Ralph Ellison’s 1952 novel Invisible Man is a Molotov cocktail. It presents a complex legacy of America’s racial history. The book’s length and experimental prose style make it dizzying. But that’s arguably the point: America has been driven so crazy by its irresolvable racial grudges that the only truthful response to racial problems is dizziness.
In the same way that Moses Maimomides wrote The Guide for the Perplexed and told Jews that the goal of contemplation was perplexity (because the only things worth contemplating have no clear answers so you know you are enlightened when you find yourself feeling bewildered), so Ellison’s tale of an educated black man trying to find success teaches us about race by teaching us to experience confusion.
At the core of Ellison’s novel is the nameless main character. He goes from hard work at a Southern black college with white trustees to Harlem. In New York he falls in with militant groups afflicted by disunity and paranoia. Once you get about a hundred pages into the epic, you may begin to feel nausea because every camp from paternalistic racists to black Communists to anti-black bigots exhibits similar dysfunctional thinking. In fact, every camp has many subgroups battling with each other, and each subgroup suffers its own schisms. None of them practices what they actually preach.
To search for a unified and non-hypocritical belief system, you arrive finally at the unit of an individual, one human being who can claim his thoughts and memories as his own. Yet we have an individual–and a loquacious one at that–in the main character of the novel. He presents as an unreliable narrator who might be making up or embellishing the story. The possibility that he’s insane never falls out of the text. Even the solitary unit of the person, in whom Rene Descartes invested so much faith, is ultimately fragmented and confused.
Ellison stated unapologetically that he was not writing Invisible Man as protest or agitprop literature. He broke from the longstanding black tradition of imbuing narratives with political or religious purposes. Instead, Ellison vomits out the disorienting vignettes of a nation so deep in racial psychosis that any of our existing means of racial reconciliation promise only to add more layers of futility and frustration.
My main pleasure in reading Ellison’s novel is the close identification I feel with the nameless protagonist. If you’ve journeyed through many stations of racial madness, as I have since the 1970s, you can relate to the exasperated mood of the story. Ellison pinpoints institutional dishonesty that surrounds racial politics. One unforgettable part of the plot involves a bundle of sealed recommendation letters that the main character carries around from the administrators at his all-black college. It turns out that the letters actually instruct recipients to avoid hiring the man, charging him with a range of personality defects. When race is the game, the most common maneuvers are the feint and the sucker punch.
People of color contend with racism from white people but we also deal with many shenanigans from other people of color. Ellison captured that brilliantly in a way that many today, 70 years later, still fear to admit. At many junctures I found a trend. Ethnic minorities, especially ones who had built their success on approval from white liberal hierarchies, had allergic reactions to other ethnic minorities getting ahead. I can think of countless examples from my twenty years in academia, but one fracas from 2004 might suffice.
I wrote a paper on William Wells Brown’s book Clotel, and submitted it to a conference panel on nineteenth-century black literature. A Latina professor named Xiomara Santamarina chaired that panel. When I got there, she had me on the panel with Sam Otter, a white Berkeley professor, and an African American professor from Brown University. I argued that the novel Garies and Friends by Frank J. Webb was more aesthetically coherent according to the standards of nineteenth-century novels, though Clotel, by rejecting the aesthetic standards of the time, succeeded by failing because it resisted the stifling standards held by readers. My point was that Clotel overcame predominant white values by refusing to suit the taste of whites. While my reading of Clotel and Garies was not standard for the field at the time, there was certainly nothing outrageous about what I was saying. But Santamarina became furious over what I said. Later I realized Santamarina knew that Sam Otter and Robert Levine, two white professors with high standing in our field, did not see Clotel the way I did. Both bigwigs were in the audience. I was inadvertently bucking their frameworks.
“Robert, you just can’t walk around saying that Clotel is an aesthetic failure,” Santamarina trolled me as soon as the session opened up for questions. Of course I had said something much more complicated than that. The fact that my dissertation and first academic book dealt extensively with Clotel and cast the author, William Wells Brown, as a genius of his time, shows that I wasn’t going around bashing the black novelist’s writing abilities. I had, in the same presentation, referred to Garies as a black novel that clearly succeeded by white American aesthetic standards.
But Santamarina and I were the only Latinos on the stage, and she felt some deep need to prove herself by ripping me apart in front of black scholars and white liberals, the two groups that published all the scholarship on Clotel up until that point. She goaded Sam Otter to undercut me with diplomacy, as he said, “Robert, I just think that you should be open to conversation and to hearing other people’s assessments on the novel,” which was frankly a silly thing to say given that I was participating in a question-and-answer session and was listening to other people’s opinions. I just had a different opinion.
