In July 2021, Tim Muehlhoff and Rick Langer had a lengthy conversation with Theon Hill, a communications scholar whose research delves into the interface between the Black community and white evangelicalism, writing on the relationship between rhetoric and social change—particularly as related to race, culture, and American politics. He has written on the topic of what communication scholars often call “radical rhetoric” and its implications for civic engagement, public advocacy, and the flourishing of our community. This is an edited transcript of the conversation. The full interview can be heard as a podcast at winsomeconviction.com.
TM: Dr. Hill, you have spent a good amount of time over the years helping white evangelicals understand racism within America, and we would like to talk about this in depth. But, before we do, could you tell us a little bit about your personal history? How did this task come to you and why were you willing to wade into it?
TH: That’s a wonderful question. I was raised in the suburbs of Chicago with two parents who were deeply passionate to address the legacy and persistence of structural and systemic forms of racism. They confronted the white supremacy in two very different settings: the criminal justice system where my father served as a criminal defense attorney in Cook County for over 30 years, and in education where my mother served as a public-school teacher in the Chicago suburbs.
They raised me with a deep awareness of the relationship between my Christian faith and the impetus to fight for justice. When I hit high school, I developed a passion to continue the work that they had modeled for me. Whatever pathway I chose, I knew that justice had to occupy a central place in my vocational pursuits. More than anything else, Kendall and Charlotte Hill’s example pointed me in this direction.
RL: It strikes me that this could have been a rather perilous, difficult, problematic course to embark on. How has this been for you?
TH: The pursuit of justice implies the presence of injustice. It calls for courage to testify to the God of justice wherever injustice reigns. For me, I’ve had several opportunities to engage with my dear brothers and sisters in the white evangelical community. One of the challenges there is trying to tell a group of people about a reality they’ve never experienced, and, worse yet, everything in their experience tells them is not as bad as I’m claiming. I’m fighting to try to communicate reality, share experiences, and raise awareness where there’s a fierce desire to cling to a perverted form of innocence. People often cling to the attitude, “I don’t want to see oppression, I don’t want to know about discrimination, I just want to cling to the America and church context that I know.”
RL: Since that was their firsthand experience, it’s natural to cling to it because that’s what they “know.” On the other hand, we should intuitively know that my particular experience is not the universal experience, but it seems hard to think that way.
TH: Exactly. People tend to look for evidence to support their pre-existing prejudices. They may engage me with the idea, “Well, Theon, you have a PhD, clearly racism cannot be as bad as you claim.” This rhetorical move relies on the same poor logic as stupid statements like “racism doesn’t exist; we had a Black president.” The desire by those in the majority to universalize their experiences to all not only makes racial conversations harder but it functions as a form of ideological colonialism.
TM: When you discuss this reality with a predominantly white audience, what pushback do you get? How do people respond if you portray an America far distant from the experience of white evangelicals?
TH: People fight to defend their identity. If my arguments regarding the nation, our history, and the church are true, then it raises countless questions about our treasured theologians, cherished institutions, and rituals.
Frederick Douglass confronted the U.S. with these questions when he asked, “What to the slaves is the 4th of July?” in 1852.2
TM: You mentioned that a lot of your research has focused on radical rhetoric as a crucial form of civic engagement. Can you unpack that a little bit, and explain “radical rhetoric” and how that connects to terms like “civility” or “incivility”?
TH: The Old Testament prophets provide a textbook example of radical rhetoric. Their messages often represented a departure from conventional, acceptable forms of communication. In public speaking classes, we teach students to be diplomatic, to value compromise. The prophets represent a different rhetorical approach. Isaiah walked about butt-naked for three years to dramatize Israel’s shameful condition. Ezekiel compared God’s people to a prostitute so undesirable that they had to pay their own “customers.”
Radical rhetoric attempts to communicate something that everyone needs to hear but no one wants to listen to. The prophets provide an example of unwavering commitment to truth-telling even in the face of public and private rejection.
Of course, this tradition extends beyond the Old Testament and any particular religious framework. Ida B. Wells carried it on in her anti-lynching campaign of the late 19th century and early 20th century. Dr. King advanced it throughout the civil rights movement. Today, I view someone like the Rev. Dr. William Barber as a contemporary manifestation of this prophetic tradition. In the face of persecution, he remains faithful to his message.
