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Darnella Frazier did not set out to become a citizen journalist. Still, the Pulitzer Prize committee, which honors exceptional journalism, on Friday awarded the Minneapolis teenager a special citation. It recognized Ms. Frazier “For courageously recording the murder of George Floyd, a video that spurred protests against police brutality around the world, highlighting the crucial role of citizens in journalists’ quest for truth and justice.”
Honoring her bravery and determination is important. Her 10-minute video, which has been called “one of the most important civil rights documents in a generation,” helped make possible the rare conviction of a police officer in the killing of a Black person. But what has largely been ignored in the excitement over the award (which carries a $15,000 prize) is the ongoing cost to Ms. Frazier’s peace of mind. She has consistently avoided giving interviews, which could cause her to relive the trauma of Mr. Floyd’s death. To escape reporters, her family has been forced to move from hotel to hotel.
The mainstream press has not always treated people of color with respect or empathy. So it’s not surprising that some communities distrust reporters in the same way they distrust law enforcement. The advent of cellphones and the ability to record videos has placed the tools of journalism into the hands of people who have often been misrepresented and disbelieved.
Mikki Kendall, a Black journalist, points out that in Ms. Frazier’s case, the Pulitzer committee failed to seize a historic moment to expand journalism’s highest prize to include new voices. She wrote in an opinion piece on CNN.com, “A better recognition for Frazier’s work would have been inclusion in an existing category, or the creation of or call for a new category honoring citizen journalism.”
Ms. Frazier’s video brought racism and injustice to light. “The world needed to see what I was seeing,” she has said. Her motivation goes to the heart of what good journalism does.
President Joe Biden’s approach to international alliances and shared values has helped inject a renewed sense of purpose into NATO. But could its focus become too diffuse?
Former President Donald Trump had suggested that NATO was “obsolete,” leaving alliance officials and U.S. allies to worry he could pull the plug at any moment. But President Joe Biden, who brought his commitment to alliances to the NATO summit Monday, along with his conviction that democracies are best suited to meet the 21st century’s challenges, went a good way toward addressing those insecurities.
As NATO ends its Afghanistan mission in September, the transatlantic alliance is deriving renewed purpose from new challenges: an aggressive Russia, instability around the Mediterranean, a rising China, and 21st-century threats including cybersecurity and faltering democratic governance.
“There’s no question that the atmosphere of this summit is very positive and marks a shift very much appreciated in Europe,” says Ian Lesser, executive director of the German Marshall Fund’s Brussels office. “The shift on display is one of style, but there is substance to the change as well.”
At the same time, an expanded to-do list has some experts worried the alliance is at risk of losing its focus. Says Andrea Kendall-Taylor at the Center for a New American Security in Washington: “It’s not so much a question now of NATO’s relevance, but of NATO being drawn in too many directions.”
Atmospherics and style are not everything.
But in bringing his commitment to America’s alliances to the NATO summit Monday, along with his conviction that democracies are best suited to meet the 21st century’s stiff challenges, President Joe Biden went a good way toward answering a question hanging over the North Atlantic alliance since the end of the Cold War: What are you good for?
Former President Donald Trump had even suggested the defense alliance of Western allies was “obsolete,” leaving NATO officials and U.S. allies to worry Mr. Trump could pull the plug at any moment.
But now, as NATO ends its Afghanistan mission in September, the transatlantic alliance of 30 democracies is deriving renewed purpose from new challenges: an aggressive Russia on the alliance’s eastern flank, instability around the Mediterranean region, a rising China with ever-advancing global technological capabilities, and 21st-century threats including cybersecurity and faltering democratic governance.
“There’s no question that the atmosphere of this summit is very positive and marks a shift very much appreciated in Europe,” says Ian Lesser, executive director of the German Marshall Fund’s Brussels office. “The shift on display is one of style, but there is substance to the change as well.”
Noting in particular President Biden’s emphasis on “strong alliances and democracy’s utility,” he adds, “The truth is that the American commitment to Europe has grown in many ways over recent years, so put these things together and a lot of the anxieties that were growing within NATO are now allayed.”
The new tone Mr. Biden seeks to set was made clear by the flagpole at the U.S. ambassador’s residence, where the president is staying while in Brussels – below the Stars and Stripes flew the rainbow flag, marking Pride Month. Mr. Trump’s State Department had banned U.S. facilities overseas from displaying the symbol of LGBTQ pride.
But Mr. Biden’s first NATO summit went well beyond symbolism.
Actions Monday ranged from specific details of the U.S.-NATO partners’ “in together, out together” drawdown from Afghanistan – including plans for post-exit embassy security – to approval of a new cyber defense strategy updating the “defense, security, and intelligence dimensions of cyber across the alliance,” according to White House officials.
Notably, the summit communiqué will for the first time make significant cyberattacks a criterion for invoking Article 5 of the NATO charter – meaning a cyberattack damaging critical infrastructure in one NATO member could be considered an attack on the alliance and entail collective action.
“We knew from the White House that Biden was bringing on this European trip the three C’s – China, COVID, and climate change – but this NATO summit adds a fourth, which is cyber,” says Andrea Kendall-Taylor, director of the Transatlantic Security Program at the Center for a New American Security in Washington.
NATO has increasingly moved into new areas of interest in recent years, including emerging and disruptive technologies, “resilience” – meaning safeguarding infrastructure and supply chains from a widening array of challenges – and an expanding list of out-of-area partnerships, including in the Indo-Pacific region.
Moreover, leaders launched a process for delivering a new strategic concept for NATO, to be completed by next year’s summit in Madrid. U.S. officials note that the current strategic concept, completed in 2010, refers to Russia as a “constructive partner” and does not mention China.
Indeed, Mr. Biden had some of his alliance colleagues shifting in their seats as he laid out for them what the United States sees as the growing challenges China poses. Those range from provocative actions in the South China Sea and vital world trade routes to increasingly sophisticated technological and military capabilities.
Another focus is the array of political challenges that an authoritarian China poses to what the president likes to refer to as “an alliance of democracies.”
