Fifty-seven years ago (Dec. 18, 1963) Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. famously said the most segregated hour in our nation is Sunday at 11 a.m. It is still true today, especially in America’s South. Whether it is today “mere self segregation” or something else is not really the point. The point is this situation exists.
During the past 30 years, there has developed, beginning in law schools, a legal and sociological method of study that seeks to understand why troublesome issues of segregation and discrimination still persist. This methodology is called “critical race theory” and it is a well-established discipline. It is a critical analysis tool taught in at least 20 law schools across the U.S. and in many sociology, anthropology and humanities courses.
A thumbnail definition of critical race theory is that it is an approach to understanding race in America that uses a theoretical framework in order to examine society and culture related to how issues of race, law and power are formulated and lived in the real world. Critical race theory proposes that social problems are quite often created by collective social structures and assumptions, rather than simply by individual psychology and motivation. As the great English poet John Donne said in 1624, “No man is an island.”
The above observations might appear to many as something that simply comes from clear-eyed observation and common sense — something that shouldn’t be controversial. But that appearance would be wrong. This approach has recently become very controversial in the United States.
Last week, the presidents of all six Southern Baptist Convention seminaries issued a statement saying “critical race theory is incompatible with the denomination’s central statement of faith” (see The Baptist Standard, Dec. 2). These seminaries are the training colleges for Southern Baptist ministers. Also, to be fair, the same document states, “We stand together on historic Southern Baptist condemnations of racism in any form.”
However, the problem with their “condemnations of racism” is severe and twofold: 1) the Southern Baptist Convention was founded in 1845 by white Baptists in the South officially to separate from America’s other Baptists precisely on account of the Southern Baptists’ support for slavery; and 2) to this day, the Southern Baptist Convention churches are among the most, if not the most, racially segregated congregations in America. Despite the vast majority of Southern Baptist Convention churches being in the South with it’s very large African-American population, only 6% of the SBC is Black. Actions speak louder than words.
Some months ago, when President Trump ordered all racial sensitivity training sessions to be immediately shut down in all government agencies, his advisers undoubtedly told him to do this in order to provide a strong signal to his white Republican voter base that he totally rejects critical race theory’s contribution to our understanding of racial justice issues.
Let me be clear: I don’t deny there are practitioners of critical race theory and racial sensitivity training who can go overboard. That happens. Critical race theory has to be one tool in the toolbox. If the only tool a carpenter has is a hammer, he’s going to think everything can be fixed by pounding a nail harder and harder. Houses and people are more complicated than that. Critical race theory should not be pushed over into reductio ad absurdum; but with care and perspective, it is a highly useful tool.
Its most basic conclusion is that current race problems, such as mass incarceration, poverty, absent father syndrome, ghetto crime, institutional racism, police violence, white privilege, etc., have their ultimate origins in the complicated aftermath of 300 years of slavery and 100 years of Jim Crow laws and customs — all of which shaped, and continue to shape, the lives and psychologies of Black and white people in America. And we all need to understand this better in order to get along better. As William Faulkner said, “The past is never dead; it’s not even past” (“Requiem for a Nun,” 1951).
But what is it that makes Southern Baptists and so many American conservatives hate critical race theory so much? In their minds, this understanding of human relations belittles the individual and lumps people together in blocks or groups thereby, in their view, causing the fracturing of the social fabric. American conservatism and Southern Baptists have one striking thing in common: their unshakable commitment to the primacy of the individual. Everybody should attend to their personal relationship with Jesus, turn their lives around, and pull themselves up by their own bootstraps.
Well, the unfortunate truth is some have been so poor for so long that they’re now walking barefoot and don’t have a pair of even old, beat up boots — they don’t have bootstraps to pull. This is why too much emphasis on individualism is bad for a church and bad for a country. This is why the original form of 1st- and 2nd-century Christianity always strove to help widows, orphans and the sick; always welcomed everyone, free and slave of whatever ethnicity, into worship; and always shared a simple meal after every weekly gathering.
The whole purpose of a truly “Christian society” has always been to attend to the well-being of the community and the common good, spiritually and physically, while recognizing that all humanity are brothers and sisters to be respected and loved. This was revolutionary in the 1st century and is revolutionary today.
The value of critical race theory is, it gives us a tool to understand how far we have strayed from the path leading — if I may employ a famous metaphor — to the salvatory “narrow gate” and, once we recognize that, we can redirect our steps and walk as a community through that narrow gate, avoiding the perils of the other path to the other, wider gate. “For the gate is wide that leads to destruction and there are many who go through it” (Matthew 7:13-14).
Beginning Jan. 20, we’ll have a chance to make our way as a nation back from “finding ourselves lost in a dark wood where the right way is lost.” That image is how Dante opened the first lines of his masterpiece The Divine Comedy — the first part of which is titled “Inferno,” which is the Italian word for Hell.
Hell on Earth is where we’ve been headed for the past four years: toward a country based on distrust, hatred and bigotry, rather than a country based on good faith, love and understanding. We must never forget those are two opposite places, two opposite countries. We shall find redemption when we Make America Kind Again.
John Nassivera is a former professor who retains affiliation with Columbia University’s Society of Fellows in the Humanities. He lives in Vermont and part time in Mexico.