About Me

My photo
Mike hopes to see the world turned upside down through local communities banding together for social change, especially churches which have recognized the radical calling to be good news to the poor, to set free the prisoners and oppressed, and to become the social embodiment of the reign of God on earth as it is in heaven. He lives with the blessed memory of his wife, in Durham, NC, and has three adult children living in three different states. He also shares his life with the Mt. Level Missionary Baptist Church in Durham, the faculty and students of Shaw University Divinity School in Raleigh, NC, and the faithful fans of Duke and Baylor Basketball in his neighborhood.

Popular Posts

Monday, November 24, 2008

Bailout 8: Who Needs a Pay Cut?

In discussions of General Motors, Ford, and Chrysler during recent days, many people have sought to name the problem that has brought these automakers into such serious difficulties. Of course, the precipitating events have to do with the decline of wealth among U. S. car buyers because of the drop in home values after the housing bubble deflated. The general economic crisis that includes layoffs and fear of layoffs also led to an unprecedented drop in auto sales.

These immediate and serious causes are part of the picture, but there are other reasons. Many people believe that the next credit crisis will come in consumer debt. People have been living as if they can buy more and more things they can't afford, and lending institutions have allowed it. This is again related to the housing price bubble. If consumer debt got too large, the paper wealth of the ever increasing real estate market was the counterbalance. People could refinance consumer debt with home equity loans. So as credit card debt gets tight, people can't or won't buy a car.

Other people address the environmental and energy-efficiency issues in relation to the Big Three automakers. These companies resisted alternative energy sources, even killing previous progress on electric vehicles. They resisted fuel efficiency standards and majored on building larger gas-guzzler vehicles. Unlike some other automakers, they did not keep up the pace of developing new and better technology for automobiles. They failed to adopt a business model by which they could make strong profits from selling smaller, more efficient cars. When the volatility of gasoline prices struck, driving transportation costs higher and higher, they found themselves stuck with large numbers of vehicles that people were less and less interested in owning.

Among many other reasons given, some people have blamed the automakers' problems on unionized workers. Certainly the benefit plans and retirement plans for these workers are expensive. But most of the attacks on the union workers' wages hid or ignored important facts.

For instance, the highest paid auto workers in the U. S. last year worked for Toyota building Camrys, not for GM. The worker pay differential between companies selling cars in the U. S. is changing. That does not, however, mean that all non-union auto factories in the U. S. are paying comparable wages. It does mean that it is possible to pay high wages, comparable to or greater than the union wages paid to GM workers, and make great profits.

Second, it targets union workers and not other potential candidates for pay cuts in the industry. Who else is getting good pay in the auto industry? Why not cut their pay? As Congressional questioners wondered, why not cut corporate jets for the executives?

Dean Baker makes this point well when he addresses the case of Robert Rubin, an economist who is having a great deal of opportunity to speak about how to solve the current economic crisis. Rubin worked in the Clinton administration, and his allies are being named as Obama advisers. But in January of this year, he said that the economy's struggles would not lead to any serious problems, and certainly no economic meltdown.

Baker points out that Rubin was interim CEO of Citigroup, and that he remains an executive and a director of the corporation that the government bailed out again over the weekend. He was part of the leadership who oversaw the bad loans and the risks of an inflated housing market. Even farther back, he was a central figure in U. S. economic institutions during the dot.com bubble that led to the last recession. Baker asks why with all the hoopla about GM autoworker wages, no one is asking whether Robert Rubin will be taking a pay cut. Who needs a pay cut when corporations are struggling? Why not the executives who helped lead the corporation into their crises?


On Saturday evening, Lydia (my 16-yr-old daughter) and I made the long trip to Georgia to participate in a solemn prayer vigil and protest. We met my other daughter, Naomi, who came from Texas, and a friend named Frances from Louisiana.

We gathered outside the gates of Ft. Benning with thousands of other people. You can view a news report from a local station in Columbus, GA.

Our purpose was to convince the Pentagon, Congress, and the President that the School of the Americas/Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation must be closed. This training school, known in Latin America as the "School of Assassins," has funded "anti-insurgency" courses for officers and soldiers of the militaries of Latin American countries for over sixty years.

Banished from Panama as "the biggest base for destabilization in Latin America," the school was relocated to Ft. Benning, in Columbus, GA. There it continued its work on behalf of multinational corporations and U. S. interests, training the Latin American militaries to repress movements for greater democratization and economic restructuring. After shocking news of murder and repression in Central American countries in the 1980s, especially El Salvador and Guatemala, many U. S. citizens awakened to the role of the School of the Americas in exporting violence and torture to neighboring countries. Heinous crimes against church leaders, educators, labor organizers, and entire villages of peasants were being ordered, led, and committed by graduates trained at the SOA. In El Salvador, among the thousands of victims were Archbishop Oscar Romero, murdered while conducting mass; four Maryknoll Mission church women; and a household of priests, their housekeeper, and her daughter, including Father Ignacio Ellacuria, a well-known theologian.

