Critical Race Theory in Christianity, Part I: The Christian-Ethnic Studies Borderlands

Author’s note: Critical Race Theory has been the subject of much controversy in some Christian circles. As a follower of Christ, pastor, and professor of Critical Race Theory at UCLA, I feel that it is important for me to chime in, because much of the controversy flows from misunderstanding.  This post is the first in a 3-part series on Critical Race Theory in Christianity.  May this series produce fruitful discussion and healing within the Body of Christ.

The “Spiritual Borderlands” of Ethnic Studies and Institutional Christianity

I was once told by a colleague, “Some students of this department don’t like you because you are half-Chinese, some don’t like you because you are a Christian, and some don’t like you because your wife is white.”  Though painful to hear, this comment was true.  And, it helped explain the animosity I experienced on the part of a small, but vocal contingency of students who sought to challenge my prospects for tenure at UCLA.

Notwithstanding the challenge I received during the tenure process by this small group of student detractors, in many ways, Chicana/o Studies is a good intellectual home for me.  For the most part, I am strongly supported by my colleagues and students with respect to my research in racial history and theory.  My inter-disciplinary research project of “Chino-Chicano,” or, “Asian-Latino Studies,” has been strongly received both my department and the broader field of Chicano/Latino Studies.  As a “Chino-Chicano,” whose parents hail from Chihuahua, Mexico and Hubei in Central China, I have come along and argued that the definition of “Chicano” must be broadened beyond the dichotomy of Spanish and indigenous to include the rich contributions of Asians to Mexican history, culture, and tradition.  Chinese, Japanese, and other Asian groups have been meaningfully present in Mexico and Latin America since colonial times, and in the early twentieth century, Chinese immigrants were the second largest foreign ethnic community in all of Mexico. Quite sadly, they were also the victims of a virulent sinophobic campaign which culminated in the expulsion of most Chinese from the country in 1931.  In light of this important history, I argue, we must incorporate the Chinese and other Asian communities into our understanding of Mexican racial formation or “mestizaje.”  Almost without exception, my project of “Asian-Latino Studies” has been favorably received.

As a professor, my greatest sense of alienation, however, has arisen from the sometimes subtle, and sometimes outright, rejection of Christianity by Chicana/o Studies and the broader field of Ethnic Studies.   Along with many other professors and students of faith, I have lived much of my academic life in the “spiritual borderlands” of the academy and institutional religion.   In the world of Chicana/o Studies and activism our faith is usually discouraged or criticized.  We are told, “You can’t be a Christian and care about issues of racial and gender justice.  It’s the white man’s religion and it’s a tool of colonization.  It’s racist, classist, and sexist.”  As a result of such hostility, many Chicanas/os keep silent about their faith in activist circles for fear of persecution or ostracization.  Others lose their faith.  Some tenuously cling to a personal relationship with God but abandon institutionalized Christianity altogether.   In the words of Gloria Anzaldúa, Christian Chicanas and Chicanos are “left out or pushed out” of existing Christian and Chicano categories.

This negative perspective of religion within Chicana/o Studies is understandable.  It is grounded in centuries of historical and contemporary misrepresentation of the teachings of Jesus.  In a very real sense, the history of Latinas/os in the Americas is one of systemic racism perpetuated by white individuals claiming to be Christian.  From the Spanish Conquest, to 19th century Manifest Destiny in the United States, to Jim Crow segregation and Operation Wetback, to the present day Tea Party movement, many individuals continue to perpetuate the stereotype that Christianity is a racist, classist, and sexist religion.  And so, understandably, the Chicana/o movement continues to reject Christianity as part of its party platform.

Consequences

There are a number of harmful consequences that result, however, from the wholesale rejection of Christianity in Chicana/o Studies and Ethnic Studies.  First, many students experience severe emotional damage.  This grave consequence should cause us to take serious pause, and is exemplified by the following critical race counterstory :

Rosa was excited about attending her first college lecture.  She was the first of her family to attend college and was the valedictorian of Roosevelt High School.   Her 4.2 grade point average had earned her a full ride to Pitzer College, one of the best liberal arts college in the U.S. according to U.S. News and World Report.

