For whiteness is the mortar holding together the fortress of white supremacy, and if it crumbles, those walls will inevitably collapse. Because of its binding importance, the idea of whiteness has been, and remains today, vigilantly defended. In fact, virtually nothing has proven too costly a sacrifice on the altar of its defense: the bloodbath of the Civil War, the construction of a segregated education system, the creation of an apartheid Jim Crow system of laws enforcing segregation across all aspects of society, redlining real estate practices that divided virtually all of our major cities along racial lines, the development of a criminal justice system that disproportionately incarcerates millions of black men, and even the distortion of Christian theology. If one stops long enough to reflect on it, the ransom this fiction has demanded to sustain itself is staggering: the number of lives both white and black, the amount of money and cultural energy, and the disfigurement of some of our most precious ideals.
White supremacy lives on today not just in explicitly and consciously held attitudes among white Christians; it has become deeply integrated into the DNA of white Christianity itself.
That last statement, standing alone, sounds shocking. But an honest look at the historical arc of white Christianity in America suggests that we should instead be astonished if it were otherwise. For centuries, through colonial America and into the latter part of the twentieth century, white Christians literally built—architecturally, culturally, and theologically—white supremacy into an American Christianity that held an a priori commitment to slavery and segregation. At key potential turning point moments such as the Civil War and the civil rights movement, white Christians, for the most part, did not just fail to evict this sinister presence; history confirms that they continued to aid and abet it. The weight of this legacy is indeed overwhelming.
Writing in the mid-1960s, cultural anthropologist Anthony Wallace described Lost Cause religion as a revivalist movement aiming “to restore a golden age believed to have existed in the society’s past,” terms eerily close to contemporary calls by President Donald Trump to “Make America great again.” It is true that old-school Lost Cause theology is rarely aired in mainstream white churches today. But its direct descendant, the individualist theology that insists that Christianity has little to say about social injustice—created to shield white consciences from the evils and continued legacy of slavery and segregation—lives on, not just in white evangelical churches but also increasingly in white mainline and white Catholic churches as well.
To be sure, this theological worldview has done great damage to those living outside the white Christian canopy. But what has been overlooked by most white Christian leaders is the damage this legacy has done to white Christians themselves. To put it succinctly, it has often put white Christians in the curious position of arguing that their religion and their God require them to aim lower than the highest human values of love, justice, equality, and compassion. As antebellum Presbyterian preacher Donald Frazer argued emphatically, many abolitionists had the shoe on the wrong foot by pretending to be “more humane than God.” It was God’s law, not human conscience, that set the limits on the treatment of blacks by whites, he argued. Moral discomfort, even moral horror or outrage, has no place in this theological worldview. But surely it should give white Christians pause to continue to pledge allegiance to a theological system that contracts rather than expands our moral vision; that anesthetizes rather than livens up our moral sensitivities.
This series is framed for “fellow White Christians” but is a good survey of Critical Race Theory for everyone. It’s full of great quotes and links.
- The Christian and Critical Race Theory, Part 1: A Survey of the “Traditional Civil Rights Discourse” : The Front Porch “Traditional Civil Rights discourse predates and dispels allegations of cultural Marxism.”
- The Christian and Critical Race Theory, Part 2: The Segregationist Discourse and Civil Rights Retrenchment : The Front Porch “To tell the story of the rise of critical race theory historically, we have to consider the segregationist and anti-Civil Rights context that spawned it.”
- The Christian and Critical Race Theory, Part 3: A Bridge: Dr. Derrick Bell : The Front Porch “Bell’s work signaled a return to the more “radical” elements of W.E.B. Du Bois, Oliver C. Cox, Stokely Carmichael, and even Dr. King.”
- The Christian and Critical Race Theory, Part 4: Alan Freeman and the Contribution of CLS : The Front Porch “Laws reflect dominant social morality and power distribution. That’s why our laws are more likely to legitimize racism and racist systems than remedy them.”
They blamed students who lacked “grit,” teachers who sought tenure, and parents who knew too much. They declared school funding isn’t the problem, an elected school board is an obstacle, and philanthropists know best.
