It is not inference or implication that “Critical Race Theory” strongly influences the thinking of Dr. Willams and Mr. Tisby. One can draw a straight line from “Critical Race Theory” to the way these men look at race, culture, politics, society, and the particular form of society that is the church. It is impossible to miss the reality that when they speak about racial reconciliation within the church they are borrowing the language of “Critical Race Theory.”
In the interests of full disclosure: First, I am a graduate of Reformed Theological Seminary. I received the M.Div. in 1972. Later I did all the classwork for the D.Min but never did the project so did not receive the degree. I admire the Chancellor of RTS, Dr. Ligon Duncan. I have never known anyone in whom was combined such intellectual breadth and acuity with practical ecclesiastical savvy.
Second, if a Baptist asked me where to go to seminary, I would without hesitation tell him to go to the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville. I can’t buy that a Baptist can be characterized as Reformed or Calvinistic, but within the Baptist circles, in the case of Dr. Mohler and those who agree with him, there is a measure of Calvinistic influence on the doctrines involving the salvation of sinners. I admire Dr. Mohler for guiding SBTS from moderation and compromise to a strong commitment to historic Baptist convictions about the the Bible, Christ, and salvation.
Third, I was a campus minister with Reformed University Ministries from 1977-84. During that time, when there were only 3 RUFs and they were on the campuses of the three major Mississippi universities, the group at the University of Southern Mississippi had an integrated large group and an integrated core group. If you would like to know more about that, you can read “Realism, Race, and RUF in Mississippi.”
Fourth, I used to be a Presbyterian and now am an Episcopalian. I remain a Calvinist because I believe the things believed by the reformers, primarily Thomas Cranmer, of the Church of England. I am a Prayer Book, Articles, Anglican. If you would like to know why I became an Anglican, you can read “A Canterbury Tale.”
Fifth, I am used to being in the minority. I was in the minority in the church of my birth, the Presbyterian Church in the U.S. I was in the minority for 40 years in the church of my Presbyterian ministry, the Presbyterian Church in America. I am in the minority in the church in which I now a priest, the Reformed Episcopal Church (see previous paragraph). My desire in these last years of my life and ministry to combine conviction with irenicism.
Sixth, the world I live in is the world of my denomination. But I keep up with what is going on in the Reformed and Baptist world for several reasons. I grew up and have lived most of my life in a world (once described to me by the pastor of a church in which I as a college student worked one summer) where the Baptists are like the kudzu vine. I also share with my Bishop having grown up Presbyterian, graduated from RTS, and spent many years in Presbyterian ministry. And I keep up with this world because I gather materials for a publication that serves this world.
So, if you are still reading, after all that introductory material, here is the concern I want to raise. Mr. Jemar Tisby is a Special Assistant to the Chancellor at Reformed Theological Seminary. Dr. Jarvis Williams is an Associate Professor of New Testament at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Both are greatly influenced by “Critical Race Theory,” are applying it to their understanding of the dynamics evangelical churches, and are using it to tell the evangelical churches what is required for “racial reconciliation.”
What is “Critical Race Theory”? Here is how it is described by the U.C.L.A. School of Public Affairs:
Critical Race Theory was developed out of legal scholarship. It provides a critical analysis of race and racism from a legal point of view. Since its inception within legal scholarship CRT has spread to many disciplines. CRT has basic tenets that guide its framework. These tenets are interdisciplinary and can be approached from different branches of learning.
CRT recognizes that racism is engrained in the fabric and system of the American society. The individual racist need not exist to note that institutional racism is pervasive in the dominant culture. This is the analytical lens that CRT uses in examining existing power structures. CRT identifies that these power structures are based on white privilege and white supremacy, which perpetuates the marginalization of people of color. CRT also rejects the traditions of liberalism and meritocracy. Legal discourse says that the law is neutral and colorblind, however, CRT challenges this legal “truth” by examining liberalism and meritocracy as a vehicle for self-interest, power, and privilege. CRT also recognizes that liberalism and meritocracy are often stories heard from those with wealth, power, and privilege. These stories paint a false picture of meritocracy; everyone who works hard can attain wealth, power, and privilege while ignoring the systemic inequalities that institutional racism provides.
Intersectionality within CRT points to the multidimensionality of oppressions and recognizes that race alone cannot account for disempowerment. “Intersectionality means the examination of race, sex, class, national origin, and sexual orientation, and how their combination plays out in various settings.” This is an important tenet in pointing out that CRT is critical of the many oppressions facing people of color and does not allow for a one–dimensional approach of the complexities of our world.
