Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Move Along, Nothing To See Here...

UPDATE: It turns out that this chart is very misleading. Though it doesn't say so, the incarceration rate for "Black America" is actually for Black American men, while those of other countries are for total population. Once women are added in, the black bar on the far right would be much shorter. Yet it would still be dramatically higher than any other country. One way of looking at it is that even if the incarceration rate of Black women was zero, the total rate would still average out to above 2,000, which is 4x that of the nearest country (Cuba). So the chart is factually wrong, but the point it's making stands.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Goodbye to Partisanship

I really think I'm done blogging politics. Am I naive for thinking so? Perhaps. But this conviction has been building on me for a long time and I find myself increasingly detached from things I thought I cared about. I recently removed all posts with a politics tag from public view. Besides making a severe dent in my publishing volume, this decision is problematic because of its face-saving implications. Am I just conveniently hiding six years of poorly reasoned, embarrassing, and at times offensive posts? The lack of transparency is obvious. Yet, if this were just about face-saving, I would have many more posts to delete. I've been writing about race, too, for six years. Ouch. Tomorrow, hopefully we'll realize how ignorant we were today. In the meantime we press on as best we can.

The reason I removed the politics posts is because I'm closer to understanding what's important to me. I don't want politics to compromise my message. People might look at my recent Ferguson commentary here and in other venues and say, "What do you mean you're done with politics?" But that gets close to my point. Ferguson is only superficially political, but many of us have lost the ability to see other classes of people in non-political terms. There are millions of culturally isolated White Americans, for example, for whom Black Americans appear as political opponents before they are human beings. Their primary engagement with them is political. We can write about politics in a way that encourages this dehumanization. In the past I have been guilty of reducing human and Christian concerns to political issues. I have taken things that are incidentally political and made them fundamentally so. I acted as though politics was basic; now I find that it is built on the foundation of other things. Politics is not where the action is at. Let's work on the foundations.

What I dislike--what I've come to fear--is unrooted politics. I am still political. But my politics come from the archive.* My politics come from the block. I'm not talking about the arrogance of the historian who think his very particular expertise is transferable. I'm not talking about the arrogance of an epistemology that unduly values personal experience. Expertise is counter-productive without humility, and my block isn't inherently more knowledge-giving than your block. But these two very different worlds do provide grounds for useful political engagement.

I want to make a difference on my block, and I want to make a difference in the intellectual circles I occupy. The social filters up and the intellectual trickles down. I can't be an activist without first being a neighbor. And those books I will write will change the thinking of people who never read them, because that's how ideas work. Intense engagement in these very different social and intellectual worlds makes it difficult to approach politics with the same old partisan points to score and trivial allegiances to uphold. The Christian vision of shalom is so category-busting, so utterly weird to the modern American, that our politics cannot serve as a container for it. We shouldn't want it to.

*I realize I'm indulging in historian-speak here. By "archive" I mean the primary sources that are the foundation of the historian's work.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Land of the Free, Home of the Slave

Alan Taylor's The Internal Enemy continues to occupy my mind. His treatment of slave owners' psychology is excellent. He writes, "When confronted with suffering slaves, some masters showed a deft ability to evade blame by, instead, congratulating themselves for a superior ability to feel the pain of inferiors." When Henry Tucker acquired a ten-year-old slave boy named Bob in 1804, the boy "felt devastated by the forced separation from his mother." His new owner wrote,
Poor little fellow! I was much affected at an incident last night. I was waked from a very sound sleep by a most piteous lamentation. I found it was Bob. I called several times before he waked. "What is the matter, Bob?" "I was dreaming about my mammy Sir"!!! cried he in a melancholy & still distressed tone: "Gracious God!" thought I, "how ought not I to feel, who regarded this child as insensible when compared to those of our complexion"...How finely woven, how delicately sensible must be those bonds of natural affection which equally adorn the civilized and the savage -- the American and African -- nay the man and the brute.
Taylor writes, "Despite discovering a shared humanity with the boy, Henry reiterated a stark polarity in which he stood as the superior: the civilized American man in contrast to the savage, African brute. In that view, slave labor supported, rather than contradicted, the freedom of those who most deserved it." Most White Virginians assumed that Black slaves had a fundamentally different inner life that allowed them to bear up under hardship in a way that Whites could not. "'Their griefs are transient,' and their afflictions 'are less felt, and sooner forgotten,' insisted [Thomas] Jefferson" (58-59).

