Black Southern Baptists Respond to the Critical Race Theory Hysteria

The fallout continues after Southern Baptist seminaries turned opposition to critical race theory into a matter of Southern Baptist orthodoxy. As I wrote a couple weeks ago, these white SBC elites are deploying an old racist playbook.

Dwight McKissic, Senior Pastor of Cornerstone Baptist Church in Houston, Texas, puts recent events in personal and historical context:

The seminary presidents’ statement represents a broken promise to the SBC, and especially to the African Americans in the SBC. In 1995, the SBC approved the following in a resolution:

Be it further RESOLVED, That we apologize to all African-Americans for condoning and/or perpetuating individual and systemic racism in our lifetime; and we genuinely repent of racism of which we have been guilty, whether consciously (Psalm 19:13) or unconsciously (Leviticus 4:27); and

Be it further RESOLVED, That we ask forgiveness from our African-American brothers and sisters, acknowledging that our own healing is at stake

The centerpiece of CRT is the existence of systemic racism and injustice, or the lingering repercussion and effects of the Jim Crow era. By denouncing CRT in totality, the seminary presidents have contradicted and taken back the words of the SBC in 1995. This is painful to watch. It is understandable why hundreds of African American Southern Baptists are reassessing their relationship to the SBC….

When I planted the church I currently pastor at age 27 through a partnership with Tate Springs Church, Tarrant Baptist Association, and the Baptist General Convention of Texas, they provided our congregation over $200,000 during the first three-four years of our existence. That included pastoral funding, building payments and general budget expenditures. This was from 1983-1986. I was told at the time that our funding exceeded most White church plants. They wanted to use me as a test case to determine the potential of an adequately funded Black church plant. By God’s grace, we passed the test! I am grateful!

I have really been blessed with wonderful experiences being a Southern Baptist. I have had an opportunity to preach on many platforms all over Texas and America. In some instances, this was directly connected to my SBC affiliation. I am grateful!….

For many years, I looked at the SBC through the eyes of a boy; and I really saw a very beautiful picture. But as Paul said, when I was a child, I thought like a child; I reasoned like a child. [But] when I became a man, I put aside childish things.” (I Corinthians 13:11).

As a man, I have sat at SBC tables and watched White churches pay 0% interest on small church loans, while Hispanic and Black churches had to pay 6%.
As a man, while touring the SBC Nashville headquarters and requesting information concerning the highest-ranking person in the seven-story facility, I was introduced to the head custodian….

I know what it is like to participate and benefit from the SBC as a boy. I also know what it is like, as a man, to have contributed financially to the SBC far, far more than they gave our church in those early years.

I have been a boy in the SBC, and like most Blacks, I have sat at the kid’s table. Blacks have systemically been excluded from entity head positions in SBC life. In 70 years, the SBC has never seen it fit to appoint a qualified Asian, Hispanic or African American to serve as an entity head.

But on this issue and Resolution 9, we will not take this like a boy. We are going to fight back, like a man.

The reason I have not and will not leave the SBC is because I would rather fight than switch. This is my Convention too!

Marshall Ausberry, President of the National African American Fellowship of the SBC, released a careful statement:

We affirm that systemic racism exists, and like all Southern Baptists we oppose racism in all its forms. We do realize that there are theories and constructs that help us to see and discover otherwise undetected, systemic racism in institutions and in ourselves.

I have been in conversations with SBC leadership and with the leadership of the Council of Seminary Presidents of the SBC. We will be meeting in the near future to further discuss our concerns that affect all ethnic groups in the SBC about the breadth and depth of their recent statement and published comments. As brothers in Christ, we of all people should be able to dialogue and resolve all of our concerns.

Ausberry asks Southern Baptists to avoid condemning each other on social media and commit to dialogue instead. But Ralph West, Pastor of the Church Without Walls in Houston, is more direct:

My dear brothers’ bias is apparent to all of us. Instead of reaching out to fellow brothers and sisters who have lived with the reality of racism in formulating their view, these six men took it upon themselves to dictate how we should think about racism.

Saying they condemn all racism makes them, in effect, no different than the Supreme Court that ruled in Plessy v. Ferguson that all are equal while still being separate. You cannot claim to uphold equality without attacking the very systems undermining it. The Supreme Court also thought they believed in fairness and justice.

A general condemnation of racism is insufficient in a time when there are specific instances of it that go unaddressed. These men have covered their eyes and ears from seeing the faces and hearing the voices of those who know the truth of it. And thus, these men have given away their authority to speak on these matters.

