Tim and Rick continue the conversation with Dr. Theon Hill (PhD) on the topic of radical rhetoric, and they press into the role of rhetoric in contentious issues such as critical race theory. The conversation draws out the importance of knowing the backstory, the role of the Academy on current issues involving race, and the problems that ensue when we treat people as “already read texts.” Dr. Hill rounds out the time by providing insight on how to engage others charitably on hot issues. This is part 2 of a 2-part conversation with Dr. Theon Hill on radical rhetoric.
Theon Hill: So many people have not read the primary sources, and for me as an academic, what I want to do is always say, "Wait, where are you getting this knowledge from? Where are you getting this information from? How do you know that this is true?" We want to challenge the common sense logics that are dominating our society, because we understand that there's a difference between common sense and good sense.
Rick Langer: Welcome to the Winsome Conviction Podcast. My name is Rick Langer, the co-director of the Winsome Conviction Project, along with my friend Tim.
Tim Muehlhoff: Thank you, Rick. We've been having a fascinating conversation with Dr. Theon Hill, who is a rhetoritian, communication professor at Wheaton College. Theon, thank you for joining us. It is sobering what you've been having to say, and it made me think of this. I listened to an interview that you did in 2015. You were just finishing your first year at Wheaton, and if you took the names and just swapped them out. Right? If you took out Freddie Gray and put in Floyd, George Floyd, it was the exact same set of circumstances and concerns that we're dealing with presently. I suspect we could go back to 1995 and swap out names, and we're talking about the same issues and the frustrations. How do you navigate that? That it seems like we are moving at a snails pace. I can't imagine the fatigue that you must feel, because it doesn't seem like we're making much progress in these conversations.
Theon Hill: Yeah. When we're talking about that question of progress or perhaps the lack thereof, I think you make a good point, in time that we can go back to 2013. We could go back to 1992 with Rodney King. We could go back to Emmett Till. We see this repeating itself over and over again, and I think for many of my white brothers and sisters, they'll be frustrated at times when they hear black people like me say something along the lines of nothing has changed. They'll look at the fact that I can drink out of water fountains. I can be a professor at a place like Wheaton College, and they'll say, "Well, clearly some things have changed," and they're not wrong to note that there have been changes, but I think what they failed to see in replying that way is we've not seen a fundamental change in the way that certain lives are valued in the U.S.
I mean, we're really upset about the death of George Floyd, but it's not terribly different from what happens to Eric Garner, and you've seen a habitual approach to devaluing black and brown bodies that contributes to the exhaustion that you're describing among black people in this moment. One of the things that I always point out in response to that is, it's always interesting to me, given the legacy of racism and white supremacy in the U.S., that you've never seen the equivalent of a black Al-Qaeda materialize. You've never seen a concerted effort to engage in acts of domestic terrorism against the white majority. Many people will hear that, then they'll immediately respond, "Well, what about Malcolm X?" I was like, "Well, Malcolm is about self defense, Black Panther Party's about self defense. They're actually not engaging in acts of aggression against white America," and I think that says something a lot about the psyche or the culture that often operates in many black communities.
There's this almost messianic hope. You hear this in the music, when Curtis Mayfield says, "Keep on pushing," you hear Marvin Gaye asking, "What's going on?". You hear this in the soul era and in the hip hop era that we don't know what's going to change, but something has to change. I call that messianic, because what are the Jewish brothers and sisters challenged to do? There's no evidence in the face of Roman domination that something's going to change, but there's always this hope that somehow, some way, somewhere God is going to show up. And we see this kind of messianic hope surface in both secular and also sacred spaces of the black community, and I think that's what sustains the community in the face of the lack of progress that you point to.
Tim Muehlhoff: Yeah. Rick, I think we've talked a little bit about... and Theon, I do not want to compare the two, but there's a weariness on the other side when it comes to our fellow white dominant colleagues and friends. Right Rick? Just a little bit of a weariness of like, my goodness, we're talking about this and we think we've seen progress, but maybe the African American community doesn't think we see progress, and so I think there's a little bit of a weariness on the other side. Right Rick? Or...
