We have made some progress on race in America, but we have so much farther to go, especially in regards to the ways racial inequity is perpetuated in cultural representations and social, political, and economic systems. Tim and Rick resume the conversation with James White and draw out a helpful metaphor for thinking about these issues on race: groundwater. They discuss steps we can take for having constructive conversations on race, especially where faith instructs us. They also revisit the importance of “perspective-taking” – i.e. the capacity to assume and maintain another’s point of view – for building understanding and empathy and making steps in the right direction. Listen in on part 2 of a 2-part conversation with James White.
James White: Until we engage conversations, admitting that we don't know then it's going to be very difficult to even have a thoughtful conversation. And much of what frustrates me is I see people, again, exchanging ideas without engaging one another's story.
Tim Muehlhoff: Welcome to the Winsome Conviction podcast. I'm Tim Muehlhoff for Professor of Communication at Biola University.
Rick Langer: And my name is Rick Langer. I'm also a professor of Biola University and also the Director of the Office of Faith and Learning and together we're the co-directors, Tim and I, of the Winsome Conviction project.
Tim Muehlhoff: This is part two of a series we're doing with James White, a dear friend, and also a person who has studied race. He teaches a class on social justice and race at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. He's been appointed by the Governor of North Carolina to head up the Martin Luther King Jr. Commission on race. He's been married to his wife, Cynthia for 33 years. They served on Cru for 19 years, including eight years at Howard University. James, welcome back.
James White: Good to be back.
Tim Muehlhoff: What a great conversation. I encourage our listeners to go listen to the first part. James, it absolutely reminded me of one of the most interesting classes of my PhD at UNC Chapel Hill with Michael Eric Dyson. It was fascinating. It was on the politics of gangster rap music. I have never felt more white in my life in that class, but he mentioned that there's two Americas and that for some people, the American dream is the absolute American nightmare for a large segment. I had never heard that kind of language before, until I got to UNC Chapel Hill. But you mentioned in the last podcast, this idea of frameworks that built into the structure of the United States, this idea of racism.
So let me frame it this way, James. Then we want to hear your thoughts. In my conversations with my white friends on the topic of race, a sticking point always seems to be the idea of systemic racism. Honestly, for many of my friends, it's a conversation stopper. They're like, "Listen, I think that's going too far. Yeah, racism sure. Probably was true in the sixties, but come on, systemic racism? That's just crazy." So can you very quickly define your understanding of systemic racism and then tell us what you think about.
James White: So first of all, can I very quickly? [crosstalk] That's part of the challenge. I mean, I think that's part of the challenge. We want to take a complex subject and simplify it so that everyone can understand. And we engage the subject with just the word ends up being a conversation stopper. Sometimes because of our lack of familiarity with it, or it's also a pattern. It's a pattern that we can have. It's so interesting to me, because when I look at it, you'd ask me about systemic racism and I'm going to get to that. But when I look at even the way we're responding to Black Lives Matter and other movements, is so strangely familiar to the way we responded to Paul Robeson, when Paul Robeson's ideas investigated Marxism. Well, but of course you can investigate something if the system of America is built the way it's built, but it doesn't mean you bought into it.
And even to not engage Dr. Martin Luther King, what did we do? He's a communist. But the King was far from a communist. Or we say he was a socialist. And so we have this same kind of conversation that comes up when we talk about systemic racism. I think one of the things is just listen to the word. A system, and what's difficult is so often we've approach race from an individualized stand point of, "I'm not a racist because I haven't used the N word." Some of my best friends have a relationship with people. "Hey, I know James White." And that's the [inaudible 00:04:17].
When you begin to talk about what we said earlier in our previous conversation, when someone doesn't even know about the middle passage, it isn't just that you came from bad schools. It's because perhaps systemically there's a part of history that we haven't wrestled with that might reveal some of the brokenness out of our American dream and our American heroic appeal. Some friends of mine described it this way. There's a interesting group called the Racial Equity Institute, and they have this whole thing called Groundwater.
