So in conclusion, I can’t pass a law. I don’t have the authority without my colleagues in the Congress to apologize to African Americans. But as a person and a citizen of my country, and a US Congressman, I can apologize. I can say to you that I feel very [voice breaks with emotion] inadequate to stand up here and say that. I don’t have the words. I haven’t experienced the suffering. I feel it in my bones that it’s right. I’m very sorry for what’s happened. I hope that you’ll forgive me because it’s easy to pray, “Well, it’s those other people that did it.” No, I’m part of it, too. Forgive me. Forgive me for my sins. Forgive me for my ancestors, and [Applause] . . . This is just a start. It’s not the end. It’s the beginning. And maybe God, hopefully God, will take this conference, take these apologies and start to heal, start to close this wound that’s there. Amen.
About a week ago, I found a description of life at BJU written by a former student — a well-liked, bright, Who’s-Who kind of student who just happened to be a person of Color. Just happened to be, right? It didn’t matter anymore that his ethnic makeup was more diverse than mine. BJU dropped that horrible racist rule forbidding interracial dating during Campaign 2000, right? The rule was a relic of an ugly, by-gone age, right? . . . RIGHT??
That’s how I’d distance myself from the racism around me: it’s not me who’s racist — it’s them — and BOY! are they racist!! I did that over and over for years.
What I’m about to say is not unique to me in any way. This is just how well-intentioned, but willfully blind whites live knee-deep in the ideological muck of racism.
Let me give you a very recent example that proves my point. Just about a year ago, a colleague entered my office and said about a student, “Well, I knew he was . . . well, BLACK.” She spat out the word reluctantly but still pregnant with prejudice. He had wanted to perform a Langston Hughes poem, but she refused to allow it because Hughes was a . . . Communist (yeah, that’s the reason! [/sarcasm]) and actually suggested — and I kid you not — a Robert E. Lee tribute. I was just a computer guru for her, a hack who could change the database entry. But as I clattered and clicked away, I heard her ever-so-politely articulate that very old and very Southern prejudice.
It was too easy for me to sit there agape and think, “That’s her problem. Not mine. Oh my, I can’t believe she’s saying that.” I rubbed my temples after she left as if to cleanse my mind from what I had heard.
Some time in the mix the student who had wanted to use Langston Hughes’ words to express his own voice told me about his own hurt. I ached. I empathized as best I could. I was sorry. And while I did speak out in the departmental meeting and said, “We came off looking like jerks in that situation!” I was still in it. Was there much difference between my sitting in the middle of that and Phil Yancey buying Lester Maddox souvenirs?
As much as I’d like to pass the guilt off on another person, the ideology was wrong. And I participated–perhaps unwittingly ignorant or perhaps willfully ignorant.
So when I found another student’s online description of what went on at Bob Jones University just months before (and after) the lifting of the inter-racial dating rule during Campaign 2000, I was appalled. I knew that BJU had roots in a broken ideology of the antebellum South, but I really didn’t know.
Maybe I didn’t want to know. Maybe I was too committed to “the cause” of a particular expression of Christian education that I shrugged off the problems. Maybe that’s just too easy to do because I’m white.
But I must say now — to all my former and future students, my friends, my neighbors, and the Body of Christ at large — I’m sorry. I’m sorry for my willfully blind participation in a racist ideology. In order to make amends, let me tell you what I best remember about my interactions with racism at BJU since 1986:
- I heard my first Southern roommate talk about “them” while my mouth hung silently open and my eyes widened. Are you kidding me? You believe that?!!
- I listened to my Southern classmate’s public speech arguing for Martin Luther King, Jr.’s ignoble connections to Marxism. I did object in writing on the student response sheet.
- I heard another classmate assert that African-Americans should go into the military because “well. . . . they are good at following orders.” I pretty loudly objected after being disappointed in my earlier silence.
- I hung my head in shame as I saw a small group of my classmates, a few years my senior, actually mourn the national celebration of Martin Luther King, Jr’s birthday by donning black arm bands. They thought it was pretty funny.
