Whiteness is the crisis

A lot of times, when governments do horrible things, they can point to some kind of crisis. Maybe there is a war or insurgency going on. Maybe they are in the midst of an economic collapse. Maybe there is a major crime wave underway. In those kinds of circumstances, government officials feel entitled and even obligated to take extreme measures to get things back to normal. Sometimes they use the crisis to do something they wanted to to anyway, as with the Iraq War, but sometimes they are acting out of genuine fear and panic.

What we are seeing at the border today is not like that. The U.S. is in a state of undeclared war around the world, as it almost always is, but there is no substantial foreign threat to the U.S. mainland and no attempt to even claim that there is one. There are still economic problems, most notably wage stagnation, but unemployment is very low, the stock market is still booming, and the Global Financial Crisis is ten years in the rearview window. There is no evidence of an increase in attempted undocumented border crossings, nor of any crime wave associated with undocumented immigrants — just the opposite, in fact, as immigrants commit fewer crimes per capita than good old native-born Americans. Nor are we coming off a period of lax enforcement of immigration law, as Obama (shamefully, in my view) stepped up deportations to an extreme degree. And yet here we are, witnessing children, even infants, being torn from their parents for what amounts to a minor misdemeanor.

From any reasonable viewpoint, this policy is completely gratuitous cruelty. Yet from the unreasonable viewpoint of the racists in charge of our federal government there is an emergency underway: the U.S. is in danger of losing its white identity. Continue reading “Whiteness is the crisis”

Help me plan a module on Christianity, Race and Colonialism

This September I’ll be teaching my first ever completely self-designed module, and I’m pretty excited about it. The module will focus on Christianity, race and colonialism, and possibly for the first time ever when teaching I feel like the learning outcomes I have committed myself to actually reflect what I want the module to do:

By the conclusion of this module, a student will be expected to be able to :

  • Demonstrate a knowledge of the historical development of racism and colonialism
  • Demonstrate a critical understanding of key conceptual frameworks for understanding the development of racism and colonialism
  • Critically evaluate theological texts in light of historical and theoretical accounts of race and colonialism

I have a bunch of ideas, and am trying to figure out how to balance these three central elements – history, theory and theology – in assigned readings and classes, but would love to know: what do you think are the canonical texts, events, ideas etc for this kind of a module? Any and all suggestions gratefully received; I’m especially keen to find resources for engaging with the histories of slavery and colonialism outside of North America, and especially with the histories of slavery and colonialism in relation to the British Empire.

Some thoughts on affirmative action

Yesterday, we learned that the Trump administration plans to investigate “reverse discrimination” against white college applicants. As always, the very term tacitly admits that white racism against others is the standard or natural kind — and even they can’t quite bring themselves to call it “racism” without some qualifier (“reverse,” “against whites”). The attempt to root out discrimination against whites is delusional and it is bound to have negative results (if it has any results at all — it may be an empty gesture to placate the base). But at least among white commentators, it is very difficult to find a full-throated defense of affirmative action. In fact, many of the standard responses — “Trump benefited from affirmative action for whites!” — are implicitly (and I hope unconsciously) based on the premise that affirmative action is illegitimate.

I, for one, support affirmative action, 100%. I am happy for anyone from a disadvantaged group to be hired, promoted, or published over me. But no one can deny that affirmative action is intrinsically flawed on the level of strategy. It was bound to stoke a backlash, and that backlash has access to arguments that sound strong and principled to most white people. And it doesn’t even solve the root problem, which is unequal access to the resources that generate “merit” in our system.

The intervention comes too late, and in that respect it’s a symptom of American society’s tendency to try to solve all social problems by means of higher ed. I work in higher ed and it’s a great thing, but it is not up to the task of radically remaking American society and never will be. You can’t restructure the US economy using a mechanism that was originally created to reproduce and legitimate privilege. Tools can be repurposed, but there are limits.

Social theory, race, and theology

A basic principle of the social sciences is that systemic effects have systemic causes. A classic example is Durkheim’s Suicide, where he argues that none of the individual reasons that people choose to take their own lives can account for the suicide rate in a given society — only an analysis of the general shape of those societies can explain a fundamentally social fact like the suicide rate.

There is a conservative form of faux-social science, of which David Brooks is probably the most self-conscious adherent. It tries to appear that it has tracked down systemic causes for the systemic effects it bemoans, but in reality it is still performing a fundamentally individualistic analysis. Social forces mutate into social trends, usually of a highly moralistic bent. Hence a Brooksian analysis of suicide rates might say that people are becoming less optimistic, more despairing, less serious about their duties to others, etc., etc.

