Stagger onward rejoicing

Tag: race (page 1 of 1)

A bluntly powerful essay by my friend and colleague Jonathan Tran:

What began as a struggle of and for the dispossessed has devolved into a culture war fixated on harms, microaggressions, and sensitivity trainings. No one can live up to the standard of being sensitive to every possible sensitivity, setting everyone up to fail. More importantly, almost none of this has anything to do with repairing and redistributing structures and systems.

Nothing captures antiracism’s mission drift better than the explosive growth of its billion-dollar diversity industry, which promises to address inequality by diversifying the faces of gatekeeping institutions—the very institutions that facilitate upper-middle-class mobility precisely by leaving inequality in place. These antiracist initiatives, often staffed by well-meaning and high-minded people, bring with them all the conviction but little of the power to actually get anything done, at the end of the day achieving so little that one begins to wonder if futility was the point.

Albert Murray and me

From my new essay for Comment on Albert Murray’s “blues idiom”: 

For white North American Christians who perceive themselves as marginalized, disparaged, despised, maybe even persecuted — well, a road map for that territory is all around us, in the experience of black Americans, especially as formulated by the great Albert Murray. And I think Murray would have been glad to see his work applied in this way: he thought, and said all the time, that the lessons of the blues idiom are universal human lessons. “When the Negro musician or dancer swings the blues, he is … making an affirmative and hence exemplary and heroic response to that which André Malraux describes as la condition humaine.” 

The essay is behind a paywall for another month — unless you subscribe to Comment, of course. (Nudge nudge wink wink.) By the way, I love the artwork the editors and designers chose to illustrate the essay, e.g.: 

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An anti-slavery medallion by Josiah Wedgwood 


Wedgwood seems to have thrown himself behind the cause of abolition out of genuine conviction. The medallion presented a marketing opportunity of sorts, but he manufactured it in large numbers at his own cost and ran the risk of alienating wealthy customers who opposed abolition. At the same time, as Hunt acknowledges, Wedgwood’s business was inextricable from the socioeconomic structures that sustained the slave trade. He depended on secure colonial shipping routes and sold extensively to the American colonies: Boston and Kingston were the perfect place to offload wares that had passed the peak of fashion back in Britain. Closer to home, many of his British customers derived their fortunes, one way or another, from colonial trade, including the trade in human beings. This trade helped to fuel the boom in domestic consumption that allowed Wedgwood to dream of selling high-quality artistic tableware to a growing middle-class market. Colonial commodities such as coffee, tea and sugar, with their accompanying social rituals, provided the raison d’être for many of Wedgwood’s most successful products.

a change of attention

After the killing of George Floyd, my first response — after sympathy for poor Floyd, I hope — was to think that the protesters were overreacting to an event that, while tragic, was not nearly as common as they were saying. (No, there’s no “Black genocide” in America.) But then I started noticing the response of many white conservatives: an opposite exaggeration, in their case of the dangers of protests; a noticeable lack of sympathy for the victims of police violence, and a tendency to blame those victims; and in general a disinclination to see racial prejudice as a meaningful element of American culture.

I wrote a few posts about all this, including one about the difference between acute and chronic suffering.

Similarly, when the whole controversy over Critical Race Theory blew up, my first reaction was dismay at the ways that “activists” were using shoddy scholarship, or wholly bogus pseudo-scholarship, to implement a radical political agenda for America’s schools. But then, again, the white conservative pushback was both uncharitable and extreme, and seemed determined to treat any reckoning with America’s history of slavery and racism as “CRT” and therefore to be banished. Increasingly, white conservatives took up the view that explicit declarations of hatred for people of a certain color is the only kind of racism there is.

This struck me as just as historically as blinkered and uninformed as, I dunno, maybe the views of the Black Hebrew Israelites. So, me being me, I started thinking about the past, listening to the voices of our ancestors — in this case mainly recent ones, which in my view is okay, because they always have a strong gravitational pull, and anyway people think that anything that they haven’t thought about in the past 72 hours is ancient history and therefore irrelevant. Ralph Ellison is as much a mystery to them as Homer.

But I’ve been reading Ralph Ellison — a lot of Ralph Ellison, letters and essays; and that led me to Murray’s dear friend Albert Murray, whose curious and wonderful body of work I’m seriously into. (After all, Murray is my fellow native of Alabama.) There’s a tradition of thought and expression here that seems deeply relevant to the current scene, capable of illuminating much that otherwise remains dark for us.

I posted a couple of passages relevant to all this stuff in a recent newsletter, and fifty or sixty people immediately unsubscribed. Okay, well, I guess that’s not really what my newsletter is about, so fair enough. But heads up: Here at the old blog you’ll be hearing more about some of the leading Black intellectuals of the past half-century or more. Because they’re fascinating in themselves — and they tend to illuminate our own weird moment.

So my thanks to white conservatives for leading me into this fertile field of reading and thinking. I owe you, guys.

The New York Times:

Born in Birmingham, Ala., Dr. [Freeman] Hrabowski came of age in the thick of the Jim Crow era. The notion that Black children didn’t deserve a quality education brought out the fighter in the self-described “fat, nerdy kid who could only attack a math problem” at a very young age.

He was 12 when he participated in the historic Children’s March inspired by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King. He was among the hundreds of boys and girls arrested while they marched for equal rights, and spent five days in jail.

Dr. Hrabowski has largely declined to discuss the details of what he saw and experienced in the Birmingham jail. Some of it will forever remain unspeakable, he said. But in an interview, he recalled a visit from Dr. King.

“What you do this day will have an impact on children not yet born,” Dr. Hrabowski remembered him telling the jailed children. 

I was five at the time, living about two miles from the site of the march. Children just a few years older than me were thrown in jail. God bless Dr. Hrabowski. He has fought the good fight for a long time. 

R.I.P. Bill Russell, one of the greatest Americans of our era — the best team athlete in American history, and an icon of Black Americans’ quest for full civil rights. One not-so-random fact worth remembering: Bill Russell’s father Charlie — raised in Louisiana, as his son would be until age eight — in his childhood knew people who had been enslaved. As I keep saying: The past is not dead etc. 

Robert A. Caro, Master of the Senate: The Years of Lyndon Johnson, Volume III

“Whenever I was late, no matter what the reason, Johnson called me a lazy, good-for-nothing n****r,” Parker wrote. And there was an incident that occurred one morning in Johnson’s limousine while Parker was driving him from his Thirtieth Place house to the Capitol. Johnson, who had been reading a newspaper in the back seat, “suddenly lowered the newspaper and leaned forward,” and said, “‘Chief, does it bother you when people don’t call you by name?’” Parker was to recall that “I answered cautiously but honestly, ‘Well, sir, I do wonder. My name is Robert Parker.’” And that was evidently not an answer acceptable to Johnson. “Johnson slammed the paper onto the seat as if he was slapping my face. He leaned close to my ear. ‘Let me tell you one thing, n****r,’ he shouted. ‘As long as you are black, and you’re gonna be black till the day you die, no one’s gonna call you by your goddamn name. So no matter what you are called, n****r, you just let it roll off your back like water, and you’ll make it. Just pretend you’re a goddamn piece of furniture.’” 

Parker found that incident in Johnson’s limousine difficult to explain or forgive. Years later, as he stood beside Lyndon Johnson’s grave thinking of all Johnson had done for his people, Parker would say he was “swirling with mixed emotions.” Lyndon Johnson, he would write, had rammed through Congress “the most important civil rights laws this country has ever seen or dreamed possible.” Because of those laws, Parker would write, he felt, at last, like a free man. “I owed that freedom to him…. I loved the Lyndon Johnson who made it possible.” But remembering the scene in the limousine — and many other scenes — Parker was to write that on the whole working for Johnson was “a painful experience. Although I was grateful to him for getting me a job I was afraid of him because of the pain and humiliation he could inflict at a moment’s notice. I thought I had learned to fight my bitterness and anger inside…. But Johnson made it hard to keep the waves of bitterness inside… But I had to swallow or quit. If I quit, how would I support my family? I chose survival and learned to swallow with a smile.” And, Parker would write, “I hated that Lyndon Johnson.” 

Here is Robert Parker’s book. 

a story

In my first years at Wheaton College I had a colleague named Julius Scott. (He retired in 2000 and died in 2020. R.I.P.) Julius was a New Testament scholar, but earlier in life, in the 1960s, had been a Presbyterian pastor in Mississippi. He was raised in rural Georgia and loved the South, but he knew a good deal about our native region’s habitual sins also, and as the Civil Rights movement grew stronger and stronger, he understand that he had a reckoning to make. So he did. 

After much prayer and study of Scripture, he decided that nothing could be more clear in Scripture, and nothing more foundational to Christian anthropology, than the belief that each and every human being is made in the image of God; that every human being is my neighbor; and that to “love your neighbor as yourself” is required of us all. Julius could not, therefore, avoid the conclusion that the Jim Crow laws common to the Southern states were incompatible with the Christian understanding of what human beings are and who our neighbors are; but even if those laws proved impossible to dislodge, and even if his pastoral colleagues thought them defensible, it was surely, certainly, indubitably necessary for all churches to welcome every one of God’s children who entered their doors, and to welcome them with open arms, making no distinction on the basis of race. When his presbytery — gathering of pastors in his region — next met, Julius felt that he had to speak up and say what he believed about these matters. 

He did; and thus he entered into a lengthy season of hellish misery. He was prepared for the condemnation and shunning he received from almost every other member of the presbytery; what he wasn’t prepared for was what happened when word of his speech got out to the general public, I believe through a newspaper article: an ongoing barrage of threats against his life and the lives of his wife and children. For years, he told me, he had to sleep — and sleep came hard — with a loaded gun under his bed; the fear for his family didn’t wholly abate until he left Mississippi. (“I was afraid for my babies,” Julius said, and with those words the tears filled his eyes.) Of course he remained a pariah to most of his colleagues — and even the ones who respected him told him so in private, expressing their agreement with his theological conclusions only on condition that Julius never share their views with anyone else. 

Think about that story for a while. Please understand that it’s not an uncommon one; and please understand, further, that Julius escaped with no worse than shunning and terror because he was white. (If you want to know more about Christians in Mississippi in that era, the persecuted and the persecutors alike, I recommend Charles Marsh’s book God’s Long Summer. And if you want to know what life in that era was like in Birmingham, Alabama, where I grew up, read Diane McWhorter’s Carry Me Home.) 

Now: the next time you’re tempted to say that American Christians today experience hostility unprecedented in our nation’s history, and can escape condemnation only if they bow their knee to the dominant cultural norms; that it didn’t used to be like that, that decades ago no American Christian had to be hesitant about affirming the most elementary truths of the Christian faith — the next time you’re tempted to say all that, please, before you speak, remember Julius Scott. 

