I'm presently writing up a proper review of Jemar Tisby's new book, How to Fight Racism: Courageous Christianity and the Journey toward Racial Justice, a sequel of sorts to his bestselling Color of Compromise. As I will attempt to later show, there is much to criticize in HTFR, one such thing being Tisby's lack of nuance and fairness on certain issues covered in the latter chapters. At times, this lack of measured analysis slips into outright misrepresentation—which nevertheless supports the narrative and aims of the book. Said misrepresentation is especially potent in the last two chapters, and specifically within his treatment of voting rights, reparations, and his off-hand denunciation of the Puritans. I will take each issue in turn in the notes that follow—notes that could not be fully incorporated into any review that isn't as long as the book being reviewed. (The main goal here is to establish a link for myself to be later referenced; a kind of extended, Karl Barth-style footnote, some of which may be reproduced in a later review.)
I. VOTING RIGHTS
Outcome-based analysis oftentimes leads to bad places in public policy, and especially law. Yet, following Ibram Kendi, who Tisby references positively in the book and all but regurgitates his definition of antiracism, this is what Tisby does when he discusses voting rights in the ninth chapter ("How to Fight Systemic Racism"). In the opening pages of that chapter, Tisby announces a shift in his own thinking from "increasing interracial understanding through relationships to working for systemic and institutional change… fighting racism necessitates working for change beyond an interpersonal level; substantive change requires shifts at the institutional and policy level too." (p. 156). On the subsequent page, Tisby quotes and adopts Kendi's conception of racist policy: "any measure that produces or sustains racial inequality between racial groups," which includes "written and unwritten laws, rules, procedures, processes, regulations, and guidelines that govern people." So, everything. Tisby, channeling Kendi, surmises that "There is no such thing as a race-neutral policy. Every policy is [quoting Kendi] 'producing or sustaining either racial inequity or equity between racial groups.'"
This outlook also leads Tisby to embrace the impact over intent approach to policy. He writes,
"Instead of focusing on intent, more attention should be paid to the impact or outcome of an action. If the result of a particular policy is to generate or sustain racial inequality then such a policy might be racist… impact is what is critical in evaluating the fairness of a rule or practice. We must look at outcomes to evaluate whether a policy moves us further toward racial justice or further from it." [p. 160]
As Neil Shenvi noted well in his review of HTFR, Tisby employs the term "racial justice" not only in the subtitle of the book but countless times throughout, all the while never defining it. The reader is left to discern the rather amorphous meaning from the context of any given section. Here, Tisby is evidently injecting the term with something approximating a Critical Race Theory conception of "equity"—something like equality of outcome whilst accounting for past, present, and future injustices.
Based on Tisby's positive invocation of Kendi, we can further assume that what is chiefly in view is racial disparities. Anything that creates or compounds racial disparities is per se racist; anything that eliminates them is antiracist (a racially just policy).
In each of Tisby's chapters, a brief delineation of concepts like the one above is followed by a section on praxis. In chapter nine, Tisby leads with an assessment of voting rights. The racial justice warrior, as opposed to a "racial justice detractor," must work to eliminate unjust voting laws. Fair enough. Who could disagree with that basic premise? Yet, Tisby's justifying illustrations, meant to spur on the traveler of the racial justice path, fall apart in rather spectacular fashion.
After praising Stacey Abrams' activism in Georgia, and lamenting that her run for governor was allegedly stolen from her by racially motivated voter suppression—Abrams hasn't appreciated parallels drawn between herself and Trump's fraud claims even though she still maintains that the election was stolen from her by Brian Kemp, a yet to be substantiated claim, to be sure—Tisby examines a couple of court cases dealing with the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
He begins his inquiry with the now infamous Shelby County v. Holder (2013) Supreme Court case, which he criticizes. Tisby then looks at a 2016 Fourth Circuit case which struck down, in the wake of Shelby, North Carolina voting restrictions as unconstitutional. Tisby's main interest here is in holding up the law underlying the Fourth Circuit case as the natural outgrowth of the Shelby decision (more on that below). The law in question mandated a strict form of voter ID laws, restricted early voting, and eliminated same-day registration, all ostensibly to protect against voter fraud.
