The Ferguson Protests and the Limits of Liberal Multiculturalism

Today's guest post comes from Mark Hulsether, Professor of Religious Studies and Director of the Interdisciplinary Program in American Studies Program at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. Mark offers a timely piece that can serve as a model for incorporating current events into classroom.

Mark Hulsether

No doubt most readers are aware of the national call for academic walkouts in support of the Ferguson protests, which largely happened on Monday, December 1. Moreover, as I write tonight, news about the Eric Garner “I Can’t Breathe” protests is breaking, and this seems likely to create pressure for additional action. 

As it happened at my school, the Ferguson walkout was announced to begin during the exact half-hour when I had scheduled an in-class part of a final exam in my survey course on Religion and Society in North America. Also, I had more students in this class who self-identified as having white cops in their families than who identify as African American. Cancelling for a dramatic walkout did not seem to be a promising option, although I did move my exam to a different half hour so that people could leave if they wished.

Mainly I decided to create a “Ferguson option” for the synthetic essay that is the second, take-home, part of my final exam.  My purpose here is to share it in case it might prove useful for others on this blog.  

Since my version of this course is structured by my book, Religion, Culture, and Society in the Twentieth Century United States, the final essay builds on the key terms of my conclusion: it asks students to compare and contrast consensus, pluralist, and counterhegemonic frameworks for thinking about US religion.  However, I suppose that many of our courses have enough overlap in key terms—and that the current moment is urgent enough—that some of these ideas might be a productive starting point for others to build upon.

So, with no further ado, here is the assignment, stripped of logistical matters relevant only for my students.
Take-home Analytical Essay for Final Exam, Religious Studies 233
OPTION B:  The Ferguson Response Option

Goals and framing comments

This alternative option for the RS 233 take-home essay brings the ongoing Ferguson protests (and specifically the call for an academic walkout during our last day of class) into dialogue with our goal of working toward synthesis and closure in this class.  

    Specific rubric for the assignment

Please read the focus sections that are copied below from Hulsether’s Religion Culture and Politics in the Twentieth Century US, and review the book’s surrounding arguments until you clearly understand the selections in context.  If you need background on issues related to Ferguson, I recommend a list compiled by The Atlantic;  Robin D.G. Kelley, “Why We Won’t Wait”;  Tim Wise, “Black Reality and White Denial in America”; and George Lipsitz’s “The Possessive Investment in Whiteness” (American Quarterly 47, no. 3).

Begin by positing that the Ferguson protestors (if presented in their best light as they should be) perceive this moment in similar terms that Hulsether calls an “emergency” in the passage bolded below.  

Respond in three or four pages using these parameters:  (1) describe in your own words how one source from our readings would agree with the perception of an “emergency” and respond to it using specific counterhegemonic religious arguments.  (2) Compare and contrast such an argument to at least one source from our syllabus that would disagree from a consensus and/or multicultural pluralist perspective, using religious arguments.  (3) Introduce at least more source from our syllabus that supports either side.  You must present these positions accurately in their strongest light before moving to criticism—but please (4) offer an assessment of which of the analytical frames (consensus vs. pluralist vs. counterhegemonic) and examples you selected are most persuasive and useful for this case. 

Depending on the sources you choose and how you argue, there are many possible good answers to this question, so do not waste your time trying to guess what I think about it.  I want to know what you think and how well you support your case.

Focus section one, from Hulsether, Religion, Culture and Politics, p. 181. 

By the 1980s there was change [from an earlier racial formation], related to the rise of a discourse of racial inclusivity and the success of the civil rights movement in removing barriers to blacks rising into professions and middle-class enclaves. True, some conservatives maintained overtly degrading and segregationist ideas. More importantly, lingering aspects of white supremacist common sense remained embedded in subtler parts of the culture; many people associate black culture with moral decline rather than positive and enriching pluralism, and many whites who give lip service to respecting black culture actually treat it as irrelevant to their lives in white suburban enclaves.  Nevertheless the mindset that enjoyed watching blackface films or found Emmett Till’s murder logical now seems significantly outdated, even if many entertainers still engage in neo-minstrelsy and the prison system carries forward many aspects of institutional racism.  Who is scandalized today because a film screens an interracial kiss or Elvis Presley’s music seems “too black?” A liberal paradigm that accents how all people are the same under the skin and celebrates cultural blending has become hegemonic.

