24 June 2021

Why evangelicals should like CRT

 Our home (center) in my high school years, and our "nice" neighborhood. Source.
At the end of 1968, when we were still living in our apartment near one of Evanston's tacit racial boundaries, my mother received $25,000 from her parents in Germany -- enough at the time for a substantial down payment on a house. On July 26, 1969, we as a family went to a real estate office, accompanied by one of my father's colleagues, to begin house-hunting.

I don't know how much I was supposed to hear in the conversations among the adults, but I distinctly remember my mother making it clear that she intended to live in a white neighborhood. No problem, the agent said; the neighborhood we were considering would be perfect. I distinctly remember the words "nice people."

My mother didn't mention that her daughter Ellen was at that moment incarcerated in Chicago's juvenile jail, the Audy Home. My 1969 diary chronicles many of Ellen's run-ins with the law, as well as the general mayhem that transpired in our home on a near-daily basis. In between White Sox scores, project Apollo coverage, and lists of unfinished homework, I regularly reported on the epic fights between my parents, some of which involved food being thrown about the kitchen and dining room. On one memorable occasion, my father threw my sister's copy of the Walker Report at me.

Obviously, we would fit right into a neighborhood of "nice people."

These are the memories that came back to me when I was reading Michael Gerson's op-ed, "I'm a conservative who believes systemic racism is real." His version of my story goes like this:

I grew up in a middle-class neighborhood of a middle-class suburb in a Midwestern city. I went to a middle-class high school, with middle-class friends, eating middle-class fried bologna sandwiches. And for most of my upbringing, this seemed not only normal but normative. I assumed this was a typical American childhood.

Only later did I begin to see that my normality was actually a social construction. By the time I was growing up in the 1970s, St. Louis no longer had legal segregation. But my suburb, my neighborhood and my private high school were all outcomes of White flight. The systems of policing, zoning and education I grew up with had been created to ensure one result: to keep certain communities safe, orderly and pale.

We're not just talking about the right to buy property among one or another group of nice people. Here's how the U.S. president, Lyndon Johnson, described how systemic racism sabotaged the basic right to vote, in his post-Selma speech to the U.S. Congress in 1965:

There is no reason which can excuse the denial of that right. There is no duty which weighs more heavily on us than the duty we have to ensure that right.

Yet the harsh fact is that in many places in this country men and women are kept from voting simply because they are Negroes. Every device of which human ingenuity is capable has been used to deny this right. The Negro citizen may go to register only to be told that the day is wrong, or the hour is late, or the official in charge is absent. And if he persists, and if he manages to present himself to the registrar, he may be disqualified because he did not spell out his middle name or because he abbreviated a word on the application. And if he manages to fill out an application, he is given a test. The registrar is the sole judge of whether he passes this test. He may be asked to recite the entire Constitution, or explain the most complex provisions of State law. And even a college degree cannot be used to prove that he can read and write.

For the fact is that the only way to pass these barriers is to show a white skin. Experience has clearly shown that the existing process of law cannot overcome systematic and ingenious discrimination. No law that we now have on the books -- and I have helped to put three of them there -- can ensure the right to vote when local officials are determined to deny it.

What was blatant in 1965 Mississippi may have been comparatively latent in middle-class suburban Chicago or St. Louis, but (here's the crucial point) the phenomenon of racism doesn't depend on the existence, disappearance, or conversion of individual racists. For a well-meaning white person to proclaim their own color-blindness misses the point.

[Related: Seeking to justify myself.]

Critical race theory, for example, is not a way to charge every white person with being racist. It is simply an analytical tool to help us go deeper, to explore why our neighbors continue to feel the effects of embedded racism, even if we personally do not. Is it the only tool? Probably not, but I cite it here because it is under such concentrated attack that, even if you are a loyal Fox News viewer, you must wonder sometimes how such a malignant danger could have struck such deep roots into mild-mannered legal scholars and sociologists! Isn't it possible that someone or something is benefitting from convincing you to distrust CRT? Are those critics of CRT describing something that its advocates are not actually advancing?

From an evangelical viewpoint, here are some ideas about that "someone or something."

First of all: Black people -- and Black Lives Matter activists of all colors -- are our neighbors, too! To many of them/us, the idea that our lives have all been made poorer by racism's long-time, persistent power to warp our laws and institutions is not new, and it's not rocket science. Don't we owe it to our neighbors to see if their perceptions are correct, and if they are, to work alongside them to confront this power? To reiterate this crucial point, the purpose is not to tag or shame anyone, because the problem is systemic, it weakens the whole community, and our individual virtue is totally beside the point.

