Racial Compromise and Complicity at Grove City College
The saga of racism, a chapel message, and an anti-CRT Crusade
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I delivered a chapel message at Grove City College in October 2020. I could not have anticipated that those 21 minutes of sermonizing would lead to an angry petition, the formation of a special committee, and an official report about the threat of people with messages like mine.
I always do a bit of research before I go to a new venue, and as I asked around and searched online, I found the the school and the community of Grove City were both overwhelming white and they tended to support politically conservative views.
In such an environment, I knew that my perspectives on racism and justice might cause a stir.
To add to the tension, my visit was just a three weeks before the 2020 presidential election between Joe Biden and Donald Trump. The climate in the nation was one where people of all political persuasions felt like the fate of the country hinged upon the election results.
But I consider this work a calling and I knew the students needed to hear another perspective, so I entered this situation with caution but with a sense of purpose well.
The morning of the chapel presentation, I made the settled determination not to douse the fire in my bones. Instead I drew inspiration from the Black church tradition and its hallmark of powerful, poetic, and prophetic preaching.
I spoke from a familiar passage, Esther 4:12-14 which contains the oft-referenced quote, “And who knows but that you have come to your royal position for such a time as this?”
I related the urgency of Esther’s situation to the historic racial justice uprisings were experiencing in 2020. I made three points: Why Now is the Time, How the Church Missed Its Time, and How the Church Can Respond This Time.
I went on to explain the urgency of the racial justice movement happening in our midst, and the need to address anti-Black police brutality. I spoke of the complicity and compromise with racism that many Christians had displayed in previous eras, and how we as followers of Christ had to make a decision about whether we would stand on the side of justice in our day.
Afterward the students applauded, and the majority of those with whom I spoke in the next few moments expressed support.
I departed satisfied that I had done what I had faithfully discharged my duties.
I had long since moved past that visit until it came roaring back to my attention when I heard of an online petition imaginatively entitled “Save GCC from CRT.”
A group of “parents and former students”—who, I am convinced, do not represent the whole of the GCC constituency—composed this document.
They wrote that they were “concerned” about a“destructive and profoundly unbiblical worldview…Critical Race Theory.”
As an example they cited my chapel presentation.
“Last school year, GCC hosted a chapel presentation by Jemar Tisby — an outspoken apologist for CRT.”
I’m an outspoken apologist for CRT? No. I have studied history. Looking at the sordid acts of cowards who called the name of Christ and compromised with racism is what informs my views.
This group of parents and former students perpetuates the pernicious practice of labeling virtually any language or concept about race and justice as Critical Race Theory.
This is not a secret. One of the most outspoken anti-CRT apologists, Christopher Rufo, publicly explained the tactic.
The petitioners swallowed the whole bit and now label almost any racial justice concept as “Critical Race Theory.”
The petition again refers to my chapel message and states…
“However, we have serious concerns with CRT being preached during chapel services…Critical Race Theory and woke theology are divisive enemies of Christian unity. They pit Christians against one another based on skin color.”
The petition goes on to list other concerns and was made public. To date 478 people have signed the petition.
The current president, Dr. McNulty penned a reply, and the petitioners sent another response. I should also note that faculty members of Grove City College also wrote a response decrying the “recent controversy regarding Critical Race Theory” (this is well worth reading).
A committee from the Board of Trustees was subsequently formed to study the alleged issue of CRT infiltrating the school and this official report is the result of their deliberations.
The committee asserts in the introduction that, “Grove City College has not changed. It remains a Christ-centered, conservative institution. GCC’s Board and president are firmly committed to its historic vision, mission, values, and character.”
They also go on to state the exceptional measure that forming this committee represents. “The Committee’s appointment is extraordinary. We cannot recall a similar action at GCC.”
The entire report reeks of fear and a reactionary posture inimical to the educational mission of a college or university.
I will focus on the entire page that used my chapel message and presence as an example of “mission drift” at Grove City College.
First, they try to absolve themselves from the responsibility of inviting me by blaming COVID.
“He was originally invited in 2019, but due to scheduling difficulties and Covid-induced challenges, was unable to speak at GCC until October 2020.”
According to them, during that delay I changed my beliefs so drastically that they became incompatible with an invitation to speak at GCC’s chapel service.
They name check my former employer Ibram X. Kendi at the Center for Antiracist Research, thereby offering a guilt by association jab. They also imply that any antiracist sentiments are somehow incompatible with the gospel of Jesus Christ.
They talk in generalities about my second book.
“In 2021, he also published How to Fight Racism, a book advocating, among other things, progressive policies relating to voting, immigration reform, criminal justice reform, government funding, political activism, forms of racial separatism, reparations, and other measures portrayed as furthering ‘racial equity.’”
