Vincent Lloyd on Salvation From ‘Anti-racist Hell’ | Sojourners

Vincent Lloyd on Salvation From ‘Anti-racist Hell’

Headshot courtesy Vincent Lloyd. Graphic by Mitchell Atencio/Sojourners

On the afternoon of Feb. 10, Compact magazine published Vincent Lloyd’s essay “A Black Professor Trapped in Anti-Racist Hell.”

Lloyd, a theologian and director of Africana studies at Villanova University (and Sojourners contributor), writes about his experiences teaching a seminar on “Race and the Limits of Law in America” through the Telluride Association. In the blistering essay, Lloyd writes that he experienced a “mutiny” — expelled from his role by his high school students led by a “charismatic” college-aged student who created a “cult” of anti-racism and eventually accused him of harm, micro-aggressions, and perpetuating “anti-black violence” through the seminar.

Lloyd’s essay set fire to certain corners of the internet. People debated whether Lloyd, an established professor, was punching down or vilifying his students (who remain anonymous in the essay). Others criticized the decision to publish in Compact, which has an explicit mission to find common ground between the illiberal Left and Right. Still, others contemplated whether Lloyd was correct to assert that some on the Left were weaponizing radical language.

To answer some of these questions, Lloyd spoke with Sojourners’ Mitchell Atencio a week after the essay was released. The two spoke about the essay’s impact, Lloyd’s definitions of abuse and harm, and the role faith communities might play in detoxifying justice spaces.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

Mitchell Atencio, Sojourners: I thought we could start just by talking about the essay itself. When did you first write it, and how did it end up in Compact?

Vincent Lloyd: I wrote this in July of 2022 immediately following the experiences related in the essay. I thought that those experiences could open public conversations about important dynamics that we need to be talking about and that we aren’t. Dynamics around what it means to shift from a multicultural paradigm to an anti-blackness paradigm, around toxicity in Left spaces, around the rise of a diversity bureaucracy. And it struck me that this experience could be the occasion for that broader conversation.

I’m not a famous professor, so like any other sort of freelancer, I pitched the idea at various places; I didn’t hear back from most of them. Some of them were interested and then ghosted. It was six-plus months of, often one-sided, conversations with various outlets. None of those outlets said they had problems with the substance of the essay or that I was getting stuff wrong, it was just regular, under-the-hood stuff of publishing around matching a project with an outlet.

In regard to Compact… It was a close call about whether this was an appropriate outlet to engage with. I’m coming from religious studies, theology, and faith-based activism spaces. The idea of opening conversations among critics of secular liberalism, who might have different surface-level political views but share a commitment to justice and an allergy to secular liberal discourse has more of an intuitive appeal to me than it does to those who are not coming from faith-based spaces.

Now that the essay has been out for the past week, do you wish you’d done anything differently? Has it been received how you hoped it would?

The essay prompted both helpful and unhelpful discussions. I think Twitter is the sort of space that rarely has helpful discussions of things. This became the object of those unhelpful discussions for a day or two.

On the other hand, I’ve heard from colleagues and friends who appreciate that they now have language to talk about something they see happening around them, or that happened to them in various ways. The conversations opening are the kind I hope to open around how we can move to an anti-blackness paradigm. We’re in a moment of transition, as we ought to be! We ought to be abandoning a multicultural paradigm, we ought to be moving to an anti-blackness paradigm. But we’re having hiccups along the way and figuring out what that looks like when it’s done well.

I am hopeful this and other pieces can help us collectively think about that. Maybe not on social media, but at least in conversations among colleagues.

You asked if I regret any element of the essay. Of course. Everything I write, I think I got parts of it wrong.

That’s a very relatable experience.

In this case I think there were several issues where there were close calls about whether things should have been presented in one way or another, whether the tone was right, whether the depictions of people were right. I’m sure — being a fallible human — there were some minor facts that I got wrong. Even though the broader story was accurate and probably much more horrifying than it came through in the essay. I’m sure I did some things that were imperfect, but I’m not one to fixate.

You seem to be alluding to the criticisms of the presentation, of the student you call “Keisha,” or the tone. You talked about having heard from a lot of people in and I am curious: Have you heard from any of the students who were in this seminar?

