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.
Behold! I emerge from my bunker to offer a layperson’s thoughts on yesterday’s primaries.
Here are the numbers that really stood out me. According the exit polls, in the Super Tuesday states Biden won black voters 56-19. Meanwhile Sanders won Latino voters 50-24. What gives? Yes, we can point to the relative youthfulness of the Latino population, but does that entirely account for such a dramatic divergence? It is fascinating to see these two constituencies–one the backbone of the party and the other a rising “sleeping giant”–so out of step with each other.
I’m interested in the alternative timeline where Bernie tried to appeal to regular Democrats while retaining his core principles, rather than running as a factional candidate. Maybe he would have struggled to thread that needle but it must be said that he didn’t even try.
I would have more faith in Bernie’s theory of the case if he had produced some hard evidence of it by now. I really like the sound of historic turnout in November, driven by an unprecedented surge of young voters and people alienated from the political process. But if you can’t produce it in the primaries why should we expect it in the general?
I was struck by the contrasting tone of Bernie and Biden’s speeches last night. Biden made an open and explicit call to anyone within the sound of his voice to join his campaign. There’s a place for you in this campaign, he said. The message was: this campaign is for you. That’s just good politics folks! Without sacrificing any of his principles or policies, Bernie could have offered a similarly welcoming message. At least try to welcome Democrats! But instead, the tone of his speech was factional, as likely to turn off Democrats as woo them. This is just bad politicking!
There may well be more twists and turns ahead in this primary, but Biden appears to have reassumed front-runner status. The main people responsible for this surprising outcome? Ordinary black voters, first in South Carolina, and then across the South yesterday.
I can’t get this quote from one black South Carolinian out of my head: “Black voters know white voters better than white voters know themselves.” For many black voters, the pursuit of a political revolution may be a luxury they cannot afford. I feel no great enthusiasm for Joe Biden. But my personal experience and historical study have led me to see black political behavior as something of a conscience for the nation. I am not quick to dismiss it.
My historian’s take (which isn’t worth much since we’re famously bad at prediction) is that it has fallen to us to preserve the democracy black activists created in the 1960s. As the GOP turns against the rule of law and tries to hollow out our institutions, we take on the frustrating role of protecting imperfect institutions. We become, literally, the conservatives. That’s the role black South Carolinian’s played last week.
What the Sanders-left seems rarely to understand is how much worse things can become for poor people in a Potemkin democracy. Many black voters bear the memory of it in their bodies.
I’m inspired by what black voters did yesterday, even if I feel very ambivalent about Biden. I think they know what’s at stake. We need to vote in every midterm. We need to take sporadic voters with us. We need to wage a generational fight for decency and democracy. It’s a grind rather than a grand revolution, but it’s noble work worth doing.
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.
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.
Against all odds, busing for school integration is a live issue in a 2019 Democratic Primary. In this week’s debate Kamala Harris hit Biden hard on his opposition to court-ordered busing in the 1970s. How should we think about this?
School desegregation policy is a labyrinth of court cases that I still can’t keep straight in my head. I’m not an expert on this. But there are a few things that I’m fairly certain about. So I’ll share those thoughts below.
It’s true that busing students to integrate schools was extraordinarily unpopular. It divided opinion among African Americans while uniting whites in opposition in a way few issues ever have.
But when we just limit ourselves to this narrow frame we fundamentally misdiagnose the problem. Busing is not an example of liberal big-government overreach. It wasn’t politically unsustainable because it was poorly conceived or unworkable or ineffective. It was unpopular because equal rights and opportunities for black people were unpopular.
This is still the case. Busing has all but disappeared. Nothing replaced it. The white American public did not say, “we disagree with busing as the means of implementing Brown v. Board. Instead, let’s redraw school district lines or aggressively enforce housing integration. Or let’s do a comprehensive program of reparations.” The white American public said “we disagree with the fundamental logic of racial integration put forth in Brown and we’re not willing to do anything to bring it about.”
Brown v Board held that segregated schools were unconstitutional and socially harmful not because of their quality, but because they were segregated. But in the decades after Brown, white-ruled local governments nationwide did everything to avoid integration. Busing was a response to a white American public militantly hostile to equal rights for African Americans.
Though the Supreme Court had held that segregation was inherently harmful, both the public and the courts came to accept de facto vs de jure distinctions as deeply meaningful. “We’re not really segregated because our laws are facially neutral.” Historians have exploded this mythology and shown how deliberately segregation has been constructed nationwide. But even if you do accept the spurious de facto vs de jure distinction for legal purposes, it ought to be clear that for black children attending segregated schools today, why they are segregated is the least consequential thing about their experience. If you don’t think that we should launch new efforts to integrate schools, now in 2019, you must suppose that Brown v Board was wrong.
An interlocutor on twitter told me, “busing was unsustainable politically.” True enough, I suppose. But that’s just another way of saying the United States is a grotesquely racist society. Decades of inferior and segregated schools for black children–right up to the present moment–has done little to trouble the American conscience. Harming black children has turned out to be very sustainable politics, even in the twenty-first century. If Democrats truly make a push for school integration, the resistance to it will show us how much or how little has changed in the past 50 years.
