Why Nathan Cartagena Teaches Critical Race Theory to Evangelicals | Sojourners

Why Nathan Cartagena Teaches Critical Race Theory to Evangelicals

Nathan Cartagena. Images via Nathan Cartagena / Shutterstock. Design by Candace Sanders.

Last November, the presidents of six Southern Baptist seminaries released a statement declaring that critical race theory was “incompatible” with the central statement of faith in the SBC. This came a few months after President Donald Trump attempted to ban critical race theory from federal anti-racism training; Republicans in state legislatures are now using similar language to try and ban critical race theory from state education systems.

For Nathan Cartagena, a critical race theorist and assistant professor of philosophy at Wheaton College, conservative Christians’ growing belief that CRT is a threat to the gospel poses a pedagogical challenge: How do you teach students to understand an idea that they’ve been told is fundamentally anti-Christian?

Cartagena defines critical race theory as “a legal movement aimed at understanding, resisting, and remediating how U.S. law and legal institutions such as law schools have fostered and perpetuated racism and white supremacy,” but he also emphasizes that CRT now operates in “disciplines and domains that are beyond law or legal studies” and, as a whole, resists one-sentence definitions.

Cartagana spoke with Sojourners about his “steady off-and-on relationship with critical race theory,” which began when he was a graduate student at Texas A&M. Since then, CRT has helped Cartagena make sense of his own life, including his experience as a “racialized minority who went to a historically white undergrad” as well as his family’s connection to “conquest, colonization, exploitation, and oppression” as Puerto Ricans. But as Cartagena told Sojourners assistant news editor Mitchell Atencio, he considers himself a “churchman” first, and he engages in his work in an effort to uplift the church.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Nathan Cartagena: When I was applying for positions to teach, I wanted to teach at smaller, Christian, liberal arts schools, because I see myself first as a churchman. I want to edify the church through distinctively Christian modes of pedagogy. I didn’t want to have to check my trinitarian theology at the door when I’m trying to do race scholarship or when I’m trying to do distinctive things in moral philosophy.

When I interviewed at Wheaton the very first time, my guest lecture was on an essay about critical race theory by Tommy J. Curry. I wanted to see: Is this a place that would welcome such reflection? I received a warm welcome from the students, my department, etc., so I thought “OK, this is a place where I can do this.” I taught a reading group my first year at Wheaton that involved one of the important texts in the critical race theory movement, Faces at the Bottom of the Well by Derrick Bell. The following year I asked if I could teach a half-semester class on critical race theory — I got a full thumbs up.

As I was preparing to teach that class, I felt prompted, by the Spirit, that the church could use a book on critical race theory. This was about two summers ago, so CRT is not a hot-button topic at this point. But I thought the church could really use a deeper reflection on how the law has promoted white supremacy in distinctive ways against racialized groups, and how that’s connected to the church’s role in the expansion of European empires. I thought about how cool it would be to have resources to answer this question: What does sanctification look like in a racialized world? Paul doesn’t inhabit a racialized world, Jesus doesn’t inhabit a racialized world. After the 15th century, people are inhabiting a racialized world. Critical race theory can give us a lot of resources to answer such questions. I got the contract last April.

Mitchell Atencio, Sojourners: Because critical race theory has become such a hot-button issue, especially in white evangelical circles, do you find that students or others have different approaches or assumptions when they come to your work now than when you first started teaching?

Oh yes. When I first started teaching, most people had never heard of critical race theory, and they certainly weren’t familiar with an acronym. Now, the teaching is harder. People are carrying a whole host of ideas about CRT, the overwhelming majority of which are completely false. They’re coming with these ideas from people they trust — from people who have, perhaps, taught them accurate things and helped them to love Jesus in all sorts of important ways. These same people are saying “CRT is of the devil,” “CRT is nothing but cultural Marxism,” etc. Interacting with those students is completely different than what it would have been over a year ago. One of the reasons the challenges are greater is that people have made certain claims about the compatibility of CRT with [uses air quotes] the gospel. As a teacher who loves my students, I’m trying to figure out: What are these ideas? Where did they get them from? Because I try to offer pedagogy that’s person-specific. If you think that endorsing any claim a critical race theorist makes may well jeopardize your standing as a Christian, the stakes are so high it’s hard to have a discussion about these things.

When I was first teaching on CRT, I was very explicit about when something was a CRT essay or quote. Now, one of the things I do is I present CRT literature without telling students that it’s CRT literature. Then I ask them what they think about it. The overwhelming response from the students is: “Wow, this essay is so rigorously researched, so clear, and so well-argued. Even if I don’t agree with every claim, I learned so much,” etc. Then, after they’ve sung a little praise song, [laughs] I tell them they’ve read a piece by a critical race theorist. You can see a look of disillusionment set in — this part gets really hard, if I’m honest. On the one hand, it’s a healthy destabilization. You’ve gotta remember that a lot of my students are racialized white folks. If they’re not now going to say that everything they just said was false, how do they reckon with believing there are things to learn from critical race theorists while knowing that the stakes, in some of these communities they’ve been a part of, are so high that to say such is to find themselves ostracized?

