Expiration Date Passed

Apparently Ta-Nehisi Coates’ magic has worn off. Several writers have recently taken issue with his ideas about race relations and whiteness (and white superiority). Thomas Chatterton Williams, who was one of the first black authors to take Coates on, returns for another at bat under with the approval of editors at the New York Times (not the New York Post or the Washington Times). This must be serious.

At the Atlantic though, where Coates writes regularly and achieved some of his fame, his editors still think Coates is brilliant and that they bask in the brilliance by publishing and endorsing his ideas. For instance, on a recent podcast about Charlottesville and the Confederate Monuments, Jeffrey Goldberg described President Trump’s reaction, in which he wondered if taking down Robert E. Lee leads to Jefferson and Washington, in cataclysmic terms:

It is an amazing moment when the president of the United States can’t delineate the difference between the Civil War and the Revolutionary War. I think this is a breakpoint in modern American history.

Hasn’t Goldberg read Coates? Someone well before Trump showed a lack of nuance in describing white supremacy in U.S. history:

For the men who needed to believe themselves white, the bodies were the key to ta social club, and the right to break the bodies was the mark of civilization. “The two great division of society are not the rich and poor, but white and black,” said the great South Carolina senator John C. Calhoun. “And all the former, the poor as well as the rich, belong to the upper class, and are respected and treated as equals.” And there it is — the right to break the black body as the meaning of their sacred equality. And that right has always given them meaning, has always meant that there was someone down in the valley because a mountain is not a mountain if there is nothing below.

You and I, my son, are that “below.” That was true in 1776. It is true today. (Coates, Between the World and Me, 104-105).

So what do the editors at the Atlantic think of a staff writer who cannot tell the difference between the Civil War and Revolutionary War?

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Malcolm X with a Joni Eareckson Tada Finish

The incident in Charlottesville gave Jemar Tisby another chance in the op-ed section of the Washington Post. No one could disagree with Mr. Tisby’s estimate that this protest was an instance of white supremacy or that it is ugly and a threat to public order and the rule of law.

But I do wonder if Mr. Tisby lost his nerve when speaking to a national audience. For instance, in an earlier post last spring about another incident in Charlottesville, he wrote this at his own blog:

As much as city leaders sought to gain support for removing Confederate monuments and symbols, they never had complete consensus. Officials in New Orleans kept the date and time of the monument removals secret for fear of reprisals from their opponents. The Confederate flag came down in South Carolina in the middle of vocal defiance of the decision. Yet come down they did.

In the church as in the world, the time is always right to do right. Racism is sin. Leaders should not take a gradual approach to killing racism just like they should not take a gradual approach to killing any other sin. Nor should they think it necessary to build a consensus to combat this sin. True leadership initiates righteous changes even when they are unpopular with those being led.

That is the kind of radicalism that Charles Finney took to Oberlin College. If it’s sin, you break with it immediately. Any delay is even more sin. It is even in the ballpark of the sort of radicalism that Malcolm X promoted. If you have a system that is so brutally and obviously bad, you need to blow it up or leave it. That was part of X’s appeal — he advocated black nationalism and black separatism, and given the nature of Jim Crow and police brutality, you could understand why.

But at the Post, Mr. Tisby backed away from that sort of radicalism and admitted that we will always have racists with us:

Let’s also be clear that we can’t really end white supremacy. In the Christian view, racism is a sin, and sin cannot be completely eradicated on this side of eternity. But we are called to fight against sin in all its forms, so we should expect positive change in our churches and society at large as we fight against it.

So how do we fight white supremacy without taking Malcolm X’s path? Cue Joni Eareckson Tada:

1. Admit the American church was built on white supremacy.
From the Colonial era to the present day, white churches have helped build a society that privileges whiteness and denigrates blackness. In light of the white church’s involvement in creating and maintaining white supremacy, white pastors can presume that their churches are already part of the problem, intentionally or not.