Alan Shapiro:

For good or ill, I have spent more time reading and writing poetry than doing anything else in my roughly three score and ten years of life. My poets, the poets I have grown to love, have become my second family, the family I chose; they constitute the better part of who I am. Diverse as this family is in language, gender, and race, it is still primarily (though not exclusively) a family of white Christian men and white pagan men. Some of them did terrible things off the page; some of them were fascists or fascist sympathizers. Some were spies. Some of them abused or neglected wives and children; some were mentally unstable. Many of them were drunks, perverts, drug addicts, sex addicts, sadists, brownnosers, backbiters. Some, furthermore, were colonialists, slave traders, slave owners. Some were themselves enslaved, or had once been slaves. Most were certainly anti-Semitic. Off the page, I probably would have detested them, and I have no doubt they would have detested me. But on the page they are guardian angels, beloved spirits, the most intimate and generous of guides. What they at their best have taught me is that the gold of the work is not reducible to the shit of the life. And that even the “wokest” of minds can never entirely escape the moral limits of their time and place. The miracle is what still manages to reach us, move us, expanding our understanding of what it means to be alive through someone else’s lived experience, not just despite our differences, but maybe, too, because of them.

a Black cop’s son

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It turns out that one of the most essential cultural commentators in America today is a 74-year-old retired basketball player. I highly recommend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s Substack newsletter, the most recent edition of which contains an excerpt from a long essay that he has published as a Kindle e-book. The excerpt is fine in itself, but the full essay is absolutely fascinating. Here’s the heart of the story: 

For fifty years I’ve been both defending and criticizing the police. I’ve criticized them when their actions reflected the violent systemic racism that resulted in the deaths of unarmed minorities. I’ve defended them when their good works were overlooked. I especially didn’t want all cops lumped together as a monolithic hive-mind, the way so many have done with marginalized people in this country. They, too, have a voice that needs to be heard. This precarious tightrope act has resulted in venomous backlash from both sides. I’ve been accused of being both a Black anti-cop agitator and an apologist for racist police violence. My ability to see both sides isn’t the result of trying to please both sides; my perspective is the result of having been raised by a Black police officer in New York City during the most tumultuous civil rights upheaval the country has ever been through and of the effect both those influences had on me throughout my life. 

Anyone with even the mildest interest in race in America ought to read Kareem’s essay. It’s that good. Yes, it also has some inaccurate statements about the Capitol riot of January 6, errors that should have been discovered and excised in the editing process. And some of his political claims are debatable — as if any political claims aren’t. But don’t let those things distract you from the complex and necessary message of the story as a whole.  

One insignificant point that delighted me: the apartment that Kareem lived in when he was growing up had a window that overlooked The Cloisters


I made an interesting discovery yesterday. (I’m sure others have already noticed it, but the insight is new to me.) Many readers will know this famous passage from Martin Luther King’s “Letter from the Birmingham Jail”: 

We have waited for more than 340 years for our constitutional and God given rights. The nations of Asia and Africa are moving with jetlike speed toward gaining political independence, but we still creep at horse and buggy pace toward gaining a cup of coffee at a lunch counter. Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say, “Wait.” But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate-filled policemen curse, kick and even kill your black brothers and sisters; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six year old daughter why she can’t go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky, and see her beginning to distort her personality by developing an unconscious bitterness toward white people; when you have to concoct an answer for a five year old son who is asking: “Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?”; when you take a cross county drive and find it necessary to sleep night after night in the uncomfortable corners of your automobile because no motel will accept you; when you are humiliated day in and day out by nagging signs reading “white” and “colored”; when your first name becomes “n****r,” your middle name becomes “boy” (however old you are) and your last name becomes “John,” and your wife and mother are never given the respected title “Mrs.”; when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never quite knowing what to expect next, and are plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of “nobodiness”–then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait. There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and men are no longer willing to be plunged into the abyss of despair. I hope, sirs, you can understand our legitimate and unavoidable impatience.

I have taught this essay many, many times over the years, and I have always zeroed in on this passage as an excellent illustration of the use of imitative form. King wants his (largely white) readers to know what it feels like to wait … and wait … and wait … — so he makes those readers wait … and wait … and wait … for the conclusion of the 316-word sentence that’s at the heart of this paragraph.  

Here’s my discovery. Right now I’m teaching Frederick Douglass’s Narrative, and in the final chapter of that mesmerizing book he writes this, an account of his experience as an escaped slave in the North when the Fugitive Slave Act was in effect: 

I have been frequently asked how I felt when I found myself in a free State. I have never been able to answer the question with any satisfaction to myself. It was a moment of the highest excitement I ever experienced. I suppose I felt as one may imagine the unarmed mariner to feel when he is rescued by a friendly man-of-war from the pursuit of a pirate. In writing to a dear friend, immediately after my arrival at New York, I said I felt like one who had escaped a den of hungry lions. This state of mind, however, very soon subsided; and I was again seized with a feeling of great insecurity and loneliness. I was yet liable to be taken back, and subjected to all the tortures of slavery. This in itself was enough to damp the ardor of my enthusiasm. But the loneliness overcame me. There I was in the midst of thousands, and yet a perfect stranger; without home and without friends, in the midst of thousands of my own brethren — children of a common Father, and yet I dared not to unfold to any one of them my sad condition. I was afraid to speak to any one for fear of speaking to the wrong one, and thereby falling into the hands of money-loving kidnappers, whose business it was to lie in wait for the panting fugitive, as the ferocious beasts of the forest lie in wait for their prey. The motto which I adopted when I started from slavery was this — “Trust no man!” I saw in every white man an enemy, and in almost every colored man cause for distrust. It was a most painful situation; and, to understand it, one must needs experience it, or imagine himself in similar circumstances. Let him be a fugitive slave in a strange land — a land given up to be the hunting-ground for slaveholders — whose inhabitants are legalized kidnappers — where he is every moment subjected to the terrible liability of being seized upon by his fellowmen, as the hideous crocodile seizes upon his prey! — I say, let him place himself in my situation — without home or friends — without money or credit — wanting shelter, and no one to give it — wanting bread, and no money to buy it, — and at the same time let him feel that he is pursued by merciless men-hunters, and in total darkness as to what to do, where to go, or where to stay, — perfectly helpless both as to the means of defence and means of escape, — in the midst of plenty, yet suffering the terrible gnawings of hunger, — in the midst of houses, yet having no home, — among fellow-men, yet feeling as if in the midst of wild beasts, whose greediness to swallow up the trembling and half-famished fugitive is only equalled by that with which the monsters of the deep swallow up the helpless fish upon which they subsist, — I say, let him be placed in this most trying situation, — the situation in which I was placed, — then, and not till then, will he fully appreciate the hardships of, and know how to sympathize with, the toil-worn and whip-scarred fugitive slave. 

A brilliant paragraph ending with a 239-word sentence that does exactly what MLK’s still-longer sentence would do more than a century later. I can’t help but think that MLK had this passage from Douglass in mind, if only unconsciously. Where Douglass uses dashes MLK uses semicolons; where Douglass uses “let him” MLK uses “when” — but the strategy and the effect are the same: holding the reader at a point of tension that the writer will offer release from only when the point is well-made. (The ultimate example of this strategy is Wagner’s use of the Tristan chord, which he resolves after fours hours or so, but only a madman would take the business that far.) “Notice how tense you were as you were waiting for the conclusion to that sentence? Imagine that intensified and prolonged by a factor of ten thousand.”   

separate … but equal?

Arnold Kling:

I don’t want to see politicians get involved in what should and should not be taught. I would like to see parents speak to teachers and administrators when CRT is creating a bad classroom atmosphere. I would like to see teachers and administrators resist the urge to be defensive and resentful toward criticism of CRT. 

But I worry that civil discourse around CRT is not going to happen. Instead, parents who most believe in civil discourse will simply pull their children out of public schools, rather than wade into the controversy. Teachers who are not “woke” will be treated as pariahs by other teachers and administrators. Public schools will end up serving the children of parents who are either very progressive or apathetic. There will emerge another school system, a separate but equal school system if you will, for children of parents who are conservatives or old-fashioned liberals.


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As Eve Tushnet has reminded us, “Mercy to the guilty is the only kind of mercy there is,” which is something to remember as you read about Shirley Chisholm and George Wallace

This Stefani McDade report in Christianity Today about the post-Trump reckoning among charismatic Christian leaders is absolutely superb. 

I am so pleased to be named (by my dear friend Richard Gibson) among my people, the idiosyncratic readers

Re: this reflection on printed books: for the last decade, e-books have comprised about 10% of the sales of my books, and that’s been pretty constant. 

Zito Madu, speaking strong and bitter truth: 

The feeling of dread before Saka took his penalty betrayed a truth about the relationship between the Black English players and members of their country. The wish for Saka to score in order to avoid racist abuse only reveals a deeper truth: that respect for him as a person and recognition of his dignity is only possible if he and the other Black players keep making the people who hate them happy. A conditional respect of a person’s humanity, which means that it’s no recognition at all. […]

It was heartening to see some fans, teams and politicians push back against the bigotry by showering the players with love and support. A group of people decorated the defaced Rashford mural with hearts. Yet, while the players surely appreciate the support, and hopefully will one day have a chance to have success at the highest level, it’s not hard to imagine that they will never forget that many of their supporters see them as sub-human — and no level of sporting achievement will change that.


James Tiptree Jr aka Alice B Sheldon jpg

Lately I’ve been re-reading the stories that Alice B. Sheldon wrote under the name James Tiptree, Jr. and it occurs to me that almost all of them are meditations on the same theme: The way genuine difference, especially but not only sexual difference, simultaneously alienates and allures. Now, I should also add that the Tiptree stories seem unable to imagine this dialectic settling into a healthy tension; almost invariably the alienation and the allurement alike take pathological forms. 

In “And I Awoke and Found Me Here on the Cold Hill’s Side” we meet a man and, eventually, his wife who are in the grip of a kind of sexual xenomania, obsessively lusting for aliens of various species in a way that the man perceives as pathological but inevitable. Sometimes the man sees in the aliens a kind of beauty, and traits that present in exaggerated form what he finds desirable in human women, but essentially it is the very alienness that obsesses him: His sexual passion is awakened by the impossibility of sexual union. (This is also the theme of Samuel R. Delany’s famous story “Aye, and Gomorrah.”) The story’s title, of course, comes from Keats’s poem “La Belle Dame sans Merci,” in which a knight’s life is destroyed by his encounter with a beautiful fairy, an encounter with otherness that infects him with a permanent obsession that becomes a wasting disease. 

But Tiptree’s stories often suggest that pathology dictates the typical patterns of relation between human men and human women. In “The Women Men Don’t See” the women of the title are not sexually desirable to the man who narrates the story and are therefore invisible to him; he only sees them at all when he’s trying to decide whether they are potential sex partners, or rather sex objects. One of the women, the mother of the other one, understands this, and says to him, 

“Think of us as opossums, Don. Did you know there are opossums living all over? Even in New York City.” 

I smile back with my neck prickling. I thought I was the paranoid one.

“Men and women aren’t different species, Ruth. Women do everything men do.” 

“Do they?” 

When, later in the story, Don discovers that the woman has planned an encounter with aliens and wants to be abducted by them, taken away from Earth, his first response is to try to shoot the aliens — but (of course; the story is very on-the-nose in multiple respects) he ends up shooting Ruth instead. She is not badly wounded, and later they have a final conversation. 

“I think they’re gentle,” she mutters.

“For Christ’s sake, Ruth, they’re aliens!” 

“I’m used to it,” she says absently. 

Living with men, living with other terrestrial species, living with aliens — it’s all the same to Ruth. (It’s no accident that she shares a name with the biblical character who leaves her homeland to dwell among strangers.) To the aliens, who insist in halting and malformed English that they are students, that they want to learn rather than harm, she will be an object of intense attention — they will see her. But is that kind of being-seen any better, really, than being invisible? She stakes her life on the possibility, however remote, that it will be; because she has no hope at all for the world she was born into. 

“Houston, Houston, Do You Read?” — another haunting but schematic story — imagines a future in which, by some kind of time-accident, three astronauts are thrown forward into a future world in which all living humans are female clones. They are rescued from their ship and brought into one occupied by five women. Under the influence of a disinhibiting drug, the astronauts reveal their true impulses: one of them is consumed by a mania for domination, a second is consumed by violent sexual lusts, and the third, the classic “beta male,” feels both of those impulses but in a muted way. (I told you the story is schematic.) It seems obvious to the women — who observe these men with a kind of detached curiosity, as, perhaps, the aliens in “The Women Men Don’t See” will observe Ruth and her daughter — that the re-introduction of males into human society, a re-establishment of the old ways of sexual reproduction, would be a Very Bad Idea Indeed. Difference is interesting to them, perhaps, but after several hundred years of life without men it’s not interesting enough to make them want to change their social order. Much alienation, little allurement. 

