In November 1922, the Pentecostal publication Gospel Trumpet published this observation:
Notice how familiar the frames of argument are to you. They’re all there:
–It’s not really about race in the end.
–If you don’t break the law you probably don’t have anything to worry about.
–Of course [fill in the blank] is bad, but we’ve made so much progress and most people are trying to help.
–Only in the U.S. would these people have such opportunities in the first place.
And they’re talking about lynching. The white Christian gaze could make even the most horrific atrocities seem like merely regrettable mishaps on the road of progress in the good ol’ USA. Defenders of contemporary American policing are just as blind as these white Christians were a century ago.
A movement for racial justice captures the nation’s attention and puts white evangelicals on the defensive. Shocking brutality spurs demands for reform, black evangelicals press for a more inclusive brand of evangelicalism, and white evangelical elites acknowledge the need for change. A major white evangelical periodical announces that the time for “platitudes” is over.1 Is this the moment white evangelicalism finally rouses itself to support black freedom?
I am speaking not of 2020, but of 1963. The white evangelical response to that epochal year of civil rights protest reveals enduring patterns in the ways white evangelicals engage racial issues and suggests the prospects for an anti-racist white evangelicalism in 2020 are dim.
The Birmingham campaign in the Spring of 1963 brought police brutality home to American living rooms through indelible images of dogs and fire hoses. In September, a terrorist bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church left four black girls dead. If some white evangelicals were too set in their ways to hear the anguished cries for change, perhaps the younger generation would lead the way. One white evangelical college student declared that there was no longer any “middle ground.” There were only two choices left: “One either actively protests injustice to the black man or hates him.”2
But white evangelicals seemed determined to test this proposition. Perhaps they could find a middle ground amid the storms of protest. White evangelical leaders were absent from the largest protest of 1963, the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, because, as one put it, “Our folks are sympathetic with solving the race problem, but we feel that this wasn’t the way to go about it.”3
What was the evangelical way? Embracing systemic reforms and street protests carried the risk of cutting white evangelical elites off from their populist and conservative white constituency. In the pews, a powerful blend of God, country, and race made white Christian identity sacred. But white evangelical elites also worried that failure to act would discredit their movement with the rising generation. If reform threatened to splinter the evangelical coalition and stasis risked limiting its future growth, what could be done?
White evangelical elites found the answer in a path between reform and reaction. They increasingly spoke of the need for Christian love and unity across the color line, not as a complement to systemic reform, but as an alternative to it. While black evangelicals called for a church that knew no bounds of color and worked to meet practical social needs, white evangelicals declared that spiritual unity in Christ trumped institutional reform in both church and society. A revival of Christian love was the surest solution to America’s racial crisis.
This theology of race should be understood not as a simply reactionary stance but as a creative effort at evangelical coalition-building. Cross-pressured by conscience, evangelistic calculations, and disparate demands from without and without evangelicalism, white evangelical elites searched for an updated theology of race that could grow evangelicalism’s appeal in the new racial era that was dawning.
In the ensuing decades, the growth of predominantly white evangelical churches indicated the success of this strategy. Positioning themselves comfortably in the white mainstream in an ostensibly colorblind post-civil rights era America, white evangelicals promoted interpersonal kindness, voluntary church-centered initiatives and an evangelistic message that emphasized a personal experience of salvation with few social implications. This strategy not only helped hold together the white evangelical coalition, it enabled it to make inroads into some immigrant and African American communities.
White evangelical efforts to grow their coalition with an appealing racial message reached their peak in the 1990s with the so-called “racial reconciliation” movement. As Americans became skeptical of the capacity of government to promote racial progress, white evangelicals went on the offensive. Their longstanding message that racial healing was a matter of the heart rather than the state struck a chord. White evangelicals gained much positive media coverage for their willingness to tackle the nation’s enduring racial divisions when all else seemed to have failed.
In reality, white evangelicals were fine-tuning a decades-long strategy: a message of church-centered racial healing as a means of evangelical coalition-building. Major initiatives of that era, such as the Southern Baptist Convention’s apology for racism and slavery, had their origin not in racial justice activism, but in renewed efforts to bring people of color into the evangelical fold.
For half a century, white evangelical elites navigated shifting racial currents with a view toward maintaining the unity of their movement, preserving its credibility, and expanding it into new communities. But the last decade has made this balancing act difficult to sustain. Moments of mass protest and systemic reform—whether in 1963 or 2020—put the evangelical coalition under enormous strain. It is probably not possible for evangelical leaders to please at once the enthusiastic Trump supporter and the black lives matter protestor.
If the past is prologue, white evangelical elites are likely to try to thread the needle anyway. Crucial to their calculations will be the knowledge that there are far more Trump supporters in their midst than black lives matter activists.
To be sure, there have already been somehigh-profilegestures that suggest this moment might be different. But it is sobering to realize that white evangelical elites have been making progressive racial statements for decades. These statements temporarily roil the white evangelical base but tend not to move it in any enduring way.