Robert Levine, a luminary in nineteenth-century black literature despite being a white man, decided to nuke me as we were halfway through the discussion time. “I take it you haven’t read my work on Clotel,” he told me. I had. But before I could explain that I had, he said, “I have already refuted your assessment of Clotel point by point.” This is preposterous as his work on Clotel had nothing to do with what I had just presented. Santamarina was beside herself with approval at seeing him sink me in front of the biggest scholars in the field.
The black people in the room were not joining in to attack me, but they were not defending me either. One African American woman raised her hand to ask why Santamarina had chosen to assemble a panel so focused on black middle-class writers. Quickly Santamarina apologized for having placed me on the panel and said it was a regrettable mistake, but one she made because she falsely believed I held some promise. The black woman corrected her, saying, “I wasn’t referring to him or anything about the composition of the panel–I was referring to your decisions as the panel organizer.”
I would see Xiomara Santamarina over the years at other conferences, always chatty with powerful white liberals and the black writers whom powerful white liberals anointed as acceptable scholars. Her most recent listing on the University of Michigan website shows that she’s still a voice in African American literature, so her careful preservation of goodwill from the liberal elites has really paid off. While I went home from the 2004 conference feeling beaten up and betrayed, I also watched how that crowd of academics evolved (or failed to evolve) in the decade following and came to feel better about where I went in the profession.
In all honesty, I am way happier where I am in life than I would be if I had followed in their footsteps.
The Craziness is the Feature, not a bug
This is the kind of racial psychosis that you confront, when you are a person of color interfacing with institutions that pay lip service to racial reconciliation while still concentrating all the power in the hands of white people. Whether the whites in control hate you for being a minority or love you as long as you fit in with their programs, the result is the same. Xiomara Santamarina had a survival instinct that told her she couldn’t allow any people too similar to her to come up beside her, unless their statements dovetailed with hers and placated the powerful people–ultimately, whites–who would determine who got published and who got invited to speak at places. Don’t think this was an anti-conservative thing, either. At this point I was a staunch liberal and was publishing in left-wing journals like CounterPunch. That didn’t matter. The system is designed to find something to stop people of color from scaling to the higher levels, except under the most stringent conditions.
The best you can hope for is inclusion in some claustrophobic clique like the feminists who ran the Latino Literature and Culture Society, of which I was secretary once upon a time. Some day I’ll do a post just on those interesting gals.
The Southern Baptist Convention’s Racial Madness
So let’s get to my 2020 stomping grounds: the evangelical wheelhouse of the SBC.
Even if I had never come forward as a conservative, I would have been ousted from academia one way or another, mostly because of race. People of color in tormented institutions like academia find themselves lonelier and more isolated the higher they go up the ladder. Certainly once you are in a profession and moving up the ladder, you cannot count on people of your race to support you more than other people. Quite often they are so concerned with keeping the support from powerful whites that they will police you like fascists, fearing that any misconduct on your part may reflect badly on them. That’s what Ellison was getting at in Invisible Man.
Founded in 1845 as a pro-slavery denomination, the SBC has been beaten and scolded for a long time about racist history. A search of resolutions shows that in 13 of the last 30 years, the Convention has passed resolutions against racism: 1989, 1993, 1995,1996, 2007, 2009, 2010, 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018 (twice), and 2019. The Baptist Faith and Message of 2000 makes rejection of racism a non-negotiable tenet of the denomination’s core beliefs.
Nobody is advocating for racism anywhere in the Southern Baptist Convention at this point. Overwhelmingly people accept the Bible-based position of the Baptist Faith and Message, that all races are formed in the image of God (imago dei) and to mistreat someone based on race is to disrespect God’s creations.
Yet debates still rage about race in the SBC. Questions about the employment decisions of First Baptist Church of Naples made headlines last year, as did the outrage over the passage of Resolution 9 at the 2019 convention in Birmingham. Resolution 9 was passed by the resolutions committee over loud objections on the floor of the annual meeting. The resolution’s initial author came forward to say that the resolutions committee had edited it so it supported two academic movements–critical race theory and intersectionality–which he had authored the document to oppose.
