In the 1960s, What Did Spiritual Equality Imply?


This logo appeared in the 1960s on the magazine Together, a joint publication of National and Southern Baptists in Missouri (in other words, black and white Baptists).

It’s a great example of the ambiguity of Christian colorblindness as segregationist theology was in eclipse but the precise shape of the new theology remained unclear. The logo and tagline make an argument for spiritual equality: when we come to the cross of Christ we all stand in equal need, regardless of color.

But what are the social implications of that spiritual equality? Does it mean that segregation is wrong? Does it mean that civil rights laws should be passed? That’s not at all clear. In fact, the cross standing between the two figures, one white and one black, could be read as a picture of “separate but equal” theology.

As often as claims of spiritual equality were used to attack the logic underlying Jim Crow, such claims also ran alongside it. God might love everyone equally and be a segregationist.

Images and rhetoric like this one worked in the 1960s because they were open to so many various and contradictory interpretations. Most people could find an angle on it that they liked.

I’m also interested in where this quote (“the ground is exceedingly level…”) came from and where the publishers of this magazine thought it came from. Billy Graham seems to have used a similar phrase in some of his crusades. There is an apocryphal story floating around the internet that Robert E. Lee said it (the myth of Lee as a magnanimous Christian just won’t die), but I can’t find out who actually said it originally. It would be ironic if the quote originated in a Lost Cause Lee-rehabilitation narrative. But I’m guessing its roots go further back.

How Colorblind Racism Works—And How To Change The Minds Of People Who Believe It

“What, me? No, I don’t have any unresolved issues. Why do you ask?”

You can tell a lot about a person by how they process the racial climate of the consecutive presidencies of Barack Obama and Donald Trump. On the right, it is commonly believed that President Obama stoked racial division, and that Donald Trump is a more unifying figure. I was reminded of this Sunday when Rick Santorum said “many, many, many people saw Barack Obama being just that. Doing more to exacerbate racism in this country.”

Why do people believe this? Because they’re colorblind racists. This post is for people who already know this in a general way, but could use some more insight about how this kind of racism works. (If you’re one of the people who experienced Obama’s presidency as divisive and Trump’s as unifying, I’m afraid this post will be very offensive.) I’ll also  consider some rhetorical strategies you can use to try to communicate to someone who might be persuaded to discard their racist views.

Ok, first, how does this kind of racism work? Santorum’s comments are a textbook example of colorblind racism. Colorblind racism is distinct from white supremacist racism, in part because the declared goals and self-understanding of the colorblind racist are anti-racist. Colorblind racists often sincerely want everyone to get along and are not conscious of acting against the interests of people of color.

Colorblind racists tend to feel threatened by discussion of racial discrimination. They believe the best way to solve racial problems is to not talk about them. “It’s in the past.” “It was long ago.” Move forward, focus on what we have in common. They believe that though there are certainly bad people here and there who really are racists, there aren’t significant systemic barriers or discrimination holding people back. To the extent that there is a problem with racism in the United States, it involves a small number of bigoted people, and a larger number of people who play the victim, using the accusation of racism as an excuse or a cudgel against political opponents.

Colorblind racists tend to believe that no new laws are needed to rectify racial injustice. They tend to believe that the laws of the United States are just and fairly applied. So when President Obama acknowledged that American policing is discriminatory, colorblind racists experienced his words as more divisive than the underlying problems to which the words refer. Similarly, colorblind racists experienced the NFL players’ protests against police brutality as more offensive than the brutality itself.

Colorblind racists tend to see accusations of racism as tantamount to racism. This is why they often believe white people face more discrimination than black people. White people, after all, seem to be constantly accused of racism. This is a heavy and unfair burden to bear, they believe, especially in a society such as ours where there is so much freedom and opportunity for anyone willing to work hard and grab it.

Colorblind rhetoric often sounds appealing to people because it seems to promote brotherhood and goodwill toward all. “We’re all Americans.” “Let’s be united.” “Content of character.” “We’re all the same under the skin.” Colorblind racism operates by appropriating this rhetoric to protect white advantages. It might seem reasonable and well-intentioned on its face, but it only works when all context around the rhetoric is ignored. When people say “we’re all the same” to argue against a Jim Crow segregation law, they’re using colorblindness for anti-racist ends. When people say “we’re all the same” to silence black people speaking about the reality of racial discrimination they face, they’re using colorblind rhetoric for racist ends.

This rhetorical posture is why you may see, for example, people vocally supporting Trump one day and posting a meme about unity the next day. While colorblind racists provide strong support for racist policy in a practical sense, their self-image is anti-racist. They’re not trying to fool you. They’ve already fooled themselves.

Ok, that’s a little bit about the psychology of colorblind racism. Now how do you engage someone enthralled by these beliefs and, perhaps, win them over? I’m assuming here that these are conversations among people you really have a relationship with. This is unlikely to work with random strangers!

