Review: The Coming Race Wars

The Coming Race Wars, William Pannell. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2021.

Summary: A new edition of a book first released in 1993 following riots in Lost Angeles, calling the evangelical church to address the issues of racial justice in the country. The new edition shows the prescience of Pannell’s observations and the even greater urgency of coming to grips with our racial transgressions.

The year 2020 was not unlike 1992 in a number of ways. In 1992 riots broke out in Los Angeles and other cities over the acquittal of officers involved in the beating of Rodney King. In 2020, people took to the streets once more in anger over the police involved death of George Floyd. In 1993, William Pannell, a Black evangelical who taught at Fuller Seminary wrote the first edition of this book as a wake up call to the White evangelical church to deal with the ways it was implicated in the legacy of racism in America. It is a cry of the heart combined with a social analysis of American culture.

This new edition, introduced by Jemar Tisby, a Black Christian leader of this generation, draws the arc between the book’s original publication and the present, noting some of the ways that Pannell’s analysis was prophetic, prescient in identifying both the deepening of our cultural divides around race and the neglect of a prosperous evangelicalism to address these issues. In the first chapter of the book, Pannell extends the arc further back. Evangelicals were largely silent in the years of Dr. King, choosing instead to migrate to the suburbs.

Pannell then discusses the black male, and all the ways black men were excluded from economic progress during the Reagan years. He traces the beginning of Republican efforts to play on discontents of the working class to drive a deep divide between them and Blacks where once there had been shared interest. He describes a multiculturalism that displays diversity without allowing Black evangelical leaders real influence. Against the popular focus on violence in the cities, Pannell decries the psychological violence of the warfare between city and suburb and unequal education systems.

The evangelical church of the 1990’s is a big part of this warfare. Black churches are no less evangelical than their white sisters in the suburbs. He chides Christianity Today as becoming Suburban Christianity Today, reflecting both in the housing patterns of its staff and the network of ministries on which it reports a highly networked suburban evangelicalism far removed from their sister churches in the city. In his original concluding chapter, he asks “where do we go from here?” and in the words of Rodney King, “Why can’t we get along?” He believes that an evangelicalism infatuated with ministry in the countries of the former Eastern bloc ought instead consider its own cities. He calls for reconciliation, and with it a ministry that unflinching speaks against the sins it is politically incorrect to denounce, both personal and social. He calls for a spirituality centered on the development of character. He calls for discipleship.

In his afterword, while not losing hope, acknowledges that white evangelicalism has unraveled in many of the ways he feared, becoming a church that looks for revival in the form of Christian nationalism, where most evangelicals align with “Make America Great” while from across the divide comes the cry “Black Lives Matter.” He leaves open what will become of a race war that already exists in the psychology and structures of the country. What he calls for in the end is the making of disciples. He observes that if we set out to make churches, we may miss making disciples, but if we call people to be the disciples of Jesus who become the “beloved community” Dr. King envisioned, we will be the church, which he believes our only hope.

The striking thing to me about this work is how evangelical it is. It is a call to conversion from affluence and infatuation with the American dream to following Jesus, becoming salt and light. It is Christ and cross centered, a call to a downward journey amid a church infatuated with power and access. It is a call to be shaped by our Bibles and to act in light of them. The most chilling part of the book’s analysis for me was to see his anticipation of what would come to fruition in 2016 and 2020 in the driving of a wedge between the working class and Blacks where once they shared values of both social and economic justice. Pannell also sees through the heady growth of evangelicalism in the 1980’s and 1990’s to its spiritual bankruptcy and questionable strategies of church growth that are now bearing fruit in the unraveling of many of these mega-ministries.

I wonder how Pannell’s words about reconciliation would be received today when the conversation has shifted to reparations, the repairing of the harms done over our four hundred years. Perhaps that is for another conversation. What is striking for me is how much Pannell saw with clarity nearly thirty years ago and how much benefit remains in listening to him today. I’ve seen Pannell compared to Jeremiah. The question is whether we will give him greater attention than the prophet. Let us hope.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Healing Racial Trauma

Healing Racial Trauma, Sheila Wise Rowe (Foreword by Soong-Chan Rah). Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2020.

Summary: A counseling psychologist describes the experience of racial trauma in story, drawing upon her own and other clinical experiences, and explores the resources for resilience to face continuing racial struggle.

As a White male, I’ve heard the terminology of racial trauma but have not experienced it in my own person. But I work with Black colleagues who have. One looking up to see a policeman’s gun trained on her for the “crime” of watering a neighbor’s flowers while the neighbor was away. Another and his wife stopped in front of their home after a trip to the grocery store, forced to lay on the pavement while their car was searched, for evidence from a robbery even though they offered to produce a receipt from the grocery confirming their whereabouts when the robbery happened. Their crime? “Fitting the description.” Or Asian-American friends who have faced racial slurs urging them to go “home” when this is the country of their birth and citizenship. Often Blacks and people of color can tell a litany of stories running not only through their lives but the lives of their parents and grandparents. When I see the story of a racial injustice, I may be incensed. When a person of color sees the same story, it opens old wounds and is one more in a series of assaults on their sense of dignity.