Yet even though a number of NATO members – most outspokenly France – remain wary of being drawn into a more confrontational stance with China, the summit’s communiqué “features China in a more robust way than we’ve ever seen before,” as one senior White House official said. Indeed, in the third paragraph on “threats” – right after mention of “Russia’s aggressive actions” – comes China.
“China’s growing influence and international policies can present challenges that we need to address together as an Alliance. We will engage China with a view to defending the security interests of the Alliance.”
Still, just how NATO approaches the China challenge will remain a work in progress.
The same head winds that buffeted Mr. Biden at NATO Monday were present over the weekend as he pressed his Group of Seven colleagues assembled in England to challenge China more directly.
At the G-7 Cornwall summit, the U.S. had wanted the final communiqué to call out China directly for a number of transgressions, including forced labor practices and other human rights abuses. But a heated discussion among leaders revealed strong resistance to a barrage of direct finger-pointing that would have suggested a G-7 buy-in on a confrontational approach to China.
So while the G-7 final communiqué does cite China by name in its 49th paragraph (out of 70) for human rights violations in Xinjiang province and for undermining Hong Kong’s democracy, the document offers only a general concern about “the use of all forms of forced labour in global supply chains, including state-sponsored forced labour of vulnerable groups and minorities including in the agricultural, solar, and garment sectors.”
White House officials insisted they were satisfied with the wording on forced labor practices and the clear reference it makes to China, given global awareness of the forced labor that China’s Uyghur Muslim minority is subjected to in the mentioned sectors in Xinjiang province.
The upbeat mood and renewed sense of purpose permeating Monday’s summit seemed to banish the doubts that marked recent NATO gatherings. But at the same time, an expanded to-do list has some experts worried that a focus on answering the post-Cold War “purpose” question could put the alliance at risk of losing its focus on its core strengths.
“It’s not so much a question now of NATO’s relevance, but of NATO being drawn in too many directions,” says Ms. Kendall-Taylor, who served as deputy national intelligence officer for Russia and Eurasia in the National Intelligence Council.
“It’s still first and foremost a collective defense structure, and especially with the sustained challenges Russia poses, I think some members in particular want to be sure the focus remains on that.”
Mr. Biden appeared to acknowledge those concerns Monday by briefing his colleagues on his aims for the much-anticipated summit he’ll hold with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Geneva Wednesday.
He also met separately with the leaders of the three Baltic states – Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania – and pointedly had a brief conversation on the summit sidelines with Polish President Andrzej Duda, all part of his messaging to Mr. Putin about the American commitment to NATO’s eastern flank.
The three Baltic states and former Soviet republics have felt most acutely the revanchist military actions of Mr. Putin’s Russia, including in neighboring Ukraine and in Georgia.
But it was at another bilateral meeting, the one Mr. Biden held with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, in which the president sought to underscore his conception of NATO as an “alliance of democracies” with a critical role to play in stemming a rising global authoritarian tide.
Mr. Biden wanted to finalize plans for Turkey to provide security for the Kabul airport after NATO’s departure, air the prickly topic of U.S.-Turkish differences over security in northern Syria, and discuss Turkey’s complex relations with Russia before Wednesday’s summit.
But perhaps the strongest reason Mr. Biden granted Mr. Erdoğan a high-profile sit-down was to secure Turkey’s slipping anchor in the “alliance of democracies,” some analysts say.
“The Biden administration’s policy towards Mr. Erdoğan is to keep Turkey in NATO and democracy in Turkey vibrant while Erdoğan is on the scene,” says Soner Cagaptay, director of the Turkish Research Program at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
The Biden White House “has digested the fact that Erdoğan’s Turkey is in deep with Putin,” he says. But, he notes, “Turkey and Russia are not allies, their relations are complex, with cooperation and deep disagreements” – and the U.S. wants to stem any tendency for those relations to get any closer.
Yet while U.S. worries about Turkey’s drift are not new, what is new here is Mr. Biden’s willingness to directly address democratic backsliding in a key regional ally.
“In the past U.S. presidents paid symbolic lip service to democracy and freedoms in Turkey, but this time is different,” says Mr. Cagaptay, author of the just-published “A Sultan in Autumn,” about Mr. Erdoğan’s rise and recent decline as leader.
Mr. Biden needs to address “democratic transgressions” among America’s partners if his vision of democracies effectively addressing the 21st century’s biggest challenges is to be believed at home and abroad, Mr. Cagaptay says.
And Mr. Erdoğan, in dire need of the U.S. president’s imprimatur to jump-start American and other foreign investment in Turkey and to revive a moribund economy, he adds, is at least willing to listen if that’s the price for getting a photo with Mr. Biden.
Russia and the United States are at a nadir in their relations. Russians hope that Wednesday’s summit between the countries’ leaders will establish a baseline understanding of each other’s red lines.
The summit between U.S. President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin in Geneva on Wednesday has the potential to either arrest or accelerate the decline in what the Kremlin still regards as Russia’s most important bilateral relationship.
In Moscow there is a widespread sense of frustration over the acrimonious downward spiral that has smothered what was once a fairly robust dialogue, gutted the Cold War-era system of arms control treaties, and left the embassies of both countries without ambassadors.
That this summit is happening at all is a profoundly hopeful sign. Mr. Biden suggested it in an April phone conversation with Mr. Putin, after relations arguably reached an all-time low when the U.S. president said he thought that the Kremlin leader is a “killer” and both sides withdrew their ambassadors for extended consultations. But progress is apt to be modest.
“There are a lot of emotions in play, people have all kinds of conflicting expectations, and it’s not likely anyone will feel satisfied,” says Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of a Moscow-based foreign policy journal. “Nobody should expect any breakthroughs or grand bargains. In my view the summit will be successful if we start shaping the framework for a new confrontation.”
Russia broke out of lockdown earlier this month to stage a lavish economic exhibition in St. Petersburg, billed as the first big international forum of its kind in the post-pandemic era.