Church people and other protests became increasingly organized to close this training school.

One key point in the campaign was the discovery of a training manual which included instructions for employing torture as a way to prevent insurgency. As the movement brought pressure on Congress to close the SOA, eventually the possibility of its being shut down became realistic. In a bureaucratic and legislative sleight of hand, the Pentagon and Congress finally cut off funding for the SOA, closing it down in the final days of the Clinton presidency. However, it was immediately replaced by WHINSEC (a much harder abbreviation to parody), using the same buildings, the same faculty, the same courses, and empowered for the same purposes. Even thought the military "closed the SOA," the effort to end its exporting of torture and violence had to continue.

After the Abu Ghraib photos became public and discussion of the use of torture by U. S. government or military officials came into public debate, the momentum again began to build to close the SOA. At the vigil and protest that year, I displayed a sign asking, "Do you believe us now?" Yes, it is possible that the U. S. government may promote torture as a tool of policy.

In 2006, the effort to end funding for SOA/WHINSEC fell short by a mere six votes. Presidential candidate Dennis Kucinich announced his plans to shut down the SOA, and thirty-five of the Congressional Representatives who voted to continue funding for the SOA in 2006 were defeated in the recent election. The President-Elect has announced plans to close the Guantanamo detention facility, but he has not taken any public stand about closing the SOA.

I encourage you to sign the petition to the next President to close this school by executive order. I also urge you to write to your Congressional Representative, asking her or him to vote against any further funding for the SOA/WHINSEC.

This year the sign I held during the vigil said, "LET 2008 BE OUR LAST TIME." If you look at the news report video I mentioned above, about two-thirds of the way through you can see my hand lift this sign up in the middle of the screen.

I hope you will help make that happen.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Buy Nothing Day

There's nothing like an economic crisis to get us thinking about our spending. Reports on retail sales indicate many people are cutting back on spending. Wal-Mart and Costco are still making good profits, so it seems that the people who are shopping are inclined to hunt for bargains. The advertisements are getting thicker and rowdier in my newspaper and my mailbox. SALE! SALE! SALE! A Target commercial on TV has little children acting in a school Christmas pageant about going shopping.

As we approach the end of this Christian year and the beginning of the next with Advent, we find ourselves living in conflicting times. The standard calendar, the Christian calendar, the school calendar, and the shopping calendar are out of sync. Advent tells us to pause and reflect, awaiting what God will do. School tells us to burrow in and study, finish projects, and pull all-nighters. Shopping tells us that Christmas is the high festival of consumption, and we must offer sacrifices at the malls and department stores for a month in advance, especially on Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving Day.

In an effort to recover some sanity about this time of year, a variety of groups have renamed Black Friday as "Buy Nothing Day." Rather than get caught up in a feeding frenzy of shopping, they say to use this day for family time, doing things together, playing games, telling stories, serving others. An entry in the God's Politics Blog suggests using the day to make things rather than buy things. Give some thought to making a different use of the Friday after Thanksgiving.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Bailout 7: Cheering on the Road to Destruction

When we think about the economic situation we find ourselves in, it is amazing that so few people had noticed that it was coming. Certainly there were people concerned about sub-prime mortgages, and now and then someone would suggest there was a "housing bubble." People debated whether the stock market was on a long downward trend or just a temporary decline. Many predicted a rosy future as economic skittishness passed on by and people got back to spending more money than they have.

A viral video showed up this week with clips of business news programs in which various analysts discussed the direction of the economy in 2006 and 2007. The theme of these clips was a certain analyst named Peter Schiff who was predicting a severe recession because of the inflated prices of homes and stocks. He said a long and serious recession was about to come. He said to stay away from financial stocks because these companies were not making any money. He said that people would see their assets dissolving as "paper wealth" went back up into thin air. They would respond by stopping their spending and borrowing and starting to save money to make up for the lost paper wealth they thought they had in their overpriced homes. He said it would not be merely a subprime mortgage problem, but most of the housing market would crash, people would default in record numbers, unemployment would soar, and credit would dry up.

All the while, these clips show business reporters recommending people buy stock in Merrill Lynch ("an astonishingly well-run company"), Washington Mutual, Goldman Sachs, and even Bear Stearns. They continually laughed at Peter Schiff's claims that these companies were terrible investments which would soon crash because they have no real earnings.

Well, we don't know if he got everything right about what was coming, but one thing is clear. There were people who could see this crising coming, and there were people wearing rosy tinted glasses who insisted that every day things would gett better and better. Much like the dot.com bubble and crash, they were operating in what seems now to be a kind of hysteria, mutually reinforcing one another's willful ignorance. They were not reporters, but promoters of borrowing and spending, without concern for saving money. It was very poor wishful thinking, and perhaps even for some, a kind of dissembling.

