Tag: Race

“Racism as a Visceral Experience”: Ta-nehisi Coates’ New Book

This is one of the greatest sociological paradoxes: what we call race is an imaginary social construction and at the same time one of the most powerful forces shaping American lives.

Geneticists tell us that the commonalities of individual DNA run extremely high, that the characteristics we use to distinguish what we call race are widely distributive phenomenon. In short, race does not exist as a biological marker.

Race certainly exists as a social marker. It matters in a wide range of social dynamics, from criminal justice to schooling to employment to lifespan. Those social dynamics can be seen in differential rates of educational completion, of median income, of incarceration. Such data is readily available to anyone who will look.

The statistics depend on what we sociologists call The Ecological Fallacy — extrapolating from aggregated data to make sense of individual behavior. They call us to look for policy solutions without understanding how those social dynamics play out on the ground.

In May of 2014, Ta-nehisi Coates wrote a masterful work in The Atlantic laying out The Case for Reparations. In that 15,000 word article, he described the legacies of slavery, Jim Crow, housing policy, criminal justice policy, and much more. His work has been supplemented by a host of others, especially since the Baltimore protests, that illustrate the imbedded nature of inequality into our taken-for-granted life in America.


Now Coates has supplemented that structural work with a very personal view in his new book, Between the World and Me. Written as testimony to his then-15-year-old son Samori, it describes how Coates attempted to navigate the terrain of race in America. The title refers to the gulf that exists between the world he saw on television — of boys trading baseball cards and playing with cars in nice suburban houses — with his own reality growing up.

The book appropriately uncovers that fictions of race. I am, as he frequently writes, one-who-thinks-I-am-white. But Coates reminds me regularly that I am not. I am a member of the species homo-sapien and the fact that I have less melatonin than others does not change my connection to them.

To exert privilege based on race I must pretend that race exists in an ontological sense. The structural inequality that is present in society requires us to regularly affirm that fiction.

There is a further sense in which Coates’ book spoke to me. While my fiction of thinking-I-am-white requires me to play cognitive games, the reality of being black is experienced in the body as well as the mind. He writes:

But all our phrasing— race relations, racial chasm, racial justice, racial profiling, white privilege, even white supremacy— serves to obscure that racism is a visceral experience, that it dislodges brains, blocks airways, rips muscle, extracts organs, cracks bones, breaks teeth. You must never look away from this. You must always remember that the sociology, the history, the economics, the graphs, the charts, the regressions all land, with great violence, upon the body.

This bodily reality of one’s social location is daunting. Coates writes of how to behave on his boyhood streets of Baltimore with tough kids, of how to hold his body in school to show acquiescence, of how to protect his body against authority figures, of how to experience discipline in his home. All of them impact, limit, and threaten to harm the body. Such a visceral reality is as far removed from my experience as those baseball card traders Coates saw on commercials were from his.

The reality of real bodily risk as historical fact and always potential present is what drew Coates to Malcom for inspiration. The “arc of the moral universe is long and bends toward justice” doesn’t work for Coates. In part, this may be as result of his atheism which makes such grand hope just too idealistic. But as he said on Charlie Rose shortly before the book was released, it is also because everyone who fought for that justice died. Their bodies were broken and destroyed.

This is the story of Eric Garner, of Michael Brown, of Tayvon Martin, and so many many more. It is true that their deaths have raised social consciousness but change is slow. A man was shot to death in Cincinnati as I write this. He failed to stop for a traffic infraction (he was missing his front license plate) which ended in him being shot in the head as he fled. He had been in trouble with the law but the fact that his body was so easily put at risk is a key part of the story. This is why the police buying the Charleston shooter a burger before booking is so outrageous or why pictures of Texas bikers sitting on the curb is so jarring.