Narratives or counterstories, as mentioned before, contribute to the centrality of the experiences of people of color. These stories challenge the story of white supremacy and continue to give a voice to those that have been silenced by white supremacy.Counterstories take their cue from larger cultural traditions of oral histories, cuentos, family histories and parables. This is very important in preserving the history of marginalized groups whose experiences have never been legitimized within the master narrative. It challenges the notion of liberalism and meritocracy as colorblind or “value-neutral” within society while exposing racism as a main thread in the fabric of the American foundation.
Another component to CRT is the commitment to Social justice and active role scholars take in working toward “eliminating racial oppression as a broad goal of ending all forms of oppression”.  This is the eventual goal of CRT and the work that most CRT scholars pursue as academics and activists.
The Critical Race Theory movement can be seen as a group of interdisciplinary scholars and activists interested in studying and changing the relationship between race, racism and power…
CRT has more recently had some spin-offs from the original movement. Latina/o Critical Theory (LatCrit), feisty queer-crit interest group, and Asian American Legal Scholarship are examples of the sub-disciplines within CRT. These sub-disciplines address specific issues that affect each unique community…
Jarvis Williams is a graduate of Boyce College and holds the ThM and PhD from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Consider some things Dr. Williams recently wrote in Part 1 of “Why Racism May Defeat American Evangelicalism” published at The Reformed African American Network:
Prioritization of Whiteness
In mainstream American evangelicalism, whiteness is the privileged majority. By this, I mean those who identify as white evangelicals experience certain privileges by being part of the majority group in white evangelical and American culture.
By pointing out the privileges of white evangelicals in a predominately white and complex evangelical movement, I don’t mean to suggest white evangelicals work easier or are undeserving of the privileges and benefits they have received. Yet, one can work hard and still be the recipient of privileges and advantages because of one’s whiteness
In the American evangelical movement, white evangelicals still benefit from being in the privileged majority. If most of the privileged majority continues to think racism is not an issue in American evangelicalism, then the evangelical movement stands no chance at seeing holistic racial reconciliation within its churches, institutions, and communities.
White Colonization of Black and Brown Cultures
Certain white evangelical denominations have more black and brown members than others. The larger evangelical denominations tend to have more black and brown members than smaller ones. But black and brown evangelicals are still the minority in the American evangelical movement.
…That is, black and brown evangelicals who are members of certain predominate white evangelical denominations might feel the pressure to give in to predominate white cultural colonization.
Cultural colonization happens when members of majority cultures compel minority cultures (in this case, members of black and brown cultures) to conform to acceptable cultural norms of whiteness. This conformity can be seen when minority black and brown cultures identify with cultural whiteness and dissociate from aspects of their black and brown cultures to assimilate within the white, majority, cultural, Christian group.
One obvious example is when black and brown evangelicals begin to talk about race or racism against black and brown people in society or in churches, they…will often experience sharp resistance or be accused of being liberal, divisive, abandoning the gospel, race baiting, or playing the racial grievance card.
Because of this pressure, black and brown people might conform to the norms of the predominate white culture in these white spaces to gain acceptance. This conformity may lead them to adopt a colorblind view of race to maintain their social privileges in these white evangelical spaces.
Another example of cultural colonization is when those in predominate white cultures don’t accept the black and brown cultural differences as important, valid, or normal…but instead try to conform the black and brown person into the version of cultural whiteness in those predominate white spaces.
As a result, the black and brown cultures in those predominate white spaces may begin to self-hate or denigrate all things non-white. This includes the denigration of black and brown people in those white spaces who continue to maintain certain aspects of their cultural identities that in NO way contradict the gospel.
I’ve written elsewhere on the impossibility of colorblindness in a racialized society. Some evangelicals genuinely believe racial categorizations, distinctions, and classifications neither should nor do play a role in one’s decision making. This belief flows from the assumption that humans both should be and have the capacity to look beyond the color of one’s skin…
But colorblindness fails to take seriously the fact that we live in a racialized society, that we inherit racial and racist constructs knowingly and (sometimes) unknowingly, and that whites generally have benefited from racism in a racialized society in which black and brown people have been marginalized and denigrated…
Jim Crow laws are gone, but its racist ideology remains. Colorblindness allows certain white evangelicals (and some black and brown evangelicals) to ignore the disadvantages that non-white people have in society, and deny the advantages that certain white people have in society because of their whiteness. The ability to ignore racism and to deny its pervasiveness in American evangelicalism is a benefit enjoyed only by the privileged and those who benefit from the privileged. But colorblindness won’t lead evangelicals toward gospel unity and racial reconciliation in our churches, institutions, and communities.
