Category Archives: race

Talking Tocqueville at the Acton Institute

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Just returned home from Grand Rapids, Michigan where I was honored to give a talk on “How to Read Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America” for the Acton Lecture Series. I lectured for about half and hour and then we had a great Q&A session afterwards about the role of voluntary associations in public life, religion and politics, the frontier and American identity, racial prejudice and slavery, and thinking historically about Tocqueville’s classic work. The audience was exceptionally well read, as evidenced by one person who brought along her copy of George Wilson Pierson’s Tocqueville in America to the lecture and referenced it in her question.

My host for the event was Trey Dimsdale, my former colleague at Southwestern’s Land Center for Cultural Engagement. He accepted a position at Acton this past July as Program Outreach Director. Trey had a big year this year–he finished his Ph.D. residency at Southwestern (AOS, ethics), passed the Texas Bar exam, and moved himself and his family from Ft. Worth to Grand Rapids in a U-Haul with no power steering and no cruise control.

My lecture was focused on the importance of grasping the historical context of Democracy in America as a necessary discipline for appreciating the many insights and perspectives Tocqueville offered in his classic work. Tocqueville was born into an ancient, yet only moderately wealthy, aristocratic line in 1805 and died in 1859. His great grandfather went to the guillotine during the Terror, and his father and mother were imprisoned and scheduled for execution. They were released from prison only after the execution of Robespierre. The experience of the Revolution lingered over the family for decades, and Tocqueville’s perspective on America was shaped by his family’s experiences. He was also deeply impacted by the rise and fall of Napoleon and the July Revolution of 1830 which toppled the restored Bourbon monarchy and raised Louis-Philippe to power. Perhaps the most salient feature of French political, social, economic, and religious culture during Tocqueville’s life was instability. When Tocqueville came to America, one of the features that struck him was the comparative stability of American culture, even though the United States was born out of a revolution.

We also have to understand that Tocqueville visited America during a ten month window of time in 1831-1832. That world is long gone. Tocqueville is often considered to be something of a prophet, because there are some uncanny warnings and prognostications in his work that we clearly recognize in contemporary times. It is also tempting to be nostalgic about the America that Tocqueville saw in the early 1830s. Tocqueville strenuously believed in human freedom, that persons were responsible for their own choices and actions. Although he believed that the spread of democracy was being directed by God, and hereditary privilege would soon be irresistibly supplanted by a providentially directed world movement of equality, he rejected historical determinism. He never considered himself anything more than a studious observer of America–an America that, while he admired many characteristics about its people, institutions, and habits, still did not escape his criticisms. One of his most penetrating censures was how Americans tolerated slavery, and more importantly, race prejudice. “Slavery recedes,” Tocqueville said of free blacks in the North, “but the prejudice to which it has given birth is immovable. . . . Thus the Negro is free, but he can share neither the rights, nor the pleasures, nor the labor, nor the affictions, nor the tomb of him whose equal he has been declared to be; and he cannot meet him upon fair terms in life or in death.” Nostalgia for 1831 America is misguided for many reasons–but with regard to reading Democracy in America, we completely miss the point of the book if we pine for a recovery of the past.

So it was a great visit. Ben Domenech of The Federalist will be up next, speaking on “The Rise of American Populism.”

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Cover Art for *Democracy in America* Abridgment is Ready

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Looking good! Available early November.

Memories of the Confederacy and Black Lives Matter

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Lee Park, Charlottesville, Virginia

I have written about my family’s Confederate heritage in the past here at the blog (see here and here). My grandparents were like second parents to my brother and I growing up. They sought to instill in us an appreciation and love for our Southern heritage and for our ancestors who helped shape it.

As a child and as a young man, I idolized my grandmother and grandfather. In many ways, I still do. They died when I was in my early twenties–and over twenty years after their deaths, I still have the urge sometimes to pick up the phone to call them (I still remember their phone number with the same ease I remember my date of birth; and I still carry their house key on my key ring). Their portraits hang in my house and I keep their memory alive by talking about them with my children. So, it is sometimes hard to distinguish between my love for them and my yearning to honor their memory from how I think about the South with all its historical complexities. I love the South and much of its history because I associate it with my family, to which of course I will always be devoted.

And yet, I am ashamed that my ancestors were slave owners, and that some of them were instrumental in defining the pro-slavery positions argued in public discourse during the 1840s and 50s. Some of my ancestors served as senior officers in the Army of Northern Virginia and another in the Confederate Senate. After the war, some of my ancestors’ former slaves continued to serve as domestic servants. I wrote about some of those former slaves here.