They published self-fulfilling prophecies connecting zip-coded school ratings, teacher performance scores, and real estate values. They viewed Brown v. Board as skin-deep and sentimental, instead of an essential mandate for democracy.
They implied “critical thinking” was possible without the Humanities, that STEM alone makes us vocationally relevant, and that “coding” should replace recess time. They cut teacher pay, lowered employment qualifications, and peddled the myth anyone can teach.
They instructed critics to look past poverty, inequality, residential segregation, mass incarceration, homelessness, and college debt to focus on a few heartwarming (and yes, legitimate) stories of student resilience and pluck.
They designed education conferences on “data-driven instruction,” “rigorous assessment,” and “differentiated learning” but showed little patience for studies that correlate student performance with poverty, trauma, a school-to-prison pipeline, and the decimation of community schools.
Masking the real history of high school in America also helps the DeVoses of the world obscure legitimate problems the education system has always faced—problems that have been deliberately created and maintained. Funding inequality and racial segregation are rarely the focus of these sorts of stories about an ever-unchanging educational system. The dominant narrative instead tends to point to teachers or curricula, or even bells and early start times, as the reason schools are “broken” and that students aren’t being adequately prepared for the future.
Unschooling flow: Twitterstorian threads on the birthday of Ruby Bridges -> Chapter 4 of “Democracy in Chains” on school desegregation and the Byrd machine -> Drunk History on the Children’s March -> Fables of Faubus by Charles Mingus
Thus, charters have become the white flight academies of the South. National corporations whose workforce is diverse should avoid North Carolina, to avoid humiliating their executives and other employees. Jesse Helms, George Wallace, and Storm Thurmond would be proud to see their dream of school choice and segregation revived in North Carolina.
The most salient feature of the United States Public School System – both yesterday and today – is naked, unapologetic segregation.
Whether it be in 1954 when the Supreme Court with Brown v. Boardmade it illegal in word or today when our schools have continued to practice it in deed. In many places, our schools at this very moment are more segregated than they were before the Civil Rights movement.
That’s just a fact.
But what’s worse is that we don’t seem to care.
And what’s worse than that is we just finished two terms under our first African American President – and HE didn’t care. Barack Obama didn’t make desegregation a priority. In fact, he supported legislation to make it worse.
Charter schools, voucher schools, high stakes standardized testing, strategic disinvestment – all go hand-in-hand to keep America Separate and Unequal.
If there is one unstated axiom of our American Public School System it is this: the worst thing in the world would be black and white children learning together side-by-side.
I think of “A Nation at Risk” as the Gulf of Tonkin incident or “Iraq has WMD’s” of education reform, a decades long war launched by a lie.
And like Vietnam and the Iraq invasion, “A Nation at Risk” was motivated not by reason or empirical evidence, but faith and ideology.
“Education is the civil rights issue of our time” has become such a cliché that our most recent three presidents have all invoked it either in spirit or using those exact words, as President Trump in his first joint address to Congress in 2017.
If this is true, we are fortunate to have a remedy for achieving equality, one that has been shown to work previously, desegregated schools.
As journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones outlined in a two part report on This American Life, “The Problem We All Live With,” the single greatest tool for shrinking the achievement gap is desegregation. It is also a solution which we seem incapable of embracing, as demonstrated recently by white parents from New York’s Upper West Side seemingly ready to riot over a proposal to make space for minority students at their high performing school. In these parents’ minds their children had somehow earned the right to a “good” school, and the mere presence of minority students would inevitably be somehow “unfair.”
And yet, research again and again has demonstrated that proximity to white students shrinks the achievement gap for minority students without harming the outcomes for white students.
Separate but equal has always been a lie.
The damage of “A Nation at Risk” is almost too great to reckon with. I believe you can draw a straight line between “A Nation at Risk” and the erosion of public support of public education until we have finally arrived at a point where teachers must put themselves on the line conducting wildcat strikes to save what needs saving.
We have the blueprint for pursuing equality. We had it in 1983 when a desired political outcome dictated policy and overrode the evidence. Hell, we had it 1954 with Brown v. Board of Education and we had it in 1964 with the Civil Rights Act. What needs to be done hasn’t changed. The question is if those in power will be brave enough to step back from the big lie and dig in on the much more difficult truths.