The Reduction of Racial Justice to Liberalism
Certain evangelical contexts are traditionally conservative on social issues. In these spaces, the word “liberal” is equivalent to an apostolic “anathema.” To deflect attention from the racism and the racial divide in churches and institutions, certain white (and black and brown!) evangelicals would rather identify such discussions as “liberal” or suggest that race discussions play into the hands of the liberal idea of white guilt.
Evangelicals often reduce those who speak or write about racism or racial injustice as promoting a leftist, liberal agenda that is void of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Simply read the responses to numerous articles about race posted on this website in the past 5 years to see this point. A typical evangelical response to those who speak about racial injustice is slanderous accusations about their character and motives for doing so.
Yes, there are those who use race to advance certain political agendas and to divide people. But conversations about race aren’t ipso facto (inevitably) promoting a certain political agenda. If the majority of evangelicals are successful at convincing other evangelicals that anti-racist work should be denounced as a far left, liberal agenda that has nothing to do with the work of the gospel, then very few evangelicals will be motivated to engage in anti-racist work, because they will never see it as gospel work.These are four reasons American evangelicalism may lose the battle against racism on this side of eternity…
Jemar Tisby is a graduate of Notre Dame, holds the MDiv from Reformed Theological Seminary, and is a PhD student at the University of Mississippi. Consider these things written by Mr. Tisby in “3 Unhelpful African Americans Talk about Race”:
As African Americans enter into new levels of social and economic status, the solidarity that once defined us is being shed to reveal a diversity of thought that has always existed. Unfortunately, some of those thoughts, particularly about race, aren’t always helpful.
In recent years, I have noticed a different tone and tenor from some African Americans when they talk about race. I couldn’t explain the sense of disconnectedness and condescension I detected from these men and women, but it was there. Then I read an article on mic.com called, “Some Black Celebrities Just Can’t Stop Saying Messed-Up Stuff About Racism”. The author, Derrick Clifton*, talks about three ways Black celebrities enter into “troublesome territory” when talking about race. But I think his categories apply not only to celebrities, but also to many well-meaning Black people of all social strata.
We’ve all heard this one before, except we usually use it in reference to White people. But in a misguided attempt to transcend racial restrictions, African Americans, too, can claim “colorblindness.” In the article, Clifton cites actress Raven-Symoné (“The Cosby Show”; “That’s So Raven”) and her remarks to Oprah Winfrey as saying, “I’m tired of being labeled. I’m an American. I’m not an African American. I’m an American … and that’s a colorless person.”
The positive motivation behind claiming colorblindness as an African American is an attempt at letting character and actions define you rather than merely a racial label. But when Blacks claim to be colorblind, they often become blind to the ways racism has affected us in the past and continues to affect us in the present. More importantly, it is a denial of the glorious variety with which God made all people. Skin color, culture, and context aren’t ultimate, but they are important. The dizzying diversity of humanity is a reflection of the image of God. It is an image that will be perfected in heaven, not eradicated (cf. Revelation 5:9; 7:9).
“If Blacks would just pull up their pants, speak proper English, and respect authorities, most of their problems would go away.” So goes the line of reasoning for respectability politics. As defined in Clifton’s article, respectability politics is “the idea that racism will subside if black people perfectly embody values that fit with mainstream norms.” We have seen this angle taken frequently in the recent cases of fatal encounters between African Americans and law enforcement officials. Every case, from Trayvon Martin, to Mike Brown, to Walter Scott and more, has been cited as a case demonstrating that if the deceased had simply been good, upstanding citizen, he’d still be alive today.
There’s a positive manifestation of respectability politics. In the Bible, it’s related to wisdom.
Proverbs 1:7 says, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction.” In Proverbs 10:13 we find that “On the lips of him who has understanding, wisdom is found, but a rod is for the back of him who lacks sense.” And Proverbs 14:3 says, ”By the mouth of a fool comes a rod for his back, but the lips of the wise will preserve them.”
