Thank God for Critical Race Theory (Part 2)

In the wake of Donald Trump’s election, SNL featured a skit entitled ‘Election Night.’

In this skit, all the white progressive friends in the apartment are shell-shocked that America has elected Donald Trump. “Oh my God, I think America is…racist!” a white friend exclaims. The two Black friends (Dave Chapelle & Chris Rock) look at each other, unable to contain their laughter, “Oh my God!” they reply with smirky sarcasm. Implication: And what else is new? This is lack of surprise at the enduring reality of racism is the perspective that CRT comes from.

In my previous post, I said I thank God for CRT because it’s given me “eyes to see” the less obvious, but no less insidious incarnations of racial injustice, which has helped me better live out my vocation to love God and my neighbor. In this post, I will share the second insight I thank God for, something that is not so ‘insightful’ to most Black people: that racism is permanent.

CRT founder Derrick Bell—who looked back, after years working for desegregation as a litigator, and saw racial inequality get worse—came to this sobering conclusion about America:

“Racism is permanent. It is an essential. It is not an aberration. It is not what most of us believed it was 30-40 years ago: a pimple on an otherwise beautiful complexion of America as a place of freedom and equality for all.”

Bell is clear to say that America is not unique in being oppressive, but it is unique in that systemic racism (of Blacks, in particular) is in the very foundation of our nation. Just read our Constitution, racism is part of our institutional and cultural DNA. Imagining America without racism is like imagining Las Vegas without Sin. Racism is permanent. We should not be surprised that racism hasn’t been defeated yet.

This stands in stark contrast to the story I grew up with—that with the Emancipation of slaves, the gains of the Civil Rights Movement, and the election of our nation’s first Black president—that we are on the path of inevitable progress towards racial equality. It also stands in stark contrast to our current racial justice movement that suggests that with more cell phone videos, with more protests, with more representation, with more reform, with more justice, then we can end racism; something that is palpable in our current moment is an impatience with racism. But Bell counters with this warning: “Yearning for racial equality is a fantasy.” CRT is a form of ‘Racial Realism.’

How depressing! Doesn’t this pessimism about racism just lead to despair? It can. But Bell says, facing the enduring reality of racism is like facing our inevitable death. If you learn you’re going to die, you can respond with despair and suicide—how can you possibly beat death? Or, in accepting your death, you can resolve to overcome in a different way: by determining to still live a meaningful life.

Some people believe CRT is anti-Christian. But Bell was actually inspired by the Christian spirituality of slaves and those living in the Deep South. Did the slaves of old have any real hope of escaping slavery in this life? No. But listen to their negro spirituals. Did they resist the power that slavery had over them? Yes. Did they give into despair? No. Did they still fight against the realities of racial oppression? Yes. Did they find other ways to overcome within the brutal reality of racism? Absolutely. The resilient, life-giving, hope-filled faith of the Black slaves reminds me of the saints of the Old Testament: All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance, admitting that they were foreigners and strangers on earth…. These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised (Hebrews 11:13, 39). While they believed that racial equality would not be achieved until the next life, their faith still taught them how to live in this one.

Does this mean Bell sought to merely ‘spiritualize’ victory in the face of physical oppression? No. He tells the story of an old Black woman in rural Mississippi who fought relentlessly against systemic and cultural racism in her town. In response, racist Whites would drive by in the night shooting through her house, trying to take her farm away. There was no indication that she was making significant progress against racism in her town. Whites had more money, more power, more everything. “Why do you keep fighting?” Bell asked. The old woman replied, “Derrick, I’m an old lady and I lives to harass White folks.” Now, before you misinterpret ‘harass White folks’ as hateful, remember this is like a mouse who lives to harass cats, not the other mice. It’s not hate; it’s a refusal to give up, it’s resistance against dehumanization, it’s a smiling middle finger in the face of Death—what Bell calls a kind of existential triumph.

Racism is permanent, but that didn’t stop her from holding her head up high, it didn’t stop her from fighting for her community, it didn’t stop her from living a truly meaningful life. If she believed that she could defeat racism, then perhaps she would live in greater frustration and bitterness. But since she knew racism was bigger than her, that sobering reality freed her from having to wait for racism to end before living a meaningful life.

And aren’t the parallels to the Christianity plain? On this side of the resurrection, aren’t sin and death enduring realities? Even Lazarus would eventually die again. One of the great conceits of our times is that, by our own knowledge, we can actually solve the problem of sin and death. Most of us actually believe we are less sinful than previous generations. Most of us are willing to throw the kitchen sink and more to stave off age and death. Yet Christianity, one of the original critical theories, says that we are just as wicked and perverse as the generations that have come before us. But far from plunging us into despair, the Gospel tells us two things:

  1. Christ will defeat sin and death once and for all. While we are called to fight against sin, to resist the wiles of the Evil One, to speak truth to power, the Bible never says that we will defeat sin and death. For people with power, this is news. But for people without power, it’s Good News. As a Black sister in Christ recently told me, “We don’t expect you to solve 400 years of racism.” Or a Black pastor, “We aren’t going to end racism, only Jesus can do that when he returns.” The burden isn’t on us. And thank God! But because the burden is on Christ, we have a real hope to the end of racism—and all expressions of sin and death.
  2. In Christ, the fight against sin and death is still meaningful, even when we don’t see victory. The meaning of our lives will not be measured by our success over sin and death any more than that old lady in Mississippi will be judged by how much she prevailed over White supremacy. Rather, meaning is found in choosing to love our neighbors, even in the midst of so much indifference; choosing to forgive, even when there’s so much hurt; choosing to strive for justice, even when injustice seems so entrenched; speaking truth to power, even when they are so immensely powerful; choosing to thank God, even when it looks so dark; choosing to hold our heads high, even if Death will inevitably bring our heads down to the ground. Because in the end, we won’t be judged by our fruitfulness—that was never in our control; instead, the word we will wait to hear is whether or not we were faithful.

“For the Lord loves the just and will not forsake his faithful ones. Wrongdoers will be completely destroyed; the offspring of the wicked will perish.”
‭‭Psalms‬ ‭37:28‬ ‭

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