There has been much chatter about 2020 as the new 1968. In that year of crisis the Southern Baptist Convention called on its members to “undertake to secure opportunities in matters of citizenship, public services, education, employment, and personal habitation” for African Americans and declared, “Words will not suffice. The time has come for action.”4 Whatever became of that?
Behind the banner headlines made by denominational leaders and magazine editors, most white evangelical pastors’ message in this moment of crisis is likely to be pared down to the lowest common denominator acceptable to their white populist base. If their constituents cannot agree on the merits of racial justice protestors, at least they can agree to love each other and keep the church door open. This message might save the evangelical coalition from fracture, but it will not promote black liberation. Indeed, it was never designed to do that.
1 “Let’s Face up to the Race Issue,” Eternity, August 1963, 5-6.
2 Harold Bontekoe, “The Alternative To Hate,” Calvin College Chimes, September 27, 1963, 2.
3 “The Washington March and the Negro Cause,” Christianity Today, September 13, 1963, 27-28. See also, “Desegregation,” Covenanter Witness, September 11, 1963, 163.
4 “A Statement Concerning the Crisis In Our Nation,” June 5, 1968.
The police killed George Floyd and are not being held accountable for their actions. The core fact from which all events flow is George Floyd’s precious life senselessly snuffed out on the pavement. It is a galling and egregious example of the world African Americans live in every day under the suspicion of the militarized state. Black communities face a policing system utterly unlike the one most white Americans experience. It is punitive, intrusive, and harsh; yet for all that, does not protect.
The death of George Floyd once again raises in the national consciousness the urgency of black liberation and the need for wholesale policing reform. The abolitionists, too, must be heard. They expand our imaginations and help us think anew about the restorative communities and systems we might build together.
But now we’re in a cycle we’ve seen many times before. Police violence, with almost inexorable logic, produces a community response. When that white moderate slips into our newsfeed and says, “Sadly, all this rioting and looting is undercutting the legitimate concerns people have,” what should we do?
Don’t get upset with them or get sucked into a big argument. If you’re debating the merits of rioting, you’re losing.
Instead, shift the focus to George Floyd’s invaluable life and the injustice his death exposes. The state started this, and only the state can stop it. Indeed, the DA has it within his power to deescalate the situation whenever he chooses. He only needs to do the right thing and arrest the officers. But even if and when that happens, we will see the same cycles of violence play out in the future unless this country gets serious about changing its whole idea of policing. This is urgent.
If you’re a black resident of Minneapolis and you want to burn some shit down—especially a police station!—I’m not here to quibble with you. But if, like me, you’re a random white person watching events unfold from the comfort of your living room, I implore you to resist the urge to treat the life and death struggle of black liberation as an abstract moral debate. We need to speak and act strategically. This uprising is not here to serve your emotional catharsis or sense of moral superiority.
I’m seeing lots of people on social media resorting to this familiar brand of commentary: “If you’re more concerned about looting of property than the murder of a person then…” This line of argument is obviously correct. It rightly points out the racism, dehumanization, double standards, and hypocrisy in American ideas of violence, national myth, capitalism, and so on. But here’s the thing: if you’re debating the merits of rioting you’re losing.
You’ve no doubt also seen the famous Dr. King quote about riots being the language of the unheard. Even more provocatively, Dr. King said on another occasion that he was “not sad that black Americans are rebelling.” Why, then, did he work so tirelessly to prevent riots? Why did he meet with gang leaders, coerce and cajole and constantly seek to defuse violence? Because he understood that the uprisings harmed the cause more than they helped.
During the civil rights movement, the side perceived as being more violent was invariably losing. This was such common knowledge that it was bedrock strategy for the movement. Why did smart racists, from police chief Pritchett in Albany to Mayor Daley in Chicago, seek to hide the violence of white supremacy? Because they well understood the same calculus.
Anyone who has read movement speeches and writings knows that activists were constantly exposing the double standards of American life, including around questions of violence. But most of them also possessed a hard-headed sense of strategic purpose. Unless your plan was a pie in the sky vision of an armed revolution and black separatist republic, you needed to take actions that enhanced your movement’s political power, not weakened it.
The urgent necessity today is black liberation. What if, in fact, violent uprisings are harmful to that cause? There is strong evidence that they are. The self-satisfaction of being in the right and knowing white Americans are hypocrites is little consolation then. Omar Wasow has done important work showing that in the 1960s, nonviolent protest activity was associated with increases in Democratic vote share, while violent protest activity correlated with increasing support for law and order politics.
One way white people can be productive on social media in these days is to resist the urge to follow every rabbit trail in the predictable cycle of argument and recrimination that follows in the wake of state violence. We want justice for George Floyd. We want to change American policing. We want black freedom. That’s the message to hammer home again and again.
One of my favorite Christmas songs is O Holy Night. The music carries you from quiet meditation to a rousing conclusion, and the lyrics are not the stuff of ordinary Christmas carols. I’m always especially struck by these lines:
Truly He taught us to love one another; His law is love and His gospel is peace. Chains shall He break for the slave is our brother; And in His name all oppression shall cease.
If Wikipedia and the image above are to be believed, the music was created in 1847 by the French composer Adolphe Adam. The lyrics originate from the French poet Placide Cappeau that same year. But his lyrics are not the ones we sing.
