Ruby Bridges and American History

Last week, I threw up a meme on my Facebook page. It’s a 1960 photo of a very young Ruby Bridges escorted by federal marshalls as Ruby became the first African American to attend William Frantz elementary school during the desegregation crisis in New Orleans. The meme included these words, “If this child was strong enough to survive it, your child is strong enough to learn about it.” The meme references the savage debate that has broken out in school districts across the American South regarding teaching African American history as part of American history and it touched off a lot of converstion and back-and-forth. In Virginia, Texas, and Tennessee agitated parents have lobbied against a set of ideas they link to what they think is Critical Race Theory (CRT) despite the fact that no elementary or secondary school in those states actualy teaches CRT. The new Republican governor of Virginia made opposition to teaching CRT a cornerstone of his election campaign.

I’m sure that most schools and teachers teach about Ruby without teaching Critical Race Theory. After all, teaching African American history as an important apsect of American history is far different than teaching a social theory like CRT, something that was developed during the 1970s and has been confined to law schools and undergraduate Black studies departments found in larger state and private universities. While I’ve known about CRT for almost 40 years, it seems like last year the entire country discovered it and never have I seen a term generate so much conflict while so few know exactly what it is. This is what happens when you get your news off of Cable TV or from social media. You’re easily manipulated by your tribal chieftains and you wind up chanting slogans at school-board meetings. (And friends, both the political left and the political right do the same thing. If you don’t believe me, look at the cries from the left to “defund the police.”)

What is it?

So, let’s talk about CRT and then circle back to Ruby Bridges. Before I can critique or disagree with an idea or a program, I start with how the proponents themselves understand it. So with Critical Race Theory, the best place to start is with the words of those who advocate it. Hence, we turn to one of its early proponents, Richard Delgado. Fortunately, Mr. Delgado is clear about what he means by Critical Race Theory and he has published a short-readable book that describes it. Here is how he describes it: “Critical race theory sprang up in the 1970s, as a number of lawyers, activists, and legal scholars..realized…that the heady advanaces of the civil rights era of the 1960s had stalled, and, in many respects, were being rolled back” (Delgado, Critical Race Theory, 4).

According to Delgado, it builds on the “postmodern” beliefs of Michael Foucault, Jacques Derrida, and Antonio Gramsci. Postmodern and postmodernism refer to the idea that truth is relative. There is no absolute truth for the postmodern, and the only thing that matters is power. Four themes describe its essence. First, racism is integral to “the usual way society does business” (Delgado, 6). Second, racism serves the political and economic interests of the dominant group in society (Think of the Uyghurs in China). Third, “races are categories that society invents, maniuplates, or retires when convenient” (Delgado,9). Finally African Americans and other minority groups in the United States have experienced forms of slavery, Jim Crow, and economic discrimination, thinkers who emerge from minorities “may be able to communicate to their white counterparts matters that whites are unlikely to know” (Delgado, 9).

If you’re still with me (and I know this has some complexity), you see that addressing CRT is not an easy task and the ten-second sound bites offered by politicians and others on Cable TV or social media wind up being far more harmful than helpful. Even the short understanding I’ve briefly outlined doesn’t do full justice to its complexity. That’s why CRT advocates disagree among themselves and we discover at least two schools of thought among them regarding what it means for all of us. So, any effective Christian response to CRT must not be simplistic but explore the ways that this theory (some would call it an ideology), is both helpful and harmful.

How do we respond?

Let me suggest a possible Christian response, at least an outline of one. First, Christians must be skeptical toward any approach that claims that that the Word of God, both in the incarnation of Jesus Christ and in Holy Scripture, is not true. The postmodern relativism that undergirds CRT (and many other movements) should lead to great care in assessing their value. That does not mean that there aren’t elements of CRT that are helpful for understanding our struggles with race and ethnicity both in the United States and throughout the world. Personally, I find the third of the four CRT ideas I just described to be very helpful and congruent with how Scripture treats race and ethnicity.