Lest you think these attitudes are distant irrelevancies, consider two recent studies of modern Americans:

Researchers at the University of Virginia found that young children "report that black children feel less pain than white children."
Frontiers in Psychology published a study finding that "Caucasian observers reacted to pain suffered by African people significantly less than to pain of Caucasian people."

It is no great stretch to infer a line of connection between the Henry Tuckers of antebellum Virginia and psychological studies of implicit bias two hundred years later. This raises big problems for most Americans, for whom history is either an abstraction or a tool to be picked up and used at their leisure. It is rather more galvanizing--and terrifying--to face up to history as an independent weight pressing in on us and shaping us well before we're ever able to shape it. What happened exerts an influence that is, despite the distortions of memory and vulgarization of historical thinking, independent of what is said to have happened.

Americans understand this even if we are loath to admit it. Jefferson's language of liberty is assumed to matter. The importance of the Constitution is obvious and inarguable. We take it for granted that these documents, and the intellectual currents that produced them, matter to us in 2014. But the popular discourse surrounding the much more recent institution of human bondage takes place on an entirely different ground. History suddenly disappears; all is the present; all is political. Racial prejudice is so entrenched in our discourse that the influence that is assumed for other centuries-old American institutions is denied to slavery. And not just denied. To explain any contemporary phenomena in light of slavery is now a tired cliche that earns ridicule.

The idea that the enslavement of four million human beings a century and a half ago still tangibly matters is vehemently denied by most White Americans. Take the pervasive White-immigrant narrative: "My ancestors weren't even here. I had nothing to do with slavery." This a la carte Americanism is something to behold. Somehow, we are to believe, the late arrival of these White immigrants on the American scene was comprehensively fortuitous and ennobling. Theirs is the Constitution and the Bill of Rights and the Pursuit of Happiness. Other American birthrites of rather more recent vintage--racial slavery and White supremacy--left them unscathed.

Beneath the flag-waving and the invocations of history resides the psyche of a people that cannot abide what has happened. So we must tame history and make it manageable, however incoherent the results. There is no question that Americans' fear of history is often expressed in ways that are downright funny. But then, those who can see it for what it is laugh only so we won't cry. For the past bears down on us whether we recognize it or not. And it does its most brutal work among the ignorant.

Monday, September 29, 2014

When White Evangelicals Learned To Tolerate Slavery

I'm reading Alan Taylor's prizewinning new book, The Internal Enemy: Slavery and War in Virginia, 1772-1832. Describing Virginia's post-revolutionary path to retrenchment rather than reform, Taylor writes that Virginia's white evangelicals urged the state to adopt a plan of gradual abolition. Here's Taylor:
They insisted that as republicans as well as Christians, Virginians needed to do right by their slaves. "The holding, tyrannizing over, and driving slaves, I view as contrary to the laws of God and nature," declared the Baptist preacher David Barrow, who regarded liberty as "the unalienable privilege of all complexions, shapes, and sizes of men." Citing the Golden Rule, Barrow wished that masters would be "doing as they would others should do to them!"
The legislature, unmoved, unanimously rejected abolition. Again, Taylor:
Sobered by this defeat, the Methodists and Baptists retreated from antislavery activity...Most leading evangelicals sought respectability as middle-class men of property. Preferring neighborhood peace and acceptance, they marginalized any radicals who continued to agitate the issue. Becoming more conservative, mainstream evangelicals reframed their message, urging slaves to obey their masters and wait for freedom after death in heaven. Among the state's Christians, only Quakers clung to antislavery principles, but they comprised a small and increasingly despised sect in Virginia.
They could stand up for the oppressed, or they could be good neighbors and respectable people. They could not, in the eyes of the great majority of White Virginians, do both. Don't look down on them. These are the same calculations we're making today. These are the sorts of accommodations from which White evangelicalism has yet to recover.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Why Can White Evangelicals Only See Discrimination Against Ourselves?

Pew is out with a new survey. It's worth contemplating for what it reveals about White evangelical psychology and the engrained racism of the White evangelical community. Here's the question that we're interested in:

"Just your impression, in the United States today, is there a lot of discrimination against [insert group, randomized], or not?"

Pew asked the question about religious and racial groups, as well as atheists and gays. Here, in chart form, are the results for some of the groups:

50% of White evangelicals say there is a lot of discrimination against evangelicals in the United States, while only 36% of White evangelicals say Blacks face a lot of discrimination in the United States. The gap between White evangelicals and the American public in perceiving discrimination against evangelicals is 19%. The gap between White evangelicals and the American public in perceiving discrimination against Blacks is 18%.