This looks like a social cause because it’s a generalization about a lot of people. But if we ask David Brooks what caused people to become less optimistic, etc., in the last analysis all he can say is that a critical mass of people up and decided to stop being optimistic. And how do we solve this problem? Through moral exhortation that will make people up and decide to have hope again. Continue reading “Social theory, race, and theology”

On the coming apocalypse

2017-03-14 07.59.23

Pictured above is the courtyard of my building. I cannot describe how relieved I am to see snow. Chicago has not had any significant snow through all of January and February — the first time this has happened in recorded history — and some days in February were warm enough that you could go without a coat. I grew up in Michigan and have spent most of my adult life in the Chicago area, so winter has been a constant part of the rhythm of my life. I remember walking to school as a child in the winter, and I pride myself on my skill in walking on snow and ice without slipping. Every year, I find that first blast of harsh unbearable cold weirdly refreshing. It gives me a gut-level sense of humanity’s place in this world: nature is under no obligation to us. Continue reading “On the coming apocalypse”

No lives matter

When it comes to real, tangible effects, human lives matter because other human beings say they matter. We can imagine that all lives matter from God’s perspective, but here below, mattering takes recognition. Mattering is not a given, but a historical outcome. For some of us, mattering comes easily. For others, it takes struggle. But in no case is it guaranteed. Even though I’m white, straight, and male as they come, with a credit rating that could move mountains, there could come a day when, in some concrete situation or under some political regime, I don’t matter anymore. That situation may be a hypothetical in my case, but for others, it is a daily lived reality. Everyone who is not a naive child realizes that there are lives that objectively don’t matter to American society, lives that society at large does not recognize as making any legitimate claim upon anyone.

One such group is the homeless. Individual homeless people matter to their friends and family. As a group, they matter to many activists and charity workers. But in the eyes of mainstream society, they don’t matter. Not only does mainstream society fail to set up an impersonal welfare mechanism that could eliminate homelessness at a trivial cost (after all, it’s not very expensive to make someone merely poor, rather than desperately poor). Mainstream society takes it a step further. It lays down spikes in secluded corners, puts in armrests to keep people from laying down on public benches, and criminalizes panhandling. What are homeless people supposed to do in that situation? Only one answer is possible: They should just disappear. They should stop existing. That’s how little the homeless matter to the most powerful institutions in American society (and in other Western countries as well). To say that the homeless do matter can only be a protest against a situation in which they objectively don’t, at least not to the people who matter.

So what happens when black people, seeing that there are so many ways in which they objectively don’t matter in American society, seeing that they can be essentially thrown in the trash and posthumously slandered to save the reputation of a trigger-happy cop, push back and assert that they do matter? What happens when they demand to be recognized?

They hear in response that “All Lives Matter.” And oh, what a pious thought that is! What a beautiful utopia it would be if all lives really did matter — concretely, in the real world of mutual recognition, not in some heavenly ledger.

In some contexts, “all lives matter” could function as a moral imperative, a harsh and urgent critique of our society. But in this context, even though it is saying something admirable (if vague), what that phrase is doing, what it is really accomplishing is a power play. By asserting “all lives matter,” the mainstream is effectively saying, “No, you don’t get to decide which lives matter. You don’t have the perspective or authority necessary for that. We get to decide — and what we decide must be best, as you can tell from the pious sentiment we are mouthing right now.”

In other words: “All lives matter — to the precise extent that we decide they do.” Only the first half needs to be explicit, whereas the second half is implicit in the very act of saying it. All it takes is a moment of reflection to realize this. But for many of us, black people apparently don’t matter enough to spare even that small solitary moment — even after years and years of pointless deaths. A black life does not even matter enough to think about the situation from the perspective of someone who has a gun pulled on them for no reason or from the perspective of someone who has lost that person, for no reason. Our own comfort, our own belief in the system that recognizes that we matter and therefore must be a good and wise system, matters too much to risk even that small solitary thought.

The White Christian’s Burden

This is the text of a talk I gave at Greenbelt Festival 2014. The theme of the Festival was “Travelling Light”; my talk was originally called “Travelling Heavy”, and I summarised it for the programme as follows:

Christianity doesn’t travel light. It is weighed down with history, much of it shameful. But if we don’t understand our past we can’t understand how it continues to form us, and we’re doomed to repeat the same mistakes. What would it mean for us to deal with the burdensome history of Christendom?


I want to start by telling you three stories, that may or may not be familiar to you.

The first story is about the 2014 Winter Olympics, which took place in Sochi, Russia.* Not long before the Winter Olympics took place, Vladimir Putin passed a law banning ‘non-traditional sexual propaganda to minors’, which is to say that there was a ban on anything that could be construed as pro-LGBT propaganda. It wasn’t very clear exactly what was being banned, or how thoroughly it was being banned; there was some ambiguity over whether wearing a rainbow lapel pin would count as propaganda to minors, and the Russian government said different things at different times about whether non-Russian citizens would be arrested for breaking the law. But there was a huge outcry in the UK and the US. Celebrities wrote op-eds. Stephen Fry wrote an open letter. Gay rights activists loudly argued that we should boycott Russian vodka, or even the Olympics as a whole. Lots of people I know, including lots of Christians, shared articles on Facebook and Twitter, and talked angrily about how terrible it was that Russia were doing such awful things to their LGBT population. Continue reading “The White Christian’s Burden”