“Also, what do we mean by ‘white’?”

Also, what do we mean by “white”? Historically, the category of “whiteness” has been very flexible, gradually extending over various groups not originally included in that constituency. In the mid-19th century, the Irish were assuredly not white, but then they became so. And then the same fate eventually befell Poles and Italians, and then Jews. A great many U.S. Latinos today certainly think of themselves as white. Ask most Cubans, or Argentines, or Puerto Ricans, and a lot of Mexicans. Any discussion of “whiteness” at different points in U.S. history has to take account of those labels and definitions.

Nor are Latinos alone in this regard. In recent controversies over diversity in Silicon Valley, complaints about workplaces that are overwhelmingly “white” were actually focused on targets where a quarter or more are of Asian origin. Even firms with a great many workers from India, Taiwan, or Korea found themselves condemned for lacking true ethnic diversity. Does that not mean that Asians are in the process of achieving whiteness?

Meanwhile, intermarriage proceeds apace, with a great many matches involving non-Latino whites and either Latinos or people of Asian origin. (Such unions are much more common than black-white relationships.) Anyone who expects the offspring of such matches to mobilize and rise up against White Supremacy is going to be sorely disappointed.

– Philip Jenkins, “White Christian Apocalypse?” I’ve noticed a fair bit of commentary about how changing demographics (related to age, ethnicity, and immigration) mean that the recent presidential election will be the last of its kind, a kind of final gasp for the blatant racism and xenophobia that was on display these past many months. Jenkins adds a couple more compelling reasons to the list of why this idea is far too optimistic.

“Many evangelical supporters of Trump have been quick to note that they are not racists…”

For those who think that these impulses are somehow at a great distance from Trump’s campaign and his White House, we need only note the appointment of Stephen Bannon as Trumps strategist and senior counselor, a position with direct access to and great influence over the president. Bannon himself described his own work as a platform for the “alt-right.”

Many evangelical supporters of Trump have been quick to note that they are not racists, anti-Semites, or misogynists themselves, but they have been slower to denounce the racism, anti-Semitism, and misogyny that have ridden Trump’s coattails like an invisible down-ballot candidate. (Others have simply said that “there will always be crazies” attached to candidates from any party. “There will always be crazies” is not an appropriate response to David Duke and the KKK or to anti-Semitism or to the subjugation of women.)

Any evangelical Christian unwilling to acknowledge and repudiate the hatred that has been stoked by Trump’s campaign, and tempted to claim clean hands because they themselves don’t embody that hatred, should remember both the call to smash false values and the Apostle Paul’s words in Romans 1:32, which condemn not only sinful deeds but also condemn giving approval of those who practice them.

-Noah Toly, “Needed! A New Evangelicalism: Ellul and the Election.” Toly is more optimistic about reforming Evangelicalism that I am but, nonetheless, it’s heartening to hear such clarity from a professor at Wheaton College.

“…sanctuary in a church…”

I read two things today that might be related. From CNN:

The leaders of the white nationalist and so-called “alt-right” movement — all of whom vehemently oppose multiculturalism and share the belief in the supremacy of the white race and Western civilization — publicly backed Trump during his campaign for his hardline positions on Mexican immigration, Muslims, and refugee resettlement. Trump has at times disavowed their support. Bannon’s hiring, they say, is a signal that Trump will follow through on some of his more controversial policy positions.

“I think that’s excellent,” former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke told CNN’s KFile. “I think that anyone that helps complete the program and the policies that President-elect Trump has developed during the campaign is a very good thing, obviously. So it’s good to see that he’s sticking to the issues and the ideas that he proposed as a candidate. Now he’s president-elect and he’s sticking to it and he’s reaffirming those issues.”

From Lex Visigothorum (400-500 CE):

No one shall dare to remove, by force, any person who has sought sanctuary in a church unless said person should attempt to defend himself with arms.

When I Knew

On election night last week I drove down to Mount Greenwood on the far south side of the city. The neighborhood is mostly Irish-Catholic and was the site of a recent police shooting. I went because I knew that a group of mostly Black protestors were gathering in response to the shooting. I needed to bear witness. What I saw and heard made my head spin: hundreds of the neighborhood’s residents screaming at the few Black protestors; slurs and stereotypes hurled with abandon; wink-and-nod interactions between police and neighbors; white teenagers and children mesmerized by the entire scene, phones held high to record the chaos before walking the block or so back to their homes.