Social commentators may find it tempting to write of cultural dynamics, of family disruption, of black-on-black crime. But such arguments fail to address the basic fact that these dynamics of culture, family, and violence happen in other segments of society without death being such a likely outcome. They fail to consider how Coates himself is the product of educated, intact families, striving for economic success. They fail to address how Coates’ Howard University friend Prince Jones, the middle class son of a radiologist, could be shot dead at a traffic stop. If a highly articulate born-again leader like Prince would be seen as a body to be disposed of, what hope is there for a kid from Baltimore or Ferguson? What can Coates offer Samori except to learn to watch himself? Here’s his advice near the end of the book.

Perhaps that was, is, the hope of the movement: to awaken the Dreamers, to rouse them to the facts of what their need to be white, to talk like they are white, to think that they are white, which is to think that they are beyond the design flaws of humanity, has done to the world. But you cannot arrange your life around them and the small chance of the Dreamers coming into consciousness. Our moment is too brief. Our bodies are too precious. And you are here now, and you must live— and there is so much out there to live for, not just in someone else’s country, but in your own home.

I’ll be honest — this was a difficult read. It reminded me of how insulated and isolated my life is. But also of how I follow a Jesus who identified with those in need. Who worked for justice and righteousness bodily, including the sacrifice of his life at the whim of those in authority. Of how I should follow that path but so often fall short.

I do not experience the bodily threat that Ta-Nehisi Coates so well articulates in this book. But I need to be reminded of it. To put myself in that place where I’m aware of risk of harm.

Twitter seems to be in a state over the issue of #Blacklivesmatter or if we should say #Alllivesmatter. What Coates points out to me is that #Eachlifematters. Anything that puts that at risk must be confronted, especially by those of us who think we are white.

The Central Role of Imago Dei: My SAU Workshop on Race Relations

This week was the annual Focus series here at Spring Arbor. Our theme was “What is a person?” There were  no classes on Wednesday and there were extra speakers all week. Christian Smith came from Notre Dame and Cherith Fee Nordling came from Northern Seminary. In addition to the keynoters, several of us gave workshops.


My talk built on some things I’d been writing last fall trying to make sense of our responses to issues of Ferguson, Staten Island, Dayton, and Cleveland.


I was trying to wrestle with the question of why it’s been so hard for us to have meaningful conversations about the challenges of race, inequality, law enforcement, and culture.

The week before I attended a community meeting here in Jackson. The panel (12 participants) included representatives from four law enforcement jurisdictions, lawyers and judges, and community leaders. There were calls for improved relationship and deepened trust. But it’s still a hard conversation.


Conrad Hacket from the Pew Research Center shared a graphic he shown earlier in the year. It contrasted Ferguson news coverage on the cable networks with what was happening on social media during that week in August.


The top chart shows new coverage in minutes. The bottom shows the number of mentions on twitter. Before the first half hour of news coverage, there had been one million tweets. By the end of the week, the total hit eight million.

I shared two slides on books about Baltimore. The first comes from a trio of sociologists at Johns Hopkins. It followed a group of first graders through their growing up years (think Boyhood if the characters lived in lower class Baltimore). If the reality of this inequality is so stark, why do we not address it?


The other Baltimore book was The Other Wes Moore. It tells the life of Wes Moore, Rhodes scholar and intern to Condileeza Rice. It also tells the story of Wes Moore, who grows up a few blocks away in Baltimore and winds up in prison for armed robbery. What makes the stories so remarkable is that there were a few inflection points where their stories could have gone in opposite directions.


As I was organizing my thoughts for the workshop, my social media feeds kept providing further examples of the struggles we face in addressing issues of injustice. The week before my talk, the Equal Justice Initiative released their report on lynchings in America between 1874 and 1950. There were nearly 4000 during those 76 years, which comes out to about one per week if you do the math.

Slide07The day before my talk, Baylor announced that they were holding a symposium on the 100th anniversary of the Armenian genocide, where 1.5 million Christians were killed or exiled.


As I reflected on our anger, our silence, and our inability to move forward, I came to this recognition:


That realization took me back to earlier posts (see here and here) on Anthony Giddens and the sociology of “structuration”. His argument is that structures are both experienced and reproduced through interaction. One key mediating variable in this is language.


