In her book, Enfleshing Freedom, theologian M. Shawn Copeland writes, “The suffering and death of Jesus of Nazareth rebuke our national amnesia, our forgetfulness of enslaved bodies, our indifference to living black bodies.”
“National amnesia” is an apt description of the contemporary backlash against critical race theory in the United States. I am not elevating critical race theory to the revelatory status of Christ’s passion. However, it is obvious that the most prominent and influential objections to CRT are not genuine rebuttals but obstinate refusals to remember the past, which equate to a refusal to awaken from the present indifference concerning racial injustice in the United States. To understand Christ’s sacrifice as a “rebuke” does not deny God’s generous welcome to sinners, but it does suggest transformative grace begins with a bracing wake-up call.
This is a wake-up call that elected representatives in multiple states have been trying to prevent through “anti-CRT” legislation. As historian Ibram X. Kendi notes, opponents of CRT are mostly objecting to an invention of their own making. What their deliberate misunderstanding reveals, however, is a recognition that to broach an honest telling of U.S. history would both expose and rebuke our national amnesia.
Critical race theory unsettles the comfortable relationship between whiteness, Christianity, and the myth of American exceptionalism. It does this not through personal attacks on individual white people, as its opponents often claim, but by exposing the morally troubling arc of whiteness and the way it has materially operated throughout American history.
Broadly speaking, CRT interprets racism in terms of measurable, racialized inequity produced by structural arrangements. It asserts that material equity ought to be the key measurement for racial justice. For legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw, CRT shows us “how to think, how to see, how to read, how to grapple with how law has created and sustained race—our particular kind of race and racism—in American society.” Critical race theory therefore treats white supremacy not as a discriminatory attitude but as a concrete historical phenomenon.
Take the enduring racial wealth gap in the United States. If you recognize racism only in prejudiced attitudes or overtly discriminatory policies, you won’t be able to explain this gap except with obfuscating appeals to “cultural differences” between Black and white people. By contrast, a CRT-informed approach to the racial wealth gap would start by asking questions about the structural conditions of wealth generation in the United States. This approach tells us that the primary means of wealth generation are most reliably accessed by those whose parents were able to access it before them.
For decades, the U.S. government and private industry collaborators explicitly denied Black people the opportunity to secure mortgage terms that were routinely afforded to white people. Even today, when Black people’s hard work is invested in real estate, anti-Black systems ensure that they earn less wealth despite doing the same amount of work as their white counterparts. This has effectively outlawed Black people’s ability to accrue family wealth. From a CRT perspective, the racial wealth gap is racism: structural arrangements producing tangible inequity that accrues to persons on the basis of assigned racial categories.
The fact that CRT focuses on structural sources of inequity rather than targeting individual racists did not stop former President Donald Trump from describing it as a personal attack on “good people.” He even warned Americans that “Critical race theory is being … deployed to rip apart friends, neighbors, and families,” which has now become the standard interpretation among conservative Republicans. These false claims reveal that under certain conditions, for those who subscribe to the myths of whiteness and American exceptionalism, examining historical facts in a new light feels like a personal attack. If your sense of self is founded on the idea of America’s moral supremacy and purity, then CRT is a threat to your very person, because it tells a morally troubling story about the United States.
In Keeping Faith, philosopher Cornel West explains that our investment of “existential capital” in the nation-state leaves us with “a profound, even gut-level, commitment to some of the illusions of the present epoch.” We experience amnesia when we allow our nation’s myths to be the foundation of our current reality. Acknowledging the disturbing historical realities of marginalization, suffering, and anguish that are central to the history of the United States would threaten our existential investment in the myth of American exceptionalism. To put it plainly: Nothing impedes the quest for justice like the collective desire for an untroubled conscience.
Christian faith offers an alternative to this investment strategy through its emphasis on the spiritual practice of remembrance. In the Christian imagination, Christ remembers the suffering of the marginalized. Not only does Christ remember that suffering, but God in Christ becomes one with the marginalized people whom our investment in the national myth demands that we forget. This is the cross’s rebuke of what Copeland calls “our national amnesia.”
