Hearing No Evil: The Amazing Obtuseness of Campus Conservatives

Seems like every young conservative with a phone cam thinks they’re James O’Keefe.

Sadly for them, since there’s no Andrew Breitbart left to selectively edit and post their handiwork, thereby making it seem a lot more damning than it really is, they’re reduced to making even the most obvious, historically inarguable comments by those of us on the left seem controversial.

Just such a thing happened to me this past Wednesday, during my talk at Providence College in Rhode Island. I’ll get to the supposedly “shocking” video shortly, but first let it be noted that most of the 500 or so in attendance were enthusiastically supportive of the message I delivered regarding the obligation of educational institutions to promote racial equity and representation, by way of deliberate efforts at recruiting and retaining students of color. There had been some controversy at the school recently, thanks to an article in the student paper critiquing the college’s diversity plan, and so I weighed in. My argument was really quite un-radical, in truth. I merely explained, drawing on the available evidence, that unless deliberate efforts were made to make Providence a more inclusive place, it would not simply happen on its own, and that highly capable persons of color would continue to be overlooked. And this would happen, not because they were unqualified, but because of the inertia of a K-12 education system that too often provides unequal opportunity to students, such that would allow all students to thrive and even consider Providence, let alone apply and be admitted.

Seriously, in terms of radicalness, it was like a 6.5 on my normal scale.

But in any event, during the Q&A period things got more interesting. Two conservative students asked me questions — good, tough questions (and indeed the kind I like getting at these sorts of events) — and my answers, and our interactions proved grist for the right-wing “undercover video” mill, despite how incredibly mild and obviously true my remarks were, to which they took such offense.

One of these was a young woman of color who wanted to know — given my “dislike for conservatives and Republicans” — what I would say to people of color who were also conservative, such as herself. I explained that I wouldn’t say anything different to her than any other conservative. Rather, I asked her, as I would anyone on the right, how she would explain the persistent racial disparities between whites and people of color, if she rejects (as the right does, and as she admitted she did), the notion that racism and discrimination, either past, present, or a combination of the two, were largely to blame.

At no point did she even try and answer my question, because like most conservatives, she cannot; at least not without sounding incredibly racist in the process. Because the only possible answer, if one rejects the discrimination thesis as an explanation for ongoing and glaring disparities in income, wealth, education, and elsewhere between whites and black folks, is inherently racist: namely, that those persons of color must in some way be inferior, either biologically or culturally, relative to whites. I waited with baited breath for her — a woman of color — to actually admit that was what she thought. But instead of grappling with the question honestly, she said nothing, beyond her amazing admission that she refuses to accept the simple statement that people of color had ever been disadvantaged in the U.S., or that whites had ever been advantaged, due to racism. In other words, it wasn’t just that she insisted America was an equal opportunity society now (say, because of the civil rights revolution), which is at least an understandable and honorable argument, however wrongheaded I might view it to be. Rather, she refused to so much as acknowledge that the history of racism and white supremacy had ever mattered at all. She was the moral equivalent of a Holocaust denier, so fundamentally irrational and uninformed about basic social reality as to call into question how and why a school as good as Providence would have admitted her as a member of its student body. And to think that she was chagrined by affirmative action ostensibly lowering the academic standards of the school on behalf of the other black kids there? Ah, methinks the lady doth protest too much.

But her friend and conservative colleague’s question — actually it was a statement — was even more interesting. She claimed that I was “anthropologically reductionist” (one of those word casseroles that we learn in college and that some sadly deploy just to show how smart they are), for even noticing something like race. She, on the other hand, in the throes of a deeper (and Scriptural) enlightenment merely saw “people” when she looked around, not colors, and especially “people made in the image of God.” Cue the harps and Vienna Boy’s Choir.

In response, I told her first that such a sentiment was lovely, but, I thought naive. Mostly because even if we accept the notion that we are all merely individuals made in the image of God, the fact is, our identities as whites or people or color, men or women, straight folks or LGBT, have mattered, and have resulted in advantages for some and disadvantages for others. In other words, we can’t treat people as abstractions, removed from their social context and consider that justice. If racism has had consequences — which of course her black friend refused to admit, so no doubt one can understand her confusion — then one must deal with that, and attempt to rectify the injustices that have brought us to this point, not merely gloss over them in the name of some colorblind ecumenism, thereby leaving in place all the unearned advantages obtained by some and unearned disadvantages visited upon the rest. She was, in short, guilty of viewing individuals using a dictionary definition of the term, when what we actually experience in this world in the lives we lead, is an encyclopedic version of ourselves, far more complex than either the dictionary, or certainly the Bible might lead us to believe.

