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.

Beware the Age of Symbolic Anti-Racism

All are welcome here! (Terms and conditions apply. Please don’t change the restrictive zoning that keeps poor people out of our neighborhoods).

Earlier this year the city council of the picturesque town of Golden, Colorado, passed resolutions committing to “listening, learning, and acting to advance racial equity and improve the quality of life and health for all,” as well as the erection of a prominent banner in town declaring, “Golden Stands with Black Lives.” Notably absent from the agenda of this middle class Denver suburb was any practical plan to expand housing access so that more poor people (disproportionally people of color) might enjoy the benefits of this progressive city. But by golly Golden sure did “stand with” the 1.8% of its residents who are black. What a wonderful display of good intentions.

I picked Golden at random. One might tell a similar story of dozens of other towns and cities. Or take corporations for example. Amazon is the giant of the moment. Many of us rely upon it in the midst of the pandemic. And look how anti-racist it is! Don’t take my word for it: “We foster diversity and inclusion globally and look for ways to amplify underrepresented voices and empower diverse communities.” And they donated 10 million dollars! And they said this: “Black lives matter. We stand in solidarity with our Black employees, customers, and partners, and are committed to helping build a country and a world where everyone can live with dignity and free from fear.”

All of this solidarity and inclusion helps to explain why Amazon is at the forefront of promoting worker unionization. Just kidding. Amazon relentlessly crushes efforts to empower ordinary people and change the material circumstances of our lives.

Or take Coke and Nike. Black Lives Matter but structural genocide and settler colonialism have to be tolerated because we don’t want to mess with our global supply chains.

Welcome to the world of symbolic anti-racism. It’s not just towns and corporations playing this symbolic game. We as individuals risk playing it too. We need to recognize the game for what it is and insist on something more.

We’re living in an age of renewed anti-racist activism. We must press this activism with all the vigor we can. Yet we’re also living in an era of symbolic anti-racism. Symbolic anti-racism focuses on thoughts, intentions, words, and representation, while de-emphasizing practical steps that would improve the material circumstances of ordinary peoples’ lives. White people especially must resist the pull to make anti-racism a statement of who we are rather than a program of practical action to liberate others.

My thoughts turned in this direction after reading Adolph Reed’s recent piece this morning. For decades, Reed has been critiquing, from the left, the black political establishment. In the aftermath of the civil rights movement, African Americans got elite representation, taking mayor’s offices in major cities and ultimately the presidency itself, but too often they seemed to be merely new faces doing the bidding of the same old power structures. Reed stands for a kind of politics that is more focused on the material needs of the working class.

The limits of representation were on vivid display just this week as we found out Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s administration had tried to keep a video of police abuse from reaching the public. It unmistakably recalled Mayor Rahm Emmanuel’s attempts to cover up Laquan McDonald’s murder. Chicago now has a black mayor, but how much difference will it make for ordinary black Chicagoans? (To be fair to Lightfoot, she says she was not aware city lawyers tried to suppress the video. We’ll see if another shoe drops in this story).

Representation matters, but the point of getting on the field is to play and win the game. Our relentless enthusiasm for black “firsts” in positions of power is a little too much like celebrating before the kickoff.

Symbolic anti-racists have learned the lingo. They know that they should invoke systemic racism and gentrification and mass incarceration. But the moralizing and posturing that is so evident in our time actually takes us back to the same old pathologies of white racial blindness. We look inward for unconscious bias, we put up outward displays of allyship, we say all the right things, and somehow this ends up being little different from the old saw that racial progress is a matter of changing our hearts and cleansing ourselves of personal prejudice.

In this respect it is telling that gentrification, a localized symptom of much more widespread and systemic housing exclusion, seems to take up as much “anti-racist” oxygen as the systemic exclusion itself.

You really can put a BLM sign on your lawn and oppose the low-income housing development down the street. You really can march for black lives and dismiss out of hand the possibility of sending your kids to a low-income public school. You really can post a lot on social media and never get around to donating a substantial portion of your income to black-led organizations. You really can mistake your anger at white racists for practical concern for black lives. You really can go on an ego trip and call it social justice activism. Believe me, I ought to know.

Look, I’m not saying symbols and words and representation don’t matter. They do matter, a lot. But the fact that the most powerful institutions in our society would rather hold an anti-racism seminar than a workers’ rights information meeting ought to give us a clue! Symbolic anti-racism is a wolf in sheep’s clothing. We must not only be passionate, but analytical; not only well-intentioned, but practical. We must demand concrete results for ordinary people. Otherwise, what’s the point?

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

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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.

White Evangelicals Searching for a Way Forward Need A New Past

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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.