Trouble I’ve Seen: Changing the Way the Church Views Racism, by Drew G.I. Hart. Harrisonburg: Herald Press, 2016. 189 pages.
Drew Hart – a theologian, newly hired theology professor at Messiah College, and self-described “Anablacktavist,” (a syncretism of Anabaptist, black and activist) recently published his first book entitled, Trouble I’ve Seen: Changing the Way the Church Views Racism as his contribution to the ongoing conversation regarding the Christian obligation to engage the struggle against the persistence of racial injustice.
Much of the trouble Hart has seen deals with the manner in which the country and American church have dealt with and responded to the presence and consequences of what he claims are the lingering effects of systemic racism on black Americans, particularly during the past several years. The historical election of the country’s first black president has demonstrated that the country might be even more racially divided now than it was immediately preceding the election of Barack Obama. This current social and political context has forced Americans, specifically Christians, into addressing the issues that have given rise to these racial tensions.
Writing from personal experience, Hart – who is black – describes the painful reality of living in predominately white “spaces” – which include having attended a white suburban high school and a predominately white Christian college. Having the lived experience and the social proficiency in the language racialism, Hart is convinced that not only does systemic racism and white supremacy still exist but the church in the American context, wittingly or unwittingly, enables this program of racial oppression.
Part of the Christian contribution to facilitating white supremacy is the rhetorical plea of “colorblindness” by white Christians. For Hart, the earnest desire of white Christians to “see people as people” is disingenuous because it falsely gives the impression that white Christians have transcended racial issues (that they perpetuate by nature of being white) and because white Christians live intentionally racialized lifestyles that actively exclude blacks and other non-white minorities. Hart believes that racial and ethnic diversity must be acknowledged and celebrated to reduce racial tensions, but this betrays the fact that Hart and other Christian racialists purporting to fight for some manifestation of racial justice want to be addressed and defined by racial classifications and ethnic identities. That is to say, colorblind rhetoric threatens Hart’s non-white racial distinctiveness. Throughout the book, Hart demonstrates in himself the inherent difficulty of negotiating the condemnation of white Christians for preserving a racialized culture while at the same time desiring to be acknowledged and addressed, racially. To be clear, if it’s wrong for white Christians to engage in racial preservation for divisiveness, it’s also wrong for non-whites to engage in racial preservation that also causes divisiveness.
There’s an interesting thing about Hart’s distaste for colorblindness. When people – in this case, white Christians – use that word, or say that they “don’t see color,” I don’t think it’s a weapon or tool to maintain white structures of racial supremacy as Hart claims. Of course people see color, and the racial/ethnic diversification of humanity is a gift and blessing from God and should be treated as such. But the invocation of colorblindness is to say or imply that though there are varieties of complexion, one’s pigmentation doesn’t define who one is as a person. For the religious racialists like Hart, this is both a blessing and a curse.
In the chapter, “Whiteness Matters,” Hart deconstructs “whiteness” as a politically centralized system- an institution- that conflates a socio-racial categorization with a never-ending system of benefits and opportunities for white people (which hart refers to as “the logic of whiteness”) that endure at the expense of non-white people, particularly Native and African Americans. This system of racialized benefits of the dominant culture is called “white identity,” and it’s constructed in a way that protects and disguises extreme fragility and sensitivity. When confronted, these emotions are expressed defensively in anger. This was made known to Hart during a conversation he had with a white attendee at a faith-based conference on “justice-work” in the United States. During the conversation, Hart condescendingly explained to a woman attendee that her identity was intertwined with whiteness, which, unbeknownst to her, she deeply identified with. Hart instructs her that white people who deeply identify with “whiteness,” can’t be both Christian and “white.” Hart says that the identification with and reliance on whiteness ends when people drop all pretenses to be with Christ.
Hart made no attempt to explain this white, racialized fragility, nor did he mention the potentiality of the kind of racial fragility that encourages white people to double down on their whiteness was also true of blacks – encouraging them to double down on their blackness. The result of astute observation can lead one to apply the same prescription for blacks – identifying with and reliance on blackness ends when we decide to be disciples of Christ.
Being a proud black activist, Hart also address the socio-political activism of #blacklivesmatter. Hart argues that this social campaign is an urgent necessity because blacks, like himself, have to live with the perpetual threat of “fitting the description” of a criminal suspect only because he’s black – at the wrong place and at the wrong time. The consequence is that blacks are under constant surveillance and assault by society at large and are targets of an overbearing, hyper-vigilant police force. Further, black life is partially defined and besmirched as having to live with the consequences of the perpetual fear of irrational stereotypes. Hart labels this reality “racial terrorism” against black society. According to Hart this sad truth is not only emotionally draining, but it also undermines black people’s dignity and humanity.
While recycling the social and “systemic” narratives that explain the prohibition of black well being, Hart gives no time and attention to the self-inflicted wounds by blacks that also undermine black humanity and dignity. In this racialized outlook, there is no black social or religious responsibility to mitigate the fears and stereotypes to facilitate the reparation of black well being. Black life in America is hard only because of the historical record of racial oppression and victimization that continues on today in socially adaptive, acceptable and justifiable means such as proactive policing and “mass incarceration.”
If anyone, expressly a racial minority, raises the social issues and black obligations that Hart intentionally omits as possible contributions to black degradation, he dismisses both the message and messenger as uncritically adopting the ideological perspectives that perpetuate social injustice at the expense of a focused social critique that renounces social and racial marginalization. To be clear, Hart rejects the social doctrine of respectability as a program of acceptance that places moral, ethical, and behavioral obligations in the hands of racial minorities. Those minorities, Christians or not, who endorse this plan – in part or in full – in an attempt to acquire social credibility are guilty of racial abandonment in pursuit of social and monetary payouts.
Throughout the book, one can tell that Hart wants two competing realities to be both right and true at the same time. He wants greater participation from white Christians in the conversation about, and the fight against, white racialism but he also wants his blackness (and by extension, other racial minorities’ ethnic identities) affirmed and protected, while somewhat subordinating the necessity of nurturing the Christian identity of nonwhite minorities. Further, there’s a noticeable psychology playing out in that Hart – consciously or unconsciously – engages in racial compensation for the fact that he’s lived and benefited from living a considerable amount of his life in predominately white “spaces.” This book is an attempt to maintain (or regain?) racial credibility with the advantage of employing a Christian religious veneer to justify itself. That is to say it’s noticeable in style and tone that Hart casts himself as a Christianized version of another black beneficiary of nonwhite racialism and white castigation, Ta-Nehisi Coates.
Christians have neglected our obligation to have an open, honest and sober conversation about racial realities in the country and in the church. There’s little doubt about that. Not having taken the lead, we’ve farmed this responsibility out to sociology departments in the academy that have implemented feel-good “justice” rhetoric at the expense of do-good acts of biblical justice and our republic is paying a steep price.
White Christians have a moral obligation to join and fight socially stratified white racism of the dominant culture, and the church, where it exists (and it does). But the modus operandi of blame and assigning guilt without corrective action and inclusion of nonwhites is fruitless. Hart’s idea of isolating and dismantling overt racialism apart from a plan that includes nonwhite minorities as co-laborers in the multi-ethnic family of Christ is inadequate and destined to fail.
But it does sell books.