Q&A: Race, diversity at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary

A Q&A with Professor Robert Oscar Lopez of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary on race, diversity and thinking about these issues in a Christian way. The Q&A was precipitated by controversy over a photograph of preaching faculty at Southwestern posing in what some in the black community have declared racism. In fact, one Southern Baptist blogger used the racial strife to urge increased diversity at Southern Baptist seminaries like Southwestern. Dr. Lopez was generous with his time in answering our questions on these important issues, and we hope you’ll share his thoughtful answers with your friends in Southern Baptist life.

Q: You are a minority teaching at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, a conservative Southern Baptist institution. In light of the recent “rap photograph” and calls from some SBC bloggers to increase diversity, what is your experience at SWBTS?

A: To put it simply, I feel respected and safe here. I worked at a Catholic college and two state universities before coming to Southwestern and I never felt safe in my other jobs-as a Christian or as a person of color.

I would like to explain this a little more. Race has always been a large factor in my experience, not only in terms of whether co-workers treat me differently because of my heritage, but more importantly, because the lasting wounds of racial oppression shape my character, my scholarly interests, my responses to ideas. It is part of who I am. In that sense I share a great deal with African Americans though I must acknowledge that I am not a fungible voice for descendants of English-speaking American slaves.

In Puerto Rico, where my mother was from, slavery was abolished later than in the United States (ten years after the Emancipation Proclamation). My mother’s grandmother was actually fairly old when she gave birth to my grandmother, so the history falls close to my generation. My family was from a coastal town where much of the business was sugarcane; there slavery was rampant. One sees on the faces of my relatives the lasting legacy of slavery, for some cousins are as dark as pure Africans while others are light enough to pass for Greek or Lebanese. My mother’s generation grew up in the 1940s and 1950s, a time when the last people who had been born slaves were dying off; they heard rumors about who had been born from rapes of black women by white men, but there were precious few records to verify anything. This then, was the place from which my mother came, and she raised me in the 1970s and 1980s, in a Catholic, white neighborhood in Buffalo, New York. I got beat up a lot by white boys growing up and heard “spic” and “nigger” thrown at me almost daily.

When you have not only bad childhood memories but also centuries of family history weighing on you, the pain is real. Even if you wanted not to react to provocations, your emotions have a life of their own. Sometimes I struggle, for instance, not to let my own experiences with racism color my approach to the LGBT issue. I was dragged into homosexuality, essentially, by white adults who pressured me into the lifestyle. When I circulated in the gay male world of New York City in the 1980s and 1990s, I saw older white homosexuals and the younger Latino men who were treated and often behaved as mere commodities. Even now the vast majority of gay men and lesbians who attack me online are white or, in a few cases, Latinos who are largely white-identified. It is hard not to slip back into your childhood mode.

So I do not want to dismiss people’s gut response to the photo. For the people who hated the sight of the photo, it’s coming from something in them. They had bad experiences with white frat boys, white guys coming out of church and mocking them, white executives mistaking them for the delivery boy when they just finished law school. It’s personal.

Without dismissing their reactions, I have to temper the backlash with some commonsense counterpoints. That is why I wrote this: http://englishmanif.blogspot.com/2017/04/a-tale-of-two-offensive-pics-and-one.html. Sometimes your pain is real but you are drawing the wrong conclusions from your pain. That is what I see going on with the photo. Five white guys seeming to treat hip-hop style like a costume party can cause serious hurt but yet the five white guys are not really guilty and there is nothing to be gained by carrying on about the photo. If the photo causes you pain then don’t repost it after it’s been taken down. Just move on.