TM: But I’m thinking of Proverbs 15:1—“A gentle answer turns away rage, but a harsh word stirs up anger.” Help our readers understand how this can be misunderstood or misapplied.
TH: A lot of this depends on how we’re defining terms like “civility” or “gentle” in the Proverbs reference. Initially, Old Testament prophets tried to say things nicely. As Otis Redding sang, they tried a little tenderness. Yet, there comes a time when the sweet approach bears no fruit. In these moments, the prophet presses beyond norms of decorum and embraces more radical forms of communication as a means of gaining the audience’s attention. Frankly, I see this approach frequently in the hip-hop community. Radical rhetoric operates from the premise that making the message palatable gives you license to ignore it. The prophet sees crisis where we see normalcy.
TM: How do you know we’ve reached the time where it’s now for me to take this turn towards radical rhetoric?
TH: Let’s just say you and I have a conflict and there is an issue I feel I need to raise. I ask you to hear me out, but you blow me off. I’m going to try again. I’ll ask you to keep pressing this conversation forward. We really need to think about this. This is hurting us. But you all continue to blow me off. At some point I’m going to communicate it in such a way where you cannot blow me off as easily.
I think that’s what Colin Kaepernick is doing when he takes a knee for the national anthem. His protest is telling, isn’t it? For years, people said, “We don’t want any violence. We want you to protest peacefully like Martin Luther King Jr.” With Kap, a brother in Christ, you have an individual engaging in peaceful forms of protest, but he does so in a way that offends the sensibilities of a large segment of the nation. He views the crisis of police brutality, mass incarceration, and sentencing disparities and concludes, “I can’t keep silent any longer.” His response is strikingly similar to Amos when the prophet writes, “When God speaks, who can but prophesy.” Kaepernick viewed the situation as so dire that he had to take a stance that would generate public attention. We can always debate and discuss the wisdom of any strategy, but I see him as operating within the realm of prophetic discourse.
RL: Would you call what Colin Kaepernick did an example of a radical rhetoric? It seems to me that it was actually a model of a form of discourse that wasn’t necessarily strident, but it is really hard to miss.
TH: Colin Kaepernick is a classic example to me of someone who’s embodying this prophetic posture in a way that’s getting attention. But it’s interesting, brother Rick, you said it’s not strident and I agree with you. But I might suggest that it becomes strident if you are addressing a nation that has embraced uncritical forms of patriotism. Kaepernick’s protest threatened our national self-image.
TM: Theon, I took a class in my doctoral program at UNC Chapel Hill with Michael Eric Dyson on the politics of gangster rap music. He said there comes a time when the dominant culture will not listen to your message. That’s when a gangster rap artist will write a song like Cop Killer. That person ends up on the cover of TIME Magazine. Everybody wants to do an interview because they didn’t like his mode of communication—but the interviews mean his message gets out. But is this good? Aren’t there dangers down this road?
TH: Communication is funky because once the message is out there, we lose control over its interpretation. However, we shouldn’t let the danger of being misunderstood prevent us from doing what we know to be right.
Prophets pose a threat to the status quo. People often tell me that we need more people like King. I often ask them, “Remind me…what happened to Martin.” In spite of the nature of his message, people still perceived him as a threat.
Because of this, the brother was shot and killed. We like to romanticize him, but there’s a reason why J. Edgar Hoover viewed him as one of the most significant threats to U.S. security in the 1960s. There’s a reason why an assassin’s bullet took his life. I think it’s easy for us to challenge others to communicate a different way, but often this request is indirect way of dismissing the message.
TM: I listened to an interview that you did in 2015.3 You were just finishing your first year at Wheaton. If you took swapped the names, took out Freddie Gray and put in George Floyd, it would sound like 2021 instead of 2015. I suspect we could do the same going back to 1995—we’re talking about the same issues and the frustrations. How do you navigate that?
