Jarvis Williams asks a few questions in an attempt to shed light on what may be intellectual racism in the evangelical movement. He asks, among other things, “In certain cases, why are black and brown intellectuals not taken seriously by evangelicals unless some prominent white evangelical voice grants his stamp of approval on them?” In this particular situation, I wonder if the trappings of celebrity are more involved in who is popularly accepted. I don’t quite know what being taken seriously means, but if it means that scholars and writers are ignored, couldn’t it be that established scholars and writers have already gained our interest and more likely to draw attention than one of many unknown authors? I’m sure Dr. Williams recognizes this possibility, which is why he is asking questions, not making accusations.
The same rationale would not apply to another of his questions, “Why is black and brown scholarship often ignored in many evangelical colleges and seminaries?” For this question, I have to ask what scholarship on non-racial issues is recognized as being black and brown. Is there a particularly good study that hasn’t gained the attention among evangelicals that we might think it should? Is there a seminary of black and brown scholars producing good work without adequate recognition from other seminaries? From where I sit, there are a handful of ways one seminary or individual may be dismissed by another: declared denomination, professed theological perspective, suspected theological perspective, and guilt by association with disrespected scholars. The essence of it all is simply a lack of trust. They don’t know the scholars they are ignoring and will not be challenged by or interested in scholars they don’t trust.
There was a time when black businessmen and their families could not travel freely throughout the states. There were sundown towns, where blacks needed to leave before sunset to avoid trouble. There were hotels and restaurants which would not serve them. So a New York City mailman produced a green book to help them travel comfortably.
With the introduction of this travel guide in 1936, it has been our idea to give the Negro traveler information that will keep him from running into difficulties, embarrassments and to make his trips more enjoyable. The Jewish press has long published information about places that are restricted and there are numerous publications that give the gentile whites all kinds of information. But during these long years of discrimination, before 1936 other guides have been published for the Negro, some are still published, but the majority have gone out of business for various reasons. In 1936 the Green Book was only a local publication for Metropolitan New York, the response for copies was so great it was turned into a national issue in 1937 to cover the United States.
In a society that is entirely hostile, and, by its nature, seems determined to cut you down . . . it begins to be almost impossible to distinguish real from fancied injury. One can very quickly cease to attempt this distinction, and, what is worse, one usually ceases to attempt it without realizing that one has done so.
The distinction between real and fancied injury is a crucial one, of course, for fighting chimeras is not merely a waste of time and effort but positively destructive of all that is valuable in life. Just as paranoia eliminates that important distinction, so the incentives to emotional entrepreneurialism blur the distinction between real and simulated emotion, and veil the distinction from the phoney himself. Anger is not its own justification—there is no Cartesian syllogism in moral philosophy, “I’m angry, therefore I’m right”—and any honest person will admit that there is a seductive pleasure in anger. I have mistrusted my own rage ever since, as a student of physiology, I saw a cat stimulated to insensate rage by the discharge of electrodes in its amygdala.
Jonathan Haidt has written an edited version of a sociology paper that attempts to explain microaggressions among American college students.
We’re beginning a second transition of moral cultures. The first major transition happened in the 18th and 19th centuries when most Western societies moved away from cultures of honor (where people must earn honor and must therefore avenge insults on their own) to cultures of dignity in which people are assumed to have dignity and don’t need to earn it. They foreswear violence, turn to courts or administrative bodies to respond to major transgressions, and for minor transgressions they either ignore them or attempt to resolve them by social means. There’s no more dueling.
Now, the paper’s authors conclude, we’re moving into a culture of victimhood, where slights against one’s honor are being defended by appeals to authority and public opinion. Being a victim is rewarded in different ways and universities are encouraging their students to view slight offensives or potential insults as system problems.
Haidt has written about this bizarre collegiate environment in an essay for The Atlantic this month, providing examples of what and his coauthor call “The Coddling of the American Mind.”
Some recent campus actions border on the surreal. In April, at Brandeis University, the Asian American student association sought to raise awareness of microaggressions against Asians through an installation on the steps of an academic hall. The installation gave examples of microaggressions such as “Aren’t you supposed to be good at math?” and “I’m colorblind! I don’t see race.” But a backlash arose among other Asian American students, who felt that the display itself was a microaggression. The association removed the installation, and its president wrote an e-mail to the entire student body apologizing to anyone who was “triggered or hurt by the content of the microaggressions.”
All of this is working to create “a culture in which everyone must think twice before speaking up, lest they face charges of insensitivity, aggression, or worse.”
Otis Pickett talks about how the story of Emmitt Til’s death influenced him. “If you were to ask any Civil Rights activist in SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) in the 1960s what one event motivated them to participate in the movement, many would have said seeing pictures of Till’s mangled body in Jet magazine in 1955, and reading his story when they were his age.”
Margaret Biser, who has led historical tours at a Southern house and plantation for years. She writes about the questions she received, such as whether the slaves appreciated the good treatment they received or whether being a house slave instead of a field hand was a cushy life.
Why did her guests continue to ask questions ignorant or opposed to the history she presented? Inaccurate education for many. Apathy for some.
“In many other cases, however, justifications of slavery seemed primarily like an attempt by white Americans to avoid feelings of guilt for the past. After all, for many people, beliefs about one’s ancestors reflect one’s beliefs about oneself. We don’t want our ancestors to have done bad things because we don’t want to think of ourselves as being bad people. These slavery apologists were less invested in defending slavery per se than in defending slaveowners, and they weren’t defending slaveowners so much as themselves.”
This is how I understand the KKK began. You could call it a failure of believers to reach poor white members in neighboring small towns with the full gospel, but however you want to think about, people who felt rejected by their community turned their bitterness against blacks, an easy target. And some carry on that legacy today, both directly as members of the Klan and indirectly when they argue that #BlackLivesMatter is not as strong as #AllLivesMatter, missing the point that black lives are the ones still longing for respect.
“Addressing racism,” Biser writes, “isn’t just about correcting erroneous beliefs — it’s about making people see the humanity in others.” But with dehumanization active all around us today, we should wake up to the fact that we won’t learn this lesson without the gospel fully applied. Some of us haven’t learned it even with the gospel.
I put River Rising in my Amazon cart while buying some other books—homeschool material I think—saying to myself I should buy a good book like this one, fun to spend money on myself, buy something good to read as though I didn’t have other good books on the shelf to read—books I bought for friends or family and never wrapped up or all those Graham Greene books I bought for $0.99 each and failed to read the rest of that summer as I had planned. So I bought River Rising, and when it came, I put it neatly on the shelf. It’s wonderful to have a new potential read smiling down on me from a line of other potential reads.
I tell myself I should read more and blog less. I say it with a weak voice from behind my gullet, which regularly questions my motives and actions. When I read, it asks if I shouldn’t be writing; when I write, it asks if I shouldn’t be reading or gardening or cleaning, parenting, diapering, fixing, or working on something more profitable than writing what-is-it-again. Moments of clarity or passion prevail at times, of course, or you wouldn’t know me in these words.
I didn’t have a newborn at the time I bought the book. She’s four months old, and the book was acquired a several months ago. I didn’t have her then, so I didn’t have to hold her gassy tummy and wiggly arms. She’s such a precious thing, spit-up and all, and there’s a patch of spit-up cheese on the carpet there, sweet wife, if you would grab a towel while you’re up. I didn’t have the princess tiny when I bought River Rising, so I didn’t have that delay on reading it. Continue reading River Rising by Athol Dickson→