What’s going on? If everyone agrees that racism is bad and should not be tolerated, why do we find ourselves perennially consumed in debates about race? To understand that, you should go back to Ralph Ellison’s novel and consider the complex psychology of race in America. By the late nineteenth century the US had already fought a bloody Civil War to settle the question of slavery. Nobody in the country had an appetite for more violence surrounding racial issues. To get by from day to day with such an uncomfortable legacy, people had to live with a certain level of dissimulation. The country learned to avoid, dance around, and dissemble their way through racial tensions. In some ways this made life livable for blacks and whites who often liked each other and who certainly could not live without the other race’s contributions. But at the same time, dissimulation and fakeness made countless acts of discrimination possible, since everyone could cover up their racism with smiles, pleasantry, and outward gestures of racial innocence.
You can’t fight something that you can’t see. That’s the problem with racial issues today. After centuries of keeping racial tensions under tight lids, we have lost our faith in each other’s perceptions and statements. Whites can swear up and down that they are not racist but blacks will doubt them. Blacks can swear up and down that the discrimination they encountered was real, but whites will be tempted to dismiss this as people of color “obsessing” about race and playing the race card. “Facts” and “statistics” settle almost none of these debates because the figures can support either side. Some people will point to the high rate of incarceration of black people to show that racism is real, while others will point to the lower grades of African Americans in high school and college to say that the difference originates in social habits and cultural attitudes that exist among black people and which white people cannot change. After a certain point it is impossible to say anything new because the debate has carried on for centuries and every conceivable argument has already been made before.
Sincere and insincere positions mingle with each other in the discourse, just as correct and incorrect perceptions do. Some people of color point to real concerns surrounding racial discrimination and are joined by whites who share their heartfelt priorities. At other times, opportunists arise who exploit the racial confusion to gain followers, donations, or power–and these opportunists arise among all races. Some people in the SBC honestly feel no racism in themselves and don’t see it in others, so they find a Biblical problem with those who continue to accuse people of secretly harboring such prejudices. The Bible requires people to forgive and also not to bear false witness against brothers, so there are scriptural reasons that we should not accuse other people of racism based on circumstantial or speculative evidence. And then there are others who practice vicious discrimination while covering it up with deflections and excuses.
In some cases, racial tension gives way to shocking levels of deviousness. At times you have people loudly denouncing racism while racially discriminating in their own small realms of power, or covering up for friends who do practice racism.
What can I add? I am not sure. I don’t want to speculate about people’s motives. I try to avoid generalities that are too big to process or high-profile controversies based on specific people I don’t know. All I can say is that I’ve seen racism in the Southern Baptist Convention among liberals and conservatives. I have found it disappointing that people don’t address it when it’s obvious. I’ve seen charges of racism leveled at people in obviously unfair ways, often by people who do next to nothing about protecting people of color when discrimination is in front of them. In 2019, racial madness hit home because I wanted my resolution on whistleblowers to spark conversation about the denomination’s ecclesiological ethics but all the attention turned to rage over Resolution 9 and critical race theory.
My overall diagnosis of the SBC is that people who practice racism get away with it, and people who aren’t racist get accused of it. It’s the unhealthiest situation imaginable.
So here’s what I can say about racism in the SBC—focused largely on Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary
People of color have very little power in the Southern Baptist Convention. Let’s start there. While most experts note that the Convention’s future will hinge on global missions and outreach to ethnic churches, the entity heads and powerful cliques are still overwhelmingly white. Sometimes you have high-profile people of color who serve to improve the Convention’s image, but most often these people are carefully controlled by whites and end up behaving the way Xiomara Santamarina treated me in 2004.
The last round of battles pit Paige Patterson, cast by his critics as the old guard, against a bunch of white people who presented themselves as the new guard.
Southwestern was a key battleground because of the prominent and successful crusade against Paige Patterson. In 2018, Ross Douthat was already painting the power struggle in the SBC as a battle between two groups of white people. On one side Douthat named Patterson and Robert Jeffress, and on the other side he cast Albert Mohler and Russell Moore.
During the 2018 power struggle I never saw people of color playing any role other than powerless pawns. The “woke” side led by Mohler and Moore received lavish praise from the mainstream press for being more open-minded about race, but this was again one group of whites brandishing minorities against another group of whites whom they smeared as racist.
Paige Patterson had strived to cultivate highly qualified minorities and a global professoriate. The people who engaged in various kinds of racial discrimination escaped scrutiny somehow, while the dogpile proceeded on Patterson. His old-fashioned views on gender left him vulnerable to being smeared as an overall reactionary, so his opponents got people of color to side with Russell Moore against him.