I don’t think I want to comment on that.

Your essay frames you as “trapped in anti-racist hell.” To keep the metaphor, what does salvation look like? What’s the “harrowing of anti-racist hell”?

That’s one of the bigger questions I’m trying to think through these days: What does it mean to encounter, name, and respond to dynamics of abuse? I think more and more these days in political spaces — but also in workplaces and in personal life — we’re encountering dynamics of abuse. And in some domains we have helpful ways of responding. And in other domains we don’t have so helpful ways of responding.

The things to do when one encounters abuse are usually intuitive but blocked by the dynamic of abuse. Abuse thrives on privacy, on secrecy, so it’s important to block attempts to keep an abusive space private. We must remind ourselves, and those around us, that we’re part of larger organizations that have norms and accountability. Those norms and forms of accountability are imperfect, but they also exist in ways that can be essential for making life livable.

And one of the frustrations of the experience I described in the piece is that there weren’t clear lines of accountability in the structure of the Telluride Association, which allowed for charismatic figures to take on effectively abusive roles.

Your essay prompted me to think about the difference between harm and hurt. You wrote about the co-opting of language from prison abolitionists, particularly the language of harm. We’re all human, as you said, constantly dealing and receiving varieties of transgression. How do we discern what type of transgressions we are experiencing in daily life? How do we know the difference between hurt and harm?

In this question, there aren’t principles that will provide the answer, but relationships provide the answer. By being in, and deepening, our relations with those around us at a very proximate scale — those we love, our family, our neighbors, and moving outward to coworkers and further to more abstract relationships — we can sharpen our sense of where harms are, what those harms consist of, and what the proper response looks like.

That being said, I think there are conceptual confusions that circulate in the discourse that could use some collective reflection. The interchangeable use of “trauma,” “harm,” “violence,” or “domination,” is a problem.

These are distinct phenomena and having some clarity about when all things are apples, and when some things are apples and some are pears, and some are oranges, and so on is important when trying to discern which causes a stomachache.

There’s a role for relationships and organizations, but also a role for second-order analysis in faith communities, from academic spaces, and beyond around these concepts.

Can you tease that out a little bit, how do you define trauma, abuse, and domination?

I would start by thinking about trauma as an event that exceeds our capacity to respond. Certainly there are forms of complex trauma that involve multiple events, but in its ideal type, trauma has a sense of singularity to it.

Domination is about the relationship between “master” and “slave” and the ability of one to exert — usually his — will over another arbitrarily.

I think of abuse as a relationship that unfolds in private over time. So not a singular event, and not the sort of structure of a master and slave, but a different thing.

In your interview with The Atlantic you spoke about the need for political spaces “which require deferring to authority and exercising discipline.” Can you differentiate between systems of domination — which you hope to abolish — and the need in political spaces to defer to authority or exercise discipline.

We’re at a tough political moment where authority is suspect, but authority is also essential. We treat the dentist as an authority, right? We defer our judgment about our teeth to a dentist. Sometimes it’s warranted, sometimes it’s not, but relating to authority is part of everyday life in the world.

And domination is also something that we encounter in the world, but it is something that we ought to oppose. Domination is arbitrary; it’s not deferring to another for a set of reasons; it’s deferring to another because of the structure of mastery.

And these things are murky. If the dentist gets used to being treated as an authority and starts to be a little dominating, we have to be suspicious of that. But this is the discernment that I think is necessary to reflect on what authority is necessary and what it does to people.

When is it unnecessary or unhelpful to defer capacity for judgement? That seems an important political question; just to achieve justice, we need to do several different things that each take different sensibilities.

We need to be formed and develop certain virtues that give us the capacity to rightly pursue justice and be rightly orientated toward justice. We need to acquire skills to pursue justice. We need to hear stories about justice that inspire us. We need to take action together and stand next to each other, holding signs in the protest. These are all different spaces of formation; they are not the same.

You want to be in the front of the protest, but we need people in the back, and these are moments where political action requires discipline and deferring to authority, and we need to be open about that. We can’t pretend that politics is going to be fun all the time, or that political action means doing what we want right now. That seems like an unhealthy tendency.