TH: We could go back to 2013 with Trayvon; we could go back to 1992 with Rodney King; we could go back to 1955 with Emmett Till. Many of my white brothers and sisters are frustrated at times when they hear Black people like me say something along the lines of “Nothing has really changed.” They’ll look at integration of previously segregated spaces and conclude, “Well, clearly some things have changed.”
They’re not wrong to note certain developments. Still, I think they fail to see that the fundamental logics that govern how lives are valued in the U.S. remain intact. Society treats George Floyd’s death like it’s unprecedented, but it’s identical to what happened to Eric Garner. You’ve seen a habitual approach to de-valuing Black and brown bodies, one that contributes to the exhaustion that you’re describing among Black people in this moment.
Despite our exhaustion at the persistence of white supremacy, I always point out the fact that you’ve never seen a concerted and organized efforts to engage in widespread acts of domestic terrorism and killings on the part of the Black community in the 20th and 21st century. Many people ask about Malcolm X. Malcolm is about self-defense. Black Panther Party is about self-defense. They’re actually not engaging in acts of aggression against white America.
You hear this in the music when Curtis Mayfield says, “Keep on pushing.” You hear Marvin Gaye asking, “What’s going on?” The soul era (into the post-soul era) reveals a tragic hope that is not blind to devastating realities but still believes that something, somehow will change. You hear this in Jay-Z’s early music: “Some how, some way/We gotta make it up out this life.” Especially for the Christian dimensions of the Black freedom struggle, there is the belief that God is going to show up.
RL: One of the concerns that many people have is that during the civil rights era—with Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, and the Black Panthers—there was a whole set of legal issues that were clearly racist and clearly needed a legal solution. But the majority of these legal and policy issues have been changed. I worry that what remains are often things that are the least susceptible to being solved by the blunt instrument of tighter and tighter laws or more restrictive social policies. In fact, further legislating these issues may foster resentment and backlash rather than actual change. Are the remaining problems best taken up by the church or other organizations that focus more directly on heart change?
TH: We have to remember that many within the Black community were dissatisfied with the judicial and legislative overhauls of the 1960s like the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act. They believed that policies did not go far enough in eliminating existing inequalities. However, the nation was ready to move on. White backlash was and is a real thing. Both liberal integrationists and Black nationalists struggled to mobilize support, to get people to care because much work remains to be done. It is, as numerous people have noted, an unfinished struggle.
I do see a specific role for the church. If the church was willing to take up its role in pursuit of justice, some of these public policy initiatives wouldn’t be so hard to pass. Let me give a quick illustration I always use with my students. If I entered their final grade incorrectly and they come to me and say, “Hey, I should have gotten an A and you gave me a C.” And I simply say, “Oh, I’m so sorry. I entered your grade wrong.” Would students be satisfied with only an apology? No, that poor grade has implications for their ability to get into grad school or to get certain jobs. They need more than an apology.
I think that’s what America and the church needs do with the legacy of racism and white supremacy. We want to relegate it to the past as if the past does not continue to shape government communities, and churches. We want to move forward, but we don’t want to deal with the lingering implications of the past. Nor do we want the acknowledge the ways that the past really isn’t past.
RL: On a slightly different subject, issues related to systemic racism have come up with COVID. In California, there was a lot of discussion about disparate rates of vaccination in the Black community compared to the white community. I had just been talking with a faculty member about the Tuskegee Airmen … using them as objects for medical research rather than persons or patients. In light of this terrible history, I can understand a Black person saying, “It’s great you think you have a new COVID vaccine. I’d love to have some white people try it out first.” But that does have implications for differing vaccination rates—particularly at the outset.
TH: You’re capturing the tension of the moment. We want underrepresented and historically disenfranchised populations, particularly Black and brown communities, to receive the vaccine, but there’s also deep distrust of the medical establishment. How do we do that in a way that’s equitable?
I don’t think we need to slow down distribution in one area for the sake of increased distribution in another. I’m concerned with rolling out the vaccine in a one-size-fits-all manner that fails to account for historical trends. It’s like we’re rolling it out there and saying, “Black people, here it is. Come and get it.” But we’re not at all realizing the fact that it took us until the 1990s to even admit that the Tuskegee experiments were wrong.