When I arrived at Southwestern in 2016, Patterson had gone to great lengths to treasure multicultural diversity. We had a highly accomplished black dean, Leo Day. There were five Latino professors including me: Steven Ortiz, Rudy Gonzalez, Gerard Alfaro, Daniel Sanchez, and me. We were clearly not tokens. We had full professorships and were shown respect for our scholarly achievements and skills. A large Asian American contingent was also there, comprised of Korean and Chinese faculty.
It is important to understand that historically, people of color who are working at entry level positions, who are early in their career, or who do not have broad experience, can simultaneously serve the interests of racists and shield them from scrutiny. Minorities who are insecure about their position, which people starting their careers usually are, will tend to attach themselves to powerful white protectors even if those protectors condescend to or exploit them. Afraid of being locked out and abandoned by all sides (a realistic fear among people of color), they will go along with the protector exploiting and using them as cover to say, “look, I am not racist, I have this assistant professor of color.” The true test of someone’s racism comes when the person must deal with experienced, skilled, and senior-level faculty of color who have the qualifications to speak to them as equals.
If your story changes when the minority is your equal or even more qualified than you, and suddenly now you find everything about the person infuriating, then chances are that you have some vestiges of racial superiority still hanging around in your conscience.
When I came to Southwestern, Patterson’s administration encouraged me to develop multicultural content on campus. I taught the eight-part seminar series on the great books, but also got to teach Literary Interpretation, a class in which I assigned students multicultural literature ranging from Brazilian to Senegalese writers.
Early on, I had the opportunity to take students on missions to Spain and El Salvador. I was encouraged to start creative activities that also allowed for more multicultural content provided to the students. I founded a multicultural drama club that worked on plays about African American, Mexican American, and Chin history; I had received authorization to lead a mission with this drama team to England where we were supposed to perform a play in London for multicultural audiences. I did significant outreach to Latino churches in Texas and also hosted two talks on racial reconciliation on campus, one with George Yancey and one with Carl Bradford. I also received Shirley Husar, CEO of Urban Game Changers, to campus and had her speak to my students. I should state clearly here: I was the only person doing this work, irrespective of race.
Once Patterson was removed, all of this multicultural content was obliterated. Greenway came and the campus’s multicultural diversity was devastated within just a year. Was this because Greenway hates people of color? Was this because Greenway had to play up to people in the SBC who hate people of color and it was strictly business? Or were people of color the casualties of Greenway’s vendetta against Patterson?
The onus is not on me to answer those questions. It would be wrong to tell people of color not to address a troubling pattern simply because the motivations are unclear. If we held off on discussing racial inequality until we had irrefutable proof of people’s inner thoughts, we’d never get anywhere. People in power are smart enough to hide their racial agenda and/or to camouflage it by blaming the people of color or conjuring up phony standards to justify their decisions.
And the larger problem becomes clear: There are extremely few people of color with PhDs in the SBC who have the footing to speak toe-to-toe with powerful whites in the Convention. It will take twenty years to bring up another crop of professors of color to advance through the system and replace us. As the president of a seminary, Greenway had to know that. That’s why Greenway’s actions are problematic enough to warrant a discussion about racial discrimination.
But this is where the conservatives on my side often fall short, as much as I thank the Lord for my allies in the conservative cause. In the case of Southwestern, they wanted to defend Paige Patterson but at the same time they did not want to do anything that would add fuel to the “woke” people in the SBC. Though a discussion of Greenway’s racial discrimination would actually help Patterson, they didn’t want to bring this to light, because they had such a strong aversion to talking about racial discrimination.
To put this in perspective, some conservative allies saw that my firing pointed to serious problems with LGBT ideology infiltrating the SBC, but they refused to speak out on my case because they hated siding with anyone who mentioned racial discrimination. I even had one radio host who used to interview me–I once considered her a friend–call my friends to tell them to blackout my story. Why? I was “playing the race card” by talking about the racial implications of Greenway’s purge on the Southwestern campus. She wanted to throw my story down the memory hole, regardless of the fact that my story supported Paige Patterson’s cause and supported religious integrity, religious liberty, and Biblical sexuality.
My experience with her also reinforces another point I should make: while both women’s issues and racial issues matter, do not pretend that women are innocent. I’ve encountered severe racism from white women long before “Karen” turned into a meme.