This is when I knew Donald Trump could be the next president. Not because each of his voters is so openly hostile to African American people, but because a country that accepts the reasonableness of this horrifying scene will find little about this man that is unreasonable enough to keep him from the highest office in the land.

Time to Resist

I can come to no other conclusion, no other possibility in this disorienting moment.

The presidential candidate of the Republican Party deserves non-partisan resistance from this country’s Christians. I’ve asked questions of Christians who support, or are considering supporting, this candidate. I’ve listened to, read about, and imagined the circumstances that would lead people – Christian people – to giving the candidate their support. And still I can come to no other conclusion, no other possibility in this disorienting moment: It’s time to resist.

The list that compels our Christian resistance is long. The early church grew in large part because of the honor granted to women including, radically for that time, single women with no intention to marry. Yet the candidate has shown himself chronically incapable of interacting with the women in his family or employment with anything close to respect, much less honor. Women, in this man’s gaze, are objects to be rated and commodities to be exploited. Or consider that the idolatrous nationalism that American Christians have come to expect from both political parties has grown through this man’s vision into full-blown xenophobia. It’s no longer enough to pay lip service to the troops, publicly salute the flag, and ignore all evidence of the nation’s inglorious past; patriotism now requires that other nations bear the violent weight of our scorn. The candidate has identified new scapegoats – living cultures of people – who deserve our wrath for making our lives less than we think they deserve to be. This development has to trouble a people whose allegiance to Jesus always puts us out of step with our rulers. And when we remember that the eucharistic blood we share with Mexican, Palestinian, and Chinese Christians is thicker than whatever is meant to bind us to other Americans… well, we must speak loudly on their behalf. Our reputations – those publicly maligned Christians and us – are one and the same. What sort of family would we be if we simply let the candidate slander our sisters and brothers?

But these reasons, among others that could be listed, are not enough. Every day it seems we hear of new Christian leaders – mostly of the so-called conservative or Evangelical variety – supporting the candidate. For some it’s a question of the lesser evil – a strange way to speak for those who actually believe in evil and its malevolent powers. For others the support is more enthusiastic; there are true believers among the Believers.

How is their support – however tepid or enthused – possible? I’ve been listening and trying to understand, as sympathetically as can be expected from one who thinks the candidate deserves only resistance from this country’s Christians. There are others, but I’ve heard three consistent reasons for Christian support of the candidate. The first has to do with a variety of social conservatism which believes, despite all evidence to the contrary from his life and career, that the candidate he will make policy decisions and judicial appointments aligned with the so-called religious right. Another reason for supporting the candidate has more to do with opposing, no matter what, the Democratic Party and, especially, its nominee. There is something deep and dark that is invoked by this woman’s presence among some of the candidate’s supporters, something that evolves into ugly sexism in the worst cases and in many is expressed by a profound distrust. Finally, and most interesting to me, are the supporters who see in the candidate some reason to hope that their economic depression will finally be addressed. J. D. Vance has told this story beautifully in his new memoir, Hillbilly Elegy, and there’s a lot here worth examining closely. For example, the generational poverty that is common to many white Appalachian and rust belt families has important points of contact with the experience of some Black Americans yet, as this political contest proves on a seemingly daily basis, race works to separate those who might otherwise find common cause with each other.

I recently sat across a table from a friend, a Latino pastor. We wrapped up our conversation about his church and ministry in Chicago and I asked, in my good-enough Spanish, what he thought about the candidate and all of the surrounding chatter. He smiled and laughed, told some stories about the jokes his family and church make about this moment. And then- I’m surprised, he said. Surprised that so many people will follow this man. Can’t they hear what he’s saying?

The rationale some Christians give for following the candidate are interesting to consider even as I find none of them weighty enough justify their support. Again, I’m writing as a Christian, so even if there were more substance to these reasons I would still be compelled to resistance. The reason has everything to do with that Latino pastor, a man who is my friend and brother – as we Christian people say and claim – in Christ.

The candidate’s racism is well known and extensively documented. (And now, as much as I’d prefer to maintain the blessed absence of this man’s name, I must finally write it in association with, what I believe to be, the primary cause of our Christian resistance.) Donald Trump is a racist. This is not, actually, an especially bold thing to say. Others have said it more persuasively than I will. And, obviously, I’m also a racist. The difference is not one of scale but simple acknowledgement: though the candidate and I breathe the same racist American air, I am repentant and he is not. I limp while he struts.

