Back in 2008, at the height of his extraordinary tirade against Barrack Obama, television personality Glenn Beck delved into discussions about black liberation theology. Looking for an expert to corroborate his views, Beck invited theologian Anthony Bradley onto his show. Drawing upon a series of essays that he had written for Beck’s newsletter, Bradley goes on in the segment to dismiss black liberation theology for its apparent “victimhood” and Marxist ties. Beyond theologically buttressing an extreme right-wing attack of Obama’s political and religious legitimacy, Bradley has continuously displayed a fascinating track-record that encapsulates what I like to call theologies of respectability.
Currently a professor at the King’s College in New York City and a Research Fellow at the Acton Institute, Anthony Bradley’s first major work was Liberating Black Theology (2010). In it, he disparages black liberation theology and its founder James Cone. Bradley’s account of black theology in this book is so dismissive in nature that even a positive review from a fellow conservative Christians expressed concerns about fair treatment: “he rarely summarizes BT without inserting his victimology critique.” From the beginning, Bradley reduces black theology to a pathology of victimology, a theology that only views people as perpetual victims.
Bradley’s insistence that black theology is nothing more than a delusional victimhood mentality leads to bizarre critiques such as this: “As late as 1984, Cone still maintained that people of color were, in general, being oppressed by white Americans, Europeans, and South Africans” (77). In Bradley’s eyes, Cone succumbs to victimology when he claims that people of color were generally being oppressed by whites in apartheid South Africa. Ultimately, Liberating Black Theology presents the theology of 19th century Dutch Calvinists such as Herman Bavinck as the solution to black theologians trapped in victimology.
Within conservative and evangelical circles, Bradley has established himself as a provocative public theologian who frequently comments on black culture, politics, and economics. Take, for example, his comments on “negro dialect.” After Senator Harry Reid spoke about Obama’s electability in relation to his lack of “dark skin” and “negro dialect,” Bradley agreed with at least the language component. In the article “Human Dignity, Black Skin, And Negro Dialect,” Bradley writes: “Reid’s comments expose what many know but would not publically confess: namely, that having a combination of dark skin and ‘negro dialect’ is not only undesirable but also damages one’s prospects for social and economic mobility.” Bradley then adds: “Civil-rights leaders would do well to restore the priority of fighting for black dignity so that having dark skin is respected and improving one’s syntax is encouraged.” Reid’s comments about Obama should apparently encourage all black people to improve the way they speak so as to increase their chances of mobility. “A movement,” Bradley continues, “dedicated to fostering dignity in those engaging in self-sabotaging behaviors would have spillover effects everywhere: from streets to the criminal justice system.”
In addition to considering the improvement of syntax in the black community, Bradley has also addressed responses to crime. One of his recommendations: black looters should be publically shamed. Speaking at the Heritage Foundation in 2011, Bradley proposed an idea that he had previously written about:
Every black person apprehended for robbing stores in a flash mob should have their court hearing not in front of a judge but facing the 30-foot statute of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. at his Washington memorial site. Each thief should be asked, “What do you think Dr. King would say to you right now?”
Saying nothing about the police brutality and militarization which contributes to social unrest, Bradley claims that black urban youth throughout the country are robbing King of his dream by abandoning virtue and turning to looting. Exercises of public shaming in front of the MLK statue can lead to a new dream, the resurgence of virtue within black youth.
The idea of publically shaming black looters is not the only remarkable thing Bradley shared at the Heritage Foundation speech. He criticizes post-1980 leaders for ignoring the root causes of wealth disparities:
“The most successful minority groups in America were those who pursued economic mobility through the market place instead of politics. So when you look at Asian immigrants, when you look at the history of the Jews in America, you see other sub-dominant cultures who chose the market place as a means of social and economic mobility.” (16:25)
Bradley implies that the black wealth/income gap is stark when compared to whites because blacks, for the most part, have over-relied on the government whereas other minority groups have relied on the market. This is consistent with what Bradley has written in Liberating Black Theology: “Human capital is more than just skills…personal and cultural habits toward life and work lead some cultures and groups to excel more quickly than others” (115). Foundational to Bradley’s interpretation of wealth, income, and housing disparities, is his theological understanding of sin. “Structural sin,” he explains, “must be evaluated on the same philosophical ground as personal sin because structures have actors (i.e. men and women) who have a shared solidarity in sin.”
In Keep Your Head Up (2012), a collection of theological essays inspired by Bill Cosby and Alvin Poussaint, Bradley focuses on the social pathologies underpinning the black male crisis. He is concerned about how young black boys are often “over-mothered.” He writes,
In the absence of consistent fathering, most black males are raised in a world dominated by women. Boys socialized by mama and grandmamma through their teen years and early adulthood are often unwittingly emasculated. (140)
Growing up in a world dominated by women, these boys are supposedly motivated to mistreat women. According to Bradley, “…over-mothering can also turn sons into future misogynists. Boys raised in a matriarchy can often grow to resent the constant control of women” (140). When black women are sexually manipulated by black men, who is to blame? In the amazing turns of Bradley’s logic, the answer is black women. “Men,” he argues, “sexually manipulate women to retaliate against matriarchal dominance” (143).
