Review: Native Son

Native Son, Richard Wright. New York: Harper Perennial, 1989 (first published in 1940).

Summary: The story of Bigger Thomas, whose unpremeditated murder of Mary Dalton and second murder covering up the first, fires rage and fear in Chicago, and in a strange way gives meaning to a young man who felt himself imprisoned in Chicago’s Black Belt.

This is an uncomfortable book to read from the moment Bigger Thomas wakes up until the last pages. It is uncomfortable to view the rat-infested tenement room a family of four share, where Bigger’s first act is to kill a giant rat with a pan.

It is uncomfortable to hear Bigger’s mother nag him about going to the job set up by the relief program. He already has a record for theft, some of which he’s involved his girlfriend Bessie in.

It’s uncomfortable to hear him plot to rob a white jeweler with his three friends. Then when one doesn’t show up on time, he nearly slits his throat in anger.

It’s uncomfortable to go to the Daltons and be treated so well by the family and other household staff. Mr. Dalton has an interest in the companies operating the tenement housing Bigger lives in, confining Blacks to one area of south Chicago known as the Black Belt. He also gives lots of money to charities for the uplift of Blacks and employs people recommended by the relief agency who sent Bigger–an uncomfortable tension of interests that emerges as the story unfolds.

It’s uncomfortable to see Bigger on his first chauffeuring job, supposedly taking Mary Dalton, the Dalton’s only daughter to a lecture, but in reality to a rendezvous with a Communist lover, Jan. We sense Bigger’s discomfort as he takes them to a south side restaurant to eat “his kind of food,” and invited to socialize with them while proselytized into the Communist cause. We sense his discomfort as Jan drives with all of them in the front seat, then as they drink while he drives.

It’s uncomfortable to see Bigger having to help the drunken Mary into the house, and up to her room, getting her to bed, only to have her blind mother come in to this incriminating scene. We sense his discomfort as he tries to silence her so her mother won’t discover his presence and think Mary asleep in a drunken stupor, and when Mrs. Dalton leaves, to find he has asphyxiated her and she is dead.

It’s uncomfortable to witness Bigger’s desperation which leads him to stuff her in the trunk she’s taking to Detroit, to haul it to the basement and stuff her body into the coal furnace, hacking off her head so it would all fit, and then feeding the fire but fearing to remove the ashes for what he might find.

It’s uncomfortable as Mary’s disappearance becomes known to watch Bigger deflect suspicions toward Jan while involving his girlfriend in a ransom plot, ultimately telling her what he’s done, and then as Mary’s bones are found in the furnace ashes, fleeing with Bessie to an abandoned building where he has sex with her then kills her with a brick and throws her down an airshaft, where she did not immediately die.

It’s uncomfortable to see the police cordon close around him, then the final futile efforts to elude capture. It’s uncomfortable to hear the racist vitriol, of crowds who would lynch him and a prosecutor who charges him with rape as well as murder.

It’s uncomfortable to hear him tell his communist attorney, Mr. Max, how, for a brief moment, when he killed, he felt his most free and alive, how in these moments, he found meaning, a momentary escape from the destiny to which his birth and race, in his own mind, had imprisoned him.

His relationship with his attorney, who made an impassioned plea before the court for his life, is the one shining moment. Someone who asked him questions, and listened, and treated him as a man. No one understands more of his life than this man. But he is not a confessor. While Bigger tells the truth of what he had done, there was no remorse, no repentance.

We want to argue that Bigger could have made different choices. Yet the sense is of a human being trapped–in a tenement, into reliance on white charity, in an awkward social situation with two people with no clue who “mean well,” in Mary Dalton’s bedroom where no good explanation could be made for his presence. We’re rightly horrified by the murders, but also at the logic by which Bigger finds meaning in them.

We’re left uncomfortable with social structures that the execution of this young killer will not change. We’re left uncomfortable with the thought of how many other Biggers lurk in such structures–also wanting to do things with their lives, also questing for meaning, perhaps in distorted ways that will end badly for them and others. And this is as it should be. A minister friend of mine once remarked that he believed the gospel not only offered comfort to the disturbed but also disturbed the comfortable. This book does the latter. Don’t read it if you want to remain in comfort.

