My Ten Personal Reasons for Boycotting Racial Outrage
I choose to boycott the racial outrage over Charlottesville. I will issue no statement denouncing the rally, anybody involved in the rally, or any abstract labels like “white supremacy,” “racism,” “white nationalism” or “hate.”
Why? Partly out of skepticism. The media apply such labels promiscuously. We have many examples throughout history of early accounts being drastically inaccurate. I distrust every media outlet from Salon to National Review and cannot rely on their representation of events.
The Bible overrides noise in this debate. Paul said it best to the Ephesians, “All bitterness, anger and wrath, shouting and slander must be removed from you, along with all malice. And be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving one another, just as God forgave you in Christ” (Ephesians 4:31).
This may be hard to believe, but that applies to people you think are racist.
The death of Heather Heyer and the two policemen in a helicopter are human tragedies. I oppose manslaughter of innocent people in all forms. Over the weekend,though, my Twitter feed frightened me. I could not sleep. This situation feels different from others because we seem to have lost control of our hearts and minds.
Below are ten personal reasons for my boycott of racial outrage:
1. Some of the “Haters” are Just Terrified and Misguided.
In Charlottesville, various groups gathered. Some people now labeled as racists are probably not. I know, because I follow them on Twitter and read much of what they write. They are “pro-white” without being “anti-minority,” as hard as that may be for some people to accept. They seem to have grabbed on to this position out of defensiveness, since their own group is being vilified. A sad but human response.
They react to haywire identity politics by defending Western civilization, which I also defend. I know from my own research that African American, Latino, and Asian American literature descend from it. In other words, non-white Americans have as firm a claim on that civilization as anyone else. Multiculturalists who deny that are practicing their own form of segregation. But nobody talks about that. Nobody.
2. I Served in the Army Reserves.
My stint in the military forced me to rely on others’ actions. Many people in my unit held offensive racial beliefs and said things that would get them dismissed from job in academia. Some would be friends in the military context and would never socialize back home. Some would likely not allow their daughters to date me. Race was one among many factors that caused lives to become compartmentalized.
My strongest friendship was with an Irish Catholic from Oregon. My closest buddy in the Los Angeles unit was a black Muslim, but we worked alongside whites during battle assemblies without trying to separate ourselves on base. I took friendship on the terms offered. I didn’t judge people for the rest. Beneath layers of seeming estrangement these were real, complex people. I have taken that with me wherever I go. I know individuals by who they are, not by whether I like the way they view my ethnic group. Such experience makes alarmism about race feel petty and annoying.
3. I’ve Worked a Lot on Race.
I’ve paid my dues. I’ve published essays about racism on the left and right that have alienated people. When I’ve done so, I have followed the dictates of John 8: “The truth shall set you free.” I roll up my sleeves and engage institutions and political structures. At my current job I work with African Americans on urban issues and with Latinos on social issues. My salvation came in a Chinese Baptist Church in Los Angeles. At Cal State Northridge, my last job, I formed a proposal to diversify the curriculum, which had taken me seven years to prepare. One thing I’ve learned about race is that talk is cheap. Currently, for example, only 7% of full professors are black or Latino in the liberal-dominated academia, yet they make up over 30% of the U.S. population. Denouncing a parade? Hardly brave.
4. I’m Christian.
It’s wrong to call people you do not know “demonic,” “evil” or “wicked” based on hearsay. One of the Ten Commandments is, “do not bear false witness against your neighbor.” The famous rule from Leviticus is, “love your neighbor as yourself.” This includes apparently racist neighbors. Christians must practice the Gospel even toward people who cut unsympathetic figures. Remember “Love thy enemy”?
5. I Wrote The Colorful Conservative and Still Remember That Research.
My first scholarly monograph was Colorful Conservative: American Conversations with the Ancients from Wheatley to Whitman. I examined two black and three white American authors (1773-1871) and how they conversed with ancient sources.
