Category Archives: racism

The Evolution—not “Reinvention”—of Malcolm X: A critical review of Manning Marable’s MALCOLM X: A LIFE OF REINVENTION

Malcolm X is one of the most multifariously portrayed individuals in human history, painted as someone between an “unashamed demagogue [whose] gospel was hatred”[1] to black people’s “own black shining prince—who didn’t hesitate to die, because he loved [them] so.”[2] After nearly two decades of scouring a cornucopia of government documents, periodicals, dissertations, journal articles, books, oral histories, and face-to-face interviews, the late Manning Marable completed an exceptionally detailed and illuminating biography of Malcolm, entitled: Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention.[3] While Marable compendiously reconstructs Malcolm’s life within its sociopolitical and historical context, at times, he indulges in excessive interpretative privileges. In this essay, I will explicate the biography’s general framework, and provide a critical analysis of Marable’s speculative pursuits. Once readers discern Marable’s subtle biases, Malcolm emerges as a man who was so uncompromisingly committed to virtues of faith, truth, dignity, and justice for his fellow black brothers and sisters, that as he gained insight into his personal and ideological flaws, he had the courage to let go of deep-seated beliefs and evolve, not “reinvent” himself, toward becoming a man committed to the full humanity of all.

One troublesome element is the book’s recurring theme that Malcolm’s narrative was “a brilliant series of reinventions.”[4] Marable defines, “the art of reinvention” as the deliberate and “selective rearrangement of a public figure’s past lives.” Marable claims that, “self-reinvention was an effective way for [Malcolm] to reach the most marginalized sectors of the black community, giving justification to their hopes.”[5] While details of his past life may have been slightly exaggerated,[6] this hardly negates the fact that Malcolm’s experiences of being black, poor, and a former prison inmate in racist America all created an authentic, not invented, connection between Malcolm and millions of black people relegated to America’s ghettos.

The most egregious example of Marable’s speculative pursuits is his assertion around Malcolm’s “homosexual encounters.”[7] Based on a paradox, “circumstantial but strong evidence,” Marable takes the liberty to claim that in one section of Malcolm’s Autobiography he “was probably describing his own homosexual encounters [italics added].”[8] Drawing upon unverifiable rumors and the fact that Malcolm both worked for a man who was gay, and believed that the man would help him in a time of need, Marable implied that no other explanation was possible other than the two men being sexually involved. Homophobic narratives, such as this, are partly why many straight men think that if they become close friends with a gay man, they will be labeled as gay too.[9] Marable’s inclusion of the description, “homosexual lover,” along with a list of Malcolm’s past identities goes beyond responsible scholarship and into the tabloidization of facts.[10] Phrases like, “Malcolm was probably describing…” or in another section, “What [Malcolm] appears to be saying is…” are prime examples of Marable stating more than is given in the facts. It is necessary to discern Marable’s subtle speculations, because despite the book’s shortcomings, its overall tenor is well researched and very convincing.

Marable’s reconstruction of Malcolm’s childhood and early adulthood in the ghetto describes the early sources for the “emotional rage” he expressed when reacting “to racism in its urban context: segregated urban schools, substandard housing, high infant mortality, drugs, and crime.”[11] Malcolm’s first major evolution occurred in prison, where he met a sagacious and eloquent inmate named “John Elton Bembry: the man who would change his life.”[12] Bembry influenced Malcolm’s development into an “organic intellectual” as he devoured texts on history, philosophy, English, and religion.[13] The natural genius of Malcolm cannot be overstated.

Through the combination of learning about oppression in black history and his father’s involvement in Garveyism, Malcolm was “transformed…into a trenchant critic of white Western values and institutions.”[14] Additionally, the cumulative effect of incidents such as having his childhood home bombed by whites, being told by a white teacher that becoming a lawyer was “no realistic goal for a nigger,” countless negative experiences with whites, and the hope that the Nation of Islam gave him for his life after prison explain how Malcolm’s early life made him amenable to the NOI’s theology that all whites were devils.[15] Eventually, however, no individual would have as great an impact on Malcolm’s life as the leader of the NOI, Elijah Muhammad.

One of the book’s greatest strengths is its in-depth exposure of the history and structure of the NOI. In the biography, the NOI emerges as a heterodox sect of Islam (at least during Malcolm’s time), “whose core philosophy was apolitical” black nationalism, and was rife with internal conflicts sometimes resulting in violent disciplinary actions by “pipe squads.”[16] Elijah Muhammad’s control over the NOI, including much of his wealth, was “derived from his special (if fictive) status as Allah’s Messenger.”[17] Malcolm’s commitment to faith, truth, dignity, and justice for black people, as he believed it at the time, is demonstrated through his relentless efforts to grow the NOI and his fervent loyalty to Elijah Muhammad. As long as Malcolm believed that the truth of the NOI was the best alternative for black people, then Malcolm was sold out for its cause. Due to his loyalty to the NOI, Elijah Muhammad, and black people, Malcolm even made the regrettable mistakes of abandoning his brother Reginald and neglecting his wife and children.

Malcolm’s split with the NOI involved a combination of allegations around Elijah’s sexual exploitation of at least nine NOI secretaries, dissention and jealousy over Malcolm’s burgeoning status, and disapproval of his increasing involvement in secular politics. I would argue that this combination was the result of Malcolm’s commitment to faith, truth, dignity, and justice for black people. As Malcolm came to believe that neither Elijah was perfect nor that the NOI’s apolitical program was viable for black liberation, he drifted from strict adherence to the sect’s apolitical program. However, the fact that Malcolm did not speak out upon initially learning about Elijah’s sexual exploits is a good reminder that Malcolm was not without his flaws, and that even he waffled on his own values from time to time. Malcolm’s international experiences and exposure to orthodox Islam most likely added to his decision to renounce the doctrines of the NOI. Malcolm proclaimed that there is “no God but Allah,” yet:

Some of my very dearest friends are Christians, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, agnostics and even atheists—some are capitalists, socialists, conservatives, extremists…some are even Uncle Toms—some are black, brown, red, yellow and some are even white. It takes all these religious, political, economic, psychological and racial ingredients (characteristics) to make the Human Family and the Human Society complete.[18]

The final chapters of the biography are the most exciting, hopeful, and tragic. They are exciting because Marable provides a phenomenally detailed reconstruction of Malcolm’s evolving thought processes. While Malcolm embraced Islam’s universality and “equality of all races,” he stated that “As a black American…I do feel that my first responsibility is to my twenty-two million fellow black Americans.”[19] As such, Malcolm established the Muslim Mosque, Inc. and the Organization for Afro-American Unity.[20] The former was a strictly Islamic organization, while the latter was dedicated “to unify[ing] the Americans of African descent in their struggle for Human Rights and Dignity” and to the ‘building of a political, economic, and social system of justice and peace [in the United States].”[21] They are hopeful because of the momentum Malcolm was beginning to gain among the mainstream Black Freedom Struggle, along with his evolving willingness “to take a firm stand on the side of anyone whose human rights are being violated.”[22] It seems that Malcolm was even beginning to evolve past some of his sexist worldviews, when he “[insisted] that in the OAAU ‘women [should have an] equal position to the men.’”[23]

Yet, it all ends in the immeasurably tragic loss of a “black shining prince—who didn’t hesitate to die, because he loved” so much. Marable’s detailed account of FBI files, along with the FBI’s refusal to disclose over a thousand pages in Malcolm’s file, revealed that the mystery behind Malcolm’s killers and the plausible complicity of law enforcement are yet to be resolved.

Contrary to Marable’s thesis of “reinvention,” I would argue that Malcolm was not deliberately changing his image to achieve a certain objective. Instead, Malcolm’s commitment to faith, truth, dignity, and justice for black people, along with his courage to change, fostered the evolution of Malcolm’s social, political, and religious views. My hope is that the church, theology, and American society, today, would pick up where Malcolm left off. Christians, especially, could learn from Malcolm’s willingness to “join in with anyone…as long as [they] want to change this miserable condition” of social, political, and individual oppression. We could especially learn from Malcolm’s courage to admit his wrongs and willingness to change his beliefs, all for the purpose of making “the Human Family and the Human Society complete.”


[1] Manning Marable, Malcolm X : A Life of Reinvention (New York: Viking, 2011), 455.

[2] Ibid., 459.

[3] Ibid., 490.

[4] Ibid., 10.

[5] Ibid., 11.

[6] Ibid., 260.

[7] Ibid., 66.

[8] Ibid.

[9] To be clear, if Malcolm engaged in same-sex acts, it would do nothing to diminish his contributions to humanity, in my opinion. Also, conceding that it may be acceptable to “out” someone’s sexuality in the rare case that they are a deceased public figure, this action should only be taken if conclusive evidence is available.

[10] Marable, Malcolm X : A Life of Reinvention, 78.

[11] Ibid., 7.

[12] Ibid., 73.

[13] Ibid., 90–91.

[14] Ibid., 91.

[15] Ibid., 25, 38, 77.

[16] Ibid., 79, 133, 242–244.

[17] Ibid., 169.

[18] Ibid., 369–370.

[19] Ibid., 368.

[20] MMI and OAAU, respectively.

[21] Ibid., 350.

[22] Ibid., 329.

[23] Ibid., 374.

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The Evangelical Ethic and the Spirit of Color-blind Racism

 

In the Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, sociologist Max Weber sought an answer to an “historical question…as to the reason for [the] particularly strong disposition of the economically most developed regions toward [Protestantism]” (Weber 2002:2). That is, Weber sought to identify the religious origins of an ideal type of “Capitalism” in what he called the Protestant ethic. While some scholars contest the accuracy of Weber’s conclusion regarding the origins of capitalism, it is widely accepted among leading sociologists and other social theorists that religious institutions serve as mediating or legitimating forces between myriad spheres of life (Christerson, Edwards, and Emerson 2005). As such, Weber’s theory suggests that religio-cultural orientations can directly influence the conduct of both individuals and society (Allan 2011:75; Weber 1949). Therefore, studying religious institutions can provide crucial insights for understanding society. As the racial landscape of the U.S. is projected to change drastically over the next few decades, it is evermore crucial to understand the legitimating forces behind racial inequalities, past, present, and future.[1]

As Weber constructed the spirit of capitalism, I am concerned with the historical reasons for the significant disposition of segregated communities toward evangelicalism. Thus, the goal of this essay is to employ Weber’s sociological methodology, of historical concept-formation, to identify both the theological origins and cultural orientations of white evangelical color-blind racism. Also, I will demonstrate how white evangelical color-blind racism contributes to racial inequalities in the United States. In doing so, I will argue that the evangelical ethic (i.e. the “race-neutral” theological and cultural orientations of white conservative evangelicals) has contributed significantly to the spirit of color-blind racism and racial inequalities in the United States.

THEORETICAL FRAMEWORK: HISTORICAL CONCEPT-FORMATION

Following Weber’s methodology, the definition of the spirit of color-blind racism must be composed of “a complex of configurations…in historical reality which we group together conceptually from the point of view of their cultural significance to form a single whole (Weber 2002:8). Thus, we will arrive at “the ultimate definition of the concept…only at the conclusion of the investigation” (Weber 2002:9). Moreover, our definition of the spirit is not exhaustive of all the essentials of colorblind racism. Indeed, the concept of race is perhaps one of the most complex concepts with myriad configurations. Thus, I am merely proposing the evangelical ethic as one significant element in the complex configuration of color-blind racism today.

As such, first I will define the term evangelical. Second, I will identify the direct relationships among conservative evangelicals and racial inequalities. Finally, I will identify the cultural and theological orientations that compose the evangelical ethic and the spirit of color-blind racism, thereby linking the ethic and the spirit to racial inequalities today.

Due to the long documented history of black-white tensions in American history, this essay will focus on the influence of white evangelical colorblind racism on black-white racial inequalities in the United States.

DEFINING CONSERVATIVE EVANGELICAL PROTESTANTS

The term evangelical is somewhat contentious, but the most widely-accepted definitions of these terms, among social scientists and nonpartisan agencies such as the Pew Research Center, are based on either core beliefs,[2] denominations, or self-identification (Brint and Schroedel 2009). In relevant scholarly literature and studies cited in this essay, the label conservative evangelical is often used interchangeably with the label conservative Protestant, and thus these two terms will be used interchangeably in this essay (Brint and Schroedel 2009).[3] Based on these definitions, white evangelicals comprise around 25% of the adult population, espousing “the dominant theological strain of the dominant faith in the United States today” (Lichterman, Carter, and Lamont 2009:189; Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life 2008).

In 90% of Christian churches today, one race constitutes more than 80% of each congregation; to wit, most white evangelicals attend segregated churches (Emerson and Woo 2006; Scheitle and Dougherty 2010).