I am their colleague and a member of the Southern Baptist family. While spending many years in affiliation with and in service of Baylor University, I still have maintained a strong connection to the SBC. I even recently returned to Southwestern to pursue a Ph.D. because of my desire to see Southwestern expand and return to its former state.

When I came back “home” to Southwestern, I even encouraged other ministers to do the same. I took President Adam Greenway’s invitation to return as a statement of good faith, that the seminary wanted to welcome me and many other Black ministers to contribute to its legacy.

The statement on critical race theory and intersectionality has soiled that good faith. I cannot maintain my affiliation any longer and therefore am withdrawing from Southwestern Seminary. Nor will I associate with the SBC any longer.

In the future, my primary seminary affiliation will be with Baylor University’s George W. Truett Theological Seminary. There, I have been an affiliated faculty member since 2008.

Truett Seminary courageously continues to diversify. Truett boldly engages with the crucial issues concerning students and faculty of color in their community. This is what the body of Christ needs right now.

What the SBC seminary presidents have done has brought division and confusion to the body of Christ. They must repent and seek reconciliation with those who can properly inform them of the wrong they have done. They must ask the Lord to open their hearts to hear the truth of the gospel of Jesus Christ and how Jesus’ reign truly should impact our society.

These seem like significant repercussions. As an outsider to the SBC, my questions are not rhetorical; I do not claim to understand the ins and outs of this.

Did the seminary presidents anticipate this blowback? If not, how not? If so, did they deem the cost acceptable?

Is the SBC really willing to see decades of church planting and work with Black Baptists undone to shore up the loyalty of a shrinking population of conservative whites?

What has changed between 1995 and 2020? The 1995 apology, complete with the phrase systemic racism, generated effectively zero organized opposition. In contrast, today’s push from the right is organized, vocal, and militant. It is easy to say the political climate is different in the age of Trump, but this is more of a truism than an explanation. Why did the medicine of racial moderation go down so easily in 1995? Radicalized Republicans had swept into congress in 1994, Rush Limbaugh was all the rage, racialized controversies over welfare reform and affirmative action were intense, and I haven’t even mentioned OJ Simpson. It is not obvious that the mid-1990s were an auspicious moment for the SBC to appeal to African Americans without generating white backlash. But they did.

Has the SBC regressed since the 1990s? Sometimes we like to suggest that the Trump era has revealed what was always there. This might be so. But thinking historically requires us to reject inevitable stasis or progress. We must deal instead with the complexities of jagged ups and downs, including the possibility of regression. I sometimes wonder if the state of white evangelicalism circa 2020 is less a revelation than a devolution.

Let’s zoom out some more: can the center hold in evangelicalism? Or is this a high-profile example of a splintering movement?

Questions about Teaching the History of Race to White Students

At Temple University, one of the standard questions on student feedback forms is how the professor handled diversity in the classroom. In all my years at Temple, as far as I can recall, I’ve received one negative comment on this question. A student wrote that I did not challenge anti-white statements in the classroom. That was news to me! But it did cause me to reflect on my teaching.

On another occasion, during a discussion of US atrocities in the Philippines and American attitudes toward Filipinos a white student raised his hand and said, “But they didn’t do these horrible things because they were white.” This statement managed to be true, false, and missing the point all at the same time. How could I explain that in the moment, especially given the manifestly personal place from which the statement came?

On still another occasion, a white student wrote that systemic racism doesn’t exist and though the US had a problem with racism a long time ago, the problem has been resolved and is no longer an issue.

Another time a white student said it seems like it’s seen as acceptable to make fun of white people but you can’t say similar things about any other group, especially on social media.

If there is a problem here, it might be easy to locate it in the students themselves. Look at those reactionary white kids! This would be a grave mistake. To do so absolves me of needing to reflect on my teaching practices. It also forecloses the opportunity these exchanges give me to dialogue about how race might be changing now and how young white people are experiencing it.

The youngest generation is in some ways the most diverse in American history. More young white people are growing up feeling like they’re just one group among many rather than the dominant norm. I think most young white people experience this as a positive, but some struggle with it. In any case, it would be foolish to suppose that this context won’t affect how our white students experience the history of race in the classroom.

