I’ve been working with my new church in Richmond on a project to critically examine its history with respect to race in this city. Everyone involved is keenly aware that research, acknowledgement, reflection, and memorialization are not enough. What we learn about the past needs to shape how we think about the world and how we enact our faith in the present and future. To that end, current events are lousy with examples that demand action based on what we have learned about ourselves. Below are two items that I have shared with my new friends and fellow congregants.
On Saturday, Iowa Congressman Steve King tweeted: [Dutch parliamentarian Geert] “Wilders understands that culture and demographics are our destiny. We can’t restore our civilization with somebody else’s babies.” King conceives of contemporary geopolitical transformations as a clash of civilizations, and sexual reproduction and demographics are one battleground.
We’ve made this mistake of conflating race, culture, science, and civilization before. We’ve done it here in Richmond, and here among our faith communities.
In 1886, the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia’s Assistant Bishop, Alfred Randolph, told his denomination,
“The negro, and indeed all the races in the lower stages of civilization, tend toward a divorce of religion from morality. That tendency exists in various forms among all classes of the white race, modified and controlled by long ages of discipline by Christian law and public sentiment, by the churches and the Bible.”
Several thousand years of rehearsal in balancing morality and self-government, in short, had prepared whites for modern democracy. Randolph said this, interestingly, while advocating greater white investment in African American education, sincerely believing that in some distant future, blacks, too, would reach a higher stage of civilization. He incorporated the latest thinking about evolutionary science—that certain races, conditioned by experience, had attained cultural traits necessary to manage the complexities of democratic self-government. For these reasons, Virginia’s white political leaders had little compunction in disfranchising African Americans in 1902, and otherwise marginalizing them from public life.
But as segregation took root in the early twentieth century, scientific thinking—particularly in biology—continued to inform the ways that religious people approached race relations (.pdf). So, too, did the massive influx of immigrants from southern and eastern Europe. Convinced that racial, or criminal, character traits could be passed through bloodlines, the Virginia General Assembly passed a series of “racial integrity acts” in the 1920s to prevent interracial marriages, officially sanction segregation in public spaces, and codify the “one drop rule.” The white race, they believed, had to ensure an unsullied purity to survive and maintain democratic standards.To do otherwise would risk “race suicide.”
Many white Virginians supported this agenda by joining “Anglo-Saxon Clubs.” A national Anglo-Saxon Club of America convened in Richmond in 1923 to outline its principles, including, “limitation of immigration, with exclusion of unassimalible [sic] elements,” and to “honor racial integrity, “and “white supremacy.” The Reverend Beverly D. Tucker, rector at St. Paul’s Episcopal church delivered a welcome to the convention and “spoke eloquently on fundamental Anglo-Saxon principles.”*
We know the outcome of assigning alleged traits of civilization to racial groups or cultures: the maintenance and perpetuation of gross racial inequalities public health, education, residential access, and economic opportunity that have yet to be truly overcome. I don’t know how you can avoid that happening again if following King’s lead.
Congressman King is not the only advocate of this view. The present administration has as its closest advisors men who would classify immigrants and non-Christians as “unassimalible.” In light of our own past, I believe we have an obligation to use our historical competency to continue (following the example of our clergy) to stand in public opposition to these things.
*Rev. Tucker did this and likely believed it, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t note that on critical issues of race relations he tipped this church firmly toward the remarkably liberal place it eventually became.
The Virginia General Assembly recently offered House Resolution No. 297, “Recognizing the influence of Christian heritage in Virginia.” HR 297 insists that
“the Judeo-Christian principles, as established in the Law of Moses and set forth from the earliest days of recorded history of equality, human dignity, and equal protection under the law have provided an incalculable influence on law and thought throughout history, and in particular to our shared English common law tradition and Western civilization…”
In a series of Whereases, HR 297 jumps from Jamestown (and Pocahontas) quickly to Oliver Hill, the civil rights attorney memorialized on the Virginia Captiol grounds. Good for mentioning Hill, as it suggests that he’s getting worked into popular historical narratives.
But his inclusion is utterly opportunistic, and the leap of Jamestown to Hill is, well, kinda missing something. Several generations of Virginia Christians who dominated the political, social, and religious life of the Commonwealth (read: white) before and after emancipation enacted a religious program of “human dignity and equal protection” that insisted on the enslavement and subordination of African Americans. It makes no sense to us, but they considered slavery, racial hierarchy, and religious paternalism toward black people to be a sacred obligation demanded by God (or, the “Law of Moses,” if you will). Their certainty utterly undermines any confidence I might have about any moral conviction I possess. It should make the General Assembly hesitate to make the claims it does in HR 297.