Rick Langer: Yeah. Let me just pick up a thread on that. I think there's definitely the kind of weariness that Tim just described. Kind of just the brute fact of, "Yeah, here we go again, but let me nuance that a little bit.
Theon Hill: Sure.
Rick Langer: One of the concerns that.... and I will put myself in this personally at this point, because I have felt this. During the civil rights era with Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, you mentioned Black Panthers, that whole season. There was a whole set of clear legal issues that because they were clearly legal issues, seemed to clearly need a legal solution. If you know what I mean?
Theon Hill: Sure. Yes.
Rick Langer: We had laws, that I had an aha moment. I grew up in Boulder, Colorado, and it was... There might have been a black person in the city. We weren't sure, so that was my world. Tim grew up in Detroit, very different, but I had this aha moment when I talked to a guy growing up in the south when he told me about segregated swimming pools. I was like, "What?" I was in my, probably, mid twenties or somewhere in that ballpark, and it was just inconceivable to me that that was actually, not so much that it happened, but it was actually legal.
Theon Hill: Yeah. Yeah.
Rick Langer: The legal solution, I'm like, "Man. Yeah. Did we need that? Absolutely." The thing that I'm worrying about now is that we keep coming up with... We keep wanting to amp up, perhaps the legal social policy corrective, and I'm going, "Unfortunately, what I feel like we've done is we've scraped off a bunch of those things." It's, to me, at least pretty hard to find these laws. I'm familiar with some of the analysis of systemic racism, how it doesn't have to be explicitly worded in the law to have the racist implications, which is a great point.
But I worry that some of the things we're most concerned about are unfortunate things that are at least susceptible to solving by the blunt instrument of tighter and tighter laws, or more restrictive social policies, or things like that. In fact, those things may be more likely to foster resentment and backlash than actual change. Backhanded part of that is that... Perhaps I'm really saying is, "Wow, this is really a message that the church should be more concerned about," because we're really worried about residual issues in people's hearts that are manifesting in really bad ways.
Anyhow, I have this anxiety about keeping up the hammering on some of the social policy issues that just ends up producing not what we want it to produce in the actual change. Whereas, in earlier seasons, that was exactly what needed to be changed.
Theon Hill: Sure. Yeah. That's a wonderful... I appreciate you raising that prompt, brother Rick. I might respond, it's important to remember that even when we saw many of the policy shifts during the civil rights movement, many in the black community were dissatisfied with things like the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act. They felt like they hadn't gone far enough, and so what happens at the end of the civil rights movement, is the nation at large is tired of talking about race. Kind of like we are now in terms of like, "Okay, we've had a season of this, but we're ready to move on now." Even while civil rights leaders like King, the Black Panther Party, we have both integrationists and nationalists trying to figure out how do we get people to continue caring, because there's still so much work left to be done?
As we're moving into this moment, it's like, "Well, there's still disparities in healthcare. There's still disparities in education. There's still disparities in employment," and I agree. Your point is well taken that I think there is a specific role for the church, but I might suggest this, if the church was actually willing to take up its role, some of these public policy initiatives wouldn't be so hard to pass. If I can just use this quick example, like I always use this with my students, if I entered their final grade incorrectly and I just say, Hey, they come to me, "Hey, you entered our... I should have gotten an A and you gave me a C." "Oh my goodness. I'm so sorry. I entered your grade wrong." How many students would be satisfied with only an apology?
No, they're not, because that poor grade is going to have implications for their ability to get into grad school, to get into certain jobs, depending on what kind of field they're going into. The implications are going to extend beyond just getting an apology. I think that's what America and the church wants to do with the legacy of racism and white supremacy. We want to say, "That was the past, we're starved for it, but we don't want to deal with the lingering implications of that legacy.
Rick Langer: Yeah. I think that's a great point, and I think that is the concern. Let me take something that's just come up recently. I'd be intrigued to hear your thoughts about this. Relative to COVID and a lot of conversation about how COVID has been kind of a systemic racist disease. I don't know what other way to put it.
Theon Hill: Sure, but the disparities getting...