The candidate’s racism (race prejudice coupled with power) leaves a long, ugly trail: he refused to rent to Black people, he’s said that “laziness is a trait in blacks,”  he’s retweeted self-identified white supremacists, he publicly demanded the execution of five wrongfully convicted Black men, and it goes on. As a white Christian hearing this man’s racist attacks, I must imagine that these are attacks on my family members. A white American obviously doesn’t have to be a Christian to find the candidate’s racism repugnant, but I’m writing consciously as a Christian who believes my lot to be bound with other Christians whose races, ethnicities, and cultures differs from mine.

The only way white Christians can get around the candidate’s racism is by claiming that he doesn’t actually mean it, that he’s simply being ironic in the way all of our political candidates must be in order to secure the necessary votes. David Foster Wallace wrote about this in 1993: “All U.S. irony is based on an implicit ‘I don’t really mean what I’m saying.’ So what does irony as a cultural norm mean to say? That it’s impossible to mean what you say? That maybe it’s too bad it’s impossible, but wake up and smell the coffee already? Most likely, I think, today’s irony ends up saying: ‘How totally banal of you to ask what I really mean.'” But while such irony may be the accepted assumption behind our culture’s political discourse, it can’t be justified away by people who are bound to tell the truth about all things, to the best of our ability. As such, a Christian would have to be willfully, vehemently blind to the candidate’s history to believe such nonsense about his inevitable transformation into someone less dehumanizing.

But this isn’t the worst of this ironic rationalization. What makes this a completely un-Christian argument – one that I’ve heard repeatedly – is the assumption that the person on the receiving end of the racism spouted by the candidate and some of his more vocal supporters is an untrustworthy narrator of their own experience. More baldly: The white Christian claims to know what’s better for the Black or Brown Christian than she or he knows for themselves.

That white Christians in this country can with a clear conscious support the candidate or, with mild distaste, privately disapprove of him seems to me another reminder of how divided our churches are. The plain fact is that very few white Christians are in a position to hear firsthand how one of their Black or Brown family members is experiencing this election. We will be more influenced by the media ideologues of our choice than by the sisters and brothers of our Faith.

And here we must say two things that should be obvious but are apparently not. First, of course there are some Black and Brown people who support the candidate. Their presence – especially as spokespeople – is held up by some white Christians as evidence that the candidate is in fact not a racist, merely misunderstood for all of his politically incorrect truth telling. But this is silly, an obvious exception proving the rule. Would that those white Christians be in a position to listen to communities of those who share their faith but not their race, that their ears could be filled with the stories and perspectives of flesh and blood unmitigated by pundits and screens.

Second, in listening to some white Christian supporters of the racist candidate it becomes unsettlingly evident that race, not faith, is the strongest lens through which the world and its dangers are viewed. “Why do so many white Evangelicals support him?” The question surprised me, coming from a Black friend as we left church. I stumbled and stuttered. This was around the time that two unarmed Black men were killed by police within the same week. I know the answers I’ve heard from his Christian supporters, but to the question behind my friend’s question – How can so many white Christians support a racist? – I’m left to admit that race exhibits an influence greater than faith. I want to be wrong about this. It’s an ugly thing to say. I’d like to be convinced of an alternative explanation, but one has yet to be presented with any persuasiveness.

And so, Christian resistance is what the moment requires. It’s necessary to say that this is a non-partisan resistance because our imaginations have been so diluted that we think only of our vote as a signal of support or opposition. But there are other ways. We might submit our vote to a person who has been the target of the candidate’s hate. We might devote our attention to local candidates whose decisions will impact classrooms and housing. We might, as some of are, begin to think about what resistance will look like after this election. There will be reasons to resist if the candidate is elected- he’s made no mystery of how his policies will ostracize and divide. And if he’s not, there will be a reinvigorated contingency of citizens who have been deputized in their bigotry. This too will require our Christian resistance.