For those of us who are steeped in the history of racism and are constantly seeing connections between past and present (gee the appeal of the white Christian nationalism of the 1920s Klan seems awfully similar to the appeal of Trumpism a hundred years later) it can take a leap of imagination to remember that some of our white students may see the history of white racism as deeply disconnected from their own experience. Superficial narratives of innocence and progress may seem naive to us, but they make sense of the world as many white students understand it.

What are white students supposed to do? It doesn’t make sense to take pride in whiteness, because it was literally created as a technology of domination. Yet if a student disassociates from whiteness (I’m Italian; my ancestors didn’t own slaves; and so on) it is widely understood as a dodge. I think we ought to understand that our students may find it genuinely confusing to be identified as white in 2020. What does it mean? Does it really matter? What responsibilities does it entail? Am I allowed to be proud of it? Should I feel guilty? I think our students are wrestling with these questions.

I need to ask myself if my teaching is unwittingly abetting the white racism and racial grievance so evident in the politics of Trumpism today. This point requires some careful elaboration. My goal should never be the comfort, as such, of white students. Nor should I hesitate to explain why statements like “There’s no systemic racism” are false. But I am responsible if my own teaching failures, my own lack of clarity and precision, contribute to white students’ defensiveness, confusion, or anger.

Yet it would be profoundly unethical (racist actually!) for me to elevate the unique confusions of white students above the learning needs of other students in the classroom. (Yes I see the meta-irony here as this is a post about white students). The good news is that there is a win-win.

Showing students that race is constructed inside history, that it is contingent and arbitrary, is not just good history. Analytical clarity on this point, delivered through clear and specific historical examples, is vital if I am to have any hope of creating an anti-racist classroom. And it comes as a relief to students of all backgrounds. It is the foundation for understanding why whiteness and blackness are different, why we can critique race as a system of power without condemning the individuals in that system, why students can have confidence in their ability to shape the future, why identity is not destiny, and so on.

Truly understanding the history of race frees white students to divest from whiteness as core identity, while accepting their social location and the responsibilities it brings. It frees them to celebrate their Italianness, or whatever, in ways that do not protect investments in whiteness. If I just catalogue a long history of racial oppression and resistance without carefully denaturalizing race, students of all backgrounds can find it deeply uncomfortable. Careful teaching drives home that we are learning history. It shapes our present but it need not be our future.

The Ku Klux Klan in the Heartland: James H. Madison On Why the History of the Klan Matters Now

James H. Madison is Emeritus Professor of History, Indiana University Bloomington, and author of The Ku Klux Klan in the Heartland. I recently asked him a few questions about his important new book.

What’s the argument of The Ku Klux Klan in the Heartland?

The Ku Klux Klan in the Heartland places the hooded order of the 1920s squarely in the mainstream of American history. Klan members were neither marginal nor weird but mostly ordinary Americans, middle-class, white, and native-born. They saw themselves as the “good” people and as superior to immigrants, Catholics, Jews, and African Americans, those “others” who were causing the downfall of the nation.

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

Of course, I abhor the Klan’s ideals, but I also wanted to be fair to those who joined the Klan. I walked a tight line to avoid a simple condemnation and to avoid defending them.

As you mention in the book, in the newspapers of the 1920s there are numerous reports of robed Klansmen silently interrupting church services to present a donation. Can you talk more about how you interpret those events? What do you think was their significance in a local community?

Religious belief and organization were central. The Klan joined with Protestant churches and church members in a tight alliance. Klansmen interrupting a Sunday service was one of many illustrations of the alliance.

Why does this history matter now?

Klan voices ring into the twenty-first century even if the tones have changed. More than any other part of our history, Klan-like beliefs connect our past and present with a venomous tenacity. Today’s heirs don’t appear in robes and hoods and their words are more coded, but the message of us/them, of exclusion, of white racial superiority is clear.


Madison is also the author of the definitive account of the story behind one of the most infamous lynching images in American history. See that book here.

Teaching the History of Race on Zoom

Today I taught my last class of the semester in Temple’s GenEd Representing Race course. What did I learn from teaching this course?

–My view of race became more nuanced and global, though it still has a long way to go. Because of my training and interests, the African American experience is like a force-field shaping how and what I think about “race.” But this is distorting. We need to talk about race as a global phenomenon. In this class we discussed ideas of difference in the ancient world, medieval anti-semitism, whiteness in Barbados, European humanitarianism and genocide in Africa, global anti-immigrant policies in settler states, indigenous child removal in Australia, Nazism, decolonization, apartheid South Africa, and the Rwandan genocide. And yet, for all that, the course was still too American-focused. That’s just a reflection of my limitations at the moment.

