Sonja from Women In Theology sent me this BLOG POST via e-mail. Although I posted on BIRTHERISM & THE MOVIE THE AMERICAN PRESIDENT YESTERDAY, I thought I would take the opportunity to explain how Critical Race Theory works (CRT), and its relationship to contemporary theology.
Charles Camosy, in the post linked to above, suggested,
“Though I’m obviously open to taking a different stand if more evidence can be presented that this is a special case of (even indirect or institutional) racism, in light of this evidence, I think it is important to hesitate to claim that birtherism is necessarily about racism. It might be just another classic example of the vile nature of our public discourse where one will resort to virtually any tactic to delegitimize their political opponent.”
One of the classic texts for CRT is Derrick Bell’s Faces At The Bottom of The Well: The Permanence of Racism. Camosy asks for those who adhere to CRT to prove with evidence (whatever that entails, numbers/statistics, videos exposing the birthers at Klan meetings ala Breibart style,etc.). CRT does not work this way. Our concepts of race, since it is a social construct, continues to change, and because culture (as post-colonial theorists observed) is just as fluid, racism does not rear its ugly head as one or two small fringe groups who are overtly racist, but rather come to us in the forms of traditions, with concrete histories and oppressive narratives. Bell puts it this way,
“Racial policy is the culmination of thousands of these individual practices [Bell names discrimination in employment and housing, which I would say are connected with education as well. How about cities that invest more tax dollars in the richer, whiter side of the railroad tracks?]. Black people, then are caught in a double bind. We are […] disadvantaged unless whites perceive that nondiscriminatory treatment for us will be a benefit for them (page 7).”
Bell continues that because America as a white liberal democracy was founded on the basis of protecting property rights, and property at that time included the bodies of enslaved Africans, survival remains blacks folks only hope in an inherently racist society (12). No matter how much “progress” is made in terms of rights, racial equality will always elude the communities of color; in short, racial equality, because of the historic political praxis of Washington D.C. as well as the state capitals, will remain an impossibility.
David Theo Goldberg, in his Racist Culture: Philosophy and the Politics of Meaning, argues that definitions of racism and racial expressions change as modernity changes (3). Modernity emerges in the sixteenth century with notions of private property, society fixed in bureaucracy, and closed societies where the ‘hidden hand of reason’ moves the world. While modernists are on a quest for universal truth and universal ways of being human, they, by necessity exclude those on the margins based on racial particularities. Think about the notion of a “mainstream” or “mainline” and what these words entail. Goldberg notes that in a “postracial” society,it “contradictorily [celebrates] multicultural diversity just as it rationalizes hegemonic control of differences , access, and prevailing power” (8). How Critical Race Theorists such as Bell, Goldberg, and Cornel West operate is not by giving numbers and statistics from this “neutral” stand point, as if racism could be measured by objective data in the first place. Rather, they typically quote prominent figures from different eras as well as the social mores and laws between the races. In addition, Goldberg provides the history of artwork and aesthetics as his primary examples to make the case of how fluid and pervasive racial exclusion is. For example, in ancient Greece, the barbarian was a distinctly political category for anyone without a state, i.e., sorta like a refugee. But as time passed by, in the Middle ages, theological categories became the norm, and the Other/barbarian became synonymous with monster (page 23). By the time that theology is overthrown by the sciences, barbarian becomes a racial category, as one sees in the works of David Hume, Voltaire, as well as Jeremy and Jonathan Bentham (33-35). Hume associated skin color with virtue, with the darker races being more susceptible to vice (29). These pseudo-scientific categories make their way into today’s world, with public school systems that see themselves as waging war against black and hispanic criminality (part of the Prison-Industrial Complex).
Goldberg extends Bell’s definition of what CRT does,
“As the formative rules are historically specific and thus subject to change, so, too, is the discursive object in question. Racism is not a singular transhistorical expression but transforms in relation to significant changes in the field of discourse” (42).
Racial categories are constructed and re-constructed though language games and cultural practices. So, for the purpose of this post, if one examines the Birther Movement for example, the practice of questioning the “americaness” of a man who is considered the Other is caught up in a history of racist cultural praxis. Nativism just does not come in a vacuum, but has a real historical context from which it commences. In the mid-19th century, a couple of decades prior to the Civil War, and ironically after the United States had made it illegal to transport enslaved persons from another continent, there was the Know Nothing Party which reacted against German and Irish (Catholic) immigrants. Racism and religious prejudices drove this political movement, so the Birther movement cannot be considered original by any stretch. In fact, according to the Know Nothing Party’s platform, the KNP vowed to protect Protestant interests, go to war versus “political Romanism,” and a repeal of ALL naturalization laws (clearly more radical than the anti-immigrant movements in Arizona). In short, to wax the McCain/Palin campain slogan, they were all about “Country First.”
This Protestant meta-narrative did not come out of thin air; one can go back as far as Martin Luther’s view of the “three headed anti-Christ” of Rome, the Jews, and Muslims to comprehend the racist religious worldview that under-girded the politics of the Know-Nothings. The apocalyptic vision of Luther and his followers would lead to an increase in openly anti-Semitic practices, and eventually, the Holocaust/the Shoah. Luther’s religion, the fate of the Protestant reformation was tied together with the fate of the German quest to unify; similarly, Manifest Destiny went hand in hand with 19th century Protestant revivalism.
Fast forward to the 21st century, and what we have from Birthers, with their leader Presbyterian Donald Trump, a secularized Protestant call for a return to Know Nothingness, with President Obama being considered a Muslim because of the color of his skin (remember, part of the tri-part anti-Christ was Islam– Orientalism is so much easier to get away with in the post-9/11 world).
As I mentioned in my post on Birtherism and The American President (the movie), I would prefer the Birthers to change the debate, and actually talk about policy differences. Birthers are no better than the progressives who refused to recognize President Bush after the Florida recount and subsequent Supreme Court decision. What theology can teach CRT is that God has made humanity in God’s image, and no one part of our identity should be the primary marker in which we are judged; likewise, CRT can teach theology the histories of racism that Christian doctrine has attempted to hide.
Today, I offer a rough draft of a working bibliography on Critical Race Theory and Theology. I invite readers to suggest works that I have excluded in these fields. Note: It is color coded for the purpose of reading the recommended texts together; the matching colors are organized with appropriate texts I believe it would be useful in reading together. If there are any suggestions, please email me, facebook message or twitter message me. I am open to criticism, but remember it is a rough draft.