In 1855, the American Unitarian and transcendentalist John Sullivan Dwight translated and reworked Cappeau’s text into the English form we sing today. Dwight was unorthodox in his theology (Unitarians do not believe in the Trinity) and radical in his politics.
Dwight was an associationist, a radical reformer who sought to construct a form of Christian socialism in the United States. In an 1849 manifesto of principles, Dwight declared, “We are disposed to take the name of socialist for better or for worse, and challenge all the world to prove that there can be a better Christian…than is the genuine socialist who feels and understands his reconciling mission.”
He continued, “Our watchword is the peaceful transformation of the subversive, false societies of competition into the co-operative society of unity and harmony under God’s perfect code of love.” In the emerging tenets of Christian socialism, Dwight foresaw “a science which shall reconcile all interests, all parties, do away all terrors, and effect a peaceful transition out of these ages of industrial competition, with its attendant train of poverty, ignorance, crime, war, slavery, and disease, into an age of universal co-operation, union, competence, refinement, peace, and Perfect Liberty with Perfect Order.”
Grand ambitions indeed. When the Civil War came, Dwight was a staunch supporter of the Union cause. He hated slavery. During the war he wrote a song for the soldiers of his alma mater that included these lines of anti-slavery patriotism:
As the war transformed from a limited conflict to restore the union to a revolutionary attack on slavery, the United States had become, in Dwight’s eyes, “now a Country grand enough to die for!”
What had been prophesied in the Christmas song nearly 20 years before was now coming to pass: “Chains shall He break, for the slave is our brother.”
Dwight’s words in their context of the 1840s, 1850s, and 1860s were irrevocably radical, unavoidably political. They were words to cause offense and inspire hope, words to cut and wound, words to which one could not help but have a strong reaction. They were words of heresy or of utopianism.
Some 170 years later, I stood in the sanctuary of a white evangelical church on a Sunday morning in December. As Ferguson smoldered, the quiet opening strains of O Holy Night washed over the worshipers. As the song built to its emotional center, people around me raised their hands and closed their eyes in praise. We sang:
Truly He taught us to love one another; His law is love and His gospel is peace. Chains shall He break for the slave is our brother; And in His name all oppression shall cease.
Anger welled up in my spirit and I thought of the words of the prophets: “These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.” I didn’t know who had written O Holy Night, or when, but I knew something was wrong with us singing it.
When we sang these lines without knowing the context of their creation, the messy politics of the lyrics became little more than spiritual allegory. When Dwight wrote these words, they were earthy and practical, carrying in them a hard to miss call to repentance. The unavoidable implication was that thousands of white evangelicals in the south were oppressors. God was going to strike them down.
But in our mouths the lines took on the uncomfortable aspect of bystanders. Our privileged and removed position rendered the perspective of the songwriter in a new light. Now it was not in solidarity that we sang; it was as spectators. The people singing are not enslaved or oppressed; they stand off at a distance, claiming to be brother to the oppressed.
When we sang it that December morning in the shadow of Ferguson, I knew all too well that many of us could sing those words precisely because they meant so little. I knew that oppression was of little concern to some of those around me. I knew at first hand how cold and hard of heart some of these worshipers were toward the descendants of the enslaved.
O Holy Night was sung in churches all over the country this morning, the brother slave an allegory signifying almost nothing. If we sung a Christmas song this morning that was true to Dwight’s ethos, how many worshipers would have walked out?
“Chains shall he break, for the immigrant is our brother.”
“Chains shall he break, for the gay man is our brother.”
“Chains shall be break, for black lives matter activists are our brothers.”
O Holy Night is a wonderful song. But do you really want to sing it?
The Republicans’ nearly unanimous opposition today to the restoration of the Voting Rights Act hit me hard. It called to mind a more idealistic time in my own life and in that of the nation, and reminded me of how far we have descended in the 9 short years of my oldest son’s life. Let me explain.
My son was born early in 2010. In the years before my son’s birth, galvanized by my relationship with my new wife and new experiences living on the west side of Chicago, I had experienced a racial awakening. As a good evangelical Christian, I had long ago had a conversion experience. But this was a second conversion, in many respects more thoroughgoing than the first. I began to face my racism and reorder my commitments.
I read John Lewis’s autobiography during that awakening. I remember crying. I didn’t approach it as a historian or a critic. Any subtleties or faults of this frail human being were lost on me. I felt as though I was encountering a modern-day saint. Here was a man who nearly gave his life for the right to vote. Here was a man who never wavered in his principles, who returned love for hatred, and bore in his body the evidence of his commitment.
When our first-born son arrived, we could think of nothing better to do than name him John Lewis. It was a fit of youthful presumption and idealism, I now admit. But I don’t regret it at all. It was true to who we were at that time. And it seemed to me to match the tenor of the moment. I found President Obama to be an inspirational and steady leader, and I looked forward to positive changes ahead.