Yet, the circuit court found that the new provisions targeted black voters with "almost surgical precision." This was clear not merely from the outcome but from legislative history—the lower court, though it erred as a matter of law, had undertaken a particularly extensive factual analysis.
In short, the Fourth Circuit case was an intent-based, not outcome-based, holding. Per the panel,
"Before enacting that law, the legislature requested data on the use, by race, of a number of voting practices. Upon receipt of the race data, the General Assembly enacted legislation that restricted voting and registration in five different ways, all of which disproportionately affected African Americans."
The court discerned in these facts "discriminatory intent," and "meager justifications" for the policy—the remedies did not adequately fit the problem they allegedly addressed—in the proposed provisions of the state legislature, and, accordingly, denied their validity. (The North Carolina Supreme Court also refused to reinstate the proposed provisions.) It was "purposeful racial discrimination" that made the legislative proposal illegal, not disparate outcome as such, though the latter can sometimes serve as evidence of intent depending on the circumstances. The case simply doesn’t fit with Tisby’s Kendi-esque, impact over intent paradigm.
Not only does this case prove that courts are willing to, and do, overrule plainly discriminator legislation, but that doing so on an intent-based standard is effective in accomplishing that end. If racism is just as bad today as it was during Jim Crow, why was the Fourth Circuit (a jurisdiction that encompasses former slave-holding states) so responsive and sympathetic to this issue. New voting policies were passed which violated the VRA and the court struck them down accordingly. That is evidence of the system working, not its fundamental corruption. It is also evidence of the continued validity of an intent-based legal standard unto “racial justice.”
In the lead up to the 2020 election, the same court upheld, against Republican objections, a State Board of Elections agreement to count absentee ballots postmarked by election day and received up to nine days later, as opposed to the usual three days.
On the flipside, in December 2020, the same court unanimously ruled to allow a photo ID law to proceed, finding no discriminatory intent in said policy. Judge Richardson, writing for the panel, chastised the lower district court for improperly shifting the burden of proof to the legislature because of "past conduct," effectively blacklisting the legislature because of the previously overturned voter ID law underlying the case mentioned above. In other words, the district court punished the legislature "because of who they were, instead of what they did." But if the district court, and the NAACP which brought the suit, had their way, no voter ID would ever be constitutionally valid.
The issue throughout these cases was not voter ID laws as such—Tisby seems to imply that these are at least per se suspect and invalid—but the presence or absence of discriminatory intent behind them.
Fourteenth Amendment Equal Protection jurisprudence under which voting is most often treated—see also the Fifteenth, Nineteenth, Twenty-fourth, and Twenty-sixth amendments—applies only to law that is discriminatory on its face, unequally administered, or has an impermissible motive (i.e., intent) undergirding it. Statutes will not be found invalid under the Fourteenth Amendment merely because of discriminatory impact or disparate results. (Any law infringing on or limiting this basic political right, however, must meet strict scrutiny.)
For instance, Washington v. Davis (1976) held that black applicants scoring lower than white applicants on a police exam was not per se proof of discriminatory hiring practices. Strict scrutiny (under which race, as a "suspect classification," is always treated) did not apply; racial disparity was incidental to, not intended by, the policy. (Voting is considered a fundamental right under the Fourteenth Amendment—the Privileges and Immunities, Due Process, and the Equal Protection clauses—and requirements for its exercise other than age, residency, and citizenship are subjected to strict scrutiny, and classifications related to a fundamental right and based on a suspect class like race are presumptively subject to strict scrutiny.)
But where discriminatory purpose (i.e., intent) can be shown to stand behind said effect, strict scrutiny is applied and rarely met—under which standard the government carries the burden of proving that the challenged policy is necessary to further a compelling interest, and under which the government rarely succeeds. (Obviously, laws that facially employ race, alienage, and national origin as classifications are presumptively invalid until satisfactorily proven otherwise by the state, which they almost never can.)