In the darkest Tiptree stories, the allurements of difference are depicted as fundamentally irrational impulses — irrational, but so powerful that they don’t allow for the calm decisions to separate and isolate that mark the decisive moments in “The Women Men Don’t See” and “Houston, Houston, Do You Read?” The fantastically weird “Love Is the Plan the Plan Is Death” describes a species of creature, right on the cusp of sentience, one member of which tries to find ways to override the impulse to eat what you love. It turns out, though, that he, being male, isn’t one of the eaters; and that sometimes creatures do what they’d rather not do — if that’s The Plan. And in what seems to me Tiptree’s darkest story, “A Momentary Taste of Being,” the human passion to reach the stars is nothing other than the impulse that drives spermatozoa into a hostile environment where almost all of them will die. 

Difference can be profoundly alluring, these stories seem collectively to say, but we should heed the countervailing feeling of alienation — if we can. It would be rational … but, in the end, how powerful is reason? 

It’s fascinating to read these stories in our present moment, in which race occupies essentially the same cultural territory that sex occupied for Alice Sheldon and other women of her time. I suspect that Sheldon would have thought and maybe even felt differently about the alienation/allurement dialectic if she had had available to her our culture’s passionate commitment to gender as a social construct that is (therefore, so the faulty logic goes) amenable to infinite performative manipulation by individuals. For us, it’s racial difference that is especially often experienced in the way that Sheldon experienced sexual difference. When Reni Eddo-Lodge wrote Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race she was basically making the decision that the women in “Houston, Houston, Do You Read?” make about men.

The homologies between racism and sexism are not new, of course, and we can trace them back a long way: for instance, it’s worthwhile, I think, to map the concerns of “The Women Men Don’t See” onto the similarly knotted tension between not-being-seen and being-seen-badly in Ellison’s Invisible Man. But because race is such a massive component of our current political disputes, people now commonly choose and indeed embrace alienation in that whole sphere. (I’ve have recently learned that a large family of my acquaintance, well known for its cheerful closeness, has now been divided and broken by disagreements over Donald Trump. And at least some members of the family feel that it would be morally irresponsible not to be so broken.) 

I think it’s because race is so widely seen to be intractably binary — Whites and Others — while gender and even sex are seen as chosen and performative that racial tension has taken hold of our public imagination in ways that the #MeToo movement, in the end, didn’t. Think for instance of New York Governor Andrew Cuomo: his behavior towards women has been despicable, but he easily survived the outrage, which proved to last only a few days. (Alice Sheldon would not have been surprised by the behavior or the tolerance of it.) If his sins had been equal in seriousness but racist in character — if he had demonstrably treated Black people around him with the same callous manipulative disregard that he treated the women who worked for him — would he have a job now? The question answers itself.

(Of course, if he had been a Republican governor, then he would have had the smoothest sailing imaginable. Openly, bluntly racist figures are perfectly welcome in today’s GOP; it’s only critics of Donald Trump who aren’t. But that’s a story for another day.) 

By way of conclusion, I’m going to make a simplistic statement that I may perhaps be able to unpack later: I believe that what we need when thinking about all forms of difference is (a) a frank acknowledgement of both allurement and alienation, and (b) an ability to achieve a genuinely tragic sense of history that does not succumb to despair. We should begin, collectively, by reading James Baldwin’s essay “Stranger in the Village.” 


David French:

In white Evangelicalism the true challenge of “wokeness” isn’t that congregations will embrace critical race theory, it’s that fear of critical race theory will drive congregations away from thoughtful, necessary engagements with the world as it is — a world that is still too far removed from the hope of King’s dream.

Spot on, alas.


Three hundred years ago Daniel Defoe wrote, “I believe there are a hundred thousand plain country fellows in England, who would spend their blood against Popery, that do not know whether it be a man or a horse.” That is precisely the condition of a group of Southern Baptist seminary presidents with regard to what they call Critical Race Theory

The phrase is the primary problem: the syllables “Critical Race Theory,” uttered in that order, sound in the ears of conservative white Christians like a forbidding malediction. My advice to them is: Pretend the phrase doesn’t exist. Instead of issuing upon it a vague, wooly anathema, try to articulate what specific views, what specific positions, about race and racism you think incompatible with the Christian faith. 

Then take one more step. Ask someone you believe to be a proponent of that view whether they in fact hold it. You might be surprised by what you learn. 



I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the idea of the present moment as a Power, a power in the Pauline sense of a massively distributed, massively influential, universal agency directing the course of this world. It seems to me that the Present is a jealous God: it wants us to think only of itself, and never of the past or the future except insofar as images of them serve this instant.

But if we must think of either the past or the future, the Present prefers for us to think of the future, for two reasons: one, any future we imagine is just that, imaginary, and is really a kind of projection of our hopes and fears for our own moment. And two, thinking about the future produces anxiety, which has the effect of driving us back towards the Present, where we can be distracted from that anxiety. That is to say, the future is potentially useful to the Present in a way that the past is not.

Now, to be sure, we can interpret the past in such a way that we reinforce our current habits and attitudes and prejudices. (I have written about this in Breaking Bread with the Dead.) But this is of limited usefulness to the Present and is not really worth the risks. From the perspective of the Present, any genuine immersion in the past is likely to complicate our understanding of this moment and make it harder for us to know precisely what to do, because of all the complexity, good and bad, of the behavior of those who lived and fought and prayed and loved before us. If we learn to have compassion for those people, we just might translate that into compassion for the people who share this world with us but do not think just as we think. And that the Present cannot have.

Why does the Present not want this? Because present-mindedness is instantaneousness, it is automatic response, it is the gratification of whatever emotion happens to arise. As the poet Craig Raine has said, “all emotion is pleasurable” — this fact is the constant pole star of the Present.

These thoughts, though they’ve occupied me for a long time, were recently brought to the forefront of my mind by an essay on Harper Lee by Casey Cep, which contains this passage:

There is an important and interesting conversation happening now about the relevance of To Kill a Mockingbird to our country’s pursuit of racial justice and how we teach civic virtues like tolerance. For a long time, Lee’s novel has been one of the most banned books in the country, first criticized by conservatives who disapproved of its integrationist politics, then by liberals who disapproved of its use of racial slurs, and all along by censors of all persuasions who object to its depiction of rape and incest. Lately, though, the novel’s detractors are not calling for a ban or censorship, just retirement: taking it off of syllabi in order to make room for books by a more diverse group of authors, offering students work written with an eye to the current fight for racial justice, not one from the last century.

I don’t really care whether people keep reading To Kill a Mockingbird. What interests me about this paragraph is the idea — and it’s not necessarily Cep’s idea, just one that she rightly discerns as common — that there is a “current fight for racial justice” that’s different from “one from the last century.” But, you know, Dorothy Counts is still alive.



And Ruby Bridges is still alive — indeed, just now reaching retirement age.



John Lewis, the last of the Big Six, just died a few months ago. I myself remember quite vividly the integration of Birmingham’s schools. This isn’t ancient history we’re talking about, and we shouldn’t allow the artificial convention of “centuries” deceive us into believing that it is. The story of Dorothy Counts and Ruby Bridges and John Lewis and all the rest of those amazing people who now get lumped into that comforting abstraction we call the Civil Rights Movement is our story, though the Present wants us to forget that, wants to separate us from our brothers and sisters, wants to break all chains that link us to one another — so that we can be wholly absorbed into Now and indulge our instantaneous emotions rather than reflect thoughtfully on the ways that the past is not dead, it is not even past.

The Present wants to infect us with what I have decided to call palaiphobia, from παλαιός, palaiós, old, worn out. That’s how it alienates us from one another, makes us wholly dependent on what it can offer: sentimentality and rage.

UPDATE: My friend Adam Roberts has, quite justifiably, wondered whether my coinage uses the right word. Here’s what I wrote in reply to him:

I have to say something about my decision to write of palaiphobia rather than archephobia. It was an agonizing one, I assure you. In these matters I take my bearings primarily from New Testament Greek, as you know, and of course there’s considerable overlap between the two words. When Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 5 that the old has gone and the new is here, he uses ἀρχαῖα; but when he talks about the “old leaven” in 1 Corinthians 5 he uses παλαιὰν ζύμην. As far as I can tell ἀρχαῖα and παλαιὰν would be interchangeable in those contexts. Both words can be neutral in their valence. But if you look at the overall patterns of usage, it seems that there’s something more generally disparaging about παλαιὸς, whereas there’s at least a potential dignity in ἀρχαῖα. When Paul talks, as he often does, about the “old man” that we must put off, he says παλαιὸς ἄνθρωπος. And παλαιὸς often has the connotation of something worn out, as when Jesus talks (in Matthew 9:16) about patching old clothes, ἱματίῳ παλαιῷ. I wanted to capture that disparagement in my coinage, the sense that the past is worn out, useless, of no value. I wonder if you think that makes sense? 

UPDATE 2: after a conversation with Robin Sloan:


Gary Dorrien:

Here is where Temple still matters as a theorist of guild socialism. In the early 1940s, both before and after he became Archbishop of Canterbury, Temple got very specific about how to democratize economic power. He was incredulous that modern democracies tolerated big private banks, lamented that Christian socialists turned away in the 1890s from the land issue, and proposed a new form of guild socialism. The banks, he argued, should be turned into utilities or socialized; otherwise the rich controlled the process of investment. God made the land for everyone, and society creates the unearned increment in the value of land; therefore the increment should go to society. Above all, though Temple took for granted that certain natural monopolies must be nationalized, the centerpiece of his proposal was an excess-profits tax payable in the form of shares to worker funds. These funds, over time, would gain democratic control over enterprises. Economic democracy, he argued, can be achieved gradually, peaceably, and on decentralized terms, without abolishing economic markets or making heroic demands on the political system.

Randall Kennedy:

The ultimatum complains that, in its view, past initiatives aimed at enlarging the number of faculty of color at Princeton have “failed” because in 2019–20 “among 814 faculty, there were 30 Black, 31 Latinx, and 0 Indigenous persons. That’s 7%.” According to the ultimatum, this “is not progress by any standard; it falls woefully short of U.S. demographics as estimated by the U.S. Census Bureau, which reports Black and Hispanic persons at 32% of the total population.”

The suggestion that these statistics show racial unfairness in hiring at Princeton is misleading. According to the Journal of Blacks in Higher Education, African Americans in recent years earned only around 7 percent of all doctoral degrees. In engineering it was around 4 percent. In physics around 2 percent. Care must be taken to look for talent in places other than the familiar haunts of Ivy League searches. But even when such care is taken, the resultant catch is almost invariably quite small.

The reasons behind the small numbers are familiar and heart-breaking. They include a legacy of deprivation in education, housing, employment, and health care, not to mention increased vulnerability to crime and incarceration. The perpetuation of injuries from past discrimination as well as the imposition of new wrongs cut like scythes into the ranks of racial minorities, cruelly winnowing the number who are even in the running to teach at Princeton.

The racial demographics of its faculty does not reflect a situation in which the university is putting a thumb on the scale against racial-minority candidates. To the contrary, the university is rightly putting a thumb on the scale in favor of racial-minority candidates. That the numbers remain small reflects the terrible social problems that hinder so many racial minorities before they even have a fighting chance to enter into the elite competitions from which Princeton selects its instructors. The ultimatum denies or minimizes this pipeline problem.

Peter Brown:

Many of Ambrose’s contemporaries were quietly convinced that the ills of Roman society had a supernatural origin. Many of the sharpest critics of their age were not Christians; they were pagans. For them, bad times had begun with the “national apostasy” of Constantine. The rampant avarice denounced by pagan authors was thought to go hand in hand with the spoliation of the temples and the abandonment of the old religion.

