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.

Review: Under Our Skin

Under Our Skin

Under Our Skin, Benjamin Watson with Ken Petersen. Carol Stream: Tyndale Momentum, 2015.

Summary: Watson posted a series of thoughts on his Facebook page after the grand jury decision in the Ferguson case. As a result of the viral response, he wrote this book to expand on his reactions as a black man to this decision.

Benjamin Watson is a tight end who plays for the New Orleans Saints and participates on the executive committee of the NFL Players Association. He is an African American and also deeply committed Christian. On Monday, November 24, 2014, he was playing against the Baltimore Ravens in a Monday night game when the grand jury decision was announced that found no probable cause to indict Officer Darren Wilson in the shooting of Michael Brown.

The following day, he wrote a post on his Facebook account headed by the following “I’m…” statements (you can read the full post here):

  • I’M ANGRY
  • I’M FRUSTRATED
  • I’M FEARFUL
  • I’M EMBARRASSED
  • I’M SAD
  • I’M SYMPATHETIC
  • I’M OFFENDED
  • I’M CONFUSED
  • I’M INTROSPECTIVE
  • I’M HOPELESS
  • I’M HOPEFUL
  • I’M ENCOURAGED

It went viral and was “liked” more than 800,000 times and opened conversation on his team, in churches, and the media. As a result, Watson wrote this book to expand on this post and promote a wider dialogue, rooted in honesty. The book follows the outline of the original post with a concluding chapter titled “I’m Empowered.”

What impressed me about this book was both Watson’s candor and his willingness to wade into the complexities and tensions that often get lost in sound bites. He speaks bluntly about how angry he is with continuing segregation in society and in the church. Yet in the same chapter he argues for a both-and approach to the complexities of Ferguson. For example he says, “I believe that Michael Brown committed a theft and ran away from Darren Wilson. And I believe that if a white man had committed the same theft and acted in the same way, he’d probably still be alive today.” He goes on to say, “That’s why the problem of black and white in our world is not a black-and-white issue.” (pp. 16-17).

He talks about his own estrangement from a white friend when told he had no hope with a white girl he had a crush on, because he was not white. He talks with admiration of the heroes and heroines of Selma and his embarrassment at violence, however justified the anger behind it is. He expresses his frustration with hip-hop, at once a music of anger and protest and urban poetry that also celebrates drugs, violence and misogyny.

In the chapter “I am fearful and confused” he describes yet another incident of a black being stopped by police, in this case himself and his wife as he is driving her to the hospital at 3 a.m. to give birth. No explanations, nor offers of assistance. And no probable cause. Yet he calls on blacks to obey, even when police do what they think unjust, to live another day.

He speaks bluntly of the offensiveness of the N-word and the Confederate flag and of the feelings of hopelessness in the continued presence of racialization and outright hate groups. Yet he also speaks of the hope he finds in his faith, in the realization that all that differentiates him from others is a skin pigment, but that underneath, we all deal with a common condition called “sin” and have the hope of a common redemption. He concludes with the empowerment that may come as the people of God turn to prayer, and as black and white take intentional steps toward each other.

What was striking to me in this book is that this is someone who is athletically and financially successful, educated, and articulate. And yet he speaks of experiences that are an enduring part of his world that are painful, and only the consequence of the pigment of his skin, hence the title of his book. My hunch is that some whites will be repulsed by the anger and bluntness. And some blacks might think he concedes too much. What stands out to me is that this is someone, who out of his Christian faith, wants an honest dialogue, and honest dialogue partners.

I could see this book being used in a discussion group of whites and blacks in a college or athletes fellowship or multi-ethnic Bible study. There is a credibility and winsomeness in the way Watson raises issues that lays the groundwork for the whites to re-examine their preconceptions and ask their black conversation partners, “tell me more.” Likewise, Watson’s personal stories open the door to share other stories. There is a willingness to acknowledge the complexities of the issues that models not settling for easy, and often polarizing, answers but encourages us to sit with the complexity, to struggle and question and pray. And when we do this together, as black and white, perhaps then there is hope that we might begin to heal the deep wounds between us.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

Really? In 2016?

Death ThreatI wrote a few weeks ago about my colleague Phil, driving home from a day on campus, only to be stopped by police, forced to lie on the ground and be hand-cuffed.