EVANGELICALS AND RACIAL SEGREGATION

A study measuring poverty concentration in 2009, found that 36.3% of the total black population lives in high-poverty places, while 49.2% of black or African Americans below the poverty line are concentrated in neighborhoods with poverty rates greater than 20%. For all Hispanics, 23.9% live in high-poverty places, while 33.3% of poor Hispanics live in these communities as well. In sharp contrast, only 11.1% of non-Hispanic whites live in “high-poverty” neighborhoods (Lichter, Parisi, and Taquino 2012). Additionally, research indicates that over 60% of black or Hispanic students attend public schools where the majority of students are below the poverty line; compared to only “18 percent of white students” who attend high-poverty schools (Logan, Minca, and Adar 2012:288).

De facto segregation has been explained through the persistence of discriminatory housing practices such as redlining and restrictive covenants (Massey and Denton 1993; Sernau 2006). These willfully racist practices are indeed significant; yet, white evangelicals, today, need not be willful racists to perpetuate racial inequalities in the U.S.[4] Still, a recent study drawing on the 2000 Census and Church Congregations data, found that the strength of the white evangelical conservative base in a county, had a significant impact on increasing levels of residential segregation for black or African-American inhabitants in every region of the country (Blanchard 2007).

In their book, American Apartheid, Douglas Massey and Nancy Denton concluded that, “Residential segregation is the institutional apparatus that supports other racially discriminatory processes and binds them together into a coherent and uniquely effective system of racial subordination” (1993:175). It should be no surprise that the U.S. poverty rate for African-Americans and Hispanics is 25.8% and 23.2%, respectively; whereas the poverty rate for whites was below the national average, at 11.6% (Macartney, Bishaw, and Fontenot 2013). The life-chances (i.e. opportunities for success) of individuals living in these communities are significantly influenced by, and often limited to, the ties set by their segregated neighborhoods. Therefore, to the degree that evangelicals contribute to racial segregation, they contribute to racial inequalities as well.

THE SIGNIFICANCE OF RELIGIO-CULTURAL ORIENTATIONS

For Weber, “very frequently the ‘world-images’ that have been created by ‘ideas’ have, like switchmen, determined the tracks along which action has been pushed by the dynamic of interest” (Weber 1949:280). World-images, according to Weber, are “systematized and rationalized images of the world,” examples of which are sets of cultural and/or theological orientations, that guide the ways in which individuals and communities interpret the world (Weber 1949:280). Subsequently, world-images determine the parameters in which humanity’s actions manifest. As such, rather than determine specific actions, their cultural and/or theological orientations primarily set the parameters for how evangelicals tend to behave.

CULTURAL ORIENTATIONS & COLOR-BLIND RACISM

In congruence with Weber’s theory, I will locate the cultural orientations (world images) of white evangelicals that have guided their actions toward color-blind racism. A litany of research posits the following orientations of white evangelicalism, in general:

‘accountable freewill individualism,’ ‘anti-structuralism’ (an inability to perceive, unwillingness to accept, or negative reaction to macro social structural influence), and ‘relationalism’ (assigning importance to interpersonal relationships) (Emerson, Smith, and Sikkink 1999:400; Gorski 2009)

To illustrate these orientations, we will briefly examine recent studies on this subject. A study using GSS national data found that white evangelicals “explain [racial] inequality in more individualistic, [relational], and less structural terms than other white Americans” (Emerson et al. 1999). [5] For example, 62% of white evangelicals believe that “most blacks just don’t have the motivation or will power to pull themselves up out of poverty,” while only 27% of white evangelicals believe that discrimination plays a role in current racial inequalities (Emerson et al. 1999:404).

In comparison, 51% and 36% of all other white non-evangelicals gave the same, respective, explanations. The gap between white evangelicals who believe that either a lack of motivation or discrimination play roles in current inequalities is 35 percentage points—“more than twice as large as the gap for all other white Americans (15 percentage points)” (Emerson et al. 1999:404). White evangelicals were also more likely than other whites to emphasize dysfunctional familial and social relations as the source of racial inequalities today (Emerson et al. 1999).[6]

The sweeping theme among white evangelical respondents was that “black Americans lack hope and vision” (Emerson et al. 1999:404). To deny systemic racism and place blame for stark racial disparities primarily on “unhealthy” black families and their “lack of motivation” is a form of tacit racism. It perpetuates inequalities by neither confronting nor acknowledging the root of the problem. While most white Americans espouse these orientations, religion nuances and increases white evangelicals’ reliance on them (Emerson et al. 1999).

Conjointly, the individualist, anti-structuralist, and politically conservative orientations of white evangelicals[7] make them more likely to espouse a world-image that blames black people and black families for current inequalities, and to deny the effects of systemic racism or other larger social factors (Blanchard 2007; Emerson et al. 1999). As aforementioned, “world-images…like switchmen, [determine] the tracks along which action [is] pushed by the dynamic of interest.” Predictably, white evangelicals tend to “dampen [or directly oppose] local support for governmental interventions” that have otherwise been integral in reducing racial segregation and inequalities, such as: affirmative action, fair housing policies, and the dreaded “welfare state” (Blanchard 2007; Emerson et al. 1999). Thus, white evangelicals indirectly contribute to racial segregation and inequality via their “color-blind” cultural orientations.

In addition to undermining the potential success of governmental anti-discrimination programs, the “relationalism” of white evangelical congregations “[results] in strong network closure and an emphasis on in-group social ties (Blanchard 2007:417; Emerson et al. 1999). Since 90% of all Christian congregations are over 80% one race, not only do most white evangelicals oppose or dampen support for governmental programs aimed at racial equality, white evangelicals do not even maintain relations with their fellow non-white Christians, let alone partner with them in their church-based efforts to mitigate racial inequality on a systemic level (Blanchard 2007).

The lack of ties with people of other races undermines community and/or faith-based efforts to oppose segregation and inequality (Blanchard 2007; Granovetter 2011; Weber 2011). Conversely, studies have found that externally-oriented and civically-engaged congregations (most of which have been Mainline, Catholic, or other) have been more “instrumental [than evangelical congregations] in developing [community-wide coalitions]” that have “[stemmed] the tide of residential segregation” (Blanchard 2007:419).

Thus, it should be no surprise that according to the aforementioned study, for every 1-unit increase in number of white evangelical congregations per 1,000 non-Hispanic whites in every county in every region across the country, there were significant increases in all measures of segregation (Blanchard 2007). That is, the more white conservative congregations there are in a county, the more segregated the county will be.

THEOLOGICAL ORIENTATIONS

I have heretofore demonstrated how the “race-neutral” cultural orientations of white evangelicals have guided their actions toward color-blind racism. While most whites in the U.S. tend to espouse these cultural orientations, what distinguishes white evangelicals are the ways in which these orientations guide their actions and the ferocity with which they are held (Emerson et al. 1999:400). Our investigation will now adopt a more historical approach to identify theological orientations that make up the spirit of color-blind racism. Because theology is neither created nor espoused in a cultural vacuum, we will see interplay between cultural and theological orientations in the complex configuration of the evangelical ethic.

The following are core theological beliefs generally accepted by most white evangelicals (Ammerman 2009; Gorski 2009; Wuthnow 2009): Inerrancy and/or or divine inspiration of Scripture; Personal relationship with and faith in Jesus Christ as the way to salvation from eternal damnation; “Born-again” converts live repentant lives; and Christians should share their beliefs with others (i.e. evangelism). I will locate the interplay of these beliefs with culture and color-blind racism through an analysis of key events in American religious history from the 18th Century “Triumph of Arminianism” to the 20th Century Rise of the Christian Right.”

CALVINISM, ARMINIANISM, AND INDIVIDUALISM

To understand the significance of what Philip Gorski calls, “the [18th Century] strange triumph of Arminianism,” we will examine Weber’s analysis of Predestination. The primary effect of this doctrine, according to Weber, was “a feeling of unprecedented inner loneliness of the single individual…[who was] forced to follow his path alone to meet a destiny which had been decreed for him from eternity” (Weber 2003:104). Calvinism, according to Weber, created an almost unbearable anxiety for individuals, because there was no way to know if one was “elected” for salvation, and there was nothing one could do if they were not. “Restless work in a vocational calling was recommended as the best possible means to acquire the self-confidence that one belonged among the elect” (Weber 2003:66). A life of hard work and good deeds was not a path to salvation, but it was viewed as its natural fruit. The emphasis was not on singular works, but on an entire life meticulously and consciously organized for God’s glory.

Protestantism also intensified an ethic of asceticism, because only the “eternally damned” were “given up to their own lusts and the temptation of the world” (Weber 2003:101). The combination of hard work, entrepreneurial skills in a special vocational calling, and asceticism—“all to the glory of God”—invigorated the capitalist ethic among Protestants, who understood wealth accumulation as a sign of God’s grace. That is, one way Calvinists were able to quell the anxiety of eternal hellfire damnation, was to rest in the knowledge that if they had a special calling, worked hard, and were economically “successful,” then they were surely among the “elect.”

While Calvinism is now a small minority of the “evangelical community dominated by Arminians” (Gorski 2009:87), both the individualistic work ethic and asceticism espoused by orthodox Calvinists remain among white evangelicals today, albeit for drastically different reasons. That is, as demonstrated above, white evangelicals tend to be more individualistic in explanations for one’s economic status than any other group in the United States. This ethic is related to the evangelical disdain for “idleness,” which manifests today in the individualistic view that “those who are generationally poor are generationally poor because they lack motivation to work hard.”

“Arminianism is the view that God’s grace is offered to all but accepted by some…[Its] universalist and voluntarist soteriology is radically at odds” with Calvinism (Gorski 2009:87). According to Gorski, the emphasis on personal transformation and individual choice turned Arminianism into “a potent weapon” for “heterodox fractions of the clergy and subordinate members of the laity…in a struggle against [New England “elites”]” (2009:87). By rejecting “the importance of hierocratic mediation…to achieving personal salvation,” and highlighting “the centrality of individual choice and self-expression,” Arminianism flourished in a synergistic relationship with the democratic and individualistic ideals of the budding American democracy.

Arminianism influenced the core evangelical belief that, unlike the Doctrine of Predestination, all people have equal access to God and the freedom to choose faith in Christ. It seems evangelicals believe that, “all are equal in the eyes of God; therefore all must have equal opportunity in the world.” This theological shift “paved the way” for the “alliance of conservative evangelicals with laissez faire” individualistic economics and anti-structuralist politics that dampen support for governmental programs for racial equality today (2009:87). Moreover, eternal salvation is still important for evangelicals; yet, instead of being helpless, the onus is on individuals to choose to believe. Since people are free to choose, then the theological requirement to evangelize individuals into Heaven is far more important for white evangelicals, today, than engaging in any anti-racist macro social reforms that appear to be part of the “liberal-agenda.”

SLAVE MASTER’S JESUS VS SLAVE’S JESUS

In my opinion, the root of white evangelical anti-structuralism and color-blind racism is insidiously hidden in the history of pro-slavery “Christianity.” An analysis of pro-slavery “Christianity” will elucidate the Christological differences between Black and White Church traditions today. W.E.B. Du Bois described how Christianity in the Colonies functioned to justify slavery (2000). White Christians claimed that “slaves were to be brought from heathenism to Christianity, and through slavery the benighted Indian and African were to find their passport into the kingdom of God” (Du Bois 2000:70). Eventually, whites were confronted with “the insistent and perplexing question as to what the status of the heathen slave was to be after he was Christianized and baptized?” (Du Bois 2000:70). Many slave owners questioned whether to expose their slaves to Christianity due to “the implications of equality in the Bible and…the fear that education might cause the slave to fight for his freedom” (Cone 1997:75).

The measure taken by white Christians to appease this contradiction is still with us today—that is, the “White” Jesus of the slave master was completely divorced from any implications of freedom or justice related to civic matters (Du Bois 2000; Cone 1997). As such, “It was expressly declared in colony after colony that baptism did not free the slaves” (Du Bois 2000:71). The crux of pro-slavery “Christianity” was to ensure peace, by creating “good slaves” that would emulate “White” Jesus’ “meek-and-turn-the-other-cheek” side. While many abolitionists were eventually motivated (in part) by their Christian faith, the majority of the White Church then, as the White Church today, was silent about the oppressive and racist structures of America (Cone 1997). Like the slave masters’ “White” Jesus, the “White” Jesus of evangelicals today is not concerned with ameliorating the plight of the oppressed on Earth as much as he is concerned with “order” and “saving individual souls” (Cone 1997).

Conversely, black slave ministers emphasized the God of the Exodus who freed the slaves from Egypt. Many black-slave ministers who led slave rebellions identified with the suffering of Jesus and saw his resurrection as the triumph over the oppressive forces of his day (Du Bois 2000; Cone 1997). In addition to eternal salvation, the Jesus of the Black Church tradition is more likely to identify with the poor and oppressed of the land—unlike the Jesus of the White Church today (Cone 1997). In this way, “Black Christianity” has operated as “the expression of…and also the protest against real distress…the sigh of the oppressed creature;” White evangelicalism, on the other hand, even if unintentionally today, has operated as “the opium of the [oppressed] people” (Marx 1975:175).

