Robert Jones book talk confronts lasting consequences of white supremacy

By Logan Monteleone

Elm Staff Writer

At 5 p.m. on Thursday, Nov. 16, Public Religion Research Institute President and founder Dr. Robert P. Jones was received by students, faculty, staff and community members who gathered in the Hotchkiss Recital Hall to learn about his most recent book, “The Hidden Roots of White Supremacy and the Path to a Shared American Future.”

The event was hosted by the Goldstein Program, the Office of Public Affairs, and the Starr Center for the American Experience at Washington College. The Office of Diversity and Inclusion gave away more than 50 copies of Dr. Jones’ book on a first-come, first-served basis to attendees.

Political Science Program Chair and Louis L. Goldstein Professor of Public Affairs Dr. Christine Wade welcomed Dr. Jones to the stage.

According to Dr. Wade, recent indications that the National Justice Party is present on campus and in the local community make a conversation about white supremacy imperative.

“One of the barriers to racial reconciliation is the lack of understanding of the construct of ‘whiteness’ among white Americans,” Dr. Wade said. “How can we reconcile our past and build a fair, more inclusive future as an institution located on indigenous lands that was sustained directly and indirectly with the labor of enslaved people, if we don’t grapple with the underpinnings of white identity?”

Dr. Jones also wrote two related books, “The End of White Christian America” and “White Too Long: The Legacy of White Supremacy in American Christianity,” along with work for various outlets about politics, culture, and religion including The Atlantic and TIME.

“Jones’ work isn’t just important for its illumination of racial injustice and atrocity,” Dr. Wade said. “It also offers us hope…[through] lessons…that may help us craft a path to a more inclusive future.”

Prior to reading aloud, Dr. Jones prefaced the opening passage of “Hidden Roots” by explaining his intention to keep together histories “that we often keep separate in our consciousness” of European interaction with indigenous populations and with people of African descent in America. Dr. Jones also endeavors to “hold history and the present together” in his book by considering how historical events directly contribute to America’s current struggle with identity and Christian white nationalism.

“My talk tonight is…about America’s identity crisis, and [I am] really making the case that this conflict, these claims to the superiority of European civilization and Christianity, are still plaguing this country, and the worldview that’s at the heart of this crisis — indeed the version of Christianity that first landed on these shores — is still part of what we’re struggling with in this country today,” Dr. Jones said.

Looking back at over 500 years of history, Dr. Jones explores how events from 1493 to the present have contributed to America’s current identity crisis, “and how can we make those connections and understand the deeper historical perspective.”

Dr. Jones has joined, and in many ways, initiated the public conversation about white supremacy and Christianity in the U.S through his roles as a leading scholar, doctor of religion, New York Times Bestselling Author, and active figure in popular political media. His motivations are connected to his personal history and require “wrestling with [his] own family story.”

Dr. Jones explained that his book includes research which “wrestles with” the history of Christianity and its role in the displacement of indigenous people and enslavement of people of African descent.

“I grew up a Southern Baptist in Jackson, Mississippi, and my family’s history goes back in Macon, Ga. six generations,” Dr. Jones said.

Dr. Jones’ immediate family is the first in two centuries not to live outside of a small county in Georgia. His family moved from Virginia to Georgia on an offer for free land in 1815, as Dr. Jones learned from the writing in a family bible inherited from his ancestors in Virginia. The “free land,” Dr. Jones explained, was really homeland stolen from the Cherokee people.

“This book is really trying to think about what happens if we trace [the present state in America] back…in many ways, it’s about origin stories.”

Dr. Jones argued that American history does not begin with the scene depicted on the postage stamps of “all the white guys in Philadelphia in their colonial finery, posed kind of awkwardly with their quill pens… that’s the ‘story of America,’ that’s what you have in your head, and the rest of the story only has to account for what is in that frame.”

Dr. Jones explained how the New York Times’s the 1619 Project brought popular attention to revisiting the American idea of its “origin story” as one that begins in 1776. While Dr. Jones applauds the revolutionary work of the 1619 Project in highlighting the arrival of enslaved Africans as the true and harsh beginnings of the country, he argues for a date even farther back.

He proposes 1493 — the year the Western Christian Church granted Columbus the moral authority to settle America — as the starting point of America’s story.

“This history, I think, communicates a different story,” Dr. Jones said. “If we begin back in 1493, we’ve got to account for a very different way of thinking about our culture, about the place of religion and Christianity in it, and a very different story of our founders and the founding.”

Dr. Jones explained that the papal bull issued by the Western Christian Church in 1493 granted European Christians full moral permission to enslave, steal from, and abuse non-Christian people, representing a significant point to trace back present issues of white supremacy.

Dr. Jones said that in “Hidden Roots” he looks “at three communities that are trying to wrestle with this legacy [of white supremacy], to tell the truth about this history that is often covered up, and to bring about some kind of healing and reckoning.”

The structure of the book follows the histories of Tallahatchie County, Miss., Duluth, Minn., and Tulsa, Okla. Dr. Jones describes three significant events of violent racism that demonstrate white supremacy in America, and further discusses how each community has reckoned with its past.

Associate Provost for Diversity and Inclusion and Senior Equity Officer Dr. Alisha Knight asked Dr. Jones to discuss the complexity of his audience for this book.

“The hope that you offer involves truth-telling, as I understand it,” Dr. Knight said. “I am thinking that you are writing for an audience who do not see themselves as white supremacists and I am interested at what point, if at any point, you imagined an audience and thought about offering hope to those who do see and embrace white supremacy?”

Dr. Jones replied, “I grew up in this world…I would not have said I was a white supremacist if you had asked me outright. But was there built into me the sense that ‘white people stuff,’ that our lives, were more important than others? Absolutely.”

“That world still lingers with us: you still see the effects everywhere in the country.” Dr. Jones said. “I think when most people hear the word ‘white supremacy’ they think of some black and white photograph of some KKK people wearing a cross. But if we just flip the words around, I think we can get out of this [concept of white supremacy] that we can so easily push away from ourselves. So not ‘white supremacy,’ but ‘the supremacy of whites.’”

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