On Monday, two black women with ties to the ministry I work with had profoundly scary experiences. Charlene, our Director of Black Campus Ministry, was taking care of the yard of white friends of hers when a policeman pulled up and without warning pulled a gun on her, suspecting her of breaking and entering. We have a new crime to add to “driving while black” and “walking while black.” Now there is “taking care of your friend’s property while black.”

I was at the same table in leadership meetings less than two weeks ago with Charlene. I find myself shocked and angered that she was within one false move, or even a nervous twitch, of possibly losing her life. I can vouch that this would be the loss of a wonderful life and gifted leader. I find myself wondering if the police would have given a second thought if it was a white woman in the same setting, or even if the police stopped, whether the response would have been as aggressive.

Sure, I know the dangers police face. My city is grieving the loss of an exemplary officer who died in a hail of gunfire last week. The alleged shooter was a middle-aged white man, suspected of arson. Yet I cannot find in this justification for the terror my colleague faced.

The other instance is even more insidious. Christena is an African-American professor at a distinguished seminary. She spoke at a national conference sponsored by our organization in December and is an author of a book on racial reconciliation published by the publishing house that is part of the organization for which I work. On Monday, she received the death threat reproduced in this post. I apologize for the vulgarity but I think these things need to be brought into the light rather than be hidden in the darkness.

This stuff happens in America. It happens to people I care for. I’m not sure I know what else to do at the moment except to use my “privilege” as a white man to name this evil for what it is–the demeaning of persons who exist in the image of God simply because of the color of their skin. I’m angry because these are sisters in the faith who love the same God and follow the same Jesus I do. I cannot remain aloof from what they are experiencing any more than I can say my foot is not a part of my body.

There has been a lot of push back, particularly in conservative white circles around the BlackLivesMatter movement. Truth is, it is messy. The anti-police rhetoric is not helpful, even if it is wrong that my colleague had a gun pulled on her while tending a friend’s lawn. We cannot raise up one group by demonizing another. But the truth is, ever since we brought the first African slave forcibly to this country, we have been saying Black lives don’t matter. When we said Blacks are just three-fifths of a person, we said their lives don’t matter. When we red-lined Blacks into confined areas of our cities, when we lynched them, we said their lives don’t matter.

When we remain aloof or silent when friends and colleagues like Phil, Charlene, Christena and others are demeaned and put in danger, we act as if their lives don’t matter. I cannot do that any longer. The lives of these, my brothers and sisters in the faith matter. And because they represent so many others who face such indignities, even in 2016, I think it is time for whites, believers or not, who believe in the dignity of their lives as “created equal, with certain inalienable rights” to say their lives matter. At least it is time for this old white guy to say “Black Lives Matter.”

How Long Will This Be?

Police Car Lights

By Scott Davidson from United States – Police Car Lights, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6071845

One of the stories Andy Crouch tells in his book Strong and Weakreviewed here yesterday, is of two campus ministers, Phil and Leslie, when they were working at the University of California at Berkeley. They were returning home at the end of the day, having picked up some groceries,  when they turned onto their street and saw the lights of a police cruiser light up behind them. Within minutes, one police cruiser was six. Phil described what happened next:

“A voice from a loudspeaker told me to roll down my window. The voice told me to open my car door, keeping my hands visible at all times. Take four steps away from the car, keeping your hands clearly visible, I was told. The instructions went on: Face the car. Bend down on both knees. Put your hands on the ground. Lie face down. Turn your face to the right.” (Quoted in Andy Crouch, Strong and Weak, p. 100).

Both Phil and Leslie were handcuffed, their vehicle searched, turning up only groceries and Bible study materials. Supposedly, they “matched the description” of robbery suspects and went through all this despite the fact that Phil offered to furnish time stamped grocery receipts that would provide him an alibi. The irony was that Leslie’s father was the chief of police of a neighboring community. What is neither ironic nor surprising is that Phil and Leslie are black.

What was most troubling to me as I read this account was realizing that I know Phil, who I worked with on a national task force. He is a man of character, gentleness, grace, and wit. And I’ve come to learn that his story is a common one. It is one laden with fear–one nervous move or misstep could lead to bodily harm or worse. I’ve seen several stories of black pastors subjected to the same treatment. It is a story many black men who have never committed a crime can tell. And you may be aware that there is a name for this: Driving While Black. (There is also a companion infraction: Walking While Black.)