The classic Equal Protection example here, though not dealing with voting, is Yick Wo v. Hopkins (1886) wherein a law that prohibited the operation of laundries in wooden buildings, which were disproportionately owned by Chinese people, and the government granted discretionary exemptions to white-owned laundries, the Supreme Court held that purposeful discrimination was present and violated the equal protection clause. And, of course, deliberate de jure discrimination or segregation violates Equal Protection (see e.g., Loving v. Virginia (1967); McLaughlin v. Florida (1964); Brown v. Board of Education (1954); Griffin v. County School Board of Prince Edward County (1964); Norwood v. Harrison (1973)).
And if race (a "suspect classification") is shown to be a "predominate factor" in defining election districts (instead of compactness or community interest) then that plan will be subjected to strict scrutiny and likely invalidated (Miller v. Johnson (1995)).
The point is that in addressing voter ID challenges, the Fourth Circuit has operated with principled consistency and handled precedent and established legal standards appropriately. But if one is looking for holdings based on so-called discriminatory impact (rather than intent), he will be sorely disappointed.
(The discriminatory intent standard is much decried by critical race scholars in seemingly every context—see e.g., Kimberle Crenshaw and Catharine McKinnon in their articulation of a proposed “equality amendment”—for the same reasons that Tisby seems to favor consideration of impact over intent when examining public policy. But intent is elemental to our entire system of Anglo-American common law. Even in contracts, for instance, an offeror must objectively intend to be bound by an offer else there is no valid contract. What would the outcome be if the case were otherwise? More foundationally, a contract, as promise or covenant implying reciprocal duties, is applied to the social realm as the very basis of our constitutional republic; the validity of government hangs upon it. This and more were treated in my long article at Founders, "Identity Politics and the Bondage of the Will."
Closer to home, absent the element of intent in criminal law, people would be charged with crimes for which they are typically excused on account of mistake, ignorance, and the like. Crimes like involuntary manslaughter too would make no sense; there would simply be one degree of murder; there would be no accounting for accident and intervening causality. But then again, people who depend upon theories of disparity-dependent mono-causality might be undeterred by these outcomes which nevertheless still appear unfavorable and unworkable to the common sense of the average citizen.)
a. Shelby County v. Holder
Tisby also slightly misrepresents the Shelby County v. Holder (2013) case by juxtaposing it with the North Carolina case just mentioned, as if the two were in tension—though, as stated above, Tisby’s primary interest in the latter is in the underlying legislation that was struck down by the court, not the reasoning of the court itself. Tisby means to tie the now invalidated legislation in the Fourth Circuit case to the holding in Shelby, not quite implying a top-to-bottom conspiracy. Because Shelby “roll[ed] back voter protections,” it yielded a disparate impact and is, therefore, a racist holding. But Tisby’s narrative is simplistic.
The Voting Rights Act of 1965 was passed as an attempt to remedy obvious racial discrimination (primarily) in the Deep South in blatant but sneaky violation of, inter alia, the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments. This kind of racist voter suppression was, however, not prevalent in every area of the country. Accordingly, Congress enacted enacted a more focused, (potentially) agile, and responsive approach (i.e., “targeted remedies”). The centerpiece of the VRA is Section 5 which requires that states and localities with a history of discriminatory voting practices “preclear” any changes in election procedures with the Department of Justice before implementing those changes.
Section 2 of the VRA bans any "standard, practice, or procedure" that "results in a denial or abridgement of the right of any citizen… to vote on account of race or color." That permanent and national mandate was not at issue in the Shelby case, nor was Section 5 (preclearance requirement).
Rather, in Shelby, Section 4, which provided the coverage formula for determining which jurisdictions would be placed under special federal oversight because of a history of skewed voting prerequisites, like literacy tests, in the 1960s and 1970s. In 1964, Alabama, Alaska, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, and Virginia were all covered. In addition, certain political subdivisions (usually counties) in four other states (Arizona, Hawaii, Idaho, and North Carolina) were covered.
As mentioned already, in those covered jurisdictions, no voting procedures could be implemented without “preclearance.” The state in question was required to show that a new policy had neither the purpose nor effect of diminishing the ability of citizens to vote on the basis of race or color. This was, as Justice Earl Warren admitted, a “stringent” provision that placed the burden of proof squarely on the states, but, at the time, wholly justified in order to realize the constitutional requirements of the Fifteenth Amendment which had been skirted almost since its inception.