Many contemporary white evangelicals usually claim “objectivity” in their Christology, but they have forgotten the racist roots of their “White-American Jesus” who is not concerned with social justice. This is why both White and Black Church traditions can be “Christocentric” while having incredibly different interpretations of what it means to emulate Christ, having either concern with saving individual souls or concern for social justice (systemic change) as well as saving souls.

These differing Christologies partly explain the political schisms between white evangelicals and Black Protestants with seemingly similar surface-level theological beliefs. The majority of Black (72%) voters with seemingly similar theological beliefs to white evangelicals either identify with or support the Democratic Party, while only 10% support the Republican Party (Sahgal and Smith 2009). In sharp contrast, 70% of white evangelicals identify with or lean toward the free-market (freewill individualism) and anti-government (anti-structuralist) platform of the Republican Party (Pew Research Center 2012).

BIBLICAL INERRANCY AND THE TRADITIONALIST-MODERNIST DIVIDE

The middle decades of the Twentieth Century imbued evangelicals, evermore deeply, with the isolationist and anti-liberalist spirit that tends to permeate their culture today. By the turn of the Twentieth Century, many Protestants struggled with tensions between modern science and literalist interpretations of the Bible (Brint and Schroedel 2009). From this tension emerged Liberal theologians who “tried to reconcile biblical truths with scientific developments” (Brint and Schroedel 2009:3). Conservative Protestants began calling themselves “Fundamentalists” and pointed to the horrors of World War I as reasons for “returning” to the “fundamentals” of Christianity—one being the literalist interpretation of the Bible (Brint and Schroedel 2009).

The belief in biblical inerrancy prompted the debate between fundamentalists and modernists over the tensions between Scripture and evolution, culminating in the 1925 Scopes Monkey trial (Brint and Schroedel 2009). Despite the outcome of the trial, white evangelicals emerged as “anti-intellectual opponents of science and progress,” and were portrayed as such in many media outlets (Belton 2010a). Since the embarrassment of the infamous trial, evangelicals have perceived liberals and secularist-humanists as enemies of “traditional Christian values.” The solution to the perceived “liberal-modernist onslaught on Christianity” was for evangelicals to retreat from public life and politics, resulting in an isolated, yet prodigious network of “Bible-centered schools and colleges, Bible summer camps…Christian radio programming,” bookstores and strong local churches (Ammerman 2009; Belton 2010a; Brint and Schroedel 2009:3; Gorski 2009).

These networks remain generally isolated from the broader community today, and as aforementioned, the lack of ties with people of other races undermines community and/or faith-based efforts to oppose segregation and inequality. The tension between biblical inerrancy and modernity solidified the wedge between conservatism and liberalism, which manifests in an aversion to any program that is perceived as part of a bigger “liberal agenda,” such as efforts to systemically reduce racial inequalities in the U.S. (Blanchard 2007).

ANTI-STRUCTURALISM AND THE BILLY GRAHAM GOSPEL

Following the horrors of World War II and the Holocaust, Americans questioned the modernist claims of “progress” and the “inherent goodness of the human being.” America was ripe for the fundamentalist message to “return to Christian values,” to be “saved from the evils of men.” Even President Dwight Eisenhower spoke of returning to the “Judeo-Christian” roots of the U.S. (Belton 2010b). However, it was the Cold War hysteria that prompted the masses to seek a blatantly “Americanized” version of the Gospel as salvation from the “evils of this world” (Belton 2010b). Much like the “Terror Alerts” of our Post-9/11 World, after the Soviet Union successfully tested an atomic bomb, it was perceived that the “world was on the brink of a nuclear holocaust” (Belton 2010b). In this ethos of fear, no single individual did more to marry an individualistic and anti-activist Gospel with right-wing ideals than Billy Graham.

Graham came to be “the primary engine of America’s cold war religious revival” (Belton 2010b). Preaching to thousands, Graham presented the Gospel as the only means of salvation from not only eternal hell, but from the “evil forces of Communism” as well:

The battle is between communism and Christianity! …When communism conquers a nation, it makes every man a slave! When Christianity conquers…it makes every man a king! (Belton 2010b)

The preaching of Graham was noticed by “media baron William Randolph Hearst, a staunch anti-communist,” who instructed his newspapers to “Puff Graham” (Belton 2010b). Hearst’s mass media support provided the medium that “rocketed Graham,” and evangelicals, “onto the national stage” (Belton 2010b). Graham’s anti-communist Gospel contributed to the marriage between conservative evangelicalism and right wing politics and economics, which oppose macro social programs aimed at racial equality today (Belton 2010b; Brint and Schroedel 2009).

It is true that Graham occasionally spoke about “racial tolerance,” but according to Graham, “racism [and all social injustice] is not a social/structural issue; it is merely a symptom of sin;” Therefore, all we need to do to save the country is to convert individuals to Christianity (Belton 2010b). Graham’s simplistic—“All you need is Jesus”—Gospel, required very little more than an outward expression of personal piety and church attendance, systemic efforts toward social justice be damned. Similarly, evangelicals today are focused on a Jesus who has little concern for macro social justice reforms that appear to be part of the “liberal-agenda.”

BILLY GRAHAM’S JESUS VS MARTIN LUTHER KING’S JESUS

It is noted that “one of the feats of Billy Graham…was to refocus the evangelical movement around the figure of Jesus in a way that cut across denominational lines,” thereby creating stronger ties among evangelicals (Wuthnow 2009:29). However, since white evangelicals have failed to take seriously the legacy of slavery, they have failed to deconstruct the figure of Jesus that was promulgated by slave masters in the U.S. That is, the Jesus that Billy Graham made popular among evangelicals was eerily similar to the Jesus who was preached to the slaves—one who was more concerned with obedience and an outward expression of personal piety than he was with any notions of social justice, such as achieving racial equality in the United States.

To be clear, I am not suggesting that Graham was trying to create “good” slaves, however, he did very little to oppose other white evangelical “leaders and congregations [that] frequently condoned and sometimes actively supported segregation and subordination of African Americans up through…the 50s and 60s” (Lichterman et al. 2009:192; Vesely-Flad 2011). While Billy may have sincerely wanted to save souls from hell, his obsession with the afterlife and conservative political leanings were more important to him, and most other white evangelicals, than the racial oppression that was happening right before their eyes.

Graham went so far, in April of 1963, along with other white preachers, to call on Martin Luther King, Jr. to “put the brakes on a little bit” regarding direct action to end segregation (Anon 1963; Belton 2010b). While Graham preached a few “integrated” crusades, all he really did was remove a rope that divided white and black people at his crusades. His “efforts” paled in comparison to those of the children who were hosed down, bitten by dogs, and arrested for protesting segregation in the South. The complicity of white preachers, including Graham, in maintaining segregation prompted Dr. Martin Luther King’s famous Letter from a Birmingham Jail, in which he chastised the “white moderate [and preacher], who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice” (Belton 2010b; King, Jr. 1963).

Herein lies a key theological distinction between white evangelicals and the Black Church today. The Jesus who identified with the oppressed is the same Jesus that motivated Dr. King and many other champions of the Civil Rights era—unlike the Jesus that motivated Graham’s individualistic, anti-structuralist, pro-conservative-politics gospel—which still influences evangelical thinking on race relations today.

ANTI-LIBERAL RISE OF THE CHRISTIAN RIGHT

The rise of evangelicals out of political inactivity undeniably occurred in concert with the racially motivated Republican Southern Strategy (Alexander 2010; Vesely-Flad 2011). Prior to Richard Nixon’s Presidency in 1968, social unrest abounded in America (Alexander 2010; Vesely-Flad 2011). Earlier that year, Dr. King had been assassinated, and “nearly one hundred fifty cities across the U.S. erupted in racial confrontations and riots” (Vesely-Flad 2011). Adding to the unrest, Vietnam protesters, feminists, and gay rights activists were emboldened to demand social equality (Brint and Schroedel 2009; Vesely-Flad 2011). Conservative whites perceived the movements of the 60s and 70s as an attack on “biblical values,” signs of moral decay, lawlessness and disorder (Brint and Schroedel 2009).

Republican leaders sensed that they could capitalize not only on anti-liberal white Southerners who feared they would have the most to lose from Civil Rights reforms, but they also capitalized on the fears of conservative evangelicals who were dismayed by the “moral decay,” “lawlessness and disorder,” of America. It is no coincidence that Nixon (and eventually Reagan) would make their platforms about “restoring law and order,” which many social and political analysts have interpreted as coded language to appeal to constituencies that were distressed by the progressive movements mentioned above (Alexander 2010; Vesely-Flad 2011). The end of the 1970s gave birth to a plethora of politically conservative organizations such as The Christian Right, the Christian Voice, and the Moral Majority (Brint and Schroedel 2009:5).

Since the 1980s, evangelicals have pledged uncanny allegiance to the Republican Party and conservative politics and economics. I would argue that a theological orientation that required nothing more than a personal relationship with Jesus and a life of individualistic repentance from sin, with no call to social justice, and selectively “literalist” interpretations of the Bible on issues of gender roles, homosexuality, and abortion are the prime orientations that guide evangelicals to detest progressive reforms that they believe are violating “biblical values.” Their propensity for “order” over justice is analogous to the slave master’s Christology, which elevated personal piety over both notions of justice and freedom related to civic matters. This anti-liberal ethos against Civil Rights reforms continues to cloud white evangelicals’ views on racial inequalities today, making them resistant to progressive reforms that they deem are part of a bigger “liberal agenda,” to oppress Christians.

In the decades following the desegregation of public schools (Brown v. Board of Ed.), and the Civil Rights years of the 60s and 70s, thousands of white families, including white evangelicals, moved to “more desirable locations,” and even opened privately-owned all-white “Christian” academies (Emerson and Smith 2000; Massey and Denton 1993; Vesely-Flad 2011). Today, many of these schools and neighborhoods remain just as segregated as they were forty years ago. As previously mentioned, the lack of ties with people of other races undermines community and/or faith-based efforts to oppose segregation and inequality.

CONCLUSION

At the end of our investigation we can define color-blind racism as such: seemingly “race-neutral” orientations that have a segregating effect on people of color, or that oppose or dampen support for macro social efforts to stem segregation and racial inequalities. White evangelical color-blind racism includes: accountable freewill individualism, anti-structuralism, relationalism, and internally oriented congregations. As stated in the first part of this essay, these orientations have had segregating effects in communities and have resulted in social closure of white congregations and the development of strong in-group ties that, even if unintentionally, have negative effects on racial equality today.

The spirit of color-blind racism derives from the evangelical ethic or the interplay between theological and cultural orientations that guide evangelicals toward the definition of color-blind racism above.

First, we have seen that the obsession with eternal salvation, and anxiety of eternal damnation, continues to drive the actions of believers today; in this case, white evangelicals tend to relegate social justice issues as subordinate to evangelizing individual souls into Heaven.

We have also seen how the belief in biblical inerrancy has caused events that have influenced evangelicals to draw sharp lines between believers and non-believers at first resulting in isolation (internal orientation/social closure/and relationalism), then resulting in an aggressive alliance with the Republican Party and anti-structuralist conservative politics and economics.

Most importantly, in my view, we have seen how the emphasis on a personal relationship with a Jesus who is divorced from notions of social justice is rooted in pro-slavery Christianity, which guides evangelicals toward individualism, relationalism, and anti-structuralism, today.

Together, all of these elements constitute what I would call the Evangelical Ethic and the Spirit of Color-blind Racism.

WORKS CITED

Alexander, Michelle. 2010. The New Jim Crow : Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. New York; [Jackson, Tenn.]: New Press ; Distributed by Perseus Distribution.

Allan, Kenneth. 2011. The Social Lens : An Invitation to Social and Sociological Theory. Los Angeles: Pine Forge Press/Sage Publications.

Ammerman, Nancy T. 2009. “American Evangelicals in American Culture: Continuity and Change.” Pp. 44–73 in Evangelicals and democracy in America, edited by Steven G. Brint and Jean Reith Schroedel. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.

Anon. 1963. “Billy Graham Urges Restrain in Sit-Ins.” New York Times, April 18, Archives. Retrieved (http://select.nytimes.com/gst/abstract.html?res=FA0B15F9385D117B93CAA8178FD85F478685F9).

Belton, David. 2010a. “A New Light.” God in America. Retrieved (http://www.pbs.org/godinamerica/transcripts/hour-four.html).

Belton, David. 2010b. “The Soul of a Nation.” God in America. Retrieved (http://www.pbs.org/godinamerica/transcripts/hour-five.html).

Blanchard, Troy C. 2007. “Conservative Protestant Congregations and Racial Residential Segregation: Evaluating the Closed Community Thesis in Metropolitan and Nonmetropolitan Counties.” American Sociological Review 72(3):416–33.

Du Bois, W. E. B. 2000. “Religion in the South.” Pp. 69–89 in Du Bois on Religion, edited by Phil Zuckerman. Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira Press.

Brint, Steven G., and Jean Reith Schroedel, eds. 2009. Evangelicals and Democracy in America. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.