1. Ask questions. Lots and lots of questions. Softball questions are good. This will give you more understanding of where the person is coming from, and it might even expose something to that person’s own consciousness. Many white people have incoherent racial views and find it difficult to talk about them. Self-aware people might begin to realize this without you pointing it out.

2. Think about your bottom lines. Conversations about race tend to splinter and go in a thousand directions. You meant to defend the humanity of black people in a conversation with your grandfather, and 15 minutes later you’re debating the finer points of the ACORN controversy from 9 years ago. Do you really need your Grandpa to agree with you about ACORN? Always bring the conversation back to your bottom line.

3. Grant points when you can. This is part of keeping the conversation on track. Do you really need them to agree with you that progressive taxation has an important role to play in reducing racial inequality? No, you don’t. Grant them that point, and return to the bottom line: racial discrimination is a real and significant problem in the United States, and we need to address it.

4. Look for empathy connections. This is easier said than done. If we say, “how would you feel if…” it can seem like a confrontational gotcha question. But in more subtle ways, you may be able to defend and promote the humanity and dignity of people of color in ways that resonate with a colorblind racist.

5. That said, don’t use appeals based on pity. You don’t want them to get the impression that charity and pity are what this whole racism conversation is about. Colorblind racists often are already inclined to think of many black people as victims. You want to counteract that impression, not reinforce it. Basic justice is the issue at hand.

6. Appeal to their stated ideals if you can. Many colorblind racists genuinely want to be accepting of all people and are profoundly hurt and threatened by the idea that they may not be. Do not get caught up in complicated discussions about cultural autonomy and the potential downsides of the colorblind ideal. Affirm what is good in the ideal, and try to point out how discrimination is undermining the very values they espouse.

7. Don’t get bogged down in evidentiary claims. This is tricky because isn’t this whole debate about evidence? Yes and no. Some people rapidly change their views in the face of evidence. But most have deep emotional, social, and economic investments in seeing things the way they do. Unfortunately, they will not be won by the weight of evidence. Yes, the evidence is on your side. The colorblind racist will be saying false things. But think about how you can move the discussion forward while offering evidentiary resources in a more useful form. “There’s a great book about that…” “I can send you the link to a study that addresses that question…” You want to be able to get back to your bottom lines while gently suggesting that the point they’ve raised has been thoroughly studied/debunked/explained.

8. Be prepared for the long haul. Most of us just don’t change very fast. In the context of friends or family, you’re not trying to win the discussion. You’re trying to give them something to think about while keeping the door open to future conversations.

Upcoming Talk


Next Friday I’ll be at Rutgers-Camden to give a talk about how some white evangelicals used their colleges to respond to the upheavals of the 1960s and forge a presence in the American city. It will be interesting to get some feedback from scholars of other fields/disciplines. Fingers crossed!

From the Archives: Invoking Christian Unity to Promote Diversity

When you google “Christian unity” you get lots of sappy pictures like this.

A few days ago I shared an example of a white evangelical student using the rhetoric of Christian unity to silence the concerns of black students. Today I offer an example of a Hispanic evangelical student writing about Christian unity in a very different way. This time the example comes from the Spring of 1994. At this particular college, chapel had become controversial. As the student body became increasingly diverse, the chapels continued to reflect a white middle-class culture. This was a big problem considering that chapels were mandatory daily gatherings meant to unite the community in worship. It also was a symptom of broader problems, this student believed. She wrote:

The Bible does not call us to love and accept each other when we become like each other and when there are no differences. Rather it calls for love and unity in spite of our differences.

As Christians we should strive, not only to tolerate each others differences, but to embrace them as our own, and it can be done. Many students, such as myself, have done it when we came to [this] College from a strictly Spanish-speaking church where hymns are not the norm. Although at first I found this worship style awkward, as I was exposed to it I grew to love it as my own…

One of the deepest convictions that I have is that actions speak louder than words. The actions taken this year by the administration speak loudly, they scream. They say that the Asian, African-American, and Latino student have not yet been embraced in every way in [our] College, and will not be embraced until the lies which say that we are inferior people and we need to become “Europeanized” or “Americanized” are accepted. Minorities have two deeply significant choices to make early in their…experience [here]; either we go through our four years frustrated, with the understanding that we are receiving a “half-truth” education, or we kill off any trace of our heritage in order to fit in or feel that we have progressed. You can find evidence of that among our students.