I’ve been pulled over by police on several occasions in my adult life for speeding. The lights, cruisers, uniform and visible fire arm have their effect. Yet, even though I had actually broken a law, unlike my friend, I was never asked to step out of the car, or to kneel on the pavement, let alone be handcuffed. Twice, I drove away with nothing more than a warning. I was always treated with politeness.

I’m sure people can give lots of reasons for why I was treated the way I was, and why my friend Phil was treated as he was. But the truth is that few of us who are white who were not guilty of a serious crime have been treated as Phil was. And sadly, there are many who are guilty of nothing else than being black who can tell stories like this.

Reading Phil’s description gives me chills. I can imagine the scene, the blinding lights, the amplified voices, the roughness of the pavement on my skin, being jerked from the routines of grocery shopping and coming home, to handcuffs and being treated as a “suspect”, of having the contents of my car searched (I can feel my pulse rate increase when TSA decides to do a “random” inspection of my bags or a pat down of my person).

Sure, it could happen to me. But it is more likely that it will happen again to my friend Phil. And that helps me make sense of the anguish and the anger of blacks who are trying so hard to do the right thing, and simply want the same things I want, and face this treatment and worse.

This is the America whose Declaration of Independence describes all men as created equal, and yet whose Constitution describes blacks as “three-fifths” of a person. Jim Wallis has described in a new book by the same title, racism as America’s Original Sin. I think that is right and I think that we, and especially the church in America have tried to “heal the wounds of our people” lightly. We heal these wounds lightly when we refuse to face our sorry history, when we pretend to be “colorblind”, and when we don’t understand the differences that the accident of the color of our skin makes in our lives. Some may be put off by the language of “sin” but the truth is, sin can be acknowledged, repented of, and forgiven. Actions can be taken that are the fruit of repentance. You can’t do any of that with a “social condition.”

The question is, will we? Will this be the generation that truly faces our sad three hundred fifty year history? How long must friends like Phil wait? Will he face such demeaning treatment again? How long will this be?

Review: Onward

Onward

Onward: Engaging the Culture Without Losing the Gospel, Russell D. Moore. Nashville: B & H Publishing, 2015.

Summary: Written by a leader in the Southern Baptist Convention, this book describes an agenda for a post-Moral Majority church, centered around both cultural engagement and gospel integrity.

I found this a heartening book in many ways that articulated, at least in the words of one denominational leader, the journey the Southern Baptist Convention has been on over the last few decades. Russell D. Moore is president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention and a frequent contributor in the New York Times, The Washington Post, Christianity Today and First Things.

Moore writes about what a church that has had Bible Belt roots and Moral Majority political clout does when these conditions no longer hold. His contention is both that the church needs to reconceive its cultural engagement, and use this opportunity to reaffirm its gospel integrity. He begins by affirming the importance of the life of the kingdom not only in its “not yet” dimensions but rather in the present. The kingdom must be first and he calls us to “be pilgrims again, uneasy in American culture.” He contends that the true culture war must be first to embody the life of the kingdom in gospel communities. He argues for  mission that preaches both justice and justification, reconciliation both between people, and between people and God and these two must not be pitted against each other. He then focuses on three particular issues he believes need to be emphasized in this effort to bring together gospel and culture: human dignity, religious liberty, and family stability.

In a chapter on Human Dignity, he begins with a statement of the dignity of black lives, and argues for a Whole Life dignity perspective, within which he advocates compellingly for continued pro-life engagement around issues of abortion and euthanasia. In discussing religious liberty, he freely invokes the Baptist history of separation of church and state, and argues for the liberties of all religious peoples, while acknowledging that in our present context, gospel integrity will be increasingly “strange” and not always supported. I loved his concluding statement in this chapter affirming, “We are Americans best when we are not Americans first.”

The chapter on family stability particularly struck me as one that might surprise some. One the one hand he is uncompromising in naming the sins of fornication and adultery rather than deploying euphemized equivalents and arguing for chastity rather than mere abstinence. On the other hand, he seeks to extend compassion to those wounded by today’s libertarian sexual ethics, acknowledges the need for stronger support of the abused, speaks of the connection between poverty and family instability, and argues that living wages are important for these families. He affirms the role of church as family for all, not just for couples with children. At the same time, he has some challenging comments about young couples waiting to marry because of economic considerations, that ends up leading to moral compromise. He’d contend that we are never ready for marriage, economically or otherwise!