The Black community’s deep distrust of the medical establishment has a valid foundation. Does this mean that we concede defeat? No! It means that we need to commit the resources to building trust, to reaching communities where they are. In Milwaukee and Chicago, public health professionals take their messages to Black barbershops because they understand that’s a major information hub within the community. They’ve found success with microtargeting because they’re framing the message for the communities they are trying to reach.
TM: What role should the academy play in the current conflicts over racism in America? Is it doing its job, and if so, what is this job? Or is it missing the boat?
TH: In my opinion, we need to try to eliminate the divide between academic forms of knowledge and the popular forms of knowledge that circulate on social media platforms. I was recently talking to a group of individuals about Critical Race Theory and they said, “I just don’t want anything that tells all white people that they need to hate themselves.”
I was like, “Where have you found that?” So many people have not read the primary sources. Hopefully, as academics, we’re critically engaging the dominant ideas of our day in a way that serves both the church and our communities, and exposes them to the truth in a way that can have a transformative presence in our communities.
TM: I notice that we often have very passionate convictions, but they are skewed because we’ve gotten our news from skimming headlines or reading a single, and often shallow, source. We didn’t read a book about Critical Race Theory. We read a critique of Critical Race Theory, and felt like that’s all we needed to know. We engage in what Nicholas Carr calls “power browsing.”4
TH: I think this is exactly what the late Barbara Johnson, a literary scholar, calls “treating people as an already read text.”5 I’m actually not going to take the time to engage you as an individual. I’m going to use my existing stereotypes, prejudices, and biases to inform my judgment of you. You are “already read.” I don’t need to think critically, engage deeply, or reflect thoughtfully about who you are or what you believe.
TM: Theon, can I throw a hypothetical to you and just tell us how you would respond to it?
TH: Let’s do it.
TM: I was working out with an individual, a male high school teacher, and we just got to talking about the challenges of teaching and here is what he said. I literally left my workout, grabbed a pen, and wrote it down. He said, “It’s hard to teach when you’ve got something like Critical Race Theory that teaches us to hate white people.”
TM: Let’s say you want to engage this person. What’s your opening? How do you structure it in a way that this won’t deteriorate into argument or a negative communication spiral?
TH: What I would probably try to do is shift the attention of the conversation into an example that allows the person to understand Critical Race Theory in a deeper manner. Think of what Critical Race Theory might add to a discussion of the integration of baseball. We have Jackie Robinson integrating baseball, and America is celebrating it because we’re making progress on racial fronts. We’re moving past the bitter bile of the past and we’re becoming more inclusive. At this point I’m hoping that your friend will say, “Yes, that’s such a great moment.”
And then I’d point out that we leave out the fact that the integration of baseball simultaneously puts the death spell on the Negro leagues. Major League Baseball can take the best and the brightest, and there’s no one left to play in the Negro leagues. The MLB becomes colorblind, but we don’t consider, or even notice, how some aspects of progress have a negative effect on underrepresented populations. That doesn’t mean we don’t integrate baseball, but we need to be attentive to the unintended consequences of some of the policy changes that we make.
I would tell your friend, that’s one example of the type of phenomenon that certain streams of Critical Race Theory are concerned with. What are the racial consequences of our laws and policies?
RL: Let me make a slightly different argument. Sometimes, going back to the original sources seems to be missing the point. We can read Derrick Bell on CRT, but what people really care about is how his thought got translated through four different levels and is now embedded in a compulsory curriculum in their kid’s school. I read an article in “The Atlantic” about some parents at an elite private school whose first-grade child came home and said, “Mom and Dad, are we really racist? I didn’t know that.”
You may say, “Wait, wait, wait, that’s not mandated by Critical Race Theory. That’s misrepresenting Critical Race Theory.” I’d agree, but the point is that what is actually coming out in those parents’ elementary school—that’s what their six-year-old is actually asking them about.
TH: Sure. I think that’s an important point that you raise. This is not me criticizing you, brother Rick, but I think we, as a society, need to spend more time thinking about the antecedent of the scenario you just raised.