Carter's RACE 7: Perpetual Peace for Our Kind of People

As the Enlightened European race moves toward its destiny, its political development is driven by two poles, and advance toward both makes advance toward either possible. The first pole is humanity’s development toward a cosmopolitical universal history. Reason, as the selfsame character of the species in all persons of the species, drives humanity toward this necessary outcome. On the other hand, the distinct nation-states must develop toward democratic polities. Such democratic polities are hindered by the infighting among Europeans.

In both cases, the emergence of an Enlightened race of human beings is the critical task. Yet in both the remote orient and the central occident, the unenlightened alien remains a problem. Carter says,

To reflect on the problem of the alien body, whether without or within, is to attend all along to the perfection of the white, occidental body.

This problem gives Kant the task of articulating a political structure and process by which whiteness can be perfected. It will require the subjugation of the racial alien within and without. Again, quoting Carter,

Race controls Kant’s ostensibly egalitarian politics of global civil society and a domestic civil society.

A political theory emerges. Kant will ground it in his new science of anthropology. It becomes, as Carter shows, the predominant research and teaching project of his entire career as a professor. It links together his “1780s critical phase” and his “1790s postcritical phase.” He seeks the answer to how the purified reason of his critical work might emerge as the perfected humanity of Enlightenment, a destiny borne by whites and the emergence of reason in their transracial humanity.

In an unpublished, and incomplete, essay on Baptist ethics and race relations in the U. S., I undertook to examine baptist historiography and how it affects baptist theologizing, and in particular how it has engaged topics of race. My analysis of one historian led me to compare his methodology for describing baptist identity to Kantian use of polar logic, as in the antinomies. Perhaps most fascinating to me now in reflecting back on that essay is Carter’s emphasis here on how the polar logic becomes a driving force toward progress in history. Unlike Hegelian contradictions, the Kantian antinomies do not struggle until one overcomes and absorbs the other, but they remain in antinomic relationship as an engine of progress. Both law and freedom drive the advance of human rationalization of society. Both remain established in the vision of any end, even though they seem to stand in contradiction.

If baptist identity affirms both the authority of Scripture and liberty of conscience, some would argue that it maintains a sort of Kantian antinomy. I gained from Carter’s argument something that I did not recognize in my original analysis of the historical approach. This antinomy drives progress. It identifies a field in which the internal teleology of baptist existence develops. In part, one might recognize just such a teleology in certain baptist historiography. I do not intend to say that such teleologies are driven by race in the same way that Carter has shown Kant’s to be. On the other hand, it may be that such reasoning, widespread beyond the teaching and writing of any particular historian of baptists in the US South, may require further examination toward identifying the residue of race-driven theories of universal history that may have shaped baptist historiography.

Carter's RACE 6: The Triumphal March of White Bodies and Purified Reason

Carter sets out to demonstrate that Kant’s critical work is not merely an ahistorical project to purify reason by purging the clouds of prejudice and bad thinking that have mostly clouded human reason. He argues that it has a powerful driving teleology of the emergence and growth of the Enlightenment as the universal destiny of humanity. In making this case, he shows that the teleology is inextricably tied to a theory of human races which finds its center and purpose in the unfolding of the exemplary and ultimately perfectible white race.

The teleology is driven on the one hand by the seeds of human nature. The development of humanity in this way is rooted in the seeds of human nature which give rise to the various capacities of the human species, although this natural driving force does not by itself tend toward the full development of humanity toward its destiny. Thus he must identify another driving force for teleology which is not confined by the materiality of human existence and sensory perception. This other teleological factor must unfold in human reason.

Human reason’s emergence as Enlightenment has occurred in the white race of Europe. The white race, transcending the limitations of races, constitutes the nature and destiny of the human race which remains to be perfected. These other races will ultimately be stamped out by their own limitations, through a kind of “inner rotting or decay” (92). They are too embedded in the materiality of humanity and its passions, and they lack full capacity for educability. They will never reach full self-governance, but the white race is exempted from this failing.

This second driving force of a purified rationality is what Kant worked in his Critiques to identify. The Enlightened human race must now embark on its world-historical task of extending its autonomy and freedom throughout the globe. Apparently, this process will accompany the process by which the other races are stamped out.

This destiny of the spread of Enlightenment (whiteness) must now face its challenges. The great challenge is that humanity would become sidetracked or stunted in its advance toward perfection. As Kant’s theory of race describes this process, certain developments of human nature are partial and lack balance. Having become imbalanced, these “wayward reproductions” cannot be brought back into balance. Such alien humanity must not become intermixed with the Enlightened, balanced portion of the race. Miscegenation becomes the great fear, whether in the periphery of the lands where Europe is only beginning to exercise dominance, or in the heart of Europe itself. If alien races contaminate the humanity that is destined to emerge, then the rise of Enlightenment (whiteness) may be hindered.