 

The Ida B. Wells Papers

3 Observations from a Remarkable Woman.

I spent a few enjoyable hours this afternoon in the special collections at the University of Chicago looking over some of the Ida B. Wells collection. I’m working on a paper about her decision, along with Fredrick Douglass, to protest the 1893 World’s Colombian Exposition in Chicago. Not necessarily related to that project, here are a few things that stood out as I went through the papers:

  1. I held a business card-sized promotion soliciting votes for her election as a Republican delegate to the 1928 convention in Kansas City. One of the most radical, outspoken activists for civil rights wanted to be a delegate to the Republican convention. Things have changed a bit since 1928.
  2. On Friday, January 1, at one o’clock in the morning, Wells reflected on the watch night service from which she’d just returned: “I go forth on the renewed pilgrimage of this New Year with renewed hope, vigor, a remembrance of the glorious beginnings and humbly pray for wisdom, humility, success in my undertakings if it be My Father’s good pleasure, and a stronger Christianity that will make itself felt.” One of my pet peeves about the way historians often reflect on Wells (and her African American contemporaries) is how her Christianity is assumed and thus ignored. There can be a bit of historical and cultural prejudice that refuses to imagine that her faith was one of the things that allowed Wells to live such an extraordinarily brave and intelligent life. A letter like this pushes against those biases.
  3. Ida B Wells and Betty MossOne folder held a bunch of photos and this one made me stop for a minute. Here we see Wells with Mrs. Betty Moss and her two children. Moss was made a widow when her husband Tom, a good friend of Wells, was lynched in Memphis. I think this image hit me hard because last week, once again, we saw Black women standing in front of cameras because their men – boyfriend, son – had been murdered by state-sanctioned violence.  It’s a sad and infuriating thing to consider- the script this nation so forcefully holds itself to.

I’ll continue to do my small part to make Wells more widely known. As I learn more about her remarkable life I’m increasingly sure that she’s the model we need to bravely face the traumas and fears of our day.

Traumatized and Human

It’s not just in your head. You’re not making too much of it. You shouldn’t easily get over it.

You’ve been traumatized. Your mind won’t stop even when your body does. It feels like you can’t quite pull enough air into your lungs. Your fingers fidget and your eyes glance quickly at the unexpected sounds that would generally go unnoticed. You’re simultaneously so very tried and completely – desperately – awake. You’ve lost count of the tears.

This is trauma. You saw the videos. Men whose skin solidified them to yours as a brother, cousin, son, and father were executed by those whose murderous ways are the summation of this country’s means and ends. You saw them die. You heard the woman’s cry. You heard another woman’s deathly calm voice, narrating in real time the death of her beloved. And the child. You can’t stop thinking of this beautiful child. Will it be her first memory?

Last night I sat next to a Black woman who said, “I remember Emmet Till. I remember the pictures.” This country proudly lynched your ancestors to terrorize those with Black bodies like yours. Newspapers printed the time and location of the upcoming attraction; postcards with the demonic scenes were sent around the country. The pictures, and now the videos, serve to terrorize and traumatize. The perpetrators of lynching did not fear the publicity of the newspapers and postcards. They knew the values of the state on whose behalf they acted. Is it any different now? The videos rush at you with brutal force, and to what end? Are the murderers punished? Are you made to feel safer, more human?

This is trauma and it’s real and it’s on purpose. Your Black body, in the depraved mind of this nation, has been marked for terror and trauma. It’s always been this way. It is true and unfathomably wrong.

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Please do what you can to quiet the voices of the liars, especially those who bluntly try to discredit your experience.  Ignore too, however rudely, those who use smart sounding deception to move quickly from your suffering to the phantoms of fevered white imagination – black on black crime, epidemics of fatherlessness, criminal pathologies. They are each lies and require none of your energy or time.

Nurture your faith. It’s not a luxury for you, not a Sunday state of mind. Your faith is what connects you to the truth about yourself. Your faith in your God, your people, and yourself is more true than 90% of what you will be told by our media.

Sink into your humanity, into your flesh, bone, muscles, and mind. You are a member of humanity, reflecting the image of God. Find reasons to laugh. Stream that movie this weekend. Cook something delicious. You have a large emotional capacity. You can and will feel tremendous grief and anger. But you can and will feel more than these and it’s OK to remind your body of this at times.

Remember that there are people who love you more than you can imagine in this moment. There are people who will fight for you. Some of us will die for you. Notice the difference in your routine between quiet and isolation; the former is necessary but the latter is this nation’s telos and it must be resisted no matter how vulnerable you feel. Be with people who get you, who require no explanations, you accept your everything at face value. Then be that person for someone else.

Meditate on the Christ, the lynched Son of God. There is no prescription about what you are supposed to feel about your faith in this moment. But these are the exact moments when our suffering can draw us to his, when our despair can bring us to his, when our screams into the apparent nothingness can join his.

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You’ve been traumatized but only humans can know trauma. So you, beloved human and creation of God, can know this deep evil without being overcome by it. Even in this place and in this time, you will express your humanity in ways that cannot be controlled, manipulated, or quenched.