Having said that, I say this about Southwestern’s campus. I cannot speak for black students on campus but I suspect they are in a much better position at SWBTS than they would be at Cal State Northridge, where I worked 2008-2016. A report by Pew in 2009 found that black Americans rely significantly more on religion than their non-black counterparts. See: http://www.pewforum.org/2009/01/30/a-religious-portrait-of-african-americans/

Pew found that 79% of black Americans considered religion a crucial part of their lives; this compares to 56% of the nation as a whole. Black women in particular find religion crucial. Black people who advance in their studies are likely to have succeeded because they got support from their churches. They come to college campuses preferring spiritual support grounded in the Gospel and holiness. If you have to choose between a campus that will torment black students for believing in the Bible but will punish anyone for perceived acts of insensitivity, versus a campus that might be a bit less guarded and could cross a few lines but which affirms black students’ walk with Christ, the choice is easy. Go with the campus that worships God. Forget about the campus that worships politically correct bureaucracy.

Black Americans have flourished and overcome adversity most noticeably when they define their goals in terms of their submission to God’s law, not living inside their “feelings”. I cover this in detail in Colorful Conservative; in that book I reject the notion that antebellum black literature followed the sentimentalist tradition of people like Harriet Beecher Stowe. There is a powerful anti-sentimentalist tradition in great black writers, a way of saying, “the world is too harsh for you to break down crying all the time, get down and pray for strength, and pull yourself together and get moving.” This was the part of Phillis Wheatley that most literary critics overlooked. Her homage to the Roman poet Horace was not merely her desire for credibility in eighteenth-century terms. Nor was she solely interested in him because he was the son of a freed Roman slave. She found strength in the stoic republicanism of Horace’s odes, his ability to keep passions in check and look to virtue and self-command most of all.

In practical terms, as I explain in that blog post, I am able to teach topics relevant to racial diversity with much greater ease at Southwestern because there is not an enormous bureaucracy holding everything up. Bureaucracy allows racists to snipe at people of color they dislike, all the while hiding behind protocols and rules and confidentiality. With that gone, you just teach. And that’s a wonderful thing in general, including for issues related to racial diversity.

Q: What precipitated your move from a secular university to a Southern Baptist seminary?

On my third week in the last job, in 2008, a white man who was head of creative writing came to me and said, “here, hold this cigar, come to this room at this time, and read from this script in a fake Spanish accent; you will play the role of a Cuban gardener in a play I wrote.”

There is no way this would happen at Southwestern. But in the hip, liberal, beatnik world of secular education, this was supposed to be cool. I was supposed to be honored that a full professor, with many plays to his credit, would pick little old me to embody his vision of what a Cuban gardener would be like, complete with a cigar.

I was angry, especially when I got to the room and the other people were acting out some skit that ridiculed a Southern Baptist as a repressed 1950s homosexual. The creative writing director knew my religious identity. When he would come by my office, he would get nosy and intrusive. Then a year later he announced he was putting on a play about a Puerto Rican academic who was about to become jobless due to budget cuts, and had to ship out to Afghanistan to work in military intelligence. At that time I was the only Puerto Rican, the only Army reservist, the only person working in intelligence, and the only person facing deployment to Afghanistan. On top of that, I was the last person hired and in 2009 there was a budget crisis in California, so I was also the one person who risked becoming jobless. The chair and dean batted their eyes and said the resemblance to me was pure coincidence. By then I knew the campus was crazy or pathologically dishonest.

The other people in that department didn’t get it. They thought this bully was charming and witty. When he papered the walls leading from the elevator to my door with flyers for his play, billing it as a dark satire featuring puerile stereotypes about soldiers, they told me I had no reason to be offended. Yet when I blogged about my experience, the Japanese American chair at the time, George Uba, called me into his office and pressured me to delete my blog out of consideration for the playwright. Academic freedom and cultural sensitivity are empty, false ideals in liberal academia. It applies to them but not to those they reject. And it would be impossible to disentangle the racism from the anti-conservatism in that experience. The two went together. That is why I cannot take Jemar Tisby’s article in Washington Post seriously. From what I can tell he curates an African American museum in Los Angeles. His attack on Southwestern comes across as a cheap shot at an easy target. Forget the California liberals who run Hollywood, run after the Baptist preachers with Texan accents who won’t get a fair hearing from NPR.

