision.

I think Butler understands that evangelicals may wield the abolitionist evangelical tradition as a shield (“look at the good our ancestors did!”) or forlornly appeal to it (here we find a few iconoclasts like Michael Gerson and Randall Balmer), but it is an inheritance that doesn’t actually belong to the vast majority of today’s evangelicals. Today’s evangelicalism descends from darker currents of the evangelical past. Why focus on a more progressive tradition that evangelicals cut themselves off from a long, long time ago?

Wait another minute. Are we getting caught up in the moment, telling one-note stories about how all evangelical roads lead to Trump? Is it so simple? Whether the Trump era was an unveiling of what was there all along or a story of the decline and fall of white evangelicalism is, to me, a difficult question. The headlines in White Evangelical Racism declare that this was an unveiling, but the fine print tells a more complex story. In the final chapter Butler does trace the causes and symptoms of a declension. Things may have always been bad, but then they got even worse.

Butler has given us a polemical synthesis. I suppose that for every page there is a specialist somewhere grinding her teeth. I had a few such moments myself. But the value of the book is in its clear-eyed call to stop making excuses for this destructive political religion we call evangelicalism. In a searing conclusion that you really must read, Butler speaks to any evangelical who still has ears to hear. It’s time to do something that evangelicals used to talk a lot about, but seem to have forgotten. It’s time to repent.

Three Highlights from How to Fight Racism

I’m reading Jemar Tisby’s new book, How to Fight Racism. I recommend it. It’s silly to write about the book before I’m quite done with it but I am getting excited and want to share some quick highlights. Here are three things I think Tisby does especially well.

–Moving past the racist/not racist dichotomy. Tisby reminds us we’re all on a journey. I like to tell people I think I’m a little less racist than I used to be. But it is absurd to suppose that I am not at all racist or that my actions are never racially harmful. How could I possibly grow up where and when I did, become socialized into whiteness, and not be racist? Tisby’s framing encourages us neither to despair nor feel self-righteous, but to move forward from whatever point we find ourselves.

Upon meeting me for the first time, a Black teenager once moved up close to me, looked me over, and asked, “Are you racist?” On one level, she was merely a rambunctious kid engaging in some deliberately provocative play. But on a deeper level she was very efficiently finding out crucial information about me. If I responded defensively or with anger, she would know I was not a safe adult and she should stay away. I don’t remember if I gave her “my less racist than I used to be” answer, but I do remember consciously letting go of any impulse to defend myself.

–Rejecting the personal/systemic false choice. A generation ago, there was a whole genre of Christian racial reconciliation books that said relationships were the key to racial progress. All too often, these books and their readers used this relationship focus as a weapon against structural critique. The liberals missed the point, they said. Systemic solutions didn’t deal with the human heart. Only relationships among Christians could create real racial progress.

Tisby rejects this simplistic prioritizing of the personal without losing sight of how important relationships are. He writes, “People need a personal motivation to disrupt the regular patterns of racism in their own lives and in society…It is difficult to pursue effective structural remedies to racism if you have little understanding of the personal experiences of marginalized people.” Instead of the personal and systemic being at odds, Tisby sees personal relationships as a way to galvanize system-level action while keeping that action rooted in the real experiences of ordinary people.

Tisby’s insistence that fighting racism is a both/and matter also carries a challenge for white liberals and leftists. If you’ve seen white liberals speaking the rote language of racial enlightenment, throwing around academic jargon with ideological inflexibility, then you know how important real relationships are. If you’ve seen white liberals imagining their own cities as a white archipelago surrounded by black and brown no-go zones, then you know how important personal action is. (On more than one occasion, people have “misheard” Alicia and I when we tell them where we live. It just doesn’t fit their mental map).

If you’ve seen white liberals speaking the language of pity, then you know how important real connections to black leaders are. Tisby insists that we shouldn’t just vote for people who might change systems. We can reject the narrow range of personal choices our segregated society tries to funnel us into. We can rethink where we send our kids to school, for example.

–Rejecting the politics of church primacy. You’ve heard this one before too: “The church is the only hope for racial progress. Only the gospel can change hearts.” This might be a plausible point of view coming from a radical Anabaptist envisioning an Acts 2 kind of primitive Christianity. But it reeks of excuses when it comes from mainstream American Christians who envision a role for the state in all sorts of important moral matters only to conspicuously assert the singular primacy of the church when it comes to race.