Rosa’s Mom and Dad were deacons in their local church and had brought her up to be a Christian.  They told many stories of how God had taken care of them when they made the dangerous journey to the United States across the Sonoran desert.  Her dad worked two jobs—as a short order cook during the week and a gardener during the weekend. He also collected cardboard to raise extra money for the family.  Her mom was a nanny to a rich family in San Marino and also managed their family of four kids.  Church provided one of the few spaces of social respect for Rosa’s parents.  They had “dignidad” when they walked into church and were addressed as “deacons,” and “hermano” and “hermana” Ramos.

Rosa’s first class was a Chicano history class, and her professor began his lecture by saying, “Christianity is the White Man’s religion.”  The professor went on to detail how the Spaniards used Christianity to colonize the Aztecs and the millions of indigenous people of the Americas.   Rosa also learned about how the Bible was used to justify ethnic genocide, murder, and the oppression of women.  Rosa left class devastated.  She didn’t know what to do.  Who was right about Christianity?  Was it her working class, immigrant parents who loved and followed Jesus?  Or was it her professor who had his Ph.D. from Harvard and had written many famous books over the past twenty years?

When I met Rosa she was in her second year of college and undergoing clinical depression.  Rosa had been seeing a psychiatrist to help her with the deep loss and emotional conflict she was experiencing trying to reconcile the faith of her youth with the perspectives of Christianity she had learned in her classes.

In addition to creating deep emotional turmoil for many students like Rosa, another consequence of the wholesale rejection of Christianity by Chicana/o Studies is that thousands of potential students are unnecessarily turned away from the discipline of Chicana/o Studies.  If asked to choose between the faith of their family and Chicana/o Studies, they reject Chicano Studies.   I can understand this decision, and it keeps thousands of Chicanos and Latinos from coming to study Chicana/o Studies at the university.

A third painful consequence is that objective research about faith and activism, and the role of faith in Chicano/Latino communities is squelched.   Even though the founding document of the Chicana/o movement, El Plan Espiritual de Aztlán, asserts freedom of religious expression within its membership, Latinas/os of Christian background have been historically marginalized by the academic discipline of Chicana/o Studies.    Microaggressions against Christianity and Christian Chicanos is common in the context of various academic settings, including the classroom, disciplinary conferences, and faculty gatherings.   As an example, I remember vividly attending one National Association of Chicana and Chicano Studies Conference on a Good Friday and hearing Christianity blasted from the keynote speaker.   As previously discussed, I have also personally experienced discrimination as a professor based upon my Christian convictions.   In its most insidious forms, such microaggressions take the form of viewpoint discrimination and violate highly held principles of academic freedom.   Because of the inherent bias against Christianity in Chicana/o Studies, the objective study of religion is squelched despite the fact that faith is central to our families and communities and has been a key source of community organizing for centuries.  Although Latinos are transforming the landscape of religion in the U.S. , as will be discussed, Chicana/o scholarship on this topic is severely lacking.

The wholesale rejection of Christianity by Chicana/o Studies is regrettable because it ignores not only the contemporary religious landscape of the Latino community, but also the central role that Christianity has played in social justice movements among Latinas/os in Latin America and the United States.  From Bartolomé de las Casas to Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, to César Chávez and Católicos Por La Raza, to the Sanctuary Movement of the 1980’s and contemporary organizing among undocumented Latinos, faith has been at the center.  Despite the central role played by faith in the life of César Chávez and the broader Chicana/o civil rights movement, the role of religion as a motivating factor for social change has been largely neglected by the field of Chicana/o Studies.