Initially, the preclearance requirement was set to expire within five years but in 2006 the Act was reauthorized for an additional 25 years which led to constitutional challenges, namely in Northwest Austin Municipal Utility District No. 1 v. Holder (2009), wherein the Court upheld the 25-year increase on statutory grounds but expressed serious doubts about this portion of the Act's constitutionality. In Northwest Austin, the Court noted that the VRA "imposes current burdens and must be justified by current needs."
The VRA, as permanent legislation, is meant to be responsive to changing scenarios—it must be fitted to prevailing problems.
Only on this basis, with supporting evidence, can the principle of equal sovereignty (i.e., federalism) be momentarily departed from. That is, the federal government can only disproportionately subvert the relative autonomy of states—which includes the power to regulate elections—when the need is apparent and proven—justified by "exceptional conditions" such as the "blight of racial discrimination in voting." Hence, the Act was limited to areas where Congress discerned "evidence of actual voting discrimination." At the time, such evidence of widespread disenfranchisement was "the use of tests and devices for voter registration, and a voting rate in the 1964 presidential election at least 12 points below the national average."
The holding by Chief Justice John Roberts was that Section 4(b) of the VRA—that is, who Section 5 applies to—was unconstitutional in that it was no longer responsive to present conditions because it was based on outdated data. As it stood, Section 4(b) reflected the situation from some 40 years prior. Since then, black voter registration and turnout had swelled to near parity. Importantly, by not nixing Section 5 itself, Roberts shifted the burden to Congress to draft a new Section 4(b) standard, one more reflective of present challenges across the country, which could be more or less expansive. In essence, all Shelby did was chide Congress to implement a more contemporary formula. If Tisby is dissatisfied with Shelby, his beef is really with Congress.
One way to view Shelby, then, was as a chance for Congress to salvage the VRA which has increasingly come under fire for the past couple of decades. Roberts hinted at this via his frequent citations to his own 2009 Northwest Austin opinion. Viewed in a light favorable to Tisby's position, Roberts actually provided Congress with the chance to tailor Section 5's application to those areas that may be experiencing greater disenfranchisement. Roberts himself noted that "voting discrimination still exists; no one doubts that." But Section 4(b)'s particulars were never meant to be permanent, but rather the agile, adaptive portion of the statutory scheme.
Alternatively, Congress could choose to simply reaffirm that the same nine jurisdictions previously covered still need oversight. If anything, Roberts forced Congress to be more attentive to the issue—to continue to fight racial voter disenfranchisement. (And at all times, Section 3 of the act allowed a judge to put a jurisdiction that denies or restricts voting rights into this kind of “preclearance” receivership, and Section 2 applying generally to the whole country.) The only thing that has really changed, post Shelby, is the burden of proof on certain states—and though outcomes of voting policies must still not be “retrogressive,” evidence of mere retrogression alone will not suffice.
Whether or not Tisby thought the 40-year-old standard was still reflective of the present situation or not, the case was decided on principled, evidence-based ground consistent with the original intent of the drafters and purpose of the statute. The enthusiasm of Congress to maintain its own laws unto their purported end is another conversation entirely. Shelby, however, remains fairly unobjectionable in principle. Surely responsive legislation based on the best available data is a desirable outcome, however Justice Ginsburg—who, in Shelby, miraculously discovered a love for legislative deference—chose to mischaracterize the import of the majority opinion in Shelby.
After Shelby, the Fourth Circuit was still able to invalidate new policies on the basis of the VRA even without the previous preclearance requirements in place, thereby demonstrating that the Act was not crippled by Shelby—and can only be strengthened by further Congressional action.
Tisby does not consider any of this, and Shelby is consequently cast as a per se unjust decision (because of its impact). But at the same time, the Fourth Circuit case is given no credit; only the underlying problem of apparently racist policies—swiftly aborted ones—being addressed therein is highlighted.
Tisby points out that after Shelby, 868 polling places—he says, "nearly 1,000"—across the country were closed—of course, the exact reason for each closing is no accounted for and, perhaps, cannot be known, but no matter. The availability to polling locations supposedly correlates with voter turnout and "disproportionately and negatively impact[s] racial and ethnic minorities and the poor." The same goes for strict voter ID laws, restricted early voting, and the exclusion of same-day registration.