The event featured thousands of vaccinated and COVID-19-tested guests, including 200 Americans and the heads of most major Russian businesses and government ministries. In a rare in-person address, President Vladimir Putin spoke at great length about Russia’s economic and political resilience despite years of being buffeted by sanctions, plunging oil prices, and pandemic setbacks. The subtext throughout was that Russia is still here and recovering from the blows, it will not bow to pressure, and it’s open for business and ready to cooperate in building a new, post-pandemic global order.
Mr. Putin had remarkably little to say about his imminent summit with U.S. President Joe Biden in Geneva on Wednesday, other than to rattle off a list of what Russia considers strategic global concerns. But the potential of the meeting to either arrest or accelerate the decline in what the Kremlin still regards as Russia’s most important bilateral relationship was clearly on everyone’s minds.
In Moscow there is a widespread sense of frustration over the acrimonious downward spiral that has smothered what was once a fairly robust dialogue, gutted the Cold War-era system of arms control treaties, and left the embassies of both countries without ambassadors and severely understaffed thanks to tit-for-tat expulsions. The vacuum has been filled by an escalating war of words and strong accusations, some well grounded, others more speculative.
That this summit is happening at all is a profoundly hopeful sign. Mr. Biden suggested it in an April phone conversation with Mr. Putin, after relations arguably reached the lowest point in decades when the U.S. president said he thought that the Kremlin leader is a “killer” and both sides withdrew their ambassadors for extended consultations.
In the days before the summit, both leaders have been tamping down expectations and insisting to their domestic constituencies that the other side will definitely get an earful about matters of principle. For Mr. Biden that means human rights and Russia’s malign behavior abroad. Mr. Putin has been telling domestic audiences that he will make clear that Russia has certain red lines that must not be crossed, including the expansion of NATO to neighboring countries like Ukraine and Georgia.
Most of all, no one wants a repeat of the tumultuous summit between Mr. Putin and then-President Donald Trump in Helsinki three years ago, which turned into a media circus, fueled speculation in the United States that Mr. Trump might be a “Kremlin stooge,” and left many Russians scratching their heads over Mr. Trump’s odd behavior.
“There are a lot of emotions in play, people have all kinds of conflicting expectations, and it’s not likely anyone will feel satisfied. But our best hope is that this Biden-Putin meeting will look boring” to the watching media and commentariat, says Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of Russia in Global Affairs, a Moscow-based foreign policy journal.
“Nobody should expect any breakthroughs or grand bargains. In my view the summit will be successful if we start shaping the framework for a new confrontation. Until now we’ve had a confrontation that was chaotic and unpredictable, one that was very emotional and seemed to us driven more by American domestic politics than foreign policy concerns,” he says.
“It’s clear that Biden and Putin don’t like each other. But Biden is a classic politician, and Putin is quite practical too. If they can just come away from the meeting with a declaration that they take joint responsibility for strategic stability, for setting up a process in which experts will meet and working groups will develop a format to go forward with the big problems that can be managed, like arms control, that will be quite enough to change the whole tenor of the relationship.”
Russian experts concede that the old Cold War network of bilateral arms control treaties is largely outdated and that Mr. Biden’s decision to extend the last of them, New START, for five years should be seen as a jumping-off point to develop new approaches to a far more complex and dangerous global strategic environment. That includes militarization in space, cybersecurity, missile defense, and the emergence of several new nuclear-armed countries that will need to be brought into some new multilateral arms control process.
But a lot of people who won’t be at that table in Geneva have their own stakes in the outcome. They will be scrutinizing the body language and parsing the leaders’ words intensively.
In Ukraine, some already perceive a U.S. betrayal of their interests. Mr. Biden waived sanctions against the Russian company building the country's controversial Nord Stream 2, a project that Ukraine strongly opposes. And he also made clear – amid an embarrassing mix-up – that Ukraine will not be receiving a much sought-after Membership Action Plan to join NATO at the alliance’s summit in Brussels this week.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who has probably felt like a football in U.S. domestic politics for some time, publicly expressed his bitterness over the Nord Stream 2 decision. The new Russian pipeline will bypass Ukraine, depriving it of about $3 billion in annual transit fees, and giving Russia a free hand to cut off supplies.
Mr. Zelenskyy said, “This is a weapon, a real weapon ... in the hands of the Russian Federation. It is not very understandable ... that the bullets to this weapon can possibly be provided by such a great country as the United States.”
Vadim Karasyov, head of the Institute of Global Strategies in Kyiv, says there is deep alarm and concern in Ukraine’s government about what Mr. Biden and Mr. Putin might decide about Ukraine behind closed doors. “There is an impression that economic and trade relations with Russia matter more for the West than solidarity with Ukraine. There’s a feeling that the West is concerned with its own problems, and is tired of Ukraine.”
Another heavily invested group is Russia’s beleaguered opposition and human rights community, which is currently enduring the toughest police crackdown of the post-Soviet period. Traditionally Russian dissidents hope that U.S. leaders will champion their cause and deliver that concern straight to the Kremlin leader’s ear. Mr. Biden has promised to do that.
But some of them say they have few expectations that Mr. Biden will do anything to ease their conditions. Andrei Prokudin, a campaigner for imprisoned anti-corruption activist Alexei Navalny in the central Russian city of Tver, says today’s Russia is not very susceptible to outside pressure.
“Maybe Biden will say some formal words, express his concern, and that will be it. There won’t be any serious action, and nothing is likely to change inside Russia,” he says.
And then there is the Russian public. A recent poll by the independent Levada Center finds that Russians are almost evenly divided in their attitude toward the U.S., with 40% taking a “positive” view of the country and 42% saying they feel “negative” about it.
“It’s not Soviet times anymore, there are no ideological differences, and a lot of Russians just can’t understand why the U.S. is still hostile towards us,” says Mikhail Chernysh, a researcher at the official Institute of Sociology in Moscow. “Many people feel that the situation is abnormal and the antagonistic American attitude is not justified.
“For most people I think it would be enough if the two leaders meet in Geneva, show that they are capable of having amiable relations and that they accept each other, and declare some plan to hold future contacts.”