Frankly, Kant is getting creepy here. The party line in looking at European philosophers in relation to European history has been to show how Hegel believed in the inevitable advance and rise of an Enlightened race through the dialectical struggles of history, building a foundation for race theory in the concepts of thesis and antithesis and the inevitable overcoming of such contradictions. Then the close of the Enlightenment with Nietzsche provided the theory of the √úbermensch who through the sheer force of his will to power reshapes the world in his image. These philosophers, therefore, get assigned indirect blame for the rise of German National Socialism and of Hitler.

Often, Kant gets offered as the antidote to that stream of German philosophy because his theory of a common human nature exhibited in reason supports doctrines of universal human rights. A few dissenting voices have raised the claim that Kant’s theory of the rational human leaves many gaps through which certain humans might be considered less than fully human. Human rights only apply to those who are defined as human. The debates in the Bush administration’s efforts to apply different rules of war and justice to some persons, deemed not to deserve the same rights as other persons, illustrates the ways that such theories of human rights can be shown to have loopholes.

What Carter has shown in this analysis of Kant is that what some might call loopholes turn out to be the engine driving the argument. Some animals are more equal than others. Some races, even recognizing that their development is part of the essential potentiality of the human species, remain imbalanced and deficient, and must ultimately pass off the scene if the true humanity is to emerge. That sounds plenty useful to a theory of the rise of the Aryan race.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

What November 4 Means: Poverty Isn't Just Going to Disappear

The language of the President-Elect's campaign made note of our mutual responsibilities toward one another. He called for changing how we think and feel about the poor, along with changes that can come through legislation and budgets. Neither of those kinds of changes happens overnight. It does not happen easily. It does not sweep across entire populations without time and effort.

Even if most of Barack Obama's supporters in the election agree with his statements about the poor, at most that is just a portion of 52% of the voting population. That is not to say that many who voted against him may not also share his views about communal responsibility for the poor. Rev. Alan Clapsaddle points out how far the people of Orlando have to go in caring for their most impoverished saints.

Moreover, we must hope and work to see that issues of poverty, homelessness, access to health care, and jobs do not get pushed aside by the crises of banks and wars and stock markets. They are clearly related, but it would be possible to solve the banks' problems, stop a war, and get the stock market stabilized without ever getting around to the least of these. Sojourners announced today an event scheduled for April: The Mobilization to End Poverty. This could be an important organizing opportunity to start change. It will not solve everything. I saw a quotation from Marian Wright Edelman today that is a good reminder:
Justice is not cheap. Justice is not quick. It is not ever finally achieved.

Honoring Women in the Military

Honoring the military includes honoring the struggles of women of all ages and ranks. The shocking fact is that a third or more of women who serve in the military have been raped by fellow members of the service. The prevalence of sexual assault upon women in the military has been brought to public attention repeatedly in recent years. It is amazing each time another facet of this problem comes to light.

Yesterday it was reported that women in the military, insured by TRICARE, must pay for their own rape kits, since TRICARE does not cover them. "Women in the military are twice as likely to be raped as their civilian counterparts" according to an article written by Penny Coleman. Of the 2688 sexual assaults reported in the military in 2007, only 8% went to court, as compared to over 40% in civilian courts. When Congress requested a report, Robert Gates prevented the officer in charge of sexual assault prevention from testifying until the Congress threatened a contempt citation.

When we honor those in military service, we must not exclude the women who serve.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

What November 4 Means: Comedy and the New President

I read several commentaries on the way that comedians and comedy shows have dealt with Barack Obama during this campaign. The general consensus is that they have not done a good job. On one hand, there has been a good deal of talk among white comedians and comic writers about how Obama does not give them much to make jokes about--he's too serious, too sincere, too upright, etc. But this probably says more about white comedians than about Obama. They are too unfamiliar with black life that does not fit the ways that white people stereotype blacks. They do not know the black middle class. Therefore, they do not know how to make jokes that pertain to a real black person, not just a product of white imagination.

Developing this argument, the comments of Salamishah Tillet, University of Pennsylvania, seem to me to be on target, and I have quoted from her essay below.

It's not just that SNL does not give a back story to the Obamas or that a non-African-American actor plays Barack Obama; it is that these skits miss the complexities, contradictions and the interior features of African-Americans lives. On SNL and other mainstream political comedy shows like "Real Time" and to a lesser extent "The Daily Show" and "The Colbert Report," the cast and writing staffs lack diversity, and it shows in the racial parochialism of the humor itself.