Ambrose had to answer such views. He did so by subtly secularizing the contemporary discourse on decline. He turned what many thinking persons considered a religious crisis into a crisis of social relations. We moderns tend to applaud Ambrose for the perspicacity of his diagnosis of the weaknesses of Roman society. But pagans such as Symmachus would have regarded Ambrose’s criticisms of society as mere whistling in the dark. Symmachus knew why things had gone wrong. The moment that the first fruits of the fields of Italy that had fed the Vestal Virgins for 1,200 years were withdrawn (in 382), the link between the land and the gods was broken.

two thoughts

David French: “In the contest between the rights of a woman to sleep peacefully in her own home and for her boyfriend to defend it against violent entry and the right of the state to make a violent entry, the law should prefer the homeowner. No, that doesn’t mean removing from police the ability to defend themselves. It means dramatically restricting their ability to make a violent entry in the first instance. It means revitalizing the Fourth Amendment, and reviving its importance in our constitutional republic.”

Radley Balko: “We could prevent the next Breonna Taylor. We could ban forced entry raids to serve drug warrants. We could hold judges accountable for signing warrants that don’t pass constitutional muster. We could demand that police officers wear body cameras during these raids to hold them accountable, and that they be adequately punished when they fail to activate them. We could do a lot to make sure there are no more Breonna Taylors. The question is whether we want to.”


If Ibram X. Kendi did not exist, it would be necessary for a certain kind of conservative to invent him. But because he does exist, whenever someone wants to talk about the actual sufferings of black people in America, then a certain kind of conservative can reply, “Look, I don’t claim that America is perfect, but did you see this crazy thing Ibram X. Kendi said??”

I was going to write a longer post about this, but today’s David French newsletter says it for me:

On the right it often seems that if we can effectively rebut the radicals, we act as if our rhetorical work is done. Debunk critical theory, reject various definitions of systemic racism, and then move along. Back to business as usual (with the conventional and obligatory “to be sure” paragraphs noting that a few racists still haunt American life)….

Broken and breaking systems can still leave powerful, enduring legacies. If you take any population of human beings, treat them as property for 245 years, actively, legally, and violently discriminate against them for 99 more, and only give them the necessary legal tools to effectively fight back 56 years ago, then you’re going to still see significant consequences — and those consequences are going to be very hard to ameliorate.

I was interested to see that a number of readers commented on my Sunday newsletter about the disparities between the disproportionately white, rich private school I advised and the nearby much-poorer, disproportionately black public school down the road and said that the relevant difference was wealth, not race. But when you’re talking about a community that was afflicted by all the systems of 1619 (including within the lifetimes of thousands of residents), why would anyone think that wealth disparities would vanish by 2020 — or that the racial history that created the initial disadvantage would no longer be relevant?

If your economic starter pistol goes off after your neighbor’s — and they’re also running as fast as they can to achieve prosperity — doesn’t it stand to reason that even as you run as hard as you can, the gap might persist? And isn’t that largely the tale of the tape in black/white income and wealth disparities?

French provides an intelligent critique of the left also, but I was especially encouraged to see him acknowledge that certain racial disparities in income, and social success more generally, are deeply embedded in our social order. It would be helpful if the people talking most loudly about race, on the right and left alike, spent less time making empty symbolic statements and more time thinking about practical solutions to this enormously challenging and indeed tragic affliction in American life.

why racism is wrong

My friend and colleague Frank Beckwith is singing my song in a recent blog post. Responding to an essay by Princeton’s Keith Whittington, Frank writes,

Without a doubt, racism ought to be opposed at every turn. But that is only because racism is a false view about the nature of human beings. At religious institutions, such as the university at which I am honored to serve (Baylor), the rejection of racism is baked into the very Christian idea of the imago dei, that human beings are by nature made in the image of God. But that image is not merely symbolic, it is descriptive of the aspect of our nature that is the most “Godlike,” our intellects. As St. Thomas Aquinas put it: “Since man is said to be the image of God by reason of his intellectual nature, he is the most perfectly like God according to that in which he can best imitate God in his intellectual nature.” Consequently, it would be a mistake for Christian institutions to try to emulate the project envisioned in the Princeton faculty letter. For it would undercut the epistemic grounds for why we believe racism is wrong: it is wrong because it is false. But that judgment depends on what the truth is, something that we can only know because of the power of our intellects. Thus, a Christian university that takes its stand against racism by giving identity politics and group perceptions pride of place over the pursuit and acquisition of truth not only diminishes the imago dei and violates the very reason for its existence but cultivates in its students reflexes that do not fulfill the demands of Christian charity: “Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” (I Corinthians 13: 4–7).

This is related, I think, to something I wrote recently about Baylor, where Frank and I teach:

President Livingstone likes to say, “The world needs a Baylor.” If Baylor simply echoes the language and the policies of other institutions, then no, the world really doesn’t need a Baylor. But if we think and speak and act out of a deep commitment to the Gospel of the Crucified and Risen One, then we can make a difference indeed.

If Baylor has a problem with racism — and I think it does — then that didn’t happen because we were insufficiently up-to-date with whatever the outrage of the moment is. It happened because we did not think and live out of the Christian convictions we claim to have. It happened because our adherence to our tradition was nominal rather than substantive. It hapened because, while we may have agreed, if asked, that all human beings are made in the image of God, we had not internalized that doctrine in such a way that it shaped our thoughts. And that’s the shortcoming that we should be attentive to. It is a moral and spiritual one, but also an intellectual one. That matters especially at a university.

After the killing of George Floyd, when universities around the country were scrambling to put together anti-racism statements, Baylor scrambled too. But if we had consistently lived up to our convictions we wouldn’t have had to. A Christian institution should be leading the way in critiquing racism, and should be doing so in distinctively Christian language that arises from specifically Christian convictions; it shouldn’t be chasing the pack and echoing the pack’s language. Think of William Wilberforce and the other evangelicals who led the way in ending Britain’s slave trade — and Phillis Wheatley, and Olaudah Equiano. Those people should be our models.

There’s opportunity for some serious self-reflection here, should we choose to take it. A few years ago I wrote a post about Christian organizations that were changing their views on sexuality, and there I argued that there are three ways to interpret such a change:

1) At one point, the organization held views about sexuality that were largely determined by its social environment, but it has now reconsidered those views in light of the Gospel and has come to a more authentically Christian understanding of the matter.

2) At one point, the organization held authentically Christian views about sexuality, but has succumbed to public pressure and fear of being scorned or condemned and now holds views that are determined by its social environment.

3) The organization has always held the views about sexuality that were socially dominant, bending its understanding of Scripture to suit the times; it just changed when (or soon after) the main stream of society changed.

Note that there is no way to read this story as one of consistent faithfulness to a Gospel message that works against the grain of a dominant culture.

I would apply the same logic to Christian institutions that are just now discovering the tragedy of American racism. If racism has always been endemic in American life, and the Christian faith gives us the intellectual and equipment we need to diagnose and combat racism, why are you just now noticing the problem? How have you been thinking about racism in the past — or not thinking about it? Isn’t it likely that when a kind of quiet racism was socially acceptable you accepted it, and when it became socially imperative to denounce it you denounced it?

Self-reflection is hard, and it’s easier, even if stressful, just to chase the pack. And there’s another factor to be considered. The cause of the moment is anti-racism, and Christianity, properly understood, is full-throatedly anti-racist, even if its reasons for taking that view are quite different from those of many activists, and its preferred means for redressing it will often be different too. But if you try to think from the heart of the Christian tradition, often you will find yourself moving in a direction very different than that of the pack — and the pack is not tolerant or forgiving of dissent. “Joining the crowd / is the only thing all men can do,” and for the crowd joining is mandatory. In these circumstance chasing the pack, even if it’s not heroic, will always be not just easier but also safer.

Texas City


As several people have pointed out, the recent explosion in Beirut bears many eerie similarities to the Texas City disaster of 1947. Also, the same kind of explosion happened on a rather smaller level seven years ago and about 20 miles from where I am sitting, in West, Texas. Maybe the world needs a serious rethinking of how we store ammonium nitrate.

The official death count for the Texas City explosions was 581, but there’s good reason to believe that many more died. And Stephen Harrigan, in Big Wonderful Thing: A History of Texas, adds this mournful postscript:

Of the 468 bodies deposited at the local funeral home and at a makeshift morgue in the garage of a gas station, 63 could not be identified. It was decided that they would be buried in the same location, with best guesses made about which body parts should go into which coffins. Preliminary arrangements were made for a parcel of land a few miles away in the town of Hitchcock to be used for the burial, but the citizens there wanted to know beforehand whether there were any black people among the dead. When they were told there were, they canceled the deal.


I have to admit that I am a bit shaken by Rod Dreher’s post yesterday — and more by the vehemence with which, today, he is doubling and tripling down on even the worst of its claims. 

If Rod had simply wanted to explain why he thinks the new bodycam footage will serve to exculpate the officers charged in the death of George Floyd, I would have no problem with that. But he decided to yoke that argument to a ranting attack on George Floyd, a determination to blame Floyd for what happened to him, even when offering sequentially two incompatible views of why he was at fault for his own death. (First it was because he resisted arrest; then, later, it didn’t matter whether he resisted arrest or not, he was about to die anyway. So whether it’s by resisting arrest or by taking drugs, “George Floyd is dead today almost entirely because of George Floyd.”) 

In responding to friends — Leah Libresco and me — who challenged him on his attitude, Rod wildly misrepresented half of what we said and wholly ignored the other half. The more feverish and rage-filled of his commentators, though, he seems to trust wholly. 

Well, that’s Rod’s call. Nothing I can do to change it. 

I still love Rod, and will not give up on him, because I just don’t give up on people — God, after all, did not give up on me. But I’m not reading his blog any more, and I can no longer defend him — which Lord knows I’ve spent enough hours doing over the post few years. 

Finally: On principle I don’t sign manifestos, but if Matthew Loftus turned this into a manifesto, I would sign it.  

putting this on the record

I think this post by my friend Rod Dreher is horrifying. I think Rod ought to be ashamed of himself for writing it, and should apologize.

Rod says that recently leaked bodycam footage of George Floyd being uncooperative with police and acting in a “bizarre” fashion “dramatically changes what we thought we knew about this story.” [UPDATE: Rod, thank God, has changed the headline that was the most offensive part of the post, so I have cut some of the things I first wrote.] George Floyd behaved strangely and was uncooperative with police. He was not violent and did not threaten anyone with violence. Derek Chauvin killed him by kneeling on his neck for eight minutes. To say that George Floyd is in any way responsible for his own death is a shockingly offensive thing to write and I struggle to process the fact that Rod wrote it. But Rod went further than that: he wrote, “George Floyd is dead today almost entirely because of George Floyd.” A thousand times no. George Floyd is dead today entirely — not almost entirely, entirely — because Derek Chauvin knelt on his neck for eight minutes. You can call that murder — I do — or you can call it something else, but that is how and why George Floyd died.

The newly released footage might — might — embarrass some of the people who have tried to paint Floyd as some kind of saint, papering over his history. But beyond I don’t see how the footage changes anything. I still think exactly what I thought before I saw that footage: Non-saints, indeed even habitual criminals, don’t deserve what was done to George Floyd. Behaving bizarrely, “shrieking and carrying on like a lunatic,” is not a capital offense. Some of us might even say that a person who is clearly not in his right senses deserves compassion. Instead George Floyd got death. Eight minutes of patient, calm, unrelenting asphyxiation.*

UPDATE: Rod has added the following to his post:

Floyd is dead because Derek Chauvin knelt on his neck for eight minutes. That is a fact. Chauvin should have been charged with something — abuse of force? — but I don’t see how it constitutes murder. I am willing to be corrected, especially by those who understand the law.

What shocked me about this video was how wildly uncooperative Floyd was prior to the neck restraint. I had believed prior to this that the police had thrown him to the ground and subdued him with the neck restraint. I did not realize all that preceded the neck restraint. I think it is a good thing that neck restraints are being abandoned by police. If Minneapolis had not had that policy, Floyd would probably be alive today.