This is one of the really important challenges I face as a teacher in historically white evangelical spaces: How do I remove false ideas and help people to grow in justice, mercy, and understanding regarding CRT and regarding communities that they’ve come from where they’ve slandered CRT folks? It's so much harder than it was a year ago because the stakes are so high. How do you do the good, anti-hegemonic work that’s filled with love of neighbor while also knowing that, as you help to move people out of what I call the “Platonic racialized cave,” it’s gonna hurt.

Some Christians have suggested we should “eat the meat and spit out the bones,” or take the good and discard the bad, of critical race theory. How does that approach strike you?

I think one of my concerns is it still seems a bit too domineering. I worry about the ways in which we’re presenting stuff as that which we can plunder, that which we can devour, etc.

I prefer to go with the following metaphor that you get from Boethius and Aquinas. They talk about turning philosophical water into theological wine. That would mean that something like CRT, the movement, is going to be nourishing and life-giving in a way that water is. Then, I want to fit [CRT] in with certain ideas about being made in the image of God, common grace, and general revelation. As we talk about “theological wine,” we are seeing this nourishing “water” as now being in contact with Christ. It’s Christ, a member of the Trinity, that’s taking this up and helping us to see how we can view God’s creation better. CRT scholars are helping us to think through how to move in more decolonial ways and address the church’s egregious history.

If we’re in a racialized world, and we get dog-whistle politics, Southern strategies, and so forth from the GOP, part of what it means to be an agent that’s salt and light in that world is recognizing, in a race-conscious way, all of these very subtle — and sometimes, of course, overt — modes of racism.

Then I think about the Spirit as an agent of godly race consciousness. I’m thinking in distinctively trinitarian terms about how the Spirit is actually an agent of race-conscious liberation. The Spirit is going to help us see these racialized structures.

To me, that’s an importantly different posture [than “eat the meat and spit out the bones”]. I’m coming with the expectation that I have things to learn from CRT scholars, that they’re going to say things that are gonna help me live a good life. Then, I prayerfully consider: How can I draw from the Christian tradition and understand these things in a more distinctively Christian register?

Critical race theorist Richard Delgado has said that key aspects of CRT include “an insistence on naming our own reality” and “critical examination of the myths and stories powerful groups use to justify racial subordination.” How can these ideas help Christian formation and relationships?

The idea that there are legitimizing myths that maintain the evil status quo is ancient. You see that, for example, in the discussions of the northern and southern kingdoms in 1 and 2 Kings. You’re gonna see this in the book of Amos where you’re gonna get two different priesthoods. [In the book of Jeremiah] you’ve got people saying “peace, peace, everything’s fine,” and Jeremiah is like “No, not everything’s fine!” There are those narratives that were designed to blind people to the realities around them.

I think for some Christians, the idea that there are narratives designed to blind initially sounds crazy, especially if they are from historically white spaces and socialization patterns. [But] if you’re reading the Old Testament or the New Testament, you see legitimizing myths.

One of the key questions to ask is: What are the myths and the discourses that enable the kinds of unjust material conditions that we see throughout the centuries?

There are different myths, discourses, and ideas at different times used to legitimize different things. For the most part, explicit promotions of a holistic vision of white supremacy start to decline around 1965. Before that, you get all sorts of discourses that are explicit about white supremacy; there are many different conceptions of whiteness — sometimes people are defending Anglo-Saxon white supremacy, sometimes they’re defending Teutonic or Aryan white supremacy, etc. — but it’s explicit. You get somebody like Rudyard Kipling talking about “the white man’s burden.” For them, this was all benevolent racism: “Oh these poor weaker races, they really need us.” Often, that discourse of taking up the white man’s burden, caring for these lesser races, [meant] “Oh the white race is completely superior, if we’re going to be godly we need to love these inferior races, that’s what it is to love our neighbor.” Now, [after 1965] did you still get presentations of superior and inferior cultures and races? Yes. But they’re not as ubiquitous and they’re importantly different from what you got before.

Here’s one of the reasons I think critical race theory is so helpful: They’re asking us to think historically. They’re saying we’ve got to pay attention to the shifts in history and see how differing material conditions and modes of production lead to the production of different legitimizing myths to maintain structural and institutional modes of white supremacy. Because they’re structural and institutional, they lead to people having certain vices of racism — endorsing certain racist ideas and feeling certain racist feelings.