In my book, Wackos Thugs & Perverts, I include some chapters chronicling the infernal descent at that job. It turned to violent threats and slanderous “investigations” by the equity and diversity office. Coming to Texas was like escaping from the Iron Curtain. It was liberating.

Q: Diversity can be a good thing, but is often a political tool. From your experience, what is good about it and what should concern Southern Baptists about attempts to promote diversity in our seminaries?

You have to distinguish between affirmative action and anti-discrimination law. From what I can gather, in SBC Voices they call for quotas and affirmative action. That’s bad.

Let me tell you how affirmative action becomes a racket serving the interests of the powerful white people in charge of an institution. They get a chunk of money and someone tells them to go recruit some brown folks. Naturally they call up their friends and ask who knows minorities who will be good little subordinates. Often they look for people of color whose expertise is weak and who will feel insecure—those are the types whom white liberals can control. Resentment-driven minorities will attack others of their group for being independent thinkers and for not needing approval from white leaders. For example, I do not want to boast, but I came to Cal State Northridge with a Yale degree, fluent in seven languages. I had degrees in Classics, English, and Political Science. There was an older scholar who read Greek and went to Harvard, who scared the daylights out of everyone else with his snobbish persona, but he never impressed me. I had no trouble contradicting him in public. This shocked people.

Latino professors in diversity-obsessed colleges are supposed to teach Spanish or else embody ethnic stereotypes that make white liberals feel enlightened. There’s a script: You talk about how you were the first in your family to attend college, you wow them with homespun stories involving your charming grandmother, and you parrot left-wing identity politics. None of that applied to me: my mother was a Puerto Rican lesbian psychiatrist who graduated from medical school in the early 1960s. I was to the right of Rush Limbaugh. They could give me dirty looks, fill my personnel file with snarky demerits, and tell all the students to stink-bomb my teaching evaluations, and I didn’t care. I had my training and the literature and love of Jesus inside me. Eventually they drove me out by discriminating against me, but they could get away with it because they had so many Latino professors at the junior ranks in other departments like Chicano Studies, not only giving them statistical cover but also forming a potential gang of saboteurs against me. They were going to be loyal to the dean who’d given them a job, even if they might have to collaborate with discrimination against me.

Contrast this with anti-discrimination law, which is good. There should be a mechanism by which people who undermine their institution’s mission by advancing people based on race, rather than merit, suffer consequences. You should not do what CSUN did, for instance; they denied me early promotion and a raise one year after they gave those things to two white liberals who had the same number of service years I had, but no scholarly monograph like I had. If you have affirmative action, then the kinds of people who see skilled minorities as a threat will keep them in check by filling up the campus with their handpicked minions. Affirmative action eats away at anti-discrimination protections.

Q: What are some things Christians should keep in mind when thinking about diversity?

Any system of value that comes from men rather than from God is bound to fail. The Bible dictates that we should love our neighbors as ourselves, but it also states that the servant is not better than the master, nor the disciple better than the teacher. Taken as a whole, scriptures seem to indicate that we should be truthful about our fellow Christians. That means judging them according to something substantial and real, not status or whether they are Samaritan or Greek or Ethiopian. Minority status should not become like the lengthened tassels that mattered so much to hypocrites in Matthew 23. In the Bible sometimes the numbers matter but we cannot apply them to our professional lives. For instance, in Matthew and Luke, consider: five of the ten maidens were foolish, while one of the three servants entrusted with talents was bad, yet the housewife cleans the house to find one lost coin out of ten. Of every ten, how many are lost? What matters is that each and every soul that’s lost, no matter what group the soul belongs to, counts in the eyes of God. If one’s job is to lead the faithful, the qualifications are clear without trying to adjust them for different groups. The good shepherd stays with the flock while the hireling flees. Whether the shepherd is black and the hireling is white, or vice versa, their actions determine whether we should recognize them as the true shepherd or the hireling. In other words, do not get stuck on counting minorities like one would count cattle. Nobody wants to be a number, especially not a child of God.

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