And if Floyd had not resisted arrest for eight minutes, he would be alive today. He shouldn’t be dead, period, but his death was not the simple case I thought it was prior to seeing this video. Context matters.

This helps, but it would be a lot better if it stopped after the first sentence.

I don’t know whether the new footage will change the thinking of a jury, but it doesn’t change my thinking one iota. If George Floyd had tried to attack Derek Chauvin, then maybe; but what I see is a pathetic, desperate, sick, terrified man. The cops could have waited him out. They chose to kill him instead.

And as for Rod’s claim that “if Floyd had not resisted arrest for eight minutes, he would be alive today,” that is true in exactly the same way, and to exactly the same degree, that “If she hadn’t been wearing that short skirt she wouldn’t have been raped” is true.

* Apologies for phrasing it this way. George Floyd did not die of asphyxiation but rather as a result of “cardiopulmonary arrest complicating law enforcement subdual, restraint, and neck compression.” Rod says this means “his heart and lungs stopped working,” apparently believing that the business about “law enforcement subdual, restraint, and neck compression” was just tacked on the end of the medical examiner’s sentence for no reason.

So whereas earlier Rod said that George Floyd died because he resisted arrest, now he agrees with some of his readers that George Floyd — the same George Floyd we see in that bodycam video talking and moving freely — was just minutes from death anyway, and therefore it is complete accident that he happened to do so with a police officer’s knee on his neck for eight minutes. Funny old thing, death.

So the details of the story keep changing, but the main thrust doesn’t change — Rod puts it in bold type so we don’t miss it: “George Floyd is dead today almost entirely because of George Floyd.” Nothing else to see here, folks, move right along. And certainly not one drop of compassion for a man who is dead, and friends and family who are mourning him.

I have so much on my plate that I shouldn’t even be writing this, so let me end with one more comment. In an update to his post Rod quotes an email from Leah Libresco, writes maybe a thousand words in reply to it, but totally ignores her key point. I’m going to post Leah’s thoughts as my final contribution here, because I think Rod needs to hear them — and so do I.

When you hold up examples primarily of the excesses of the social justice movement, but not the evils it is responding to, I think you let down your readers. We’re called as Christians to bind up wounds. If you don’t like how that’s being done, point your readers at people who you admire who are doing this well, so they can be part of good work.

I was glad to see that your new book is split between pointing at the problem and giving examples of solutions. I think your blog and your readers would be well served by rebalancing your writing to point more toward what you admire than what you abhor. And remember, people act for the sake of a perceived good. Many of the people you disagree with are grappling with real evils, and you will do more to tell the whole truth when you acknowledge that they are motivated by a desire for justice, not just power.

when you feel you can’t win

In response to my recent post I have heard from a few (white) people who say something like this: Nothing we can do is right. If we speak, we’re wrong to speak; if we’re silent, we’re wrong to be silent. What are we supposed to do??

If you feel that people are treating you unfairly … well, to this at least there’s a straightforward answer for Christians:

But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. Do to others as you would have them do to you.

If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again. But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.

And like the commandment to forgive, this one doesn’t come with exceptions.

Easier said than done, right? Much easier. (I speak to you as the all-time grandmaster of Talking A Good Game.) And yet there’s a simplicity about this that’s immensely liberating. Just knowing what I’m supposed to do relieves me of the burden of worrying about other people’s intentions, other people’s morals. It doesn’t matter what their intentions and their morals are: my job is precisely the same whatever the state of their souls.

These are the words I’ve decided to spend the next month meditating on: Love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.

Race at Baylor

Rod Dreher has a post today about a letter from Linda Livingstone, Baylor’s President. Rod’s post turned up a day after I got an email from a woman whose daughter is thinking of applying to Baylor — she had seen President Livingstone’s letter and wondered whether it constitutes Baylor’s official policy on race now. My correspondent expressed her conviction that racism is deeply embedded in American society and, tragically, in the Christian church also, but then asked: “Is it possible for a student to thrive at Baylor if she doesn’t think white people are evil and the source of everything bad in the world?”

I don’t think that anything in Baylor’s statements about race in America, and at Baylor,  indicates hatred of white people, nor claims that everything bad in the world is perpetrated by us. But the sins of white people are certainly the focus. There’s justification for that. We’re going through a nationwide reckoning on race that is long overdue. The problem is that it is not a very good or constructive reckoning. Baylor could help with that, if it wanted to. But I’m not sure Baylor wants to.

The problem doesn’t really lie with what Baylor says, even though most of Baylor’s public statements paint the situation with far too broad and coarse a brush. For instance, consider the several statements that denounce white supremacy. I think white supremacy exists and is demonic, but there’s a big difference between white supremacy and  garden-variety racial prejudice — which is more destructive, overall, but less wicked. White people who are bigoted against black people aren’t on those grounds white supremacists, any more than Christians who sin habitually are on those grounds Satanists.

But any quibbles I have about what’s included in Baylor’s statements are insignificant in comparison to my concern about what’s not in them. There is quite a lot about repentance, but I have yet to find one single word about forgiveness, or reconciliation, or hope.

Christianity has a lot to say about sin, repentance, and forgiveness. It tells us that we all sin. It tells us that when we sin against a sister or brother, in thought, word, or deed, we must seek to make it right, and to ask that person’s forgiveness. And if we feel that someone has sinned against us, we are to tell that person so, to give them the opportunity to repent. The New Testament authors go on and on about these matters. 1 John 1: “If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness”; but also we should take care to “Bear fruit worthy of repentance” (Matthew 3) — we must do more than speak words of penitence, but also pay our debt to our neighbor, the debt of love (Romans 13). And our overall daily approach to one another is prescribed by St. Paul in Ephesians 4: ”So then, putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another…. Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.” Also in Colossians 3: “Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body. And be thankful.”

If you’re not a Christian, this stuff probably looks like a way to let people off easy. And in one sense it is. As Hamlet says, “Treat every man according to his desert, and who should ’scape whipping?” Christianity is all about people not getting what they deserve, and the grace of forgiveness + genuine repentance (in that order) is the engine that makes this happen. And, for Christians, them’s the universal rules: there are no exceptions.

It’s become fashionable, in some circles, to denounce calls for reconciliation. Some say, “We don’t want reconciliation, we want justice.” But to Christians, reconciliation is what justice is for. When injustice marks our relations, then what is unjust must be repaired or healed in some way, insofar as that is possible, so that we may live peaceably and lovingly with one another. Walking away from one another is not, for Christians, an option. Forgiveness must be asked for and granted, ordered and received.

In my judgment, it is the opportunity to receive and extend forgiveness that is the greatest possible inducement to repentance and amendment of life, and — I cannot stress this too strongly — a shared repentance and amendment of life make genuine community possible. I have many colleagues who believe the same, and students at Baylor can find us. We will join the prophets and cry out for justice to roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. But we will also echo St. Paul and tell you that we Christians forgive others because God in Christ has forgiven us. We will tell you that your shortcomings and failures can never outpace the mercy of God, who loves his wayward children, all of them, and will someday wipe from their eyes every tear. This is the great hope of those who wound as well as those who are wounded. And all of us sometimes wound and sometimes are wounded.

(And then we will sit down at a table and strive better to understand, and better to pursue, the good, the true, and the beautiful.)

But does Baylor University, as an institution, believe in any of this? If so, why is none of it ever mentioned in our administration’s public statements about race and racism?  Why do we strive to build an entire system of dealing with racism that doesn’t touch on the Christian Gospel at any point? Why don’t we offer a word of hope? President Livingstone likes to say, “The world needs a Baylor.” If Baylor simply echoes the language and the policies of other institutions, then no, the world really doesn’t need a Baylor. But if we think and speak and act out of a deep commitment to the Gospel of the Crucified and Risen One, then we can make a difference indeed.

(This is an updated and significantly revised version of the post I wrote yesterday.)

more on the mania for unanimity

Theodore Dalrymple writes,

Lewis Hamilton, the six-time world champion British Formula One driver, recently criticised his colleagues in the sport for saying nothing in the wake George Floyd’s death.

If any answer to this accusation were required, a reasonable one might have been that it was not their place as mere car racers to comment on such matters. If they had wanted to engage in polemics, however, they might have pointed out that Hamilton had remained silent about many terrible events in the world, for example (to take only one such) the war around the Great Lakes of Central Africa, which so far has claimed not one life, but several million lives. Black lives matter to Hamilton, they might have said, but apparently not the lives of these Africans.

Now, Dalrymple is nothing if not a curmudgeonly traditionalist; and he fails to note that Hamilton linked racism in the U.S. with racism in his own country and the rest of Europe; but still, doesn’t Dalrymple raise an interesting question here? That is: How exactly does a narrative coalesce such that “silence is violence” about some forms of suffering but not others, even if the others have greater scope?

Consider this: Several of the largest tech companies in the world have banded together as The Technology Coalition: “We seek to prevent and eradicate online child sexual exploitation and abuse.” Why is no one — literally no one — demanding that businesses and other institutions make statements against the sexual exploitation of children? Why, for that matter, did I feel that I needed to write something about police brutality in America but not one word about Central African wars, or child sexual exploitation, or China’s treatment of the Uighurs, or a dozen other atrocities that by any rational comparative assessment are worse than police brutality in America?

Well, at least in part I felt the need to write because, as I commented in this earlier post, I’ve been thinking and writing about American racism all my adult life. But as I also note in that post, it wasn’t that long ago that I had to deal with people who criticized me for focusing too much on racial relations. Why has that topic now become something about which there are universal demands for public statements?

Three reasons. The murder of George Floyd (1) happened in America, (2) was captured on a video that seems agonizingly long but is just short enough for people to watch fully, and (3) was shared widely on social media — American social media.

(1) What happens in this country will for obvious reasons be more evident and relevant to Americans than what happens elsewhere, but the U.S. is also the media center of the world, and all eyes are typically drawn here. That’s why anything that Americans obsess over is likely to become at least a point of interest for non-Americans.

(2) George Floyd’s murder was captured on video, and video has power that text does not have. Everyone could see just how long Derek Chauvin crushed George Floyd’s neck, the remorseless asphyxiation as onlookers pleaded with him to stop. But the murder wasn’t bloody and wasn’t grossly violent, and so it could be shown. (The very slowness that makes it horrible also makes it publishable.) Compare that with child sexual exploitation, which is often recorded on video but which Twitter and Facebook wouldn’t allow anyone to post; or with depredations that never get filmed at all. We are often at the mercy of the emotions aroused by what’s put before our eyes. We feel the need for catharsis, for some kind of purging of what we have seen. Our visual cortex orients our attention and our moral response.

(3) Social media are force multipliers for America-centrism and visual stimulation; and they multiply these forces in the way they always do, by generating herd effects and the madness of crowds. The particular kind of madness generated here is a mania for unanimity that doesn’t just punish dissent, but even punishes agreement if the agreement isn’t loud enough or phrased in precisely the correct way. And this moment certainly leaves no room for those who aren’t paying much attention to George Floyd because they’re concerned with the seemingly endless wars in Central Africa or with the horrific specter of child sexual exploitation.

By contrast, I think there are so many cruelties and injustices in this world that anyone who is working to constrain any of them should be applauded. And no one should assume that others are inactive simply because they’re not strutting and fretting their hour upon the social-media stage. It turns out that the biggest problem with the herd mentality is the hatred generated for anyone who won’t — for any reason — join that herd. There’s no violence in silence about a problem the great majority of the angriest weren’t thinking about in April and won’t be thinking about in August either. I am glad that the death of George Floyd has forced many Americans to confront injustices that we have ignored or minimized for far too long; but if you’re just using Floyd’s death as an excuse to coerce and threaten others, you’re not helping.

not so much

On January 25, Joe Biden tweeted that “Transgender equality is the civil rights issue of our time.” The. I texted a friend, “Because we’ve fixed all the problems Martin Luther King was concerned about?”