Rick Langer: It's a weird way to put it.
Theon Hill: Yeah. But getting the disparities and how it highlights them. Yeah.
Rick Langer: Yeah, yeah. Yes. Correct. Which I would certainly not deny the statistics on the point, but the question is what do we do about it? It was interesting here in California, a lot of conversations about the vaccine and reporting there were simply disparate rates of vaccination in the black community compared to the white community, in particular Asian, Latino, whatever.
Theon Hill: Sure.
Rick Langer: Let me just tell you what went on in my mind when I was reading some of this and give me a response.
Theon Hill: Sure.
Rick Langer: I was like, well, so I had had conversations just earlier with someone about the Tuskegee Airmen and other just terrible things that have happened in our research process, "Hey, we're just starting to figure out how to cure syphilis. We had to do it somehow," and it's like, "Wow. Okay." I'm pretty open to a black person saying, "Yeah. It's really cool that you guys think you have a new COVID vaccine. I'd love to have some white people try it out first." I'm kind of like, "Okay, I kind of get that," but the way weird thing is when it comes back and then says, "Well, why is it that 30% fewer people, black people or people of color, have had the vaccine than the white people?" I'm like, "Well, is it possible it's because..." And [inaudible], it is a systemic historical problem, but at this moment, it may be being expressed by a free choice of members of the black community to say, "Wow, I don't want to go there. I'm not sure I trust these people."
That is indeed reflective of a deep problem, but do we solve it by saying, "Okay, we're going to slow down the distribution of vaccination here until it gets picked up there?" That's where I begin to go, I'm worried we're trying to solve it with the blunt instrument of social policy, as opposed to either lamenting it or saying, "Man, next time around we're going to have to have a different world," because I understand why people don't want to get it, but the bottom line is this is a really good vaccine. It's weird. We feel trapped, I guess is what I'm saying.
Theon Hill: Yeah. I think, to that point, you're really capturing the tension there. We want to try to make sure that some of our underrepresented populations and historically disenfranchised populations, particularly black and brown communities receive the vaccine, but there's also deep distrust of the medical establishment, so how do we do that in a way that's equitable and perhaps profitable?
One of my frustrations with how we've rolled out the vaccine is not that I think we need to slow down distribution in this area in favor of maybe giving added vaccines to this other area, but how are we trying to roll out the vaccine in a one size fits all manner that fails to account for historical trends. It's kind of like we're rolling it out there and saying, "Black people here it is, come and get it," but we're not at all realizing the fact that it took us to the 1990s to even admit that the Tuskegee experiments were wrong. There's a reason why there's a deep distrust and it's not just those historical reasons, but if you look at some of the medical journals today, how do doctors and health professionals communicate with black folks as opposed to other populations? So there's reasons why they're suspicious.
Does that mean we just throw up our hands and concede defeat? No, it means that we need to develop and commit the resources to reaching those communities where they are. One of the things that you've seen people do in Milwaukee and in Chicago is they're actually trying to take the message to black barber shops, because they understand that's a major information hub within the community. "Hey, here's the reality of the vaccine. Here's what you can expect. Here's why you should get it," and they found success, because they're actually targeting the response to the communities they're seeking to reach. Now, we can target to any particular community and I think we do that frequently, but I would say we need to have greater emphasis on having targeted responses that account for historical and contemporary realities.
Tim Muehlhoff: Theon, I think this lays out a great communication principle that you need to know the back story of why people react the way that they react.
Theon Hill: Yes.
Tim Muehlhoff: I'm thinking of Proverbs 20:5 that says, "The purposes of a man's heart are deep waters, but one who has insight draws them out." To understand something like vaccination rates within the African American community, if we don't know the history, then you just react to the present and maybe misinterpret actions, so I think it's so good to step back and say, "I need to understand the full history and the context by which you're being placed into before I overreact by just looking at the present."
Theon Hill: Right, right. We have to understand before we judge.
Tim Muehlhoff: Oh, that's great. Well said. Hey, let's talk about the academy just for a little bit.
Theon Hill: Let's do it.
