The Toxic Sludge in America’s Soul: The Tragedy of Systemic Racism

Ted Grimsrud—November 6, 2020

As I write this, Joe Biden nears the number of electoral votes needed to become President of the US.  Donald Trump is fighting all out to prevent that outcome, but at this point seems most likely to fall short. However, enough people did vote for Trump—millions more than in 2016—that the contest is close enough that the possibility of Trump’s success can’t be ignored. Something that troubles me deeply is the question of how the election could have been this close.

I suspect that to answer that question will require, among other things, a deepened awareness of American history. How is it that we have an electorate that would offer so much support for a vicious, incompetent, narcissistic individual whose most remarkable feature might be his utter lack of redeemable characteristics? There is literally nothing to like about Trump—no compassion, no empathy, no sense of humor, no insightfulness, no loyalty, no sincerity, no generosity, and nothing else that is attractive on a human level. Trump gained and sustained power by appealing to the worst aspects of this country’s character and ruthlessly exploiting the many weaknesses of its political system.

The Civil War, white supremacy, and their toxic legacy

As I have been studying the American Civil War and the “peculiar institution” (slavery) that triggered it—and the on-going legacy of both that war and its context of white supremacy—I have been impressed with a sense of this large chunk of the nation that has been resolutely opposed to recognizing the humanity of the people forcibly enslaved and exploited and their descendants. The persistence of that opposition is breathtaking once one notices it—and may in significant ways help explain our country’s current political brokenness.

I gained some insights from a book I recently read by Carol Anderson, a historian at Emory University, called White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Political Divide. I don’t particularly like the title, but there is very little else about the book that I am critical of. It’s a concise, highly readable, and actually quite level-toned summary of the persistent and largely successful ways that the United States as a society has refused to give more than a few inches to the efforts of many over the years to create a more just society. It tells the story of how the US has refused to implement the promise of a nation with liberty and justice for all.

As I read this book, I thought of our current situation where about 48% of voting Americans supported our current president, seemingly regardless of how cruel, destructive, and inept his leadership might be. The reading I have been doing lately related to 19th century America, especially focused on the lead-up to the Civil War, the war itself, and its aftermath, leaves me with a strong sense of a deep-seated intractability of white supremacy regardless of how cruel and destructive it might be. Anderson’s book provides a kind of bridge account, showing how the toxic sludge of 19th century Slave Power never went away.

Continue reading “The Toxic Sludge in America’s Soul: The Tragedy of Systemic Racism”

A social gospel for the 21st century: Drew Hart’s creative synthesis

Ted Grimsrud—September 3, 2020

In his new book, Who Will Be a Witness? Igniting Activism for God’s Justice, Love, and Deliverance (Herald Press), Messiah College theology professor Drew Hart has given us a much-needed theological resource for embodying the way of Jesus in our troubled times.

A theology for Christian social engagement

The most attractive aspect of this engagingly written book is how Hart synthesizes three streams of Christian theology: (1) a Jesus-centered biblical radicalism that has a visionary suspicion of the mainstream Christian tradition, (2) a socially-engaged sensibility shaped by the black experience in America (a legacy Hart calls “the black prophetic tradition”), and (3) an Anabaptistic orientation that emphasizes the call to transformative nonviolence.

While Hart writes explicitly as a black theologian, what he provides is not a narrowly focused “contextual theology.” His first book, the well-received Trouble I’ve Seen: Changing the Way the Church Views Racism, focuses on the African American context. This new book, Who Will Be a Witness?, may in turn more accurately be understood as a much broader Christian theology of social engagement that Hart constructs through the lens of the black Christian tradition.

Thus, Hart’s book may be seen as a contemporary expression of what theological historian Gary Dorrien presents as “the black social gospel” in his recent magisterial two-volume history of that tradition in the United States. Dorrien argues that the black social gospel has been a perspective that speaks to all Christians with a profound awareness of the concrete relevance of the Christian gospel for life in this world. Like the great practitioners of the black social gospel such as Howard Thurman and Martin Luther King, Jr., Hart gives us a powerful challenge for all Christians to understand that at the very core of our faith lies a call to be an active presence in the world witnessing to God’s work of justice and healing. Continue reading “A social gospel for the 21st century: Drew Hart’s creative synthesis”

Thinking of the United States as foundationally racist [American politics #5]

Ted Grimsrud—June 29, 2020

People in this country have greatly differing deep-seated views of the very meaning of the story of the US. I suspect these differences make achieving healing amidst our current crises extremely difficult. This is true especially as related to what the great thinker W.E.B. DuBois in 1900 looked ahead foresightedly to call the problem of the 20th century—the problem of the color line (from The Souls of Black Folk). This problem clearly remains one of the main problems of the 21st century, and it affects all our other crises.

Two versions of the story of the United States

Let me suggest that, even with all our diversity, we think of two main general perspectives on the United States story that are held by those who oppose racism and see the legacy of slavery in this country as a bad thing. The first perspective sees the United States as foundationally and systemically racist from the beginning down to our present day in spite of scattered attempts to move toward freedom for all. The second perspective sees the United States ultimately as a nation of freedom and justice, in spite of scattered missteps along the way. (I recognize that there are some in the nation who are not all that negative about either racism or slavery; my concern here is with people who would say racism and slavery are bad.)

The term “racism” is complicated—and later in this essay I will probably make it even more complicated. For now, I want to use “racism” in the sense defined by Ibram X. Kendi in his book, Stamped From the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America: “My definition of a racist idea is a simple one: it is any concept that regards one racial group as inferior or superior to another racial group in any way. I define anti-Black racist ideas as any idea suggesting that Black people, or any group of Black people, are inferior in any way to another racial group” (p. 5).

My thoughts about these two perspectives were helped by a recent essay by Masha Gessen, “Why are some journalists afraid of ‘moral clarity’?” (on the New Yorker website, June 24, 2020). Gessen interacts with commentator Andrew Sullivan. She summarizes Sullivan’s description of the first view (which he opposes) that sees the US as “systemically racist, and a white-supremacist project from the start.” In this view, “the ideals about individual liberty, religious freedom, limited government, and the equality of human beings” were always secondary to the white supremacy project. “The liberal system is itself a form of white supremacy—which is why racial inequality endures.”

The second view (with which Sullivan agrees) tells the story of the United States as “primarily one of a nation of immigrants, the story of a society that, over time, enfranchised an ever-greater number of its members, and where the arc of history has bent toward justice.” This view then assumes a legacy of progress even against racism, witness the Civil War and the Civil Rights Movement. Continue reading “Thinking of the United States as foundationally racist [American politics #5]”