So if we are to move forward, maybe language is the key. Maybe instead of so much talk about culture or values or crime or fatherlessness or thugs, we need to find new ways of talking.


A key element of a new and profoundly Christian discourse is to really grasp what it means for others to be created in the image of God. As I’ve written before, I was decidedly impacted by Andy Crouch’s Playing God, which puts Image Bearing front and center.

Slide12 Slide13Crouch argues that our work as image bearers is to recognize and nurture the image of God being borne in those we meet. To fail to do so allows structures and powers to nullify that image. He writes of parents who have sold their children into labor or sex slavery and seems to echo the point that Antony Giddens would make about power and interactions.

Slide14Beginning with a search for the Imago Dei in the other puts us in a very different position from a lot of folks. Where they would rather go along with a crowd, someone has to stand up and refuse. But as Brian Zahnd argues in A Farewell to Mars, that can be risky.


To illustrate, I showed a clip from To Kill a Mockingbird (which had been on my mind). The night before Tom Robinson’s trial, the sheriff moves him back to the county jail. Some townsfolk show up to where Atticus Finch is guarding the door. The YouTube clips only start with the childrens’ arrival and what I wanted was when the men first show up. They tell Atticus to “get away from the door” because “you know what we’re here for”. It’s interesting to me that they never say what they want. The scene ends with Scout rehumanizing Mr. Cunningham (by seeing the Imago Dei in him) and the crowd disperses.

Slide16 Andy Crouch makes clear that the soul of justice isn’t simply improved living conditions but the restoration of the Imago Dei in the other.


I returned to Mockingbird to illustrate how Atticus Finch’s closing statement is an attempt to re-humanize Tom Robinson, to celebrate the Image of God present in him. But even the great Atticus affirms Tom’s image bearing by demolishing the image bearing of Tom and Mayella Ewell.

Slide19 Slide20

We take Atticus’ intentions and go one step further. We recognize that all others we interact with are bearing the image of God, however effaced or buried. Not just the victims of injustice. Not just those whose hands are clean. But everyone.

As we adopt image-bearing language about others, we may begin to weaken the structures in which we operate. We may find that the paths to new conversations. Real conversations on important topics. Conversations that may reshape the very social structures we seek to address.

Focus Workshop

Looking Back: Religion in 2015

December 2015

I spent some time looking over what I’d posted on this blog over the past 12 months in anticipation of one of those “best of” posts everyone is doing. I did learn how much the three themes of evangelicalism, higher education, and sociological theory showed up on the blog and how some of each were among my most viewed posts.

Then I thought about doing one of those “most important stories of 2014” especially after reading this post from Christianity Today. It asked four figures to list their pick for “best news” of 2014 that would shape evangelical life. Their responses were relations between evangelicals and Catholics (Geoff Tunnicliffe), WorldVision abandoning their same-sex marriage policy (Eric Teetsel), Ebola doctors and We are N awareness (Sarah Pulliam Bailey), and persecution breaking the reins of prosperity gospel (Russell Moore).

While I don’t have major quibbles with most of these (I have a hard time with the WorldVision thing), I immediately wondered what else was missing. What would others have responded? How would they articulate their choice? What sort of factors played into their perspective of what constituted “best news”?

Rather than adding my retrospective on what was important, which has the kind of safety found in Newsroom scripts retelling events long past, I thought I’d stick my neck out and write next year’s retrospective a year early. So, following in the tradition of Edward Bellamy, I pretended it was December 2015 and I could reflect on the major change stories in religion (especially American religion as it’s what I know best).