In a biblical sense, many people can be accused of foolishness; that is, a lack of knowledge or wisdom about how to live in God’s world. While foolishness does bring consequences, no amount of wisdom on the part of African Americans eradicates the evils of racism. First, we have to ask, “Whose respectability?” In other words, who sets the standard for what is acceptable? Some biblical principles are universal, but some aspects of culture are not inherently better, they are just preferred. Whose preferences get privileged?
What’s more, as Clifton states, “An exclusive focus on black people ‘bettering themselves’ or appearing flawless negates their humanity, shifting responsibility for racism away from the people and institutions that sustain it. Black people can be model citizens, even affluent ones, and still face the evils of racial profiling, police brutality and other encounters with racism.” All people should strive for biblical wisdom, but no amount of respectability will shield African Americans from racism or relieve racists from their responsibility for pursuing wisdom as well.
Classism as the New Racism
Some African Americans claim race is irrelevant because discrimination is more about class these days. Rapper Kanye West represents this view. He said in an interview, “Class is the new way to discriminate against people, to hold people down … to somehow say this person right here means more than this [other] person.”
Classism as the new racism is the least wrongheaded of the errors African Americans make when talking about race. Clearly, being rich or poor profoundly impacts your experience of life in the world. Even for African Americans, money gives you greater access to excellent education, expert healthcare, better food choices, and more. The error here is to say discrimination is only based on class. Race is a powerful factor, no matter how much money you make. Why do African Americans and other racial minorities face poverty at disproportionately high rates in this country? How does the history of race-based chattel slavery and Jim Crow segregation continue to affect the economic standing of African Americans? When it comes to classism and racism, it’s a both/and, not an either/or.
The New Black
I agree with Derrick Clifton when he says that these “statements appear out of touch and even dismissive of how many other black people deal with racism on a daily basis.” Attitude is important, but a change in mindset is insufficient to substantively reduce racial discrimination. Not only that, colorblindness, respectability politics, and classism as the new racism can shift responsibility for racist attitudes from the racists to the recipients. Everyone, especially Christians, has the command to love their neighbor. But in the attempt to focus on our own agency and potential, let’s not ignore the reality of imposed sin (i.e. oppression).
To counteract the mindsets described above, Clifton offers a final word of advice: “Lived experience, while irreplaceable and important, is but one part of the equation. The other part is a commitment to remaining educated and informed about issues that affect black people…More than anything, it’s a call for nuance, improved education and, ultimately, accountability.”
It is not inference or implication that “Critical Race Theory” strongly influences the thinking of Dr. Willams and Mr. Tisby. One can draw a straight line from “Critical Race Theory” to the way these men look at race, culture, politics, society, and the particular form of society that is the church. It is impossible to miss the reality that when they speak about racial reconciliation within the church they are borrowing the language of “Critical Race Theory.
A few questions:
1. Are the ways of looking at race associated with Critical Race Theory compatible with the views of our Lord and his Apostles? Or is “Critical Race Theory” a grid through which the texts of the New Testament are read by scholars such as Dr. Williams and Mr. Tisby?
2. Is what the Presbyterian Church in America and the Southern Baptist Convention mean by racial reconciliation what Dr. Williams and Mr. Tisby mean by racial reconciliation?
3. Re Drs. Duncan and Mohler: Do they (a) agree with, (b) are they concerned about, (c) or are they dealing with the views of Dr. Williams and Mr. Tisby in their institutions?
*Who is Derek Clfiton? “A native of Chicago, IL, Derrick operates as an independent journalist and communications consultant. Derrick is committed to engendering dialogues on the intersections of identity, culture and politics—from #BlackLivesMatter to #OscarsSoWhite. Oftentimes, Derrick engages online conversations to help people understand social realities. Derrick’s reporting and news analysis has appeared in various forms all over the media spectrum, including The New York Times, NBC News, MSNBC, HLN, The Washington Post, The Guardian, The Root, The Advocate, Quartz, Mic, Daily Dot, Windy City Times, and various National Public Radio affiliates. Derrick currently serves as a columnist for the Chicago Reader, the city’s alt-weekly of record, and received the 2016 National Association of Black Journalists Award for Newspaper Commentary. Clifton is alum of the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University, where they graduated with an MSJ. Clifton also received a B.Sc. from Northwestern University in Communication Studies, with concentrations in Political Science and Gender Studies.”
Bill Smith is a minister in the Reformed Episcopal Church. This article appeared on his blog and is used with permission.
[Editor’s note: One or more original URLs (links) referenced in this article are no longer valid; those links have been removed.]