Sheila Wise Rowe, a counseling psychologist who grew up in the Roxbury neighborhood of Boston helps us understand both from her own experience and those of others the deep wounds of racial trauma, wounds beneath the skin, that many Blacks and people of color struggle with. She begins with types of racism and types of racial trauma. The latter was particularly illuminating as she named:

  • Historical racial trauma: The trauma shared by a group that has faced in its past a traumatizing event such as the forced removal of First Nation tribes that continues to affect these people in the forms of alcoholism, addiction, and elevated rates of suicide.
  • Transgenerational racial trauma: The bodily effects of trauma passed from one generation to the next, possibly manifesting in diabetes, heart disease. An axiom of trauma is that “the body remembers” and this idea suggests that trauma is even remembered across generations. It also can mean the passing of trauma in the stories we tell.
  • Personal racial trauma: The personal experience of abuse for one’s race. Rowe in the book describes the verbal and physical attacks she endured when being bused to white schools.
  • Physical trauma: Attacks upon one’s body that are racially motivated. One thinks of what John Lewis and so many endured at the Edmund Pettus Bridge.
  • Vicarious trauma: The wounds opened when one hears reports of violence against others of one’s race. One thinks of the example of mothers and wives who hear reports of a police involved shooting and think of their own husbands and sons.
  • Microaggressions: The small, everyday, thoughtless assaults on dignity. “You’re so articulate.” “Can I touch your hair?”
  • Racial gaslighting: The ways individuals and institutions in power try to recast reality turning an incident of racial injustice into something the victim of injustice must have done wrong and that racism is just something imagined that must be gotten over.

In the chapters that follow Rowe describes the effects of the ongoing experience of racial trauma. She describes the fatigue of racism’s relentlessness, especially pronounced for many Blacks in the summer of 2020 in the cycle of incidents with police, protests, and recriminations. Silence is the swallowing and suppressing of pain, anger, and rage, and the self-destructiveness that occurs when all this is turned inward. Rage is the bitter root that festers until unleashed in destructive acts. Fear is often used to subdue a population, as in lynching. Shame happens when the stories of racial inferiority are internalized and they become the stories that prevent one’s true story from being told. Addiction is a misguided response to relieve the pain of trauma.

Rowe addresses these with stories and charts the beginnings of the way out, starting with lament, that cries out to God, that gathers up the hurt and offers it to God. Lament tells the truth without spiritualizing or sugarcoating. She stresses the Christ-centered nature of the healing work that is needed in walking toward freedom, a work that allows Christ to enter in and walk with. It is both internal and external work. Rowe believes that this can lead to a growth in resilience. Racism isn’t going to disappear overnight. Rather, one must develop the resources in Christ who heals our wounds, who helps us practice self-care as his beloved, and calls us into creative engagement with our unique gifts and voices.

For people of color, this may be (and has been from accounts of colleagues) a book that both names what is often felt without words and offers hope and healing. It is an important book for Whites to read as well. It begins with naming the forms of trauma. Then, Rowe’s descriptions of herself as a little girl being bused invited me to imagine what it was like to be on the bus, the walk the gantlet of hateful crowds to enter her school. The other stories, including Nick, her husband’s, invite the same imagining, not as a substitute for what no one should experience, but as at least a very beginning of understanding viscerally as well as cognitively, something of racial trauma. To learn to just sit with and listen to these experiences may open the door to being an ally in Christ’s healing process.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Dear White Christians

Dear White Christians: For Those Still Longing for Racial Reconciliation, Jennifer Harvey. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2014.

Summary: Argues that a reparations rather than reconciliation paradigm is what is necessary to heal the racial divides in the United States.

The author of this book describes an address by Brenda Salter-McNeil at Urbana 2000 speaking of that student generation as the “Reconciliation Generation.” I was in the hall when she spoke and I found myself praying, Lord, make it so. Sadly, that has not taken place, and the contention of this book is that I was asking for the wrong thing. Jennifer Harvey, who is white, contends that the reconciliation paradigm has failed and needs to be replaced by a reparations paradigm.

Perhaps a word of clarification is needed here. Speak of reparations, and the response of most is to think one is talking of massive amounts of money paid for past wrong. Strictly speaking, the idea of reparations comes from the word “repair” and what the author explores in this work is what is the harm done that needs repair. Her contention is that racial reconciliation approaches are inadequate to address the harm done.

How so? To explore this she first describes the history of the reconciliation paradigm and the critical problems with that paradigm. At the core is the problem of whiteness. Racial divides exist first of all because of the social construction of race that defined “whites” as a race superior to others, and then created systems and structures to maintain that superiority. She uses two exercises that illustrate the issue. One is to ask whites to identify racial qualities they can wholeheartedly celebrate. The second is to ask what reactions we would have to signs that say “Black is beautiful” versus “White is beautiful.” The discomfort that occurs for many of us almost immediately underscores the reality of our racialized society. Yet the reconciliation paradigm ignores this and takes a universalist approach that ignores the particular work whites need to do in addressing race. Inclusion and integration is not enough. Given the history of racism, asking blacks to trust is asking the victim of abuse to trust their abuser.

As Harvey turns to discussing reparations, she begins with the Black Manifesto, presented in 1968 by James Farmer during a service at Riverside Church in New York. This was the first demand for reparations, in this case it was monetary, for $500 million. She describes the reaction and how national church bodies side-stepped the demand. But for the first time, there was a call for repentance and for a redress for harms done. As she turns to what a contemporary pursuit of a reparation paradigm would mean, she contends it means addressing “race as a social construct, an emphasis on racial particularity, and the focus on the repair of unjust structures” (italics in the text). She then considers what might be learned from Vine Deloria’s reparation efforts for Tribal groups, and the examples of several church bodies in Maryland (still in process at the time of writing).

