Wed Apr 02, 2014
Is Racism Playing a Role in the Religious Right's Hostility to Neil deGrasse Tyson?
deGrasse Tyson's willingness to clearly and plainly state on his TV
show Cosmos that creationism is a myth has (predictably) upset Christian
Moreover, in an era where conservatism is
typified by anti-intellectualism, the howls of protest that Neil
deGrasse Tyson would be dismissive of the fantastical and facile
thinking which often hides under the false cover of "balance" and
"fairness" in American political discourse, is another source of umbrage
and raw offense for the Christian Right.
The hostility towards
Neil deGrasse Tyson is more than a function of simple anger or rancor
towards the scientific facts he deftly and calmly presents on Cosmos.
deGrasse Tyson is not an empty vessel. Neil deGrasse Tyson is also not a
blank slate devoid of identity or form. Neil deGrasse Tyson is a black
man. His gender and his race occupy a specific location and context in
As such, Neil deGrasse Tyson is not racially unmarked.
masculinity, and being gendered as "male", channel a rich and
complicated history of fear, loathing, desire, violence, fascination,
disgust, envy, strength, labor, and violence (both as a subject and
object), in the American racial imagination.
Neil deGrasse Tyson, as a black public intellectual and scientist, is located within that history.
parallel, as a black public intellectual and scientist, he defies the
historical stereotypes of what blackness is as viewed by the White
Gaze...and yes, however tragically, as internalized by some people of
black athlete who has disciplined his body to do great things on the
football field or basketball court is a source of entertainment,
admiration, and envy. He or she is acceptable, perhaps even a role-model
of desirability, as long as they do not speak on political matters in
such a manner that challenges the approved script.
A black man
who has disciplined his mind to master a branch of science--and is able
to effortlessly communicate his deep knowledge to a general audience on
national television--is a threat to every convention, however deep it
now resides in the American collective subconscious, which limits black
masculinity, the black body, and their accompanying prowess to sports,
music, or yes, the bedroom.
Here, black genius is one of the greatest and most profound threats to White supremacy.
The American racial imagination is incapable of seeing Neil deGrasse Tyson in a "raceless" or "race neutral" way.
lie of post racial America has not yet found a way, as occurred in
George Schuyler's 1931 master work Black No More, to turn people of
Could it be that some white folks see Neil deGrasse Tyson as "uppity" and not knowing his "place"?
The colloquialism "uppity" has a long history: it was born from chattel slavery, Jim and Jane Crow, and white supremacy.
"Uppity" still has power and resonance in contemporary America.
word channels an understanding that black people should be submissive
and deferent to White authority. Violations of that norm--as Trayvon
Martin, Jordan Davis, and many tens and hundreds of thousands of black
and brown folks have learned across the centuries--can and will be
punished by violence, death, sanction, and retribution by White
Neil deGrasse Tyson is a target for scorn by Christian
fundamentalists. We ought not to forget that race operates both along
the color line, as well as the dividing lines of religion in the United
The KKK is a "Christian" organization. Southern Baptists
supported Jim and Jane Crow and racial segregation. The home-schooling
and school privatization movements have ugly origins in how white
families mobilize(d) a language of "religious freedom" and anxiety over
"secularism" as cover to maintain "whites only" schools and other
The White identity movement has
strategically targeted white fundamentalist and evangelical Christian
organizations for infiltration because they are viewed as ideal spaces
for mobilizing "white racial consciousness" against non-whites.
Christian fundamentalists are a core constituency of the Republican Party (what is a de facto white identity organization).
Research suggests that religious fundamentalism is associated with authoritarianism, out-group hostility, prejudice, and racism.
black scientist who challenges the sacred religious myths of the
Christian Right is a natural target for a rage born of
anti-intellectualism, religious zealotry, and white racial animus.
roads for understanding the contemporary dynamics of race in American
do not necessarily have to lead through President Barack Obama. But in
the case of Neil deGrasse Tyson, Obama's experiences with white rage as
the United States' first black president remain helpful and instructive.
decades ago, African-Americans would crowd around the television when
it was rumored that a black person would be featured (or appear in any
context) on a broadcast. The television was a site of communal
celebration and dreaming that perhaps one day black and brown folks
would achieve full civic equality.
Decades later, many millions
of Americans watched Barack Obama win the presidency of the United
States for the first time. Tears of joy and shock rolled down the faces
of many African-Americans (and others) who remember seeing black folks
on TV only as maids and servants. Now, one of us/them was the most
powerful man in the world.
Obama's beautiful black family would inaugurate a second American Camelot.
now there is brilliant scientist that happens to be black, who on a
weekly basis, lectures and educates the American people on the mysteries
of the universe.
progress can be a type of blinder for its true believers and strivers.
The latter expended tears and joys at how people of color have become
prominent in American political and social life in roles other than as
athletes and entertainers.
There is a class of white conservative reactionaries and bigots that have had the exact opposite reaction.
them, a black man who is President of the United States is
unacceptable. To them, the future of the American republic is somehow
imperiled by the fact that an African-American presides over the White
A black man who is a starred scientist, lecturing them on
TV about the fallacies and lies that govern their worldview may just be
too much to accept. Why? For the Christian Right, God is white. Everyone
of importance in the Bible is also white. And of course, Jesus is a
white guy who looks like a surfer.
A black man named Neil
deGrasse Tyson, telling them that their Christian Fundamentalist,
mythological distorted versions of reality are examples of fantastical
thinking, and thus outside of the realm of empirical reality, is
unacceptable. What could possibly be more "uppity" than that?