Tisby does not downplay the importance of the church at all. In fact, his chapter on doing reconciliation right is excellent on specific ways churches should take action to pursue racial justice. But he recognizes the rhetorical role defenses of the church can play in justifying inaction at the social and political level. If you think racial progress comes only through the church, you ought to explain how the church will level the racial wealth gap. While you’re at it, do tell how the church will abolish racist policing and end school segregation. Of course, no one actually has such a plan, because these problems extend so far beyond the church’s capacity. Too often, the rhetoric of church primacy is really just another way of saying that racial oppression isn’t a serious problem demanding a systemic response.

I don’t think I’ve ever read a book that is so invested in the personal and ecclesial battle against racism, yet completely refuses to play the either/or game and give short shrift to systemic change. There is no contradiction between praying for a spiritual awakening for your hard-hearted friend to finally see the reality of racism, and at the same time pressuring institutions to pay reparations. They go hand in hand.

Tisby has a talent, I think, for meeting us where we are–wherever that may be–and challenging us to go a little further. This is a very good book.

What Did I Get Right and Wrong About The Trump Presidency?

What did I get right and wrong about the Trump Presidency? The answer cannot be left only to the vagaries of memory, so I recently looked over some of my old blog posts and social media from 2016.

The short answer: I’m pretty sure I thought it was going to be even worse than it was. I’m convinced this was the right way to be wrong. Details below.

On March 2, 2016, while Trump was battling for the Republican nomination, I wrote this:

In my judgment, all of this more or less came to pass. I offered no hard benchmarks here but my impression is that I envisioned an even more extreme degradation of our civic fabric than the one we’ve seen. I thought there would be more violence. The day before the election, I wrote this:

I feel very comfortable standing by these words. From Charlottesville to El Paso, we saw the consequences of the hateful climate Trump stirred up. Immediately after the 2016 election, I wrote a post on “What To Expect From A Trump Presidency.” Here’s a key bit:

In contrast to every other modern American president, Trump’s basic instincts are authoritarian. He does not believe in liberal democracy. He is a demagogue willing to stoke the most dangerous fault lines in our society in order to gain power for himself. We now must hope that his foolishness creates a presidency marked more by simple bungling than by a coherent plan of oppression….

So what should we expect from a Trump presidency? Start by assuming that Trump has generally been sincere and will try to govern roughly as he campaigned. He will continue to lie with impunity, and will seek to silence and bully the press to make his lies seem normal. He will continue to create a climate of hostility against nearly everyone who isn’t Christian, White, heterosexual, and male. Muslims and immigrants are likely to be targeted with special harshness.

Expect some moments of calm. Expect the media to tell us about Trump’s surprising moderation. But four years is a long time. If Trump doesn’t launch a proactive campaign of oppression beginning January 20, it is likely to be only a matter of time. It’s not that Trump will have a coherent plan to subdue the Republic. Indeed, probably his only clear plan so far is to arrange his affairs to allow maximum corruption and profiteering. This he has already begun to do. If nothing else, he and and his children intend to become very rich. But recall, again, that Trump’s instincts are authoritarian and demagogic. There are going to be crises, both foreign and domestic, during the next four years. Trump will not respond well to any of them. Trump’s mercurial and vindictive character will come through. And the thought of men like Bannon and Sessions whispering in Trump’s ear is not comforting.

It is possible things will somehow turn out more or less alright. But the more likely scenario is that we are entering a very dangerous time….

After all we’ve seen, it now seems quaint that I was so worried about Bannon and Sessions, but I think much of this has stood the test of time. I remember sitting at the dinner table before the inauguration shaking my head and saying, “People are going to die. People are going to die.” It felt surreal to know it was coming and to have so little power to alter events. If Trump never in four years found his way to a coherent plan to end American democracy, he did in the end try to do just that.

Combining my faulty memory with facebook posts from the time and these blog entries, it seems I imagined a presidency even more disastrous than the one we got. Specifically, I thought crackdowns on Muslims, immigrants, and BLM protests would be more deadly than they turned out to be. I thought that at some point Trump would start a war abroad to boost his standing at home. I also thought there was a high possibility of economic disaster. In short, I was an alarmist.

I’m glad I was. This was a much better way to be wrong than those who were constantly caught flatfooted throughout these crazy years, surprised by the latest thing Trump had done, or naive about how racist and anti-democratic his movement truly was. I’m glad I wrote posts like this one throughout these past four years, refusing to mince words about Trump’s violence and the threat of white racism. As powerful political forces attempted to destroy our ability to imagine a common morality and a common connectedness as beloved children of God, many of us looked evil in the eye and kept our integrity. I am grateful.