This book has me wrestling. I am convinced that healing our nation’s original sin of racism against both Black and Native peoples means more than inclusion, more even than reconciliation. I do not see that we have ever in any national sense acknowledged how we’ve not only committed wrong, but also embedded injustice into our systems and structures. Nor have we committed ourselves to a serious and persisting effort to root these out of our structures. The work advocated in this book is for churches to begin this effort, rather than for a public policy agenda. I could see this extending to national bodies and to church-related institutions–colleges and seminaries. What I wrestle with is whether the will is there, particularly in our present climate. Yet I hear the longing of many for spiritual revival in the church. Isaiah 58 tells me that there is no true revival without repentance and reparation, of concerted efforts to pursue justice and remove oppression. Isaiah 58:12 addresses the repair aspect of this:

Your people will rebuild the ancient ruins and will raise up the age-old foundations; you will be called Repairer of Broken Walls, Restorer of Streets with Dwellings.

It seems to me that it would be good to be known as Repairers of Broken Walls and Restorers of Streets with Dwellings. Harvey remains hopeful. Amid the protests of this summer, a new edition of this book was published (the link is to the new edition, my review is of the first). She addresses in an introduction the changes that have happened since 2014, and also includes an appendix that gives more practical guidance of what a reparations paradigm might look like in practice. Hopefully, there will be White Christians who will read and listen, who will kneel in prayer and arise with their tool belts on to begin the work of repair.

Review: Caste

Caste: The Origins of our Discontent, Isabel Wilkerson. New York: Random House, 2020.

Summary: Proposes that American society throughout our history has been structured around a caste hierarchy, showing the character, costs, and hope for a different future.

“Caste” is a social reality in countries like India, right? True, but Isabel Wilkerson argues and shows in this new book that a caste system is embedded in American society. She defines caste as “a fixed and embedded ranking of human value that sets the presumed supremacy of one group against the presumed inferiority of other groups on the basis of ancestry and often immutable traits, traits that would be neutral in the abstract but are ascribed life-and death meaning in a hierarchy favoring the dominant caste whose forebears designed it.”

She traces the development of caste from the subjugation of the first Africans brought to Virginia in 1619, the institution of slavery and the legal structures that sustained it, the institution of Jim Crow, resistance to de-segregation and civil rights that, and the contemporary backlash against minorities and immigrants and voter suppression efforts. Bluntly put, all of these efforts, even in the face of growing populations of people of color, are designed, Wilkerson maintains to maintain the supremacy of whites, even lower class whites, within the caste system.

Perhaps one of the most chilling chapters in this work is where she documents how Nazi Germany studied the American subjugation of blacks under Jim Crow to develop their own models to subjugate and eliminate the Jewish population through “legal” means. She cites the common and public use of lynching to “keep blacks in their place.” She tells stories, including personal narratives, to illustrate her contentions. She compares the prevalence of chronic diseases among African Americans and Africans who have far lower incidences.

One story that I found gripping took place in my hometown of Youngstown. Al Bright, a black child who later founded Youngstown State’s Black Studies program and was a gifted artist, played on a championship winning Little League team, the only black on the team. When his team was treated to a picnic and pool outing, Bright was banned from the pool. Eventually when parents and coaches protested, Bright was allowed to float on a raft, not touching the water, towed around the pool by the manager after all the other white children vacated the pool. Scenes like this were not uncommon in the North in the 1950’s. It was thought Blacks would contaminate the pool.

In the central section of the book, she delineates “Eight Pillars of Caste,” showing how these manifest in the U.S.:

  1. Divine Will and the Laws of Nature
  2. Heritability
  3. Endogamy and the Control of Marriage and Mating
  4. Purity versus Pollution
  5. Occupational Hierarchy: The Jatis and the Mudsill
  6. Dehumanization and Stigma
  7. Terror as Enforcement, Cruelty as a Means of Control
  8. Inherent Superiority versus Inherent Inferiority

She concludes the work by discussing the backlash to the Obama election, the election of Donald J. Trump, and how these reflect the continued need to maintain the caste structure. She traces the great costs of this structure and ends on a note of hope for a post-caste America.

I found the argument persuasive. What is striking is how excluded eastern and southern Europe ethnic groups could be included under the white umbrella, joining northern Europeans, but Blacks, who have been here far longer continue to face efforts to subordinate and subjugate them. I would like to embrace Wilkerson’s hope, and think we can never give up such hope and keep fighting for that hope. But watching America in 2020, I find myself troubled that we could descend into widespread civil disorder, even civil war, but across the fault lines of caste rather than geographic lines. I suspect many never thought civil war could happen in 1861. It did, and it can. I think the sun is setting on our opportunities to heal the long-standing divisions of caste. We can’t heal what we don’t acknowledge. Wilkerson offers us a clear diagnosis. We must decide whether we’ll act.

Ten Books on My Racial Journey

1024px-Civil_Rights_March_on_Washington,_D.C._(Dr._Martin_Luther_King,_Jr._and_Mathew_Ahmann_in_a_crowd.)_-_NARA_-_542015_-_Restoration

Civil Rights March on Washington D.C., Photo by Rowland Scherman, licensed under CC0

True confession. I am a recovering racist. It has probably only been in the last ten years that I could even admit that to myself–or anyone else. I grew up watching the civil rights marches and listening to Martin Luther King, Jr talk about the dream. In elementary school we sang, “Let there be peace on earth and let it begin with me” with its soaring conclusion “To take each moment and live each moment in perfect harmony.”