Tim Muehlhoff: We're all professors. What role should the academy play in the current conflicts over racism in America? Is it doing its job? And if so, what is its job? Or is it missing the boat?
Rick Langer: What is our job?
Tim Muehlhoff: What is our job?
Rick Langer: If you can clarify that first, we'd really appreciate it.
Theon Hill: In my opinion, we need to try to eliminate the divide between academic forms of knowledge and the popular forms of knowledge that circulate on social media platforms, so I think one of the areas where we can see the role of the academy, are really surfacing in important ways, is going to be the current debate over things like critical race theory. I was recently talking to a group of individuals about critical race theory and it's like, "Well, I just don't want anything that tells all white people that they need to hate themselves." I was like, "Where have you found that? What have you seen about that? Tell me where you're finding this at?"
My point is that so many people have not read the primary sources, and for me as an academic, what I want to do is always say, "Wait, where are you getting this knowledge from? Where are you getting this information from? How do you know that this is true?" We want to challenge the common sense logics that are dominating our society, because we understand that there's a difference between common sense and good sense. Just because it's accepted, doesn't make it right. Hopefully, as academics, we're critically engaging the dominant ideas of our day in a way that serves both the church and our communities and exposes them to the truth in a way that can have a transformative presence in our communities.
Rick Langer: Have you found people to be nuanced allergic when you try to do this?
Theon Hill: Oh, ain't nobody trying to study facts right now.
Rick Langer: I have just been amazed at how hard it is to say yes and... Well, yes and, and trying, complexify an issue that is actually complex, so I guess I don't really have to complexify, just report, but I've been stunned when I try and have a conversation. Partly as you mentioned, "Hey, have you actually read any of these sources? Here's some things that are said." There seems to be a great impatience about pushing back, and I've tried to do things in the middle a lot, so I've discovered this both on what you might call the progressive and the conservative side, that it's like, "Don't give me that stuff. You're being obscurantist," or whatever the accusation might be.
Tim Muehlhoff: Theon, this goes back to your definition of rhetoric, going back to that 2015 interview where you said that, "Rhetoric creates a reality and that all of us view facts through this created reality," so this goes right back to your critical race theory comment. When a person says, "I'm opposed to critical race theory," it'd be so great to do the backstory of okay, and what does that mean to you and where did you get that reality from?
Theon Hill: Exactly. Yes. Yes. What's informing your approach to this, because if we think of it is the socially constructed reality, then rhetoric becomes important, because it's rhetoric that shapes that reality, so if I understand how I'm using words and how I'm using discourse, then I can actually construct a reality or hopefully deconstruct a reality in a manner that makes positive change possible or allows to use y'all's podcast title, Winsome Convictions to flourish.
Rick Langer: Wow. That was a nice plug, man.
Tim Muehlhoff: Wow, Theon, thank you.
Rick Langer: Thank you.
Tim Muehlhoff: Your check is in the mail, Theon. We'll send it right to Wheaton. But what you're saying is incredibly helpful, that we... And because we don't have time, because we're engaged in what Nicholas Carr calls "Power browsing," it is amazing how we have very passionate convictions, but then later realize how skewed they've become, because we've gotten our news from one particular source. We heard a sermon. We didn't read a book about critical race theory. We read a critique of critical race theory, and found that critique to be compelling and don't feel the need to read another critique.
Theon Hill: I think this is exactly what the late Barbara Johnson, literature scholar, calls it, we treat people as an already read text. I'm actually not going to take the time to engage you as an individual. When I engage you, what I'm going to be using is all of my existing stereotypes, prejudices, and biases to inform my judgment of you, so you're already read as far as I'm concerned, so I don't need to think critically, engage deeply, or reflect thoughtfully about who you are, what you believe.
Rick Langer: Wow. That is a great image. I love that phrase, "Treating people as an already read text," which by the way, now that I think about that one, I've noticed for me, I read a lot of things. I forget a lot of things and I kind of half remember a lot of things, and that half remembered category is my most dangerous one.
Theon Hill: Yes.