The killing of a Muslim family in a hit-and-run incident is forcing Canada to face up to its darker side and take steps to eradicate Islamophobia.
The killing of four members of the Afzaal family in London, Ontario, on June 6, when a young man ran them over with his truck because they were Muslim, has stirred Canadians to take a hard look at Islamophobia in their midst.
Over the weekend, thousands took to the streets to commemorate the family and take a stand against the hate that took their lives. “The display of support has been overwhelming at the grassroots,” says Munir El-Kassem, imam of the Islamic Centre of Southwest Ontario. “It’s getting to the point where the people say, ‘Enough is enough.’”
Javeed Sukhera, chair of the London Police Services Board, says the narrative of Canada as a multicultural country of welcome is such a comfortable one for Canadians that it makes it hard to see the hate below the surface.
“This whole year for me has been a lot of cycling between hope and despair,” he says. “I hope this will be a reckoning, a chance to look in the mirror and stop the denialism and avoidance. But I also know that Canada is going to start this a couple of steps behind where we needed to be in the first place.”
Wax from burned-down candles stamps the curbside in London, Ontario. Piles of bouquets overflow onto the pavement and into the road where a young man driving a black Dodge Ram appeared to intentionally run over a family out for an evening stroll last Sunday. He targeted them because they were Muslim.
Now four are dead: two parents, Salman Afzaal and Madiha Salman; their 15-year-old daughter, Yumna Salman; and the grandmother, Talat Afzaal. Only their son, 9-year-old Fayez, survived. And at the intersection where they stood waiting their turn to cross the street, lifelong Londoner Merland Brady shakes her head. “This shouldn’t have happened,” she says to no one in particular, as a constant stream of neighbors lays down more flowers.
“I never knew Islamophobia even existed,” says Ms. Brady, a retired educational assistant in the public school system here. In her career she was surrounded by the positive narratives around Muslim integration in her job – many students were Syrian refugees who used to thank the school for their support – without spending the time, she realizes now, to reflect on the darker currents underneath that have now played out so tragically.
“I don’t know if it was that I never witnessed it, or that I purposely turned a blind eye. But to think a family goes out for a walk and comes back dead. This has opened my eyes.”
Hers is part of a reckoning underway across Canada as the country mourns the death of the Afzaal family. It comes just over a week after the remains of 215 Indigenous children were found near a former residential school in Kamloops, British Columbia. It comes just over a year after the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minnesota, opened a new chapter on the persistent racism that Black Canadians face. And it comes amid the pandemic that has seen a surge in hate crimes against Asians in particular.
Over the weekend, thousands took to the streets to commemorate the family and take a stand against the Islamophobia that took their lives. “The display of support has been overwhelming at the grassroots,” says Munir El-Kassem, imam of the Islamic Centre of Southwest Ontario. “It’s getting to the point where the people say, ‘Enough is enough.’”
Now leaders are pushing for politicians to match the public mood. In the past week, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and party leaders arrived in London, forcefully condemning Islamophobia. Responding to an open letter by the National Council of Canadian Muslims and co-signed by over 150 organizations, the House of Commons on Friday unanimously passed a resolution calling for an emergency summit on Islamophobia by the end of next month.
Anti-hate advocates are demanding that barriers to reporting incidents of hate – two-thirds of which aren’t reported, according to Statistics Canada – are removed, that anti-racism training in schools is mandated, and that online hate is monitored and punished. They are calling for political commitment to root out “institutional” Islamophobia, seen in heavy-handed surveillance and laws like Quebec’s Bill 21, which bans some public service employers in authority positions, like teachers, from wearing religious symbols. In practical application, it almost solely targets Muslim women over headscarves.
“The types of Islamophobic views that would drive someone to mow down Muslims in the street aren’t just the purview of the right-wing extreme, but are embedded, in many ways, in our state institutions and practices,” says Azeezah Kanji, a legal academic whose research focuses on Islamophobia in Canada. “It’s like trying to mop the floor while there’s a hole in the ceiling through which water continues to pour.”
On Monday morning, terrorism charges were laid against Nathaniel Veltman, the suspect charged with the murder of the family.
Many are skeptical that the current political resolve will persist, just as the impetus for change fizzled out after the 2017 Quebec City mosque shooting, where six worshippers were murdered. Yet there are some signs of change this time. Immediately following that shooting, a nonbinding motion to condemn Islamophobia turned into a divisive debate over the meaning of the word, and it was opposed by many Conservative lawmakers – many of whom have easily condemned Islamophobia today.
Jeff Bennett ran for the Ontario Progressive Conservative (PC) Party in 2014 in London. This week, after he passed the intersection where the killing happened, he penned a Facebook post in a wave of anguish. “This terrorist may have been alone in that truck on that day, but he was not acting alone. He was raised in a racist city that pretends it isn’t.”
The post went viral. In an interview later, he says he witnessed racist attitudes as a political candidate in a city whose demographics – largely white but with a multiethnic minority, including many Muslims – make it so “average” that London serves as a test market. Back then, he says he didn’t speak out against it because it was more convenient not to. He asks himself where he was in 2017 after the Quebec shooting, which led to anti-Islam protests including in London.
“There are people out there saying, ‘This is horrible what happened, we need to stop racism,’” he says. “But they never admit to their own role in it. And I’m saying, ‘I’m included in systemic racism, and so are you. And you need to look in the mirror.’”
A current candidate for the Ontario PC Party in the next provincial election, Paul Paolatto, “took exception” to Mr. Bennett’s words, “or anyone who, in response to this heinous act of terror, characterizes the entire city of #LdnOnt, my city, as a racist city” in a tweet that faced so much backlash he was compelled to apologize via Twitter Sunday.
Javeed Sukhera, chair of the London Police Services Board, who knew the Afzaal family and remembers above all that they were always smiling, says the narrative of a multicultural country of welcome is such a comfortable one for Canadians that it makes it hard to see the hate below the surface.