Meanwhile, I grew up on the White West side of my town. In our schools, we were about 98 percent white. Years later, I saw the maps of my city from the 1930’s and 1940’s that confined Blacks to the most inferior housing, marked in red, hence the idea of redlining. I listened to those in my extended family talk about “them” and how they lived and imbibed unconsciously so many stereotypes. Going to college was supposed to shatter all that with a good liberal education. I learned how to talk the talk, but I still walked White.

I’ve worked in a collegiate ministry funded through donations. Though not as well connected as richer friends, I never had a problem raising funds, unlike most of my black colleagues, for whom it always seemed harder. It was here I began to understand something of the privilege I enjoyed, despite my modest background, simply because I was white (and male). It made me wonder why the playing field wasn’t level, despite all our civil rights rhetoric.

And so I did what I always have done as a bibliophile. I started reading. That’s not all I did. I was graced to have friends and colleagues that were black. And finally, it began to get through my head that I didn’t even know what I didn’t know and to stop pretending I was “woke,” and listen. I don’t think you can recover from racism just by reading books. But here are some that have helped me understand both the black experience, and hold up a mirror to myself.

Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow. Alexander helped me understand the ways the mass incarceration of black men, many for drug offenses (much more heavily enforced in black neighborhoods) that helped create a permanent underclass who couldn’t vote, couldn’t qualify for federally subsidized housing, or obtain work.

Lerone Bennett, Jr. Before the Mayflower: A History of Black American 1619-1964. This helped me understand better the 400 year history of black subjugation, that began prior to the Pilgrims!

Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me. A set of letters from father to son that reveals the abiding awareness of the threats against the black body, and the abiding struggle to hope for something different.

James Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree. A profound reflection on the parallels between the cross of Christ, and the lynching tree, one white Americans are oblivious to as we deny our lynching history, but one that offers meaning to sustain the long struggle.

Robin DiAngelo, White Fragility. This book showed me that most often I and other whites are the problem in race conversations. We so want to be good, to not be thought racist, that we do all sorts of things that shut down conversation. It also challenged me that as whites, we need to do our work rather than put that on blacks.

Michael O. Emerson and Christian Smith. Divided by Faith. Two sociologists look at why 11 am on Sunday is still the most segregated hour of the week. They note the individualistic solutions to race in white evangelicalism that fails to deal with the structures of a racialized society inside as well as outside the church.

Bryan Stevenson, Just Mercy. This book, recently adapted into a film looks at the ways race often enters into the police and justice systems of our country, depriving many blacks of equal treatment under the law. Stevenson opens our eyes to this through death row inmate Walter McMillian, and how difficult an obstructive system made it to prove that he had been wrongly convicted of murder.

Jim Wallis, America’s Original Sin. Wallis awakened me with how racism and the dehumanization of blacks traces to our national origins, our earliest economic patterns, and our founding fathers and documents. It persuaded me that, not wanting to face how profoundly we are implicated, we have tried to heal this wound lightly.

Isabel Wilkerson, The Warmth of Other Suns. Through three families, Wilkerson traces the great migration of blacks from the Jim Crow south to the north and the west, and how this transformed the cities of north and west, as well as the south.

Ken Wytsma, The Myth of Equality. The most memorable statement in this book, that the rest of the book unpacks was “White privilege doesn’t mean your life isn’t hard. It means that if you are a person of color, simply by virtue of that, your life might be harder.”

These books are uncomfortable reads for a white person like me. They undermine the image I want to project, and the things I want to believe are true. They also liberated me because managing the image that I’m a good “woke” person, and sustaining lies about our society and about me is actually a burden. In shattering my illusions of my goodness, our goodness, they free me of demanding perfection of the other or patronizing them. They remind me that in some sense, we are all “muddling through” and it might make more sense to muddle together than separately.

I do want to acknowledge that I’ve written here in terms of black and white. The racial journey in this country is far more complicated. We are white, Latino/a, black, Asian, and indigenous peoples, and more. I will admit that I’ve read less of these others and wish to read more, listen more to their narratives. I’ve still got a lot of recovering to do.

Review: Between the World and Me

Between the World and Me

Between the World and MeTa-Nehisi Coates. New York: Spiegel & Grau, 2015

Summary: Coates extended letter to his son following the Michael Brown verdict on the struggle for the dignity of his people against the violence to their bodies by those who “believe they are White” and part of a pursuit of a Dream built “on looting and violence.”

Th-Nehisi Coates fashioned this work as an extended letter to his son, Samori (whose name means “struggle”) following the decision that there would be no indictment against the policeman involved in the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson. Samori, on hearing the news, simply responded “I’ve got to go” as he went to his room and wept.

This letter is Coates attempt to articulate what it means to believe in the beauty and dignity of one’s people in a world where the black body is often the object of violence. He describes growing up on the West side of Baltimore with a severe father who often beat him, declaring that it would either be him or the police, where Black children had to be “twice as good.” He describes the sobering moment when another boy pulls a gun on him, and his realization that violence to the body could snuff out a life and nullify all his effort in a moment. He recounts his engagements with “those who believe they are white,” whose pursuit of an American dream, has come at the cost of “looting and violence” against the black body.