Christerson, Brad, Korie L. Edwards, and Michael O. Emerson. 2005. Against All Odds : The Struggle for Racial Integration in Religious Organizations. New York: New York University Press.

Cone, James H. 1997. Black Theology and Black Power. Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis.

Emerson, Michael O., and Christian Smith. 2000. Divided by Faith : Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press.

Emerson, Michael O., Christian Smith, and David Sikkink. 1999. “Equal in Christ, but Not in the World: White Conservative Protestants and Explanations of Black-White Inequality.” Social Problems 46(3):398–417.

Emerson, Michael O., and Rodney M. Woo. 2006. People of the Dream : Multiracial Congregations in the United States. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

Gorski, Philip S. 2009. “Conservative Protestantism in the United States? Toward a Comparative and Historical Perspective.” Pp. 74–113 in Evangelicals and Democracy in America, edited by Steven G. Brint and Jean Reith Schroedel. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.

Granovetter, Mark S. 2011. “The Strength of Weak Ties.” Pp. 589–93 in The inequality reader : contemporary and foundational readings in race, class, and gender, edited by David B. Grusky and Szonja Szelényi. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

King, Jr., Martin Luther. 1963. “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” Retrieved (http://www.africa.upenn.edu/Articles_Gen/Letter_Birmingham.html).

Lichter, Daniel T., Domenico Parisi, and Michael C. Taquino. 2012. “The Geography of Exclusion: Race, Segregation, and Concentrated Poverty.” Social Problems 59(3):364–88.

Lichterman, Paul, Prudence L. Carter, and Michèle Lamont. 2009. “Race-Bridging for Christ? Conservative Christians and Black-White Relations in Community Life.” Pp. 187–220 in Evangelicals and Democracy in America, edited by Steven G. Brint and Jean Reith Schroedel. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.

Logan, John R., Elisabeta Minca, and Sinem Adar. 2012. “The Geography of Inequality: Why Separate Means Unequal in American Public Schools.” Sociology of Education 85(3):287–301.

Macartney, Suzanne, Alemayehu Bishaw, and Kayla Fontenot. 2013. Poverty Rates for Selected Detailed Race and Hispanic Groups by State and Place: 2007-2011. Washington, D.C.: United States Census Bureau. Retrieved (http://www.census.gov/prod/2013pubs/acsbr11-17.pdf).

Marx, Karl. 1975. “Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Law.” in Karl Marx, Frederick Engels: Collected Works, vol. 3, edited by Friedrich Engels and Karl Marx. New York: International Publishers. Retrieved (http://www.columbia.edu/cgi-bin/cul/resolve?clio6961573.008).

Massey, Douglas S., and Nancy A. Denton. 1993. American Apartheid : Segregation and the Making of the Underclass. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.

Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. 2008. U.S. Religious Landscape Survey. Pew Research Center. Retrieved (http://religions.pewforum.org/pdf/report-religious-landscape-study-full.pdf).

Pew Research Center. 2012. Trends in Party Identification of Religious Groups. Washington, D.C. Retrieved (http://www.pewforum.org/2012/02/02/trends-in-party-identification-of-religious-groups/).

Sahgal, Neha, and Greg Smith. 2009. A Religious Portrait of African-Americans. Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life. Retrieved (http://www.pewforum.org/A-Religious-Portrait-of-African-Americans.aspx).

Scheitle, Christopher P., and Kevin D. Dougherty. 2010. “Race, Diversity, and Membership Duration in Religious Congregations*.” Sociological Inquiry 80(3):405–23.

Sernau, Scott. 2006. Worlds Apart : Social Inequalities in a Global Economy. Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Pine Forge Press.

Vesely-Flad, Rima. 2011. “The Social Covenant and Mass Incarceration: Theologies of Race and Punishment.” Anglican Theological Review 93(4):541–62.

Weber, Max. 1949. “The Social Psychology of the World Religions.” Pp. 267–301 in From Max Weber: Essays in sociology, edited by Hans Heinrich Gerth and C. Wright Mills. New York: Oxford university press.

Weber, Max. 2002. The Protestant Ethic and the “Spirit” of Capitalism and Other Writings. edited by P. R. Baehr and Gordon C. Wells. New York: Penguin Books.

Weber, Max. 2003. The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications.

Weber, Max. 2011. “Class, Status, Party.” Pp. 56–67 in The inequality reader : contemporary and foundational readings in race, class, and gender, edited by David B. Grusky and Szonja Szelényi. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

Wuthnow, Robert. 2009. “The Cultural Capital of American Evangelicalism.” Pp. 27–43 in Evangelicals and Democracy in America, edited by Steven G. Brint and Jean Reith Schroedel. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.


[1] According to the Pew Research Center, “Non-Hispanic whites, who made up 67% of the population in 2005, will be 47% in 2050” (Passel and Cohn 2008).

[2] Inerrancy and/or or divine inspiration of Scripture; Personal relationship with and faith in Jesus Christ as the way to salvation from eternal damnation; “Born-again” converts live repentant lives; and Christians should share their beliefs with others (i.e. evangelism) (Ammerman 2009; Gorski 2009; Wuthnow 2009).

[3] All research studies cited in this essay either use the terms (conservative evangelical and conservative Protestant) interchangeably or there is enough similarity in core beliefs or denominations to use them interchangeably for the purposes of this essay.

[4] Though I do not deny that willfully racist evangelicals exist.

[5] General Social Survey (GSS)

[6] Additionally, in 117 face-to-face interviews with a nationally representative sample of self-identified white evangelicals, 72% cited either a lack of motivation, cultural deficiencies, or both, as reasons for black-white inequalities (Blanchard 2007).

[7] 70% of white evangelicals identify with or lean toward the free-market (freewill individualism) and anti-government (anti-structuralist) platform of the Republican Party (Pew Research Center 2012).

© Daniel Ismael Aguilar and thetatteredrose.wordpress.com, 2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Daniel Ismael Aguilar and thetatteredrose.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

When the n-word appears on the forum wall

How Christians Might Talk About Race

Tattered Rose

(Published in Wheaton College‘s school newspaper, The Record, during the Spring 2012 semester)

forum wall ntalk

This Fall, the Forum Wall served as a venue for incredibly varied attitudes about the issue of race. Posters, letters, drawings, and a vast array of comments responded to student-led initiatives which attempted to promote racial harmony and reconciliation. The culmination of this discussion was the phrase: “This is Nigger talk.” Those four words were explicitly, and anonymously, scribbled on a letter posted on Wheaton College’s own forum wall. While most members of our community do not espouse the overt racism embodied in this phrase, we still tend to avoid engaging in thoughtful, constructive conversations about racism and prejudice. This aversion to race conversations may be a result of the way the conversation is initially presented. I would like to challenge us to go further and examine the way the race conversation is…

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The Prevalence of Racial Microaggressions at Wheaton College: A Sociological Study

My research partner, Laura Becker, and I sought to answer the question: “To what extent does race affect students of color at Wheaton College (Illinois)?” As the former Executive Vice President of Community Diversity on Wheaton’s Student Government, I was constantly fighting an uphill battle with students who denied there was a “race problem” at Wheaton. The goal of our study was to demonstrate with empirical data if a problem did in fact exist—because Wheaton will never adequately address this problem if most students believe that it does not exist.

As such, we conducted a survey-based study of the daily race-related experiences of students at Wheaton. Specifically, we sought to measure the prevalence of racial microaggressions and their effects on students at Wheaton. Similar studies have been conducted at various types of institutions, but none, to our knowledge, have been conducted in an exclusively evangelical institution of higher learning. Below is a summary of the larger paper entitled: The Prevalence of Racial Microaggressions at Wheaton College and Implications for Broader Society (Aguilar and Becker 2013).

Our research hypothesis was that race has a negative effect on the experiences of students of color at Wheaton College. That is, given prior research on microaggressions, students of color will be more likely than white students to be “stressed, upset, or bothered,” by the prevalence of racial microaggressions at Wheaton College. The null hypothesis is that students of color are not any more or less affected by racial microaggressions than white students at Wheaton.

WHAT ARE RACIAL MICROAGGRESSIONS?

While the elements of racism are almost impossible to enumerate, a growing body of literature suggests that racial microaggressions can have substantial adverse effects on the experiences of students and faculty of color in higher education (Solorzano, Ceja, and Yosso 2000; Sue, Capudilupo, and Holder 2008; Pittman 2012).

Racial microaggressions have been defined as, “brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, and environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial slights and insults to the target person or group” (Sue, Capodilupo, et al. 2007:331). Additionally, “Racial microaggressions refer to the racial indignities, slights, mistreatment, or offenses that people of color may face on a recurrent or consistent basis. Racial microaggression may represent a significant source of stress endured by people of color [emphasis added]” (Torres-Harding et al. 2012:153). These definitions of racial microaggressions were used to study the extent and effect of such interactions at Wheaton College.

While they may seem trivial, researchers have found that microagressions can, “assail the mental health of recipients” (Sue, Capudilupo, and Holder 2008), “create a hostile and invalidating campus environment” (Solorzano, Ceja, and Yosso 2000), “perpetuate stereotype threat” (Steele, Spencer, and Aronson 2002), “create physical health problems” (Clark, Anderson, Clark, and Williams 1999), and “lower work productivity and problem-solving abilities” (Dovidio 2001; Salvatore and Shelton 2007).  The negative consequences of microaggressions may not manifest immediately, but numerous microaggressions over a period of time can have the above consequences for recipients.

DATA AND METHODS

Data was collected through a Student Government-sponsored web-based survey, which was emailed to all undergraduate students at the college. The survey was created on Survey Monkey and available for one week for students to complete online. The response rate was approximately 41% or 992 out of 2,400 undergraduate students. Total students of color equaled: 226 (≈22.8%); Total white students equaled: 766 (≈77.2%). It is significant that our response rate for students of color was over 50% of the students of color at the college. This will allow us to be more confident in generalizing the experiences of respondents to other students of color at Wheaton College. The demographics of the respondents (N=992) are representational of races, genders, majors, and backgrounds at institutions similar to Wheaton College, specifically, to other colleges in the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities (CCCU). Thus, these findings will have implications for the experiences of students of color at other CCCU schools as well.

The survey included a 30-item scale adapted from existing microaggression scales in the relevant scholarly literature. Items were reworded to make them specific to Wheaton College, and some items were added to address the faith aspect of Wheaton.  For each item presented, respondents were asked to indicate how often they encountered it on a four-point Likert-type scale (1- never, 2 – a little/rarely, 3 – sometimes/a moderate amount, 4 –often/frequently). Samples of statements on the survey include:

  • People at Wheaton College say that there are bigger things to worry about than issues related to race.
  • People at Wheaton College question the legitimacy of a worship or prayer style that is familiar to my racial/ethnic background.
  • At Wheaton College, people of a race/ethnicity other than my own are impressed by “how articulate” I am.
  • People at Wheaton College tell me I should focus on the Gospel instead of focusing on race.
  • People at Wheaton College say or imply that people of my racial/ethnic background are admitted to the college because of affirmative action.
  • At Wheaton College, I see few people of my racial/ethnic background.

To measure if the item was perceived as a racial microaggression, we needed to measure the degree to which the experience was “stressful, upsetting, or bothersome.” Thus, if a respondent indicated the positive occurrence of an item (1 or greater on the occurrence scale), he or she was asked to indicate how stressful, upsetting, or bothersome the experience had been (1 – not at all, 2 – a little, 3 – moderate level, 4 – high level).

The survey responses (N=992) were analyzed statistically using PASW/SPSS, looking for themes and relationships in the data. Two subscales were created to measure the average levels of occurrence (MCROCCUR) and the degree to which students are affected by microggressions (MCRFX) at Wheaton. That is, two subscales were created that measured each student’s average score for the occurrence and effects of all 30 items on the survey. For example, if I answered 2 (a little/rarely) for 10 items, 3 (sometimes/a moderate amount) for 10 items,  1 (never) for 5 items, and 4 (often) for 5 items, then my average score for MCROCCUR would be [(2×10)+(3×10)+(1×5)+(4×5)]/30 = 2.5, which is greater than “a little/rarely” but not quite “sometimes/a moderate amount.” We would interpret this number by saying that my average score for the 30 racial microaggressions on the survey was more than “a little/rarely.” Similarly, the MCRFX subscale measures a student’s average score for the degree to which the items were “stressful, upsetting, or bothersome.” If a student indicated that they did not experience an item on the survey, then the MCRFX score for that particular item would be “0” since not experiencing an item would mean that they had no negative effects related to that item.