Perhaps Bill Maher was right when he said that Barack Obama leads to bad comedy because he is "too perfect" as a presidential candidate and that "liberals" and "comedians" (both of whom in Maher's calculations all appear to be white) are "afraid of laughing at anything with a black person in it." But, I think it goes deeper than that.

For such comics to consider Barack or Michelle funny, one of two things now has to happen: Either the Obamas must begin to feed into prevailing racial stereotypes (and therefore be seen as unfit for the presidency), or mainstream satirists will have to learn the cultural nuances of black America.

. . .

SNL focuses on Obama's intellect and verbal pauses but does not satirize his performance of the "cool" black man. Understanding both his swagger and cool requires an understanding of black bourgeois respectability, not just in opposition to caricatures of working-class blacks but as a source of potential contradictions and comedy.

She describes something like what Willie Jennings has said about interracial understanding in the churches. Black people in the U. S. have long understood that an intimate knowledge of the ways of white people is valuable, if for no other reason than to help them survive in a system that works against them. Thus, blacks have gained a kind of cultural intimacy that is not reciprocated. One of the key features of white privilege is the ability to think and behave as if black people are largely irrelevant to white lives. Jennings says that until white church people begin to pursue cultural intimacy with blacks, they will remained puzzled by the lack of progress in racial reconciliation in the churches. The kind of understanding that would allow sharing the commitments of church life with one another may have some similarity to the kind of understanding it takes to be able to laugh together.

Monday, November 10, 2008

A Confession and a Tribute

Last Monday a wonderful event occurred. Everly, my wife, successfully defended her dissertation after many years of hard work. My excitement in the days leading to Monday brought back memories of 1993 when I was approaching my own dissertation defense. The general anxiety, the inability to keep focus on some tasks, the specific worries about whether important details were incorrect or forgotten—as I observed these behaviors in her I remembered them in my own history.

One part of her story is very different from mine. While Everly held high-responsibility executive jobs during the entire seven years of her doctoral work, I spent most of my seven years with the opportunity to focus as a full-time student, with only a couple of stints in part-time jobs. Making it possible for me to be a full-time student, Everly was giving me the luxury of uncluttered time and thought to work on my courses and research. The joyous opportunity to spend with my young children as the primary caregiver was also part of the deal, and that all three were under the age of seven when I completed the dissertation provides some of the explanation why I spent seven years doing doctoral work.

On the other hand, Everly worked full time, did her motherly duties, and managed essential household chores at the same time as she took night courses, wrote papers, conducted a major research study, and eventually wrote a dissertation. Frankly, she got a whole lot less support from me than I got from her during the process of completing a doctoral degree.

I’m not trying to beat myself up. I just want to think about the incongruity between my ideal of what kind of husband I would be and my actual practice of husbanding. When Everly made her entry into doctoral studies, she did not make any sustained proposal about becoming a full-time student. If she seriously entertained that option, I was either oblivious, or she did not consider it viable. As a teacher at a small private college, I have never had the larger paycheck in the family. As an executive leader in education, Everly has been the primary breadwinner. She has borne that responsibility with courage and honor, and I appreciate the opportunities our family has had because of how hard she has worked. Moreover, the work that she was doing was the actual context of her research. There were advantages of continuing in her professional appointments, to be weighed against the advantages of full attention to research and study.

Still, I find myself wondering if I should have made a persuasive case for her to consider letting me bear the financial load and take on some education loans so that she could focus on school. I wonder whether something about the gender politics deeply embedded in our generation left that door mostly closed to us. Or maybe when the time came, I just did not listen to the calling to carry my part of the load. So I confess my disappointment in myself for not working harder to make sure she could have taken that path. At this point in the story, those words are pretty empty.

The other confession is that I did not find it in my character to bear more of the load of managing essential household tasks while she carried the weight of an executive job and doctoral studies. I’m not as great a self-motivator as I would hope to be. I am easily distracted, and sometimes plain lazy. I wonder how old I will have to be before I display mature self-discipline.

Looking at her achievement in the midst of so many demands draws out great admiration and pride. I don’t mean the bad kind of pride, the vice that comes before a fall and names one of the seven deadly sins. I mean the kind of pride that takes note of something good, worthy, honorable, and admirable that is close to home, that does not see achievements as small things, that recognizes the effort and sacrifice that go into accomplishing something good, that sees a good thing for what it is. Her research is deeply rooted in a life of work to make schools better and to make the lives of students better through them. And it is making a difference, step by step, although there is an occasional step back along with the steps forward.

It is something like what I have often thought, sometimes written, and regularly taught concerning the church. Churches struggle to be what they are called to be, and in limited, often temporary ways they may give us a glimpse of the Reign of God, the embodiment of the love of God in human communities. They do so in particular ways, sometimes fostering reconciliation, other times overcoming loneliness and alienation, occasionally promoting well-being and justice through housing, nutrition, education, jobs, recovery from addiction or imprisonment, and many other ways.