Of course, these are contentious, debatable issues, something Tisby does not acknowledge. A 2019 study in the Political Science Quarterly found that, contrary to popular belief and rhetoric, strict voter ID laws—only ten states have passed them since 2008—do not disproportionately suppress voter turnout amongst black, Asian, and mixed-race Americans. Naturally, voter ID laws are partisan, usually passed by Republicans, and address a rare problem—only 31 cases of in-person voter fraud were discovered from 2000 to 2012, as Tisby notes. The Heritage Foundation found only 1,177 instances of proven election fraud of any kind since 1998. In light of this, the prevailing opposition opinion, especially after a much-read 2017 Atlantic article, surrounding voter ID laws has been that such laws are partisan pandering—a suggestion easily accepted—and intended to suppress race minority turnout, since minority voters overwhelmingly support Democrat candidates. But the data that initially supported this take has been shown to be riddled with flaws. Newer, more robust and accurate data like the study linked above prove otherwise.
This does not mean that voter ID laws are sensible. Such laws are still in their infancy and only a minority of states have attempted to implement them. But it does mean that whatever the intent behind them, they are not disenfranchising, well, anyone. On the contrary, it may very well be the case that voter ID laws, far from dissuading voters, inspire and motivate citizens to get to the polls. North Dakota experienced record Native American turnout in the 2018 midterms immediately following the passage of a voter ID law.
After a decline in black turnout rate in 2016 (compared to 2012), the same group showed up in record numbers in 2020—one unifying political fact of the past five years seems to be that no one liked Hillary Clinton. And black turnout undoubtedly dictated the recent Senate runoffs in Georgia, as did Latinos. (Indeed, the entire country voted at record rates and raw numbers this past November, whatever their race.) The most surprising dynamic of the 2020 election was that white men swung for Biden whilst Trump made gains amongst blacks, Latinos, and women at rates not seen by a Republican since 1960.
Given these facts, the new narrative has become that despite strident attempts by a certain political party to suppress voting, the people have triumphed, and democracy along with it—and, of course, that those women and racial minorities who voted for Trump did so via cognitive dissonance. It’s a nice story but begs the question of effective suppression efforts in the first place.
But 2020 was not just about racial minority voter turnout; it was also about racial minority representation in elected office. After 2020, people of color will make up about 28 percent of the House. This past election cycle, 43 Latino Americans, 16 Asian Americans, 57 black Americans, and 5 Native Americans were elected to the House. (Doubtless this reflects how quickly the country is diversifying.) Not only are voters of color not being suppressed at the polls, they’re getting elected to office themselves at record numbers. This, one would think, would be cause for celebration for someone like Tisby. But then, celebration like that would disrupt the narrative of HTFR—not very good for exciting people to “orient” their lives toward “racial justice.”
When it comes to his discussion of reparations, Tisby is prone to other problems. Most glarringly, he makes no mention of the robust debate surrounding reparations, the merits and demerits of each position. It is simply treated as a sort of litmus test for racial justice warriors—which is what it has more or less become at the national level. No one is taking it seriously, but everyone is talking about it.
Since Ta-Nehisi Coates' Atlantic article in 2014, that discussion has reemerged with new vigor. Coates' article accurately and vividly highlighted the horrors of chattel slavery, the evils of Jim Crow, and the insidiousness of other discriminatory policies thereafter. But holes (from many commentators of myriad persuasions) have been poked in Coates impassioned defense of the policy.
For instance, Richard A Epstein, a libertarian legal scholar and longtime commentator on reparations, has clarified that whilst it is true that slavery and de jure discrimination were nothing if not economically exploitative there has been little to no trickle-down of the value unjustly gleaned from slaves and impoverished black people during those periods. Rather, the slaveholders in the south hoarded their wealth and, in the subsequent period, stifled nationwide growth by disallowing southern blacks from contributing to the economy. " As a general matter," says Epstein, "virtually all the wealth that exists in the United States today has been created by the ingenuity of a dizzying array of inventors, entrepreneurs, immigrants, and countless others. No fund of wealth survives the demise of slavery and Jim Crow."