Review: Beyond Racial Division

Beyond Racial Division, George Yancey. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2022.

Summary: Proposes as an alternative to colorblind or antiracist approaches, one of collaborative conversation and mutual accountability to overcome racial divisions.

I witnessed it in our Ohio senatorial primary. One candidate stood at the Edmund Pettus Bridge invoking Dr. King in support of race blind policies. Another candidate spoke against the ire raised by being called “racist” for concern about people entering the country illegally. I do not wish to debate these claims but to cite them as an example of the divergent approaches being used to address the racial fault lines in this country: one being colorblindness, arguing that it is the emphasis on race that exacerbates our divisions, particular the invidious label of “racist.” The other is the “antiracist” strategy, one that is used widely in various forms in diversity training. It argues that a majority group inherently seeks to preserve its power and to subordinate others. Antiracism challenges all the systems and structures that maintain this power, demands activism (“you are either an antiracist or a racist”), and that whites must support antiracist efforts of blacks by persuading other whites and pressing for financial restitution for historic abuses.

George Yancey, a black sociologist at Baylor University believes neither of these strategies are working, and are actually contributing to deepening divisions. Colorblindness fails to acknowledge the present effects of historic abuses and the systems and structures that sustain discrimination against racial groups. Antiracist approaches often antagonize and alienate the very parties needed to make progress in addressing racial ills, shaming and stigmatizing those they consider the problem. They may gain grudging compliance or achieve political victories while fostering ongoing resentments and resistance.

What he proposes instead is a mutual accountability model. He describes this model as follows:

This model stipulates that we work to have healthy interracial communications so that we can solve racial problems. In those communications we strive to listen to those in other racial groups and attempt to account for their interests. In this way we fashion solutions to racialized problems that address the needs of individuals across racial groups instead of promoting solutions that are accepted only by certain racial groups. By allowing those we disagree with to hold us “accountable” to their interests, we are forced to confront the ways we have fashioned solutions that conform to our own interests and desires.

Yancey, p. 35.

Active listening is an essential skill necessary to these collaborative conversations–the listening that seeks to understand rather than to fashion an argumentative response. It is an approach that take problem-solving rather than venting seriously, following this process:

  1. Define the racial problem.
  2. Identify what we have in common.
  3. Recognize our cultural or racial differences.
  4. Create solutions that answer the concerns of the racial outgroup.
  5. Find a compromise solution that works best for all. (p. 46)

Before going on to contend for this model, he addresses the failure of colorblindness to address the reality of institutional discrimination and the failure of antiracism due to its reliance on power and compulsion rather than the moral suasion where former adversaries become convinced allies.

Yancey offers empirical support for his model with a qualification. He cites research showing the effectiveness of mutual accountability in fostering agreement and collaboration between parties. The big “but” is that no significant research has yet been done on the effectiveness of this model in reducing racial bias, although some research from diversity programs suggest that “intergroup contact and cooperative interventions within diversity training efforts have promising potential to reduce prejudice.” He then turns to theological support for his model, noting the examples of resolution of intergroup conflict such as Acts 6. In a world under the illusion of human perfectibility, the Bible reminds us of our depravity and the folly of relying on our own intelligence and moral sense. Finally, he considers how mutual accountability might work in our lives.

He concludes with a call for a mutual accountability movement in addressing racial issues. He offers the example of Sean Sheppard, founder and CEO of Game Changer, a California-based organization working with communities and police departments using collaborative conversation and mutual accountability methods. While not seeing himself as a movement organizer, he hopes to mobilize social media influencers and to promote the work of the Baylor Program for Collaborative Conversation and Race, a research and training center to fill the gap in empirical research in apply mutual accountability models to racial issues.

I have to acknowledge that my response to this work is that of a white boomer male. I admit to having felt shamed and stigmatized and silenced precisely because of that status, which I cannot change no matter how much I do in the cause of antiracism. I also have seen how inadequate colorblind solutions are, which I believe are attempts to “heal lightly our nation’s racial wounds.” Yancey gives word to the lack of ease I’ve had with both of these approaches. What he advocates seems to me to be rooted in the way of peace and reconciliation I’ve learned as a Christian.