Critical race theorists, especially people like Derrick Bell, situate themselves in traditions tied to their communities. So Bell is pretty clearly working out of something like what Cedric Robinson will call the Black radical tradition. Bell is drawing heavily from people like [W.E.B.] Du Bois and Fannie Lou Hamer. As he’s drawing from these groups, he’s seeing how people who were on the underside of empire and racial apartheid understood the socieities they were a part of. They understood the Christian theologies that were operating to justify racial apartheid, and, on the other hand, challenge racial apartheid. They’re able to see those things from a particular perspective and they develop practices, discourses, and narratives that speak from their perspective on the modes of injustice that they are seeing. They see it because of how they are culturally, historically, and linguistically situated. Bell is saying, “I’m going to work from such traditions and use them to evaluate contemporary settings.” Because he does that, he gives voice to a tradition he inherits and he extends it to new realities.

It’s important to see that somebody like Delgado, Crenshaw, Bell, or Robert A. Williams is not merely saying, “I myself had these experiences.” When they talk about thinking from a certain perspective, it’s not individualistic. Rather it’s: “I’m bringing the thoughts, voices, insights of — in Spanish we’d say mi gente my people. And I’m evaluating the social conditions in light of these things.”

There are many times in Bell’s writings where he’s going to be quoting past Negro spirituals to help evaluate what’s happening in the present. He’s trying to help offer a way of thinking, with the historic Black church, about present conditions. He’s talking about that kind of perspective and voice. In so many scholarships, that’s precisely the voice that gets ignored and set aside. It’s not the individual's voice, it’s the entire community's voice that gets set aside.

Mi gente in Puerto Rico have been colonized [by the U.S.] since 1898. We have been speaking out against U.S. racism, racial apartheid, exploitation, and oppression from the beginning, even before we were colonized. Almost nobody on what we call “the mainland,” unless they’re Latino or Latina, knows anything about this history. This is what’s known as organized forgetting. It’s not just that individual perspectives are set aside, it’s whole communities, entire traditions, that we don’t know anything about.

Richard Delgado and Richard A. Williams highlight how the founders and the framers of the Constitution drew extensively from the Iroquois and their conception of confederacy when thinking about the U.S. Constitution. This is well documented, but almost nobody knows this history. Not only do they not know this history, they know another history. “Oh, well Locke and Hobbes, they were the keys, those were the only people that somebody like Thomas Jefferson or Ben Franklin was listening to.” And it’s completely false. Not only do you get the contributions — the rich confederacies — that the Iroquois were championing ignored, while being appropriated, but then somebody like John Locke gets the credit. And John Locke is one of the most racist people against Indigenous folks.

So let’s end on this: Besides your own meditations and some of the books you’ve referenced, where would you recommend people start if they want to try and understand critical race theory? And who should be studying critical race theory?

I really love both these questions. Some of these questions presume a kind of leisure that only comes with being in the middle, upper-middle class, or beyond. This is one of the reasons I try to have blogs for free, because I’m trying to limit the amount of economic barriers. Even if I give recommendations, who can afford them? Who’s gonna have access to a library that is gonna have subscriptions to journals? This is a serious problem and it’s one I think the church is failing to address, and certainly one that evangelicals broadly are failing to address.

Now, speaking to those that the Lord has called to be teachers and preachers in the church: If you don’t know much about CRT, it is your task — to love your neighbors, to love your parish, to love those you’re teaching — to acknowledge you don’t know much about CRT. You’ve got to start there. And then you have to ask, given all that you have to do, if you’re gonna start learning because CRT is a hot-button issue. And who knows how long that’s going to last. So looking at all the responsibilities you have, if one of your tasks is to be able to provide some voice of justice and love to this discussion about CRT, then what are some of those introductory resources that you can get? But, and this is so important, just because you’ve read Delgado and Stefancic’s [Critical Race Theory: An Introduction] you are not now an expert on CRT. Yes, you’ve gained a little bit more understanding, but you must recognize that it is greatly limited. So you need to speak and act in light of that.

Also, there are people in the church that are CRT scholars, like myself, who are happy to talk to people and congregations and provide you with insight. But, most of us, especially when we’re dealing with historically white institutions, are going to ask that you show us a commitment, through reading, before we come and talk with you. We’re not interested in being part of a racial theater where we get parachute-dropped in for one talk, because that doesn’t promote real change. Those of us who are serious CRT scholars, who think there are so many things to rejoice about over the movement and the insights, are trying to do that to promote health and wellbeing to the church and the common good. We want to talk about how to get spiritual formation that is race conscious and discipleship that is designed to resist and remediate forms of white supremacy, and all the modes of racism that are following that.

Whatever churches are going to be doing, as it relates to CRT, must be situated in a broader commitment to resist white supremacy and racism in their various forms. If you’re not situating it in these broader things, then I fear that mostly what you’re going to end up doing is unhelpful.

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