He shifts the scene to Howard University, a Black Mecca where every form of what it meant to be a beautiful and great people was celebrated, often in a walk across the Yard, the green space on campus. He recounts his intellectual life in the Moorland Library, his loves, and the girl he lost to Prince Jones. He falls in loves again with the woman who gave him his son.

After leaving Howard, and having his own encounter with the fearsome Prince George police, he learns that the beautiful young man he knew as Prince Jones was followed by these same police in plain clothes across the D.C. area, and killed when supposedly he had tried to run them down.

He struggles as a young writer and father in New York, when a white woman pushes his young son aside to get on a subway. He stands up to her, and describes his subsequent conflicted feelings as he realizes how much he has risked his son’s safety while standing up for his son’s dignity. There are other moments in Chicago, covering the humiliation of an eviction in North Lawndale.

Coates recounts a respite during a trip to Paris, where for a brief moment he experiences what it is like to live without fear for violence against his body. And then he narrates his encounter with Dr. Mable Jones, the mother of Prince. She rose from being the child of sharecroppers to being chief of radiology in a Philadelphia hospital. She bought cars for her children including the Jeep in which Prince was killed. The conversation reflects both her Christian faith and deep grief that all for which she worked could be lost in a moment to law enforcement officials who would not be held to account.

Coates, who has rejected any religion, is provoked to wonder:

“…I thought of my own distance from an institution that has, so often, been the only support for our people. I often wonder if in that distance I missed something, some notions of cosmic hope, some wisdom beyond my mean physical perception of the world, something beyond the body, that I might have transmitted to you. I wondered this, at that particular moment, because something beyond anything I have ever understood drove Mable Jones to an exceptional life.”

In his concluding words to his son, however, he does not have much hope to offer the son who he obviously loves deeply, but only the struggle expressed in his name:

“And still I urge you to struggle. Struggle for the memory of your ancestors. Struggle for wisdom. Struggle for the warmth of the Mecca. Struggle for your grandmother and grandfather, for your name. But do not struggle for the Dreamers. Hope for them. Pray for them, if you are so moved. But do not pin your struggle on their conversion. The Dreamers will have to learn to struggle themselves, to understand that the field for their Dream, the stage where they have painted themselves white, is the deathbed of us all.”

I found myself reacting in a number of ways to this work. One was to just sit and absorb it and try to imagine a life lived every day with the awareness both of the preciousness of one’s body, and that it could be snuffed out in an instant by powerful others. I had to sit with the incredible pressure of constantly thinking I had to be twice as good because of the color of my skin. I had to sit and think what it must be like to want a different life for one’s children, and yet recognize that one’s own struggle, and peril, will be theirs as well.

The closest it seems that Coates gets to the transcendent is his descriptions of The Mecca of Howard, and his time in France. But I wondered what it must be like to glimpse goodness, truth, and beauty only to find it submerged in the ever-looming danger of structures that oppress, and powers that may kill, and a life of struggle against them.

Coates helps me to see how evil is the social construction we call “race.” He does this by speaking of people who believe they are white, who paint themselves white. One of the most sobering realizations that comes through is that this social construction not only is deadly for those labeled “black,” but also that the construction is deadly for “whites” as well. A former pastor once made the comment that “the American dream is killing us.” Racism is a burden for those who call themselves white. It drives us into suburbs, an automobile and energy dependent culture, the costs of maintaining a system of mass incarceration and much more.

I find myself thinking about the almost wistful longing Coates has for the faith that shaped Dr. Mable Jones life, and yet the sadness that such a faith could not protect her son. Coates challenges me that my work is not to persuade him of the Christian vision so much as to confront and repent from an American Dream that necessitates the struggle that he and his son alike face, and that is indeed our deathbed. It is time for such dreams to die, and for those who embrace the faith of Dr. Jones to lean into the call to the peaceable kingdom and beloved community. I think Coates is right that it is we “Dreamers” who need a conversion.

 

Review: Race on Campus

race on campus

Race on CampusJulie J. Park. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press, 2018.

Summary: Addresses myths and misconceptions around issues of race on college campus using research data.

Race continues to be an issue on campus as well as in our larger society. It is popular to note how students of color may be found sitting together in the college cafeteria and self-segregate into ethnic-specific organizations. Some object to using race in admissions processes and argue that the same ends might be achieved by class-based admissions alone. Of course, affirmative action is argued back and forth, and the case has been made for students with high test scores who were turned down for admissions including those from Asian-American backgrounds. Recognizing some of the inequities in college tests, proposals have been made to remedy with offering universal test prep. Some have recommended that affirmative action programs at some of the nations elite schools “mismatch” students of color and set them up for failure, when they may have excelled at a lower tier university.

These are the issues Julie J. Park, an associate professor of education at the University of Maryland, addresses in Race on Campus. Her approach is to come up with data-driven insights from peer-reviewed research to explore if what is being proposed or observed is actually the case. Often times, she argues, the data reveals a very different story, and that cognitive bias is actually a big issue in discussions where data belies what is contended. Here is a sampling of some of her findings:

