When Christian Schools Decry Racism While Ignoring it Internally | Sojourners

When Christian Schools Decry Racism While Ignoring it Internally

On June 1, Randy Lowry, the president of Lipscomb University, issued an anti-racism statement expressing grief over the “inexcusable deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor.” The letter rang similar to emails sent out from the administrations of schools across the country who sought to convey solidarity with African Americans. But these sorts of statements — from Lipscomb and all Christian education institutions — are simply performative displays of solidarity if they are not followed up by embodied action to end systemic racism. While the Lipscomb president expressed that his school is “completely intolerant of racial abuse and injustices for all,” just a few months ago they suddenly dismissed their first ever dean of intercultural development after big donors threatened to withhold funds.  

On June 11, 2019, Lipscomb Academy posted a picture of Brittany Paschall and this announcement on their official Facebook page:

Brittany T. Paschall has been named the first dean of intercultural development. Lipscomb Academy has been seeking a dean to guide our faculty, staff, students, and parents in celebrating diversity, and we are excited about the experience that Brittany brings to our community.

Lipscomb Academy is a preparatory school connected to Lipscomb University, a Church of Christ institution. The two institutions share leadership, including Kim Chaudoin, assistant vice president of public relations and communication for Lipscomb University, as the primary media contact for both.

When I first saw the announcement about the new position, I was excited, both for Lipscomb and for Paschall, whose anti-racism work has intersected with my own work on disability rights.

I wasn’t the only one. On that same Facebook post by Lipscomb Academy, dozens of comments reflected the same enthusiasm. One commenter started her reply with, “Lipscomb, you made a PHENOMENAL choice!!!!” Another wrote, “With all my years as a Mustang it’s great to welcome in someone who wants to aid in making Lipscomb one of the best schools in Nashville.”

Yet in late January 2020, Lipscomb Academy reversed their statements about Paschall, writing:

A passionate, well-meaning young staff member was recruited for the new position [Dean of Intercultural Development], but, on reflection, was not adequately vetted, effectively on-boarded, mentored or supervised. Those miscues are our responsibility as leaders more than hers.

Also in January 2020, Dr. Carol Swain — whose failed mayoral bid was strongly supported by Lipscomb Academy parent John Rich — partnered with a politically and socially conservative website for a couple interviews about the situation at Lipscomb. She stated that Lipscomb was pushing “a race-based agenda,” and generally moving “in the politically correct leftist direction.”

To be clear, this is the same Lipscomb University whose chapel speaker that same month delivered an anti-LGBTQ+ sermon, at one point linking being gay with pedophilia.

I’ve called every main office number at Lipscomb Academy, and no one will acknowledge she no longer works there, each telling me they’ll check and get back to me. No one has ever gotten back to me, but I confirmed with a parent and a current student in March that the nameplate was gone from outside her former office with nothing but boxes inside.

Is this an isolated event?

On July 3, 2020, Quan McLaurin announced on Twitter, “Yesterday I tendered my letter of resignation. As of July 2, 2020, I will no longer serve as the Director of Diversity Retention at Liberty University.” Presumably, McLaurin resigned in response to Liberty president Jerry Falwell Jr.’s tweet recommending a mask with a picture of the governor in blackface standing next to someone dressed as a KKK member. I replied to McLaurin, asking if he would be willing to comment on this story, which I described to him as “a piece about racism at another Christian institution.” While McLaurin did not reply, my inbox on Twitter is now full of stories from students, employees, and alumni of Christian schools across the country. Some of these Twitter users referenced experiencing microaggressions in the classroom; others referenced not being taken seriously during staff meetings.

Part of the reason we see trends in racism at schools in general — including but not limited to Christian schools — is that we’ve been taught and continue to teach racist content as if it were true. History books minimize slavery. Black students who receive special education services are less likely to earn a high school diploma than similar white students, and Black students are more likely to be written up and disciplined at school. So we can’t call incidents of racism in schools anything but what it is: systemic.

Even the ice cream brand Ben & Jerry’s, who went viral recently with their statement on protests sparked by the deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor, has a post on their site about racism in schools. When ice cream makers care more about racial inequities than Christian schools, we have a problem.

So what happened at Lipscomb?

A few days before Christmas 2019, an anonymous Twitter account popped up, named MakeLipscombGreat1891. When Lipscomb was founded in 1891, only white students could attend.

In December, Lipscomb Academy parents exchanged emails about perceived racism toward white students and general concerns about Paschall’s theology. Not all parents agreed with these sentiments, though, including those who provided me with copies of emails and screenshots of Facebook posts. None are willing to be named because of concerns about retaliation.