DATA ANALYSIS

Statistical analysis of the data showed a higher prevalence of both racial microaggressions and negative effects among students of color at Wheaton compared to white students. A three-model linear regression analysis confirmed our hypothesis that race has a negative effect on the experiences of students of color at Wheaton compared to white students. The coefficients in Model 3 of Table 1 allow us to predict that, holding gender and number of years completed as a student at Wheaton constant, Black or African American students experience a .727 increase, compared to whites, in the mean scores for the occurrence of all 30 microaggressions presented in the survey. This regression coefficient (B) is statistically significant at the .001 level. For Latina/o and Asian students, we can predict that, holding gender and years constant, there are increases of .472 and .497, respectively, in MCROCCUR subscale means compared to whites. These coefficients are statistically significant at the .001 level. Students of two or more races and nonresident or resident aliens had lower regression coefficients than black and Latina/o students, but still showed an increase of experiencing racial microaggressions, and they were statistically significant at the .001 level. The coefficient for female students was not statistically significant. However, the coefficient for “years completed” tells us that that for every year completed at Wheaton, there is an increase of .045 in the MCROCCUR subscale for students of color. The models presented are statistically significant and confirm that being a nonwhite student will increase the number of microaggressions that a student experiences while at Wheaton College. Each race/ethnicity listed in the models is compared to white students.

Table 1 MCROccur

MCRFX measured the average degree to which the microaggressions were “stressful, upsetting, or bothersome,” for each student. In Model 3 of Table 2, we could predict that, holding gender and number of years completed constant, Black or African American students, compared to whites, experience a 1.042 increase in levels of being “stressed, upset, or bothered” by the occurrence of the 30 microaggressions presented in the survey. This regression coefficient (B) was statistically significant at the .001 level. According to this data, African American students experience significantly higher levels of being stressed, upset or bothered due to racial microaggressions more than any other race or ethnicity at Wheaton College. For Latina/o and Asian students, we can predict that, holding gender and years constant, there will be increases of .673 and .644, respectively, in MCRFX subscale means compared to whites. These coefficients are statistically significant at the .001 level. This means that both Latina/o and Asian students are more likely to experience the negative effects of racial microaggressions than white students at Wheaton. Students of two or more races and nonresident or resident aliens had lower regression coefficients than black and Latina/o students, but still showed an increase in experiencing the negative effects of racial microaggressions compared to white students, and they were statistically significant at the .001 and .05 levels, respectively. Female students experienced a slight increase in MCRFX means compared to males when race and years completed are held constant. We also see that with each increase in number of years completed at Wheaton, there is an increase of .088 in the MCRFX subscale – and this is significant.

Table 2 mcrfx

A comparison of MCROCCUR subscale means found that 65% of Black or African American students, 43.75% of Hispanic or Latina/o students, 40% of Asian students, 28.99% of mixed race students, and 14.29% of nonresident or resident alien students at Wheaton college had an average score for experiencing the racial microaggressions on the survey that was more than “A little/rarely.” Only 4.90% of white or Caucasian students had an average MCROCCUR score greater than “A little/rarely.”

iPhoto Library

Likewise, a comparison of MCRFX subscale means found that 35% of Black or African American students, 25% of Hispanic or Latina/o students, 17.72% of Asian students, and 7.25% of mixed race students at Wheaton college had an average score for the effects of the racial microaggressions on the survey that was more than just “A little… stressful, upsetting or bothersome.” Less than 1% of white or Caucasian students had an average MCRFX score greater than “A little.”

MCRFX pic

An additional question attempted to evaluate the level of “environmental/institutional” racism, which yielded the following results. Students of color (29.41%) were significantly more likely than white students (11.23%) to “Somewhat or Strongly Disagree” with the statement: “College Union activities are generally inclusive of racial and ethnic minorities on campus.” Similarly, students of color (42.35%) were significantly less likely than white students (63.10%) to “Somewhat or Strongly Agree” with the same statement. This data shows that white students are less likely to perceive the negative experiences of students of color related to the lack of an inclusive and welcoming campus environment.

CU Inclusivity chart

 DISCUSSION

This study shows that while many students of color at Wheaton College are unaffected by racial microaggressions, a significant percentage not only experience racial microaggressions but are negatively affected by them as well. These students of color must not be ignored, as their experiences are symptomatic of the difficulty of attending a majority white college as a racial minority. With so few students of color at Wheaton already, it is significant that the majority of African-American students (65%) and 43.75% of Hispanic or Latina/o students, 40% of Asian students, 28.99% of mixed race students, and 14.29% of nonresident or resident alien students experience microaggressions more than just “a little/rarely,” compared to only 4.90% of white students. It is even more significant that sizable numbers of racial and ethnic minorities (35% of Black or African American students, 25% of Hispanic or Latina/o students, 17.72% of Asian students) are, on average, more than just “a little” stressed, upset, or bothered by the occurrences of these microaggressions. As stated earlier, microaggressions can have significant negative effects not only on one’s experience, but on one’s physical and mental wellbeing as well. Thus, the data validates our research hypothesis that, race has a negative effect on the experiences of students of color at Wheaton College. In other words, it is undeniable that racial and ethnic minorities at Wheaton are still more likely than white students to have negative college experiences due to their race.

The unique contribution of this study is the particular application of a racial microaggression scale to an evangelical Christian institution. Because of significant similarities between the social demographics of respondents in the study and students at Wheaton College and other CCCU schools, these findings suggest that evangelical colleges have a significant amount of work to do to become welcoming institutions for their nonwhite students.

One may ask why statements such as “we should focus on the Gospel instead of focusing on race,” are upsetting to students of color. As a student of color, I have heard this sentiment from white students many times, and what it tells me is that white students do not see the connection between the experiences of their nonwhite sisters and brothers in Christ and the Gospel. The statement above invalidates the belief that racial reconciliation and equality are part of focusing on the Gospel. In other words, presumably well-meaning white students invalidate my struggles as a student of color by relegating the need to address them as unimportant and unrelated to being a follower of Christ. This, of course, is extremely frustrating when it happens over and over and over.

Similarly, statements such as “people of color are admitted to the college because of affirmative action,” or “we should not lower academic standards to increase diversity,” imply that people of color are less intelligent and/or less qualified than white students. I hope it is obvious why this would be stressful, upsetting, or bothersome to students of color who have to hear this on a regular basis.

WHAT TO DO?

If Wheaton College and presumably other CCCU schools do not address the prevalence of racial microaggressions and their negative effects on students of color, then racial diversity will continue to increase at an excruciatingly slow rate. Students of color who feel alienated and unwelcome while at Wheaton will be less likely to recommend their alma mater to future students of color, thereby decreasing the potential for diversifying Wheaton in the future. The findings of this study also imply the need for structural reform at the top levels of CCCU colleges and universities.  Specifically, four characteristics are commonly thought to be necessary for nurturing a positive campus racial climate:

  1. The inclusion of students, faculty, and administrators of color;
  2. A curriculum that reflects the historical and contemporary experiences of people of color;
  3. Programs to support the recruitment, retention, and graduation of students of color; and
  4. A college/university mission that reinforces the institution’s commitment to multiculturalism (Solorzano et al. 2000:62)

Addressing college campuses about racial microaggressions should not be solely the duty of the faculty members of color, but should be institutionalized components of college orientations, handbooks, and training for staff such as counselors and student leaders such as resident assistants. Because even seemingly trivial microaggressions have significant consequences for their recipients, members of the majority race at CCCU schools should be introduced to the concepts of racial microaggressions to broaden their understanding of the detrimental effects of these actions and words on students of color.

An infrastructure must be created on college campuses to address racism and racial microaggressions as common practice. Regular classes and forums on race and racism, some optional and some mandatory, would be part of this infrastructure, along with required, in-depth training for faculty and staff members to increase their awareness and sensitivity in areas of racial diversity and inclusion. Additional training would allow faculty members and even staff such as resident assistants to regularly and successfully facilitate conversations about race, both inside and outside the classroom (Minikel-Lacocque 2012).

Campus infrastructure addressing race relations must be focused not only on blatant acts of racism but on the seemingly innocuous forms of microaggressions as well. The idea of hidden or subtle racism should be introduced in classes, student orientations, support groups, and social settings so that racial microaggressions can become part of the common conception of racism.

According to Minikel-Lacocque (2012), White students, faculty, and staff in particular must become well versed in the concept of common, often overlooked racial microaggressions. By valuing the voices of people of color and implementing the concept of racial microaggressions into our common discourse on race relations, we can widen the dialogue and move toward a more harmonious racial campus climate at CCCU institutions such as Wheaton College.

APPENDIX 30 Racial Microaggression Items

  • At Wheaton College, I feel ignored in the classroom because of my race/ethnicity.
  • People at Wheaton College say that there are bigger things to worry about than issues related to race.
  • People at Wheaton College question the legitimacy of a worship or prayer style that is familiar to my racial/ethnic background.
  • People at Wheaton College assume I listen to a particular kind of music because of my race/ethnicity.
  • I feel like people at Wheaton College see me as “exotic” in a sexual way because of my race/ethnicity.
  • At Wheaton College, people of a race/ethnicity other than my own are impressed by “how articulate” I am.
  • I notice that my Wheaton College class worship band does not include worship styles familiar to my cultural background.
  • At Wheaton College, sometimes I feel like my contributions are dismissed or devalued because of my racial/ethnic background.
  • People at Wheaton College tell me I should focus on the Gospel instead of focusing on race.
  • I am made to feel as if the cultural values of another race/ethnic group at Wheaton College are appreciated more than my own.
  • People at Wheaton College imply or state that I am not like other people of my racial/ethnic background.
  • Other people at Wheaton College view me in an overly sexual way because of my race/ethnicity.
  • Sometimes, people at Wheaton College assume that I am a foreigner because of my race/ethnicity.
  • At Wheaton College, I see few people of my racial/ethnic background.
  • At Wheaton College, sometimes I feel as if people look past me or act like they don’t see me because of my race/ethnicity.
  • People at Wheaton College tell me that they are not racist or prejudiced because they have friends from different racial/ethnic backgrounds.
  • People at Wheaton College react negatively to the way I dress because of my racial/ethnic background.
  • People at Wheaton College assume I am good at Math because of my race/ethnicity.
  • Other people hold sexual stereotypes about me because of my race/ethnicity.
  • Sometimes I feel like people at Wheaton College ask me where I am from, expecting to hear a location outside of the United States because of my race/ethnicity.
  • I notice that there are few people of my racial/ethnic background who attend churches that are accessible to me at Wheaton College.
  • At Wheaton College, I feel like my perspective on racial issues is dismissed or devalued because of my racial/ethnic background.
  • People at Wheaton College tell me that they are not racist or prejudiced even though they, intentionally or unintentionally, exhibit example(s) of racist or prejudiced behavior.
  • People at Wheaton College say that the college should not lower standards just to increase racial/ethnic diversity.
  • I feel like people assume I would not be interested in a particular activity at Wheaton College because of my race/ethnicity.
  • When I interact with authority figures at Wheaton College, they are usually of a different racial/ethnic background.
  • When I describe a difficulty related to people in my racial/ethnic background, people at Wheaton College tell me that everyone can get ahead if they work hard.
  • People at Wheaton College say or imply that people of my racial/ethnic background are admitted to the college because of affirmative action.
  • It is hard to relate to a professor at Wheaton College because of our racial/ethnic backgrounds.
  • If someone makes a racially insensitive comment in class, I struggle with whether or not I should say something about it in class.

REFERENCES (Cited in paper)

Clark, Rodney, Norman B. Anderson, Vernessa R. Clark, and David R. Williams.  1999.  “Racism as a Stressor for African Americans: A Biopsychosocial Model.”  American Psychologist 54(10):805-816.

Christerson, Brad, Korie L. Edwards, and Michael O. Emerson. 2005. Against all odds : the struggle for racial integration in religious organizations. New York: New York University Press.

Dovidio, John F.  2001.  “On the Nature of Contemporary Prejudice: The Third Wave.”  Journal of Social Issues 57(4):829-849.

Duncan, Garrett Albert. 2005. “Critical race ethnography in education: narrative, inequality and the problem of epistemology.” Race, Ethnicity & Education 8(1).

Emerson, Michael O., and Christian Smith. 2000. Divided by faith: evangelical religion and the problem of race in America. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press.

Emerson, Michael O., and Rodney M. Woo. 2006. People of the dream: multiracial congregations in the United States. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

Hatuqa, Dalia. 2006. “Evangelical Colleges Gaining Popularity.” The Times of Northwest Indiana, April 9. Retrieved (http://www.nwitimes.com/news/local/article_7ecda610-5f17-5805-8411-d9917172fddc.html).

Howell, Brian. 2012. “Racism without Racists.” The Soapbox. Retrieved (http://brianhowell.blogspot.com/2012/02/racism-without-racists.html).

Joeckel, Samuel, and Thomas Chesnes. 2012. The Christian college phenomenon: inside America’s fastest growing institutions of higher learning. Abilene, Tex.: Abilene Christian University Press.

Kaiser, Cheryl. 2001. “Stop Complaining! The Social Costs of Making Attributions to Discrimination.” Personality social psychology bulletin 27(2):254–63.

Lee, D. John, Alvaro L. Nieves, and Henry Lee Allen. 1991. Ethnic-minorities and evangelical Christian colleges. Lanham, Md.: University Press of America.

McCabe, J. 2009. “Racial and Gender Microaggressions on a Predominantly-White Campus: Experiences of Black, Latina o and White Undergraduates.” Race, gender class 16(1/2):133–51.