Rick Langer: Just your, Plato said this somewhere, didn't he? Then I quote like he really did, but I can't really deliver the goods on that, and then I go look it up and I'm like, "Oh, well, he kind of said that, but not really." I think we do this with, as we were talking about, anything from critical race theory, to theory of evolution, to fellow Christian, "Oh, Calvinists say this," not that my friend Tim would ever say anything disparaging about Calvinism, but I'm like, "Well, could we slow that down a little bit?" I think I know where you got that, but I think you're already read is actually a slightly forgotten and partly read at best.
Theon Hill: Yes. Yes.
Tim Muehlhoff: Theon, can I throw a hypothetical to you and just tell us how you would respond to it?
Theon Hill: Let's do it.
Tim Muehlhoff: Okay. I was working out with an individual, a male high school teacher, and we just got to talking about teaching, and the challenges of teaching and here is what he offered. I literally left my workout, grabbed a pen and wrote it down. He said this, he said, "It's kind of hard to teach when you've got something like critical race theory that teaches us to hate white people."
Theon Hill: Oh, wow.
Tim Muehlhoff: Okay. Think of everything we just said about rhetoric creating a reality. Okay. Let's say that's a real life example and you want to engage this person. What's your opening? How do you structure it in a way that this won't deteriorate into argument or a negative communication spiral? How would you actually, practically, what's the next couple things you're going to do when hit with that, such an uncharitable view of a complex theory, like critical race theory.
Theon Hill: What I would probably try to do is shift the attention of the conversation into an example that allows the person to understand critical race theory in a manner that's deeper than what they're expressing at that time. Let's just say I'm talking with your workout partner in this conversation. I might say, "That's interesting." I think one of the things that something like critical race theory might be concerned with takes us back to the integration of baseball, so we have Jackie Robinson integrating baseball, and America is just celebrating it because it shows how much progress we're making on racial fronts and how we're moving past some of the bitter bile of the past, and we're becoming a more inclusive and a more tolerant society.
At this point, I'm going to be hoping that your friend is going to take the bait and say like, "Yes, that's such a great moment," and I'm going to say, "But what we never talk about when we talk about the integration of baseball, is that the integration of baseball simultaneously puts the death spell on the Negro leagues." The Negro league shuts down, because now MLB can take the best and the brightest, and there's no one left to play in the Negro leagues, and so the MLB becomes color blind and we're without regards to race, but we actually don't consider how even some of the things that we are viewing as progress might have a negative effect on underrepresented populations. That doesn't mean that we don't integrate baseball, but we need to be attentive to the unintended consequences of some of the policy changes that we make. I would tell your friend, that's what critical race theory is concerned with. What are the unintended consequences?
Rick Langer: Let me pick up on this thought, because we've been sharing kind of one side of the problem of misreading critical race theory, which would be the idea of just kind of demonizing and rejecting it.
Theon Hill: Sure.
Rick Langer: Let me make a slightly different argument.
Theon Hill: Of course.
Rick Langer: We were just talking about Calvinism a minute ago. One of the things that happens a lot, when you talk about... Calvin is a perfect example, so Calvinism is... That persons say, "Well, Calvinists say," and another person will say, "Well, Calvin never said that, and I'm like, "I think you're kind of missing the point. Calvin died 400 years ago and his system has lived on, and to argue that Calvin didn't say it is probably missing the boat on the thing." Well, obviously you could say that about things like a bunch of things with racism. It's like, sure, I know that was back then, but how's it lived on?
I would like to argue similar thing I think is going on with critical race theory where it's great to say, "Let's go back and read original text. Read Daniel Bell or whomever we're thinking of." Well, that's great, but the interesting thing is that I might really actually care about how that got translated through four different levels, and now when my kid goes to this relatively elite private school in the first grade, they begin to be introduced to notions that lead that child to come back and report to mom and dad, and said, "Mom and dad, are we really racist? I didn't know that." You may say, "Wait, wait, wait. That's not mandated by critical race theory. That's misrepresenting critical race theory." I'm like, "Well, fair enough," and it may be that the guy today is misrepresenting Calvin, but the point is, I'm dealing with the version today. I'm dealing with the version at my school and whatever it is, I can't believe the things you're telling.