Despite the important role played by religion in the lives of millions of Latinas and Latinos, little Chicana/o Studies scholarship exists on the topic.  With few notable exceptions, including the work of Mario García, David Carrasco, Elisa Facio, and Luís Leon, few academic studies examine the Mexican American religious experience.   As professor of Chicana/o Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, Mario García has pioneered the field of Chicana/o Religious Studies in recent years.   His books, Católicos: Resistance and Affirmation in Chicano Catholic History (2010) and Mexican American Religions: Spirituality, Activism, and Culture (2008), have laid the academic groundwork for the examination of religion in Chicana/o Studies.    According to García, “Despite the fact that the vast majority of U.S. Latinos claim to be religious or spiritual, little has been written on Mexican American/Chicano religions from a multidisciplinary perspective.”    In addition to being an understudied topic in Chicano/Latino Studies, the topic of Chicana/o religions and spirituality has also been largely overlooked by the broader field of religious studies.

Curricular and textbook offerings on the role of religion in Chicana/o communities are also generally quite limited.  In my own department of Chicana/o Studies, for example, only one permanent course offering exists with respect to religion.  The classic Chicano history text, Occupied America: A History of Chicanos, by Rudy Acuña leaves out discussion of the role of faith in Chicano history.   The more recent text, Crucible of Struggle: A History of Mexican Americans from the Colonial Period to the Present Era likewise tells the history of Chicanos in a way which is detached from the faith life of the community.  Ironically, this text is published as part of the American Academy of Religion Aids for the Study of Religion Series.

The flipside of the spiritual borderlands experienced by professors and students of faith is the strong sense of alienation we feel in some institutional religious spaces.   We often feel out of place in church, seminary, and parachurch ministry circles because our strong concern for racial justice is not understood.  When we share our concerns about issues of educational inequality or the need for compassionate immigration reform, we are met with blank stares or even outright opposition.  We are told, “those are political issues which are separate from faith.”  “How can you be a Christian and not support the Republican candidate?” As a result, we often walk away from church and formal religious institutions.  We may cling tenuously to a personal faith, but our activism becomes divorced from institutional Christianity.

Two examples from recent memory are illustrative.  As a pastor, professor, and immigration lawyer I am passionate about comprehensive immigration reform.  Seeing that my local church was not doing much in this area, I wrote and told them, “Immigration is the cutting civil rights issue of our time.  It’s like slavery of our day.  Why isn’t our church doing anything about this?”  In response, I had a meeting with the pastor to explain my concerns.  Unfortunately, I was met with defensiveness and pushback.  I left devastated.  I felt discombobulated for days.  To soothe myself on my drive to UCLA the next day, all I could do was blare Latino music in my car and allow the beats, rhythms, and melodies of my culture to comfort me and overwhelm my senses.  I thought to myself, “My brown skin and Latino-ness is welcome to improve the superficial appearance of diversity in the pews, but my viewpoints and perspectives which flow from my brown experience are not welcome.  They want me to be Brown on the outside, but White on the inside.  My Latino-ness was not truly welcome.  I could not attend this church and be Latino.”  I left the congregation in search of a church where my Latino culture was truly welcome.   Much to his/her credit, the pastor eventually apologized to me.  He/she still did not invite me to engage the church in immigration issues, however.

Story two.  In 1997 as a 3rd year law student at Berkeley School of Law, I received my call from God to become a professor.  The vision– complete law school, pursue a Ph.D. in Latin American history, and as a professor speak and write about issues of race and ethnicity.  Instrumental to my calling was a talk I heard by noted Christian speaker Os Guinness at a parachurch ministry event in 1997.  Flash forward a decade.  I’m a professor at UCLA and this same parachurch ministry comes to campus and gets wind of my story.  They ask me to moderate an event featuring Os Guinness.  Since I was sincerely grateful for the role played by their ministry in my life, I agreed to serve as moderator and to allow my story to be featured in their newsletter.  Fast forward a few more years.  I decide to write my first Christian book, Jesus for Revolutionaries:  An Introduction to Race, Social Justice, and Christianity.  The idea behind Jesus for Revolutionaries was simple:  Write a book, in conversational style, which would provide a biblical, historical, and sociological introduction of Christianity to activists.  As another important goal, the book would introduce readers to the little-known world of Christian community development and social justice.