“This whole year for me has been a lot of cycling between hope and despair. We all watched George Floyd’s murder. We asked ourselves, what is it going to take? Then we saw the graves in Kamloops, and we asked, what is it going to take?” he says. “I hope this will be a reckoning, a chance to look in the mirror and stop the denialism and avoidance. But I also know that Canada is going to start this a couple of steps behind where we needed to be in the first place.”
And yet the continued show of support has boosted morale in the tough days and weeks ahead as the Muslim community, and many other Canadians at their side, demand change.
On Sunday, green and purple ribbons flutter across the city. Faith communities, local businesses, and schools have erected signs of support for the family. And the corner where it all happened, even a week later, is never solitary.
“The family was walking the streets when they were brutally murdered. And now we’re going to take the streets back. We’re not going to be terrorized by what this man did. We’re not going to be defined by that. We’re not going to cower in fear. The symbolism of that is so massive,” says Aarij Anwer, imam at the London Muslim Mosque, where the Afzaals were active members. It “is an expression of the love of the people, Muslim and non-Muslim alike. So truly, love does conquer hate. We just need to make sure that that continues.”
In a mirror of the U.S. as a whole, America’s largest Protestant denomination is a house divided on issues of race, gender, and politics. Can it continue to stand?
A flock of 16,000-plus Southern Baptist Convention members has congregated in Nashville, Tennessee, for the denomination’s annual summit, preparing to decide its future.
From his office in Arlington, Texas, the Rev. Dwight McKissic and half a dozen other Black pastors will watch for two specific outcomes. If the Southern Baptist Convention rescinds a 2019 resolution tepidly approving critical race theory as an analytical tool, or if one of the two most conservative candidates in this year’s election wins, his church will leave the denomination.
“I see them turning back the clock on race, and that is a line in the sand for me,” says Mr. McKissic.
For decades, the Southern Baptist Convention has united around a commitment to scriptural authority and a willingness to oppose secular culture. But the past 10 years have ushered in a revolution for LGBTQ rights, the advent of Black Lives Matter, and the divisive term of President Donald Trump. This new, more polarized America has made it harder to stay united around doctrine alone.
“This is a bit of an identity crisis moment for the SBC and white evangelical Christianity more generally,” says Jemar Tisby, church historian and CEO of the Witness, a Black Christian Collective.
The Rev. Dwight McKissic has spent his life in the church – and for almost his entire adulthood, church has meant membership in the Southern Baptist Convention.
A pastor’s son raised in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, Mr. McKissic studied at one of six seminaries in the SBC and later founded Cornerstone Baptist Church in Arlington, Texas. For almost 40 years, the church has been a dues-paying SBC member, and Mr. McKissic a faithful SBC pastor.
This week will decide whether he remains one.
An enormous flock of 16,000-plus SBC members has congregated in Nashville for the denomination’s annual summit, preparing to decide its future. As it stands now America’s largest Protestant denomination is a house divided on issues of race, gender, and politics. The convention’s choices on doctrine and leadership will decide how, and perhaps if, that house will stand.
From his office in Arlington, Mr. McKissic and half a dozen other Black pastors will watch for two specific outcomes. If the SBC rescinds a 2019 resolution tepidly approving critical race theory as an analytical tool, or if one of the two most conservative candidates in this year’s presidential election wins, his church will leave the denomination.
“I see them turning back the clock on race, and that is a line in the sand for me,” says Mr. McKissic in a phone interview.
An exodus of other member churches may follow, warn SBC pastors interviewed by the Monitor. Prominent church leaders – including author Beth Moore – have already left amid caustic internal debate. Some fear that without resolution the SBC could scatter into separate factions, like many of America’s other Christian denominations.
For decades the SBC has united around a commitment to scriptural authority and a willingness to oppose secular culture. But the more culture changes, the harder it becomes to resist. The past 10 years have ushered in a revolution for LGBTQ rights, the advent of Black Lives Matter, and the bitterly divisive election of Donald Trump. This new, more polarized America has made it harder to stay united around doctrine alone, and ushered in a familiar debate between groups who feel like it’s grown too conservative and those who feel like it’s not conservative enough.
“This is a bit of an identity crisis moment for the SBC and white evangelical Christianity more generally,” says Jemar Tisby, church historian and CEO of the Witness, a Black Christian Collective.
“That’s the big question that Christianity in the U.S. is facing right now: If you don’t want the status quo, what do you want?”
In 1845, the status quo for American Baptists was division as well. That year the denomination split after Northern church leaders refused to appoint a missionary who owned slaves, and Southern members formed the SBC.
Until World War II, the denomination congregated in small towns around the Old South, slowly building an organizational structure and fundraising strategy, says Nancy Ammerman, professor emerita of sociology of religion at Boston University. After the war those tools allowed the SBC to grow fast and far, spreading across the country and building a distinct culture, which included a progressive wing that rallied on behalf of the civil rights movement.
Then came the 1980s, when a tranche of SBC leaders who felt the denomination had drifted from Scripture began a decadelong campaign to restructure it. In about 10 years, this “conservative resurgence” had ended and the SBC had a new institutional identity and new leaders, many of whom still hold power today.
Activism on issues like opposing same-sex marriage and abortion rights was a hallmark of this new era, but the 2016 election of Mr. Trump brought new urgency to SBC politics. His evangelical advisory board included many SBC pastors. Southern Baptists voted for him at an overwhelming rate.
“Increasingly the sense that they have to be on the front lines of the cultural war is a defining trait” of the SBC, says Paul Harvey, an expert on Southern Christianity and chairman of the history department at the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs.
That national debate trickles down to the local level, says Dave Miller, senior pastor of Southern Hills Baptist Church in Sioux City, Iowa.
Mr. Miller, who considers himself a conservative but not a Republican, has felt pulled in separate directions by his faith and his denomination during the Trump era. Some groups in the SBC, he says, “want us to be loyal to the GOP above our loyalty to Christ.” Just months ago he was scolded by a former congregant for his views on the Jan. 6 Capitol riot.
“I don’t think the debate in the SBC is on the Bible at this point,” says Mr. Miller. “It’s on peripheral issues.”
