The following essay appeared in the Holland Sentinel on January 29, 2023. I wrote it in response to several actions taken by our local county commission after a new “Ottawa Impact” majority was sworn in the first of the year. Their words and deeds both indicate they are following a Christian Nationalist worldview as they seek to make big changes in county government. (For more on Christian Nationalism, see the last few paragraphs in this essay.) Ottawa County has been Republican since the Civil War and was conservative before that. But this new majority wants nothing to do with mainstream conservatism, and they have wasted no time implementing new policies. If you want more information, the Sentinel would be an excellent resource, but the story has been carried by numerous news outlets. Just do a news search for “Ottawa County Commission.”
I would like to address the abolition of Ottawa County’s Office of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI), and the tired, predictable, ridiculous assertion that racial equity is “divisive” and “Marxist.”
I am a social psychologist who has studied race in America for 45 years. I appreciate the opportunity to share a bit of what I have learned.
I had an appointment with a professional person in town recently. He brought up his military service and mentioned being stationed at Ft. Lee. I asked which Lee the station was named for, and he said Robert E. Perhaps I looked a bit uncomfortable because he went on to defend Gen. Lee, emphasizing his good works before and after the war, and asserting that you can’t blame a man for fighting for his home state. (This is a person from Way Up North, mind you. I live in Holland, Michigan, not Holland, Georgia or Holland, Arkansas.) He mentioned Ft. Bragg as well, and the army’s plans to change the names of nine bases named for Confederate officers. My best paraphrase of his argument is this: “So if we change the names of these forts just because Lee and Bragg owned slaves, what are we going to do in another hundred years? Society is going to change, values are going to change. Will we just rename the forts again? Besides, nobody’s perfect.”
And then he got down to business, the conversation shifted, and I failed to respond. This is what I wish I had said:
The first Thanksgiving in Massachusetts was 400 years ago this year in 1621.
I like Thanksgiving. I like the fact that sitting down to virtually the same meal I had as a kid brings back all kinds of memories: my childhood, my children’s childhoods, now my grandchildren’s childhoods. I envision the childhoods of my parents and grandparents, too, imagining what it was like for them.
Two of my forebears, William Towne and Joanna Blessing Towne, sailed out of Great Yarmouth, Norfolk, England in 1635 and landed in Massachusetts Colony. They missed the first Thanksgiving, but not by much. I wonder whether they celebrated Thanksgiving after their first harvest and, if so, what it was like.
Without understanding anti-Asian racism in at least some depth, it’s difficult to know how best to address it. (See Part 1 and Part 2.) But understanding by itself isn’t enough, of course. Here are some possible ways to address Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) hate. At least one of them should be a good option for you.
Believe Asians When They Tell You They Experience Racism
It is exhausting to appeal over and again to the commonalities we have as image bearers of God (Gen. 1:27). When we ask others to care for us, we are often met with logical arguments minimizing our factually based, lived experiences. We can’t tell you how many times we’ve shared instances where someone has called us a racist Asian slur or treated us in patterns consistent with how other Asian Americans have experienced life in America (in and out of the church), only to find someone say, “That couldn’t be true. I’m sure you’ve misheard that. That’s hard to believe it actually happened.”
In Part 1, we examined the rise of overt bigotry against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPI) during the pandemic, including terrible, terrible violence, often aimed at women and older people. In Part 2, we will examine why.
The answer begins in our history, in the role people of Asian descent have played in this country for nearly 200 years. There is a ready-made narrative about Asians in the U.S., sometimes kept in the background, but always available when it would be useful—or emotionally satisfying—to find a scapegoat to punish.
Prof. Soong-Chan Rah of Fuller Theological Seminary wrote some years back that in the U.S., Asians are viewed both as a “pet” and a “threat.” They are seen as a pet, for example, when Asian women are fetishized, or when held up as a “model minority” in order to shame other people of color and argue that racism is dead. But they are perceived as a threat when others consider them inscrutable, sinister, untrustworthy, clannish, and—in particular—perpetually foreign.
Anti-Asian hate crimes have been all over the news for a year now and, if anything, seem to be getting worse. They’re not new, of course, but they are on the rise, driven, almost certainly, by the pandemic and the pre-existing condition of racism. Why is that? And what does it tell us about race in the U.S.?
There is a lot of resistance to the idea that we should tell the truth about the racism embedded in our nation’s history. Part of that resistance is motivated by a desire to deny the power of racism today. Just bring up the topic and you’ll see how many people get over-the-top angry, a sign they sense have something deeply personal at stake. On the other hand, some genuinely believe that events from 50 or 150 or 500 years ago couldn’t possibly make a difference today. They think the past is dead.
Faulkner was right, of course, about the past not being dead, and there is a boatload of data on the intergenerational effects of wealth and poverty to support his argument that the past is always present. (See selected references at the bottom of this page.) I think we should be data-driven when possible, to keep our thinking grounded in the facts rather than assumptions, myths, or ideology. But every data point represents a story. This is mine.
“The Golden Calf is one of the most famous stories in the Old Testament. The Israelites, newly freed from Egyptian slavery, have a crisis of faith while God is speaking with Moses on Mount Sinai. They melt down the golden jewelry to construct a physical god — a statue in the shape of a calf — to worship in place of their abstract, invisible deity. It’s a story about the allure of idolatry, how easy it is to abandon one’s commitments to principle in favor of shiny, easy falsehoods.
I never thought much about whose land I lived on until I worked with a group of Native Americans on a series of pow wows from 2005 – 2009. One of them had a dream—a literal dream—of offering a pow wow to Hope College as a gift of reconciliation. The settlers who founded the city and the college drove nearly all Natives from this place shortly after they arrived, and yet he was offering this gift to us. His gesture moved me deeply. It still does.
One of our students told me recently that she is reading Isaiah 1 in light of the murder of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. Here are some selected verses from that chapter, from a section entitled “The Wickedness of Judah” in the New Revised Standard Version.
2 Hear, O heavens, and listen, O earth;
for the Lord has
I reared children and brought them up,
but they have rebelled against me. 3 The ox knows
and the donkey its master’s crib;
but Israel does not know,
my people do not understand.