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Robert Oscar Lopez

Q&A with Robert Oscar Lopez: Race and Diversity at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary

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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: 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:

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.

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