I hoped that my son would grow up to be a man of courage and love in the cause of his own time, as Lewis was in his. I didn’t expect voting rights to be a cause of my son’s time too! But when my son was 3, the Supreme Court struck down the heart of the Voting Rights Act. It quickly became apparent that the Republican Party that had reauthorized the Act as recently as 2006 no longer existed. The ensuing years have given us a wave of new voting restrictions, suppression, and gerrymandering as the GOP turned to overt racism as a tool to gain power.
My son lived his early years at an inflection point in American life. The post-civil rights era, a time too ambiguous to have a proper name, was ending. A new era of racism and anti-racist activism was beginning. When my son was 2, George Zimmerman shot Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Florida, and protests and vigils spread across the country. We were living in Akron, Ohio, at the time. One Saturday morning I buckled John Lewis into his car seat and headed down to the courthouse. I felt I needed to be there, and in some sort of cosmic way beyond memory, I felt it was important for my boy to be there too.
The ensuing years saw the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, which exploded to national attention during the summer of my son’s 4th year. “Where are you going, daddy?” I stop at the door. “I’m going to a protest, son.” He ponders. “What’s a protest?” How do I explain it? How do I teach him to live in a racist society when I don’t even know myself?
We bought the March books. He liked them but found them confusing. We sent him off to school where, year after year, he is the lone white face in his grade. Does it matter? Does it accomplish anything beyond making me feel that I am doing something?
Some of you might think this all sounds like a lot of pressure for a little boy. White parents with unresolved racial guilt using their son as a guinea pig. Ok.
But there’s another pressure out there, greater because invisible: growing up as a normal white kid in a normal white neighborhood. How are those kids going to resist the evil of our age?
My son will set his own course in life. We rarely talk about where his name came from anymore. But the ambitions behind it linger. A long time ago, Dr. King said that white people are sick. It’s still true. And what parent doesn’t want their children to grow up to be healthy? He will have to be loving and courageous to escape the sickness permeating our time.
During his short life, the racism of the Republican Party has become so much worse and more entrenched. We don’t know where the bottom is, but we know it’s going to affect his life, and even more so the lives of his friends and classmates in our working class black neighborhood.
But there’s no need for despair. As John Lewis puts it, “We must continue to speak up & stand up, to find a way to get in the way to build the Beloved Community.” Whatever path my son takes, I think he’s going to find a way to make some #goodtrouble.
In recent days an evangelical twitter tempest has reemerged, this time over the question of whether Jerry Falwell, Jr. is an evangelical leader. This is a more specific variation on the perennial question of who is an evangelical, and the Trump-era twist on it: what has happened to evangelicalism?
On one side are some evangelical elites and evangelical scholars who continue to insist on a theologically-defined evangelicalism rooted in David Bebbington’s work. The upshot of this definition is that you can make a distinction between “real” evangelicals and evangelicals in name only.
But other scholars, including sizable numbers of evangelicals, have come to see this theological definition as analytically unhelpful. To some critics, it smacks of contemporary movement boundary policing more than serious historical inquiry.
Among the more notable examples of this critique in recent years is Timothy Gloege’s 2018 Religion Dispatches piece, “Being Evangelical Means Never Having To Say You’re Sorry.” Basically, if a so-called evangelical is behaving badly, you can just write them out of the movement and rebrand it. Sorry, not sorry.
When Gloege’s article resurfaced this week, Baylor historian Paul Putz replied,
I think your critique is valuable. But it’s too simplistic. I think it reduces evangelicalism to a set of hot-button cultural and political stances (which are indeed part of the story) while ignoring daily life and practice, piety and devotion, etc., as sources of identity.— Paul Putz (@p_emory) September 15, 2019
Calvin College historian Kristen Kobes Du Mez added this important question:
To me this sets up key Q: what is connection between devotional life and practice, identity, and these “hot-button” issues?— Kristin Kobes Du Mez (@kkdumez) September 15, 2019
In a small and suggestive way, I’d like to take up Du Mez’s question. My argument is that we need to think more carefully about how whiteness has structured the evangelical ecclesial experience. I’m going to focus on this simple proposition, with the understanding that reality is not so simple. For one thing, we should not pretend that the shaping effect goes in one direction. If we need to think more carefully about white evangelicalism, we definitely need to give more attention to evangelical whiteness.
Over the course of the 20th century, the evangelical coalition entwined theology, whiteness, and conservative politics. The histories we tell about that movement demand attention to all three aspects. By using theological markers to define evangelicalism, we miss the ways cultural and political forces have shaped the movement. To identify as evangelical in the early 21st century signals commitments to gun rights, the abolition of legal abortion, and low taxes. It’s next to impossible to understand these commitments through the prism of theology alone. But when we understand evangelical as an identity forged in the contexts of Jim Crow segregation, a struggle against second-wave feminism, and fears of a tyrannical federal government, the origin of these commitments becomes clearer.
Evangelicals are not any whiter, demographically, than mainliners or Mormons. But they have rallied around Trump to defend a white Protestant nation. They have proven to be loyal foot soldiers in the battle against undocumented immigrants and Muslims. The triumph of gay rights, the persistence of legal abortion, and the election of Barack Obama signaled to them a need to fight for the America they once knew. The history of American evangelicalism shows us a group of believers who find the most in common when it comes to race and politics.