On the issue of the propriety of displaying Confederate monuments in public places, my views have changed over the years. If you had asked me five years ago about whether or not it was appropriate to display monuments commemorating the Confederacy, I would have advocated for it strenuously. But spending time reading Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, W. E. B. Du Bois, Carter Woodson, MLK, Jr., Malcolm X, Cornel West, and other African-American writers; after building building relationships with scholars of African-American history like Phillip Luke Sinitiere, Edward Blum, Edward Carson, Keisha Blain, Robert W. Williams, Vincent Bacote (a theologian), and others in the African American Intellectual History Society; after teaching in the Darrington prison, which is predominately black (and see Michelle Alexander’s book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness); and after reflecting on biblical teachings on unity in Christ and neighbor-love, I have come to see this issue of Confederate monuments in a different way.

For example, in my former home of Charlottesville, VA, an equestrian statue of Robert E. Lee has kept vigil over the city square adjacent to the courthouse since the 1920s. It is an impressive statue, and the park where it sits, Lee Park, is beautiful and tranquil. Recently, a fifteen year old Charlottesville High School student started a petition to have the statue removed and to rename the park. The city council has taken up the issue and will decide on the fate of the park in the next month or so. As you might imagine, the issue is extremely controversial.

I recently co-authored a piece over at Then and Now with Edward Carson on this issue. In reflecting on the student’s petition, I am left to ask–who exactly is making the request that the statue be taken down and the park renamed? Is this a group of foreigners? Are they carpetbaggers? Are they outsiders? Or are they members of the community fully vested in its interests? In other words, are the people Charlottesvillians? Virginians? Americans?

If they are outsiders, then their request should be taken with a grain of salt. But if they are full fledged members of the community, then their voices should be taken seriously even by those who would disagree.

Consider a historical parallel. All over the colonies during the 1770s and 1780s, Americans were removing statues of George III. They did so because he no longer served as an appropriate symbol of the people. They were no longer his subjects. And it was entirely appropriate for them to remove those statues. Furthermore, the people hauling down the statues were not Frenchmen or Spanish interlopers. They were Americans. They had the legitimate emotional, political, logical, and historical bases to do so and nobody objected by calling on the historical value of statues of the king of England.

Robert E. Lee–notwithstanding the nobility of his character, his Christian faith, or even his magnanimous attitude after the war–is not a unifying symbol in Charlottesville, or anywhere else. As a symbol, Lee is divisive. To significant elements of our local communities all over the South, Lee is a repelling force. The question of whether or not he should be divisive as a symbol is another question. The fact is, he is.

The last thing Americans need is one more thing to divide them. We are already incurably divided up into factions so much so that another civil war actually seems possible. It is unfortunate indeed that no matter what happens with Lee Park–whether the statue stays or goes–the decision of the city council is going to be divisive.

But here I will offer some unsolicited advice to my friends who would advocate for keeping the statue. First, I am one of you. I have more than my share of Confederate heritage credentials. My great great great grandfather was Thomas R. R. Cobb, chairman of the Confederate Constitutional drafting committee, brigadier general under Longstreet, killed in action at Fredericksburg after hurling back the main Federal assault six times from the Sunken Road. My great great great uncle, Howell Cobb, was former Speaker of the US House of Representatives, Secretary of the Treasury under Buchanan, major general in the Confederate army, and Confederate Senator from Georgia.

Second, we who love our Southern heritage need to honestly investigate the impact of our ancestors’ actions on black persons. We need to ask–why do African-American persons react the way they do to Confederate soldiers and statesmen? Why does the pain of slavery endure after all these years? How would we see a statue of Lee or Forrest or A. S. Johnston if we were black and growing up in a small Southern town? And what would we think about Confederate memorials if 7/8 of the period of our experience on this continent since 1619 was defined in terms of slavery or state sponsored apartheid?

Or let us think of the issue another way. What would we as Americans think about a statue displayed in a public park of George III? Or Santa Anna? Kaiser Wilhelm II? Yamamoto? Rommel? Ho Chi Minh? Saddam Hussein? Osama bin Laden? What do all of these figures have in common? The United States was at war with each of these leaders, and many of us can claim family members who fought and died to defeat them.

If black people are Americans, does it not make sense that those Americans would recoil from commemorating the enemy of their country?

We who have emotional attachments to the Southern Confederacy can honor our ancestors’ memory without continuing to ignore and marginalize the historical experiences of our fellow citizens who are African American. We can honor our ancestors’ memories, remembering that they were not gods, but sinful men and women. In honoring them, we must apply honesty and humility when we remember the meaning of their lives’ work, work which was not always performed for the flourishing of all persons. I know that my grandparents would not want me to deify them, but to remember them with honesty. I like to think that my nineteenth century ancestors would want the same.

A fellow conservative recently accused me of being PC friendly the other day because I said that there are valuable aspects to the Black Lives Matter movement. Everyone–especially Christian people–should affirm the human personhood of black people. I don’t agree with everything associated (fairly or not) with Black Lives Matter. However, I do think that the statement “black lives matter” is true, and deeply meaningful given that American society has not historically affirmed the truth of that statement.