Excited about the close relationship I had recently forged with the aforementioned para-church ministry, I decided to float my book manuscript to them for potential publication.  What a potentially good fit, I thought. They had played such a meaningful role in my life, they have a book series featuring professors, and one of their main goals was to foster engagement with the academy.  In addition, social justice was an explicit topic featured on their website.  Enthusiastically, I presented my book manuscript to them.  One month later, I received a polite rejection:  “Our book series is small and we’re publishing only on a limited number of topics at this time.  Unfortunately yours does not fit in.”  I was devastated and deeply angered.

I thought to myself, “So it’s ok to use me as a diverse, Chinese-Mexican poster boy for fundraising, but when I seek to publish a book about all that God has taught me about race and social justice since being touched by your ministry the answer is no? What else could I do to make myself qualified to publish a Christian book?  I have two doctorates, one from Berkeley and one from UCLA.  I am a tenured-track professor of Chicana/o Studies and Asian American Studies at UCLA.  I’m a lawyer.  I’m a pastor.  I’ve ministered to activist students throughout the country for a number of years now.  What else could I do?”  As we say in Spanish, ni modo.

After this disheartening experience, I tried, once again unsuccessfully, to float Jesus for Revolutionaries by another Christian publisher.  I felt good about it.  One week after submitting my manuscript to them, my first book, The Chinese in Mexico, 1882-1940, won a national book award.   About one week after that, I received tenure at UCLA.  I was sure to let the publisher know about all these special events that had occurred in my life and academic career.  Guess what happened?  I never heard back.  I was rejected again.

These rejections caused me to pray and reflect.  How did God want me to proceed? What was my next course of action?  My conclusion:  God wanted me to self-publish Jesus for Revolutionaries so that I could make it available for free.   After all, students of Color don’t have much money and often have to choose between buying school books and eating.  They work multiple jobs and struggle valiantly to cover the basic expenses of their education.  How could I ask them to pay $25 for a book called, Jesus for Revolutionaries?  That would be deeply hypocritical.  And so, I self-published the book under the imprint, “Christian Ethnic Studies Press.”  I offered Jesus for Revolutionaries as a free e-book and a low-cost paperback.   I decided to donate 100% of the book proceeds towards scholarships for undocumented students and the operating expenses of our non-profit organization, also called Jesus for Revolutionaries.

These are just two stories among many I could tell.  I believe they clearly demonstrate the predicament faced by many of us as Christian professors and Christian students of Color.  Although many Christian churches, universities, seminaries, and publishers claim to care about issues of race and justice, most are not willing to go beyond a superficial level of engagement.  They are not willing to give voice to the actual stakeholders of social justice controversies.  Perhaps a token voice here, or a token voice there.  For the most part, however, they are not willing to “to go there.”   Push back and closed doors usually come when we professors and students of Color speak frankly about our experiences of discrimination and racial injustice.  The end result is the further spiritual and intellectual alienation of thousands of Christian students and academics of Color.

Rev. Dr. Robert Chao Romero is “Asian-Latino,” and has been a professor of Chicana/o Studies and Asian American Studies at UCLA since 2005.  He received his Ph.D. from UCLA in Latin American History and his Juris Doctor from U.C. Berkeley, and is also an attorney. Romero has published 15 academic books and articles on issues of race, immigration, history, education, and religion, and received the Latina/o Studies book award from the international Latin American Studies Association. He is also the author of Brown Church: Five Centuries of Latina/o Social Justice, Theology, and Identity.  Romero is a former Ford Foundation and U.C. President’s Postdoctoral Fellow, as well as a recipient of the Louisville Institute’s Sabbatical Grant for Researchers.  

Romero is an ordained pastor. Together with his wife, Erica, he is the co-founder of Jesus 4 Revolutionaries, a Christian ministry to activists, and a board member of the Matthew 25 Movement in Southern California. This article was originally published on Romero’s blog and is based upon an article first published in the Christianity Next Journal in Winter 2017. It is reproduced here by kind permission of the author.

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