And here's the approach, they said, "If you had a fish and you saw that a group of fish, that they were dead. The thing to do isn't just to pick up the one individual fish and go, 'Wow, what happened? We just need to get some stronger fish to be able to live in this environment.' No, the problem isn't the one fish that you examine, you take to the lab. Could it be that the real problem is the Lake and there it's not just the Lake, but it's even the groundwater that comes from a particular place that is now infected the Lake." What we've done when it comes to race, we look at the one individual. Again, my father, a racist idea, you got to be 10 times better.
But my dad is saying for me as the individual, I've got to change things rather than, "Son, you know what? This might be a struggle because there's an educational system that exists that you're going to have teachers that have never taught a young black boy. You're going to have teachers that have views and they were educated because the law was just passed in 1965. And it was just passed in 1967. And two people could marry from different races. So there's not something you can do, but there's a whole system that's been designed that really impacts the way race is viewed."
So taking the long look, it's going and walking on a campus like Biola. So let me just get real personal. And you may not like this, but I have to say the same thing, even at the institution where I'm an Adjunct Professor, that you can look at it and say, "There's just no smart black people. You just can't find them. We can't find any professors that are really qualified." Or you can say, "Maybe there's some systemic things that we put in place that have made it very difficult for black people to come and engage in this environment." And for blacks to... So maybe there's some systemic things rather than we just can't find any good, smart black people.
Rick Langer: Let me just pick up real quick on a note on that, James, is the ... I'm still ruminating on that metaphor of the Lake and the groundwater. I think it's actually supremely apt in this situation. And once you stop adding pollution to the water, I'm thinking of Lake Erie here, literally. We were talking earlier about we're all children of the sixties in that ballpark. I remember when Lake Erie was officially considered a dead Lake, because of the pollution that had been poured into it. And it's not like you suddenly stop polluting, pouring the pollution in on Tuesday and on Wednesday the Lake comes back to life or even you slow it down in 1970 and it's suddenly fine in 1980. It is a very long process of getting that quote out of the system.
And I feel similar to when I sometimes hear pushback, think of all the things we've done and think of all the things you've changed. And I'm like, "It's a little bit like saying we have reduced the amount of stuff we're putting into a Lake, but it's going to be a long time before the Lake is alive again. And it's going to be long time before the fish can flourish. And if you want it to be different, I'm sorry, but it's in the system. So to speak."
James White: Yes. Well said. Yes, absolutely. And this is what's difficult for us because the reason why there's often pushback, is also because once again, and I go back to the way we think, the way we process, the way our brains work. You're now asking me to study something that I've never really need. So now you want me to study how whiteness came about. And that's different, because that's the water. It's like asking a fish, "Can you tell me how it is, you're able to function here in the water and swim, eat." The fish is going to look at you like you're crazy. "What are you talking about? I hadn't thought about how I was able to swim in the water." And so part of what we see happening today, and this is where I think is the benefit of the amount of information we have, now we're going back and we're seeing, how did whiteness even get created?
And it's a recent phenomenon. We're not talking about until the 15th and 16th century. And so when you begin to think about it, you begin to look and go, "Wow. The first bad science was Johann Blumenbach, who comes up with the odd theory and Linnaeus and they literally formed the difference of these races based on skull sides." And you begin to look at that and you go, "Oh my goodness." And you begin to see Jefferson and his Virginia papers. And some of the beliefs that he felt his slaves were like animals. And you begin to look at this and go, it was the Virginia house of Burgesses that originally established this idea of white people.
And this is where you go back and you read Dred Scott and you see justice Taney's support, and you read Plessy versus Ferguson and you see Supreme court justices. It actually had these beliefs in the structuring laws in America, based on white. When that's even confusing, you go back to a 1923 Ozawa case where you had an Asian guy that was trying to prove that he was white. You look at our immigration laws and you see that that was fluid because there was a time when Irish had to pass the white test. Italians had to pass the white test. But you know who never pass, were black people.
