How to Say Black Lives Matter without Burning Down Cities
In October 2019, Atatiana Jefferson was killed while she played videogames next to her young nephew. The twenty-eight-year-old black woman was the sixth person killed by Fort Worth police that year. Jefferson has been cited by numerous left-wing outlets as an example for why they have mobilized mass protests across the United States.
What would you say if I told you that a conservative in Atatiana Jefferson's city was working very hard to showcase the values that black history brought to our nation and lost his job in part because white people found the message too uncomfortable?
You'd think that would be a story, right? It is a story. But it's a story that none of the people trumpeting Black Lives Matter wanted to reach the public. This should unsettle people on all sides of the political spectrum.
In October 2019, I worked in the same city in which Ms. Jefferson died. My employer was Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. I taught "humanities." Holding degrees in Political Science (Yale), English (SUNY), and Classics (SUNY), I had a unique chance there to teach a classical curriculum and also bring more multicultural content into it.
My first academic book was Colorful Conservative: American Conversations with the Ancients from Wheatley to Whitman. In it I examined the classical influences on three white writers (Poe, Thoreau, Whitman) and two black writers (Wheatley, Wells Brown). Between 1998 and 2008, when I was affiliated with the left and wrote for venues like CounterPunch, I advocated for classical education to people who liked multiculturalism but thought of the classics as "dead white guys."
I came to Fort Worth in 2016. Paige Patterson, then president at Southwestern, encouraged me as I brought multicultural content through multiple avenues: I used the required Literary Interpretation course as well as creative writing electives to integrate more authors of color, organized missions to El Salvador and multiracial communities in London, organized symposia on racial reconciliation with black authors, and founded a multicultural Christian theater group that worked on plays about black and Mexican-American history. I drafted a multiculturally minded Media Arts & Culture major.
All these efforts were moving forward in October 2019, when the Jefferson shooting happened a few miles from our campus. The dramatists rehearsed for the debut of our play, Lady and the Girl, about the friendship between Mary Todd Lincoln and Elizabeth Keckley. People had told me I was crazy to put on a play set in the Civil War about the friendship between a white and a black woman, especially because we included a scene bringing to life Keckley's own account of assault by a white man. They said the lefties would show the play no respect because Christians had produced it. They also said nobody could spotlight that racial history and remain employed at a Southern Baptist seminary.
I knew the risks involved in putting on Lady and the Girl. I knew that it meant I would likely get fired. I did get fired, with the racial work standing as one issue and my conservative critiques of the gay community standing as another. I predicted that the racial element in my firing would get lost in the discussion of LGBT issues and in the general back-and-forth about right and left. I figured that liberals would sidestep the problem of racial representation to rejoice in the LGBT movement's revenge; sure enough, the title of the biggest article about my firing was titled "Antigay and Unemployed."
Inside Higher Ed¸ which published "Antigay and Unemployed," passed on an article I submitted to it about the role of my pro-diversity work in the firing. Chronicle of Higher Education also passed on the story. The fact that I had suffered retaliation for trying to showcase black history and perseverance in an overwhelmingly white Texas college, in the same city where Atatiana Jefferson had been shot and killed, did not matter. The affair would matter only if it advanced agenda items that really do matter to them: teacher unions, winning elections for the Democrats, homosexuality, transgenderism, feminism, and abortion.
I can't even say they care about sex abuse because the part of my firing that liberal education journals did care about — the backlash against me for being "antigay" — was impossible to separate from the fact that my "antigay" comments served to challenge the gay community about its cover-up of sex abuse. Nor is it clear that they worry about same sex–attracted youths being rejected and turning suicidal; as The College Fix reported, I had tried to protect a student accused of being gay from being expelled.
The message was loud and clear: black lives mattered but not enough to look past a professor's conservative views on LGBT. They would much rather erase pro-black cultural work than allow dissent from pro-gay culture.
I anticipated that conservatives would pressure me to drop references to racial discrimination. That came true as well. I received a call days before the premiere from a friend in the conservative movement. A white Christian radio host was calling around and telling conservative media not to cover my case. Why? "She says you're playing the race card and can't be trusted," my friend said.
Black lives mattered. I believed that Elizabeth Keckley's story mattered. Her complex rise and fall, her unique lens into Civil War history, and her suffering at the hands of complex forces beyond her control — all that mattered. She deserved a play about her. She deserved to be the focus of Christians' attention for one night, if only for some hours, to reflect on what her story says about America and God's mercy. I had grown up hearing stories about one of my female ancestors in Puerto Rico who was raped by a white man when slavery was still legal. Part of it was personal. But mostly it was because I believed in the sacred mission of my educational profession.
I didn't wear a button saying "Black Lives Matter." I didn't carry a sign at a protest. But I did the work I did.
On December 4, 2019, two days before the play premiered, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary published a statement claiming that I was fired because of changes to the curriculum and because I did not follow administrative policies. I had never been told about any student complaints, but the statement claimed there had been consistent student complaints. The March 2020 drama mission, when we planned to run Lady and the Girl in London, was canceled.
The December 4 statement from the seminary was false in one clear sense. The declaration claimed that nobody on campus had ever told me not to write about homosexuality. I had audio recordings of meetings where a dean told me precisely that I could not write about that issue. The public statement no doubt came from the seminary's need to stave off accusations that it was going liberal on homosexuality — the concern that seemed primary at that point.
I see a clear sign of the Lord's mercy in this painful journey. Between the race issue and the LGBT issue, I come out vindicated either way, while the seminary has to concede that it was either racist or siding with LGBT against the Bible. Six months later, racial injustice sits on the forefront rather than the question of homosexuality in the church. If the seminary did fire me over the curriculum, then it appears that its people retaliated against me for broadening the curriculum to include more diverse history and literature. If they didn't, then they fired me for standing up for the biblical view of sexuality and for defending sex abuse victims. The change in "curriculum" consisted of getting rid of the one faculty member who was doing all the multicultural work in the college.
My pay ceased immediately, three weeks before Christmas. My family's health insurance ran until December 31, 2019. When COVID struck, I was still without health insurance. One student from the drama club sent me an email stating, "My connection with you will have to end[.] ... I don't agree with the way the seminary treated you, but I don't want to be apart [sic] of the drama. I don't want that following me around for the rest of my career." She unfriended me on Facebook.
With my firing, all the multicultural efforts I had made were erased, never to be replaced. More non-white people were sacked the following spring; by then, the undergraduate faculty was all white except for one Korean-American New Testament scholar. The all-important school of theology had two Latino full professors prior to 2019, Steven Ortiz and Gerard Alfaro, but both of these are gone, and the school is all white except for a Chinese woman and a Korean man, both assistant professors. Prior to 2019, the school of music had a black dean, Leo Day, one of the highest ranking black Americans in the Southern Baptist Convention; today, that department is also all white except for one Korean.
Liberals took no interest in Adam Greenway's firings of non-white people at Southwestern. Conservatives supported me but generally avoided the racial side of what happened. The seminary is now a white island surrounded by black and Latino neighborhoods.
Why are American cities burning? Ask yourself. Part of it has to do with police brutality. Conservatives no longer need to side with the police on everything when we consider how many police departments went along with the unconstitutional coronavirus lockdowns. But it's bigger than the cops. A lot of it has to do with how society treats those who say black lives matter in positive and redemptive ways. People who have been trying to make a difference are systematically shut out, setting the stage for a nihilistic drama between outbursts and backlash. A society that has no room for the positive message must reckon with the suffering caused by the negative reaction.
Robert Lopez can be followed at www.bobbylopez.me.