2. Confess and repent of past sins.
Many congregations were formed in a fit of “white flight” from cities. Many Christian schools, particularly in the South, were explicitly created to preserve racial segregation in an era of court-ordered desegregation. Christians and church leaders must ask themselves how much they have acknowledged their own history. Have they gone through their church records and rulings to tell the full story of how their church, community, or denomination has cooperated with white supremacy? A failure to face white supremacy in the past will lead to a failure to confront it in the present.

3. Commit to responding to white supremacy with the vigor that the problem requires.
When we examine the history of race and the American church, the story is often worse than we expect. The church hasn’t simply gone along with white supremacy — it has assembled and established it. If white Christians have historically been so intentional about building up barriers between the races, then they will have to be just as intentional to bring them down.

4.Listen to black people.
We’ve been saying all along that a Charlottesville could easily happen. For years, the alt-right and white nationalists have employed the Bible to justify their racism, in public online. But many white Christians have never heard of the alt-right, much less been equipped to filter their messages biblically. We kept trying to tell them that this obsession with the Confederacy and its cultural artifacts sabotaged efforts at racial unity.

In addition to the fourth point, which is an implicit pitch for Mr. Tisby’s podcast, this is advice right out of a w-w play book — take every thought captive. It’s all about thinking and making personal resolutions.

But imagine telling that to Germans living in the 1930s under the tyranny of National Socialism. When evil is so institutionalized and so oppressive, as Mr. Tisby has long argued, do you simply commit to do things differently? Or do you actually think that Malcolm X had a point? You overturn the system or get out and form a separate nation? Mr. Tisby’s recommendations strike me as the equivalent of what I hear about climate change. What do I do? I feel badly and commit to do better, even when the entire food distribution system and development of town life in the U.S. is predicated on the use of fossil fuel.

In other words, Mr. Tisby’s recommendations are sort of like saying don’t trust the system but don’t forget to work with the system. Glenn Greenwald spotted the flaw in this logic when he went after those who complained about the ACLU’s defense of Charlottesville’s white supremacists’ rights to assembly and free speech:

. . . the contradiction embedded in this anti-free-speech advocacy is so glaring. For many of those attacking the ACLU here, it is a staple of their worldview that the U.S. is a racist and fascist country and that those who control the government are right-wing authoritarians. There is substantial validity to that view.

Why, then, would people who believe that simultaneously want to vest in these same fascism-supporting authorities the power to ban and outlaw ideas they dislike? Why would you possibly think that the List of Prohibited Ideas will end up including the views you hate rather than the views you support? Most levers of state power are now controlled by the Republican Party, while many Democrats have also advocated the criminalization of left-wing views. Why would you trust those officials to suppress free speech in ways that you find just and noble, rather than oppressive?

Greenwald’s question is one I’d like to hear Mr. Tisby answer. If the United States was founded by racists, prolonged its racism through slavery and Jim Crow, and now continues that racism in policies of mass incarceration executed by Republicans — and there is validity to this understanding of U.S. history, I’m not saying it’s wrong — then why continue the United States? Why obey the laws of the U.S.? Why submit to police? Why not instead rebel and bring down such an oppressive regime?

Is it because the next regime will also be a sinful one that has its own oppressive bugs (not features)? In which case, is the argument that sin is structural really self-defeating? It certainly gets attention and inspires outrage. It also gives you a platform that will never go away because you’ll always have a system to oppose. But at a certain point, the protest looks like only pious advice unless it counters the unjust structure not with a commitment to do better but an alternative structure.

Whatever It Is, I’m Against It

Why does so much confusion surround the so-called Alt-Right while so many people are absolutely certain they oppose it? The Southern Baptist Convention seemed to set the standard for establishing indignant distance from the Alt-Right and its associations with white supremacy. At the same time, pretty much no one knows what the Alt-Right is. If the SBC had thrown Charles Murray, the co-author of The Bell Curve, into its resolution, I doubt anyone would have cared. Who is Charles Murray? Not sure. Must be a white supremacist because those kids at Middlebury College know what’s what.