Believers need to understand that Christian colleges are doing this all over the country to “minorities” time and time again. We then wonder why so many are despising the Gospel. I wish I could say that it is only because of man’s depravity but I think that it is also due to the fact that for too many Christians, the Gospel is something that is more political and American than anything else. I fear that it has become a means for political and economic gains which do not take the poor and oppressed of our backyards into consideration. The Gospel has been made irrelevant to the oppressed…

The easy way out of this is to tell “minorities” that if they are not happy here they should leave. However, to ask someone to choose between (1) a higher education which might affirm one’s cultural identity while attempting to destroy one’s spiritual foundations or (2) an education which affirms one’s spiritual foundations but degrades cultural identity is not an easy choice. It is also not a choice which a Christian should ask a brother to make.”

This is often what it looks like when evangelicals argue about race and culture. Their Bibles are never far away. They bring their theology to bear. The discussion may become overtly political. But it is almost always ecclesial too. People are wrestling with what the “Body of Christ” is actually supposed to look like.

Both this student and the white student I wrote about the other day are talking about what it means to be united together in Christ. But their conclusions are dramatically different. For this student, unity means reckoning with real differences and sharing power. For the colorblind student, very similar unity language becomes a tool to deny the power dynamics involved.

We might also think about the boundaries of evangelical identity in the context of this letter. Here’s a Hispanic student who wanted the evangelical theological training she was receiving, but felt that the cultural cost of the education was extremely high. Even as she embraced an evangelical world, she received the message that good evangelicals didn’t act or think like she did. As a result, she and others faced the horrible choice of submerging “any trace of our heritage” just to belong.

White evangelicals often wonder when evangelicals of color will stop “complaining” and we can stop talking about these things. That misunderstands the project. The discussion is permanent, because our differences are real and unity will always be hard work. That’s not to say things can’t get better. One measure of change would be this: when the costs of belonging to the Body of Christ are equally borne by all.

From the Archives: Invoking Christian Unity To Silence Black Students

I’m in the archives today and have an interesting find to share.

White evangelical colleges were not entirely immune from black radicalism sweeping college campuses in the late 1960s and early 1970s. At one white evangelical college* in the fall of 1970, the new black student organization observed Black Solidarity Day and had blunt words of criticism for their college. In a public panel discussion, black students critiqued white missionaries, the college administration (why no black faculty?) and the white-centric curriculum. As if anticipating the response they would get for speaking so honestly, one black student wrote, “we are loved for being ignorant and hated for being militant.”

One white student responded with a ringing defense of Christian colorblindness:

A few things to notice from this letter:

–The basis of colorblindness is not the Constitution or the American Way as it would be in mainstream conservative rhetoric. Here, it’s grounded in what Jesus has done. Rejecting racial distinctions is not just what good Americans do; it’s what good Christians do.

–In this framework, the explicit discussion of race is not seen as a threat to white advantage (at least, not consciously) or a danger to the American system. The stakes are actually higher than that. Racial consciousness is seen as a threat to the unity of the body of Christ, an assault on the very meaning of Christian community.

–Material conditions and power relations are completely ignored. The writer has nothing to say about whether or not there should be black faculty or a more balanced curriculum. There isn’t any space for that conversation to even occur for this writer, because it would mean grappling explicitly with racial identities.

–The writer comes awfully close to calling into question whether the black students are even Christians. A true believer, he implies, would not talk as they had done. In the name of Christian brotherhood, this writer would have black students be quiet about the realities of their experience and conform to his standards.

The rhetoric of Christian colorblindness often sounded good. It still does. Christians do believe that Jesus died for us all and has broken down barriers of hostility. But pay careful attention to the purposes for which this rhetoric is deployed. Does it liberate, or silence?

*Since I just found this in the archives today and have a lot more to learn about this institution I’m not revealing individual or institutional identities here. I do know that this particular institution has been unusually aggressive in seeking change in recent decades. In any case, the point is not to disparage a specific institution but to suggest that this document is representative of broader dynamics in white evangelicalism in the 1970s.

Fruits of Christian Colorblindness

great idea
Yeah, this was a good idea.

It’s the kind of image you see flash across twitter every once in a while. A group of white drunk undergraduates think it’s funny to take a picture of themselves acting racist. This image is different because the men in question are not drunk (presumably) and are not undergraduates. They are leading faculty and administrators at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. Nicola Menzie reports:

A White dean of a Texas seminary affiliated with a Christian denomination once known for its staunch defense of Black enslavement posted a controversial photo of himself and other White professors apparently dressed as gangsters on Twitter Tuesday.

Seen in the photo are the following Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary faculty: David L. Allen, dean of the School of Preaching; Kyle Walker, the seminary’s vice president for Student Services and a professor of preaching; Barry McCarty, a preaching professor and Chief Parliamentarian for the Southern Baptist Convention; Deron J Biles, a Dean Emeritus and a professor of Pastoral Ministries and Preaching; and Matthew McKellar, an associate preaching professor.