In my home state of Kentucky, legislators are attempting to codify amnesia into state law. The proposed law in Kentucky would outlaw teaching that “meritocracy or traits such as a hard work ethic are racist.” On one level, this is confusing, because CRT does not actually teach that working hard is racist. CRT simply shows that work never seeks its reward in a vacuum, but always in a context of structural arrangements. Thus it exposes the weakness of appealing to varying “work ethics” to explain material inequity. This helps us understand the proposed legislation is not meant to protect the value of hard work, but to protect racist and historically false tropes about non-white people’s work ethics. Codifying this into law moves us away from enacting concrete solidarity with the victims of this false narrative and instead pushes us further into our abyss of national amnesia.
As Copeland explains: “Not only does racism ignite pseudo-rationality, incite vicious practices and violent acts, it poisons the racist.” Investing our existential capital in the myth of American exceptionalism produces the amnesia that negates some people’s humanity. This investment also harms those who have bought into the myth, as their identities become dependent on perpetual forgetting.
In an essay in Anti-Blackness and Christian Ethics, theologian Andrew Prevot argues that “Black selfhood is possible because God loves black people in their bodies and wants them to be free.” This possibility is threatened by a society that cannot confront its past and present treatment of Black people as less than fully human. Lacking any reliable affirmation rooted in the established order, which is itself supported by the prevailing national myth, Black people have been forced to seek their own worth in something transcendent.
Prevot offers the example of Sojourner Truth, a Black woman born into slavery who became a prominent abolitionist and advocate for the rights of women. Nothing in Truth’s world, outside of her own person, could possibly lend support to the notion that she was loved in her body. Yet within herself and through her relationship with God, she found a strength greater than the world’s affirmation or rejection. After she escaped from slavery, Truth found in God a source of affirmation that transcended the racialized stratification of her society; an affirmation that cried out for the dismantling of the status quo. This is the key: Her faith in God, rather than any flawed investment in the status quo, gave her an unassailable sense of her own belovedness. “She knew that she was not nothing,” Prevot writes.
By contrast to Sojourner Truth, white people have materially benefited from anti-blackness, and they are inevitably tempted to imagine that their source of selfhood is secure in this fact. White people have forgotten where their true worth comes from, with disastrous results, by investing in whiteness and the myth of American exceptionalism. We all seek sources of security within the conditions of creaturely life, and we hope to evade the fearsomeness of our finitude. It is therefore comforting to find one’s validity affirmed in these myths of whiteness and American exceptionalism. Yet to treat this source of affirmation as an absolute is spiritually poisonous because the peace it offers can be secured in perpetuity only by forgetting the wounded victims of our social history. The more you invest in our national amnesia, the more you will defend your investment and fight to forget the human cost of that investment. Without a source of validity that transcends the established order, solidarity with those who suffer will always seem too risky.
The antidote to this spiritual poison is found in the faith of Sojourner Truth and others like her who constantly remind us that they are not nothing, despite everything that tells them otherwise. To remember that you are someone even when the social order, and indeed, the national myth that perpetuates it, calls your worth into question or actively refutes it, is the deep knowing of faith.
The power of this kind of knowing is that it cannot be refuted. A faith that transcends the nation-state’s mythical moral purity allows us to relate to our societal context and our collective history with the courage to make critical moral judgments. We are empowered by such faith to see the pain of others not as a threat to our self-interest but as a calling to solidarity and communion.
Forgotten victims are the inevitable outcome of worshiping a god that is something less than the origin of all things. But the God revealed in Jesus is this true origin, and is, therefore, the rebuke and overcoming of our amnesia. I need not forget the suffering of the oppressed if I trust that my validity is rooted in this God instead of the myth of American exceptionalism. Such a God is the agent of “anamnesis,” which Copeland understands to be the memory of our original created purpose: love.
Critical race theory is not in and of itself this eucharistic practice of remembering, but it can be an instrument that helps us remember correctly. That is, CRT can help us see what amnesic denial obscures — the ongoing dehumanization of God’s creatures through measurable, racialized inequity. White Christian rejections of CRT are therefore rejections of the Christian calling to be formed by the recollection of God’s loving solidarity with the victims of our amnesia, and refusals to be formed by, and for, love.