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We Are Building Up A New World

Critical Race Theory’s Progressive Vision vs the Southern Baptist Convention’s Regressive Politics

By Johari Jabir|October 28, 2021

Some of the most important turning points in American democracy have taken place in response to Black social movements. Born out of Black labor organizing, these social movements have, at times, aligned with strains of the Black church to move the country to a critical crossroads. At such moments of social transformation, a conservative political block within the White Christian Church has succeeded in mobilizing fear against faith. In its devotion to white power and wealth, the White Christian Church has a longstanding practice of recycling through a catalogue of enemies; “abolitionism,” “communism,” “socialism,” and “feminism,” to name but a few. The current boogeyman in American Christianity is revealed in the Southern Baptist Convention’s (SBC) panic over Critical Race Theory (CRT). The river of Black struggle that produced CRT is resonant with the activism of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., whose legacy is often manipulated by the white moderate clergy within the SBC. However, King constantly challenged the legal and racist evils of segregation for which the white church was complicit. In his final speech in Memphis, TN., in 1968, King reminded America that Black people’s demand for democracy and equality was not out of the realm of the nation’s vision, but Black people were simply demanding that America, “Be true to what you said on paper.”

The SBC looks back to the early reign of Jim Crow to justify a regressive race theory, while CRT offers a progressive theorizing of race, one that moves the nation closer to its democratic ideals. Born in the decade following the Civil Rights Revolution of the 1960s, CRT is a theory/praxis-based tool used to dismantle racism embedded in U.S. law and enacted through policy and institutions. By the time CRT was firmly established in the early 1970s and 1980s, the SBC was reasserting its commitment to the subjugation of women, and renewing its support for white militant masculinity, the latter of which was intended to impact both the organization and the country at large.

Like many white leaders in America’s institutions the SBC’s leadership has a default relationship to the term “race.” For this constituency the term “race” is heard as a personal indictment of racism, thereby requiring defense and deflection. Such was the case when the SBC’s new president, Alabama Pastor Ed Litton summarized on NPR, “The reason we don’t first turn to CRT is because CRT doesn’t really deal with the origin of sin in all of us.” Even if one subscribes to the notion of “original sin,” it is evident by the social realities of stark inequality, violence, and despair, that invoking original sin is but a deflection from the racism that plagues America.

The Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) is not alone in its anxious response to CRT. White educators across the country have expressed their outrage over the teaching of CRT — as well they should, given their longstanding investments in sustaining the racial order as it currently stands. Neither the church nor the education system can be considered innocent victims of a critical race theory conspiracy. Both of these institutions have long been teaching a regressive race theory through the strategic use of historical erasure, invisibility, and a deafening silence when it comes to the colonizing racial violence at the core of America’s founding. This colonizing racial violence has never ceased to be the enemy of human freedom and democracy in America.

The social political context for the SBC’s panic over CRT is due in large part to the fact that so much has happened to “wake the children sleeping,” to borrow a gospel riff from my own Black working class Baptist background. An irreversible wave of resistance is taking place all over America and throughout the world. From the pulling down of confederate monuments to the breaking of legislative chains known as the filibuster. From the multiethnic coalitions organized against police brutality, to the trans-racial collectives demonstrating on behalf of climate justice. From the global insurgence of workers against ruthless profiteering, to the activism of transgender persons who demand their lives matter!

Reactions to CRT on the part of religious leaders and white educators have contributed to the gross conflation that all truth-telling about America’s racism and/or xenophobia can be blamed on CRT. This intentional misunderstanding is part of the misinformation campaign indicative of the Trump era’s brand of fascism. And it continues, as the Republican party is currently advancing legislation against the teaching of a concept they don’t even comprehend. “Ignorance,” wrote James Baldwin, “allied with power, is the most ferocious enemy justice can have.”[1]

The white clergy of SBC and educators harboring such vicious reactions against CRT may not, in the technical sense, comprehend what CRT is and does, but they do recognize the signs of a new alternative to the status quo.

The Christian Church overall remains an important religious institution in American society. Yet, the church makes little space and time for religion; for the contemplation of awe, wonder, and mysteries of existence. Of course, the often subtle but volatile demands of a society baptized in “the spirit of capitalism” can mask hyper-activity for religious piety, thereby leaving no room to consider our radical but sacred each-otherness. A similar statement could be said about the negative reactions to CRT on the part of white educators. By and large, white educators in southern states decry CRT in order to protect the unequal distribution of economic resources, a disparity of funding which is the direct result of regressive race theories mentioned above. Like the church, our educational institutions lack the commitment to making time and space to nurture the innate capacity of our students as people. Public education, one of the most important institutions in a democratic society, is especially compromised by the pressure to “make” the poorest students into competitive market-place subjects in order to justify the cycle of stigma and inequality. Let me be clear: CRT remains an essential tool for America’s religious and educational institutions. But in addition to CRT, a contemplative practice of pausing, listening, and learning that opens to loving will need to be institutionalized if we are to realize the goals of social justice and democracy.

The SBC and its allies stand with the rest of us amid the current moment of crisis, one that is also a crossroads in which, as Antonio Gramsci put it, “the old is dying and the new cannot be born.”[2]

The former anthems of Freedom are filling the air with new beats. We are not returning to normal, but we are building up a new world, the tools for which require the dreams and instruments born of truth, struggle, and righteousness. No doctrine, ideology, or clever theology will save us. Only the humility of our common suffering can enable the courage to face the painful wreckage of the past and use that pain to make the world anew.

[1] James Baldwin, “To Be Baptized,” in James Baldwin: Collected Essays, edited by Toni Morrison, New York: Library of America, 1998.

[2] Antonio Gramsci, Selections from the Prison Notebooks, edited and translated by Quintin Hoare and Geoffrey Nowell Smith, New York: International Publishers, 1971.

This article is written in tribute to Civil Rights activist, clergy, historian and theologian, Rev. Vincent Harding (1931-2014) and its title is taken from lyrics written by him. 

Image credit: Via creative commons.

Sightings is a publication of the Martin Marty Center for the Public Understanding of Religion at the University of Chicago Divinity School. It is edited by Alireza Doostdar and Willemien Otten. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Marty Center or its editors.

Johari Jabir

Johari Jabir

Author, Johari Jabir, is a contemplative musical artist and scholar with roots in the Black working class communities of St. Louis, Missouri. He is currently an associate professor in the department of Black Studies at UIC. His first book, Conjuring Freedom: Music and Masculinity in the Civil War’s Gospel Army, is published by the Ohio State University Press.