This is how bad things are. Because of liberal Baptists’ total hypocrisy on race and because of conservative Baptists’ refusal to discuss race, Adam Greenway came to Fort Worth as a “white knight” and struck a giant blow against people of color. If he were a blazing white supremacist (which I have no idea whether he is), the events that took place would have gone splendidly according to plan.
So what actually happened at Southwestern?
Like most people I don’t enjoy going over painful matters and irritating scores of people by blowing the whistle on stuff everybody would rather ignore. But we can’t talk about racial issues here without sharing some of the basic specifics.
Let me ready my whistle. Here goes.
Whatever happened behind the scenes, now the black dean of Music, Leo Day, is gone, replaced by two white men from Al Mohler’s Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. In fact at last count Greenway hired over ten new white men as faculty members, even as he sacked Patterson’s faculty of color. The budget was not the issue. Many of the white men Greenway hired had ties to Southern Baptist Theological Seminary where Greenway worked before coming to Southwestern. The old boys network never plays by respectable rules.
All of the Latino full professors are gone. Daniel Sanchez seems to work in an emeritus capacity but he is not a full-time full professor. Gerard Alfaro and Rudy Gonzalez lost their jobs in the first rounds of cuts in April 2019. I was fired in November 2019. Steven Ortiz seems to have lost his job in the spring of 2020. A large number of Asian American professors have vanished since Greenway came, as well as one Arab Christian. It is now publicly known that Greenway uses non-disclosure agreements, as do his former colleagues at Southern in Louisville. So we cannot get or publicize much of the specific information about how these people of color lost their positions.
All we can say, and must say, is that Greenway’s arrival obliterated a generation of highly qualified full professors of color whom Patterson had treated with a great deal of respect.
Some might say, hey, Greenway just went with the most qualified people. But they’d be wrong. If you look at what happened with the curriculum, you will see that Greenway sided with less qualified, less skilled, and less experienced white people while he removed faculty of color. Greenway also wrecked the curriculum in the process.
Let’s see what happened to the Scarborough College curriculum.
The undergraduate curriculum at Southwestern was botched beyond recognition in the spring of 2019. Dean Mike Wilkinson appointed me and two other professors to a committee to oversee the curriculum revision. Each of us was supposed to confer with faculty assigned to us and report back to the committee. I met with my group, consisting of five people, and reported to the committee. The dean sent an email to the whole faculty telling them we would have a faculty meeting and vote to approve the curriculum. But in the end my extensive notes and recommendations didn’t matter, because suddenly the dean canceled the faculty meeting, saying that he needed to make a few more adjustments. The faculty meeting never happened; we did not vote on anything. The dean told me to report to a meeting two days later, during a time when I was tied up with the recruits for the El Salvador mission. Steve Mizell showed up at this thirteenth-hour meeting with an entirely new proposal that I was not allowed to review prior.
The new proposal was drastically different from what we had worked on. Quite frankly, it was horrible.
Steve Mizell’s proposal meant cutting the eight semesters and 8,000 pages of reading in Great Books to four semesters and 2,000 pages. So 75% of the classical curriculum — on which the College had built its whole reputation–was now gone. I pressed to get a commitment from Wilkinson that literature would be preserved in the new curriculum but he told me we didn’t have enough time to draw up a book list or draft syllabi for these new courses. He insisted on sending the new program to the trustees without due diligence or proper transparency. I feared–correctly–that literature would be reduced to unacceptably scant levels in the curriculum, particularly because over half the people teaching great books seminars were trained in philosophy and would naturally lean more to work based on that discipline.
While our program had Sarah Spring and me with English degrees, she had focused mostly on media, composition, and rhetoric. Chuck Carpenter had done graduate work in literature but he focused more heavily on theory. So in the trivium of English focuses–literature, theory, and rhetoric–the faculty skilled in English leaned toward theory and rhetoric, which were themselves subfields in English leaning more toward philosophy anyway. I was the only person with a literary specialization. I was also the only Latino and the only full-time full professor in the College.
The entire rationale for changing the curriculum came, supposedly, from complaints made to Dean Wilkinson about the excessive size of the program, including too many credit hours. But slashing four of the eight Great Books seminars did not meet the ostensible needs of reducing the credit-hour-load, because Wilkinson, Mizell, and whoever else was joined to this coterie went on and made more changes to the curriculum over my objections, adding courses to the core, which then caused the total course load for students to creep back up.
