Seven Ways to Not Be a Complicit Academic

Three years and six days ago, an unarmed young black man named Michael Brown was shot and killed by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri.  In the aftermath of the unrest that followed the criminal act of injustice on the part of the police department, the United States has seen the largest groundswell of anti-racist sentiment in the last few decades under the guise of #BlackLivesMatter and similar movements.

Nine months ago, as if in response to the groundswell, this nation of immigrants, descendents of slaves, descendents of those that owned slaves, and descendents of the aboriginal tribes voted a man into office with clear ties to neo-Nazi and other racist groups.   Catholics and Protestants together voted him into office.  Mostly white people.  Mostly men.

Combine this with the fact that the United States already exists as the most violent and heavily incarcerated wealthy country in the world, and then add to it a small but fiery movement to rid the US of statues and monuments that celebrate the Confederacy…and you get #Charlottesville.

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The surprising nature of the weekend was the openness of the vile and hate.  Who will be influenced by the weekend to pick up a Nazi flag?  Who will now be inspired to condemn “radical left wing groups” that support “identity politics” like Black Lives Matter?

Let it not be my students, we pray.  Let it not be those in the pews of my Church, we pray.  But the demonic nature of white supremacy will not be silent and let matters be.  And because of this, Christians who watched the news and then hear nothing from the pulpit on Sundays about racism are particularly vulnerable to apathy or, worst, hatred.  Students whose theology is always white and whose professors never speak about growing American Nazism are vulnerable to voices of anti-black and anti-immigrant hatred.

I have studied the rise of the Third Reich and the religious response; I have studied the complicity of Christians and the willful ignorance of the masses.   Silence keeps you safe.  Silence makes you complicit.

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When Nazis march the street, we cannot stop at condemnation.  We must exterminate the demonic disease at the core.  But, you might say, I am just an academic!  I don’t make laws, I don’t enforce laws, I don’t train cops, I don’t work for the FBI.  I teach students, I spend countless hours researching alone, and I write.

What then can I do?

So, in conjunction with Southern Poverty Law Center’s “Ten Ways to Fight Hate,” I present the more Biblically numbered…

“Seven Ways to Not Be a Complicit Academic”

1. Do not write an all-white syllabus.  First and most importantly, academics write syllabi.  We investigate readings and conjure discussion topics.  We stream together ideas from around the world to present students with a compelling and cogent collection of essays and books that hopefully allow them to think critically and deeply about a topic.

In my undergraduate and doctoral theology coursework at Georgetown and Notre Dame, I was required to read one book by a black theologian.  My Master’s program at a United Methodist Seminary in Kansas City was another matter, but the “liberal Catholic universities” gave me pretty much a white slate of theology.  Don’t do this.

Don’t misunderstand me.  We need to teach all sorts of topics in theology, from 4th century conceptions of the Trinity to 19th century philosophical nihilism.  But there is no topic so obscure that you cannot include non-white voices.In short, do not let your students be able to think of theology as a white discipline.  Don’t let them leave the classroom and associate Christianity with whiteness, even implicitly.  Force your students to read scholarship from people of color.  Do not pass on the inheritance of all-white academics.

2. Discuss.  Have at least one discussion about racism in every class.  No matter the topic, no matter the course.  Pick a day, make it connect, and have at least one discussion.   If possible, have more.   Do not let it go unsaid.  Do not let students leave your class confused about this topic of national importance.

3. Research.  Connect your research to anti-racist ideas.  Like most other academics, I’m in the midst of about 6 different essays right now.  They’re not all about racism, but I can connect some of them.  Contribute to the scholarship.  Educate yourself.

4. Protest.  Protest ancient pictures of racist acts on campus.  Protest buildings or scholarships named after slave-holders or similar.  Protest monuments to people who shouldn’t have monuments.  If you don’t know of any pictures or buildings or scholarships or monuments, form a group, do research, and figure it out.  (For example, did you know that the entrance of the Main Building of Notre Dame is graced with a dozen larger-than-life images that celebrate the life and accomplishments of Christopher Columbus, and only if you grab a pamphlet nearby do you read that they are terribly problematic?)

5. Listen.  Listen to non-white students and non-white faculty members.  How is your school helping or failing them?  How can you do more to engender anti-racist sentiment on campus and in the classroom?

6. Organize.  What power do you hold?  Do what is in your power.  Organize a committee on “truth and reconciliation” at your university.  Organize faculty seminars on black theology.  Bring in speakers and have consortium on how to teach and practice anti-racism at a university.

7. Speak.  Write and sign on to Christian anti-racist statements like the one posted yesterday here at Daily Theology.  Be bold and strong of voice like Archbishop Chaput, who wrote that “If we want a different kind of country in the future, we need to start today with a conversion in our own hearts, and an insistence on the same in others. That may sound simple. But the history of our nation and its tortured attitudes toward race proves exactly the opposite.”

But as both Christian Ethicists Without Borders and Archbishop Chaput state, we cannot simply speak pious words.  We must act, we must teach, we must research, we must write.  This is why I place speaking last.  It is important, but it is only one small part of the solution.  If Archbishop Chaput, for example, does not put his own words into action in Philadelphia, then like the anti-racist documents from the US Catholic Bishops in the 1970s, the words will go down in history as nice ideas with no enforcement.

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If we have learned anything from Charlottesville, let it be that the situation is far more dire than we imagine.  This is the largest and most violent white supremacy gathering since the days of the KKK, fueled by a president who either supports such horrors or is too incompetent to deal with them.  Learn from studying the past.  Do not be silent.

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