Notice they demonize “progressive policies.” They thereby suggest that conservative policies are the only “true” and “biblically faithful” way Christians can engage in politics.
The committee cited “racial separatism” as a bogeyman even as they paid no attention to the racism that Black people and other people of color experience on a daily basis. A level of prejudice that necessitates we form spaces of refreshing and flourishing (hence the entire existence of historically Black churches and denominations).
They also put the phrase “racial equity” in scare quotes as if what I am promoting is not racial equity. I am quite curious about their definition of the term.
They reiterate their claim that my views changed and upon my visiting campus, they were as yet unaware of the supposed shift.
“Most of those in GCC leadership with whom we spoke observed that ‘the Jemar Tisby that we thought we invited in 2019 is not the Jemar Tisby that we heard in 2020 or that we now read about.’”
This statement merits deeper analysis. Perhaps it is not I who changed, but the leaders at Grove City College.
Perhaps the social and political climate of the nation has caused institutions to more clearly declare their allegiances and some, such as Grove City College, have chosen to side with the forces that conserve business-as-usual when it comes to race.
Also understand that fundamentalist Christians will accept only a milquetoast analysis of racism that is void of any cogent historical, sociological, psychological, or theological analysis.
As long as you say “the ground is level at the foot of the cross” and “red and yellow, black and white; They are precious in his sight,” then you’re fine.
If you speak of racism as a present and urgent malady to address. If you declare that people today have a responsibility to fight racism. If you believe that racism is not merely a matter of interpersonal attitudes but systemic and institutional policy, then you become persona non grata among a certain cadre of conservative Christians.
Then comes their most pointed statement about me and my chapel message that Fall day in 2020.
“They allow that, in hindsight, inviting Mr. Tisby to speak in chapel was a mistake.”
The committee gives a nod to academic freedom and offering a diversity of views in a well-rounded college education by saying that speakers such as me could give a lecture, but not a chapel message.
“Inviting anyone to speak in chapel appears to place the College’s stamp of approval on the speaker’s message.”
I would like to know, committee members, what exactly you disapprove of in my message?
Nothing in this report cites any specific statements or views that I put forth in that brief chapel message.
They have not proven their case in the least. They rely on mischaracterizations and insinuation throughout their entire remonstrance.
Courage or Complicity
I have been doing this work long enough to realize that the committee members, the trustees, and the parents and formers students who formed the original petition would not at all be swayed by my words, work, or witness (but with God all things are possible!).
I pen this response to let others know what is happening at Christian colleges and institutions. If it is happening at Grove City College, it is surely happening elsewhere.
Conservative Christians, the originators of “cancel culture”, will increasingly accuse anyone who speaks of racial justice as advocating Critical Race Theory and see that their voices are silenced or diminished as much as possible.
As if CRT, an academic theory mainly taught in law school, is some great evil in the first place! As if what they call CRT is actually anywhere near the realm of actual CRT!
I am dismayed that Grove City College, a Christian institution, has ignored the words of the Savior they claim to follow, “and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:32). Instead they have chosen the bondage of ignorance over the freedom of truth.
The committee at Grove City College that generated this report thinks they have defended Christian orthodoxy when in reality they have merely asserted their commitment to a regressive and narrow type of fundamentalism that opposes racial justice.
This entire report represents an extended attempt at conservative virtue-signaling. They are reassuring their donors and constituents that they still subscribe to conservative politics and an exclusivist interpretation of the Bible and race.
Unfortunately, institutions like this will likely thrive in the near future. Their following is ideologically homogenous, loyal, and many of them are monied.
The subtitle of How to Fight Racism is “Courageous Christianity and the Journey toward Racial Justice.” Christians today must choose how they will response to racism—with courage or complicity.
The Jesus I follow did not cower in the face of the religious authorities who felt threatened by his message of justice and inclusivity.
The Jesus I follow did not care about butts in seats or money in the coffers. He cared about faithfulness to God the Father and the words of scripture.
History and Jesus will determine whether my words were divisive and unchristian and whether the actions of the Grove City College committee represented a defense of the “faith once and for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3).
We are living in times that call us to take sides, either the side of justice or injustice. The side of righteousness or unrighteousness. Choose this day whom you will serve…and what Christian college or university you will support.
Newsweek Article: An Angry Debate Over Critical Race Theory Splits Christian Colleges
National Review Article: Grove City College’s Supposed Wokeness
Dr. Tisby, I would like to thank you wholeheartedly for speaking at Grove City. As a white alum (class of 2019), I can speak to the the desperate need for these conversations, particularly given the student body makeup. Thank you for speaking, and thank you for your continued advocacy.
As someone with deep connections there is much to say, and I'm processing how to do that. The starting point would be to note that this Special Committee was made up of exclusively white members. That alone should give significant pause.