Many of the Facebook group posts are attributed to John and Joan Rich, two prominent parents at the school. In one post, the Riches urge “every single parent to send the Board a letter to include CLEAR ACTION ITEMS that we want to see done,” including “Brittany P to be laterally moved to the University OR to be managed so that she builds Unity, not Division. She can NOT be allowed to act out on a political or racist agenda without consequences. OR, some of you may want her GONE…” (all capitalization quoted as it was written in the post).

Another parent began a now-deleted Change.org petition titled, “reinstate a Christian-led environment at Lipscomb Academy by terminating Mrs. Paschall.” Those who signed the petition left comments including: “we must root out anti-white racism in our schools” and “racism is not just one-sided.” Per the last screenshot I took shortly before it was taken down, 49 people signed this.

John Rich is part of the country duo Big & Rich, and he has co-written songs with Taylor Swift, Jason Aldean, and Faith Hill. He won Celebrity Apprentice in 2011, with now-President Trump hosting and judging the show, donating the $250,000 prize to St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital. He’s also been on Fox News several times because of his long-time financial support of Republicans running for elected office.

He has also supported Lipscomb Academy through donations, on top of the tuition he and his wife pay for their children’s education.

The Riches chose to cancel this school year’s songwriter fundraiser, an event they held to benefit Lipscomb Academy since 2017, explaining in an email to fellow parents that “we cannot in good conscience continue to raise money for a school who has so drastically disappointed us.”

His complaint was based on three middle school assignments: a brief reading assignment mentioning white privilege, another lesson that included content from The 1619 Project, and a viewing of the video Unequal Opportunity Race. In the email text quoted by the deleted Change.org petition to remove Paschall, Rich explained that he considered the assignments inappropriate because “racism does not exist at the school based on my experience there.”

But Paschall had nothing to do with those assignments. White teachers chose to assign them on their own, a distinction Rich acknowledged, as documented by the  Tennessee Tribune.

J.P. Baker is one of those white teachers who assigned students to read a blog post mentioning white privilege. This was his first year teaching at Lipscomb Academy, and he planned to stay for at least five years. In February, he expressed his intent to leave before the school year ended. After submitting his resignation on March 11, he chose to stay through the end of the year out of concern for his students as COVID-19 changed educational delivery. Baker is clear about his reasons for leaving: He “resigned specifically and exclusively in response to the treatment of Brittany Paschall and Lisa Bruce,” a white woman who was involved in Paschall’s hiring. When he and I emailed about these incidents, he wrote, “I loved my colleagues; I loved my students; I even loved the administrators, many of whom equipped us well for innovation and academic rigor.”

The eighth-grade curriculum, mapped out prior to Baker’s arrival and used by previous teachers before him, included the novel Chains by Laurie Halse Anderson, whose main character Isabel is an enslaved African-American girl living in New York during the beginnings of the Revolutionary War. Baker wrote to me, “I was simultaneously excited and concerned about the use of this novel in the eighth-grade curriculum” — excited because it highlighted slave ownership as “prevalent among the very same people who fought for our nation’s independence,” but concerned because “in the middle of a curriculum that had no official inclusion of Black authors – Lipscomb Academy had chosen a book about slavery written by a white author.”

So as Baker’s classes ended their study of Chains, he had students spend 20 minutes reading a blog post by the author, who explained her decision to write the book from the perspective of a Black protagonist.

Following the assignment, Baker only heard from two parents. The first parent thanked him. Baker directly contacted the other parent when their child refused to complete the assignment. The eight-grader had instead written “various statements of outrage across it: ‘It’s illegal to force us into this INDOCTRINATION' – ‘y’all dumb liberals chill out’ – ‘every chapel is so liberal, it stops now.’”

Meanwhile, as is often the case for a new administrator, Paschall was acclimating to the school and mapping out priorities for her work at Lipscomb Academy.

When hired, Paschall stated, “My vision is to combine my variety of experience in diversity, inclusion and equity with my passion for gospel-centered communities in which all students, teachers and parents are welcomed as their full selves. My top priority in the 2019-2020 academic year will be the creation of clear school culture metrics, increase cultural humility and the establishment of a student diversity committee.”

Maybe Paschall would have eventually suggested classroom assignments about white privilege, but she didn’t. But that didn’t stop Lipscomb Academy parents from targeting her.

Paschall’s work, like many millennials, includes online content. Disgruntled parents cited her self-identification as an anti-racism advocate and her writings published prior to her hiring, like this blog post from 2018 in which she shared personal experiences of racism and misogynoir, and this Sojourners' article about safety for Black women and girls.