Wilkinson decided to eliminate the Literary Interpretation class and instead make the English requirements consist of Academic Writing 1 and Academic Writing 2. Research writing classes bore the living daylights out of students and have diminishing power to improve writing because there is no content involved, only process. Novels, plays, and poetry, all go out the window if the whole focus is Academic Writing. Instead of reading John Donne or Elizabeth Barrett Browning, they have to collate articles from JSTOR on esoteric rhetorical issues, depending on what the English teacher felt like assigning them that day. Goodbye, Ezra Pound! Hello, five-page essays on whether we should have socialized health care!
The contours of the emerging curriculum meant a 180-degree turn and a rejection of the very purpose of classical education. Research papers on current events lead students inevitably to Wikipedia-style discourse. They don’t need to go to a Baptist college to experience that. My colleagues, many of whom probably wanted to be on the winning side so they could keep their jobs, went along to get along.
The implications for multicultural diversity also matter, because history and literature provided the platforms to share multicultural content yet these disciplines were being killed on campus in favor of analytical and theoretical fields.
They created a new class called “Meaning, Vocation, and Flourishing” which would be forced on all incoming freshman. Only one professor would be allowed to teach it — Keith Loftin– and it would have no enrollment cap. This meant that huge numbers of students would be herded into Loftin’s sphere of influence within the department, and many electives would not be able to get minimum enrollment to run.
Loftin had received a grant from the libertarian Acton Institute and had already held events promoting the F.A. Hayek-based NeverTrump “conservatism” that aligned with people like David French and Mona Charen. Meaning, vocation, and flourishing were buzzwords being promoted by libertarian think-tanks in search of captive markets for their books, lecture series, conferences, and colloquia. The conflict of interest in a professor pushing Acton curriculum on the college while having predominant sway over impressionable freshman with this “flourishing” class were obvious and I brought this up to the dean. I told the dean that their direction would confirm conspiracy theories by people like Jane Mayer on the left and David Horowitz on the right, that politically motivated foundations were stealthily buying up higher education to suit investors.
Then they added another general requirement — “Critical Thinking and Worldview” — which the philosophers would teach. “Critical thinking” is about 70% of what we teach in English writing classes such as “introduction to academic writing.” “Worldview” is another buzzword that basically means coaxing people to engage in groupthink and confirm to the thoughts of whatever group they are supposed to identity with. It’s practically an oxymoron to teach someone how to think critically while telling them what to think as Christians.
Both Critical Thinking and Meaning Vocation & Flourishing are redundant when you consider that Southwestern students will have to attend two weekly chapel meetings with sermons touching upon similar themes, and they have to take two semesters of “academic writing” largely based on critical thinking. They also attend religious study groups on Sunday mornings and Wednesday nights through church. It is simply a waste of time to overload students with so much overlapping content and focus, when massive tracts of important literature and history have been gutted from their lineup.
I tried to make the point in a memo to the dean that the curriculum changes raised red flags. The college was denying students content that they could only get through a strong college curriculum, and was forcing them to pay tuition to take lots of classes that they didn’t need to go to college for. I warned about being perceived as predatory and the possibility of future lawsuits or accreditation problems. If a student comes to the college and then wants to transfer somewhere else after one or two semesters, most of the courses won’t transfer and won’t count as credit–their lost tuition will be unrecoverable. That’s a ripoff and at some point somebody should sue them or call the accreditors to intervene.
While literature was being stripped out of the core curriculum, Dean Wilkinson at first assured me that literary content would remain available because literary interpretation, creative writing, the drama club, and upper-level foreign-language study would all be offered as upper-level classes in the “Humanities” major. Maybe Wilkinson really believed this when he told me so. The end result was the complete opposite. Keith Loftin called a meeting of the humanities committee, which Wilkinson apparently gave him power to run, and laid down rules about humanities classes in the summer of 2019. He said poetry classes “could not cut it” unless they included texts of philosophy. He said to count as a humanities offering, classes could not be content surveys, could not be based on skills, could not be introductory to a subject area, and had to have some sort of theoretical orientation. To offer a humanities class, the humanities faculty had to wait their turn every four semesters and their syllabuses would have to be approved by a majority vote–on a humanities committee dominated by Keith Loftin’s friends.
I asked for clarification that a class in poetry, creative writing, or drama would not count as humanities classes and could not be offered in that capacity. Keith Loftin said clearly that these areas would not count as humanities. He made the vast majority of what people consider “humanities” vanish. This not only bore no resemblance to classical education; it also looked nothing like the humanities.