Last Thanksgiving, the presidents of all six SBC seminaries released a statement denouncing critical race theory, and declaring it incompatible with Scripture. The statement contradicted a 2019 resolution affirming the framework as an interpretive tool subordinate to the Bible, and upset many Black members of the SBC, some of whom departed shortly after.
Mr. McKissic likens the statement to antebellum times, when enslaved people could only worship with sermons approved and supervised by white masters. Amid a national reckoning with race after the murder of George Floyd last summer, the letter “says that [in its] seminaries Black professors will not be free to teach race as they see fit,” says Mr. McKissic.
Just last week two letters written by Russell Moore, the SBC’s former head of ethics and public policy, were leaked – detailing claims that leadership mishandled internal allegations of sexual assault and abuse.
Meanwhile congregations are shrinking. Last year saw the largest decline in SBC membership in 100 years, continuing a steady dip over the last decade. Younger people in particular are leaving at a high rate, partly because of the denomination’s political stances. The denomination, which is around 85% white according to 2014 data from Pew Research Center – far from the least integrated Christian denomination – may also lose some members of color who feel alienated.
Yet if the SBC softens some of its stances on race and politics it may lose members who want it to move further right. A movement of ultra-orthodox churchgoers have made their way to Nashville this week to “take back the ship,” some styling themselves with pirate flags and emojis. Last year, SBC members in this faction formed the Conservative Baptist Network, a distinct organizational structure for the denomination’s right flank.
Such circumstances suggest this may be an inflection point in SBC history, as some question whether the denomination’s center can hold.
“This 2021 convention history will record as a watershed convention in determining the identity, trajectory, and the future,” says Mr. McKissic.
Amid the conflict, Dr. Henry Roberts II shows up to his Word of Life Community Church each day at an empty shopping center in Chickasaw, Alabama.
Dr. Roberts graduated from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, and his church is affiliated with the SBC among other denominations. Word of Life can’t identify, he says, with a group that rejects the word of God. But he and his congregation have more to do than watch the events in Nashville.
“This is a trench church,” says Dr. Roberts, meaning it’s focused on serving the community, not the culture wars. “See people in the trenches, we don’t have time for politics. We are out here winning souls, feeding hungry people, changing lives.”
Chickasaw was a sundown town just decades ago, meaning that Black people were required by law to leave before sunset, and the area still confronts poverty and racial division. Word of Life itself is undergoing renovation and is filled with binders, books, candlesticks, communion trays, and photographs of the congregation over the years hanging on office walls. The air conditioning doesn’t work in all parts of the building. Nor does the internet.
Such needs demand most of his attention, but Dr. Roberts knows this convention comes with high stakes. The SBC has been a partner and a home throughout his ministry. The convention, he says, “will either heal us, or it will devastate us.”
So Dr. Roberts prays, often holding his Scofield Bible, bound in a leather case with the Word of Life logo in front. A dove flies atop the Bible and the Earth. Hebrews 11:6, the church verse that begins, “But without faith it is impossible to please him,” sits below.
“I pray that they will submit to the will of God,” says Dr. Roberts. “It’s a simple prayer.”
Growing interest in historic urban sites of Black history is a corrective to their displacement by urban redevelopment. These tours also highlight the resilience of Black communities in the past.
In cities across the United States, walking tours focused on Black history are taking that history out of books and archives and putting it into real life. They are also putting tangible context to historically Black neighborhoods that have changed – sometimes naturally, sometimes forcibly – over the years.
For Sampson Levingston, an interest in oft-forgotten Black history in Indianapolis was the touchstone for starting his own walking tour there last year. A summer of protests against racial injustice catalyzed his desire to showcase how Black communities flourished in the past and what remains of those communities today after decades of urban churn.
Like tour leaders in other cities, from Boston to New York to Philadelphia, he points out what’s gone – the buildings and their inhabitants – while also highlighting what remains, whether through historic preservation or sheer perseverance.
Taking history out of the classroom, says Christine Anderson, an associate history professor at Xavier University, can “give people back their history. Especially when you’re talking about underserved or marginalized communities.”
Sampson Levingston has always been a history buff. And he’s always loved his home state of Indiana. For a long time, though, he struggled to see how someone like him – a young Black man – fit into Indiana’s history.
But when protests last summer ignited national conversations on race and racism in America, Mr. Levingston reckoned there were local stories to be told. With time on his hands – he was unemployed due to the pandemic – he decided to start a walking tour on Indianapolis Black history.
Almost a year later, on an unseasonably cold Memorial Day weekend that was less than ideal for barbecuing, but perfect for a brisk walk around Indianapolis, he gathers up the participants for his 96th tour. Nine people, a multiracial mix of locals and out-of-town visitors, huddle outside the Urban League of Indianapolis. Mr. Levingston greets them all with a smile. He carries a bundle of historic photos and a portable speaker so he can play the music of local jazz legends during the two-hour walk.
Though the tours are relatively new, they’re the natural culmination of Mr. Levingston’s journey as an amateur historian. “I’ve been collecting this history and this knowledge about where I fit in in Indiana and our history for three or four years,” Mr. Levingston tells the Monitor.
His tour is one of many focusing on Black history that have cropped up across the country, taking Black history out of books, archives, and oral histories, and putting it into real life – engaging in what scholars call “public history.” They point out what’s gone, but also highlight what remains, whether through historic preservation or sheer perseverance.
Perhaps the starkest example is Tulsa’s Greenwood district, where a murderous white mob in 1921 razed a thriving community known as Black Wall Street. Walking tours of the neighborhood have since sprung up. Last week President Joe Biden visited the site to mark the centenary and toured an exhibit showing before and after images of the 30-block district. Referring to the long-suppressed massacre, he told a crowd: “Just because history is silent, it does not mean that it did not take place.”
During the early days of the pandemic, Mr. Levingston found himself cooped up inside, in need of an outlet – and not just because of boredom. “Ahmaud Arbery – his killing in Georgia, that really struck a chord with me, because I like going outside and exploring. That’s all he was doing. … So I was like, ‘I’ve got to get back outside,’” he recalls.