In no particular order, here’s my list:

1. The Rise of the Dones: While much of the focus in recent years has been on why millennials have fallen away from church in somewhat large numbers, this was the year when the evangelical church really woke up to those previously faithful members who just stopped participating. This was captured in research by Josh Packard and colleagues. These are individuals who are theologically orthodox and would show up as highly religious on a number of survey questions, but simply don’t attend church much anymore. They’ve heard it before and are pursuing other avenues for spiritual fulfillment. This group helps explain the significant gap between religious identification and church attendance in America as well as the increasing financial challenges for local congregations.

2. Pope Francis make life more difficult for Evangelicals:  His Holiness continued the housecleaning begun late in 2014, shaking up the internal organization of the Vatican and calling those in leadership not to see themselves as better than others in their flocks. This included some extremely strong words about the embrace of materialism and what sociologists call “conspicuous consumption”. Suddenly, the evangelical pastor asking for heightened levels of loyalty, a huge staff, lots of speaking opportunities, and large houses wound up in stark contrast to public images of what it means to be truly Christian. In addition, the pope’s openness to dialogue on the role of women, treatment of those outside the faith, and embrace of science made it increasingly difficult to take hard-line stances on social issues (even where simply quoting scripture worked in the past) unless one was willing to denounce an immensely popular spiritual leader as being an accommodationist.

3. Concerns over Race in America bridged theological barriers: As 2014 ended with sharp divisions on issues of race, it was religious figures from across the theological spectrum who began to seriously address the key questions. Prior separations between Calvinists and Arminians, between millennial bloggers and evangelical figureheads, between mainliners and evangelicals began to break down, at least for a time. There was a strong sentiment from African-American conservatives and young white progressives that one’s station in society shouldn’t be dictated by race and class. There was a dramatic increase in the number of voices willing to admit that something was wrong and that we needed intense theological and sociological conversations. This change put the evangelical church in the center of significant social change based not simply on secular values but imbued with a strong vision of God’s Kingdom at work.

4. Legalization of Same-Sex Marriage allowed real dialogue within denominations on marriage: With more states taking steps to institutionalize same-sex marriage on purely secular grounds, it created the situation where denominational groups could no longer treat the topic as an abstract proposition. Increasingly, people within local congregations were in same-sex marriages recognized by the state (and their employers). Churches held fast to self-determination on marriages within the church and there remain stark differences on the role of married, sexually active, gay clergy. But the societal shifts allow for real dialogue within major denominational groupings. While the year ended without any particular working consensus, earlier concerns about schism seemed to be avoided. One of the interesting positive outcomes of the shift was a real discussion about the role of family, commitment, fidelity, and affirmation of the image of God in all that had been sorely missed in “traditional family” discussions.

5. The splintering of the Evangelical voting block: As the pre-primary campaigns began to take shape in mid-2015 in anticipation of the 2016 presidential election, the old value-voters block of conservative evangelicals didn’t materialize to the extent that it had in the previous three presidential cycles. This was a result of three factors: more millennials involved in the political process, the inability of leading presidential candidates to speak to evangelical theological concerns, and shifts in major political issues from social concerns to economic concerns. Issues of abortion and treatment of the elderly were still highly valued, but other issues of immigration, family policy, minimum wage, and the social contract showed significant diversity of thought even among evangelicals. Candidates could no longer simply depend upon Christian voters guides carrying the day.


Some of this may be simply pie-in-the-sky thinking on my part. On the other hand, all five of my scenarios are based on a reasonable sociological reading of things already in play in late 2014. I invite you to tag this and come back to it in twelve months — I’m sure I will.

400 Years of Avoiding the Race Question

I decided that the focus of tomorrow night’s Race and Ethnic Relations class should be about the linkage between African American history and contemporary race relations, including the differential life outcomes that are so contingent on black/white issues. So I spent a good chunk of the weekend developing a fly-over version of African American history. I’m covering a period of 400 years in three hours. Forgive me if I overgeneralize.