It is tragic indeed that African American persons often think they need to make the statement at all. It is also sad that more Christian people do not rise up in solidarity with black folks who see the necessity of making the statement.

Count me in as a white Southern conservative Christian who stands in solidarity with African Americans. From a Christian perspective, this seems to be a no-brainer: black lives matter.

New Abridgment of Tocqueville’s *Democracy in America* Forthcoming

Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859) , french jurist and political thinker, painting by Chasseriau

Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859) , french jurist and political thinker, painting by Chasseriau (Photo by Apic/Getty Images)

I’ve been out of the blogosphere the past several weeks because I have been finishing up my abridgment of Alexis de Tocqueville’s classic work, Democracy in America for Lexham Press. My project was specifically to take a Goldilocks approach to editing this book–to produce an abridgment that was not too short, not too long, but “just right.” Tocqueville’s two volume work comes in at just over 300,000 words, and I brought it down to 150,000. I hope it will serve as a useful resource for students in high school and college, but more importantly, I hope that it is accessible to the broader public.

I included a 9000 word introduction to Tocqueville’s work. In the introduction, I gave a brief biography of Tocqueville and also touched on some of his major themes. Equality of condition, despotism, liberty, manners, religion, exceptionalism, and interest rightly understood figure prominently in Democracy. These are, indeed, some of the things for which the book is most famous. But Tocqueville’s chapter on race–chapter XVIII of Volume I–is the longest chapter in the book. And while Tocqueville admitted that race was a secondary topic in the book, he was unable to simply ignore it. I find it interesting also that Tocqueville’s views on race, which were quite forward thinking for his time, are often slighted or ignored altogether by many who have analyzed his work. One abridgment that I am aware of does not even include chapter XVIII–which I found to be a profound weakness.

One of the ways I hope the abridgment will be useful is that I did not cut any chapter out in either volume I or II. I also did not cut any of Tocqueville’s sentences short. I tried to make logical cuts at appropriate points in the prose, without disturbing Tocqueville’s overall development of his ideas.

More on this project later, but the good news is that I recently submitted the manuscript to the publisher. It should come out in late 2016 in three formats–electronically, as part of the Logos Bible Software platform; paperback; and cloth bound hardback.

In the meantime, head over to The American Conservative and see my op-ed on Tocqueville and the importance of manners in a democracy, and what they say about the status of our national character and value-assumptions.

Chapel Hill Bound for First @AAIHS Meeting

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W. E. B. Du Bois and Ida B. Wells, Courtesy of AAIHS

I am really looking forward to attending the first conference of the African American Intellectual History Society later this week at UNC-Chapel Hill. The university is my wife’s alma mater, so it will be fun to relive some old memories there. Looking forward also to harassing some old friends over in Wake Forest at Southeastern Seminary. And I’m excited to stop in and check in with my mother and father-in-law to make sure they’re behaving.

But I am truly honored to be a member of this society and also to have the opportunity to present a paper on a panel on W. E. B. Du Bois and American history alongside three good friends with sharp minds. Phillip Luke Sinitiere, author of Salvation with a Smile: Joel Osteen, Lakewood Church, and American Christianity (NYU Press, 2015) and Edward Carson, co author of Historical Thinking Skills: A Workbook for European History (Norton, 2016) are two of my co-panelists. My third co-panelist is a former student of mine, Vondre Cash, who graduated from Southwestern’s Darrington extension in 2015. While he remains incarcerated at Darrington, he is recording his presentation and I will play it for our audience when his turn comes up to present. I am really excited for him, as he joins the scholarly conversation on Du Bois. Sinitiere’s paper is entitled “Environmental Intellectual: W. E. B. Du Bois and Nature”; Carson’s is “W.E.B. Du Bois’s Editorial Influence on Negro Migration and the Western Color Line;”and Cash’s paper is entitled “Unresolved Problem of the 20th Century: W. E. B. Du Bois and the Continuing Struggle for the Social Regeneration of African Americans.”

My paper is entitled “What, Then, Is The American? Crèvecoeur and Du Bois on American Identity.” I am contrasting two views on American identity, arguing that Crèvecoeur’s view was defined by broad opportunities for material advancement (the American dream), while Du Bois’s view was informed by a generously spiritual notion of human personhood.

See information about the conference and download the conference program here. If you are in the area, please join us.

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.

Ta-Nehisi Coates, David Brooks, and “Listening While White”

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Image credit: Penguin Random House

I just finished reading Ta-Nehisi Coates’ bracing Between the World and Me. It came in the mail this afternoon, and I picked it up to read this evening. I could not put it down. I read it in one sitting.

This morning, before receiving my copy of Coates’ book length letter to his son, I read David Brooks’ article, “Listening to Ta-Nehisi Coates While White.”