Paschall’s writing and her work thus far toward her Master of Divinity demonstrate firm foundational roots in biblical scholarship. Furthermore, her faith-rooted activism work has helped Nashville remember Juneteenth. She was also instrumental in securing clemency for Cyntoia Brown, a sex trafficking survivor who was accused of murder while acting in self-defense.

Instead of educating himself on Paschall’s experience and qualifications, Rich threatened to dry up the river of donations he had been directing toward Lipscomb University.

Support for Paschall

Dozens of church leaders wrote to Lipscomb’s Head of School in support of Paschall:

We recognize that a powerful, wealthy man has made some demands; however, this individual has songs that do not represent Christian values. … Moreover, this gentleman lacks political balance, which those of us of a Restoration heritage know has the potential to create in an individual a desire more to protect their political interests as opposed to the ethic of Christ the true King … We write this letter to demonstrate our unified and complete support for Sis. Brittany Taylor Paschall.

In response, the university president, head of school for the academy, and board of trustees wrote:

In retrospect, when we created the new position of Dean of Intercultural Development for Lipscomb Academy, we did not define or communicate our expectations for this position to our family of students and parents as well as we should have. We know the importance of setting expectations; in fact, it is a key determinant of whether such a new position helps to achieve our objectives in creating it, and the person filling that role succeeds. We are resolute in our commitment to diversity and the importance of this position ...

Beyond the group of pastors and church leaders, Paschall is far from alone in this conflict. In addition to social media, supporters have rallied behind Paschall with a Change.org petition with nearly 2,700 signatures (compared to only 49 on the petition calling for her removal),  protests in support of her remaining as a dean at Lipscomb Academy, and parents speaking out to debunk lies about Paschall’s work.

Kimberly Chaudoin, assistant vice president of public relations and communications for Lipscomb Academy and University, replied “It isn’t appropriate for us to discuss details of personnel matters.” Paschall confirmed that she is no longer in the position for which she was originally hired. Emails to Rich’s representatives and to his personal email account were unanswered.

Virtue Signaling vs. Embodied Anti-Racism

Statements from businesses and schools, much like the statement from Lowry, have been commonplace since the death of George Floyd. There is also a steady skepticism that such statements are mere virtue signaling unless they come with specific and measurable action steps.

Parents and students across the country are challenging public and private schools to do something and not just say something. In some public school districts, parents are petitioning for policy changes “to hire more people of color, end the disproportionate punishment of Black students and do away with ‘whitewashed’ curriculum.” At Xavier College Prep, a Roman Catholic school in Arizona, alumni are doing the same, specifically asking for anti-racism training for teachers, curricular changes to include anti-racist books and articles, and permission for student-led affinity groups for students of color, Indigenous groups, and Black students along with allies.

Some of these changes are happening. British Columbia’s Education Minister Rob Fleming says he is committed to curricular changes “to include more history of the Black community in British Columbia's school curriculum, amid mass protests in the U.S. and around the world against the killing of African American George Floyd in police custody.” Following the lead of North Central University’s president, dozens of colleges and universities have established scholarships in George Floyd’s name.

Christian schools, however, have largely limited their response to words rather than actions. Lipscomb is among those schools.

When Lowry’s anti-racism statement to the Lipscomb community was posted on Facebook, I reached out to Paschall for comment. She responded, “Being an educator and thought leader, specializing in diversity, equity, and inclusivity practices, it’s always my hope that institutions are making a conscious effort to not only acknowledge racism within their organizations but be active in their approach to dismantle the systems that don’t allow for inclusiveness to be seen, heard, and felt in their daily practices. My hope is that all institutions are beginning the steps of listening to their local communities and doing the work, I am watching and interested in seeing how Lipscomb (and many others) are active in creating a space for all.”

Several former students left comments on the letter, including Lauren Yawn:

As a recent alumna, this statement is unacceptable to me.

Not 6 months ago, Lipscomb Academy, led by Randy Lowry and many other university staff, fired a brilliant young Black woman named Brittany Paschall along with the two staff members who hired her at the threat of losing a donation from enraged white parents.

That action speaks louder than a blanket statement on Facebook.

We are paying attention.

This university has NOT proven in any way to be an advocate for their Black students and have not taken any action to physically advocate for their Black students on campus other than blanket statements and empty promises.

Will you be issuing a public apology to Brittany for your public prejudice against her?

Other commenters asked what actions would be taken to follow these words, many expressing skepticism that anything would be done at all. One asked, “Love to see that my alma mater is taking a step to be vocally anti-racist, however, I’m curious to find out more about the active steps you all are taking to combat racism.” Amber Buchanan simply replied with a link to a news story about Lipscomb’s treatment of Paschall.

The overall tone of their responses was that the Lipscomb community would believe Lowry’s words when they saw them realized and not until then.  

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