Notice that though Dowland is paying attention to whiteness, the mechanism by which the ecclesial and political may be related is not at all clear. In other words, Du Mez’s outstanding question remains: what is the connection between devotional life and practice, identity, and these “hot-button” issues?
To offer a suggestive answer to this question, I offer this proposition: what if we think about whiteness in ecclesial contexts as crucial religio-racial grounding for the attitudes, ideas, and behaviors that we commonly recognize as political? What if evangelicals learn whiteness in their churches and then enact it politically?
Here I would like to submit a brief for the importance of my work on the Church Growth Movement (article forthcoming in Religion & American Culture, January 2020!).
The CGM taught quite explicitly that racial integration was a threat to church growth. More broadly, the CGM was a distillation of an evangelical mainstream that often equated success with faithfulness. But what does it mean to be successful in a racist society? What does it mean to grow your church in an era of white flight and racial reaction? When major white evangelical leaders deliberately launched their churches in fast-growing wealthy suburbs, they weren’t just expressing their faith in the power of the gospel. They were making a solid investment in the advantages of whiteness.
In 1991, a Christianity Today cover story described the Church Growth Movement’s successful conquest of evangelicalism. If by the 1990s it no longer seemed to have the institutional heft of its heyday, that was because its basic ideas had become so widely diffused and adopted. It took a while, CT explained, for evangelicals to “become comfortable with success.” But the CGM had helped evangelicals become part of the “successful mainstream,” and they were now getting used to it. “Outright critics,” CT said, “are now hard to find.”
They had become comfortable with success, and critics were hard to find. The first claim was true; the second was false; the phenomenon linking them both was race. For decades, black evangelicals criticized the CGM, and the evangelical mainstream writ large, for pursuing success at the expense of racial justice and racial reconciliation. Critics were not hard to find. It’s just that they were black.
For our purposes, what’s crucial about these black critiques is that they came from an ecclesial context. The problem, as many black evangelicals saw it, wasn’t necessarily political conservatism as such. The problem was the overt investment in whiteness within churches and other evangelical institutions. At the height of the Church Growth Movement’s influence, John Perkins blasted the evangelical mainstream for “not bothering with breaking down racial barriers, since that would only distract us from ‘church growth.’ And so the most segregated, racist institution in America, the evangelical church, racks up the numbers, declaring itself ‘successful,’ oblivious to the…dismemberment of the Body of Christ…” This was theological and ecclesial critique, not a hit against the Christian Right.
To maintain its seat at the head of the table, white evangelicalism must be in control; it needs power. If white evangelicals are not in power, they won’t choose to be present in any substantive measures. They won’t join our churches or go to conferences historically attended by different ethnicities. They must be in power.
I can’t emphasize this enough: Loritts is talking about the dynamics within evangelical spaces. He’s talking about ecclesiology. A movement that lives or dies on success, and that has been unwilling to divest itself of power within the church, has not responded well to losing cultural and political power outside the church. The white evangelical movement acts politically as its historical ecclesial behavior has conditioned it to act.
Historian Steven Miller has argued that the late-20th century saw America’s “born again years,” a time when evangelicalism successfully entered the mainstream. But as my suggestive little story is meant to illustrate, this was a story of white evangelical church success. A movement that put so much stock in outward signs of success seemed to be thriving as long as the broader cultural and political environment was trending in its direction.
But the new millennium brought the gay rights revolution, rapid racial change, declining church attendance, and all the other hot button issues we talk about in our politics. These put white evangelicals back into a defensive posture. Their moment of success seemed suddenly brief. With shocking speed they found themselves again an embattled minority against a hostile culture.
The urge to lash out and grasp for power, the urge we see embodied in a figure like Jerry Fawell, Jr., is not a case of politics getting the better of white evangelicals’ theological commitments. It’s an expression of the movement’s ethos and history as it has been structured by investments in church growth and mainstream success. This is white evangelicalism. This is evangelical whiteness.
While working on my dissertation this afternoon I was wrestling with a little question in the back of my mind and I realized I had written something years ago that addressed it. When I went back to find it, I was surprised at how well it held up. So, here it is in it’s entirety, from November 28, 2014.
What is The Investment in Whiteness?
A few days ago I posted this on Facebook:
Where are the White Christians who will join me in confessing our
investment in whiteness? Who will join me in repentance? Who will seek
to learn more if these questions confuse you?
Well, some have kindly asked questions seeking to learn more.
What in the world do I mean by the phrase “investment in whiteness”?
For me, this phrase has become a useful shorthand to sum up the problem
that White people face in American society. I think the phrase emerged
for me from Cheryl Harris’s 1993 Harvard Law Review article, “Whiteness as Property,” and more directly from George Lipsitz’s 1998 book, The Possessive Investment In Whiteness.
To have an investment in something means that we have a stake in it. If
we make a business investment, we expect to get a monetary return. We
“invest” in relationships, and hope to receive companionship and support
as a result. We invest in our children, expecting them to grow up to be
responsible adults. In a very similar way, most White Americans have an
investment in Whiteness.