I think some people read your essay as being cautious or wary of the use of epistemic knowledge — the idea that we ought to value the knowledge that comes from being oppressed or having a particular identity. How does that fit with your other writing on epistemic knowledge — the preferential option for the poor, to put it in theological language?

In the essay I include a set of propositions, including “trust Black women,” suggesting epistemic privilege that the students were learning in their anti-racism workshops. In the original version of the essay, I said, “I agree with all of these!” We need to trust Black women. We need to acknowledge the epistemic privilege of those who are marginalized in various and in intersecting ways. But how do we make that sense of privilege actionable?

We should start with the wisdom acquired from those who have been marginalized and dominated and abused in various ways and from there reflect on the systems and histories that lead to this moment, cultural context, different concepts at work, the particularities, and so on. Then we ought to go back to the wisdom of the marginalized and reflect more on the words and experiences of those who have been marginalized. It’s a dialectical process.

That dialectical process doesn’t translate well to the habits that are cultivated in social media spaces and cultivated in our age more generally.

That makes me think of an interview James Baldwin did with The Village Voice in 1984, the interviewer tells Baldwin that when he fantasizes of a Black president, he thinks it’s a world that’s better for gay Americans. Baldwin, while understanding what he means, replies, “Well, don’t be romantic about black people.” Do you fear the Left is becoming overly romantic about epistemic knowledge?

The Left has made huge gains in the last decade on all sorts of fronts. I mean, socialism is a thing now! It’s a viable political project, in the U.S.! The analysis of anti-racism is so much deeper today than it was 10 years ago. The sharpening of feminism and queer critique and trans critique and community building are wonderful. And that has resulted in aggressive pushback from those who are invested in the status quo.

We see the Ron DeSantises and Donald Trumps and Steve Bannons of the world coming for us, and we reasonably feel vulnerable. We want to find spaces of safety, and that can mean telling stories that simplify, and in doing so, offer comfort. I don’t think we ought to judge that; it’s reasonable given the political conditions.

That being said, the call to justice continues whether those seeking justice are winning or losing. We’re still called to the struggle. And that means that even at moments when we’re vulnerable, even at moments when the fascists are on the ascent, we need to be self-reflective and self-critical. We need to continue to tell complex stories and respond to those stories with added layers of complexity. We need to continue a critical analysis of what’s happening both among the fascist forces, but also among those who are seeking justice.

Faith communities are perhaps uniquely positioned to model what it means to continue in that kind of work. To continue in times of persecution, in times of marginalization, in times when it seems as if no one is listening, is a kind of faithful commitment.

I would love to hear you say more on that. What tools do religious communities have for telling complex stories and for continuing when under assault?

I don’t want to romanticize religious communities. They are in the world. Like other organizations, they are infected by forms of anti-blackness and other forms of domination. And yet religious communities have some extremely valuable habits and spaces that are maybe uniquely valuable.

Habits that include taking time to make sense of complex situations, applying stories, practicing our hermeneutics of text in light of personal experience or in light of conditions in the world, understanding that relationship building is essential, that relationships exist in the long term, that we can be frustrated and disagree with each other and still be in relationship with each other.

These are habits that I think faith communities are — at their best — very good at modeling, or at least better than many other places in the secular world.

And, regardless of the type of religious community, religious communities have to grapple with questions of authority and when its proper to defer to authority. Those are habits that are needed in the broader movement for justice.

How can Christian concepts contribute to healing the toxicity on the Left that you identify.

I worry a little bit about seeing in Christianity a sort of medicine that will heal a worldly ill. I don’t think there can be a kind of direct translation of certain Christian principles into secular spaces. But Christians can do a kind of witnessing or exercising of habits that are first cultivated in churches or faith spaces and bring those into justice movements.

Not saying, “I am a Christian and I am doing these things and I think you should do them too,” not saying, “These are my Christian principles,” but by engaging in a way that is in line with those virtues and habits. That’s one way to start to detoxify some of these Left spaces.

When you said exercising I thought you were going to talk about “exorcising,” like a process of confessing, repenting, and exorcising our sins communally. Is that something we need on the Left? A better process of confession, repentance, and repair?