Everly’s work has in sometimes dramatic and sometimes incremental ways opened cracks and chasms in the walls that shut off opportunities to learn and flourish. Students, teachers, and whole schools have seen the fruit of her labor. It is divine work, which honors and blesses the image of God in humanity’s children.

What November 4 Means: Henry Louis Gates, Jr.

I have heard many friends comment in person about what Tuesday's election of Barack Obama means to them. It is unlike other presidential elections that I have been part of. It is a new thing. For many African Americans, it is something they believed they would never see, and they could not trust it even when the evidence in October seemed to say it was going to happen.

Some people have taken the time to put their thoughts into words for others to read and contemplate. I have been moved more than once by what I have read. After reading this essay by Henry Louis Gates, Jr., I thought I would make note of a few such statements here.

Gates has taken a look at certain historical statements from Frederick Douglass, George Edwin Taylor, and others, which shed light on the long and hard struggle through which many have trudged on a hopeful path toward overcoming the barriers of racial injustice. His comments about talking to his father were the kind of poignant anecdote I have heard and read over and over this week. He also notes a prescient statement by Jacob Javits in 1958 which fairly accurately predicted the current political achievements of African Americans in Washington, DC.

It reminded me of a statement from Booker T. Washington in which he anticipated a change in the rights of African Americans in another half century. That change began almost on time with the Brown v. Board of Education decision, but it was far from complete, with many more lives to be lost in the struggle. In the same way, Gates reminds us that much that must change in the US will not change quickly or easily. However, that takes nothing away from the unprecedented arrival on the scene of the first African American to be elected president.

Friday, November 07, 2008

Election Day at From the Wilderness

My friend Ryon Price wrote a reflection on ministry and the eucharist on Election Day.

The line that struck me was this one:

In the midst of all these governments, and figures, and actors on the center stage of history, then Luke says. . .

"The word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the desert."

Take a look at it, and remember that God's Spirit interrupts where we may not be expecting.

Carter's RACE 5: Immanuel Kant and the Racialized Teleology of Enlightenment

After defending the dissertation and moving on to teach, I was so relieved not to be reading only what could be digested for nourishing some part of my project. I immediately started reading in one of my key areas of interest that had mostly lain dormant while in doctoral studies: Mesoamerican history and the arrival of Europeans in the Americas. Through my seminary years I had come to believe that something of grave importance for the church had happened during that time and that it was poorly understood. I believed that something had gone terribly wrong, and that it was somehow tied to contingencies rather than necessity. Something had happened in the history of European engagement with the civilizations they were newly encountering that could have gone otherwise. As it turned out, it was disastrous for many of the world’s peoples and for the church. I was eager to restart this line of thinking through new research.

About seven months later, I started teaching my first undergraduate ethics course at Shaw University. On the first day of class, a student asked me questions about the textbook choices and course design that made me realize something that I had bypassed during doctoral studies. As an adjunct, I was teaching from syllabi prepared by others, and it presented a fairly standard approach to European philosophical ethics. Although my fellow students and I had applied a good deal of intellectual concern to matters of racial division in the church, I was amazed at how little effort I or my teachers had put into actually reading and studying literature examining such matters. So my next crash course was in African and African American approaches to ethics.

Looking back it became apparent that when I wrote in my dissertation about the ways that accommodation to modernity had handicapped and even perverted the churches of the West, I did not grasp the interrelationship of modern nation-states and racialized thinking. Among all the fruit of studying John Milbank, I was not pushed by him toward a construal of modernity as a racialized world. I can see now where I might have grasped some insight had I been looking. However, the critical turn in Milbank’s argument never really embraces the construction of whiteness. Milbank’s identification of the “liberal Protestant metanarrative” offers possibilities for reflection on the racialized nature of the modern world, but frankly I was focused on the rise of modern nation-states and did not give enough attention to the rise of modern economics nor the racial implications of the nation-state. Carter’s work offers a way to probe this direction and gain a new insight into what I have studied.

Several years after I finished my dissertation, the work of Luis Rivera in A Violent Evangelism helped me to begin to understand this gap in my education and thinking.

The key here, as I made note of in the previous post, is that Carter has examined critical but lesser known writings of key figures. This time, it is Immanuel Kant. Kant, ever positionized as anti-teleological, is far more complex than most of us learn in school. His attention to teleology can’t be ignored in Toward Perpetual Peace, yet to my reading this work was either an anomaly or a late-career change of perspective which contradicted earlier views. But Carter has shown the critical teleological elements of Kant’s entire project, evident in his fascination with Enlightenment and what it means for the future of humanity as the seeds of human potential unfold in the rise and triumph of the white Europeans in the world.