Rick Langer: And it's also interesting, as you were talking about this, back to the issue of the systemic side of things. I think sometimes I hear people talking about the Supreme court Justices, Thomas Jefferson, or whoever they are. And if your only explanatory tool is individualized racism, then you have to tell a story about how evil Thomas Jefferson was and how terrible this man was and all this, because you're trying to think, how could a person possibly say this thing that he said. Where if you also have in your tool bag, and I am arguing, I guess, for both tools so to speak in the racial discussion, an individual and a systemic one.
But once you realize that, you end up educated in a system with a structure, a set of mental furniture you can use to populate your mental space about race that was given to you. You didn't create it all. And we have a different batch of furniture rattling around now that we keep changing. But these people were part of a structure that made it natural in some sense for them to think that way. And if we have to explain it all by individually, demonizing the people, then people get both testing. And I have to admit on my end, I become to think why I can't imagine that person having such a vast moral failure as you're describing them to be. The systemic part actually helps me understand and make sense of a lot of those behaviors.
James White: Right, and some of that has a lot to do with so much of our building of America is based on heroic appeal. And you can have a hero, but allow that hero to be human.
Rick Langer: Yeah.
James White: Which is what confuses those who are outside of the Christian face about us Christians, because we have a Bible that functions in a systemic way in order to understand it. And it gets very confusing. How you can have a Bible that has the most powerful civilization found in Genesis, that is Egypt. And yet you Christians still think that it was Charlton Heston or you think Moses somehow... And you're looking at this dance civilization, and you see the advanced civilization of the Egyptians, the Babylonians, and you even see locations in Africa. And you begin to go, "Wait a minute. How in the world did Jesus ever become white?"
How in the world did even the way I read the story and I miss, the greatness of the civilizations of Africa shouldn't have had to been taught in a black ancient history. The Christian church should've been the one to talk about the greatness of Africa. But yet we twist the story and we allow Christianity to be mixed with colonization and colonialism. And we miss, where even to this day, you have people who think that Africa and Africans didn't even get the gospel until slavery. And they haven't even read the Bible correctly.
Tim Muehlhoff: James, let me ask this. So I'm just thinking of what you just said in combination with our last podcast where you just shared heartbreaking stories about your experience in elementary school, things you saw on TV, your dad's saying you have to be 10 times better than anybody else. So it just feels overwhelming to me to listen to. So how does your faith help that this overwhelming sense of... To change a system, it's just above my pay grade. And so how does your faith help you in a daily basis get through sometimes difficult situations and memories?
James White: So this might not help your audience, and this is where your audience may misunderstand. But my true personal narrative has helped me with my faith more than what I could ever imagine. It's unfortunate that we've missed learning from people who were threatened by, for example, Dr. James Cone, The Cross and The Lynching Tree. So I think it's unfortunate that we've misunderstood some of the genius of even black scholars, like Dr. James Cone and show once again, we find a reason to discount what he's saying, and I get that because there's no one that I totally agree with.
It's always amazing to me, [Silas] Lewis is a classic work, but there's some theological things that Silas Lewis believed that some would call her radical, but we still keep mere Christianity on the shelf.
Tim Muehlhoff: Watch it, watch it. Careful.
James White: And so with Cone, when he compares the cross and the lynching tree, it really begin to help me see that even my story of suffering, even my story of challenge is in the scripture. Right now, I'm teaching, I'm doing a series because again, this time has got all of us confuse. And I'm doing a series in a place that I would've never... I had never studied this book. I've only read three verses, which most of us had done, in Lamentations. Study through Lamentations, it makes me love God even more, because here you have a guy that allows me to lament in the midst of church.
And when you look at the poetry of the painful reality of Jeremiah, he's even said in the book of Jeremiah, that, "Look, this is going to happen, you're not going to get out." He's prophesying about it. He knows what's going to happen, but yet it's still devastating for him. And when you have a faith that can deal with trauma and tragedy and triumph in the same space, then that's where hope comes. But I think we miss that. We miss that, because even in our way of looking at scriptures, sometimes our bias hermeneutic, we miss the beauty of what I grew up in, in the black church trying to offer in understanding lament.
Understanding the richness of scripture, and that my story is there without having to lift it up and take it out of context.
