(photo right by Stephanie Keith Getty Images at CNBC News, taken morning of transfer of presidential power from Trump to Biden, January 20, 2021)
Colleagues, welcome. I am Mark Taylor and this course is entitled “Critical Race Theory as Theological Challenge.” I am joined in the course by Kwabena Sarfo-Panin who is a doctoral candidate in our Religion & Society Ph.D. program.
The course title indicates the task before us: to think carefully about race, and the white supremacy and racism congealing around the notion of “race,” all as a challenge to the ways theology is done, the ways Christians hold their beliefs and practice their faith.
So much feels new as I take up this class with you. This is not because the time has been long between the last semester I taught the course in Fall 2019, on the one hand, and today’s beginning in January 2021, on the other. No, the time actually feels short. Nor is it simply that so much has happened in the short time. What is significantly new, I suggest, is the number of transitions we find ourselves in today, transitions that force us, along with our nation’s peoples into a reckoning with our national past. This is a reckoning also with the global sovereignty that the U.S. as a nation claims in relation to other peoples of the international socius (the community of the world’s nations and peoples). And indeed alongside all these peoples we find ourselves related anew to the limits of our one earth, one variegated world of nature and its delicate ecology, the whole earthy matrix of our being. Our relations between one another are undergoing deconstruction and reconstruction. Our habitation with nature, climate and virus is under threat.
The year of 2020 has been tumultuous. Not only was it a time of our national presidential election, with multiple debates demanding our attention, as usually is the case in presidential campaigns. It was also a time when teachers of critical race theory, as I have been over the years, might be gratified to watch culminate the many rhetorical uses of the notion of “structural racism,” or “systemic racism.” One might almost fear, though, that the terms are now often used so much that they are neither adequately understood nor carefully explained; they might actually undermine our fight against the structural violence of white supremacy. Really, any “gratification” that a teacher might have over such usage is dwarfed by the horror and the disgust of a people that broke forth in some of the largest (if not the largest) and most sustained protest movements in U.S. history, referenced by many as “the George Floyd rebellion.” It addressed the ongoing and relentless wasting of black and brown lives. It brought forth with force a people of all backgrounds stepping forward to challenge white supremacy taking form amid policing and criminal justice, in the aggressions” of everyday interaction. (Referring to these is not just a “being woke.” It is to cite verifiable patterns of structural violence.) Movements against such violence now are moving the nation down new paths, even if the outcomes are uncertain.
Those movements were no simple 2020 flare-up. They were the culmination of decades and more of black and brown resistance in the U.S. and the America. We have seen that the previous president Donald Trump, whose first 6 months in office culminated in the white racist “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, tried to characterize the Floyd rebellion and accompanying protests (for Breonna Taylor, Perlie Golden, Tony McDade, Sandra Bland, Ahmaud Aubery, Natasha McKenna and many others) as merely the uprising of “terrorists” defying “law and order.” These protestors were thus deemed worthy, Trump signaled, of the rough treatment by cops and the special SWAT team operations of I.C.E. whose forces were brought from the border of Mexico to the streets of Portland. In this month of 2021, however, we saw what the face of domestic terrorism really looks like, as white supremacists, their protagonists, tolerators and sympathizers, assaulted the U.S. capitol. The FBI and others long have known that these white supremacist assault teams were the most serious terrorist threat to “the homeland.” As prisoner of conscience Mumia Abu-Jamal recently wrote, Trump’s presidency is forever bookended now, by the desperate Alt-Rite marchers revering General Robert E. Lee of the Confederacy around whose statue they gathered in Charlottesville of August 2017 – that being one bookend, and on the other end by white supremacists carrying into the U.S. Capitol their confederate flag, that pro-slavery rag that championed, and still sustains the dreams of whites who desperately want a white nation and the subordination of black and brown life here and abroad.
The celebrations yesterday of a new presidency, that of Joe Biden to follow Donald Trump’s was marked not only by a proliferation of black lives in office and in the celebratory proceedings of song, poem and prayer. Those celebrations also featured the vociferous acclamations of others in the new administration, from Latinx communities, also Asian, indigenous, as well as whites. Missing still, perhaps, is an affirmation of non-Christian brothers and sister, especially of the American compatriots who are Muslim, or generally from Arab and Middle Eastern backgrounds among U.S. citizens and residents. Remember how comprehensive the previous administration’s white racism was. From its earliest campaign to the present, Trump pursued a politics of belittlement and superiority, not only in refusing to denounce clearly white supremacy and its confederate legacy against black life, but by an ongoing anti-immigrant racist rhetoric, anti-Mexican posture, anti-Muslim, anti-African and Sinophobic and anti-China/Asian-Asian American references. To the end, Trump insisted on calling the COVID-19 outbreak the “China virus” as it took its disproportionate toll against black and brown lives and so many among all the poor. (See Johns Hopkins U medical studies that substantiate this).