–My view of what race is became clearer. I think I’ve known this for a long time, but having to do a whole semester on the history of racial representations compelled me to gain more theoretical and practical clarity on what this nebulous thing is. Suffice it to say, telling your students that race is “socially constructed” is basically pointless. I needed to show them race changing, not just tell them that it does. I hope this point came through to them (maybe I’ll find out when they hand in their finals!).

–My sense of how racial progress occurs became more concrete. This sensibility is reflected in this recent think piece. I think we focus too much on consciousness and not enough on material power. That said, I’m still an intellectual historian at heart so I think ideas are really really important!

–I also learned that the chat window in zoom is a wonderful feature that drastically lowers the barrier to entry for students to participate in whole-class discussion. I want to somehow replicate it when we’re finally back in physical classrooms.

What did my students learn? Here are some of their responses from today’s discussion (another benefit of zoom–these are actual quotes):

–“I learned that there’s so much that I don’t know.” (This is the best thing to learn).

–Another student agreed: “I was just thinking how much I actually don’t know about history itself when I thought when I was in high school I knew a decent amount history.”

–“I’m able to connect past events to current laws, regulations, or viewpoints….Instead of being like…’oh yeah, the past affects today’ versus being able to point out and make those connections. That definitely changed with this class for me.”

–“I remember you’re always talking about how things aren’t exactly inevitable…things have to happen for other things to happen…I was always thinking about that and it just kind of helped me immensely….contemplate kind of everything…A million things that have to happen for other things to happen and it’s just everything so intertwined and messy. And I feel like that’s why there’s also so many different perspectives within history and why, like the things we’re learning in high school and middle school and stuff kind of don’t exactly measure the world we learned here. I felt like I was in this one viewpoint. And now, like, my mind is kind of opened up to this whole other thing.”

–Another student said analyzing the movies we watched increased his enjoyment of movies in general. Shocking!

At the end of class one of my students (a senior!) said “this class probably was one of the better classes I’ve ever taken.” And in an online semester! Every teacher knows how good that feels.

Southern Baptist Elites Are Dusting Off A Very Old Racist Rhetorical Strategy

https://www.baptistpress.com/wp-content/uploads/images/abf59224-88a8-43bb-b435-90663486cce6-Brooks-Hays-with-gavel.jpg
Brooks Hays, Arkansas Congressman and President of the Southern Baptist Convention.

This week Southern Baptist seminaries announced:

we stand together on historic Southern Baptist condemnations of racism in any form and we also declare that affirmation of Critical Race Theory, Intersectionality, and any version of Critical Theory is incompatible with the Baptist Faith & Message.

Read Jemar Tisby to understand the racial message this is sending in 2020. I want to focus here on the rhetorical tradition in which this statement operates.

Many Southern Baptists are likely to imagine that this statement is a good case of level-headed moderation. They may not realize that it bears striking resemblance to a very old pattern of racist rhetoric within and without the convention.

The basic rhetorical move is over a century old, and elites who desired respectability and mainstream support for their racist goals came to rely upon it. It combines a vague condemnation of racism in abstract terms with a reactionary posture to the specific racial matter at hand. We condemn racism in general, and we also unequivocally condemn the tools anti-racists have developed to confront racism.

During Jim Crow: of course we don’t want to go back to the bad old days of slavery. I’m glad it’s gone. But let me tell you why social equality won’t work.

During battles over anti-lynching bills: of course I’m against vigilantism in any form, but let me tell you why a federal anti-lynching bill will do more harm than good.

During debate over the Civil Rights Act of 1964: “Rights…belong to all of us regardless of color…” and let me tell you why this bill would actually make racism worse.

Today: of course black lives matter, but let me tell you why police reform hurts the people it purports to help.

But you really want to see this pattern within the SBC, right? Ok, let me show you with one suggestive example.

After the Supreme Court’s Brown v Board decision in 1954, Southern white elites came under intense pressure from the grassroots to resist school integration. The same dynamic played out within the SBC as numerous regional associations in the South passed resolutions declaring their unalterable commitment to segregation and criticizing convention bodies such as the Christian Life Commission and the Sunday School Board for their moderate racial statements.

What were SBC elites to do? On the one hand was the Christian principle of love without regard to color. On the other was the inflammatory political question of school integration. The general and the specific were colliding. Probably no one in the SBC faced these issues more directly than Brooks Hays.