This connection to race might be ignored by many readers as “throwaway comments” scattered in his writings. This is in fact the favorite hermeneutic of twentieth-century philosophy and political science, which carves out the sections of enlightenment writings that speak to theological arguments or racial conceptions. Most of us are aware of Kant’s derogatory remarks about the impossibility of a black man making good sense when he talks. The commonly repeated racist quotation becomes an emblem of the racist heritage of modernity, but most of us go on teaching Kant as if this belief about race is not central to his philosophical project. Carter has argued that certain essays and reflections from the heart of Kant’s career clearly develop the significance of race within the philosophical, political, metaphysical project of Kant’s career. Race, and particularly the white race which is a race transcending race, is a critical driving force in the teleological unfolding of human destiny.

The contrast of black and white races is a critical element of Kant’s thought. The black race represents a kind of dead end of one possible trajectory of human development. Having reached a certain point of development, perhaps a nadir, the black race would be most difficult to turn and move toward the higher directions of the human race displayed and potential in whiteness. The “darker races,” in having developed certain seeds or potentialities inherent in humanity, have become enclosed within the trajectories of their particularity, “they suffer under the entropy of their own particularity: they can’t get over themselves.” Thus believing that race is a natural and inherent and permanent feature of humanity, he singles out one race, a kind of super race, as the one destined to fulfill human destiny. As for the others, “their racial existence is an impediment to their human existence, where ‘human’ here stands for the universal.” Only one race can stand for the universally human (89).

Having been led to this place, it now seems obvious that the racializing project is inherent in the modern project, not merely a detachable extra appendage unrelated to and unnecessary to the body politic and the body of knowledge. It remains a driving force behind so-called globalization and the neocolonial vision of multinational corporations and nation-states.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

Celebrating a Leader in Math Education

This week began with milestones to celebrate. Everybody knows about Tuesday, but that was the second one for me. On Monday, Everly Broadway, my beloved, successfully defended her dissertation: African American Achievement in High School Mathematics. It is a study of how reforming curriculum can influence achievement for all students, with special attention to the way that a better designed curriculum can benefit African American students. I am now proud to be married to Dr. Broadway, the degree soon to be officially conferred.

For some time, educators have discussed the “achievement gap” between minorities and white students in the U. S. education system. Many have focused research on the school atmosphere and the teachers’ ways of interacting with students. Habits of low expectations for minority students influence the ways some teachers teach. Research into different expectations of girls and boys in math class has led to significant insight into the ways teachers interact with students. Gender research has helped to bolster the recognition that race, ethnicity, and economic level may affect the expectations and teaching practices of classroom teachers.

Embedded deeper in the teaching of mathematics is a cultural assumption that only an elite few people are smart in mathematics. This assumption about a born elite has sometimes been referred to in shorthand as “the math gene.” So thorough is this cultural formation that no one is surprised to hear a highly competent professional adult say, “I’ve always been bad at math.” Earlier education research addressed the problem as “math anxiety.”

Dr. Broadway has been driven by, among many issues, the way that this view of mathematics is so thoroughly naturalized in the culture at large, and particularly in the culture of education. I don’t know how many times she has asked me questions like: “Why do people think it’s fine for only 10% to succeed in math? Why would teachers be satisfied to assume that almost all students in high school cannot learn math?”

Based on her findings, this is not the assumption of many other education systems in other parts of the world. Moreover, where the education system does not assume “the math gene,” teachers, mathematicians, administrators, and school counselors take on the challenge of conducting research and finding ways to do a better job of teaching math to all students. If you already believe that 90% will not be able to cut it, that puts the whole system off the hook for not doing better at bringing all students up to the standard.

Dr. Broadway has taken up with civil rights veteran activists and historians, such as Bob Moses, Charles Cobb, and Charles Payne, and mathematician and educational reformer Carol Malloy, sharing their cause of analyzing and closing the achievement gap in mathematics. They have described access to courses in higher mathematics as one of the great civil rights struggles of this era. Part of the problem is that too many schools have designed their math curriculum to delay or discourage students from starting to take higher math courses. Along with the structural barriers, so many families and neighborhoods are full of discouraged people who fear that since they had a hard time in math, their children will not be good at it. As with any struggle to open up opportunity, there is the need to change both the structures of power and the hopes of those who have not had access.

How often have teachers, frustrated that a student does not quickly “get it” in algebra class concluded that the student just does not have what it takes to succeed in math? How often have teachers, who found math easy as students, assumed that the way they were taught must be the best or only way to teach math courses? How often have well-meaning school counselors discouraged students from taking higher math courses on the assumption that they would find them too challenging and probably fail? How often have school administrators made judgments about tracking students into lower math courses because they are used to seeing certain groups do poorly in math? How often has the motivation to push more students into learning higher math been undermined in part by the conflicting short-term goal of keeping scores up on high-stakes tests in algebra and geometry?