To be clear, these are all things worth considering and debating, at length. The trouble with HTFR is that it does not approach the debate from all sides, acknowledging the nuance and difficulty of the situation—itself a testament to the enduring scourge of racism.
Coleman Hughes, for instance, has provided a measured and thoughtful critique of the relationship between systemic racism and the present racial wealth gap—which Tisby calls the "bleeding wound of racism" (p. 174)—noting the stalemate on the topic to which Tisby contributes rather than relieves.
The darker side of reparations is when it is melded with critical social justice conceptions of "equity"—of late, "health equity" has been relevant to all our lives; it's served as the basis of some COVID-19 vaccine distribution proposals.
It is not that the conversation over reparations should be dismissed out of hand, its that it, a multifaceted issue, should be engaged honestly. I agree with Tisby that people who simply resort to the seeming impossibility of distributing reparations (or deciding who would get them) are being lazy. But citing the recent COVID-19 relief checks as proof of interest convergence—that public assistance is swiftly mobilized only when whites are in peril—and to argue that the only thing holding back reparation is said white interest, is equally lazy. This same laziness—which is really failure to appreciated how complicated human life is—crops up again in some of Tisby’s treatment of historical figures.
In the final chapter (“How to Orient Your Life to Racial Justice”), Tisby instructs that "Racial justice is a lifestyle not an agenda item." (p. 182). "Fighting racism does not consist of a set of isolated actions that you take; rather these actions must flow from an entire disposition that is oriented toward racial justice." (p. 181). This entails repositioning yourself "spiritually, emotionally, culturally, intellectually, and politically." (pp. 1801-182).
The lifestyle of racial justice requires a "daily compact with yourself and others… It is a commitment to living in such a way that your entire life is a witness for racial justice." (p. 182). "It is about being a good ancestor." (p. 182).
To his credit, Tisby does instruct racial justice warriors to put away contempt for those less woke than themselves (pp. 182-183). But there is no question of who is right. The racial justice warrior is, he just needs to be humble about it.
"In our journey toward racial justice, we must always self-monitor for the ways we are reenacting racism, even if unintentionally, and see to correct our attitudes and behaviors." (p. 184) The racial justice lifestyle—taking up your racist cross daily—sounds a lot like any discipleship plan. Stay humble. Work with others. Don't rely on willpower alone, etc. The goal is to "orient your entire life around racial justice" (p. 186) and to "hone your racial reflexes so you can respond nimbly and adeptly to the various ways you will continue to encounter injustice." (p. 186).
The reader is also advised that, should he be committed to the racial justice life, he must be careful about "referencing racists." Tisby's illustrative example here is the New England Puritans, the colonizers of America. He does not immediately name who he has in mind but rather quote the spoken word artist "Propaganda." (p. 189) and then comments,
"Too many leaders who reference these Puritans, deemed 'precious' because of their theological contributions, completely ignore or devalue the impact of such an action on racial and ethnic minorities. How can a person of color, or even another white person, look to racists as moral exemplars and models of virtue?"
Yet again, Tisby fails to account for the nuance of societies and human activity. He castigates an entire group of people as racists—based on subsequent paragraphs he seems to have Jonathan Edwards in view who lived after what most historians would classify as the Puritan era in New England—arguably ending around the time Edwards would have been entering Yale, or shortly thereafter; Michael Hall has (arguably rightly) dubbed Increase Mather (d. 1723) the "last American Puritan."
Even granting that Edwards could be labeled a Puritan, no one else is mentioned. Surely Edwards cannot singlehandedly serve as representative for a near-century's worth of history. Tisby does name George Whitefield, Robert E. Lee, and R. L. Dabney in tandem with Edwards. Again, none of these can be called Puritans—one gets the impression that "Puritan" serves as a catchall for whatever Tisby finds objectionable in the history of American Christianity, like a converse to "racial justice."
True enough, like most of the world, people in 17th century New England owned slaves. Per usual, however, the situation was complicated. This Tisby makes no effort to discuss, opting for lengthy quotes from the spoken word artist, Propaganda, instead.
Tisby fails to investigate the racial and class dynamics, such as they were, particular to the time, allowing the unsuspecting reader instead to erroneously assume a 21st century conception of both.