- During that first semester as a graduate assistant while lecturing on avoiding sexist and racist speech, I scolded my student, a prominent administrator’s son, who stopped me in the middle of my talk and proudly declared that “blacks were made to be our servants.” The class did audibly gasp in horror, and I said with my brow furrowed, “You have no logical or statistical or biblical proof for that statement!” Then the bell rang, interrupting us. I took action with my supervisor who wrote the boy’s father. “That kind of talk is okay in South Georgia,” the father, an administrator, explained to his son, “but you can’t talk like that around here.”
- I ached when a dear friend of mixed ethnic heritage described her “viewing” before two administrators so they could decide if she was white or asian. They chose white for her.
- As a full-time faculty member, I refused to allow a faculty child to speak on the glorious benefits of slavery for an upper-level speech class. I offered no explanation. I just said emphatically, “Uh. . . no!”
- I rolled my eyes at Dr. Bob Jones, III speaking in faculty meeting about the interracial dating rule, stating, “If you don’t agree with this rule, then leave.” No one I knew actually agreed with it. But no one left either.
- I took a leave of absence in 1996 from BJU to study rhetoric at Indiana University. I took the mandatory diversity training required for all Associate Instructors, and I enjoyed it. I learned a lot. I still don’t understand the controversy around these sorts of requirements.
- I took the African-American rhetoric class in my department and even wrote an award-winning paper on Malcolm X. The biggest thing I learned from my white professors (albeit published and respected scholars in African-American rhetoric) was that as a white woman I didn’t get it. I could never really get what it was like to grow up black in America. I do understand that I don’t understand.
- I cringed when John McCain made a spectacle out of BJU’s racist policy. I had been praying quietly for BJU to change that horrible rule. It was a blight. BJU deserved the rebuke, but McCain seemed like nothing more than a rank opportunist.
- I listened to Dr. Bob Jones, III, then-president of BJU drop the interracial rule on Larry King Live on March 3, 2000. I’ll never forget that day. I was enduring my first (of
foursix) pregnancy losses. I was at the hospital in Bloomington for a D&C, and all around me I saw people poring over the USA Today article and the cable news channels were blathering on and on. The receptionist called me to the front for my insurance card, and she looked at it and loudly said with amazement and disgust, “BOB JONES UNIVERSITY?” I felt the room glare at me. I said a quiet “yes.” For the first time in my life, I was very ashamed of my alma mater and employer.
- That night when Dr. Bob announced the elimination of the rule, I was too relieved to hear the liberties he was taking with the truth. The rule was no big deal? Meh — that’s just ’cause he’s clueless up there in his Ivory Tower. One-world-ism? Are you kidding me? I’ve never heard that one before. The rule was never preached or taught? Not hardly. . . .
- Dr. Bob said about the interracial dating rule: “Students never hear it preached. There have been four, five, six generations of students that graduated from there have never heard this preached in our chapel or taught in our school.” That wasn’t true, and Joel points that out. Just a few months before March, 2000, students were expelled from BJU for “interracial dating.” Students of Color heard for themselves in their Bible classes — before and after 2000 — that they personally were cursed descendants of Ham.
- Upon returning to BJU, I planned a tribute to Black History month in my curriculum. I determined that every Rhetoric and Public Address major would have some exposure to Malcolm X and understand that his version of separatism was not much different from theirs. Like my diminutive additions could counteract the racist hermeneutic elsewhere. I don’t know. Maybe it could help.
- I put Marcus Garvey and Eldridge Cleaver and Toni Morrison on my office shelves–right next to Cixous and Steinem, Nietzsche and Foucault, of course. And Billy Graham and Jonathan Edwards, too.
- I wrote my dissertation. That final chapter was about Campaign 2000 and the fallout before and after. I relished the rhetorical opportunities available to be inside the camp and still be critical about the rhetoric around lifting of the ban. I took Dr. Bob at his word when he said that the Board wanted to eliminate the rule in May 1999.