Minikel-Lacocque, Julie.  2012.  “Racism, College, and the Power of Words: Racial Microaggressions Reconsidered.”  American Educational Research Journal 56(3):1-30.

Nadal, Kevin L. 2011. “The Racial and Ethnic Microaggressions Scale (REMS): Construction, reliability, and validity.” Journal of Counseling Psychology 58(4):470–80.

Passel, Jeffrey, and D’Vera Cohn. 2008. U.S. Population Projections: 2005–2050. Pew Research Center. Retrieved (http://www.pewhispanic.org/files/reports/85.pdf).

Pierce, C. M. 1977. “An Experiment in Racism: TV Commercials.” Education and urban society 10(1):61–87.

Pittman, Chavella T. 2012. “Racial Microaggressions: The Narratives of African American Faculty at a Predominantly White University.” Journal of Negro Education 81(1):82–92.

Princeton Review, The. 2013. Wheaton College Review. Retrieved (http://www.princetonreview.com/WheatonCollegeIL.aspx).

Reisberg, Leo. 1999. “Enrollments Surge at Christian Colleges.” Chronicle of Higher Education 45(26):A42–A44.

Ryken, Phillip. 2012. “Strategic Priorities.” Wheaton College, May 19. Retrieved (http://www.wheaton.edu/About-Wheaton/Leadership/Strategic-Priorities/~/media/Files/About-Wheaton/Strategic-Priorities-051812.pdf).

Salvatore, Jessica, and J. Nicole Shelton.  2007.  “Cognitive Costs of Exposure to Racial Prejudice.”  Psychological Science 16(5):810-815.

Smith, William A., Walter R. Allen, and Lynette L. Danley. 2007. “‘Assume the Position . . . You Fit the Description’.” American Behavioral Scientist 51(4):551–78.

Solorzano, Daniel, Miguel Ceja, and Tara Yosso. 2000. “Critical Race Theory, Racial Microaggressions, and Campus Racial Climate: The Experiences of African American College Students.” The Journal of Negro Education 69(1/2, Knocking at Freedom’s Door: Race, Equity, and Affirmative Action in U.S. Higher Education):60–73.

Steele, Claude M., Steven J. Spencer, and Joshua Aronson.  2002.  “Contending with Group Image: The Psychology of Stereotype and Social Identity Threat.”  Advances in Experimental Social Psychology 34:389-402.

Sue, Derald Wing, Christina M. Capodilupo, et al.  2007.  “Microaggressions in Everyday LIfe: Implications for Clinical Practice.”  American Psychologist 62(4):271-286.

Sue, Derald Wing, Christina M. Capodilupo, and A.M.B. Holder.  2008.  “Racial Microaggressions in the Life Experience of Black Americans.”  Professional Psychology: Research and Practice 39(3):229-336.

Sue, Derald Wing, Annie I. Lin, et al.  2009.  “Racial Microaggressions and Difficult Dialogues on Race in the Classroom.”  Cultural Diversity and Ethnic Minority Psychology 15(2):183-190.

Sue, Derald Wing. 2010. Microaggressions in Everyday life: Race, Gender, and Sexual Orientation. Hoboken, N.J.: Wiley.

Sue, Derald Wing, David P. Rivera, et al. 2011. “Racial Dialogues: Challenges Faculty of Color Face in the Classroom.” Cultural diversity & ethnic minority psychology 17(3):331–40.

Swim, Janet. 2003. “African American College Students’ Experiences with Everyday Racism: Characteristics of and Responses to These Incidents.” Journal of Black Psychology 29(1):38–67.

Torres-Harding, Susan, Alejandro L. Jr Andrade, and Crist E. Romero Diaz. 2012. “The Racial Microaggressions Scale (RMAS): A new scale to measure experiences of racial microaggressions in people of color.” Cultural Diversity and Ethnic Minority Psychology 18(2):153–64.

Yancey, George A. 2010. Neither Jew nor gentile: exploring issues of racial diversity on Protestant college campuses. New York: Oxford University Press.

Genealogy of a White American Jesus: From Slave Master to Billy Graham

Through five years of immersion in what is arguably the “holy land” of white evangelicalism in Midwest, USA (i.e. Wheaton has “more churches per capita than any other town in America”), I have come to the conclusion that white evangelicalism has a “White American Jesus” problem. While some white evangelical institutions are engaged in what some scholars call “race-bridging,” they are few and far between (less than 7%), and are unconsciously “Christ-centered” on a “white American Jesus.” As such, racial reconciliation efforts by white evangelicals have had little to no impact on the segregated nature of their white evangelical institutions (Christerson, Edwards, and Emerson 2005; Emerson and Woo 2006; Lichterman, Carter, and Lamont 2009). Below is an excerpt from a larger work of mine, entitled: The Evangelical Ethic and the Spirit of Color-blind Racism:

white jesus

SLAVE MASTER’S JESUS VS SLAVE’S JESUS

In my opinion, the root of white evangelical color-blind racism is insidiously hidden in the history of pro-slavery “Christianity.” An analysis of pro-slavery “Christianity” will elucidate the Christological differences between Black and White Church traditions today. W.E.B. Du Bois described how Christianity in the Colonies functioned to justify slavery (2000). White Christians claimed that “slaves were to be brought from heathenism to Christianity, and through slavery the benighted Indian and African were to find their passport into the kingdom of God” (Du Bois 2000:70). Eventually, whites were confronted with “the insistent and perplexing question as to what the status of the heathen slave was to be after he was Christianized and baptized?” (Du Bois 2000:70). Many slave owners questioned whether to expose their slaves to Christianity due to “the implications of equality in the Bible and…the fear that education might cause the slave to fight for his freedom” (Cone 1997:75).

The measure taken by white Christians to appease this contradiction is still with us today—that is, the “White” Jesus of the slave master was completely divorced from any implications of freedom or justice related to civic matters (Du Bois 2000; Cone 1997). As such, “It was expressly declared in colony after colony that baptism did not free the slaves” (Du Bois 2000:71). The crux of pro-slavery “Christianity” was to ensure peace, by creating “good slaves” that would emulate “White” Jesus’ “meek-and-turn-the-other-cheek” side. While many abolitionists were eventually motivated (in part) by their Christian faith, the majority of the White Church then, as the White Church today, was silent about the oppressive and racist structures of America (Cone 1997; Emerson, Smith, and Sikkink 1999). Like the slave masters’ “White” Jesus, the “White” Jesus of evangelicals today is not concerned with ameliorating the plight of the oppressed on Earth as much as he is concerned with “order” and “saving individual souls” (Cone 1997).

Conversely, black slave ministers emphasized the God of the Exodus who freed the slaves from Egypt. Many who led slave rebellions were black slave ministers who identified with the suffering of Jesus and saw his resurrection as the triumph over the oppressive forces of his day (Du Bois 2000; Cone 1997). In addition to eternal salvation, the Jesus of the Black Church has historically identified with the poor and oppressed of the land, unlike the Jesus of the White Church today (Cone 1997). In this way, “Black Christianity” has operated as “the expression of…and also the protest against real distress…the sigh of the oppressed creature;” White evangelicalism, on the other hand, even if unintentionally today, has operated as “the opium of the [oppressed] people” (Marx 1975:175). Today, white evangelicals usually claim “objectivity” in their Christology, but have forgotten the racist roots of their “White-American Jesus” who is not concerned with social justice. This is why both White and Black Church traditions can be “Christocentric” while having incredibly different interpretations of what it means to emulate Christ—i.e., to be concerned with saving individual souls or concerned with justice on Earth as well as saving souls.

ANTI-STRUCTURALISM AND THE BILLY GRAHAM GOSPEL

Following the horrors of World War II and the Holocaust, Americans questioned the modernist claims of “progress” and the “inherent goodness of the human being.” America was ripe for the fundamentalist message to “return to Christian values,” to be “saved from the evils of men.” Even President Dwight Eisenhower spoke of returning to the “Judeo-Christian” roots of the U.S. (Belton 2010). However, it was the Cold War hysteria that prompted the masses to seek a blatantly “Americanized” version of the Gospel as salvation from the “evils of this world” (Belton 2010). Much like the “Terror Alerts” of our Post-9/11 World, after the Soviet Union successfully tested an atomic bomb, it was perceived that the “world was on the brink of a nuclear holocaust” (Belton 2010). In this ethos of fear, no single individual did more to marry an individualistic and anti-activist Gospel with right-wing ideals than Billy Graham.

Graham came to be “the primary engine of America’s cold war religious revival” (Belton 2010). Preaching to thousands, Graham presented the Gospel as the only means of salvation from not only eternal hell, but from the “evil forces of Communism” as well:

The battle is between communism and Christianity! …When communism conquers a nation, it makes every man a slave! When Christianity conquers…it makes every man a king! (Belton 2010)

The preaching of Graham was noticed by “media baron William Randolph Hearst, a staunch anti-communist,” who instructed his newspapers to “Puff Graham” (Belton 2010). Hearst’s mass media support provided the medium that “rocketed Graham,” and evangelicals, “onto the national stage” (Belton 2010). Graham’s anti-communist Gospel contributed to the marriage between conservative evangelicalism and right wing politics and economics, which oppose macro social programs aimed at racial equality today (Belton 2010; Brint and Schroedel 2009).

It is true that Graham occasionally spoke about “racial tolerance,” but according to Graham, “racism [and all social injustice] is not a social/structural issue; it is merely a symptom of sin;” Therefore, all we need to do to save the country is to convert individuals to Christianity (Belton 2010). Graham’s simplistic—“All you need is Jesus”—Gospel, required very little more than an outward expression of personal piety and church attendance, systemic efforts toward social justice be damned. Similarly, most white evangelicals today are focused on a Jesus who has little concern for macro social justice reforms that appear to be part of the “liberal-agenda.”

BILLY GRAHAM’S JESUS VS MARTIN LUTHER KING’S JESUS

It is noted that “one of the feats of Billy Graham…was to refocus the evangelical movement around the figure of Jesus in a way that cut across denominational lines,” thereby creating stronger ties among evangelicals (Wuthnow 2009:29). However, since white evangelicals have failed to take seriously the legacy of slavery, Jim Crow, and systemic racism, they have failed to deconstruct the figure of Jesus that was promulgated by slave masters in the U.S. That is, the Jesus that Billy Graham made popular among evangelicals was eerily similar to the Jesus who was preached to the slaves—One who was concerned with obedience and an outward expression of personal piety, divorced from notions of social justice such as achieving racial equality in the U.S. To be clear, I am not suggesting that Graham was trying to create “good” slaves, however, he did very little to oppose other white evangelical “leaders and congregations [that] frequently condoned and sometimes actively supported segregation and subordination of African Americans up through…the 50s and 60s” (Lichterman et al. 2009:192; Vesely-Flad 2011). While Billy may have sincerely wanted to save souls from hell, his obsession with the afterlife and conservative political leanings were more important to him, and most other white evangelicals, than the racial oppression that was happening right before their eyes.

Graham went so far, in April of 1963, along with other white preachers, as to call on Martin Luther King, Jr. to “put the brakes on a little bit” regarding direct action to end segregation (Anon 1963; Belton 2010). While Graham preached a few “integrated” crusades, all he really did was remove a rope that divided white and black people at his crusades. His “efforts” paled in comparison to those of the children who were hosed down, bitten by dogs, and arrested for protesting segregation in the South. The complicity of white preachers, including Graham, in maintaining segregation prompted Dr. Martin Luther King’s famous Letter from a Birmingham Jail, in which he chastised the “white moderate [and preacher], who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice” (Belton 2010; King, Jr. 1963). Herein lies the theological distinction between white evangelicals and the Black Church today. The Jesus who identified with the oppressed is the same Jesus that motivated Dr. King and many other champions of the Civil Rights era—unlike the Jesus that motivated Graham’s individualistic, anti-structuralist, pro-conservative-politics gospel, which influences evangelical thinking on race relations today.

ANTI-LIBERAL RISE OF THE CHRISTIAN RIGHT

            The end of the 1970s gave birth to a plethora of politically conservative organizations such as The Christian Right, the Christian Voice, and the Moral Majority (Brint and Schroedel 2009:5). Since the 1980s, evangelicals have pledged uncanny allegiance to right-wing politics. I would argue that a theological orientation that required nothing more than a personal relationship with Jesus and a life of individualistic repentance from sin, with no call to social justice, and selectively “literalist” interpretations of the Bible on issues of gender roles, homosexuality, and abortion are the primary orientations that influence evangelicals to detest progressive reforms that they believe are violating “biblical values.” The propensity for “order” over justice seems related to religious roots in the slave master’s Christology that elevates personal piety over notions of justice and freedom related to civic matters. This anti-liberal ethos against Civil Rights reforms continues to cloud white evangelicals’ views on racial inequalities today.