  • The self-segregation of students of color in cafeterias and organizations reflect only an hour or two a day of a student’s life, and that students in ethnic specific organizations actually have more interactions with those of other ethnicity. Times with one’s own ethnic minority re-energizes students for engagement across ethnic boundaries. She also observes that most of us don’t notice that all the white students are also sitting together, or the instances where students are crossing boundaries.
  • Where self-segregation is a greater issue is in Greek life on campuses, as well as in religious organizations. Especially in the Greek system, self-segregation leads to fewer interactions with non-White students. This is less the case in religious organizations, but most students in self-segregating religious groups will have fewer close friends of another ethnicity.
  • Studies show that admissions processes that are both race- and class-conscious result in far more diverse classes than class-conscious approaches alone. She observes the wealth gap between median household wealth of Black and White families ($7,113 versus $111,146) and that this supports that we need to focus on race to get to class diversity because of disparities in wealth.
  • Asian-American students actually benefit from affirmative action, both by not being discriminated against, and in being part of more diverse student bodies. The discussion here goes beyond the test scores to the variety of factors in a student’s profile that are considered in admissions and student success. She deconstructs the “140 points” myth (that Asian-American students need to score 140 points higher on the SAT to be competitive with other students for admission).
  • There are all kinds of problems with admissions tests and the test-prep programs touted to bring big score increases. The actual overall gains, from test to test using test prep are minimal. Furthermore, there are inequities both in educational backgrounds that cannot be made up for with a test prep course, and inequities of access to the best test prep programs that make tests like the SAT an unreliable measure of how a student will perform.
  • The problem with the “problem of mismatch” is that under-represented minority students admitted to elite schools on the whole do about as well, and in some cases, better than majority students. Here, Park takes apart a study by Sander and Taylor that has been invoked for encouraging students to go to “slower-track” institutions.

This is a winsomely written book addressing a tough subject. I especially appreciate the epistemic humility of Park, who in the course of her research discovers some of her own cognitive biases, and has the courage to admit them. I also appreciate an academic citing academic research who writes accessibly for a wide audience. In the Introduction, she says,

“Who should read this book? Everyone! If you’re a graduate student, academic, policy-maker, educator, everyday citizen–come on in. One of my key goals is to highlight empirical studies on race in a way that is more accessible than the original peer-reviewed journal articles, which are primarily read by academics. Don’t get me wrong, academic journals are riveting reading, but it can be tedious to comb through study after study, so I’ve done that work for you. I’ve also done my best to write this book in a conversational tone to make it accessible to a wide range of readers” (p. 6).

I believe she succeeds on both counts. The work is meticulously researched with 32 pages of end notes in a book that comes in at under 200 pages. Park keeps it accessible, citing key statistics within the text without bar charts and graphs (which I know will disappoint some). The tone remains conversational, and Park avoids the “detached researcher” voice that often result in accurate but sterile works.

This work is important for its conclusions as well–that we are tempted to adopt policy proposals driven by cognitive bias rather than data, that we need more robust measures of merit than test scores that recognize different ways excellence manifests in students across race and class, and that racism and racial inequalities continue to need to be addressed on campus. The book challenged some of my own cognitive biases around issues like self-segregation.  This is an important book for anyone connected to higher education who aspire to seeing campuses as diverse as our population, that prepare students to lead in a diverse society.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Twelve Lies That Hold America Captive

Twelve Lies

Twelve Lies That Hold America Captive, Jonathan Walton. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, Forthcoming January 8, 2019

Summary: Discusses twelve cultural myths that form a kind of American folk religion that are in conflict with the hope we find in the gospel and the vision of the kingdom of God.

It is not uncommon in discussions of Christian mission efforts in other countries to confront the challenge of syncretism. In syncretism, either prior religious beliefs or cultural myths are fused with the newly adopted faith. Often these beliefs are in conflict and undermine vibrant Christian belief. If anything, the Bible is even more pointed about the issue and calls this idolatry, which may either be the worship of false gods, or the false worship of the true God.

Jonathan Walton proposes in this book that it not only happens in other countries but right here in America. He identifies twelve beliefs contrary to the gospel of Jesus Christ (and thus lies) that form a national cultural religion which he terms White American Folk Religion or WAFR. In an endnote, he explains this terminology:

“White = manmade racial-gender-class-culture-based hierarchy. American = national identity defined by citizenship and the level of adoption and mastery of whiteness. Folk religion = common set of popular beliefs and practices under the umbrella of a religion but outside of the religion’s official doctrines and practices.”

What this means, if I understand Walton correctly is that these are values promulgated by those who would identify as part of majority white culture, and that work best for them and thus become an ideal for all American citizens, internalized and often aspired to by other ethnic, class, and affinity groups, even though they don’t always work equally well for all. Furthermore, these have been a part of American civil religion, often closely linked with the majority faith in this country, Christianity. While they aren’t what we may confess in the liturgy or the creeds, they come to define both what it means for us to be American and Christian. They are beliefs that will be articulated by leaders in both of our political parties–so this isn’t a partisan thing. And, in terms of the gospel of Christ, they are lies.

Here are the twelve lies Walton identifies:

Lie 1: We Are a Christian Nation
Lie 2: We Are All Immigrants
Lie 3: We Are a Melting Pot
Lie 4: All Men Are Created Equal
Lie 5: We Are a Great Democracy
Lie 6: The American Dream Is Alive and Well
Lie 7: We Are the Most Prosperous Nation in the World
Lie 8: We Are the Most Generous People in the World
Lie 9: America Is the Land of the Free
Lie 10: America Is the Home of the Brave
Lie 11: America Is the Greatest Country on Earth
Lie 12: We Are One Nation

I squirmed when I read this list. I’ve said some of these things, and if you search my blogs, I’m sure you will find some of this language. So if your temptation in reading this list is to say, “but…but” you are not alone. In his Introduction, Walton makes this plea:

“I ask you to resist judgment, the urge to look away, and the opportunity to move on. I invite you to carry your skepticism through the entire book while leaning in to understand. Hold your gaze on the picture I am painting and consider its implications for how you think, speak, pray, and act. Your salvation is at stake, and your evangelism is compromised if you claim to be a follower of Jesus while building dividing walls of hostility and allowing them to govern your life. We are to be his witnesses, living differently in this world so we point others to him, and we cannot do that if we are not willing to engage with our differences to seek his justice and reflect his kingdom. I once lived this way, but because of Christ and for the sake of his gospel, I do so no longer.”