Rick Langer: Oh, that is so helpful.
James White: Yeah. So I find hope there.
Rick Langer: Yeah.
James White: Here's what's interesting though. I'm having to divorce myself from what I've seen is a wrong interpretation by many of my white evangelical brothers and sisters. I mean, I think it's unfortunate that nationalism that we see tied up scripture, and I look at it and go, "This isn't talking about America." But you go all the way back and you see how that happened as well, even as some justification of the church missing that we've always got to submit our story to scripture.
Rick Langer: James, before we draw this to a close, one thing that would be really helpful for us because we're doing this Winsome Conviction project and trying to help people have conversations. We've noticed that many of our listeners, many people we talked to have almost given up on the idea of being able to talk about race. They stay silent for fear of offending people of color. It isn't that they are trying to avoid the issue. They just felt like anytime we go in, we're going to end up getting killed. So let's just avoid the topic. So talk to us a little bit about things that might help. How can we have these conversations in a constructive fashion?
James White: Yeah. You know, I think part of it is, there are two conversations. I think when I'm talking with Christians, I have to remind Christians of when you look in scripture, even Jesus, when he engaged in conversation, he was able to die to his position. In other words, he didn't position himself in a superior way when it should have. I think of John, Chapter four and the Samaritan woman. I even think of his tolerance of the crazy questions of some of the pharisees. You begin to looking at it and you go in order to engage conversation, you end up where Paul models this, "I've been crucified with Christ. It's no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me and the life, which I now live in the faith. I live by the son of God who died and was delivered for me."
So this is where to do this. I think especially as Christians, we literally have to die to sell. And we do that as well, because I think the apostle Paul reminds us and he navigated some of the ways he navigated because of the contexts. But I think because of the context that we're in, we got to the need to be right. That also means as well that we got to understand our own story and engage this conversation. Here's why it's difficult for me to listen. Here's why, for example, these moments are traumatic for me. This has been a hard time, even physically, emotionally, and I'm glad that there's science that talks about trans generational, epigenetic inheritance.
And that's just the generational realities of our past affect us. So when everybody else is talking about Donald Trump, my man is going back to the fear that my dad had when George Wallace, who was the segregationist, when George Wallace ran again, third party, but he won three States. When I'm going through all of this, there are literal feelings in my body that I understand why it's difficult for me to engage someone who's white or someone who I know is Republican. And I read their first Facebook post, that I realize that this is hurting me physically.
I think the same is true for whites to say, part of this conversation makes me fearful. Part of this conversation makes me think, is it going to take violence to bring this guy into change? Because historically liberation typically only happens through violence. And part of me has to embrace, that engage in this conversation, I'm afraid because I can't see the end of that. So part of it is being truthful with where we are. And then here's the other thing, Tim, you modeled this in your last comment, when you said the reality is that I didn't know about this. Until we engage conversations admitting that we don't know, then it's going to be very difficult to even have a thoughtful conversation. And much of what frustrates me, is I see people again, exchanging ideas without engaging with one another's story.
Tim Muehlhoff: Yeah, that's so important, James. I think of a communication theorist who said, "You can't love me unless you know what hurts me." And this is what's overwhelming James, I think, and I'll just speak for myself. When I saw the movie, Amistad, and I saw a depiction of it that was horrifying, horrifying. Then you realize how deep the chasm is. Right? And then you're like, "What can we do?" I just don't know if I'm emotionally ready to open up the deep hurt of systemic racism of a civil war, of the middle passage. I mean, I just don't know if I have the wherewithal, but that's where Jesus says, "No, you need to lean in." And that's where Paul says, "You need to lean in. You need to weep with those who weep." So I love you bringing up lamentations.
I wonder if perhaps it would be good for me and some of my white friends to go through a season of lamenting, as we learn about the history of our country to lament. And just to say, these are past sins that we just need to lament and then seek to be change agents in the present. But I don't know if that's ever going to happen until our hearts are engaged.