Critical race theory is, by definition, unable to "essentialize race" for the purpose of condemning all white people, as some have charged, because CRT denies the objective, biological basis of race in the first place. Instead of encouraging us to look at people and judge them for their skin color, the tool helps us discover the systemic, embedded effects of looking at people that way.

Michael Gerson argues that studying systemic racism is consistent with conservatism because...

For me, part of being a conservative means taking history seriously. We do not, as Tom Paine foolishly claimed, “have it in our power to begin the world over again.” We live in an imperfect world we did not create and have duties that flow from our story.

There is an important moral distinction between “guilt” and “responsibility.” It is not useful, and perhaps not fair, to say that most White people are guilty of creating social systems shaped by white supremacy. But they do have a responsibility as citizens, and as moral creatures, to seek a society where equal opportunity is a reality for all.

Rather than slander the methods used to expose and explain the lack of equal opportunity, wouldn't it make sense to put that passion and urgency into questioning why that lack persists? After all, we have at our disposal the tools of "systemic anti-racism," as Gerson says. "We have documents — the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights, the 14th Amendment — that call us to our better selves.... The response to systemic racism is the determined, systematic application of our highest ideals."

Evangelicals are the last people who should be shocked that sin has embedded itself in our laws and institutions. In an earlier post on perpetual war and biblical realism, I pointed out that "Biblical realism allows us to confront perpetual war by reminding us that the hearts of nations as well as individuals are inclined toward deceit, and the Bible doesn't make an exception for us." The same goes for all forms of socially embedded sin. Ecclesiastes gives us a vivid example: "If you see the poor oppressed in a district, and justice and rights denied, do not be surprised at such things; for one official is eyed by a higher one, and over them both are others higher still." (Ecclesiastes 5:8.)

Given its origins, persistence, and ability to confuse, confound, and stir up useless controversy, I personally have no doubt that racism has a demonic stronghold in the USA. All of us who believe in the nonviolent Lamb's War against the powers and principalities and forces of evil in high places can play a role in tearing down this stronghold:

  • We can reject false allegations about the tools and methods at our disposal, including CRT for those led to use it. We can courteously remind our alarmed neighbors that the Sword of the Spirit is the Word of God, not Fox News.
  • We can also confront the misuse of those tools, their exploitation to shame people for political purposes, or the temptation to idolize the tools instead of keeping our eyes on the prize.
  • We can create and maintain multiracial communities of struggle that, by their very existence, subvert the myths of racism.
  • If we are far from the obvious centers of struggle, we can still participate by prayer, study, correspondence, making judicious contributions.

If by our faithful struggle we begin tearing down the stronghold of racism, chances are we will also be well on the way to healing the polarizations that threaten to tear us apart. Those polarizations distract us from focusing on our common dangers -- and I'm realist enough to believe that this is no accident.


Robert P. Baird, The invention of whiteness: the long history of a dangerous idea.

The idea of whiteness, in other words, was identical to the idea of white supremacy. For the three centuries that preceded the civil rights movement, this presumption was accepted at the most refined levels of culture, by people who, in other contexts, were among the most vocal advocates of human liberty and equality. ...

As though aware of their own guilty conscience, the evangelists of the religion of whiteness were always desperate to prove that it was something other than mere prejudice. Where the Bible still held sway, they bent the story of Noah’s son Ham into a divine apologia for white supremacy. When anatomy and anthropology gained prestige in the 18th and 19th centuries, they cited pseudo-scientific markers of racial difference like the cephalic index and the norma verticalis. When psychology took over in the 20th, they told themselves flattering stories about divergences.

Stuart Masters, A glimpse of heaven on earth -- the roots of Quaker utopian communities.... (Russian translation of Stuart's article.)

Mark Buchanan, it's time to set some rules for talking to extraterrestrials.

How Mindy Roll came to love embodied prayer.


My James Harman tribute continues. Today -- "Payback Time" from a pandemic-shaped streaming concert last summer, with the Rhythm Scratchers.

1 comment:

kfsaylor said...

"Critical Race Theory, for example, is not a way to charge every white person with being racist. It is simply an analytical tool to help us go deeper, to explore why our neighbors continue to feel the effects of embedded racism ..."

Through the immanent and continuous power and presence of the spirit of Jesus Christ in my conscience, I am drawn out of the reflective nature to guide and inform human relations and interactions. I am removed from all manifestations of the reflective process, like the intellectual constructs or analytical tools, CRT, whiteness, racism, etc, to inform human relations. The direct awareness of the degree of the spirit of Christ's impulse or motion in a given interaction is my guide through the Spirit's rule and governance in my conscience and consciousness.