The participants in the photo and the President of the Seminary have since apologized. Amid the controversy, SWBTS even asked the Christian rapper Lecrae to “lead a dialogue on growth for our community.” Lecrae wisely declined to play the role of token Negro making white Christians feel better. Jemar Tisby of the Reformed African American Network explains why the photo is so problematic, and why pro forma apologies don’t go far enough:

Whatever their intentions, the photo is problematic for at least three main reasons. First, as a comparison, consider why blackface is so offensive. Starting in the early 19th century, white actors would apply black makeup to their faces and exaggerate their lips in a caricature of African American looks. Then they performed racist tropes on stage for laughs. Blackface denigrates people of African descent. It says that skin color can make someone intellectually and culturally inferior, so it’s not a problem to imitate their appearance for the sake of amusement.

In a similar way, putting on clothes typically associated with racial and ethnic minorities communicates that a person’s culture has value only as entertainment. That’s why you can’t dismiss this photo as “just a joke.” It harks back to a history of dehumanization.

Another problem with the picture includes how it appears the photo was carefully staged. Consider what probably happened before a camera even came out. These men took time to pick out certain clothes and put them on. They found a place with suitable background and lighting to take a picture. They chose poses. One of them even grabbed a gun. Then someone posted it on social media. This picture wasn’t randomly snapped in moment of poor judgment. These seminary professors had ample opportunity to consider potential offense. At no point in this elaborate set up did anyone veto the idea.

But the biggest problem doesn’t show up in the picture. The presence of any person of color would have reduced the chances of this photo ever happening. But a photo like this evolves in an environment that lacks meaningful interaction with people from other cultures, especially on the leadership level. The seminary’s website appears to picture all white men in an administration and an entire preaching faculty. Even if a school has diversity in the student body, if the decision-makers all come from a similar racial and cultural background, then they will remain oblivious to their own racial blind spots.

Unfortunately, racial homogeneity is a shortcoming within white evangelicalism as a whole. Looking across evangelical denominations and nondenominational networks, leaders tend to come from similar backgrounds. They are predominantly educated, middle-class white men. Racial uniformity in the leadership means blunders like this photo will probably keep taking place.

On Wednesday, the seminary’s president, Paige Patterson, issued a formal apology entitled “Racism IS a Tragic Sin.” He said, “As all members of the preaching faculty have acknowledged, this was a mistake, and one for which we deeply apologize. Sometimes, Anglo Americans do not recognize the degree that racism has crept into our lives.”

Patterson goes on to say, “Southwestern cannot make a moment of bad judgment disappear. But we can and will redouble our efforts to put an end to any form of racism on this campus and to return to a focus that is our priority — namely, getting the Gospel to every man and woman on the earth.”

His apology sounds biblical; For Christians, evangelism is certainly a critical priority. But he treats racism like a distraction from sharing the Gospel. When will white evangelicals realize, addressing racism is inherently a Gospel issue? Patterson also doesn’t provide any specific actions that would address the seminary’s deeper issues of racial awareness and diversity. Fixing this problem isn’t a matter of restating good intentions, it requires a restructuring of historic patterns of racism embedded in evangelical institutions.

Read the rest of Tisby’s article. Incidents such as these are some of the fruits of Christian colorblindness. Where this ideology flourishes, white-dominated spaces are often viewed as neutral or natural, and people of color are frequently silenced in the name of “Christian unity.” When an incident like this occurs and shatters the veneer of civility, colorblind Christians often fail to grapple with the broader context that made it possible. All too often, avowals of good intentions are substitutes for the hard work of institutional reform. Rather than wrestling with the possibility that Christian colorblindness is itself a perversion of the Gospel, leaders like Patterson describe confronting racism as a diversion from their main priority.

It’s probably going to take a long time for me to finish my dissertation. Unfortunately, when it’s finally done it’s likely to be as relevant as ever.

Remembering Racial Progress, Forgetting White Resistance

A young Senator Stennis. John C. Stennis Collection. Congressional and Political Research Center, Mississippi State University Libraries.

My article on John Stennis, colorblindness, and American memory of the civil rights movement is out in the latest edition of History & Memory.* A taste:

On October 19, 1987, Stennis announced that he would retire at the end of his term. The Wall Street Journal summed up his career as a feel-good story of racial progress. “He succeeded white supremacist Theodore Bilbo,” the Journal declared, “and lived to vote for a holiday honoring slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr.” As a narrative arc to make sense of the nation’s progress and the career of one of its longest-serving senators, this was extremely compelling. It was also flatly false. In fact, Stennis announced his retirement four years to the day after being one of only four democratic senators to vote against the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday on October 19, 1983. Had they wished, journalists and pundits might have noted this irony and constructed a rather different narrative arc for Stennis’s career. Instead, the legislative record itself became a casualty of the need to rehabilitate a figure who did not fit within the familiar media frames of American civil rights memory.

*If you don’t have access through your library or school I’d be happy to send you a pdf.