When the #MeToo movement was dominating public attention, I remember hearing Christian commentators say that if you‘re a preacher and you’re not preaching about #MeToo you’re failing your congregation. Later, or maybe before, it was the border crisis that was the obligatory homiletic topic. Those same commentators are now equally insistent about preaching on George Floyd and systemic racism — and yet, as far as I know, neither systemic sexism nor government-sponsored xenophobia have been conquered.

I’m reminded of a motif in Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. From time to time in the book some character comments that “Time passes” — to which some other character replies, “That’s how it goes. But not so much.” This is the correct reply: Not so much.

A couple of years ago I gave a lecture at a university on difference and civility — it wasn’t this talk but it was on similar themes — and in the Q&A afterwards I got some pushback against my reliance on examples from the Civil Rights Movement and the broader history of American racial politics. The people pushing back thought I should’ve been talking about … topics of more recent attention. I replied with two points. First, I said, I grew up in Alabama during the Civil Rights era and what happened there and then has left a permanent mark on me. I didn’t end up making it my academic speciality to work on such matters, but I have written about them off and on my entire career, and expect that I will continue to do so. Second, I said, I don’t believe matters of race are any less fraught in America 2018 than they were in America 1968.

Human beings have overwhelmingly powerful cravings for novelty and unanimity. We want new problems to face, because we’re tired of the old ones: they bore us, and remind us of our failures to solve them. And, especially in times of stress, we crave environments in which dissent is silenced and even mere difference is erased. We call that “solidarity,” but it‘s more like an instinctual bullying. You must attend to the thing I am attending to. I despise both of those tendencies. They’ve turned everyone into attention muggers.

If three months ago you were primarily focused on addressing sexism in the workplace, it seems to me that you ought to be allowed, indeed encouraged, to keep thinking about and working on that now, when everyone else is talking about police brutality. If your passionate concern is the lack of health care in poor communities, here or abroad, I think you should feel free to stick with that, even if it means not joining in protests against police racism. If you’ve turned your farm into a shelter for abused or neglected animals, and caring for them doesn’t leave you time to get on social media with today’s approved hashtags, bless you. You’re doing the Lord’s work.

As for me, I will probably continue to do what I’ve done most of my life, which is to think and pray and sometimes write about racism — even when Twitter and the media that are governed by Twitter have moved on, as assuredly they will, to some new topic about which they will insist that everyone state the correct opinion. Neither novelty nor unanimity is a social good.

Here’s Auden:

Anywhere you like, somewhere
on broad-chested life-giving Earth,

anywhere between her thirstlands
and undrinkable Ocean,

the crowd stands perfectly still,
its eyes (which seem one) and its mouths

(which seem infinitely many)
expressionless, perfectly blank.

The crowd does not see (what everyone sees)
a boxing match, a train wreck,

a battleship being launched,
does not wonder (as everyone wonders)

who will win, what flag she will fly,
how many will be burned alive,

is never distracted
(as everyone is always distracted)

by a barking dog, a smell of fish,
a mosquito on a bald head:

the crowd sees only one thing
(which only the crowd can see)

an epiphany of that
which does whatever is done.

Whatever god a person believes in,
in whatever way he believes,

(no two are exactly alike)
as one of the crowd he believes

and only believes in that
in which there is only one way of believing.

Few people accept each other and most
will never do anything properly,

but the crowd rejects no one, joining the crowd
is the only thing all men can do.

tiptoe stance

I’ve read several articles and posts recently featuring the same conceit: that COVID–19 and police violence are the “twin plagues” or “parallel plagues” of black America. This is in one important sense highly misleading. It’s too simple and therefore easy to refute or ignore. But that’s not the whole story.

If you visit the Mapping Police Violence site, you’ll see near the top of the page this statement: “Police killed 1,098 people in 2019.” Then, a little farther down the page, you get the information that “Black people were 24% of those killed despite being only 13% of the population.” Which means that American police killed 263 black people last year. It’s not clear how many black people have died from COVID–19, but a reasonable estimate would be 25,000. That means that the coronavirus has killed 95 times more black Americans in just a few months than police killed in all of 2019. Put that way, the plagues scarcely seem comparable, do they?

But let’s not leave it at that. What we need here, if we’re going to continue to speak the language of plague, that is, the language of disease, is the distinction between acute and chronic affliction. I’m speaking metaphorically here, in terms of how whole populations are affected by some invasive, destructive force, whether it’s a literal biological disease or not. I’m thinking of the black population of America as a single body. And in relation to that body COVID–19 is an acute disorder. It has sprung up quickly, out of nowhere, and afflicted people intensely. It just might go away. (From my keyboard to God’s ears.)

Police violence, by contrast, is a chronic disorder. It goes on year after year after year, decade after decade after decade. I have not experienced anything like that, but I expect that something of the endless tension of it is captured in this famous passage from Martin Luther King’s “Letter from the Birmingham Jail”:

Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say, “Wait.” But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate filled policemen curse, kick and even kill your black brothers and sisters; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six year old daughter why she can’t go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky, and see her beginning to distort her personality by developing an unconscious bitterness toward white people; when you have to concoct an answer for a five year old son who is asking: “Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?”; when you take a cross county drive and find it necessary to sleep night after night in the uncomfortable corners of your automobile because no motel will accept you; when you are humiliated day in and day out by nagging signs reading “white” and “colored”; when your first name becomes “n****r,” your middle name becomes “boy” (however old you are) and your last name becomes “John,” and your wife and mother are never given the respected title “Mrs.”; when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never quite knowing what to expect next, and are plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of “nobodiness” — then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait. There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and men are no longer willing to be plunged into the abyss of despair. I hope, sirs, you can understand our legitimate and unavoidable impatience.

Take a look again at that long, long sentence in the middle of the passage, how it goes on and on, how you keep pausing for a second but only a second, never being able to stop long enough to catch your breath. “Living constantly at tiptoe stance.” A chronic affliction.

My dear friend Garnette Cadogan just posted a reflection on these matters, and if you listen to the music he chose to accompany his words you’ll note this theme again and again. To cite just one example, this from KRS-One:

My grandfather had to deal with the cops
My great-grandfather dealt with the cops
My great grandfather had to deal with the cops
And then my great, great, great, great — when it’s gonna stop?

That’s why Toni Morrison, in a passage also quoted by Garnette, speaks of a cry that has “no bottom and no top, just circles and circles of sorrow.”

If you think of the black population of this country as a body, then COVID–19 is indeed a terrible plague ravaging it. The fear, the expectation, of police violence isn’t like that: it’s instead a misery that the body (the whole body of black Americans) must suffer and suffer and suffer, with no end in sight. People who have chronic diseases know that what’s attacking them probably won’t kill them — but even if it doesn’t, it might make them wish they were dead. It frays their nerves. It disrupts their sleep. It damages their relationships and weakens their judgment. It makes them vulnerable to other afflictions that really could kill them.

If you’re a black person in America, walking down the streets of a city, the cops probably won’t stop you. But they might. If a cop stops you, he probably won’t kill you. But he might. It’s a non-trivial possibility. The constant awareness of that possibility is itself an affliction. Garnette’s essay and the music associated with it testify to that.

We shouldn’t conflate the sudden onset of COVID–19 and the endless tension that arises from walking, or doing anything else, while black. But keeping them conceptually distinct, we can still see them as have this essential thing in common: they attack the bodies of black Americans, they attack the social body that is Black America.

Those of us who are white don’t know much, firsthand, about that chronic affliction. But you know, while the coronavirus itself might be acute, for all of us concern about it has become chronic. Buying groceries probably won’t make us ill. But it might. And if we get ill, we probably won’t die. But we might. It’s a non-trivial possibility. We’re learning how to live at tiptoe stance. Our nerves are fraying after just a few months. Imagine what it would be like to live this way all our lives long.

letter from a reader

In response to this post, Christopher Evatt wrote thoughtfully and incisively (I post with his permission): 

Beyond what you mention, I think equating “protection of white, Western cultural heritage” with white nationalism or white supremacy is foolish. It plays into one of many false binaries afflicting our current society – that in order to oppose racism, one must reject Western culture in toto. In the process it gives up far too much. I’m a classical pianist, and most of my work involves performing the music of dead European composers. In that sense, one could say that I have devoted much of my life to the protection and preservation of white, Western cultural heritage. (Of course, the words “white” and “Western”, while meaningful to some extent in present-day American society, elide a lot of finer distinctions otherwise.) But I’m certainly no white nationalist or supremacist because of that. There’s no way I’m going to give up Bach or Beethoven to cosplaying Nazi-wannabes. Just because some people want to use the masterpieces of Western culture to claim superiority for themselves despite not having contributed anything to culture themselves doesn’t mean we should declare appreciation of Western culture as inevitably linked to racial supremacy. I know it’s human nature to swing the pendulum all the way to the other end in reaction to some form of excess (and to be fair, Morris’ piece is among the better of the ex-evangelical genre of writing to which it belongs), but that’s all the more reason why we need to be cautious in our reactions, against all the incentives our present politics and culture hold out to us.

Principalities, Powers, and BLM

Eugene Rivers:

For the most part, BLM activists – like the post-1965 SNCC activists, the Black Panther Party, and assorted other radical black groups before them – exhibit little interest in, or comprehension of, the larger lessons of history. This is because they lack the deep spiritual and moral insight that must be the grounding for any sustainable movement. Having rejected the God of their fathers, they have also rejected the fatherhood of God.

This philosophical rejection is an act of spiritual and cultural suicide. Failure to discern the demonic character of white supremacy limits these activists’ ability to understand the fight they are engaged in, and hinders their efforts to develop long-term strategies. They can only describe the sadistic violence they witness and never fully understand or conquer it, so long as they ignore its spiritual source.

More importantly, they fail to use the only means of combatting the demonic: intercessory prayer. Instead, they are easily sucked into the spirit of the demonic themselves as they resort to violence, anger, and hate – a failing less common in the BLM movement than in Antifa, though the danger applies to both.

signed with that cross

Al Raboteau:

African-American Christianity has continuously confronted the nation with troubling questions about American exceptionalism. Perhaps the most troubling was this: “If Christ came as the Suffering Servant, who resembled Him more, the master or the slave?” Suffering-slave Christianity stood as a prophetic condemnation of America’s obsession with power, status, and possessions. African-American Christians perceived in American exceptionalism a dangerous tendency to turn the nation into an idol and Christianity into a clan religion. Divine election brings not preeminence, elevation, and glory, but — —as black Christians know all too well — —humiliation, suffering, and rejection. Chosenness, as reflected in the life of Jesus, led to a cross. The lives of his disciples have been signed with that cross. To be chosen, in this perspective, means joining company not with the powerful and the rich but with those who suffer: the outcast, the poor, and the despised.

everyday people

: 1 :

On a summer day in 1978, when I was an undergraduate at the University of Alabama-Birmingham, I took the woman I was dating to lunch at our favorite deli. It was a new place, but already popular, and the owners had squeezed as many tiny tables into their tiny space as they could manage. Teri and I wedged ourselves in among the other diners, but without heeding them: we had eyes only for each other.

At one point we discussed the unfortunate fact that, despite the abundant Alabama sunshine, we remained pale as ghosts and needed to find some way to get tanned. And then we heard what sounded like giggles from the seat next to me. I darted my eyes over and saw a young black woman, quietly laughing as she looked down at her food. She was alone, probably on her lunch break from a nearby office.

She looked up at us in an obviously friendly way, so I held my arm up next to hers and commented that I had a long way to go if I was going to catch up with her. She said, in a tone that was half comment and half incredulous question, “Some white people pay to make their skin darker.” We admitted that that was true. “Didn’t cost me anything to get this skin,” she said, “but I’ve been paying for it ever since I got it.” And then she smiled so warmly that we knew it was okay if we smiled too.