But what I also said — and which apparently created such a firestorm — was the part where I noted that however nice it was to prattle on about people being made in the image of God, that even there, we have a problem in this culture, given how we have created the image of that God to match whiteness. In other words, we have made God white, and Jesus white, as could be seen on any number of crucifixes (or is it crucifi?) around this Catholic campus, including one that was hanging right behind my head while I spoke: a lily-white, Europeanized savior, devoid of any relationship to what first century Jews would have looked like. Until my questioner was prepared to deal with that, and why we had done that, and what it meant, she really was in no position to lecture me about my anthropological reductionism or anything else.

One would think that any reasonably educated person would realize that the whitening of Jesus was an act of white supremacy, undertaken down through many centuries for the purpose of inculcating western and European domination. Constantine, after all, said that the cross was the sign under which he would conquer, not liberate, the world. My comments are not remotely contestable by rational people. But in the eyes of Providence College conservatives, they were heresy of the highest order.

And so today I discovered that someone in the crowd apparently provided a video of my talk to well-known white nationalist (as in, openly so), and Providence resident, Tim Dionisopoulos, and that he had written about it and uploaded it to the web. Therein, Dionisopoulos took special umbrage at my discussion of the white Jesus issue, as if my comments were the height of craziness. And he made special note of the part where I joked that the school should make Jesus black for a year, just to show that his color “really doesn’t matter” (which is what white Christians always tell me when I bring up his whitening, as if to suggest I shouldn’t make a big deal of it). Apparently, some folks think I was being serious and that my comment (obviously intended to lampoon their own unblinking devotion to his pasty whiteness on their campus crosses) suggested some kind of anti-Catholic bias.

The videographers also found it shocking, just shocking that I would suggest the Catholic Church (and really, Christendom more broadly), had been deeply implicated in the genocidal mistreatment of indigenous peoples throughout the Americas. This revelation comes as no surprise to anyone who has studied the history of native peoples, or the church for that matter; indeed, even the Church no longer denies it, though they rarely deal honestly with its implications. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, for instance, has itself noted the history, however bloodlessly as such:

Catholicism’s spread to Native people across the United States resembles in many ways the settling of the country itself. From the earliest days French and Spanish missionaries who came to this world newly discovered by Europeans came as extensions of the colonizing powers. The approach was, in many cases, to force the Natives to accept the faith as part of the process of servitude…

The history of the Alta California missions are instructive here. These were settlements established by Spanish colonizers so as to rapidly assimilate native peoples there into both European culture and Catholicism, under the belief of the Church that it had a moral right to evangelize and that the Spanish crown had a legal right to land. The missions operated by forcibly resettling indigenous persons around the mission itself so as to “convert them” not only from so-called heathens into Catholics, but from savages to civilized peoples, in European terms. Once Indians were Baptized they were disallowed the right to move about the country; rather, they were forced to work at the missions, under the rigid control of the Friars. Indian women, in particular, were housed in such unsanitary conditions at the missions that diseases spread rapidly, resulting in the deaths of thousands. Contemporaries writing at the time noted without compunction that the labor conditions at the missions resembled slavery, and since the native peoples were unpaid for their work — work that ultimately enriched the Catholic Church and the colonial powers with which the Church was entwined — such an analogy is obviously warranted.

Elsewhere the Church contributed directly to the cultural and even physical evisceration of indigenous Americans, in ways that any truly educated person in this country would know, were our schools dedicated to the teaching of anything remotely comporting with truth. For a comprehensive accounting of the evil done in the name of God to indigenous peoples, one need only read George Tinker’s Missionary Conquest: The Gospel and Native American Cultural Genocide, or David Stannard’s meticulously documented, American Holocaust, to see that my comments at Providence, far from indicating a bias against Catholicism, fully dovetail with historical fact, however inconvenient those facts may be for a school that has chosen “Friars” as its sports mascot.

That today’s campus conservatives think challenging the phony whiteness of Jesus, or noting the history of the church’s role in racism makes one a radical is instructive. It speaks to what an utterly sheltered, provincial and fundamentally ignorant world view these persons have been given heretofore, by their parents, high schools, priests and preachers, and by a larger society that has no room for any understanding of America and Christianity that isn’t laudatory. Their inability to hear of evil, let alone address it, is rendered all the less likely by such a sheltering, and their ability to engage in even the simplest rational dialogue with others, or even with history, is made almost impossible.

The good news is, the school is pushing forward with its diversity initiative, and nearly everyone in attendance at the talk cringed and groaned openly at the foolishness of their classmates, there on display. So one can only hope that even at a school like Providence, this too shall pass.

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