The conversations with the past, I concluded, followed clear patterns. I suggested “colorfulness” was more important than “color.” I defined “colorfulness” as being an original thinker able to defy peers while still feeling irresistibly drawn to traditional inspirers. Someone of color might be predictable, conformist and drab. A minority might be blankly nihilistic and unmoored either to social conventions or to ancient traditions. A white person might be dashingly colorful, able to resist peers’ clichés while drawing from the great treasures of civilization. The book took me ten years to write and unfortunately I had trouble getting it reviewed by conservatives! But it drew me into a world where race, while never wholly irrelevant, became merely one of many things that could inflect a person’s voice. I walked away from that project able to let people dazzle me. Even if what they said was utterly reprehensible. As long as it carried a kernel of beauty. Racial outrage feels stifling, even suffocating, after that.
6. The Gay Left and Right Both Smothered Me in Unfair Labels.
GLAAD, the Human Rights Campaign, Right Wing Watch, Media Matters, and Southern Poverty Law Center have all labeled me “anti-gay” or “anti-LGBT.” I have seen firsthand what it is like when vast organizations slaughter you with labels. Because of that my antenna is up when labels like “white supremacist” become commonplace. Maybe some labels fit, but my experience demands I hold back from taking them seriously until strong evidence becomes available.
7. I’ve Studied the Puritans
If you read “Model of Christian Charity” by John Winthrop you find a proposal for a society based on Christian love, rather than rationally knowable justice. Sixty years after this was delivered, charity had turned into the witchcraft trials. As it turns out, when you create a political system based on “love,” you police people’s emotions and overanalyze the thoughts and feelings of others. You give words a magical power that only God has. You see witches where there are simply people whom you dislike. So I am wary.
8. I’ve Studied Edward Said.
Said’s Orientalism serves me in ways that would likely drive Said crazy. He concerned himself with the Arab world. His thesis was that Eurocentric racists imposed a false identity on Arabs using both military force and the power of prestigious institutions. Scholars became “experts” on Arabs and told them who they were — usually some inaccurate stereotype.
Like Foucault before him, Said stayed attuned to terms and classifications. He knew that these had the power to misrepresent people, dehumanize them, even leave them vulnerable to be killed. Whenever I hear leftists and establishment conservatives throw terms like “white supremacist” around, my Said alarms go off, this time in racial reverse. Look at the pictures of the white men marching in Charlottesville with luxury torches. They look pale, forgotten, beleaguered and lonely. They betoken a sincere fear that society will wash over them and leave them with nothing. They do not match the ominous severity of words like “supremacist.”
9. I Grew Up in Williamsville, New York.
When I was a child, my family lived in a small Republican village a few miles east of Buffalo. The population was over 90% white. I got beat up many times and stopped taking the school bus home by about seventh grade, for fear of getting picked on. “Spic” and “nigger” were terms thrown daily at me. It would take about 90 minutes to walk home from school to my house. During the long Buffalo winters I fell ill for months at a time.
Racism and fear pervaded our lives. But one found joy and love. Many people who held barbaric views on race would be the ones to help during times of trouble. My mother’s own (alas!) female lover was white and had some frightening views on race and IQs, but she was a kind parental figure to me. My favorite film, Music Man, reminds me vividly of that wintery town. Would I want to live in a Williamsville whose social fabric was ripped apart to remove all racists from it? No, I wouldn’t. Many “racists” were beloved people to me. Racism isn’t everything. I know that.
10. I Researched My Family Histories.
Of the many solutions one might ponder to racial strife, one stands out as a non-starter: just screaming louder at whoever we don’t want to deal with. We must deal with each other as we are. Christ told us to.
My father was Filipino and my mother was Puerto Rican. At the age of six, my father saw the Japanese raze his town in northern Luzon. My grandmother gave birth to my uncle in a ditch in 1941 as dogfights lit up the skies overhead. My mother’s ancestry trails backward gloomily to the Caribbean sugar trade. In her town, sugar was king and slavery was everyone’s history except the upper class. She had ancestors who were slaves and some who were free. There are a million kinds of suffering that have nothing to do with white supremacy.
Politics often has a personal element. Especially in race debates, we shout the loudest when our personal demons are most restless. But all of us are members of the body of Christ, with our flaws and strengths together. We must drive demons out of the whole body of Christ, not banish each other with our demons still trapped inside us. Of the many solutions one might ponder to racial strife, one stands out as a non-starter: just screaming louder at whoever we don’t want to deal with. We must deal with each other as we are. Christ told us to.