Maybe you had to be there, and there then, but the whole scene felt like a small victory. A bittersweet one, to be sure, and please don’t ignore the “bitter”; but a kind of victory none the less. Because what we were laughing about together were anything but a laughing matter in Birmingham, Alabama even a few years earlier.

: 2 :

A little more than a decade before our encounter, that young woman wouldn’t have been served at any cafe or diner or restaurant in Birmingham that catered to white people. And though the Jim Crow laws designed to enforce such segregation had been abolished by the Civil Rights Act of 1964, I found myself wondering: When did that young woman first dare to come, alone, to a restaurant owned and patronized by the white people of Birmingham? She seemed so at ease sitting there next to Teri and me, evidently as comfortable there as we were. But appearances can deceive. I am not sure of her age, but she was at most a handful of years older than we were, and of course she remembered what it had been like — the social world into which all three of us were born. I myself can even remember, from my earliest visits to the Birmingham Zoo, the WHITE and COLORED drinking fountains. Such things would have been far more vivid to her.

Though the public schools of Birmingham were supposed to be desegregated by the time I got to them, they weren’t; or not all of them were. I went to an all-white school through fourth grade, and then, when I transferred to Elyton School in one of the oldest parts of the city to join what they called an “enrichment class,” I found that I had, among my twenty-three classmates, two black ones. It didn’t take long to get used to them: Johnny was shy and diffident, Esther was kind of nerdy and had a crush on a guy named Eddie — which, unless my memory flatters us all, was hysterically funny to us not because Esther was black but because she was a girl. Integrated schools quickly seemed normal, not the sort of thing we thought about much; not even when Johnny didn’t return to the “enrichment class” the next year, and Esther left the year after that, and our class was wholly white.

I came to Elyton in 1967. By the time I began high school, in 1971, things had changed. In our old neighborhood on the west side of Birmingham I was zoned to what had been an all-black school, Parker High, and my mother told me that I would have been one of only six white students there. (I do not know where she got this information, though my mother is the kind of person to discover information when it can be had.) So we moved to another neighborhood, within the zone of a different school, Banks High, where 70% of the students were white. And in my first semester there, we had a riot: a proper race riot.

It happened at a pep rally for the football team. At a suitably exalted moment in the proceedings, a white boy sitting in the front row of the gym unfurled an enormous Confederate battle flag and started waving it about — until a dark form leaped from above, right onto his back, and began whaling away on him. The fighting soon became more general, and those of us who were small or nonviolent or both drifted away. A couple of friends and I shrugged and walked home. I don’t recall any other major racial tensions in my high school days, though of course there were plenty of minor ones; but an event like that is not the sort of thing that simply evaporates. It hovers in the memory.

And that’s how things seemed to go for a while in Birmingham: a step forward, a step back. In my freshman or sophomore year of college I ran into one of my high school classmates — the closest I had to a black friend at that school, a lively and funny woman who later became a preacher — and we greeted each other with a hug. We talked a few minutes and then parted, and as I walked away I noticed a white student in a baseball cap staring at me with open disgust. Only then did I realize that I had done something that until very recently had been almost unthinkable in Birmingham: I had made affectionate physical contact with a person of another race. It was apparently still unthinkable to that guy, I saw, and then (if the truth must be told) I congratulated myself for not having considered, until that moment, the color of my friend’s skin. I didn’t spare the time to ask why she and I had fallen so completely out of touch. Indeed, I have never seen her again. But at the time the encounter seemed to be another of those bittersweet victories — very like that moment in the deli, which happened a year or two later.

: 3 :

That’s what it was like in Birmingham for a long time: a step forward, a step back, a step back, a step forward. And then — after I left the city for good in 1979, and came back only for occasional visits to see my family — fewer and fewer of the steps seemed to be towards racial integration, racial equality, racial healing. Just as I left, Birmingham elected its first black mayor, Richard Arrington; but that was possible in part because of white flight. As whites decamped for the suburbs and places further afield, the political leadership of the city became overwhelmingly and then uniformly black.

As did the city itself. The most recent statistics I’ve seen say that 1.2% of the students in the Birmingham public schools are white. One point two percent. Most of the few whites who remain in Birmingham, in a handful of elegant neighborhoods on the slopes of Red Mountain, send their children to private schools. And, as Nikole Hannah-Jones has recently reported for the New York Times, for some years now the whites that have fled to the suburbs are trying to make the schools there more fully white. In my lifetime I have seen an enormously powerful apparatus of segregation dismantled … and then slowly, gradually, almost imperceptibly, reconstructed in another form.

: 4 :

One of my black high-school classmates, a tall, quiet, friendly guy named André, used to go around singing the old Sly and the Family Stone song “Everyday People” — and even then we thought of it as an old song: rock and roll moved fast in those days, and it seemed to us that the landscape had altered a good deal between 1968, when the song first appeared, and the early Seventies. The most famous line from the song, “different strokes for different folks,” already seemed cheesy to us. It’s an incredibly infectious tune and beat, though, and I doubt that André sang it ironically — but again, who knows? I just associate the song with him, and with an era of hopefulness about American, and especially Southern, race relations, that was slipping out of our grasp, perhaps already had slipped away.

That race riot at our school pep rally happened within a month or so of the release of a new LP by Sly and the Family Stone — an LP that had been eagerly anticipated, but that on its appearance generated some shock waves. The bouncy, happy tunes that had made the band famous were set aside; the mood was dark, bitter. Some of the band’s earlier hits were even parodied on the new record: the rhythms and lyrical patterns of 1969’s “Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)” get undermined and reworked in “Thank You For Talking to Me Africa.”

Lookin’ at the devil,
Grinnin’ at his gun.
Fingers start shakin’,
I begin to run.

Sly Stone had wanted to title the album Africa Talks to You, but in the end decided that he would answer the question posed by Marvin Gaye in his LP from earlier in 1971, What’s Going On? Sly’s answer: There’s a Riot Goin’ On. Yes, there was, at a high school in Birmingham, Alabama, across the continent from Sly Stone’s San Francisco. And in so many other places as well. Greil Marcus, in his classic book Mystery Train: Images of America in Rock and Roll Music, describes There’s a Riot Goin’ On as “emerging out of a pervasive sense, at once public and personal, that the good ideas of the sixties had gone to their limits, turned back upon themselves, and produced evil where only good was expected.”

A few years ago I was in Birmingham and I drove through the neighborhoods near my old high school. The only white person I saw was an electrician talking animatedly to a black lady in her driveway. When I was fourteen I thought you were rich, or near enough, if you lived in a brick house, and all these nice neat brick houses on winding roads and hilly lots are occupied by black people now. Which in many ways is good, very good, and yet … As I was driving along — I swear this happened — “Everyday People” came on the radio, and I remembered André singing it in the halls, and though I couldn’t stop myself from tapping my foot I thought of all the hopes the song had represented and how quickly — and then slowly — they had been betrayed, and I thought to myself: This is the saddest song in the world.

thanks to Vincent Lloyd

… for two important reflections on the possibilities and perils of the black Christian intellectual: here and here. What both of these pieces suggest is that the Mannheim definition of the intellectual that I used in my essay for Harper’s has difficulty capturing the particular social situation of the black thinker. This makes me wonder whether the best way to address this problem is by expanding the definition of the intellectual in some way, or by thinking of the black intellectual as a unique case requiring its own distinctive definitional boundaries. In any case I’m  grateful for the generous interlocution; Lloyd has given me a lot of important stuff to think about.

a suggestion about the future of Wheaton College

When I was visiting Wheaton College last week I happened to hear a story on NPR about Intel’s attempts to create a more diverse workforce, with more women and minorities. Apparently Intel is putting a lot of energy behind this endeavor, and having some success, though retention continues to be a problem.

I was especially taken by one moment in the report:

Freada Kapor Klein is an investor who funds diversity-focused startups like Jopwell, which connects job candidates who are underrepresented minorities to tech companies. Klein says culture is key.

Tech companies don’t just make new engineers pass a coding test. They have to pass a “culture fit” test. That’s where a huge amount of bias creeps in, she says, as existing teams only want a unicorn. “They are looking for the one-in-a-million person who comes from a different racial, ethnic, cultural, gender background, but in every other respect is identical to the white and Asian men who work there,” Klein says. “That’s not diversity.”

It seems to me that this is a story that the leadership of Wheaton College should meditate on as the college tries to move on from its difficult relationship with Larycia Hawkins. I believe — I have good reason to believe — that Wheaton really, truly, seriously wants to have a faculty and student body that is more reflective of the ethnic and cultural range of worldwide evangelical Christianity. But I also saw, during my twenty-nine years on the Wheaton faculty and several years as director of the Faculty Faith and Learning program, far too many situations in which non-white faculty members were treated, if not with outright suspicion, then at least with bemusement and puzzlement, because they did not express themselves in ways that matched the cultural practices of white midwestern evangelicalism.

Minority faculty were of course not the only ones to have this kind of experience; it happened also to white faculty from charismatic or Pentecostal traditions, and to some others as well. But minority faculty — who not incidentally tend also to be charismatic or Pentecostal — always seemed to be under deeper and more lasting scrutiny.

I remember one black colleague who devoted two weeks to studying a book and then, at the end of that time, said to his class, “I don’t think that went as well as it should have. Let’s do it again. We’ll have to leave out the next book or two on the syllabus.” Some students — I don’t know how many — went ballistic over this. That’s not what the syllabus says! I’ve already bought those other books and now we’re not even going to read them! Some faculty and administrators became concerned over this “lack of professionalism”; they wondered whether Wheaton could afford to have faculty “the students don’t really respect.” Me, I just wished I had the courage to go off-script that far; though I guess the deep-seated reluctance to go off-script is a trait I shared with white midwestern evangelicalism, one that helped make me comfortable at Wheaton, even though I am not midwestern. But I also believe that if I had gone off-script in precisely that way it would not have created the same degree of consternation. I am convinced that my colleague’s race made students, faculty, and administrators wonder what else he might do that deviated from the script.

To my lasting regret, that colleague left Wheaton, under less than ideal circumstances, and I believe he was allowed to leave simply because he wasn’t a unicorn. He was not someone who had dark skin but was “every other respect … identical” to the overwhelmingly white world he worked in. He didn’t “fit the culture” — and note that in this case the lack of fit was not even theological, or spiritual, but (supposedly) professional.

But what if the narrow scope of “the culture” is a bug, not a feature? What if a more ethnically diverse faculty, even if it contained people who made some of the existing faculty and administration and alumni and donors uncomfortable, helped the college to achieve its mission? I made a similar argument some years ago in suggesting that Wheaton should be open to hiring Roman Catholics — my logic here is fundamentally the same. What if an institution’s existing culture, and its concern to hire people who “fit” its existing culture, actually inhibit its ability to fulfill its mission?

Wheaton has a detailed and quite specific Statement of Faith, but again and again over the past few decades faculty who can enthusiastically sign that Statement have been deemed not quite right, not comme il faut, not “one of us.” The (often inchoate) sense of institutional culture and “fit” has too often trumped the college’s explicit statements of what it’s all about. Here’s my proposal: What if Wheaton were to trust its own Statement of Faith? What if it were to open its doors to people who don’t look or speak or think like the typical Wheaton person — but who share the same convictions? Might the college not, ultimately, be greatly invigorated by all that new blood? Might it not come closer to the vision granted to John the Revelator? “After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands. And they cried out in a loud voice:

Salvation belongs to our God,
who sits on the throne,
and to the Lamb.

the blame game 

In June, racist Dylann Roof massacred nine black Christians meeting for a mid-week Bible study. He hoped to launch a race war, as he explained in a manifesto you can read over at Mother Jones. The second paragraph of the manifesto begins, “The event that truly awakened me was the Trayvon Martin case.” He talks about all the media coverage of the case and how it radicalized him. Some in the media immediately linked the shooting in Colorado Springs to videos showing Planned Parenthood officials discussing human organ harvesting and trade as part of their abortion business. The implication — if not outright claim — is that people shouldn’t talk about what Planned Parenthood does, much less speak against the injustice of abortion, because some people might take such discussions the wrong way. But you may remember that nobody in the media suggested that they shouldn’t have highlighted the killing of Trayvon Martin for fear that some racist might be set off of by the discussions. And that’s a good thing, because the idea that the media shouldn’t cover news because someone might be so bothered by it that he goes on a rampage would be very stupid.