Many white people in the SBC wouldn’t see race as a factor in this at all. It just so happens that white people like Keith Loftin, who got his PhD in 2013, get to push around a person of color like me, who got my PhD ten years earlier, and ram through a bunch of curriculum changes that conflict with our field’s professional standards. I just can’t picture some of the colleagues behaving this way to a full professor who was white. The only other faculty member who was treated with disrespect in our unit was an African American dean who came to one of our meetings.
A lot of what was going on in the college probably had to do, quite simply, with people trying to protect themselves and their friends. Loftin’s rules were professionally counterintuitive, but they seemed, by coincidence, to extend job security to his friends Sarah Spring, who soon became a dean (we’ll discuss that soon); Chuck Carpenter, who also became a dean soon (ditto); and Steve Mizell, who had been the one who ostensibly put forward the model for this new curriculum. With all the literature replaced with theoretical disciplines — critical theory, philosophy, rhetoric, “critical thinking” — these colleagues now had a steady enrollment guaranteed to them. For whatever reasons I was not their friend so I wasn’t part of their gold rush. But again, this is where people of color will start to lose faith in white people who always claim race isn’t an issue. Let’s say this involved people protecting their friends, nothing more. Is it any coincidence that white people are often better friends with other white people than they are, generally, with people of color?
Are you starting to see why, as Jim Crow was being shut down, the civil rights movement sought to enact employment laws that would discourage insider hires, gentleman’s agreements, nepotism, and personnel decisions without due process? These are the very things I decried in the resolution I submitted to the SBC last year, which was rejected by a resolution committee chaired by … an African American professor from Southern, Curtis Woods! Ralph Ellison had it right: race has driven everyone crazy. Improper practices that might not be related to race have a hugely differential racial impact.
These shenanigans went forward in the college largely because decisions were predominantly made by four deans: Mike Wilkinson, Keith Loftin, Sarah Spring, and Chuck Carpenter. Wilkinson was the top dean who hired me and Loftin was a dean when I got there. Sarah Spring and Chuck Carpenter became deans in 2019, after the mass firings that marked Greenway’s accession to the presidency. Spring and Carpenter’s positions were not, as far as I know, advertised as job openings. Certainly I was never told about any opportunity to apply for their positions. Whatever the reasons for such strange events, the fact remains that less qualified, less experienced white people who were friends with each other got promotions and created a vacuum of qualifications at the top, while a person of color with a stronger resume was not only disregarded but fired. The racial inequality took a serious toll on the quality of the whole program because the person of color they ousted had skills and experience that weren’t duplicated by anybody else in the program.
In the curriculum review process, tensions arose because Steve Mizell’s proposal was obviously going to guarantee some professors’ jobs and not others. I spoke with Dean Wilkinson and told him I would rather get involved with new majors in Media Arts and Culture and Intercultural Studies instead of working in a state of tension as part of the Humanities program, now a program to which none of my humanities training applied. I worked on a proposal for Media Arts and Culture with Leo Day, an African American professor. Soon Leo Day and I were both gone so that went nowhere. The Intercultural Studies major was focused largely on missions and drafted by Justin Hiester and Daniel Weaver, two white guys.
Things kept getting worse as the year progressed. Soon Loftin sent us all memoranda warning that we had to meet with freshman advisees and forcibly remove them from classes if their choices did not match the official lineup. He said we could not allow freshmen to study foreign languages, but instead we should block them and force them to take the lineup of Critical Thinking and Worldview plus Meaning Vocation and Flourishing plus Academic Writing.
This was terrible for two reasons. First, there was no academic rationale for it, since it is utterly feasible for someone to study Latin I or Spanish I during their first semester at college. To place such a ridiculous policy in writing would risk drawing the ire of accreditors. Secondly, this was yet another hedge against literature, since students would be delayed in starting foreign languages and would find it hard to get enough fluency in time to take upper courses in foreign literatures. To add further distress on the language front, the department had also had the habit of letting students take Logic, a philosophy class, in lieu of the second year of a foreign language.
Keep in mind one note about language. Languages are arguably the most objective subjects of the humanities. Words mean what they mean. Fluency in a language is a serious skill, which you can’t fudge. You can’t ponder and debate what gender a noun is, you just memorize and apply it. Replacing a year of foreign languages with a year of logic sure looks like an attempt to get enrollment for faculty who aren’t qualified to teach languages because they only know English. But what do I know? I’m the guy they fired.