Second, we must recognize that teaching African American history as integral to American history does NOT mean that we are teaching Critical Race Theory. Sixty years ago, I was taughtin elementary school that post-Civil War Reconstruction was when the “carpetbaggers” from the North came to pillory the defeated people of the South and take their rights away. Moreover, when African Americans were elected to office after the war, they were unqualified and corrupt. That is what millions of young Americans my age were taught in schools throughout the country. The only problem was that there was no historical evidence to support this interpretation, and through the recent work of Eric Foner and other American historians, we’ve learned the truth about the violence, hatred, and brutality against African Americans not only in the American South, but throughout the country. Jim Crow was a system of political, economic, and social terror throughout the United States, and the evidence from historical records and government documents is overwhelming. You don’t have to engage Critical Race Theory to grasp the reality of American history. And, teaching the reality of American history is neither Marxist nor postmodern.

The Symphony of Holy Scripture

Third, we should engage CRT and other social theories with a robust Christian biblical and theological worldview. Genesis One tells us that all human beings are created in the image of God and that excludes nobody! Genesis 3 tells us that through human disobedience that all of creation is been subjected to the fall and the consequences of sin. That includes each of us, but it also infects our relationships with each other, our institutions (including our churches), and even all of creation. If any of you thinks that our sin has not affected our entire creation, I invite you to take a drive into West Virginia with me and let me show you the destruction of the land caused by rampant strip mining of coal.

Fortunately, that is not the end of the story. Because in the four-fold symphony of Scripture, the grand overarching narrative of the Bible, God reveals to us his redemptive activity that culminates in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Critical Race Theory may give us some insight, but the Christian faith describes how the story will end–in a new heaven and a new earth where you and I and all followers of Jesus will live as embodied individuals with the kind of resurrection bodies that our Lord Jesus Christ promises we will inherit. To use the Christian faith to justify some absurd nationalism of “blood and soil” (as the white racists chanted in Charlottesville, VA in 2017, or as the Communist Party of China is doing to the Uyghur minority in that country) is not only unChristian, it is Satanic.

The Courage of Ruby Bridges

Back to Ruby Bridges. The meme I posted on Facebook was metaphorical in nature and directed toward those who think that teaching African American history as an integral part of American history somehow is Critcal Race Theory, and that teaching it to their kids will make them feel guilty. I don’t think guilt is very helpful, but perhaps learning about Ruby, about the 1921 race massacre in Tulsa, OK, about the hundreds of thousands of African Americans who exprienced slavery and Jim Crow in the land of the free will help our kids learn that we are all responsible to preserve and strengthen our representative democracy. Perhaps our churches need to learn about Ruby too, given that she has a deep faith in Christ as did many who were part of the Civil Rights movement.

From an early age Ruby was taught to love God and love others. The Harvard child-psychologist Robert Coles did extensive interviews with Ruby during and after her experiences as a young child and found that she expressed love for those who expressed hate for her. One of the law-enforcement officers who escorted her into school every day remembered, “She showed a lot of courage. She never cried. She didn’t whimper. She just marched along like a little soldier, and we’re all very very proud of her.” I can’t think of a better history lesson to learn.

Ruby Bridges has just published an inspirational autobiographical booklet titled Ruby Bridges: This is Your Time (Delacorte Press, 2020) and it is a nice place to learn about here story and share it with your family. If you want to learn about Critical Race Theory (CRT) from one of its originators in the legal world, go to Richard Delgado’s Critical Race Theory: An Introduction (3d.ed. New York Universsity Press, 2017). It is probably the most readable introduction to what is admittedly a complex subject.

The main point that I have tried to make is that teaching and learning about African American History as an integral part of American History is NOT teaching Critical Race Theory. Good American histories like that published by Wilfred McClay does good work in integrating African American history into the overall history of the United States. For an excellent introduction to African American Christian history there is no better source than Paul Harvey’s Through the Storm, Through the Night: An Introduction to African American Christianity (Rowman and Littlefield, 2013). I assign this to my students each time I teach a course in American Christianity. Finally, I’ve mentioned the work of the historian Eric Foner. Foner’s work on Reconstruction and Jim Crow is simply the best work on the post-Civil War period and the emergence of Jim Crow. Start with his A Concise History of Reconstruction (Harper, 2015). Allen Guelzo’s Reconstruction: A Concise History (Oxford, 2018) is also outstanding.