In the decades following the desegregation of public schools (Brown v. Board of Ed.), and the Civil Rights years of the 60s and 70s, thousands of white families, including white evangelicals, moved to “more desirable locations,” and even opened privately-owned all-white “Christian” academies (Emerson and Smith 2000; Massey and Denton 1993; Vesely-Flad 2011). Today, many of these schools and neighborhoods remain just as segregated as they were forty years ago.

In my paper, The Evangelical Ethic and the Spirit of Color-blind Racism, I outline several seemingly “race-neutral” cultural and theological orientations of white evangelicals today that guide their actions toward color-blind racism. The color-blind racism of white evangelicals includes the denial of systemic racism, which results in dampened support for programs that would mitigate racial inequalities on a systemic level. The most damning evidence for white evangelical color-blind racism can be found in the fact that “for every 1-unit increase in number of white evangelical congregations per 1,000 non-Hispanic whites in every county in every region across the country, there were significant increases in all measures of segregation” (Blanchard 2007).

In this excerpt I presented the genealogy of a “White American Jesus,” who influences white evangelicals to perpetuate inequality by subordinating social justice to personal piety and church attendance. I would hope that if they want to be true to the message of Jesus Christ, that they would take some time to learn from traditions that have championed causes for the poor and oppressed in the name of Jesus Christ.

WORKS CITED

Anon. 1963. “Billy Graham Urges Restrain in Sit-Ins.” New York Times, April 18, Archives. Retrieved (http://select.nytimes.com/gst/abstract.html?res=FA0B15F9385D117B93CAA8178FD85F478685F9).

Belton, David. 2010. “The Soul of a Nation.” God in America. Retrieved (http://www.pbs.org/godinamerica/transcripts/hour-five.html).

Blanchard, Troy C. 2007. “Conservative Protestant Congregations and Racial Residential Segregation: Evaluating the Closed Community Thesis in Metropolitan and Nonmetropolitan Counties.” American Sociological Review 72(3):416–33.

Du Bois, W. E. B. 2000. “Religion in the South.” Pp. 69–89 in Du Bois on Religion, edited by Phil Zuckerman. Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira Press.

Brint, Steven G., and Jean Reith Schroedel, eds. 2009. Evangelicals and Democracy in America. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.

Christerson, Brad, Korie L. Edwards, and Michael O. Emerson. 2005. Against All Odds : The Struggle for Racial Integration in Religious Organizations. New York: New York University Press.

Cone, James H. 1997. Black Theology and Black Power. Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis.

Emerson, Michael O., and Christian Smith. 2000. Divided by Faith : Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press.

Emerson, Michael O., Christian Smith, and David Sikkink. 1999. “Equal in Christ, but Not in the World: White Conservative Protestants and Explanations of Black-White Inequality.” Social Problems 46(3):398–417.

Emerson, Michael O., and Rodney M. Woo. 2006. People of the Dream : Multiracial Congregations in the United States. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

King, Jr., Martin Luther. 1963. “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” Retrieved (http://www.africa.upenn.edu/Articles_Gen/Letter_Birmingham.html).

Lichterman, Paul, Prudence L. Carter, and Michèle Lamont. 2009. “Race-Bridging for Christ? Conservative Christians and Black-White Relations in Community Life.” Pp. 187–220 in Evangelicals and Democracy in America, edited by Steven G. Brint and Jean Reith Schroedel. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.

Marx, Karl. 1975. “Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Law.” in Karl Marx, Frederick Engels: Collected Works, vol. 3, edited by Friedrich Engels and Karl Marx. New York: International Publishers. Retrieved (http://www.columbia.edu/cgi-bin/cul/resolve?clio6961573.008).

Massey, Douglas S., and Nancy A. Denton. 1993. American Apartheid : Segregation and the Making of the Underclass. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.

Vesely-Flad, Rima. 2011. “The Social Covenant and Mass Incarceration: Theologies of Race and Punishment.” Anglican Theological Review 93(4):541–62.

Wuthnow, Robert. 2009. “The Cultural Capital of American Evangelicalism.” Pp. 27–43 in Evangelicals and Democracy in America, edited by Steven G. Brint and Jean Reith Schroedel. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.

For Christ and His White Kingdom – An open letter to the Wheaton College Community on White Supremacy

In February 2012, Wheaton College was jolted by a racial incident infamously known as: #chapeltweets. Participants in the Rhythm & Praise chapel service at this small evangelical liberal arts college (with the motto: “For Christ and His Kingdom”) were publicly mocked and insulted on the social networking sites Twitter and Facebook.  The chapel service, which presented forms of music, dancing, and painting largely from the African American tradition, was derided as an unworthy expression of worship. Tweets and memes ranged from being naïve and racially insensitive to malicious and borderline overtly racist. Examples include (more at the end of the post):

chapeltweetblackkids

black father meme chapel breakdancing meme chapeltweetsblackface chapeltweetsentertainment chapeltweetblackjoker terrorist meme

In the aftermath of these and other tweets, many students responded by downplaying the importance of race, claiming that the tweets were not offensive and that students of color who were upset were being overly sensitive. While the initial furor of the Chapel Tweets incident has died down, students of color continue to be underrepresented at Wheaton College. Moreover, the elephant in the room has not been addressed—that is, Wheaton College and other white evangelical institutions in the U.S. continue to operate to varying degrees under the framework of white supremacy.

Yes, white supremacy is the ethos of my alma mater, but here is what I am not saying: I do not believe that the people running the school or even most of the student body are white supremacists, if by the term, you mean they embody racial hatred and believe that the white race is superior to others. No, it is much more subtle (and systemic) than that—but this is the ethos of Wheaton, nonetheless.

I graduated from Wheaton in May 2013 and could very easily rid myself of anything concerning it, but two main things have urged me to write about my experience with white supremacy at Wheaton College. First, white supremacy is evil and when left unchecked has spawned the suffering of countless innocent people all over the globe. Second, I actually do care about the future of Wheaton, because I believe there are good people there who could transform it into an institution that cultivates students and leaders for improving our world.

Today, the inertia of white supremacy continues to drive racial inequalities in the U.S.—Wheaton College is no exception to this phenomena. I want to briefly outline some racial inequalities in the U.S. then talk about how racial inequalities at Wheaton are embedded in this system of white supremacy as well. When referring to Wheaton College, I am working primarily with an understanding of white supremacy as a system. See Tim Wise’s definition below:

As a system, racism is an institutional arrangement, maintained by policies, practices and procedures — both formal and informal — in which some persons typically have more or less opportunity than others, and in which such persons receive better or worse treatment than others, because of their respective racial identities. Additionally, institutional racism involves denying persons opportunities, rewards, or various benefits on the basis of race [whether intentionally or unintentionally], to which those individuals are otherwise entitled. In short, racism is a system of inequality, based on race.

White supremacy is the operationalized form of racism in the United States and throughout the Western world. Racism is like the generic product name, while white supremacy is the leading brand, with far and away the greatest market share.

WHITE SUPREMACY IN THE U.S.

This blog is insufficient to provide an adequate lesson in the history and development of white supremacy, such as: European conquest and colonization, Native American genocide, Black-African slavery, the Jim Crow Era, programmatic racial segregation, New Jim Crow, etc. Still, let’s examine, briefly, some current racial inequalities that people could explain by saying that either, “people of all races have equal opportunities, thus disparities are a result of flaws in certain groups’ cultures” or current disparities are a function of white supremacy.

According to a 2011 report by the Pew Research Center, wealth gaps between white, Hispanic, and black households have risen to record highs in the United States.

median net worth by race

In 2009, the median net worth (MNW)[1] of white households was “20 times that of black households and 18 times that of Hispanic households” (Kochhar, Fry, and Taylor 2011:1). The U.S. poverty rate for African-Americans and Hispanics is 25.8% and 23.2%, respectively; whereas poverty rate for whites is 11.6% (Macartney, Bishaw, and Fontenot 2013).

A study of all 3,141 counties in the United States, published by the University of California Press, provided “a place-based portrait of spatial inequality and concentrated poverty over the past two decades” (Lichter, Parisi, and Taquino 2012:370). The study finds there are disproportionately high levels of poverty concentration among black and Latina/o populations compared to non-Hispanic whites. Based on the latest data from 2009, 36.3% of the total black population lives in high-poverty places, while 49.2% of poor blacks are concentrated in high-poverty places.[2] For all Hispanics, 23.9% live in high-poverty places, while 33.3% of poor Hispanics live in these communities as well. In sharp contrast, only 11.1% of non-Hispanic whites live in poor communities (Lichter et al. 2012). Additionally, research indicates that over 60% of black and Hispanic students attend public schools where the majority of students are below the poverty line; compared to only “18 percent of white students” who attend high-poverty schools (Logan, Minca, and Adar 2012:288).

I hope it is obvious that I do not believe that these stark racial disparities are a result of morally devoid cultures in black and brown communities. Social scientists have presented ample evidence for the origins of racial segregation in past discriminatory housing practices such as “redlining,” restrictive covenants, and steering (Massey and Denton 1993; Sernau 2006). Racial residential segregation of people of color is one of the most damning tools of white supremacy, which perpetuates race disparities in areas of wealth, incarceration rates, employment discrimination, and more. Another leading cause of racial disparities in the U.S. is related to the underrepresentation of students of color in higher education. It is evident that a degree in higher education can be a ticket out of poverty.

RACIAL INEQUALITIES AT MY ALMA MATER

When we examine the racial demographics of Wheaton College, through data from the US Census Bureau and Wheaton College’s Office of Institutional Research (only accessible while on-campus through Wheaton’s intranet), we see that Wheaton falls unacceptably below average in providing equal access to education for black and Latina/o students. Data for 2010, indicates that the enrollment percentage at Wheaton College was a paltry 2.90% for black or African-Americans and 3.90% for Hispanic or Latina/o students. In comparison, enrollment at peer institutions during the same time period was 9.20% for black or African-Americans and 6.20% for Hispanic or Latina/o students. Enrollment for all 4-year, private nonprofit colleges/universities in the U.S., during the same time, was 12.92% for black or African-Americans and 8.06% for Hispanic or Latina/o students.

In other words minority enrollment averages at peer institutions are double what they are at Wheaton; minority enrollment averages in all 4-year, private nonprofit colleges/universities are three times greater than they are at Wheaton. Moreover, in 1976, the total minority undergraduate population in the U.S. was 16.6%. By 2004, the total minority undergraduate population in the U.S. had nearly doubled to 32.5%, while Wheaton College, in 2012, had remained thirty years behind the national trends at a disgustingly low 17.5% total minority undergraduate population—or as the Wheaton website describes it “just shy of 20% of the campus.”

Source: http://intra.wheaton.edu/academic/ITIR/pdf/Ethnicity/Student_Ethnicity_2010.pdf Source: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS), Spring 2011, Enrollment component. http://nces.ed.gov/programs/coe/tables/table-psi-1.asp

Source: http://intra.wheaton.edu/academic/ITIR/pdf/Ethnicity/Student_Ethnicity_2010.pdf
Source: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS), Spring 2011, Enrollment component. http://nces.ed.gov/programs/coe/tables/table-psi-1.asp

Source: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, Digest of Education Statistics, 2005 (NCES 2006-030), table 205, data from the Higher Education General Information Survey (HEGIS), "Fall Enrollment in Colleges and Universities" surveys, 1976 and 1980, and 1990 through 2004 Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS), "Fall Enrollment" survey, 1990, and Spring 2001 through Spring 2005. http://nces.ed.gov/pubs2007/minoritytrends/tables/table_a23_1.asp Source 2: http://intra.wheaton.edu/academic/ITIR/pdf/Ethnicity/Student_Ethnicity_2010.pdf

Source: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, Digest of Education Statistics, 2005 (NCES 2006-030), table 205, data from the Higher Education General Information Survey (HEGIS), “Fall Enrollment in Colleges and Universities” surveys, 1976 and 1980, and 1990 through 2004 Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS), “Fall Enrollment” survey, 1990, and Spring 2001 through Spring 2005. http://nces.ed.gov/pubs2007/minoritytrends/tables/table_a23_1.asp
Source 2: http://intra.wheaton.edu/academic/ITIR/pdf/Ethnicity/Student_Ethnicity_2010.pdf

So what is Wheaton’s excuse for denying equal access to higher education for black and Latina/o students, thereby participating in the larger framework of white supremacy? Certainly, it is not the lack of black and Latina/o students in higher education as evinced by the significantly higher averages at other schools. (Cue  attempts to justify low enrollment rates for students of color at Wheaton by attributing it to “personal choice” or something like that. Also, this is where many people will say, in so many words, “Yeah, but Wheaton isn’t all that bad when you compare it to other similar colleges that are doing a horrible job at enrolling students of color!”)

WHAT DOES ALL OF THIS HAVE TO DO WITH CHAPELTWEETS?

Wheaton College does not have to have an active policy of denying people of color access to their institution in order to perpetuate white supremacy, but the fact remains that African-American and Latina/o students are egregiously underrepresented at Wheaton. Of course, this reality is complex, but based on my three years as a student and two years as the Executive Vice President of Community Diversity on Student Government, I want to offer what I think contributes to Wheaton’s complicity in white supremacy.