- In discussing the lifting of the rule, I said in my dissertation: “The Associated Press reported the next week that the rule was only partially lifted: students now needed parental permission to date outside their ‘race,’ the report said. But the story was incorrect. As of March 3, 2000, no prohibitions on interracial dating whatsoever exist at Bob Jones University despite continuous media reporting to the contrary.” I know now that that’s simply incorrect. If you look at the footnotes of the book, you see that I had a brief email conversation with the Assistant Dean of Men at the time (I was at IU). I asked him if students had to get parental permission to date “outside their race.” If this was true, then the rule hadn’t ostensibly been lifted at all; another layer of bureaucracy had just been added to the enforcement. The Assistant Dean of Men simply told me that “No, they don’t need parental permission.” I should have probed deeper. I now know that Dr. Bob III did make an announcement in chapel on Monday, March 6 stating the parental permission stipulation only to rescind it on March 7th.
- I also said in my dissertation/book: “Reverend Calvin Butts, pastor of the Abyssinian Baptist Church in New York City, does not believe that ‘Bob Jones has had a change of heart. I think that perhaps Bob Jones has had a change of mind.’ The difference between ‘heart’ and ‘mind’ is lost in this civic context.” I honestly didn’t understand what Reverend Butts was trying to say. Now I do.
- I continued: “Maxine Waters, prominent Democratic Representative from California is ‘suspicious when a change comes under this kind of pressure. I would not rush too fast to believe that we have reached a new milestone here.’ Dramatic, albeit tardy, changes in policy are ignored.” I concluded that timing was the problem in BJU’s rule change. I now better see Waters’ point. It wasn’t timing alone that was the problem. It was substance. No repentance had been made.
- When our daughter Elise was born still, I asked that in lieu of flowers donations be given in her memory to the BJU Minority Scholarship Fund. I think upwards of $600 were given. The doctor that delivered her was on the board governing those funds.
- In talking with God on the Quad author, Naomi Schaefer Riley, I explained that the interracial dating rule was nearly impossible to enforce. What is race after all? And so what the administration did was stretch the boundaries of “white” as far as they could logically go. As if everyone really wanted to be white.
I now know better after reading my former student’s account. It wasn’t just “white” or “race” that was ambiguous. It’s the word “dating.” “Marriage” is plain and clear, but what’s a date? Sharing a meal with friends? A conversation? A serendipitous meeting on the sidewalk? A glance across the room? Sitting two or three down from a person? Who knows?
I now know that what had happened since the Supreme Court loss was that the rule went underground, more unspoken and hidden behind closed administrative doors. “The principle” behind the rule was revised as “one-world-ism” when it was nothing more than a sinister fear of miscegenation.
I say that because of documents that have recently been made available online. The Nation article when Dr. Bob III states that “a Negro is best when he serves at the table.” Letters that prove that a large church was pushed out of the BJU orbit because it welcomed an interracially married couple into membership. Testimonies from fundamental African-Americans who were harshly treated when they so gently pointed out the sin of racism in BJU.
There are many things about BJU’s religious House of Cards for which I could apologize. But I don’t know of any more foul than the trenchant racism. The philosophical-theological-political mess I’ll leave to discuss in another post. For years I’ve wanted to bellow an apology to every person of color I’ve met. For now, I’ll just say this: I was so concerned to cling to a pristine image that I ignored the disease growing right next to me. It’s like a woman who paints over the melanoma on her face. She can’t see it, but everyone else can. And, if she ignores it, it’ll kill her. Her doctor may say, “You have a ton of these cancerous blotches, but we have to start with the worst one.”
I can’t do much. I really can’t. I’m not rich or powerful. I’m a stay-at-home-mom with a blog. I can’t pass a law. I have little influence–less influence even than Senator Tony Hall. But the very least thing I can do is repent. I know that the vast majority of my former “co-laborers” at BJU feel the exact same way I do, but they are too deep in the ideology to form the words of an apology.
So again, I am sorry.