To be sure, alarmism can go too far. It must remain flexible, and above all tethered to reality. We can probably all think of people whose opposition to Trump seems to have become an unwitting instrument of self-degradation.

My alarmism is why I woke the morning of January 6th wondering how many people were going to die in Washington D.C. that day. I didn’t have any special insight. I just wasn’t trying to deny what’s been right in front of us all along.

Being somewhat wrong as an alarmist is preferable to the alternative not just because it gave me a better read on events. I argue we alarmists constrained this presidency. We knew how bad it could be, so we acted to stop it. Our activism was one of the factors that prevented the worst from coming true.

From the first week of the Trump presidency we were on the streets. We showed up at airports in massive numbers to protest the Muslim ban. That set a tone. The Women’s March set a tone too. Then we were on the streets in 2017 and 2018 to defend health care for the sick and to protect immigrants at the border. We voted in huge numbers in 2018 and gained the House. In 2020 we marched for BLM and overwhelmed the racist forces with the highest voter turnout in over a century.

The Trump administration tried to create a culture of impunity. We didn’t allow it. Words and character matter. The Constitution is worth preserving. These fundamentally conservative intuitions became the stuff of liberal resistance in the Trump era.

The most important thing I got more wrong than right is captured in my 2016 preview of the Trump presidency:

We must engage Trump supporters with undiminished love and decency. Love is resistance. We must be open-hearted, lacking bitterness or animosity. We cannot rely on the usual norms of respectability that help us be kind to each other. We must love not because Trumpism is reasonable, but because the people who have put their faith in it are human beings made by God, and are infinitely valuable. And so, too, are all the people Trumpism will hurt. In the dark era we are entering, affirming the sacred worth of every person we encounter is an act of resistance.

I was right to try to live up to this code; wrong in how often I failed. All too often, I was more invested in my self-righteousness than in practical efforts to help people Trump was hurting. Christians are called to love our enemies, not obsess over them! Too often, I was obsessed over my posture toward Trump supporters rather than focusing on being in solidarity with oppressed people. I was often closed-hearted and bitter, preoccupied with being right, leaving very little room left for love or practical action.

Awareness is wasted without action. Indeed, “It is a sin when someone knows the right thing to do and doesn’t do it.” Too often, as I sat in self-absorption, this biblical rebuke could be leveled right at me.

But we can also be gentle with ourselves. My fellow alarmists, don’t be sheepish. Don’t doubt what you experienced and the pain it caused you. To live through moments of crisis is to be more fully aware of the frailty of the individual in the sweep of history. So often the public action I took was the leftovers—after the papers were written, the classes taught, the dinners made, the children put to bed. The biggest challenges of the era were not, after all, public. They were inside my own head and home.

I return again to one of my favorite apocryphal anecdotes. The little boy is learning about the civil rights struggle and asks, “Grandpa, were you in the Klan or the FBI?” (The boy didn’t have a clear grasp of who the good guys were but we’ll leave that to the side).

“Son,” his grandpa drawls, “I was just in Georgia.”

There is a welcome humility in recognizing that during this era of crisis, “I was just in Georgia.” And there’s a more positive spin we might put on this anecdote. The point of liberal democracy is precisely so that more of us can be “just in Georgia,” living simple lives at peace with ourselves and our neighbors, unburdened by the fear that our actions may be of great historical consequence.

When I think back on this era I will be glad for the times I was on the street marching with others, doing what little I could to link my fate with my neighbors. I will be glad for the small practical things I tried to do here and there. I won’t miss, and I regret, the time I wasted doomscrolling on twitter.

We’ve come through a dark time, and none of us can know with certainty whether the dawn or still greater darkness lies just ahead.

Lord, have mercy, and teach us to love with action.

African American Missionaries To Africa in the Age of Jim Crow: A Conversation with Kimberly D. Hill

I recently asked Kimberly D. Hill a few questions about her new book, A Higher Mission: The Careers of Alonzo and Althea Brown Edmiston in Central Africa.

What’s the argument of A Higher Mission?

My book argues that alumni of historically black colleges and universities transformed their academic preparation into innovative ministry strategies in central Africa. I trace several of these strategies to these American ministers’ interactions with local African villagers, church members, and students. These neighbors motivated missionaries to adjust their own plans to fit local interests and conditions.  The book focuses on a Fisk University graduate named Althea Brown and a Stillman seminary graduate named Alonzo Edmiston. They met in 1904 and married while serving with the American Presbyterian Congo Mission.