Hays found himself playing key roles in both the politics of the South and the Southern Baptist Convention. A Congressman from Arkansas, Hays was known as a relative moderate on racial questions, but what moderation meant in that moment needs clarification. Hays signed the 1956 “Southern Manifesto” declaring opposition to Brown v Board and encouraging states to “resist forced integration by any lawful means.” Yet during the Little Rock Crisis, Hays advocated compromise and became a target for segregationist criticism.

The Southern Manifesto, widely seen as reactionary outside the South, was the bare minimum politicians within the South had to support to maintain credibility. Hays was rewarded for his painful balancing act. Southern Baptists elected him to the presidency of the convention in 1957. From that position Hays continued to remind his constituents that he had gone on the record against “forced integration.” At the same time, he declared that he was “trying to follow New Testament principles, particularly the injunction of Paul to ‘speak the truth in love.'”1

Hays and other SBC elites tended to see themselves as standing between the “extremes” of the White Citizens’ Councils on the one hand and the NAACP on the other. While advocating Christian love and deploring “hatred” of all kinds, they accused the people who were actually resisting racism of promoting “anarchy.” At every turn, the non-negotiable element of their racial rhetoric was not black freedom, but the unity of the SBC. As Hays put it,

Our principle interest right now is to hold our scattered congregations together. Our people entertain differences on the race question, but I am trying to steer a course that will put no strains upon us and enable us to differ in love.2

This remains the principle interest of SBC elites in 2020. Instead of standing for racial justice come what may, they offer the same sorts of platitudes their ancestors did, while once again condemning anti-racism as it actually exists. It is a curious set of commitments. The convention, for all its flaws, must be held together at nearly any cost. But anti-racist movements and organizations must be examined with a fine-tooth comb and rejected if they fall short in any way.

The narrative within the SBC is that there have been drastic changes since the deplorable days of Southern Baptists’ support for segregation. But their own rhetoric shows how empty these claims are. Opposing racism in theory while accommodating it in fact is a very old strategy, and today’s SBC elites are giving it new life.


1 Brooks Hays to Mrs. R.C. McLeod Nov 6 1957, Brooks Hays Papers, Southern Baptist Historical Library and Archives.

2 Brooks Hays to Mr. D.K. Martin, January 15, 1958, Brooks Hays Papers, Southern Baptist Historical Library and Archives.

*For a much more sympathetic account of Hays’ actions see David Roach.

Southern Baptist Seminaries Are Shoring Up Their Conservative Bona Fides

Visiting Southern - The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary

The six seminaries of the Southern Baptist Convention have joined together to “declare that affirmation of Critical Race Theory, Intersectionality, and any version of Critical Theory is incompatible with the Baptist Faith & Message.” George Schroeder has the story here.

What is going on here? In the spirit of Adam Laats, I suggest that this is all about assuring Southern Baptists that it is still safe to send their promising young people to the seminaries of the SBC. The subtext of this statement is: our future leaders won’t be indoctrinated by liberalism here, despite the rumors you’ve heard! We’re still solid.

Note what Danny Akin, President of Southeastern Seminary, said: “We felt that because our brothers and sisters in various state conventions have concern about this issue, they would also want to know what their seminaries actually think, and what we are teaching and not teaching.”

Despite protestations to the contary, this has nothing to do with being “biblical” or following the gospel. It has everything to do with allaying the peculiar political concerns of the seminaries’ constituencies. There is a vocal group of hardliners who have been accusing the SBC of going liberal. With this statement, seminary leaders seek to refute those charges.

This statement is revealing of the pressures inside the SBC. Accusations of liberalism quickly gain traction and have to be shot down lest SBC institutions lose credibility with the rank and file. Meanwhile, rampant Trumpism does not merit a similar response because it doesn’t bother ordinary Southern Baptists. This is about coalition politics, not following scripture.

H/T John Fea

White Evangelicals Searching for a Way Forward Need A New Past

https://colorblindchristians.files.wordpress.com/2017/08/road.jpg?w=656

White evangelicals who are serious about a new way forward on racial justice could start by telling a new story about our* past. I’m not talking about a blue ribbon commission to evade practical action. I’m not talking about the false hope that we can somehow think our way into righteousness. I’m talking about the stories by which we live. We need an imagination and identity that can serve as solid bedrock for anti-racist action.

And right now, the basic story we tell ourselves about who we are and who we have been is rotten to the core.