Since I had not yet read Coates’ book, it was hard to critically assess Brooks’ piece. Now that I have read Coates’ book, I am most uncomfortable re-reading Brooks’ words.

I enjoy David Brooks’ writings. I don’t agree with him on everything. He’s definitely to my political left. But I often find him insightful, and he helps me consider points of view that I might not have considered had I not read his insights on some particular topic.

But perhaps Brooks should have indulged himself in a couple of solid nights’ sleep before writing this particular piece. I think–and take this for what it’s worth–but I think that perhaps Brooks would have been better served to follow his stated first intuitions–and just sat and listened.

Coates’ world is not my world. He describes my world as if it were part of another galaxy, separated by light years of cold and empty space from his own. I was one of those

little white boys with complete collections of football cards, and their only want was a popular girlfriend and their only worry was poison oak. That other world was suburban and endless, organized around pot roasts, blueberry pies, fireworks, ice cream sundaes, immaculate bathrooms, and small toy trucks that were loosed in wooded backyards with streams and glens (20).

Aside from the football cards and pot roast, Coates described the world I grew up in as accurately as though he were one of the Dillon brothers who lived next door to me on Brook Hollow Road.

But he didn’t grow up next door to me. He grew up in Baltimore. He grew up in a black body, a body that was perpetually in danger of being destroyed.

The crews walked the blocks of their neighborhood, loud and rude, because it was only through their loud rudeness that they might feel any sense of security and power. They would break your jaw, stomp your face, and shoot you down to feel that power, to revel in the might of their own bodies. . . . To survive the neighborhoods and shield my body, I learned another language consisting of head nods and handshakes. I memorized a list of prohibited blocks. I learned the smell and feel of fighting weather (22-23).

I didn’t grow up in Coates’ world. And he didn’t grow up in mine. And I do not live in a black body, so I have to concentrate as I read each word in this book in order to strain at understanding just what it is he is talking about. There isn’t time to think about what I think of his words. There is only time to listen and learn–while white.

In his article, Brooks writes,

I read this all like a slap and a revelation. I suppose the first obligation is to sit with it, to make sure the testimony is respected and sinks in. But I have to ask, Am I displaying my privilege if I disagree? Is my job just to respect your experience and accept your conclusions? Does a white person have standing to respond?”

He then assumes the answer is yes, and goes on to say,

If I do have standing, I find the causation between the legacy of lynching and some guy’s decision to commit a crime inadequate to the complexity of most individual choices.

I think you distort American history. This country, like each person in it, is a mixture of glory and shame. There’s a Lincoln for every Jefferson Davis and a Harlem Children’s Zone for every K.K.K. — and usually vastly more than one. Violence is embedded in America, but it is not close to the totality of America.

No, I do not think that a white person has standing–at least to disagree. And I’m not saying this as a guilt-wracked liberal. Who am I to disagree with that about which I know nothing? So what is the proper response from one who is, yes, white and privileged?

I think the proper response is to be quiet; to listen; to let the man speak and be heard. To let the man speak and be heard, not out of pity because of his experiences, not out of sorrow over past injuries to his people, but because of his humanity. And also because he is sharing with all of us a deeply personal letter to his son, his very flesh and blood.

Brooks closes his piece with these words:

Maybe you will find my reactions irksome. Maybe the right white response is just silence for a change. In any case, you’ve filled my ears unforgettably.

Yes, the right response is silence. For a change. Let privileged white commentary on the wisdom bestowed by a black father to his son on living in a black body be overshadowed and hushed, at least this once.

Toni Morrison, in her endorsement of the book, said that Coates was “clearly” the person to “fill the intellectual void that plagued me after James Baldwin died.” Baldwin also wrote a letter to a young relative, his nephew James, to be exact. The letter is included in his work, The Fire Next Time, and is entitled “My Dungeon Shook: Letter to My Nephew on the One Hundredth Anniversary of the Emancipation.”

Speaking of white people, Baldwin said to his 15-year-old nephew:

There is no reason for you to try to become like white people. . . The really terrible thing, old buddy, is that you must accept them. And I mean that very seriously. You must accept them and accept them with love. For these innocent people have no other hope. They are, in effect, still trapped in a history which they do not understand; and until they understand it, they cannot be released from it.

Baldwin goes on to say:

And if the word integration means anything, this is what it means: that we, with love, shall force our brothers [white people] to see themselves as they are, to cease fleeing from reality and begin to change it. . . . The country is celebrating one hundred years of freedom one hundred years too soon. We cannot be free until they are free.

Instead of feeling the need to defend the American dream, to justify American history, to inform Coates of one’s own differing personal narrative, and to disagree with Coates’ perspective–sit at the man’s feet, be his student, and ask, What can I learn from reading Coates, rather than, what can Coates learn from reading me? Because if Baldwin was right, then it is we who are white who need to be taught.