After the #chapeltweets incident, a few dozen students rallied together to respond to the insensitivity and racism of their fellow students. We met through the late hours of the night trying to figure out how to respond. #Chapeltweets was unique, because it was so public and galvanized our emotions and desire for change. Students of color (and a few white students) had had enough with racial insensitivity, ignorant jokes, and lack of institutional support for race-related equity on campus. So, we drafted a petition called, The Diversity Initiatives: A petition for institutional change. In it, we described the reality of white supremacy at Wheaton College as such:

The pain, frustration, and anger of many students at Wheaton College stems from a much deeper place than #chapeltweets. Many unique challenges for students of minority cultures, races, or ethnicities exist. These unique challenges do not affect ALL [students of color] or ONLY [students of color], but those students who do not fit into the dominant American, white, middle to upper- middle class, culture. While overt racism is not rampant, issues of racial prejudice, cultural supremacy, ethnocentrism, and insensitivity afflict these students in profound ways. For many, it is not an acute, shooting pain that can be described in one incident. Rather, it is the dull, subtle, and constant reminder that students of minority cultures are merely invited guests in someone else’s home. Furthermore, the College has unintentionally affirmed and reinforced the elevated status of dominant white culture among our community, as a result of inadequate intervention in institutional practices that affect the campus climate.

The emphasis on quantity over quality, regarding the approach to increasing diversity, has neglected the experiences of minority culture students once they arrive on campus.

Whether it is the lack of professors and staff members with whom we can identify culturally (88.3% all-white faculty and 87.7% all-white staff), the lack of College Union events that are inclusive of people of color (91% of all artists/bands hosted by College Union between 2000 and 2012 were white), the lack of academic material that educates our peers about white supremacy, the lack of affirmation of our own cultures on a less-than-superficial basis, or the lack of significant support for student-led initiatives that attempt to promote racial understanding on campus, students of color eventually realize that Wheaton College is an institution primarily for its white American students.

A list of concert artists/bands was provided by the Assistant Director of Student Activities at Wheaton College. Members of the community diversity committee searched artist/band webpages, billboard charts and Wikipedia to ascertain background information on the artists above

A list of concert artists/bands was provided by the Assistant Director of Student Activities at Wheaton College. Members of the community diversity committee searched artist/band webpages, billboard charts and Wikipedia to ascertain background information on the artists above

My former Professor of Anthropology wrote that, “Racism does not require racists. All it needs to thrive is people who deny the wider historical and cultural context in which their words and thoughts live.” I’m here to tell you that the denial of white supremacy is the pervasive attitude among Wheaton students. Year after year, a loud contingent of Wheaton College students vehemently deride “student-led initiatives which [attempt] to promote racial harmony and reconciliation” on campus.

Most white students at Wheaton, however, will tell you that racism is not a problem on campus. They are partly right. Most white students at Wheaton are willfully oblivious to the effects of white supremacy on campus, because it literally only affects a pittance of the campus population. So it’s understandable that white students would say that something that they do not see is not a problem. Let me take this brief moment to acknowledge the voices of white students who feel marginalized by my words. First, I have found that white people who acknowledge the reality of white supremacy tend not to get offended when people of color merely state that it exists or when we point out that most white people deny its existence. If you are white and you are aware that white supremacy is a problem, not only in the U.S., but also systemically at Wheaton, then I am probably not describing you in this post. If you feel offended by my description of white apathy toward racial realities at Wheaton, then I can think of no other reason for you being offended other than you do not agree that white supremacy is a problem on campus, and thus, you would fall into the category of students that I am describing. To deny white supremacy is to deny the experiences of students of color who are affected by it. To deny the experiences of anyone is to deny their existence, which is why students affected by white supremacy are further marginalized on campus.

I can tell you what all of this means to me. It means that as a result of Wheaton’s failure to educate its students on the reality of white supremacy in the country and abroad, and as a result of the racially apathetic student culture that derives from the institutional failure to affirm minority cultures, that I will not be recommending Wheaton College to any students of color without any serious caveats for how they will feel alienated merely because they won’t fit in with the dominant and celebrated white culture on campus. I know for a fact that I am not the only alumnus of color who feels this way. So if Wheaton wants to increase its enrollment averages for African-American and Latina/o students, I suggest (for now):

  • Make radical changes to how the most-supported campus organizations promote and exalt white culture
  • Drastically increase funding for students of color from low-income communities to attend Wheaton
  • Implement a serious academic curriculum that lightens the burden of small student groups like Solidarity Cabinet to educate the campus community about race and puts it on the faculty through a required “gen-ed” on race relations in the U.S.
  • Be sincere about claims related to hiring more faculty of color (and all claims related to diversity for that matter)

At this point, I am not interested in talking about small changes to the structure (and infrastructure) of Wheaton College. If it were even 20 years ago, then maybe we could still give Wheaton a pat on the back for trying to resist white supremacy through one or two added scholarships for Latina/o students, a half-funded scholarship for African-American students, a small change here, a small change there…but it’s almost 2014 and what we need is results! Real results are past due. We will celebrate Wheaton’s achievements on race relations when they are worth celebrating for our time.

I’m speaking to everyone in the Wheaton Community whether you are a student, faculty, administrator, staff, or alumni. Let’s urge the institution to put its money where its mouth is and to provide equal access to higher education for African-American and Latina/o students, immediately—because diversity is more than just “colorful” photos on pamphlets, brochures and websites, and thirty years behind national trends is unacceptable.

Works Cited

Kochhar, Rakesh, Richard Fry, and Paul Taylor. 2011. Weatlh Gaps Rise to Record Highs Between Whites, Blacks and Hispanics. Washington, D.C.: Pew Research Center. Retrieved (http://www.pewsocialtrends.org/files/2011/07/SDT-Wealth-Report_7-26-11_FINAL.pdf).

Lichter, Daniel T., Domenico Parisi, and Michael C. Taquino. 2012. “The Geography of Exclusion: Race, Segregation, and Concentrated Poverty.” Social Problems 59(3):364–88.

Logan, John R., Elisabeta Minca, and Sinem Adar. 2012. “The Geography of Inequality: Why Separate Means Unequal in American Public Schools.” Sociology of Education 85(3):287–301.

Macartney, Suzanne, Alemayehu Bishaw, and Kayla Fontenot. 2013. Poverty Rates for Selected Detailed Race and Hispanic Groups by State and Place: 2007-2011. Washington, D.C.: United States Census Bureau. Retrieved (http://www.census.gov/prod/2013pubs/acsbr11-17.pdf).

Massey, Douglas S., and Nancy A. Denton. 1993. “American Apartheid: Segregation and the Making of the Underclass.” in The inequality reader : contemporary and foundational readings in race, class, and gender, edited by David B. Grusky and Szonja Szelényi. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

Sernau, Scott. 2006. Worlds Apart : Social Inequalities in a Global Economy. Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Pine Forge Press.

Related Images of Wheaton College Racism:

forum wall ntalkpendulum danny aguilarSTARSForumWall chapeltweetEJchapeltweetCrazinesschapeltweetsairplaneflaggerchapeltweetsblacksinforum wall postsolidarity meme 3The_Diversity_Initiative_(update) image 2The_Diversity_Initiative_(update) page 2


[1] MNW “is the accumulated sum of assets (houses, cars, savings and checking accounts, stocks and mutual funds, retirement accounts, etc.) minus the sum of debt (mortgages, auto loans, credit card debt, etc.)” (Kochhar, Fry, and Taylor 2011:4).

[2] Individuals were considered poor if they lived in families with incomes below the official U.S. government poverty threshold for their family size.

Addendum:

I am adding this addendum because I do care about Wheaton College, very much so. Do not take my strong language as hateful, but please read it as passionate (and frustrated with failed efforts to work within the system for two difficult years). I tried to make it clear that I do not believe that people are actually operating as conscious white supremacists, but evidently that is not as clear to some people.

Either way, PLEASE READ: An Open Letter to Students and Alumni of Color at Wheaton College by Brian Howell.
http://brianhowell.blogspot.com/2013/12/an-open-letter-to-students-and-alumni.html

Thank you, Brian, for this follow up to my blogpost. There is nothing in this post with which I disagree. You certainly emphasized some of the progress more than I did, and that is fine. My intention was not to imply that nothing has been done at all, or that there weren’t any people at Wheaton who have been sincerely trying to work hard to change the institution for a very long time.
Indeed, there are many people striving for change who I have worked with personally…and there are many who resisted me and continue to resist change as well.

I still affirm my claims that the institution has not supported these individuals enough to make the changes that are necessary for the college to be where it should be in 2014.

By the institution, then, I’m referring to people who for whatever reason haven’t made the decisions that would radically change the policies that continue to support white supremacy. My one fear with your blogpost is that some people might say, “see Wheaton has been making some progress! Therefore, we do not need to keep putting pressure on them to do more.”…To do what is necessary.

Finally, my post was indeed a call to action, a call to stay engaged or to get even more engaged, NOT a call to withdraw from all things Wheaton.

Thanks again for joining the conversation (as you have been for so long. Indeed, I learned a lot of what I know, from you.)

When the n-word appears on the forum wall

(Published in Wheaton College‘s school newspaper, The Record, during the Spring 2012 semester)

forum wall ntalk

This Fall, the Forum Wall served as a venue for incredibly varied attitudes about the issue of race. Posters, letters, drawings, and a vast array of comments responded to student-led initiatives which attempted to promote racial harmony and reconciliation. The culmination of this discussion was the phrase: “This is Nigger talk.” Those four words were explicitly, and anonymously, scribbled on a letter posted on Wheaton College’s own forum wall. While most members of our community do not espouse the overt racism embodied in this phrase, we still tend to avoid engaging in thoughtful, constructive conversations about racism and prejudice. This aversion to race conversations may be a result of the way the conversation is initially presented. I would like to challenge us to go further and examine the way the race conversation is being received and interpreted.

Conversations which attempt to foster a process of racial reconciliation can become deeply personal. Most initiatives that highlight race are intended to raise awareness of and concern for race-based norms and hierarchies in the world, but are often interpreted as personal accusations of racism and attempts to elicit guilt. In other words, we tend to hear a “Racism exists in the world” message, and interpret it as a “You are Racist” message.

Conversations that examine race in the world can encourage us to consider the way our own prejudices have been formed. This can be difficult because it is generally a hard thing to admit our flaws. Yet, in most instances when we are informed of a personal shortcoming, we admit we are not perfect and attempt to correct our flaws. In contrast, Jay Smooth, a popular radio host, argues that when talking about racism and prejudice we create an “all or nothing, good person/bad person, binary” in which we either are or are not racist.

Smooth says this binary causes us to look at racism and prejudice as if they are akin to tonsils. We either have them or we don’t. So, if we have had our prejudice “removed,” we never need to consider our actions regarding race. Smooth states that this mindset presses us to refute allegations of subconscious prejudice by saying: “But no, my prejudice was removed in 2005, I went to see that movie Crash, so it’s all good.”

Unfortunately, prejudices do not work in that “once removed, always removed” way. We are “daily bombarded by mass media and social stimuli, as well as subconscious mental processes, that cause us to build up traces of prejudice everyday,” which Smooth describes as “plaque building up on our teeth.” According to the binary, any suggestion that we have been less than perfect implies that we are racist; this is a false dichotomy. Consequently, we become resistant to any suggestion that we are flawed in our view of race, in fear of receiving that dreaded label. This belief that we must be perfect in order to be good, becomes an obstacle to being as good as we can be.

Smooth argues that we must shift from the mindset that being a good person is a fixed immutable characteristic, such as “not racist,” and shift towards the premise that being good is something we practice by addressing our imperfections. Followers of Christ refer to this as the process of sanctification, in which cleansing from sin is a process, not a moment. Analogously, we improve society by addressing its imperfections.

Think of being good in the same way that you think of being a clean person. We do not assume that because we are clean people then we do not need to brush our teeth. Smooth relates becoming indignant to race conversations with responding to the statement that you have something stuck in your teeth by saying: “What do you mean, I have something stuck in my teeth!? I am a clean person!” Instead of taking it as an indictment of our goodness, we must shift towards taking it as an act of kindness and Love when someone tells us we, or the world, have something “racist” stuck in our teeth.

I was still hurt, disturbed, and discouraged by some of the words I read on the Forum Wall. Transforming the way we think and talk about race with one another is essential to moving forward in addressing broader systemic racial disparities in areas of income, median net worth, educational attainment, infant mortality rate, incarceration, capital punishment, and more.  At Wheaton College these disparities are apparent in the makeup of the student body, faculty, and staff, which are not representative of the general population, let alone the racial and ethnic diversity of the Body of Christ.

As members of this community, we chose to uphold a mission to “help build the church and improve society worldwide.” We know that racist attitudes, whether tacit, overt, or subconscious, exist in the world, even at Wheaton College. It is incumbent upon us to address these imperfections in order to fulfill the mission to improve society worldwide. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “There comes a time when silence is betrayal.” Will you be silent, or will you join the conversation?