Dr. Broadway’s research looks at new ways of designing high school math curriculum which show promise in helping all students achieve in math. Her research shows that when African American students are given opportunities to take higher level math courses, they can succeed in them. It shows that the curriculum design which links mathematics to real problems from science, from professions, from economics, from public policy—from the kinds of things that matter to human living—students who have been assumed not to be capable of “getting it,” can “get it.” Better math curriculum design delivered to all students makes “the math gene” appear as what it is—a myth. School systems committed to success in math for all students can make headway across the board, and the achievement gap can be narrowed. Over time, perhaps it can even disappear.

Dr. Broadway’s research examines the qualitative research, and has much promise to offer in this area. At its core, however, it is a quantitative study of achievement. The results on the initial high school math course leave no doubt. Better courses can improve math learning for African American students, and they can make a dramatic difference in a short time.

The disappearance of the achievement gap probably will not be immediate, but it is not so far away as most would assume. Much effort is being proposed and even carried out to make sure that children of all economic levels get a good start in school from an early age. Finding ways to back away from the industrial sized schools toward more high-touch schools closer to where children live is gaining momentum. Linking education to mentoring, internships, and specialized training is making a comeback. Changing our ways of thinking about math learning is an important next step. Dr. Broadway is committed to opening the doors so that “every child can achieve in higher mathematics.” I have heard her say those words hundreds of times, and it is her passion. There are many reasons why these words are true, and the rest of us need to join her to see that this mission will be carried forward.

Carter's RACE 4: Foucault, Modern Political Thought, the Jews, and Race

As stated in earlier posts, I am taking a slow pace through the arguments by J. Kameron Carter concerning the emergence of the modern racialized world. Carter has done many of us a great favor by taking time to read some of the lesser known writings of key figures of modern thought.

Perhaps you were not the kind of student I was, but I found myself barely keeping my head above water in the vast sea of writing which had some relevance to my dissertation research. Now and then, I would see an insight in someone’s thought, and hope to find the one essay or book I could read that would allow me to mine what I needed either (a) to add strength to my argument or (b) to show that I was not so dense as to have completely ignored someone important. I didn’t drown, but there was so much more that was missing. In addition, I was thankful for certain books of grand scope which helped me to organize and schematize large portions of the field I was studying. Carter’s book is that kind of book, and I am glad that I now get to join him in this conversation.

One writer I tried to understand through a few brief writings and lots of conversations with colleagues is Michel Foucault. Although it seemed obvious to me that I was influenced by is ideas, I did not try to make him a primary conversation partner. Carter, on the other hand, has carefully examined not only well-known texts, but also some lesser known speeches and essays which shed important light on the growth of modern racialized rationality and social structures.

Carter draws on Foucault to build a case for the centrality of the Jews for the emergence of race. The Jews, as the archetypal writers of counterhistorical narrative, help to shape the modern vision of history as not merely the accomplishments of the victors, but also of the struggles of the oppressed for liberation. In recognizing this significant contribution, Foucault and Carter see the way that modern understandings of race emerge from this consciousness of a distinct people that the Jewish covenant and scriptures bring into existence.

Modern Europeans, influenced by the Reformation as a movement of protest echoing the prophetic voice of the Jews, come to see their relationship to other peoples of the world in a racial frame. Fascinated by their own ways in contrast to the ways of others, and inclined to see themselves and their ways as superior to others, Europeans transform their adopted religion of Christianity into a messianic soteriology and eschatology of whiteness in history. Western Civilization claims triumphantly the meek and lowly Crucified One and his followers as a community called to elevate the rest of the world to its potentiality, by persuasion, force, or extermination. The Jews, as the exemplars of a peculiar people who gave birth to the vision of a liberative counterhistory, must ironically be eliminated in one way or another in order for whiteness to complete its salvific mission in history.

As I struggled to understand the ways the modernity’s churches have departed from their calling in order to serve false saviors and idols, I remained painfully unaware of the implications of race for modern rationality. I lived in the midst of Christian failure to overcome the racialized ideologies of U. S. culture, but did not see the radical nature of the problem. I knew that “racisms is a faith,” but I thought it to be something that could be pointed out and overcome through a process of clarifying teaching from the New Testament. I saw it as an intellectual error made favorable by an oppressive economic structure, and therefore a residue of the past that was being left behind, albeit far too slowly.

What I did not see was the way that modern politics, economics, and everything else has been structured by the invention of whiteness and a racialized world surrounding it. There were many texts that should have pointed me in that direction, but for the most part I had not read them. I did not receive the message from the books I had read from Latin American theologians, even though they were often addressing these matters.
Baptist Bloggers
Powered By Ringsurf
Christian Peace Bloggers
Powered By Ringsurf