He dubbed his tours Walk & Talks – he prefers to spark a conversation than just spout facts – and leading them has become his full-time job.
The paradox of Black history walking tours is that many of the sites being highlighted no longer exist. Those that have remained are sometimes hiding in plain sight.
Approaching downtown, Mr. Levingston leads his group to the 400 block of Indiana Avenue, where dozens of the businesses, shops, and clubs that once made up a thriving Black business community were demolished during urban renewal projects starting in the mid-20th century. He holds up an old photo of a row of businesses, but initially there’s confusion among the group – looking around, remnants of those buildings are nowhere to be seen. Mr. Levingston explains that they once stood behind him, in the space occupied now by a mostly empty parking lot.
By joining such tours, curious Americans can not only learn about Black history in their cities, but also put tangible context to historically Black neighborhoods that have changed – sometimes naturally, sometimes forcibly – over the years.
“What [having Black history walking tours] does is it shows the positive resilience of those communities,” says Christine Anderson, an associate history professor and co-director of the Public History Program at Xavier University in Cincinnati. “Right now we are rightly talking about the carceral state. … We’re talking about violence, we’re talking about inequality. All these things have been there. But also, these communities were building schools and churches, and they had fraternal societies that met.”
Taking history out of the classroom, Dr. Anderson says, can “give people back their history. Especially when you’re talking about underserved or marginalized communities.”
Raina Yancey grew up surrounded by history – her mother was a park ranger at Independence National Historical Park, in Philadelphia, home to the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall. And yet, she still felt there were more stories to be told. In 2019, she started The Black Journey, a walking tour focusing on the city’s Black history.
Ms. Yancey’s tours take in well-known historical sites, like the President’s House – where George Washington and John Adams lived and worked before the presidency moved to the White House – but also places like Washington Square, a popular meeting place and burial ground for the city’s enslaved and free Black community in the 18th and 19th centuries.
“Most people don’t know this history. When they’re sitting and having a picnic, they’re actually maybe sitting on top of an ancestor who’s buried there,” Ms. Yancey says of the park once known as Congo Square.
Kamau Ware sees his work with Black Gotham Experience, a walking tour in New York City, in the same vein of the griot tradition of West African oral history and storytelling. He started the tours after a student visiting the city’s Tenement Museum, where Mr. Ware worked, asked him, “Where were the Black people?” He resolved to find out.
“We go to places that are not marked, they’re not locations that speak of the fact that Black people built Wall Street, or helped expand Bowery and Broadway,” says Mr. Ware, who started his tours in 2010 and expanded them in 2015. The advantage of walking tours over learning about history from a book or museums is that “there’s a spiritual component of being able to put your head and your heart in the same places where people who have come before you have walked,” he adds.
Seeing tours popping up to promote Black history “is inspiring,” says Shawn Quigley, a park guide with the National Park Service in Boston. The NPS, along with the Museum of African American History, hosts the Black Heritage Trail, a free, self-guided tour that brings walkers to historic landmarks in Boston’s well-heeled Beacon Hill neighborhood.
“People are doing their best to understand lesser-known or untold stories, and if you don’t get those stories, you’re unable to paint a complete picture of where you live. You’re unable to paint a complete picture of how you got to where you are today,” says Mr. Quigley.
On Mr. Levingston’s tour, the past and the present collide.
For much of the 19th and 20th centuries, land in the area along Indiana Avenue where Black-owned businesses once stood would have been cheap, and a bit swampy, lying next to a neglected canal. It once housed poor Irish immigrants, then Black Americans moving up from the South.
But where there was struggle, there was also resilience: Booker T. Washington attended the opening of the local Black YMCA in 1913. At the Sunset Terrace music venue, a Black patron would have been “treated like a human being, dropped off and picked up out front,” Mr. Levingston says.
Toward the end of the tour, leading the group through Ransom Place, a historically Black neighborhood that’s since become integrated, Mr. Levingston flashes a smile and stops a Black woman passing by to ask if she has any stories to share.
She points to a boarded-up building down the block. To the uninitiated, it’s an empty building. For those in the know, it’s a relic of the Great Migration.
“Everybody was migrating from the South,” she says, describing how her father settled in Indianapolis and once ran a corner store out of the building. “And we’re still here.”
The opening speech of a newly elected leader can not only set a new tone for a democracy, but can also help to heal its broken politics. On Sunday, for example, when Israel’s lawmakers chose Naftali Bennett as the new prime minister, his talk was one of gratitude and generosity, just the necessary antidotes for years of hate-driven divisions within Israeli society.
Mr. Bennett began with a prayer of thanksgiving and then proceeded to praise the very person that he and his coalition partners so badly wanted to oust as prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. “Expressing gratitude is a fundamental principle in Judaism,” he reminded Jewish Israelis, and then thanked Mr. Netanyahu for his years of service. And he said this even after Mr. Netanyahu vowed to bring down the new government, and his supporters heckled the new prime minister in parliament.
That turn-the-other-cheek aspect of the speech may seem unusual in politics, which often focus on a person over deeper social trends. But as the founding editor of The Times of Israel, David Horovitz, wrote, “The new coalition can only be a government of national healing. Otherwise, it will not be a government at all.”
The opening speech of a newly elected leader can not only set a new tone for a democracy, but can also help to heal its broken politics. On Sunday, for example, when Israel’s lawmakers chose Naftali Bennett as the new prime minister, his talk to the Knesset was one of gratitude and generosity, just the necessary antidotes for years of hate-driven divisions within Israeli society.
Mr. Bennett began with a prayer of thanksgiving and then proceeded to praise the very person that he and his coalition partners so badly wanted to oust as prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. “Expressing gratitude is a fundamental principle in Judaism,” he reminded Jewish Israelis, and then thanked Mr. Netanyahu for his years of service and for emboldening Israel’s political, security, and economic strength. And he said this even after Mr. Netanyahu vowed to bring down the new government, and his supporters heckled the new prime minister in parliament.