On the issue of affirmative action and campus diversity, the black student union at University of Michigan gained national attention during the last school year for its protests. Perhaps you also heard about Brooke Kimbrough, the Detroit high school honors student who appealed her rejection from Michigan. In “University of Michigan Should Resist Racial Bullying,” Anthony Bradley chastises Kimbrough as a racial bully. Calling her “an academically mediocre student,” Bradley claims that Kimbrough is undermining the spirit of Dr. King’s colorblind vision in which all should be treated by the content of their character and not by the color of their skin. For Bradley, King’s vision translates into a vehement opposition to any form of affirmative action that takes race into account. Bradley’s vision of King inspires him to launch impassioned attacks on minority students, including an honors student from Detroit.
Last but not least, we have Bradley’s commentary on worker’s rights and the minimum wage. This past May, Bradley weighed in on the debate around fast-food workers demanding a raise in the minimum wage to $15 per hour. In “On Wages, McDonald’s Gets it Right,” he begins: “In today’s culture of entitlement people believe that they deserve certain rewards simply because they exist—not because of hard work, perseverance and wise choices.” In Bradley’s eyes, to be a fast-food worker is to simply exist. Considering harrowing tales of single mother workers who can’t make ends meet, he asks: “Is it McDonald’s fault that you are in your mid-30s, unmarried with several children, and have not acquired the requisite skill set to improve your employment opportunities?” Bradley assumes the crudest of meritocracies: those who cannot make a living even while working round the clock have only their own lack of skills and moral failings to blame; those with livable wages can thank their own skill set and moral achievements. In the end, he recommends that “the protestors should also protest themselves for making poor decisions that placed them in difficult circumstances.”
When it comes to speaking comfort to power and castigating the most vulnerable in our society, there is perhaps no public theological voice more eager than that of Anthony Bradley’s. His body of work is a textbook in blaming the victim and reducing problems to pathology. Bradley sees the inequalities in the black community, and other minority communities, primarily as an outgrowth of pathology, an outgrowth of self-sabotaging behaviors, cultural habits, and moral failings. Even though scholars have continually debunked the notion that pathology is to blame for various inequalities, Bradley unflinchingly proceeds to theologize as a color-blind pathologist targeting vulnerable black and brown people. For as long as Anthony Bradley blames black people—and particularly black women—for persisting inequality, he will be a treasured voice in evangelical circles.
At the heart of Bradley’s vision lies something that many find at least initially attractive. The idea that all people can make it in America if they just work hard enough; the belief that all should be treated equally. When applied to race in America, this takes on the form of a color-blind MLK creed. We should stop considering race and only see people as individuals. Ultimately, it becomes a politics of respectability. Comprising a long-stretching tradition, the politics of respectability is a strategy that encourages victims of oppression to “prove” their dignity and improve their condition through personal character and hard work. The difference in 21st century America, according to people like Anthony Bradley, is that there are no more victims. The Civil-Rights movement of the 1960s and 1970s dealt with the fundamental racial inequalities and now we have a black president. Today, minorities need to stop complaining about the past and solely blame themselves for any shortcomings. To claim that the game is rigged in any way is to act overly entitled. Moreover, in Bradley and other theologians like him, the politics of respectability become theologically articulated and sanctioned.
Theologies of respectability are more concerned about the possible “over-reactions” to colonialism, slavery, and racial inequality than they are with these legacies themselves. For theologies of respectability, the burden of proof is on James Cone and liberation theologies more than it is on the theological enterprises which underwrote and sanctioned the destruction of black life and subsequently said little of it. In this strategy, personal “reconciliation” to white Christians supersedes reparations, the holistic efforts to address systemic, institutionalized sins.
Ultimately, theologies of respectability fail for the same reasons that the politics do. While they may purport to hold everyone to the same high ideals, they always harbor a double-standard that diminishes the humanity of black people. Bradley wants groups of black looters to be publically shamed in front of Martin Luther King Jr.’s statue, but would he want groups of white criminals to be shamed in front of the Lincoln memorial? When a black single mother can’t make a living wage at her job, she should take full responsibility and blame herself. When a black man sexually manipulates a woman? He can blame black matriarchal dominance. If a black honors student from Detroit petitions her college rejection, it’s racial bullying. If, as it’s been documented, white students continue to benefit from racialized legacy policies, well it’s simply maintaining high standards.
Respectability’s failure is deep down a theological mistake, a flawed theological anthropology. To say that all people are created in the image of God is one thing; to make certain groups have to constantly prove their human dignity is another. Consider these words from Ta-Nehisi Coates:
There is no evidence that black people are less responsible, less moral, or less upstanding in their dealings with America nor with themselves. But there is overwhelming evidence that America is irresponsible, immoral, and unconscionable in its dealings with black people and with itself. Urging African-Americans to become superhuman is great advice if you are concerned with creating extraordinary individuals. It is terrible advice if you are concerned with creating an equitable society. The black freedom struggle is not about raising a race of hyper-moral super-humans. It is about all people garnering the right to live like the normal humans they are.
Given our nation’s history and persistent struggles, the burden of proof does not lie with black liberation theology—contrary to what theologies of respectability would have us believe. The indictment is upon American Christianity and its traditional theologies. The recognition of black humanity is an article upon which the American church stands or falls.
Daniel José Camacho is a graduate student at Duke University Divinity School.