Still, I find myself wondering whether this alone is adequate. I can’t imagine there being those willing to sit down in conversations of mutual accountability to desegregate schools, public accommodations, or grant voting rights. Strategies of court cases, disciplined protest marches and boycotts, non-violent resistance, and the return of love for hate were necessary because no one was at the table with them.

I also wonder how words like “mutual” and “collaborative” work when through history Blacks have born far more than their share of the burden of reconciling our race relations. I think there is a point to be heard in the insistence of antiracist trainers that Whites “need to do the work.” I suspect that language can alienate, but I’m afraid that Yancey’s language could allow those in the majority culture to offload their own responsibility in an unhelpful way.

Still, while there have been real advances in civil rights, I see us more deeply racially polarized and tribalized than almost any time in my adult life, despite extensive DEI efforts in many companies and institutions. Might it be time to try approaches that get people together as collaborators in shared solutions to which they are mutually accountable? That’s the question Yancey is asking, and one that I think is not unreasonable, based on both research and the failings of other approaches.


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: Notes from No Man’s Land

Notes from No Man’s Land, Eula Biss. Minneapolis: Graywolf Press, 2009.

Summary: A collection of American essays connected to four places the author lived, all exploring the realities of race in which we all are implicated.

Telephone poles. An essay on the introduction of (and resistance to) telephone poles on the landscape becomes an essay on lynching. It turns out that telephone poles were used to hang many black men. Biss writes of how she once thought the “arc and swoop” of phone lines a thing of beauty. Now she comments, “they do not look the same to me. Nothing is innocent, my sister reminds me. But nothing, I would like to think, remains unrepentant.”

This striking comment captures a theme running through this book. Wherever we go in America, if our eyes are open, we recognize that we are implicated in our nation’s racial history. Nothing is innocent. And yet what also comes through in these essays is that Biss is not resigned to this state of affairs–repentance, a turning, is yet possible.

In her essays we follow Biss from New York to San Diego (and trips into Mexico), Iowa City, and the Rogers Park neighborhood of north Chicago. She describes locking kids into a Harlem school where she is teaching on 9/11 and how New York depleted her. In an essay sharing the title of Joan Didion’s “Goodbye to All That” she speaks of how “New York took everything I had” and like Didion, she left, but unlike Didion, she has not returned, and questions how Didion tolerated so many myths about the city.

She moves to San Diego, working for an African-American newspaper. One of her most telling essays describes Eve Johnson’s struggle with Child Protective Services to gain custody of her own grandchildren, and the repeated barriers she encounters because she is “too black” and her persistence. She notes that she never saw such stories in the New York Times.

Her next move is to Iowa City. She writes about her research into the Black company town of Buxton, no longer in existence that seemed idyllic. There was a fabric of community organizations and a strong sense of identity and self-respect among the black residents. She dares to wonder about the kind of “integration” in which Blacks are a small minority in a sea of white, as was the case with dissatisfied Black students at the University of Iowa. Is such integration really a form of assimilation rather than an affirmation of identity? She also discusses the race blindness she encounters as people decry “looting” after Katrina, but downplay thefts by students after a tornado tore through their city.

The title essay, “No Man’s Land” is set in Rogers Park, a neighborhood on the north side of Chicago, bordering Evanston. It was originally called No Man’s Land because of its location. It is also highly integrated with no racial majority, yet she writes both of the racial fears that persist among whites like her in this diverse community and of her husband’s hope that “more white people don’t move here.”

Her concluding essay is titled “All Apologies” and explores the meaning of apologies both in personal life and in our racial history. Amid this is her telling observation: “Some apologies are unspeakable. Like the one we owe our parents.”

Biss dares to explore both our implicatedness in racism, and the ambiguities of living among one another with all that history. She recognizes the ambiguity in her own family, the mixed racial ancestry that gives her a cousin able to move between white and black communities, even while on the basis of appearance, she cannot. Her essays reveal a very different version of our national character from what many would have the textbook versions to be. She sees both the beauty and value of people and cultures, and the blindness, the hardness, and the obfuscations that sustain these disparate versions of America. In her spare, reflective prose she does not offer answers but invites us to sit with her and see.

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.


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.


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


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.


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.