It is important to understand that this investment in Whiteness is almost always unconscious.
That might sound strange at first, but when we think about it, we
realize that unconscious investments are quite normal. I, for example,
claim that my identity is rooted in my relation to Jesus Christ. Yet I
have gradually begun to realize that I unconsciously use my daily work
as a way to make myself feel like a worthwhile person. If I haven’t
performed a lot of tasks in a given day, I subconsciously feel less
valuable as a human being. This is a deep and harmful “investment” in
work that has only gradually begun to become conscious to me. As
Christians we can all relate to the times we’ve been convicted of
putting our faith and hope and identity in things that we should not.
And at the moment of conviction we might say, “Wow, why couldn’t I see
Our investment in Whiteness works a lot like that.
Ok, so we’ve gotten this far: people have all sorts of “investments,” it
is quite normal for some of these investments to be unconscious, and
some of them are harmful. It remains to be seen what this investment in
Whiteness consists of. The most basic thing about the investment in
Whiteness is that Whiteness is seen as neutral and normative, and
thereby protects the advantages White people have by making it appear
that these advantages have nothing to do with being White. For example:
It often blinds us to the limitations and quirks of our own point of
view. Instead of realizing that our views are just as biased,
particular, and racial as those of other groups, we often subconsciously
think that the White view is not White at all, but is actually just
normal, neutral, or obvious.
It prevents us from seeing that our theology is not a neutral
restatement of Christianity or a simple adherence to biblical teaching.
It is shaped by our culture. It is White theology.This theology is
extremely individualistic. We often think this is because the Bible is
individualistic, but White theology goes far beyond the Bible’s
insistence that every individual needs the salvation of Jesus. White
theology adds on a radical American individualism that insists
individuals are basically innocent of the corporate and collective sins
around them. White theology focuses on individual improvement, and
changing the world “one heart at a time.” The Old Testament vision of
shalom and the New Testament vision of the Kingdom of God go against
this radical individualism, but White theology consistently downplays or
even ignores the communal and systemic aspects of sin and redemption
that the Bible emphasizes.
Our investment in Whiteness causes us to insist on racial innocence and
individualized racism. Because White theology downplays the biblical
view of sin as both personal and corporate, individual and systemic, we
tend to assume that racism is a personal sin, and therefore one that we
have nothing to do with. The investment in Whiteness causes us to insist
that we can’t possibly be racist. We feel a deep need to not be racist.
This need comes not from the humility of Christianity that would cause
us to assume that we probably do share the sin of the society around us.
It comes from the pride of our culture that doesn’t really believe that
human beings are depraved.
The investment in Whiteness causes us to evade personal responsibility
for the systemic racial oppression that is constant in American society.
Because we are protecting our own innocence, we feel compelled to blame
other people or things for the suffering and oppression racial
minorities experience. Some blame the “culture” of the disadvantaged
group or emphasize family breakdown; others focus on the damage of
government welfare programs. These views downplay or even ignore the
severity and scale of racial oppression past and present, but they
accomplish something important: they make the individual White person
innocent. Often, when discussing racial controversies, Whites reveal
their investment when they focus not on questions of how best to remove
injustice against racial minorities, but rather on defending things such
as political conservatism, small government, American patriotism, or
radical individualism. Others focus on the importance of civil
discussion and even-handedness, not realizing that their Whiteness makes
it easy to focus on these comparatively trivial qualities since they
don’t have to bear the brunt of racial oppression.
Indeed, one of the most obvious aspects of investment in Whiteness that I
should have mentioned by now is that most White Americans do not know
basic facts about American history and American society. Many Whites
don’t know that the United States was founded as a White supremacist
state, and that for much of our history being White was a qualification
for being an American citizen. Many don’t know that racial oppression
was a vital part of the creation of the modern American middle class
after World War Two. This basic ignorance of American history and of the
reality of the present oppression by the United States is very
important to those who are invested in Whiteness. (My purpose here is
not to prove the racial oppression of the American past and present. The
burden of proof is on those who deny it. They need to find some
evidence to support their position. I’m happy to provide reading lists
for anyone who’d like to learn more about the reality of American
Acknowledging the facts of American history is extremely threatening to
those who are invested in Whiteness. Many of us have ancestors who have
passed wealth down to us. When we realize that this wealth was produced
from opportunities that the American state deliberately provided only to
White people, we are disturbed. It doesn’t reflect poorly on our
ancestors. They were just normal human beings. They, like us, often had
no idea they were benefiting from injustice. When we realize what has
actually occurred, there is no getting around the fact that much of our
success owes itself to our identity as White people. It is even more
disturbing when we realize that in the present day the oppression is
ongoing. We begin to realize that the White environments many of us are
in (White neighborhoods, White schools, White churches) are not natural
or accidental outcomes, but are the result of our deliberate
choices–choices that have protected our investment in Whiteness. As
Christians, we begin to realize that the simple acts of our daily lives
as we go along with the flow of American society inevitably entrap us in
the sinful systems of a broken world.
What, then, am I repenting for?