I think we are immediately blaming Critical Race Theory and I think that very few of us have traced the lineage of some of these ideas. It may be Critical Race Theory, but many of those ideas were very much in vogue within the Black community, far before Derrick Bell or any of the others really developed a system known as Critical Race Theory. Consider something like Crenshaw’s intersectionality. Nikki Giovanni is talking about this with James Baldwin in 1967, 1968. It’s not like this is a brand-new idea that some of our institutions may be bathed in the waters of white supremacy. I think tracing some of these ideas might allow us to nuance our claims a bit better. I think what you’re calling for is nuance. Is this Critical Race Theory? Is this just a response to the legacy of structural racism? Do we even know where this practice came from? I say this as someone who has benefited greatly from Critical Race Theory.
I think that’s where the conversation really needs to start before condemning CRT. Until last year, most people outside a very small group of academics had never heard of CRT or Derrick Bell or Kimberlé Crenshaw.
TM: We can model this in our classrooms by giving both the positives and the negatives about a theory. Also, the Harvard Negotiation Project says, “The biggest mistake we make is we only trade conclusions, not how we arrived at the conclusion.” Maybe we could approach fellow faculty members and say, “Help me understand how you arrived at your understanding of race or gender or sexuality.” Getting the backstory is both affirming to that person and also a great model to our students that we’re not quick to rush to a conclusion.
TH: Sure. I teach a class on Black political rhetoric and one of the things that we do in this class is we look at the different political traditions that have surfaced in the Black community. Politically, I identify as a progressive. Yet, when I engage Booker T. Washington, who is often held up as the ancestor of contemporary Black conservatives, I strive to engage Mr. Washington charitably. While I hold many disagreements with him, my purpose in engaging him is not to argue, but to understand his philosophy and the circumstances that led him to certain conclusions.
I’ll contrast Washington with someone like W. E. B. Du Bois. I’ll strive to unpack the different circumstances, experiences, and contexts that led them to different conclusions. When you understand someone’s background, their choices often make more sense. Even if I don’t agree with their conclusion, I can appreciate how they got there. When we take this approach, we find space to dialogue about differences.
TM: Dr. Hill, thanks so much for speaking to us and to our readers about the challenges of communicating Christian convictions on controversial issues. We deeply appreciate your work both in the academy and in your service to the church at large!
Cite this article
- Frederick Douglass, What to the Slave is the Fourth of July? Oration, delivered in Corinthian Hall, Rochester NY, July 5, 1852 (Rochester: Lee, Mann & Co., 1852),available athttps://archive.org/details/orationdelivered00fred/page/n1/mode/2up.p/efn_note] His skillful use of irony caused his hearers to raise critical questions regarding individual and collective identity. The same tensions that Douglass encountered continue to surface today. If what racial justice advocates say is true, then we must rethink the very foundation of our society in the U.S.
TM: How do you step in and give a hard message in a way that people can receive it?
TH: It’s very tempting for communication professionals to think, how can I adapt my message to the audience? I’m not saying that we should not be audience-conscious, but consciousness of people’s perspectives should not prevent us from speaking the truth. As someone who studies radical rhetoric, my commitment to truth-telling is paramount. For me, this commitment displaces an audience-centered approach. First and foremost, I want to be truthful. I want to be honest.
If we prioritize our audiences above all else, it is easy to perceive unresponsive audiences as a failure of communication. Yet, I think it’s important not to try to be someone’s Holy Spirit. My calling as a Christian is to be faithful to the truth. If I’ve done that, I’m going to let the Holy Spirit work in the heart of the individual. This belief informs my approach. At some point, after all we’ve been through in this nation racially, it’s time to recognize that some people are not trying to “get it” as far as racial justice is concerned. They may feign innocence with statements like, “I didn’t know” or “No one ever told me that.” However, as James Baldwin wrote in The Fire Next Time, “It is the innocence which constitutes the crime.”1James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time (New York: Dial Press, 196
- Theon Hill, “Rhetoric and Social Justice,” Inside Wheaton, May 15, 2015, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L3MwKtf4VGI.
- Nicholas G. Carr, The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, 2nd edition (New York, N.Y: W.W. Norton & Company, 2020).
- Barbara Johnson, A World of Difference (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1989).