In the world of evangelical publishing, there have been three distinct waves of books about race and/or racism written or co-authored by black evangelicals.
The first wave came in the civil rights and black power era from the late 1960s to the early 1970s. There was Howard Jones’ Shall We Overcome? in 1967; 1968 brought Bill Pannell’s My Friend, The Enemy and Tom Skinner’s Black and Free; in 1970 there was Columbus Salley and Ronald Behm’s Your God Is Too White and Skinner was back with How Black Is The Gospel?; in 1971 there was Bob Harrison’s When God Was Black.
The second wave came on the heels of the Los Angeles Riots in 1992. The following year, 1993, brought a flood of evangelical race books with black authors or co-authors, including: Raleigh Washington and Glen Kehrein, Breaking Down Walls; Spencer Perkins and Chris Rice, More Than Equals; Bill Pannell, The Coming Race Wars?; and John Perkins, Beyond Charity.
The third wave is happening now, in the era of Black Lives Matter and Donald Trump. It includes books like Bryan Loritts’ Insider Outsider; Eric Mason’s Woke Church (both 2018), and Jemar Tisby’s The Color of Compromise (published earlier this year).
This is not to say that similar books haven’t been published at other times. John Perkins’ With Justice for All originally came out in 1982. Ed Gilbreath’s Reconciliation Blues appeared in 2006. But if you survey the the landscape across time, it seems clear that there are three distinctive peaks when books like these become more prominent. What’s going on here?
Before I suggest a few possibilities, let me add a caveat or two. These books are very different from one another. Pannell’s caustic commentary in 1968 is an entirely different approach from Spencer Perkins’ wooing of white evangelical audiences in 1993. They’re separated by time and context. And in a field of books that lean heavily toward blends of theology and memoir, you could argue that Tisby’s book doesn’t belong at all.
With that said, here are a few things that seem of interest to me:
Irony: the content of the books is misaligned with the circumstances of their publication. These books, almost invariably, express a great deal of hope–or disappointment, or both–in the church. They call upon the church to demonstrate unity across lines of race and thereby lead society toward racial “reconciliation” (or justice, or understanding, as the case may be). Many of them express the firm belief that only the church can ultimately solve racial problems. And yet, the circumstances of their production make it clear that these books are overwhelmingly a product of changes in American society. Whether they’re responding to the rise of black power, or the LA Riots, or Black Lives Matter, there is clearly a sense in which these books are following society.
To some extent, this is a publishing story. It’s not as though Howard Jones needed someone to tell him that racism in the church was a problem. But by the later 1960s, publishers began to see a market for evangelical commentary on what had become an explosive issue in society. Likewise, when unsettling evidence of ongoing racial division and injustice became harder to ignore in the 1990s, evangelical publishers again responded with what was purported to be a distinctly evangelical (and superior) approach to dealing with racial problems. Now, in a new era of racial tension, we’re seeing another opening for black evangelical voices among the big evangelical publishing companies. Black evangelicals who might not have had a platform at other times are more likely to find one in these moments.
But it’s not just a publishing story. It is also a story of successive generations of black evangelicals becoming more race-conscious under the pressure of social transformations. For Pannell, the 1963 Birmingham Church bombing made him realize he couldn’t be a regular evangelical anymore. When he defended black power in 1968, he wasn’t stating longstanding views that publishing gatekeepers now allowed to be aired. Events had radicalized him.
In other cases, outside events may provide the occasion for black evangelical critiques more than the cause. When Christianity Today did its “Myth of Racial Progress” issue in 1993 and asked dozens of black evangelical leaders for comments, they responded with scathing reviews of the white evangelical movement. For many, their pessimism was earned through decades of hard experience trying to navigate white evangelical spaces. The Los Angeles Riots set the context for the discussion, but it certainly wasn’t the basis of black evangelical criticism.
Our own era seems more analogous to the 1970s than the 1990s. The palpable influence of black power and the new black theology on younger black evangelicals in the early 1970s has strong echoes today in the way black evangelicals, from Lecrae to Tisby and Loritts and many others, have become disenchanted with white evangelicalism. Crucially, it was not primarily events within the church that drove this transformation. Rather, events on the outside, especially police shootings, combined with white evangelicals’ response to these events, heightened black evangelicals’ sense of themselves as black people in a white movement that was indifferent to their identities and concerns. They began to see with new eyes some of the pathologies of the movement that may not have seemed as obvious a decade ago.
This is especially poignant because it so exactly rhymes with the experiences of generations of black evangelicals. One of the most common refrains describes an initial honeymoon period in white evangelicalism followed by disillusionment. Many black evangelicals were enamored with the supposed theological rigor of white evangelical institutions. Many also imagined that racism wouldn’t be a problem precisely because they were in an evangelical space. The theological assumptions invested in these hopes (after all, isn’t the church called to be united in Christ? Aren’t evangelicals the ones upholding the true gospel?) made it all the more wrenching when they were revealed as illusory.
We have to be careful here. It’s not as though the current generation of black evangelicals thought everything was fine in evangelicalism until Ferguson. But the shift from innocence to alienation is real. What are we to make of the fact that every generation of black evangelicals since the civil rights movement seems to have experienced this rude awakening?