I broke the history into four sections: Jamestown to the Emancipation Proclamation, Reconstruction to Brown v Board, Montgomery to the Voting Rights Act, and Affirmative Action (LBJ expansion) to Obama. In each period, one finds economic exploitation, political posturing, tensions between federalism and states rights, and occasional vindictiveness. Each time, someone takes a step to correct “the race problem” and then someone else reacts to that attempt. Eventually, the original attempt to improve the situation gets modified (emasculated might be a better word) by the Courts. It feels like little progress.

The use of executive action seemed to be a recurring theme. The Emancipation Proclamation itself, Truman integrating the military, Eisenhower and JFK calling in federal troops to force Southern school integration, or LBJ extending affirmative action as federal policy. This is understandable. It’s not hard to see how someone concerned about a situation feels willing to take a step to ameliorate the injustice.

Then I come to things like Reconstruction. What you have there is a vindictive group of Radical Republicans (not to be confused with today’s group) who wanted to punish the South for seceding. So they invoked laws that upset the racial order and imposed it from Washington. The minute that Reconstruction ended, Jim Crow laws start showing up to allow the South to do what they wanted and reassert self-management.

I looked at the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The former passed the Senate 73-27 but the South voted 1-21 against. Same pattern with the VRA: bill passed 77-19 with all 19 of the no votes coming from the South (if you count Robert Byrd in West Virginia). The outgrowth of this lopsided approach was Nixon’s “Southern Strategy” which kept race-baiting at the forefront of electoral politics and flipped the Dixiecrats into the Republican party.

Dred Scott
Dred Scott

Earlier courts went to extremes in the Dred Scott decision or Plessy v. Ferguson. More recently, Courts have consistently taken issues like affirmative action and then chipped away at its intent. In most cases, the rights of the privileged were given priority over the rights of the marginalized that the originally policies purported to address.

At the end of my review, I’m struck with a depressing picture. The African Americans who were supposed to be the focus of The American Dilemma, were used as pawns in battles between regions of the country or political philosophies. Little progress could be made because that would upset the balance of power that the factions were dealing with.

If I’m right, and I desperately need someone to tell me I’m not, then there’s little hope for positive change on issues of racial equality. Because the powers that be will keep pretending that they’re pursuing policies to help African Americans when they’re really trying to win a political battle that furthers their own power.

It will take a citizenry willing to say that racial inequality is unacceptable, that it is our future at risk, that we are willing to move beyond our own self-interests in pursuit of the common good. Not because that will show “those folks” in the South or the Republican party, but because our brothers and sisters of color require our action.

A Single Shade of Grey: Thinking about Race

The seven days since the George Zimmerman verdict have been characterized by frequent discussions of criminal justice and race. Surprisingly, some of the most analytical pieces I’ve read this week showed up on Facebook. Thanks to friends Chris Attaway, Geoffrey Mason-Gordon, and T.C. Moore for not only trying to explore a complicated issue while keeping their friends who prefer simple answers. All three forced me to clarify some of my own sociological perspectives. I’m using this space to attempt to coordinate those various thoughts.

The title of today’s post comes from comments made by Dr. Reece J. McGee, distinguished professor of sociology and Master Teacher at Purdue. I had the pure joy of being Reece’s TA for four semesters. Reece’s Intro to Sociology class had about 600 students per section, but it was still a warm and engaging space. Every semester, he would make the startling claim that he could solve the problem of racism is two generations. Simply adopt a policy that said that you could marry whomever you wanted, but if you wanted to have children you had to marry someone of another race. In two generations, he argued, the gene-pool would be so confused that race wouldn’t have the same explanatory power it currently has.

I always loved the argument, but now I’m not as optimistic. It’s not just that people draw cues from skin color. It’s that they seem somehow insistent on seeing things in black and white. Taking an issue as complex and emotional as race and converting it to talking points is absurd. The arguments only work if you completely abstract them from real life or if you generalize from single egregious cases. We seem to have a national fascination with polarizing the argument.

It is true that society is moving in the direction Reece was describing, even without a formal policy. The Census department reported in May that the percentage of marriages that were interracial or interethnic grew from 7% to 10% during the first decade of the 21st century. The story goes on to report that the percentage of unmarried couples who are interracial/interethnic now constitute 18% of all unmarried couples. These are significant steps in moving us toward a post-racial society.