While this is a real gain, it brings new problems into view.  To understand why, it is helpful to introduce the concept of racial formations—the idea that race (or more precisely racialization, the projection of largely arbitrary racial categories onto reality) is not static, but takes fluid forms in different contexts.  In this perspective, before we can identify the key forms of racism to attack, we must clarify how particular hegemonic discourses—racial formations—function to maintain unjust power relations between racialized groups.  If we do so, we find that the major form of US racism since the 1960s has not been the maintenance of separate racial hierarchies—such that pursuing race-blind integration is the main challenge—but rather a racial formation that discounts the ongoing structuring of society in racialized ways, e.g. through residential segregation or differential enforcement of laws.

At its best, a vision of religious-racial equality—King’s American Dream—was an insurgent consciousness well matched to overcoming segregation and barriers to upward mobility for middle-class blacks.  However, this vision is less satisfying insofar as black people experience US society more as a nightmare.  The hegemonic idea can mislead people to believe that the US is steadily achieving multicultural equity, and in this regard King’s approach can be a form of false consciousness—looking at a nightmare through rosy-colored classes and seeing a utopian dream.  The prophet Jeremiah complained of people who “heal the wound of my people lightly, saying ‘Peace, peace’ when there is no peace” (Jeremiah 6:14).  Likewise, liberal multiculturalism heals ongoing legacies of racism too lightly.  Thus some people suggest that a better motto for anti-racism is “No justice, no peace”—without justice there cannot be peace.

Focus section two, from Hulsether, Religion, Culture and Politics, pp. 239-240.

Adopting pluralist approaches (for example, including women, blacks, and Buddhists in our maps) can uproot consensus models that mask the internal complexities and multiple levels of conflict in US religion.  In this regard, pluralist models may be counter-hegemonic, and their way of framing issues may be crucial for people who need to establish minimal levels of recognition and equal opportunity.  However, a lack of cultural recognition is not always the form of hegemony that underdogs are most worried about. . . .African-Americans may be pleased that slave spirituals and black women’s quilts receive equal respect alongside white male theologies in textbooks that celebrate a pluralist mosaic—yet still dissatisfied if the relations between blacks and whites are primarily conceived as harmonious and pluralistic rather than as violent and oppressive.  They may be more concerned about how ideologies of color-blindness and multiculturalism distract from institutional racism.  In short, a pluralistic approach may itself function as a form of hegemony to mask other forms of power imbalance.

Therefore—although there is often much value in consensus and pluralist models—at times it is better to focus directly on the hegemonies and counter-hegemonies involved in specific cases of lived religion, as opposed to beginning from concerns with building consensus or celebrating diversity.  Especially in cases where suffering or oppression is acute, the task is to address the top priority problem.  For example, suppose that people are being tortured or raped.  It might be useful in the long run to build a moral consensus about the barbarity of torture, shared by both torturers and victims.  It might be useful to explore and translate between divergent understandings of what constitutes sexual consent in different cultures.  In the long run, it is even conceivable that rape and torture victims might want to reflect—informed by theologies that stress how both oppressors and oppressed are equal in God’s eyes—about whether they share common ground with their victimizers or whether they made mistakes that played some part in their suffering.  (Some people consider this theologically profound; others see it as an example of hegemony at its most disturbing.)  However, at least in the short run—and possibly in the long run as well—these approaches are perverse.  The priority problem is to focus on the violence and how to stop it.  By extension, there are many places on the US religious landscape where the priority is to focus on acute oppression and on how religion can help underdogs survive and overcome it.  Although it is not always easy to discern what forms of hegemony are emergencies of this kind—recall our executive who felt victimized because he is left-handed—this is often a compelling way to understand what religions do.


Tom Van Dyke said…
a list compiled by The Atlantic; Robin D.G. Kelley, “Why We Won’t Wait”; Tim Wise, “Black Reality and White Denial in America”; and George Lipsitz’s “The Possessive Investment in Whiteness” (American Quarterly 47, no. 3).

Ranging from left to far-left to far-far left, the monolithicity of these "source" materials rather begs the question.

Perhaps some diversity would have been in order.

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