James White: Well see, and that's the model that we have from what I think we miss in the black church, which is a whole nother conversation, is it in the midst of lamenting they were building. So that's the thing where we miss some of the lessons and I think he said something else too, Tim. And this is what I think we miss. Even when we talk about George Floyd and we talk about Brianna Taylor, when your first response is, "Well, wait a minute, he was a criminal." When your first response is, "Well, what does she do? What is the police report?" Then the question becomes for me, do you not believe that I'm human? Because if it doesn't break your heart to see a man who has children and to hear him cry out for his mother. If your first response is an analysis of what he did in his criminal activity, then I wonder, do you feel I am human?
And I think that's the question at the root of Black Lives Matter. People say, "Well, what do you think about Black Lives Matter??" I was doing Black Lives Matter when I was on staff with Cru. Why did we have an impact conference? Because we were trying to say Black Lives Matter. Why did we have to do contextualize ministry? Because when we looked at the whole landscape and the leadership approach, we would try to say Black Lives Matter. And when we met with any other [inaudible] of your organization, and then we saw that there were no professors who looked like us. We were trying to say Black Lives Matter.
When we looked at bookshelf and we saw that there were no authors who were writing. We were trying to say Black Lives Matter, because we're created in the amigo day in the image of God. So I was doing Black Lives Matter long before it was popular. It was just called black souls.
Rick Langer: That's an incredibly helpful image in terms of thinking about that. And I've heard many people talking about as soon as your movement or slogan or whatever, that's a terrible way to dismantle the power of the slogan. And you've done a wonderful job of, I don't think re mantling is a word, but anyhow, emphasizing the power stop and think, "Man, when, where and how have black lives been pushed out of our consciousness or failed to be able to be represented for all kinds of reasons."
Tim Muehlhoff: James let's end with this. As you were speaking, I was just thinking of the writer of Hebrews who says in Chapter 13, he says this, "Continue to remember those in prison as if you were together with them in prison and those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering." So I wonder if we as a white individual, if I engage in perspective taking, and boy, we could refer to Jesus. What he did was divine perspective taking, coming in the incarnation. But if I take time to not be defensive and to say, "If this was my elementary school experience, if this was my experience in watching television or the Floyd situation, what would that feel..." We call that in body perspective taking.
James White: Yes.
Tim Muehlhoff: Paul says in Ephesians, "I pray the eyes of your heart would be enlightened." That's all of you, intellect, emotions, volition your body. So I wonder if that's not a good place just to stop and to say, "But if this was my experience, what would that feel like? And how would that change how I approach a conversation with my black brothers and sisters." But that's an interesting challenge as we sadly wrap up. My goodness.
James White: But I got to say this. You just gave the key that I wouldn't want the audience to miss. Five times you used the word experience. One of the things that I am convinced of, and I do a lot of this work. You will not get this from a training. You will not get this from a class, but you will engage just when you have an experience. And so as we engage this kind of work, how do we create the experience? Because you just said that over and over again. I think that's the key. I think we keep waiting for the book to read. Sure. If you're got to read, read, Walk by the sun. Read books, listen to music that will give you an experience. I think it's going to take an experience, but a thoughtful, truthful experience as well.
Rick Langer: James, that's a great way to end our conversation. I wish we didn't have to draw to our close, but we are so grateful that you've joined us. Thank you. Thank you for the gift of giving us your story, of sharing that with us. I think for Tim and I both, as we talked about in the course of the earlier podcast, we resonate in part because we did grow up during the same times, but in some senses in different worlds. And it's helpful to take the trip to each other's worlds and super powerful stories that we're deeply grateful for. So thanks so much for joining us.
James White: Thank you. Thankful for the work that you all are doing.
Rick Langer: Thank you, James.
Tim Muehlhoff: I appreciate that.
Rick Langer: So thanks for joining us for the Winsome Conviction podcast. We'd encourage you to subscribe. Join us as we continue to do this. You can find us on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever else you might like to get your podcasts. And also take a look at the winsomeconviction.com website. We have a lot of resources for help fostering conversations that actually will deepen convictions without dividing our communities or our church. So we're grateful to have you joining us and we'd love to have you continued to be part of our mission, our ministry and our programs.