Mollie Hemingway

Martese Johnson and other UVa black students are in effect complaining about racial profiling, about singling out black students and treating them differently because of their race. It sounds like a principled argument, but it is not. It is wrong for the state to distribute either benefits (such as preferential admission) or burdens (such as racial profiling by police, stopping or arresting blacks disproportionately for the same offenses committed by others) on the basis of race. If treating black applicants to UVa differently because of their race violates no principle, why does it become a violation once they arrive?

Racial Profiling at the University of Virginia | National Review Online. Maybe because one mode of “treating differently” is legal and the other isn’t? Can Rosenberg really believe that if someone’s race is a factor in his or her admission to a university, then that person has somehow waived the right to protest against unprovoked and unjustified assault by law-enforcement officials? I don’t remember the last time I saw an argument more ridiculous than this.

This article reports the results of a nationwide audit study testing how Christian churches welcome potential newcomers to their churches as a function of newcomers’ race and ethnicity. We sent email inquiries to 3,120 churches across the United States. The emails were ostensibly from someone moving to the area and looking for a new church to attend. That person’s name was randomly varied to convey different racial and ethnic associations. In response to these inquiries, representatives from mainline Protestant churches—who generally embrace liberal, egalitarian attitudes toward race relations—actually demonstrated the most discriminatory behavior. They responded most frequently to emails with white-sounding names, somewhat less frequently to black- or Hispanic-sounding names, and much less to Asian-sounding names. They also sent shorter, less welcoming responses to nonwhite names. In contrast, evangelical Protestant and Catholic churches showed little variation across treatment groups in their responses. These findings underscore the role of homophily, organizational homogeneity, and the costs of racial integration in perpetuating the racial segregation of American religious life.

Then a demonstrator directed his attention to an older man all but melting on a bottom step. “He looked fatigued, lethargic — weak,” Mr. Smith said. “I knew there was something very wrong with him.”  

He called up the steps to the Columbia fire chief, Aubrey Jenkins, for assistance. Then, with his left arm around the man’s back and his right hand on the man’s right arm, he walked the swastika-adorned demonstrator up the steps, as many as 40. Slowly, steadily, all the while giving encouragement:  

We’re going to make it. Just keep on going.  

A female demonstrator shadowed the climb. On the back of her black shirt appeared a familiar white-supremacist slogan (“Because the beauty of the White Aryan woman must not perish from the earth”). She kept asking Mr. Smith whether the man was going to be all right — as if his safety, as well as his health, might be in some jeopardy.

Any time I make [on Twitter] some sort of joke along racial lines or dealing with racial politics, I know that immediately there’s going to be a wave of positive response from people who know where I’m coming from and who share a basic aesthetic. The first five minutes, I know that I’m going to get positive responses. Then, minute six, it starts to go beyond that little bubble. Some people come in who don’t even recognize the humor, because humor is a declaration of in-group status. The further away you go from the center, the less they understand the context of it. Twitter is not just American. Race is completely based on context, so as soon as the discussion goes out of America, say once it gets to Britain, it gets a slightly different take. Then it goes past that and things get more and more absurd. Once that wave hits outside of America, all of a sudden people are looking at my picture going, ‘Why is this guy talking like he’s black?’

Scripture and slavery

The inability of evangelicals to agree on how slavery should be construed according to Scripture, which all treated as their ultimate religious norm, was in fact connected to the economic individualism of American society.  The recourse to arms for civil war did reflect, at the very least, a glaring weakness in republican and democratic polity.  From the outside [i.e. in Europe] it was clear that American material interests exerted a strong influence on American theological conclusions. …

Foreign commentary makes clear how tightly American religious convictions were bound to general patterns of American life.  Only because religious belief and practice had grown so strong before the [Civil War and Slavery] conflict, only because they had done so much to create the nation that went to war, did that conflict result in such a great challenge to religious belief and practice after the war.  The theological crisis of the Civil War was that while voluntary reliance on the Bible had contributed greatly to the creation of American national culture, that same voluntary reliance on Scripture led only to deadlock over what should be done about slavery. …

The issue for American history was that only two courses of action seemed open when confronting such a deadlock.  The first was the course taken in the Civil war, which effectively handed the business of the theologians over to the generals to decide by ordeal what the Bible meant. … The second [course of action], though never self-consciously adopted by all Americans in all circumstances, has been followed since the Civil War.  That course is an implicit national agreement not to base public policy of any consequence on interpretations of scripture.   The result of following that second course since the Civil War has been ambiguous.  In helping to provoke the war and greatly increase its intensity, the serious commitment to Scripture rendered itself ineffective for shaping broad policy in the public arena.  In other words, even before there existed a secularization in the United States brought on by new immigrants, scientific acceptance of evolution, the higher criticism of scripture, and urban industrialization, Protestants during the Civil War had marginalized themselves as bearers of religious perspective in the body politic.

— Mark Noll, The Civil War as a Theological Crisis. An incredibly important passage for the current moment, as pointed out at agreatercourage — see Derrick’s further reflections there.

The response that I both respect the most, and which discourages me the most, is this one: black people should not have to debate their intellectual equality. And indeed, it’s true. They shouldn’t have to. But I don’t know what that “should” means. I don’t know what it refers to. I don’t know what valence it has. What does should have to do with anything? Eric Garner should be alive. Chelsea Manning should be free. The poor should be clothed and fed. Racism should be over. Of course black people shouldn’t have to debate their intellectual equality, and it’s nice that in progressive environs, they largely don’t have to. But America writ large does not operate by the social norms of lefty Twitter, and the effects of the presumption of black stupidity are pernicious and destructive, and so that should has no meaning, to me. Lots of things should be, and aren’t, and so you are forced to deal with the world as it is.

The word “should” is the worst thing that ever happened to the left. “Should” has become a virus in the contemporary left, a word that is more effective at defeating left-wing resistance than any right-wing argument ever could be. It seems like every day I read fellow leftists telling me what they should and shouldn’t have to do, rather than what they are compelled by injustice to do. “Feminists should not have to teach people the importance of feminism; it’s their responsibility to educate themselves.” Perhaps it is. But they won’t educate themselves. No one will make the world a just place but us. That’s why there is such a thing as feminism. The struggle exists precisely because the world does not fix itself and its people do not educate themselves. That’s such a basic statement of political principles it frightens me that it has to be said at all.

— race “science” and shoulds | Fredrik deBoer. This seems exactly right to me, even incontrovertibly true, which makes me wonder what kind of response Freddie will get to it.

Yet, if the American Negro has arrived at his identity by virtue of the absoluteness of his estrangement from his past, American white men still nourish the illusion that there is some means of recovering the European innocence, of returning to a state in which black men do not exist. This is one of the greatest errors Americans can make. The identity they fought so hard to protect has, by virtue of that battle, undergone a change: Americans are as unlike any other white people in the world as it is possible to be. I do not think, for example, that it is too much to suggest that the American vision of the world-which allows so little reality, generally speaking, for any of the darker forces in human life, which tends until today to paint moral issues in glaring black and white-owes a great deal to the battle waged by Americans to maintain between themselves and black men a human separation which could not be bridged. It is only now beginning to be borne in on us — very faintly, it must be admitted, very slowly, and very much against our will — that this vision of the world is dangerously inaccurate, and perfectly useless. For it protects our moral high-mindedness at the terrible expense of weakening our grasp of reality. People who shut their eyes to reality simply invite their own destruction, and anyone who insists on remaining in a state of innocence long after that innocence is dead turns himself into a monster.

The time has come to realize that the interracial drama acted out on the American continent has not only created a new black man, it has created a new white man, too. No road whatever will lead Americans back to the simplicity of this European village where white men still have the luxury of looking on me as a stranger. I am not, really, a stranger any longer for any American alive. One of the things that distinguishes Americans from other people is that no other people has ever been so deeply involved in the lives of black men, and vice versa. This fact faced, with all its implications, it can be seen that the history of the American Negro problem is not merely shameful, it is also something of an achievement. For even when the worst has been said, it must also be added that the perpetual challenge posed by this problem was always, somehow, perpetually met. It is precisely this black-white experience which may prove of indispensable value to us in the world we face today. This world is white no longer, and it will never be white again.

— James Baldwin, “Stranger in the Village” (1953)

The Code of the Streets, a term popularized by the hip-hop duo Gang Starr and the sociologist Elijah Anderson, is the code of men who have come to feel that they have nothing to lose. Much of the struggle with young black boys and teenagers today lies in getting them to see all that violence endangers. At 13, I could imagine not going to jail, not getting shot, being a responsible father. I could not envision much more. I could name careers and other paths, but I had no real sense that it was possible for me to get there, or how. Somehow I got there. And on arrival, I found myself in the company of others like me: an entire fraternity founded on the need to comprehend the folkways of a world we had never been sure we’d see.

Some people come up expecting to win. We came up hoping not to lose. Even in victory, the distance between expectation and results is dizzying for both. The old code remains a part of you, and with it comes a particular strain of impostor syndrome. You have learned another language, but your accent betrays you. And there are times when you wonder if the real you is not here among the professionals, but out there in the streets.

Along with all of the other rising inequalities we’ve become so familiar with – in income, in wealth, in access to politicians – we confront now a fundamental inequality of accountability. We can have a just society whose guiding ethos is accountability and punishment, where both black kids dealing weed in Harlem and investment bankers peddling fraudulent securities on Wall Street are forced to pay for their crimes, or we can have a just society whose guiding ethos is forgiveness and second chances, one in which both Wall Street banks and foreclosed households are bailed out, in which both inside traders and street felons are allowed to rejoin polite society with the full privileges of citizenship intact. But we cannot have a just society that applies the principle of accountability to the powerless and the principle of forgiveness to the powerful. This is the America in which we currently reside.

— Chris Hayes, quoted by Ta-Nehisi Coates

Mixed-race blacks have an ethical obligation to identify as black — and interracial couples share a similar moral imperative to inculcate certain ideas of black heritage and racial identity in their mixed-race children, regardless of how they look.

The reason is simple. Despite the tremendous societal progress these recent changes in attitude reveal in a country that enslaved its black inhabitants until 1865, and kept them formally segregated and denied them basic civil rights until 1964, we do not yet live in an America that fully embodies its founding ideals of social and political justice. As the example of President Obama demonstrates par excellence, the black community can and does benefit directly from the contributions and continued allegiance of its mixed-race members, and it benefits in ways that far outweigh the private joys of freer self-expression.

It’s true that the boundaries of the collective create problems for the individual – problems that should be confronted and wrestled with. But this a human problem, and the implication that black people are in exclusive or chronic possession of that problem strikes me as wrong-headed. On the contrary, there is a strong argument that African-Americans are one of the most inclusive ethnic groups in the country. Our leadership has been historically cosmopolitan, featuring deep roots in the Caribbean (Malcolm X, Marcus Garvey) and in the white community (Booker T. Washington, Frederick Douglass, Walter White.) I can’t think of another ethnic group with a longer history of practicing both Christianity and Islam. You may not see more diverse gathering of phenotypes grouped under one race, then you will see at a black family reunion. This is not because black people are virtuous, it’s because white racism in this country was pervasive and strict. And faced with that stricture black people did what humans tend to do – they invented themselves. Again.