Most of the Edmistons’ three decades of joint ministry involved cooperation with a rare team of fellow African American Presbyterian missionaries. Only one of those missionaries has been the main subject of previous scholarly books: the Reverend William Henry Sheppard. The strategies of African American ministers were often overlooked or cut short due to overlapping pressures during colonization, the Jim Crow era, and the Great Depression. But those pressures did not extinguish these ministers’ goals, and evidence of their work remained apparent even after their lifetimes.

Could you talk more about those “overlapping pressures” you mentioned? To what extent do you see the Edmiston’s explicitly grappling with the in-betweenness of being African American missionaries in Africa in an age of white supremacy? Did they feel like they were walking a tightrope? Did they engage with the ideological currents of the time, such as Garveyism and pan-Africanism, or were these things far outside their orbit?

The specific history of the American Presbyterian Congo Mission inspired church members and observers to pay special attention to race relations among this group of Southern Presbyterians. After its 1891 founding by Sheppard and his white colleague, Samuel Lapsley, the Congo Mission staff included eleven African Americans by 1908. Robert Benedetto’s introduction to Presbyterian Reformers in Central Africa includes a section about the use of honorary titles and other signs of perceived racial integration among the missionaries, but Benedetto also details some of the lingering issues. Because Althea Brown and Alonzo Edmiston served the Congo Mission through the late 1930s, they observed major shifts in the ways that African American leaders were addressed by the Presbyterian Church in the United States and by European colonial governments. The Edmistons navigated shifting race-based travel restrictions that threatened to bar them from the trains and British ships that were part of typical travel between the US and the Congo. The Edmistons watched as most of their black colleagues were dismissed from missions service based on complaints about their actions, their demeanor, or their abilities. The Edmistons adjusted their own professional duties in order to avoid further accusations that their degrees from historically black academic institutions were insufficient.

Beyond their ministry tasks, the couple also felt compelled to suspend personal interests like their subscription to the Chicago Defender and their habit of following civil rights news updates. The Belgian government flagged the black press as a source of potential radicalism and occasional support for Marcus Garvey. This potential for surveillance was one reason that Alonzo Edmiston felt that it had become difficult by the mid-1930s to fulfill his ministerial purpose while maintaining his social and cultural connections within the United States.

What were the thorniest questions you had to figure out while writing this book?

Travel logistics posed the first hurdle for my research. Due to political complications abroad, I opted out of traveling to the Democratic Republic of the Congo before completing A Higher Mission. That decision motivated me to visit additional archives in the U.S. South and investigate how historical developments in that region influenced African American missionaries living abroad. That shift in direction enriched my work for this book as well as my next project. 

Other significant questions were posed by the format of my archival sources. I wanted to represent the perspectives of the Edmistons’ African neighbors without relying exclusively on journals, letters, and articles written by Americans. I addressed this question by incorporating some of the significant texts in African theology. For my introduction to these texts, I must thank my colleagues in the Yale-Edinburgh Group on World Christianity and the History of Mission.  The book is dedicated to one of the group’s co-founders, Dr. Lamin Sanneh.

Why does this history matter now?

I’ll answer this question by referencing an article by my former Southern Oral History Program supervisor, Dr. Jacquelyn Dowd Hall (UNC-Chapel Hill). In her March 2005 article, “The Long Civil Rights Movement and the Political Uses of the Past,” Hall argues that we must expand the perceived boundaries of when, where, and how the movement flourished. This expansion holds the key to recognition that reform remains possible in our lifetimes.

I see the potential for an expanded understanding of community responsibility through the study of early twentieth century African American missionaries, their academic institutions, and their domestic and international neighbors. Many of the people featured in my book helped each other survive famine, dire poverty, racial violence, political oppression, and the 1918 pandemic. I benefited from learning how they supported one another through difficult circumstances and why they taught younger generations to do likewise. Seeing how the benefits of that community support are still flourishing for some of the communities featured in A Higher Mission was especially inspiring.

Settling In For A Political Crisis With No End In Sight

The good ol’ days when opponents of the American experiment announced themselves as such. Vice-President of the Confederacy Alexander Stephens.

The actions of the Republican Party since Trump’s loss two months ago have clarified the present crisis more than a Trump victory could have. Not only has President Trump tried to overturn the will of American voters, growing numbers of congressional Republicans have backed his efforts.

Take it from a historian: this has never happened before. We face the real possibility of profound democratic backsliding, and there’s no end in sight.