Before going further, it is important to mention two mitigating factors. First, even though this is specifically a question about discrimination within the United States, it is possible that some White evangelicals globalized their response as they thought of Middle Eastern Christians and others around the world who do indeed face appalling discrimination. This would be a plain misunderstanding of the question, but perhaps it explains part of White evangelicals' high perception of discrimination. Second, White evangelicals are theologically and culturally predisposed to answer yes to this question. We are often reminded that Christ promised that his followers would face persecution. There is a sense in which we feel we are supposed to be persecuted. At times, this produces an unseemly psychology in which we cast ourselves as a courageous band of righteous believers under siege in a hostile world. Instead of trying to accurately describe the world and our place in it, the perception of discrimination becomes a key tool of self-validation. Our perception of persecution establishes are bona fides as committed Christians.

White evangelicals' high perception of anti-evangelical discrimination is problematic, but in itself it need not be too damaging. Yet when put in context, White evangelicals' perception of discrimination looks far from benign. According to Pew's survey, White evangelicals believe they face more discrimination (a lot more!) than any other religious or racial group in the United States. It is difficult to find charitable interpretations for such gross error.

In particular, White evangelicals are much more likely than any other group of Americans to say that Blacks do not face much discrimination in the United States. Making any sense of this is an ongoing challenge. It's no good to say, "well, White evangelicals are racist." That is apparently true, but it brings us no closer to the why question. One standard interpretation is that White evangelicals, as strong individualists, inherently object to cognitive frames that recognize group discrimination. But this explanation doesn't quite work because, as we have seen, White evangelicals are quite ready to recognize group discrimination against themselves.

There are surely numerous factors contributing to White evangelicals' false perceptions of discrimination coupled with blindness toward actual injustice. Any single explanation is insufficient. Cultural and spatial isolation, conservative political ideology, individualism, racism, and nationalism may all be contributing factors. We must also consider the rampant popularity of middle-class theology, the cult of upward mobility, and the basic reluctance of large segments of White evangelicalism to apply the gospel to American life.

It might be worthwhile to dwell on the gospel a little bit more. Theologically liberal Christians have found the gospel offensive since at least the 19th century. It is too conservative, narrow, dark. All that talk of blood and wrath and miraculous resurrection from the dead is so primitive. Of course, without all this supposed primitivism, you have no gospel at all. I am grateful for the blood; I absolutely deserve the wrath of God, and Jesus literally returned to life to literally rescue me. White evangelical Christians are nodding in agreement at this point.

But it is not commonly understood that White evangelicals are also deeply offended by the gospel. Just as theological liberals have found the gospel too narrow and conservative, White evangelicals do not accept the whole gospel. They find it too expansive, and they mistake basic Christian doctrine for liberal politics or naive utopianism. Try talking about Christian teaching on segregation in the church, as I wrote about recently on this blog. You won't get a response from White evangelicals. Try using the Apostle John's words about salvation in the same way White evangelicals use the Apostle Paul's words. We like the simplicity of confessing with our mouths and believing in our hearts, but somehow we don't really believe that lack of concern for our fellow humanity is proof that we're not Christians. The Bible teaches both. Try actually talking about God's will being done here on earth as it is in heaven. Yeah, Jesus said it, but White evangelicals will tell you to calm down and realize that the world is going to hell in a handbasket anyway. Try explaining to evangelicals that Christianity teaches that God has ordered the world in such a way that the materially poor have more spiritual riches than those of us who are middle class. You get blank stares.

White evangelicals believe in a syncretistic gospel (do any of us, truly, believe in anything other?) that is made more damaging by its insistence that it is simply biblical, unencumbered by culture. It claims to be the universalizing truth of God and is thus blind to its own particularity. If you want to be accepted as a leader in many White evangelical churches, be very careful about presenting a gospel that challenges nationalism, patriotism, whiteness, capitalism, and middle-classness. Of course, the true gospel challenges all these things, just as it challenges all human systems and loyalties, whether of the right or the left.

How does this relate to White evangelicals' failure to see discrimination against other groups? If we were applying basic Christian doctrine in an American context (the church is to be unified, we are to look out for the interests of others, we are to have special regard for the poor, etc) it simply would not be possible for White evangelicals to look out across America and see ourselves as the most victimized group. Our own lived experience would tell us otherwise.

I'm not giving up. Like Paul said, "I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God" and it can fix even this.