Even Cheryl Harris, in her 1993 article "Whiteness as Property," rightly noted that “between 1607 and 1800, racial lines among the lower classes were quite blurred.” Hence, “The legal disabilities imposed on Black were not dissimilar to those imposed on non-English servants of European descent, as the principal line of demarcation was between Christian and non-Christian servants.” Per Harris, it was not until the late 1660s that a “degraded status” of blacks as chattel slaves began to be recognized by law; slave codes didn’t appear until 1680-1682. (Here Harris cites only a 1661 Maryland law, which was Catholic country.) These were the twilight years of an intelligible Puritan New England. Their charter of 1629 was revoked in 1684 when they were consolidated into the Dominion of New England (stretching from New Jersey to Maine) under royal governance, and the region never recovered its distinctive, self-conscious chosen-ness (and self-confidence). Vestiges of the errand into the wilderness remained thereafter. Congregationalism was the established church in Massachusetts through the 1830s. But the Puritan period fizzled out by the turn of the century.
Slavery, at no point, served as the bedrock of their economy or society as it came to in the south, and the Body of Liberties (1641) mandated decidedly progressive, for lack of a better word, standards of treatment for indentured servants, and only allowed servants captured from "just warres" or from those who submitted themselves to servitude for a fixed number of years. Furthermore, servants could be immediately freed if a credible case of mistreatment was submitted to the General Court. Of course, in practice, this standard was not always closely followed.
And by most accounts, New England offered a fair amount of trans-class upward mobility compared to old England and the continent. For example, John Wise (1652-1725) was son to an immigrant father who came to Massachusetts Bay as an indentured servant—many a poor Englishman satisfied the cost of crossing the Atlantic this way. Wise's father served a local physician until the latter's death, who left to his dutiful servant freedom and a dairy cow. The elder Wise then married and became an upstanding member of the Roxbury community, paying for his son's entry into Harvard with barrels of beer. John, after graduating Harvard, became one of the most famous ministers in the colony, at a time when the clergy served as the elite, intellectual, and to some extent political, class. Based on his will, he left his children a substantial inheritance, far more than his father had possessed in his lifetime. It does not appear from the record that any other member of the ruling class, so to speak, ever begrudged him for his humble beginnings.
None of these dynamics are entertained by Tisby. Rather, all is flattened into Edwards’s comments on slavery. (I am no disciple of Edwards, but it must at least be admitted, from a historical perspective—Tisby refers to himself as a historian, after all—that, as with most figures separated from us by a chronological chasm, his views were complex.)
Furthermore, Tisby does not wrestle with stories like that of Dorcas Ye Blackmore, an African who came to Boston aboard a slave ship in 1638 via the Bahamas. In 1641, as a slave to a local and powerful businessman, Israel Stoughton—who was persona non grata in the Bay Colony for many of his years there, and his son, chief magistrate of the Salem witch trials, was liked even less—Dorcas joined the First Parish Church of Dorchester as a full member and gained notoriety as a tireless evangelizer of the local Native American tribes. And in 1653, her fellow congregants, Richard Mather and Henry Withington, raised church funds to purchase her freedom, which sounds a lot like "racial justice practice" to me.
I do agree with Tisby that the ugly elements of the past and historical figures should not be dodged. That George Washington owned slaves should not be discarded from the textbooks but rather integrated into a discussion of the complicated history of the "peculiar institution." Less than favorable qualities in our founders, like Ben Franklin's proclivity for consorting with loose women in Paris, should not be blotted out of the record for the sake of deification. At the same time, I do not think, as perhaps Tisby does (p. 190), that these qualities should be just as emphasized as the other venerable things men like Washington, Jefferson, and Franklin did. Their faults, failures, and blatant sins should be acknowledged and contextualized without being allowed to envelope the narrative in toto.
"It is better to take on the topic directly and work through the complexities of learning form flawed people than to pretend as if they were perfect." (p. 190). And every Christian should say, amen.
That being said, racism or slaveholding cannot be allowed to be the sole litmus test for who is held up as admirable. Certainly Martin Luther King, Jr.'s myriad indiscretions—indeed, sometimes outright despicable behavior—should not be allowed to erase his legacy in this country.