In the abstract I’m inclined to agree, but because of this experience that I wrote about, I do worry that practices that seem really healthy can become the opposite.

Practices of accountability that seem really wonderful, like to find ways to hold each other into account that are not about policing or rule enforcement are really healthy. We should be finding alternatives to policing and rule enforcement. But we also need to be really cognizant of times when the proposed alternative is causing violence in new ways. And we need to respond dialectically and experimentally. We need to try things out and see how they work, what the effects are, and if we need to recalibrate rather than having confidence that we found a toolkit that will always work.

In terms of the language of guilt or repentance or sin in leftist/activist spaces, try it out! There could be context in which it is healthy and useful, or context in which it would fuel toxicity rather than detoxify.

Are you hoping that the Left will build a practice of community building and persuasion?

Yes. But again, it is necessary — and hard — to hold multiple things at once.

On the one hand, we need the slow work of community building, formation and dialectical thinking and experimentation. On the other hand, we need to appreciate the urgency of the forms of violence that we face and that our friends and neighbors are facing every day. The violence against Black folks, and women, and trans folks and others is happening today! And needs a response today. These two things can both be true.

We need to hold these two different ideas at the same time and continually discern and course correct between these two imperatives.

In the essay you refer to a “cult” of anti-racism that has been growing on the left. You have written extensively on charisma and religious communities, so your use doesn’t feel colloquial. Is the use of “cult” something that you’ve been reflecting on as something you may have gotten wrong in the essay?

I got an email from the Church of Scientology the other day scolding me for referring to them as a cult, so I have been thinking a lot about that.

In all of its forms, abuse is a curious word. We use it in lots of different ways, and I don’t think we reflect enough on whether various instances of abuse have a common denominator. Think about drug abuse or alcohol abuse; or clergy abuse, child abuse, or spousal abuse; abusive political leaders, abusive dynamics on social media, abusive religious communities. Even though these are quite different domains, they do have some things in common. The common denominator is a commitment to privacy and to harm. The harms in these cases are happening in private and in relationship, and there’s some perversion of morality.

So, that’s where the “cult-like” language came from. It was also an intuitive response to what I was seeing. And it’s usefully provocative. There’s something about that theological point about what it means to look for gods on earth, and to act as if humans are gods fosters abusive dynamics. It is not just about being a bully, but it involves charisma, relationship, and secrecy.

I wanted to touch a little bit on the responses you’ve received: Have you been surprised that this has been so well received on the political Right?

It certainly wasn’t my intention to write an essay that would support a conservative narrative. And it is frustrating that some conservative media and thought leaders are using the essay to advance their narrative. I probably shouldn’t be surprised, but again, I am not a Twitter person. I am not a very online person. It’s a swimming pool I am not used to navigating, and I probably didn’t do it very well.

But I do think there’s something really important about encouraging experimentation on the Left. We should try out communicating with different audiences. We should try out talking about different topics that aren’t usually on a sort of standard Left agenda. Sometimes we’ll make mistakes, and we should have a tolerance for that. I’m sure I made various mistakes in this piece, but I hope it modeled a kind of experimentation from the Left.

Have there been any unintended consequences of your essay, affecting your work as a professor or a writer or anything?

First and foremost, I’m a parent and spouse. I’m on parental leave with my 6-month-old, and it’s always refreshing to remember that there are real people with whom I have real, loving relationships. It has not been all-consuming for me. Parenting and being part of a family is much more consuming and rewarding than navigating discourse.

Since you mentioned being a spouse: Your wife, Dana, co-taught the course at Telluride that you write about, but she’s not really a character in the story. Why not?

I think she probably had the good foresight to realize there might be some social media controversy over this. We had talked about co-writing it, we talked through all of the parts of the craft. She’s a scholar of Indigenous studies and Native American religions, and she’s also a lawyer, so she had some helpful legal advice. But she didn’t want her name on it.

She was also eight months pregnant while the events of the essay unfolded. The baby came about a month premature, immediately after the mutiny in my essay. So that was probably traumatic and contributed to her not wanting her name associated with the essay.