What We Still Get Wrong About White Flight—And Why It Matters

This week I went with my son on a church mission trip to Detroit. After living most of my adult life in segregated black neighborhoods in Chicago and Philadelphia it was more than a little unsettling to approach Detroit from the position of a white short-term mission-tripper from a small town. In Philadelphia I often spoke to short-term mission teams to orient them to the historical and racial context of what they would experience during their week of volunteering in the city. To be on the other side and be spoken to was a healthy blow to my ego.

Our time in Detroit was also a reminder of why it’s so important that we talk accurately about the past. One evening we went to the site where the 1967 Detroit uprising began. Our guide, a white woman in her sixties, said she vividly recalled hearing the news of the riot when she was a child. She told us that police mistreatment of black residents and lack of opportunity were primary causes of the rebellion. So far so good. I was glad she spoke clearly about this. Then she told us that on the eve of the rebellion Detroit was a vibrant and bustling city but that the riot caused a fundamental shift.

“That was when white flight began,” she said.

This historically false claim may have tragically undercut all the good she was trying to communicate to us. I’ll explain first why it’s false and then explain why this particular false statement is so consequential.

By the time of the uprising, Detroit had already been weathering two decades of economic restructuring as postwar industry moved out of central cities. As factories built in urban cores in the early twentieth century became obsolete, companies decentralized their operations, building more modern and automated facilities in spacious suburbs. They looked even further afield to other states in search of more pliant workforces in places where unions held less power. Industry spread out. Capital moved. In the twenty years before the uprising, Detroit lost nearly half its manufacturing jobs! Hundreds of thousands of white residents had already left and the city had entered into an era of sustained population decline that has continued to the present day. Indeed, the very neighborhood where the riot began was nearly all white twenty years before, but flipped to all black during the 1950s.

In short, the 1967 uprising was the exclamation point on two decades of economic restructuring and white flight, not the sudden start of something new. The uprisings of the 1960s only added fuel to fires that had started burning decades earlier. Tom Sugrue made all of this painfully clear over a quarter century ago in The Origins of the Urban Crisis.

Describing the 1967 rebellion as the starting point of white flight has deeply troubling implications. The volunteers who hear this narrative are left with only one logical conclusion: a sensational act of black violence touched off Detroit’s catastrophic decline. This leaves impressionable visitors to the city ill-equipped to interpret the economic devastation they see around them. Faced with this seemingly incomprehensible hollowed-out city, they may resort to well-worn tropes of contempt on the one hand, and pity on the other. The conservative-minded volunteer may blame the people in these places for their poverty. The liberal-minded person may pity them. Both may fail to understand the forces that made these neighborhoods.

They are even less likely to be able to see these oppressed places as sites of ordinary community, where neighbors help neighbors, children play, and, against the odds our society imposes, people build lives for themselves and fulfill their dreams. Here’s how you know you’re operating in the contempt/pity paradigm: you can visit the place for a week but you can’t imagine living there. But really, these places are very livable! The forces of oppression are not total, and people can and do make homes for themselves in the places society has tried to leave behind.

So if the uprisings of the 1960s didn’t cause white flight, what did? The wrenching economic changes of the era were only part of it. The stark fact is that the mere presence of a black family moving into a neighborhood was enough to cause white flight. Banks, realty companies, governments, and churches all conspired to make white flight worse, but we must not evade the simplicity of what happened in the texture of peoples’ daily experience. Millions of white homeowners simply refused to have black neighbors. The white housewives in the infamous Crisis in Levittown documentary spoke for millions when they said things like this:

“If there are too many colored people around here I definitely will get out…”

“Well I just could not live beside them. I don’t feel that they should be oppressed, but I moved here — one of the main reasons was because it was a white community — and that’s the only place I intend to live. If I have to leave Levittown I will do so.”

These women declared their intentions in 1957, years before the uprisings of the 1960s. This intractable white hatred is what hurled American cities into crisis in the twentieth century. The economic restructuring of the postwar world was always going to be difficult. Cities across the western world faced similar changes and periods of decline. But in the United States white racism guaranteed that instead of facing these challenges together we would face them apart and make them worse. And we would offload the costs of the new economy on the very people with the fewest resources. Like millions of European immigrants, black migrants came to northern cities in search of the American Dream. But they were treated differently than any immigrant group. As white businesses and residents fled, they pulled up the ladders of opportunity behind them.

White flight was not a response to black violence. White flight was a riot itself. We’ve got to get this history right so that we at least have a fighting chance of seeing what is right in front of our noses when we go on a “mission trip” to “the inner city”: the people living in these places are utterly ordinary. They are not to be feared, pitied, or romanticized. They are not so different from us in their hopes and dreams for their children, but probably quite a bit more clear-eyed than you and I about the sickness still lurking in America’s soul.

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

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

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

               James 2.5-6

Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.

               Acts 11.9

A poor person’s land might produce much food,

    but it is unjustly swept away.

               Proverbs 13.23

Those who mock the poor insult their maker.

               Proverbs 17.5

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

1 We’re hiding how the world works

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

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

Why do police fail to keep some communities safe?

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

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

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

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

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

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

2 We’re rejecting how God’s kingdom works

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What Do You Want for Your Students On Day One?

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

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

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

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

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

Have we ever been united?

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

Why do gas prices fluctuate so much?

What is happening in Afghanistan?

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

How does Covid compare to past pandemics?

What are the origins of contemporary problems?

What similarities are there between past and present?

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

Where do we go from here? (political turmoil)

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

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

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

So, first day is done! Onward!

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

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

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

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

What is the argument of The Bible Told Them So?

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

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

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

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

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

Why does this history matter now?

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

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.