I leaned into this book. In each chapter, Walton explores the reasons why each of these beliefs is a lie that as Christians we ought repent from, and the liberating truth that we might embrace instead. I will not go through all of these but even the first chapter was persuasive. The problem of saying we are a Christian nation is that throughout our history, Christian faith has upheld slavery and racial hierarchies. I was reminded of learning recently that the church I grew up in endorsed Klan efforts in my home town during the 1920’s and that many of our current national divisions are reflected in divisions within a church called to be one in Christ. Those “dividing walls of hostility” are brought up to me when I speak with students about Christ in my work on campus, and indeed compromise our witness.

Likewise, how can we say we are all immigrants, when a number were forcibly brought here as slaves, and the original inhabitants of the land were displaced? Instead of a melting pot, Christ offers a vision of diversity that is celebrated and gratefully embraced instead of assimilated into a majority culture. Democracy is undermined where voter suppression is practiced, where representation is gerrymandered and where wealthy interests have a much greater voice. A gospel-centered people advocate for the voices that are marginalized. Kingdom people are liberated from pursuing “their best lives now” to be rich in the things of God. Do we believe America, or Jesus, is the last, best hope of the world?

One of the most important aspects of this book, then, is the subtitle: “and the truth that sets us free.” Walton contends that these lies hold us captive, burden us down, and rob us of kingdom joy. The truth opens our eyes to the ways we’ve been compromised, and invites us into a bigger dream that has room enough for all, and that brings reconciliation across our deepest differences.

I wondered how Walton would address the question of proper love of place and country. At least some of the expressions Walton calls lies are affectional and aspirational for “the land that we love.” Can we love a country without turning it into an idol? As embodied persons living in a place, what is proper care for that place?

Sadly though, we do often become captive to inordinate forms of these beliefs that take precedence over the claims of biblical faith and our kingdom hope. We put America before kingdom, a prosperity gospel before our heavenly inheritance, and sadly, our people before all peoples. Life becomes smaller, meaner, a struggle for self-preservation. Walton points us to a better way, if we are willing to face and repent from the lies.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary advanced reader copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Tigerland

Tigerland

Tigerland: 1968-1969: A City Divided, A Nation Torn Apart, and a Magical Season of HealingWil Haygood. New York: Knopf, (Forthcoming September 18), 2018.

Summary: The story of the 1968-69 East High School Tigers championship basketball and baseball teams at a black high school in segregated Columbus, Ohio during the tumultuous aftermath of the killing of Martin Luther King, Jr.

I’m a Columbus, Ohio transplant, and like many, know little of the city’s history, even sports history, beyond Ohio State football. But I love history, and sports, and so when Wil Haygood’s new book on the legendary East High School Tiger basketball and baseball teams came up for review, I snagged a copy.

Columbus, Ohio in 1968 had a segregated school system. And it was far from equal. Facilities, text books, and sports facilities at black East High School were inferior to other schools. The death of Martin Luther King, Jr. hit the community hard. King had preached regularly at Union Grove Baptist Church. What would happen among the students in the high school that was the centerpiece of that community?

This book tells the story of the leadership of three men at East High School. Jack Gibbs was the black principal of the school, Bob Hart, the white basketball coach, and Paul Pennell, the white baseball coach. All three were marked by a deep concern for their students and players, and their families. Gibbs tirelessly advocated for the school, and even found a way to transport families to the basketball championship against Canton McKinley. Both coaches recognized the raw talent of the black athletes and convinced them they could be champions.

The book also is a narrative of the championship season of each team, divided into Part One for the basketball team, and Part Two for the baseball team. Two of the basketball players, Eddie “the Rat” Ratleff and Bo Pete Lamar were later college All-Americans in the same year and Ratleff played on the 1972 U.S. Olympic team. Personal stories of the players mix with game accounts leading up to the state championships for each team (Ratleff played on both). He tells us the story of the subsequent lives of a number of these figures–both good and painful.

Haygood, who has written biographies of Thurgood Marshall, Sammy Davis, Sugar Ray Robinson, and Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. and a family memoir on growing up in Columbus, brings his knowledge of the city and the history of race in the U.S. together in this work. He sets the story of the Tigers against backdrop of the racial segregation in the city, including the court ruling by Black judge Robert Duncan, upheld in the Supreme Court desegregating Columbus schools. He narrates a challenged, yet vibrant Black community centered around churches, the schools, and Mt Vernon Avenue businesses. He weaves enough of the national history in–from King to Jackie Robinson to give context.

There is a tendency on the part of some to want to isolate sports from the issues of race in our country. There is also a tendency to focus our discourse on race at a national level and forget that real progress has to find expression in each of our local contexts. Heygood weaves sport and racial history together, as well as the challenges we face as a nation and the possibilities in our local communities. He makes us consider who will be the Jack Gibbs, the Bob Hart, the Paul Pennell of our day.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

 

Review: White Fragility

white fragility

White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About RacismRobin DiAngelo. Boston: Beacon Press, 2018.