This plight of disease highlights the other huge struggle added to the political and economic travail of our time: the loss of our sustaining relation to nature. Remember, the virus, the one that takes its toll now, and those to come in their mutant forms, are in large part due to our destruction of the nature system. As biodiversity of species is weakened by long-running processes of industrialization and unbridled corporate deforestation, the delicate life connections between humans and nature are destroyed – both pollution and disease proliferate. Paradoxically, we will need not just reason and science to aid us here, but also many of the other, more indigenous and earth-oriented politics of Africa, Asia and of the Middle East and the Caribbean if we are to restore our relation to nature. But that will require our rooting out the white supremacy in our midst, so manifest in the arch-racist president so loved by the Klan who labeled African countries “sh-hole countries.”
So, in spite of laying so many issues on the table, I do now return to the main concern of this course, that of race and white supremacy. But now I do so in this a more multi-issue context of concerns. Let me suggest to you that in this moment, as we stand between Trump supporters’ mob assault on the U.S. capitol on Jan 6 and yesterday’s beginning of a new presidency on Jan 20, which denounced the assault from the same granite steps of the Capitol where so recently hatred had rioted, that we face a moment demanding a special reflection. I suggest, we stand also between two types of racism. There are many different typologies of racism offered up in the critical literature. But two types may be important to recall now. I speak of a distinction between “illiberal racism” and “liberal racism,” a distinction elaborated by such political theorists as Aurelien Mondon and Aaron Winter. What you saw on Jan 6 was “illiberal racism,” as a predominantly all-white mob carried the confederate flag and with direct violence planned to disrupt an electoral process of the nation. This took place on the same day, I remind us, that the southern state of Georgia elected its first Black senator, Rafael Warnock. This “illiberal racism” is evident in the direct violent act done in the name of protecting white structures, and usually has a markedly authoritarian penchant for absolutist structures of national governance and religion. The other term, “liberal racism” qualifies as what sociologist Eduardo Bonilla-Silva terms in his book, Racism Without Racists, “color-blind racism.” It involves a kind of “abstract affirmation of such mantras as equal opportunity, all people having rights and opportunities that are correct. Without real and effective practice, it easily recites the constitutional creed, and maybe sometimes also religious creeds replete with notions like “we are all made in the image of God.” If racism persists, “liberal racism” often explains it away as a natural result of people of different “races” just preferring to be with each other. Liberal racism often explains away the inordinate but everyday suffering of racialized groups by shifting the blame to them, faulting them for “irresponsibility” or for deficient cultural predispositions (“laziness” and so on). And then it is often all too easy for liberal racism to say that, “well, any problematic persistence of racism is largely of the past. It will rear its ugly head from time to time, but it is minimal. “This is not who we are.”
But here’s the question I’d like to leave us with today as we begin the class. What if this is who we are as a white dominant society? What if the persistence of white supremacy in its ugliest forms is a manifestation of, or somehow lives in relation to, a vicious synergy with what we as a nation consider decent and civil in public governance and ceremonies? What if there exists even some lamentable deep connection between blatant white supremacy and the “antiracist training” industry sweeping corporate America and this seminary. Don’t get me wrong, I am for, have advocated for and will participate in the antiracism project underway at this institution. I personally and professionally need it, will benefit from it. We whites – we who can pass as white, or who “think we’re white” as James Baldwin put it – never outgrow our racism and system-wide white entitlement in its ever-changing modes. There are even ways in which our very attempts to deal with racism get played out – alas! – in our very anti-racist programs and planning. To see this kind of liberal racism often requires an international perspective, an awareness of how our racism is related not just to personal identity issues or to U.S. politics, but more to our sense of being a nation in the world, a nation that exploits its corporate and imperial power against weaker nations. And studying all that as a “white supremacist” formation requires a historical framework wherein the history of the rise of the U.S. nation is understood as a European and Euroamerican imperial emergence. (This is why we will begin with Yale University scholar W. J. Jennings’ book this semester on colonialism and Christianity.) Then we will begin to understand the full historical force of racism as “structural” and “systemic.” Then we maybe stand a chance of avoiding a kind of “liberal racism.”