His concluding chapters speak about the vital importance of speaking with both conviction and kindness, and for the fact that the hope for the American church is in the transforming power of the gospel, that leadership is not genetically inherited and the next “Billy Graham” may currently be an alcoholic, or come from another part of the world. God has ways of breaking out of both liberalism and legalism and raising up new generations.

Moore can turn a phrase and one has the sense that this was material adapted from oral speaking. At the same time, it felt at times that the organization could be tighter. Reading this felt like listening to rambles, albeit very engaging rambles, around a theme.

It is heartening to me that this book can be published by a Southern Baptist publishing house. It reflects a pilgrimage from a segregated, culture warring church focused on personal rather than social ethics to a church that is beginning to wrestle with what it means to hold justice and justification together. True, some of the material on questions like the environment, gun violence, economic justice and more are still very cautious, and I suspect most Blacks would like to see them go even further on issues of race and confronting the history of racism in this country. Yet the fact that these issues are talked about in the context of the dignity of all life and the gospel of the kingdom by a Southern Baptist leader is an encouraging sign and one that I hope will encourage similar conversations throughout the American church.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher via Netgalley. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

 

Review: God and Race in American Politics

God and RaceGod and Race in American Politics, Mark A. Noll. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008.

Summary: This text explores the interwoven story of religion, race, and politics in American history, with a concluding theological reflection.

Mark Noll makes the observation in this book, derived from his Stafford Little Lectures at Princeton University in 2006, that we have one of the most enlightened political systems in human history and yet we have failed signally in the matter of race. From our beginnings we accepted the slave trade that treated forcibly seized Africans as cargo that were simply one more asset to serve American interests. After the Civil War and the failure of Reconstruction, we settled for systemic injustices in the form of Jim Crow laws that a number would argue continue in some form down to the present.

What Noll does in this “short history” is look at the interplay of religious influences, shifting party affiliations and voting patterns and the continuing saga of race in America. As a careful scholar, he documents his narrative with numerous tables on denominational populations and party voting patterns by various states and populations.

He begins by looking at how the Bible was used to argue both for and against slavery. Interestingly, those who were pro-slavery held back from arguing for White slavery, revealing the racial animus behind this issue. In this racial divide he traces the origins and rise of African-American churches who would be a critical factor in years to come in civil rights advocacy. He concludes this chapter (2) with these prophetic words by W.E.B. DuBois:

“This nation will never stand justified before God until these things are changed….Especially are we surprised and astonished at the recent attitude of the church of Christ–on the increase of a desire to bow to racial prejudice, to narrow the bounds of human brotherhood, and to segregate black men in some outer sanctuary” (cited on p. 59).

The book traces the the failed efforts of Reconstruction (“Redemption” in the South) and the alignments of southern Whites (comprised of large Baptist and Methodist populations) with the Democratic Party while Blacks who could vote as well as northern Protestants aligned with “the party of Lincoln.” He recounts the rise of Jim Crow and the failure of the courts and political processes along with the lack of engagement (and some complicity) of white Evangelicals with these injustices.

Meanwhile, an African-American church was rising in organizational strength and the training of its pastors. Noll traces the antecedent influences on King and other civil rights leaders and how central the religious voice was to this movement.

A significant turning point came in 1964 with the passage of sweeping civil rights legislation under Democrat Lyndon Johnson. A major political realignment began, where the once Democratic white south became Republican, and the Democratic Party became one of northern liberals, mainline Protestants (a declining group) and ethnic minorities while Evangelicals and some Catholics identified with the small government, morally conservative policies of the Republicans.

One fascinating sidelight Noll observes is the emergence of southern Evangelicals on the national stage in this period. Having come out from an apparent identification with racism as a result of civil rights legislation, denominations like the Southern Baptists and figures like Jerry Falwell (and Bill Clinton) gain national platforms.

Noll concludes the book with a theological reflection. He notes the mixed history of Christian complicity with racial injustice and advocacy for civil rights and “the beloved community.” While not justifying the evils, he argues that in Christian theology’s understanding of both human evil and the redemptive arc of the gospel, there are the resources to help us neither be surprised by evil nor the acts of so many who selflessly pursue justice. It is a theology of realistic hope rather than starry-eyed optimism or pessimistic despair.

This is a book for anyone engaged in issues of racial reconciliation or who are trying to understand the complex interplay of religion and American politics around these issues. As in so many things, understanding where we’ve come from is critical to understanding where we are and discerning the road before us. This book can help.