Since history and literature were both drastically reduced in the new curriculum, the students suddenly had a course of study woefully bereft of content. Facts and experiences consisting of what happened and what memorable people actually said vanish when history and literature are bounced for the theoretical playgrounds of philosophy and rhetoric.
The fact that I was fired, given my resume, defies all innocent explanations. I had degrees in Political Science, Literature, and Classics, and spoke eight languages. I had a Yale degree and a degree from New York’s flagship state graduate school; I came to Southwestern having tenure already. I had spent a career acquiring enough substance to teach a broad variety of humanities in a classical and multicultural curriculum. But a group of white people at a Baptist seminary created a curriculum where I was dispensable but they all had sinecures and promotions.
I cannot turn away from the racial implications of what happened at the Baptist seminary. Actions by white colleagues in regard to ethnic content demonstrates that they did not have an unbiased view on racial questions. One administrator told me to my face, “You were brought here to teach the classics, not multicultural stuff.” Imagine how furious this made me; as the only Latino on board I had far better qualifications than ANY of the white people to teach the classics! I had a GRADUATE degree in Greek and Latin literature, and I still had to listen to this offensive garbage from white people.
The drama club produced a play about African American history and got no support, only resistance, from the seminary. I had done a lot of work in missions, in which my language skills were crucial. I led a mission with Steve Mizell to Spain and had to do most of the talking because Mizell does not speak Spanish. I led missions to El Salvador in 2018 and 2019. I was working out plans to take the drama club on a theatrical mission to London in the spring of 2020, during which we were going to perform our play to immigrant communities in London. We performed the play in a café owned by Arab Christians. But rules came down in late 2019 that all these mission opportunities would be discontinued because Greenway wanted the college’s missions to conform to the International Mission Board, which had pulled its missionaries out of Latin America and would only send them to the Middle East, Africa, and Asia. So a host of white people who don’t speak Spanish and would need to hire translators got to stay in their jobs and lead missions while I lost my salary and health insurance, being given six days’ notice in December … with a terrible cough, one month before the outbreak of COVID.
This is why people of color are willing to listen to radical racial rhetoric. This right here. There’s real stuff under all the layers of skepticism.
To strip great aesthetical works and lean so heavily on theoretical content pointed to a bleak future on campus, even without taking into account what eventually happened, which was that the seminary fired me based on highly dishonest premises. Multiculturalism is a term referring to the fact that many different kinds of people exist and their experiences form a crucial part of society’s fabric. You can be committed to multiculturalism in theory but not in practice; but that means you just walk around saying that you are open to other cultures without knowing anything at all about them. Such a vacant understanding of culture is antithetical to the mission of an evangelical seminary tasked to preach the Word and reach the world with the gospel. But when you cut out literature and history this is the vacuous form of cultural literacy you give to students: generalized philosophies about how we should all love each other, but no substantial knowledge of what our respective cultures have written and done. We repeat like zombies, we don’t know each other but we know we are supposed to love each other. You get, ultimately, the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission run by Russell Moore.
I do not air these things publicly out of ill will or spite. I air them because the SBC is in yet another round of heated racial discussion and this is all germane to understanding why people react the way they do to racial issues. As much as I wanted to view my colleagues at Southwestern in the best possible light, in the end I could not escape the feeling that they cut out the curriculum, activities, and colleague who carried multicultural complexities that they had simply never taken the time to study with respect and mastery. In order to stay well-positioned, they created a course of study that only valued what they knew, and which erased the cultural things that went beyond their expertise.
The Loss of Racial Confidence in People
I have spent much of my professional career working with conservatives, most of whom are white. To this day I cannot equate liberal and conservative racism–I think white liberal racism, being paternalistic and controlling, inflicts more damage than conservative racism.
I still believe in the conservative movement’s arguments against things like affirmative action or critical race theory.
But I can’t look at what happened and say no racial element was involved here. Every strange happenstance and disturbing coincidence led to the same outcome: white people who are less qualified moving up, and people of color who are qualified getting pushed out.
And the other repeated result is, people of color disappear from the curriculum, along with the classics for good measure. The students learn less and become worse equipped for evangelism in the twenty-first century.
I have lost confidence in the woke people in the SBC because they said nothing about Greenway’s racial purge, even though they did not hold back from meddling when the issue was whether or not to get Patterson out.
Some conservatives like Alan Atchison did give attention to the racial dynamics of the Southwestern takeover, so I thank them for that. But conservatives missed a strong opportunity to address the problems with the leftward drift in the SBC, because they did not want to focus on racial inequality.
Dizzying, isn’t it?