Summary: Explains white fragility, its sources, expressions, the challenge it poses to conversations about race, and a different way to engage.

You’ve been there. A conversation about race begins and quickly, tension settles in the room. You don’t need a person of color to be present. The defensiveness is palpable and takes a variety of forms. For some the best defense is a good offense. In a conversation about the significance of the Black Lives Matter movement, someone pushes back and shifts the topic–“what about blue lives, what about unborn lives, what about all lives?” Another person might take an approach that personally distances them, saying that they have lots of black friends, or that when it comes to race, they are color blind. Some just become emotional, and the conversation shifts to comforting the weeping or upset person and shames the source of the bad feelings.

All of these, according to Robin DiAngelo are expressions of “white fragility,” a phrase she coined in 2011. She describes this phenomenon as follows:

“Socialized into a deeply internalized sense of superiority that we either are unaware of or can never admit to ourselves, we become highly fragile in conversations about race. We consider a challenge to our racial worldviews as a challenge to our very identities as good, moral people. Thus, we perceive any attempt to connect us to the system of racism as an unsettling and unfair moral offense. The smallest amount of racial stress is intolerable–the mere suggestion that being white has meaning often triggers a range of defensive responses. These include emotions such as anger, fear, and guilt and behaviors such as argumentation, silence, and withdrawal from the stress-inducing situation. These responses work to reinstate white equilibrium as they repel the challenge, return our racial comfort, and maintain our dominance within the racial hierarchy. I conceptualize this process as white fragility.” (p. 2)

DiAngelo sees this first hand as an equity education trainer and consultant for corporations and educational institutions. Her most striking observation is that is it white progressives who cause the greatest daily harm, and it is primarily for this group of people that she writes. To understand why this is, she takes us to the roots of white fragility. She contends that we do not understand the powerful forces of socialization in our lives and consequently have a simplistic understanding of racism focused around conscious attitudes or intentionally offensive actions. Our problem is in what we don’t see, and one of the most compelling things about this book are the examples the author shares of her own unconscious biases and the ways these get expressed in her own behavior, as for example in a joke with one of her fellow trainers. We also do not understand the socially constructed character of racism in our national history. We speak of other racial groups but don’t grasp what “whiteness” means for us, thinking individually rather than collectively, even though we participate collectively in its benefits. We do not realize all the subtle ways whiteness shapes our lives, which DiAngelo chronicles.

Since the Civil Rights movement, among more progressive individuals racism takes subtler forms. We avow “color-blindness,” we maintain a positive self-image by using coded language like “good neigborhoods” rationalizations for white dominance, and maintain we have lots of people of color as our friends, or if we don’t that our neighborhoods are diverse. She calls this “aversive racism,” a form of denial that says, “this is not my problem.”  Much of this stems from a “good/bad” binary. You either are or are not a racist according to this binary in which racist is bad. This doesn’t come to terms with the formative character of being socialized as a white person, and how deeply racist bias and behaviors are embedded in our lives and society, regardless of our conscious attitudes or deeds done. The binary means that “progressive” folk are committed to protecting a racial “righteousness” and this often triggers white fragility when issues of race are raised, particularly of a personally critical nature. The author proposes we do far better to see ourselves on a racism continuum, where, with the help of others, including people of color, we are seeking to move toward growth.

She goes on to talk about things that trigger white fragility and the feelings, behaviors, claims, assumptions, and most important, function of white fragile behavior, which is to protect our image and dominance as whites. Her concluding chapters talk about the “rules of engagement” typical to racial discussions, that white feelings and sense of safety need to be protected, particularly by people of color. The author suggests a very different approach when being given feedback about behavior that has a racist impact:

  1. How where, and when you give me feedback is irrelevant–it is the feedback I want and need. Understanding that it is hard to give, I will take it any way I can get it. From my position of social, cultural, and institutional white power and privilege, I am perfectly safe and I can handle it. If I cannot handle it, it’s on me to build my racial stamina.
  2. Thank you. (p. 125)

Her final chapter on “Where Do We Go From Here?” has a number of additional suggestions as well as a story of how DiAngelo responded with “racial stamina” rather than “white fragility” in a situation where she had racially transgressed.

From a Christian perspective, I’m reminded of an old saw that says, “there is more to being righteous than being right.” Sometimes our compulsion to “be right” reveals the depth of sin in our lives that right beliefs, right words, and right actions do not address–our “rightness fragility” as it were. If racism is sin, it should not surprise us that it is deeply embedded in our lives and society, and that right attitudes, words, and actions are no surety that racism is not embedded in us, perhaps in ways we are blind to until others bring them to our attention. Eradicating sin in my life is not simply a matter of ceasing to do certain things. It is a progressive, transformational process where I am indeed on a continuum of being conformed to Christ’s image, always an incomplete process in our lives. I am, in AA language, a recovering sinner.

This book helped me realize both that I am a [recovering] racist, and that the “go to” responses of white fragility hinder my recovery and cut me off from those who might help. Instead, I need to listen, and learn to say, “tell me more,”  “I’m sorry, I was wrong” and “thank you.” This is an important book for individuals and organizations committed to racial equity, but wondering why they are not making progress. It suggests that for whites, even “progressive whites,” we may need to take a look in the mirror. In matters of race, as in many other things, we are often our own worst enemies.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher via LibraryThing in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.