Thursday, April 12, 2012

Diversity at OBU: I See White People

As Veronica pointed out Tuesday in her discussion of diversity (such as it is) among OBU chapel preachers (if men; speakers, if women), OBU may not have a race problem.  More precisely, it may not have a race problem that differs substantially from the SBC's race problem.  So let's take each issue in turn.

Race in the SBC
Given that the SBC was formed largely over its insistance in the morality of slavery, it should come as no surprise that it has had problems with race over the years.  After the Civil War, the other denominations that split over slavery eventually reunited with their Northern counterparts.  Not the SBC.  During the Civil Rights movement, the SBC was notoriously silent.  Rev. Jerry Falwell, who disagreed with the Brown ruling that integrated schools and regularly featured segregationist politicians on his media programs, was typical.  Under the guise of opposing "secularism," Baptists founded scores of essentially segregated private schools in the 1970s.  Though by the 1980s and following it was socially unpalatable for even Southern Baptists to be openly racist, they continued to oppose all federal civil rights legislation and became wedded to a secular political party whose Southern Strategy catapulted it back into prominence during the Takeover years and whose primary electorate even today is less than 2-3% black in almost every state.

The SBC finally got around to acknowledging and apologizing for its racist past in 1995.  But as late as 2011, Rev. Dr. Albert Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, dismissively and incorrectly explained the Baptist split in 1845 thusly: "What the Northerners were saying was that ending slavery is more important than spreading the gospel."

SBC pastors and bureaucrats sit around in meetings, wring their hands, contemplate name changes for the convention, and wonder why black people don't want to be Southern Baptists!  The name change committee based its recommendation on a survey that found a 53/40 favorable/unfavorable rating for Southern Baptists.  I doubt the committee published a breakdown by race because it could be wildly embarrassing, but I'd love to see that if anyone has it.

Now, in fairness, the SBC is going to elect a black president this summer, Fred Luter of New Orleans.  Given how many Southern Baptists gleefully joined the blatantly racist "birther" movement, I hope Rev. Luter is prepared to show them his birth certificate.

Messengers electing the Rev. Bryant White
Wright president of the SBC in 2010.

Which is harder, finding Waldo or finding a person
of color in the Southern Baptist Convention?

Now, there are several large black Baptist denominations, and I don't know what kind of partnerships or overtures have taken place between the black and white Baptist groups.  But I'm pretty sure more than just worship style divides white and black Baptists.  The best comparison I can think of (and the one I know best) is the Methodist tradition.  The Methodist Episcopal Church, South rejoined the national Methodist Church in 1939.  Of course, large black Methodist denominations also exist.  But while there were, of course, segregated white Methodist churches for many years, the (mostly white) denomination took a much more open, welcoming, and sympathetic stance toward blacks than the SBC did.  The United Methodist Church (formed in 1968 when Methodists merged with the Evangelical United Bretheren Church) has been quite progressive on civil rights and issues important to the black community, while the Southern Baptist Convention has been tone deaf at best, and outright hostile at worst.

Race at OBU

For the first 45 years of its history, OBU was segregated.  I don't know when it started admitting Native Americans.  But we do know that OBU began admit black students in 1955.  That year, OBU trustee and legendary FBC OKC pastor Rev. Dr. Herschel H. Hobbs led an effort to integrate the university.  (Given Hobbs's moderate temperament and disdain for culture war politics, this is unsurprising.  Fundamentalists grew to loathe Hobbs, booing him loudly at the 1980 Southern Baptist Convention in St. Louis as he warned, "Beware the lures of creeping creedalism" -- a harbinger of the Takeover to come.  That's right.  No matter what kind of lip service today's Baptist leaders pay to Dr. Hobbs, when you think of Anthony Jordan, Stan Norman, Al Mohler, and other SBC luminaries, you need to think of them booing Herschel Hobbs.  Because that's whose side of the controversy they are on.  If they had been at that convention, they would have been booing Dr. Hobbs.  That is a certainty.  And it's what makes OBU's decision to name the religion department in his memory all the more strange and, frankly, insulting, given how the Takeover faction has besmirched his legacy.)

Also, OBU has drawn a lot of brown students over the years from places its white alumni traveled as missionaries.

Today, Forbes (in whose rankings we have plummeted the past two years) reports that OBU is 74% white.  If that seems like a gross underestimation, it's probably because it counts 7% as Native American and 5% as unknown.  Six percent of OBU students are black.  I don't know how that compares to the proportion of members in BGCO congregations who are black.  Again, the BGCO probably won't publish the data because it would be so embarrassing.

OBU definitely has an opportunity to make more progress in providing a first-rate Christian liberal arts education to more minority students.  Given that racial minority status is often correlated with relatively lower levels of family income and wealth, it is generally more difficult for minority families to send their children to expensive private universities like OBU.  Certainly athletic scholarships have helped in this regard.  OBU has a proud history of highly accomplished black student-athletes.  The football program should help the disparity even more, but from what I've seen, the coaches and recruits are as lily-white as the rest of OBU.  That should begin to even out over time, though.

To my knowledge, none of the black church traditions (Baptist or otherwise) have colleges in Oklahoma.  In fact, Langston University is the only historically black college or university in the state.  With a large endowment, relatively generous academic and athletic scholarships, and a first-rate (for now) faculty, OBU has the resources to draw non-white students.  But I'm not sure it has the culture.  Culturally, OBU, the BGCO, and the SBC seem to harken back to the 1950s as a kind of golden age.  And, if you recall, the 1950s were not such a nice time for black people in Oklahoma and elsewhere.

I wonder what percentage of the OBU faculty is black.  Again, it's not for lack of resources, opportunity, or desire.  It seems more of a cultural problem.  Now that mainline Protestants are no longer welcome to come teach at OBU, it seems the university is restricting its applicant pool to the most lily-white strand of American Protestantism.  That's right: Dr. Norman's new, narrower definition of who's Christian enough to teach at OBU is going to make it even less likely that we will have a diverse faculty.  And this is already an area of weakness for us.

Here's a picture from a banquet last week honoring significant milestones in faculty and staff members' years of service.

Here's the year before that:

And the year before that:

The theme of the week has been diversity.  If OBU actually expects to equip students to engage a diverse world, I think we need to get our own house in order.  It's not just that OBU lacks significant diversity, it seems to suffer from cultural and structural baggage imposed by the ever narrower definition of what it means to be Baptist since the Fundamentalist Takeover.  Given the SBC's (and by extension, the BGCO's) horrible record on and apparent disdain for diversity (whether theological, social, political, or racial), OBU is better off on its own.

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