Theon Hill: Sure. I think that's an important point that you raise. I think the question we probably need to spend... I'm talking about as a society, that's not me criticizing you brother Rick, but I think the question we as a society need to spend more time thinking about is, what is the antecedent of the scenario you just raised? Because I think we are immediately branding that as the fault of critical race theory, and I think that very few of us have traced the lineage of some of these ideas. I mean, if we're talking about any discussion of structural racism and the need to be accountable, well, sure. Some of that may be critical race theory, but many of those ideas were very much in vogue within the black community, far before Derrick Bell or any of the others really develop a system known as critical race theory.
I mean, you think about something like Crenshaw's intersectionality. Nikki Giovanni is talking about this with James Baldwin in 1967, 1968, so it's not like this is a brand new idea, that some of our institutions may be bathed in the waters of white supremacy. I think tracing some of these ideas might allow us to nuance. I think what you're calling for there is this nuance. Is this critical race theory? Is this just a response to the legacy of structural racism? Do we even know where this particular iteration or this particular practice came from? I think that's where the conversation really needs to start before we just decide, this is the fault of critical race theory, or this is even critical race theory four steps down the road.
Because even if we're going to say it's critical race theory four steps down the road, up until a few years ago, most folks, even many of the folks who are teaching these things in schools have not read Derrick Bell or Crenshaw. I mean, Lani Guinier, in the critical race theory, well, her appointment as a U.S. attorney in the nineties gets squashed, so it's not like these people are really ruling the day in the law schools, in the education outlets. I think the conversation's being had regarding race is much more complex than just critical race theory's presence.
Tim Muehlhoff: I wonder, Theon, if we can't just model this in our classrooms by how we complexly talk about a theory, both the positives, the negatives, but also in how we treat fellow faculty members. The Harvard Negotiation Project says, "The biggest mistake we make is we only trade conclusions, not how we arrived at the conclusion."
Theon Hill: Yes. Yes.
Tim Muehlhoff: Maybe if we step back with fellow faculty members and fellow scholars to say, "Hey, help me understand how you arrived at your understanding of race, or gender, or sexuality? To get the back story is both affirming to that person that we'd take time to do that, but also is a great model to our students and those watching the academy, that we're not quick to rush and just trade conclusions, but we want to hear your backstory.
Theon Hill: Sure. I teach a class on black political rhetoric, and one of the things that we do in this class is we look at the different political traditions that have surfaced in the black community. I lean politically more on the progressive side of things, but someone, when I engage like Booker T Washington, who's often held up as kind of the ancestor of contemporary black conservatives. One of the things that I strive to do in my class is to model for them, "We're going to engage Mr. Washington charitably."
I may or may not disagree with him on a couple of points in some of his messages. That's fine, but I want more than establishing him as right or wrong, let's understand how he got to this point, and so I'll try to contrast someone like Washington, Booker T Washington with someone like W. E. B. Du Bois, and was like, "If you understand their different context, how they get to the points that they get to makes a lot of sense, and so, while I may not agree with their landing point, I can understand and respect how they got to that, and that gives us space to dialogue about our differences.
Tim Muehlhoff: That's a great place to stop. Theon, thank you so much. We know that you're extremely busy. Thank you for carving time to engage. Although this very well may be the pinnacle of your career, being on the Winsome Conviction Podcast.
Theon Hill: It's only downhill from here, y'all.
Tim Muehlhoff: Well then, that was not a great career. No Theon, seriously, thank you for your candor. These are issues that we need to hear, we need to wrestle with, and I so appreciate your prefacing things by calling us brother Tim, brother Rick. That did not go unnoticed. I think that is a very nice reminder that we are brothers as we try to figure out these complex issues.
Theon Hill: That's what happens when you study with Cornell West, it just kind of flows through you.
Tim Muehlhoff: Well, Theon, thank you so much. Thank you for joining the Winsome Conviction Podcast. You can check us out at winsomeconviction.com. We have a bunch of resources. Find us on Spotify, wherever you get your podcast. Thank you, and we'll all talk to you next time.