And yet.

And yet we’re reminded that we still live in a society where the children of those marriages will still be seen as racially identified. Barack Obama is the first president with African ancestry (as far as we know), but we don’t often talk about him as a mixed race president of Kansas stock who grew up in multicultural Hawaii. He’s the First Black President. One of the interesting side-stories in Charlie LeDuff’s Detroit book is his discovery that his mixed race great-grandfather had declared himself white when moving from Louisiana to Detroit.

In a social psychological sense, Obama IS black and Charlie’s ancestor IS white. The treatment they received within the broader society was based on their physical markers. It’s how Obama recounted being watched by department store security guards (or even, in this amazing piece, mistaken for the help!). It’s how Charlie’s ancestor avoided the significant mortgage covenants and apprenticeship barriers that allowed to raise his family in a home he built in middle-class Detroit.

In his remarks yesterday, Obama echoed Martin Luther King’s “not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character” line. I always tell my students that you have to take the “I Have a Dream” speech in its entirety. The first half of the speech outlines the injustice that social institutions had foisted on blacks and talks of how the promise of “all men are created equal and endowed with inalienable rights” had been sent back marked “insufficient funds“. Then the second half holds out The Dream. We don’t get to choose half the speech. It’s not some smorgasbord of picking up ideas we like. We mix the black and white perspective and come up with a single shade of grey.

What does grey mean in the Martin-Zimmerman situation? It means that Zimmerman’s perception of what Martin may have been up to was impacted by the meme of a young black man after hours. It means that Martin believed that fighting back was the  option he chose in light of a general pattern of racial profiling (it’s why he didn’t go quietly). It means that Zimmerman’s perception of threat was high even before the altercation began. It means that Martin could be an aggressor AND a victim at the same time.

Acknowledging Grey means that we embrace the complexity that surround race in America. Comments like “what about the murder rate in Chicago?” miss the point. Accusing people of outright bigotry is unfounded. But there are issues related to black on black violence and drug trafficking. Not all residents of the inner-city are connected to those issues, however. My Detroit area students attest to that. So do many of the people described in LeDuff’s Detroit. Not all people concerned about affirmative action are racists. Some simply hold a high view of equality as defined in the 14th amendment.

We must learn to see the complexity that is present all around us. This is somehow hard for cable news, being so committed to black and white, sound bite, 140 character answers. (The twitter feeds following the president’s remarks were indicative as were the op-ed pieces). That’s where I find the blogosphere helpful. I keep finding people who are asking hard questions while grappling with grey-ness.

Christena Cleveland’s reflections in Christianity Today does a wonderful job of affirming differing perceptions while calling on those who experience the privilege of structural advantage to find solidarity with those who lack that same privilege. It is an expression of the Kenosis principle in Philippians 2.

Jonathan Merritt wrote on Thursday that Christians have a special role to play. He ended with this:

Post-racial America is not yet a reality, but I believe it is possible. May we—both Americans in general and Christians specifically—redouble our efforts to work towards justice and reconciliation. While the pundits and politicians will continue to take advantage of this controversy, let’s instead have serious conversations about education, the criminal justice system, racial profiling, voting rights, and civil discourse. Let us press on toward the world we desire but have not yet achieved.

The story of race in America has chapters about structural barriers of the past that stretch their tentacles into the present. It has chapters about personal tragedy and bad choices. It has chapters about overcoming obstacles. It has chapters about criminal laws that treat inner-city drug use differently than suburban drug use. It has chapters about an economics that favors the suburbs over the cities. It has chapters about generations of dependency.

If you put all these chapters in a blender and turn in on, what comes out is grey. Our only way toward a post-racial society is to embrace that reality and then work as if we really believe Galatians 3:28: There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.

The Kingdom of God is decorated in hues of grey.