Let’s define the parameters of this crisis in its most basic terms. Nothing is more fundamental to democracy than these two linked principles: elections are free and fair, and the losers of those elections duly concede power to the winners. President Trump and many of the leading contenders for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination reject both principles. Republicans are turning from the American experiment, and we don’t know when or how this will end.

Today’s crisis recalls the civil war not because we’re on the verge of anything like that era’s violence, but because once again the most basic principles of democracy are in dispute. If you don’t accept the results of a free and fair election you are rejecting democracy itself. It’s pretty simple.

Secessionists could not abide the results of an election that brought an anti-slavery party to power. So they tried to leave the union. They did not pretend they won the election. If secessionists saw breaking the democratic compact as their path to power outside the union, today’s fire-eaters see hollowing out that compact as the means to power within a diminished union.

In the crisis of 1860, there was a satisfying clarity to secession. The immediate end of the union beckoned. The crisis was clear, the battle quickly joined. Today’s crisis is frustratingly diffuse. It is not announced with articles of secession or seizure of federal forts. It slowly grinds away at the very machinery of self-government and democratic procedure by which we have pledged to work out our differences.

If the Republicans succeed, we will be left with a country having the form of democracy but denying its power. (Yes, I’m going for the biblical allusions). There will still be elections but they won’t take place on a level playing field. Well-timed prosecutions of political opponents will become routine. Deployment of power across a range of institutions and life experiences will become increasingly partisan and personal rather than bureaucratic and rule-bound.

The rights and privileges of citizenship will still be enshrined in the constitution, but will become increasingly theoretical and detached from the day to day existence of ordinary citizens. Courts, media, universities, to name just a few key institutions, will lose some of their independence and become increasingly beholden to the ruling party.

These are not abstractions. We’re talking about a world where ordinary citizens have even less recourse to the law than they do now, where corruption, bribery, violence, and arbitrary power of all kinds is more routinely felt in peoples’ lives.

This is about the time in our theorizing when we stop short, confounded by the opaque nature of democratic backsliding. Are we overreacting? Is this a resistance fever dream? Or is it really plausible that the United States is in danger of joining the ranks of Hungary and Turkey, Russia and India, and so many others? For what it’s worth, the people who’ve spent their lives studying democracy tend to be concerned.

And there’s a broader historical reason to see our fate as tied with these other young democracies (or erstwhile democracies). We are a young democracy ourselves. In the robust form that we think of it, our democratic government was established when my parents were kids, as the civil rights movement transformed both the legal and cultural foundations of American democracy. In large swaths of the country some of the most basic provisions of the constitution, such as the 14th and 15th amendments, only began to be seriously enforced just two decades before I was born. And I’m still a young guy!

The United States is in danger of democratic backsliding not simply because we have a bumper crop of unprincipled Republican senators (though we do!). More basically we are a fledgling democracy trying to do something that has no real precedent: establish a truly equal liberal democracy with a diverse population made up of all the peoples of the earth. This is an exciting and inspiring project. It has real enemies.

What, then, should we do?

Are you kidding? I’m just a historian writing up a stream of consciousness rant on a Sunday evening. I want to read more from people who have really thought about and studied these issues. But I do have a couple general ideas.

–Make the abstract concrete. Look, I get warm fuzzies from talking about “the rule of law” and “democratic norms” and my stomach does little somersaults of anger when the President abuses the pardon power. But I have to face the fact that many ordinary people don’t really care. They want to know what policy and politics means for their paycheck, their family’s future, their neighborhood. We need to bring the abstractions of democracy down to the block where people live. The best defense of democracy is an invigorated democracy, where people are truly empowered not just to vote, but to shape their workplaces and communities.

–Make unlikely alliances. For instance, unless you truly in your heart of hearts hate democracy, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is your friend. So is Mitt Romney. So are millions of Americans with whom you have profound political disagreements. We might not agree on how best to promote human flourishing. But we do know that a democratic future is the only one in which we will get to constructively contest our differences and build shared prosperity.

–Settle in for the long haul. This doesn’t mean being in a perpetual state of alarm. If nothing else, such a posture is unsustainable. Instead, it might mean relatively simple changes in the way you engage politics and voting in your social circles. Make “Does this candidate support democracy?” a litmus test. This crisis is so slow-moving and bizarre that lots of people don’t realize we’re in one, especially since it’s likely to last for many years. But you, dear reader, do see the crisis! So spread the sobering but hopeful news. This American experiment is really worth preserving.