White evangelicals like to think that we are the ones who take the Bible seriously, in contrast to those liberals who play fast and loose with the scriptures. We like to imagine that when modernism came for the church, it was evangelicals who stood firm on the authority of the word of God. And over and over again, when the tides of social decay threatened to wash over America, it was evangelicals who held fast. Where would America be if not for us?

White evangelicals see ourselves and our nation in God’s promises to Israel in the Old Testament. 2 Chronicles 7:14 belongs to us! And white evangelicals see ourselves, a righteous remnant, in the New Testament’s words of comfort and assurance to believers facing persecution and suffering.

All of this is self-serving nonsense. We need a new story.

The dominant expressions of white evangelicalism in American history have been tied to heresies of race and nation. Ours isn’t the tradition that took the Bible seriously. We’re the tradition that often rejected orthodox Christianity and were so self-deluded about it we thought we were preserving the faith!

We’re the tradition that read about the Exodus and the children of Israel and the slave-masters of Egypt and didn’t even realize that we were the bad guys in the Biblical narrative. Those grand promises weren’t for us; they were for the poor and needy, for those despised and rejected. We were American royalty. Our citizenship and belonging was never in question. We built a faith suited for this proud and hard of heart condition.

“How could any theologian explain the meaning of Christian identity in America,” James Cone asked, “and fail to engage white supremacy, its primary negation?”1 Well brothers and sisters, we tried. Oh did we try. And so we created a symbolic Christianity. If you believed certain doctrines you were inside the camp. You must believe in the Virgin Birth and substitutionary atonement, but lynching is a complicated social question.

Oh how we loved pious words and the appearance of good. We became experts at crafting “a strange, un-Biblical distinction between body and soul, between the sacred and the secular.”2 Our devotion to spiritual rebirth was so zealous, so pure, that we took great pains to let black people know that we couldn’t help them too much in their quest for the rights and privileges we already enjoyed. After all, as one white evangelical put it, “What shall it profit the Negro if he gain all the civil rights guaranteed him but lose his own soul?”3

This separation of body and soul was theologically indefensible and socially catastrophic. It was a power play. “We just want Jesus,” we said, while we moved up the ladders of opportunity and closed the doors behind us. We showed contempt for the common good and dared call our selfishness godliness.

The respectably self-aware white evangelical narrative is that many of our ancestors were regrettably deficient in their understanding of racial matters, but we can appreciate their firm grasp of doctrine and the gospel. This is incoherent. It is self-serving nonsense to suppose that people who equivocated in the face of racial hatred had a firm grasp of Christianity. It is folly to suppose that love can be love without being earthy and tangible.

A common white evangelical response at this point might be something along the lines of, “Who then can be saved?” But the point here is not to condemn every last one of our spiritual ancestors in the harsh glare of our modern sensibilities. It is to reform our collective understanding of the broad contours of our tradition in light of Christian history. Racial hatred is an egregious heresy. People who fell prey to it ought not be normalized as Christian heroes.

So find new heroes. They’ve been in our midst all along. Why do we insist on lionizing Whitefield when Equiano is there to be claimed? As Howard Thurman put it, “By some amazing but vastly creative spiritual insight, the slave undertook the redemption of the religion that the master had profaned in his midst.” Look to this redemptive tradition.

White evangelicals can still be confident that there is a “there” there when we talk about an evangelical tradition. Embrace that sensibility that says we need a warm-hearted faith, an experience of conversion and closeness to Jesus Christ. But reject the hubris that says the gospel lives here and we deign to offer it to others.

What then, would it mean to be a conscious white evangelical? It might mean being gospel-focused in a new way. Instead of possessing it, ours would be the tradition that humbly and restlessly looks for it in all sorts of unexpected people and places. After all, that’s where it’s been all along.


*I don’t know that I really count as an evangelical anymore, but it seems so much better to write in the inclusive “we” than in the accusatory “they.” In any case, evangelicalism has done much to form the person I am today.

1 This is found in The Cross and the Lynching Tree.

2 Dr. King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail.

3 Letter to the editor in Christianity Today, May 8, 1964.

Why calling racism a sin is a cop-out

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.

The Racists Are Losing

Over 50,000 protestors fill the Ben Franklin Parkway in a march for racial justice, June 6, 2020. (Tyger Williams/The Philadelphia Inquirer via AP).

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.

Yes, Lord, so may it be.

A Familiar Argument…about Lynching?

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.