This is where people get especially confused. We can’t grasp the
repentance part without remembering that a radical, unbiblical
individualism is a part of our investment in Whiteness. So let’s do our
best not to bring that individualism to our repentance. We’re not
wringing our hands with a sense of White liberal guilt. We’re not
pretending we’re to blame for everything that’s wrong with the world.
We’re not pretending that we ever wanted our society to be broken like
this. We’re not even repenting of being racists.
We’re simply confessing our participation in systems of racial
oppression. We’re confessing our blindness. We’re humbly acknowledging
that one of the key reasons we live where we do, have the jobs we do,
send our kids to the school we do, is because we are White. We’re
confessing that we hadn’t realized it before. We’re humbly admitting
that the oppressed know more about their oppression and how best to
respond to it than we do. We’re repenting of going along with systems of
racial oppression and accepting them as normal. From now on, we will
begin to try to figure out what it will mean to be people that weaken
those systems rather than being just another cog in them.
Hopefully some of this makes sense. In the end, it is impossible to know
how strong the investment in Whiteness is until you’ve actually begun
to go against it.
This morning someone found out I am a historian and it took about 2 minutes for the conversation to go off the rails. I was informed that Woodrow Wilson was a “man of his time” and can’t be judged by today’s standards. I was also informed that people agitating to rename buildings are “erasing history.”
I didn’t bring up any of this, I promise! Who knew that people are so invested in the memory of Woodrow Wilson?
I can hold my tongue. It wasn’t the time or place to try to add nuance to this person’s views. It obviously didn’t occur to him that I, as a historian, might have some considered thoughts about these matters. But I’ll speak up here. Before you say, “He was a man of his time” (and it’s almost always a he, isn’t it?) here are some questions to ask yourself:
How well do I know the “time” of which I speak? How do I know what it was actually like?
Who disagreed with this “man of his time”? Why did they disagree?
What was the range of views on the subject at the time?
What ideas and choices were available to this individual that he chose to reject?
Why did other similarly situated people make different choices at the time?
It is ahistorical, and arguably unjust, to judge people of the past by standards they could not possibly conceive of. But when we actually become acquainted with past eras, we tend to find that people were well aware of alternatives, but chose to reject them.
Woodrow Wilson didn’t segregate the federal government because he was a man of his time. He did it because he didn’t agree with those who thought black people should be on an equal footing in the American polity. His actions were criticized. He rejected the criticism. It’s perverse to honor the people who were on the wrong side of a consequential debate at the time. When we put a new name on the building we’re not getting up on a high horse claiming to be better than people in the past. We’re honoring the people who got it right at the time.
The “man of his time” argument is most often used in the context of debates about monuments and memorialization. This is odd because it’s in this context that the argument so obviously falls flat. The idea is that these guys were normal human beings, with faults like we all have, so we shouldn’t judge them too harshly. Ok, fine, let’s treat them like other normal people! Am I going to get my name on a building for being a replacement level human? Or should we reserve those places of honor for people who actually did really courageous and commendable things?
It is not hard to understand the difference between honoring and remembering. When you get a street named after you, it’s an honor. When you’re in a museum, you’re being remembered, but it might not be an honor. Sorry folks, Wilson is better museum material than street material.
I am not comparing the conditions of the United States today to these monstrous crimes (not yet…). But the psychology is remarkably similar.
It’s a psychology of fear. It involves a sense of threat out of all proportion to real events. In each case, key segments of society resort to lies and euphemism in a conscious bid to construct a fictive reality.
Here’s what I think people really don’t understand about the psychology of mass murder: It’s not “I hate you.” It’s “You’ve left me with no choice.”
I wish I had time this morning to rustle up some compelling quotes and examples from these eras. I think any historian of these periods can testify to the ubiquity of feelings of fear and victimization on the part of the killers.
It involves the sense that a certain group or groups are a fundamental threat to the nation or the governing ideological project. A contamination. Therefore, how we treat those groups is excusable. As the historian Timothy Snyder recently wrote, we should always be concerned when zones of lawlessness, however limited, are carved out. They allow the domain of the excusable to grow.
[I]n what conditions would I or my compatriots do things that, in normal life, would be deemed unacceptable? It is here that we should ask where working in legally gray places like our detention centers leads. They are not the entirely lawless zones of the concentration camps, but they have routinized obvious abuses of human rights and are demoralizing some of our fellow Americans, or at least putting them into situations where their worst impulses can thrive. Some of these men, for instance, seem to think that our elected representatives should be raped. Apart from anything else, this is an early sign of how lawless action within a confined zone encourages lawlessness as a way of seeing the world.
I can’t emphasize this enough: a society will go all the way to mass murder saying all the while to the victims, “You made me do it.”
The conditions of mass murder are not here (yet). The psychology is. I don’t know how to tell the truth in our age without sounding shrill. So I will tell the truth and let it fall where it may. I know that most Americans don’t understand how thin, how fungible, is the line between “send her back” and “eliminate her kind.” I know people don’t understand, and fear keeps them from understanding, because they couldn’t bear consciously to support such evil.