Here is Joe Carter’s attempt to define the Alt-Right even after the fact of the resolution — reporting catches up to voting:

The alt-right—short for “alternative right”—is an umbrella term for a host of disparate nationalist and populist groups associated with the white identity cause/movement. The term brings together white supremacists (e.g., neo-Nazis), religious racialists (e.g., Kinists), neo-pagans (e.g., Heathenry), internet trolls (e.g., 4chan’s /pol/), and others enamored with white identity and racialism.

The Southern Poverty Law Center gives a somewhat broader definition (that could actually include Joe Carter and me at times):

The Alternative Right, commonly known as the Alt-Right, is a set of far-right ideologies, groups and individuals whose core belief is that “white identity” is under attack by multicultural forces using “political correctness” and “social justice” to undermine white people and “their” civilization. Characterized by heavy use of social media and online memes, Alt-Righters eschew “establishment” conservatism, skew young, and embrace white ethno-nationalism as a fundamental value.

At the Alt-Right website, the defining component of the movement seems to be a race-based defense of Western civilization. One question in these race obsessed times — and can anyone remember this goes back to the election of Barack Obama and didn’t just start with the 2016 election? — is if you defend cultural goods of the West like smart phones, rule by law, or tennis are you guilty of the sins of the Alt-Right? Or if you look favorably on the United States, which people of European descent have dominated for good and ill, are you also tainted?

But a bigger question is what a white man is to do. The comments at Joe Carter’s piece suggest that even the fans of John Piper and Tim Keller are not willing to support the SBC’s resolution even while they do not identify with the Alt-Right:

The SBC did us a huge disservice by not defining the Alt Right. The more familiar one becomes with their bigotry, the more disgusting their venom. I think, however, there is a danger in all of this. Since we have left the Alt Right as an ambiguous term, we have set ourselves up for witch hunts. For instance, If I believe in a strong national defense, and in protecting our borders, am I to be branded with this label, and thereby made notorious? If I call myself a “Proud American”, then I am, by definition, a nationalist. Will that term soon become, “white-nationalist” with the passage of time? As the author points out, the “Alt Right” has far more in common with progressivism, than with true conservatism. I would welcome a clarification to the resolution. One which helps us all understand the dangers of this deceptive movement, but which does not leave those Christians who lean left, with the misunderstanding that Conservatives are hateful, or bigoted. That would seem to me to be the exact kind of Xenophobia we just denounced.

One of the reasons for such criticism is that Carter leaves the average white person in a dilemma. One the one hand, identifying as white is a sin:

White supremacy, white nationalism, and white identity are not all the same thing, but they are all equally repugnant….

At the core of the alt-right movement is idolatry—the idol of “whiteness.” In building their identity on shared genetic traits the alt-right divides humanity and leads people away from the only source of true identity: Jesus Christ.

If that is true, that even recognizing myself as white as opposed to Christian is a form of idolatry, what am I supposed to do if I am a Southern Baptist and read calls like this?

White leadership must be vigilant in yielding the floor to black voices, black language, and black tone on this issue in particular, regardless of perceptions or consequences. Right is right and it often takes authentic voices and types of expression to rightly convey it. Jesus said that if you enter a banquet do not seat yourself at the head of the table but at the foot. It is time for white leadership in the SBC to sit at the foot of the table and learn from their African American brothers and sisters how to rightly oppose racial injustice in this country. Including allowing for language and tone that may at times be uncomfortable.

Do I get to ignore this because I say I’m not white but a Christian? Or do I have to look around the room at skin color and come clean that I am white and so need to take a back seat to people of color? At that point, have I not committed the sin of idolatry by identifying as white? Something along the lines of doubly damned comes to mind.

Not to mention that whites and blacks talking about race often ignores Asians and Latinos. Do whites and blacks also sometimes need to sit at the feet of Native Americans or Korean-Americans? At this point, have we really heeded Paul that in Christ there is not Jew nor Greek? Or aren’t we simply a little late to the aggrieved minority party that Democrats have been holding since 1965?

Doesn’t the right side of history have an expiration date?