The Tamir Rice Case and American Exceptionalism

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This week, I contributed a post at Then and Now on how the Tamir Rice case flies in the face of closed American exceptionalism, particularly the notion of American innocence. As I wrote in American Exceptionalism and Civil Religion, American innocence is one of several key religious commitments in closed American exceptionalism. American innocence–the notion that America has no social ills like the rest of the nations of the world, that American is an inherently good nation–is clearly called in question when it comes to race prejudice. In the post, I try to think historically about the idea of American innocence as well as racial injustice. And in a related development, InterVarsity Christian Fellowship has gone on record supporting #BlackLivesMatter at its huge Urbana missions conference, as Religion News Service was first to report. This is noteworthy–a major evangelical para-church organization has come forward without ambiguity to urge Christians to take a stand in solidarity with the movement. We’ll see what impact this development makes in the new year.

Here is a short segment of my piece at Then and Now.

The notion that America is normatively different than other nations, that America does not suffer social ills like everyone else, is not new. The idea can be traced back to the first colonial efforts of the European kingdoms in the 16th and 17th centuries. European imaginations were moved by the western hemisphere’s stark newness to them. Thomas More wrote Utopia in 1516, contrasting the “new world” with overpopulated and degenerate Europe. In the excellent book The Intellectual Construction of America, Jack Greene wrote, “By associating Utopia with the New World, More . . . effectively directed attention not just to Europe’s own internal social, moral, and political problems but also to the as yet unknown potential of the immense New World.”

But racial prejudice is also found at the roots of North American civilization. If we sound the deepest parts of our identity as Americans, we find white supremacy along with the many forms of social ills that attend it as they have appeared over the four centuries since the first slaver in Jamestown. The tragedy Tamir Rice suffered—along with his community—is one manifestation of race prejudice’s degradation of American civilization.

W. E. B. Du Bois’s 1896 monograph The Suppression of the African Slave-Trade to the United States of America: 1638-1870 was based on his Ph.D. dissertation at Harvard. The work is, as Du Bois described it, “a small contribution to the scientific study of slavery and the American Negro.”

Du Bois closed with a short section he called “A Lesson for Americans.” There he reminded readers that as great as the founders were, they were flawed human beings seeking to achieve union of the colonies at the expense of leaving the monster of slavery in its cradle to thrive, flourish, and grow to ultimately turn on the new nation and tear it apart.

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