That turn-the-other-cheek aspect of the speech may seem unusual in politics, which often focus on a person over deeper social trends. But as the founding editor of The Times of Israel, David Horovitz, wrote, “The new coalition can only be a government of national healing. Otherwise, it will not be a government at all.” As part of that healing, Mr. Bennett asked those supporters who might celebrate his coalition’s victory to not “dance on the pain of others.”
The new prime minister also praised the “political generosity” of his coalition partner, Yair Lapid of the centrist, secular political party, Yesh Atid, or “There Is a Future.”
Mr. Lapid’s humility in allowing Mr. Bennett to become prime minister first – even though Mr. Lapid’s party won 10 more seats than Mr. Bennett’s party – was crucial in forming the diverse coalition of eight parties. Only if the coalition survives the next two years will Mr. Lapid become prime minister. For his part, Mr. Lapid (who is now foreign minister) said “friendship and trust” were foundational for the coalition to govern.
The coalition’s survival depends on how well it focuses on common-ground actions that can unite Israelis rather than taking the usual course of many politicians to take advantage of policy divisions for temporary political gain. Such actions include passing a state budget – after two years of stalemate. On issues that divide Israelis, the coalition says it will practice restraint.
“We will do all we can so that no one should have to feel afraid,” Mr. Bennett said. “We are here in the name of good and to work.” Other democracies riven by politics can take note of this new tone in Israel.
Each weekday, the Monitor includes one clearly labeled religious article offering spiritual insight on contemporary issues, including the news. The publication – in its various forms – is produced for anyone who cares about the progress of the human endeavor around the world and seeks news reported with compassion, intelligence, and an essentially constructive lens. For many, that caring has religious roots. For many, it does not. The Monitor has always embraced both audiences. The Monitor is owned by a church – The First Church of Christ, Scientist, in Boston – whose founder was concerned with both the state of the world and the quality of available news.
When those around us don’t share our language or culture, it can sometimes feel disconcerting, even alienating. But recognizing that we’re all part of God’s universal family empowers us to build bridges and make meaningful connections, wherever we may be.
Comfort zones, I have learned, don’t have to mean being in a familiar place where everyone looks and acts the same. An experience a few years ago illustrated to me how recognizing that God holds His entire family in safety and peace is the best comfort zone there is – and where I want to be! And because each of us, as God’s child, is part of this family, opportunities for building bridges across racial and cultural lines can come in unexpected and deeply meaningful ways.
I was in a location where virtually everyone else looked different from me. With each step I took, the dissimilarities of language and culture became more apparent. I was feeling uncomfortable and cut off in this unfamiliar place.
Jostled by a crowd of people on the sidewalk, I stepped aside to let others pass. At that moment, I realized I had a choice: dwell on the sense of discomfort and disconnection and feel more alienated, or focus on a deeper, spiritual dimension of the situation – the inherent relationship and connectedness of all of us as God’s children.
From experience, I knew the second option would bring me peace. A verse from Scripture came to mind: “Don’t we all have the same father? Didn’t the same God create us all?” (Malachi 2:10, Good News Translation).
Right on that sidewalk, I stood still, opening my heart to our heavenly Father-Mother, God, who is universal Love. This all-inclusive divine Love is our common source. Being Spirit-created, Spirit-loved, and Spirit-sustained unites us. Our creator doesn’t send us out to navigate confounding interrelationships. We are designed to interact harmoniously and joyously with one another.
What calming insights with which to rethink my relationship with those around me! Differences in race, culture, or language didn’t need to divide us.
I also saw that our common heritage includes vibrant spiritual qualities such as attentiveness, kindness, compassion, and unselfishness. As we realize this, we naturally gravitate toward mutual understanding, helpfulness, and peace. No circumstance can change the true, spiritual, unified nature of everyone. A statement Mary Baker Eddy makes in her book “Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures” expresses this beautifully: “With one Father, even God, the whole family of man would be brethren...” (pp. 469-470).
A desire welled up in me to value all those around me not as strangers but as brothers and sisters. I prayed to feel the presence of the divine source and essence, which tenderly binds all of us together.
And then something caught my eye: an infant swaddled in a flowered wrap and strapped to the back of an elderly woman. The baby’s head fell from side to side and bobbed backward, her young neck not yet strong enough to hold her head upright. Her petite caretaker struggled to adjust the child, twisting, visibly frustrated. At that moment, our eyes met. She beckoned with a pleading glance.
I moved toward her. She waited. My hand – instinctively and without hesitation – reached into the folds of the colorful wrap. I felt a swath of crumpled cloth, slid it upward, and tucked it around the baby’s head. Ahh ... a perfect fit. The child, now firmly cradled against the woman’s back, rested safely and cooed happily.
The woman’s eyes met mine again, and we broke into smiles. I felt a connection, a realization that we were joined in a tender moment of support and kindness. Words were not important – a mutual concern for the child’s well-being was all that mattered. Shared caring was what united us. That is my comfort zone!
A recent Monitor article on racial tensions and violence pointed out the need to understand and address nuances, which helps resolve divisive issues and overcome prejudices (see “How one Chinatown curbs anti-Asian violence and unites a city,” CSMonitor.com, April 20, 2021). The commitment of many people to these ends is making a difference. The article quotes Carl Chan, president of the Chinatown Chamber of Commerce in Oakland, Calif., as saying, “Goodness [is] coming out from everywhere.”
Such caring naturally grows out of recognizing our unity as children of a divine Parent whose love is universal and boundless. We can let this divine Love encourage us to step out of our “familiar zone” into our true comfort zone, affirming everyone’s place in our one big spiritual family, which inspires meaningful connections.
Looking for more timely inspiration like this? Check out the “Related stories” below; explore other recent content from the Monitor’s daily Christian Science Perspective column; or sign up for the free weekly newsletters for this column or the Christian Science Sentinel, a sister publication of the Monitor.
Thanks for starting your week with us. Tomorrow, we look at how the Abenaki people are bringing their history out of the shadows, painting a fuller picture of New Hampshire’s past – and present.