What we saw at the Trump rally last night was evil. It was dangerous. White evangelicals, you might be able to get a sense of how you ought to feel about it if you imagine a crowd of Democrats enthusiastically chanting, “Kill the babies! Kill the babies!” It’s like that, ok? It’s a murderous psychology.
The future memory of this moment plays out in one of two ways. In scenario one, Trumpism is defeated over the next 20 years or so, and future generations will learn about last night’s rally like we learn today about the American Nazi party at Madison Square Garden. In that scenario, white evangelical Trumpists, your grandkids will ask you what you did when such evil ran rampant in the land, and you will want to lie. But in the second scenario, white evangelical Trumpists, you win. Last night’s rally is celebrated as a marker of the rise of a white Christian state ruled by a strong leader. Interracial democracy and pluralism was tried, but it was weak and it didn’t work.
White evangelicals, is this really what you want? How has fear blinded you so thoroughly to truth, to love, to Jesus himself? I know you have no understanding of the disgrace you’ve brought to his name. I know, because I know you, and I know that you don’t want to do that. Yet you make your heart hard. When you are afraid, you cannot love. I feel like I must say, as Stephen did to his own people, you always resist the Holy Spirit!
And what of all the white evangelicals who know Trumpism is wrong and are afraid to say so? I pray for their courage. I do not pretend they are in an easy position. If they say the truth, if they follow Jesus, they could lose their entire social network and spiritual support system. Many pastors cannot obey their consciences without losing their jobs. I am not here to judge them. But I pray that God will give them courage. The stakes are higher than most of us realize.
The historian Timothy Snyder has come out swinging against the U.S. Holocaust Museum after its implicit rebuke of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s use of the words “concentration camps” to describe conditions in U.S. border patrol facilities. Snyder writes,
A federally funded museum is telling Americans not to think. On June 24, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum instructed the public not to consider the relationship between its subject, other historical events, and the present, implicitly reprimanding Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez for calling American detention centers “concentration camps.” In doing so, it has made nonsense of the slogan “never again” and provided moral cover for ongoing and oppressive American policies.
The Holocaust matters to Americans as the source of moral lessons. The choice we face is whether the lesson is that we are always right or whether the lesson is that we should judge ourselves critically in light of the past. At first glance, the museum’s rejection of “analogies between the Holocaust and other events” might seem like a laudable attempt to affirm the unprecedented character of the mass murder of the Jews of Europe. In fact, it makes conveying the weight of that atrocity impossible, and it releases us from any obligation, as a nation, to self-criticism.
Analogizing is not some mysterious operation: It is how we think. Every time someone asks you for advice about a situation beyond your personal experience, or every time you are faced with an unfamiliar choice, your mind makes analogies with what you do know. Then you ask questions that allow you to clarify similarities and differences. At some point, you have understood and can act. “Never again” is nothing other than an invocation of that process. We start from what we know about the present and make our way back to the 1930s and 1940s. Once we understand something about the history of the Holocaust, we make our way forward again, seeing patterns we would have missed. If we notice a dangerous one, we should act. Without this effort, though, “never again” becomes its own opposite: “It can’t happen here.”
This is all even more interesting to me than it ordinarily would be because I’ve just returned from visiting—for the first time—the U.S. Holocaust Museum. While there, I witnessed a family taking away precisely this lesson—“It can’t happen here.”
While watching videos of Nazi atrocities, a young boy, I would guess about 9-10 years of age, looked to his father for reassurance. The images were disturbing, their possible implications more so. “Dad,” he said, “are Americans doing that?” His father replied, “No, of course not.” The son needed reassurance about something more troubling. “Would Americans ever do that?” he asked. “No,” his father replied, “Americans never do anything like that.”
A museum is not responsible for how people react to it. But I found that overheard exchange emblematic of what this museum encourages its viewers to conclude. It doesn’t challenge Americans. It reassures us. It can’t happen here.
I was really quite surprised that the museum did not attempt to place the Holocaust in a broader historical context of some kind. The varied methods of dehumanization across time and cultures, for example, or the particular violence of genocide, of which this event is the prototype; indeed, it barely even placed it in the context of historic anti-semitism!
I suppose that the intent is to emphasize the singular horror of the Holocaust. But instead of that singularity driving home for an American audience the weight of the event and why it matters, the viewer is left instead with a story appearing almost at random and saying, “this confusing thing happened.” The guys in the MAGA hats didn’t seem perturbed at all.
This is all the more odd when you think about the fact that it is a United States Holocaust museum, and it possesses little in the way of physical artifacts. This is unsurprising given that the locations of the Holocaust are on another continent. This being so, one might think the museum would lean into its location, exploring the Holocaust from an American angle. But with few exceptions, it is extraordinarily resistant to doing so. Only the most attentive viewers would catch a glimpse of the connections between Nazi ideology and American racism, between the Holocaust and the genocide of Native Americans.
A Holocaust museum, of all places, ought to aim to make any human being feel uncomfortable, implicated, introspective. Perhaps the museum supposes that telling the story will lead viewers to ask the questions and implicate themselves. I wish it would work that way but I don’t think it does.