Tuesday, April 1, 2014

An "Uppity" Black Scientist With a TV Show: Is Racism Playing a Role in the Religious Right's Hostility to Neil deGrasse Tyson?

Neil deGrasse Tyson's willingness to clearly and plainly state on his TV show Cosmos that creationism is a myth has (predictably) upset Christian fundamentalists.

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.

Neil 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 American society.

As such, Neil deGrasse Tyson is not racially unmarked.

Blackness, 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.

In 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 color.

A 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.

The 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 color "white".

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.

The 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 authority.

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 States.

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 educational facilities.

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.

A 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.

All 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.

Several 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.

And 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.

Racial 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.

To 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 House.

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?


atil79 said...

Brotha Chauncey you always speak the truth. I love reading your insight on so many subjects. I knew it was only a matter of time before Dr Tyson would be attacked. I feel like you hit it on the head again. I can't help thinking that we will never find peace living in the same country with them. Please don't get me wrong, I have many friends of various ethnic backgrounds and I am very open minded but I feel like we so need our own country. They openly attacked our intellectuals, politicians, children and I won't even start talking about the prison industrial complex. This country is set up for us to never succeed and if we do succeed against all odds we are attacked. We will permanently be set up to be as the Indians call it, "the undesirables". What are your thoughts on the possibility of creating our own country or possibly starting with creating our own communities by moving to areas where we will outnumber everyone else? Do you think this is possible or fantasy?

chauncey devega said...

I appreciate your chiming in. I am shocked that no one w. a bigger national platform and audience has stated the obvious about Tyson and Cosmos. Maybe some clear observations are out of bounds?

Remember that one of the greatest lies of modernity is that of "race". "We" and "they" are not at all different. Our social reality is a function of manipulation by those w. Power to leverage their own goals. If you have not heard, the open admission, finally, about how Wall Street and the Stock Market are rigged, do watch that 60 Minutes piece. When the corporate media is admitting what has been obvious for so long, we must ask what the horrible truth really is.

"What are your thoughts on the possibility of creating our own country or possibly starting with creating our own communities by moving to areas where we will outnumber everyone else? Do you think this is possible or fantasy?"

Nope. Nor should people of color--black folks in particular--ever pursue such an option in the present. Black Americans built this country and were never compensated. We are more "American" than most European immigrants. I love my birthright and we have worked to make her better. Now, what shall we do now and in the future to get our fair share. I don't know. Your thoughts.

As I linked together Tyson and Obama, I hope to have a guest on the podcast who has done great work on how black political elites have been attacked historically in these United States.

JustMe said...

From a little white girl who believes everyone's an idiot regardless of ethnicity/color/whatever until they've proven otherwise: First time I've read your blog and nicely done. Sometimes I forget that my worldview isn't what others have to deal with on a "real" level even though I do my best to conceptualize something I, admittedly, know I can never fully understand. While I highly dislike the right and know what they are, I hadn't really related the tie-in of color (that's what I meant when I say I forget sometimes, skin color (gender, orientation, whatever) to me is a non-issue and I thank you for sharing this insightful piece. Well fucking done. I never really related uppity to racism but I get it now. The etymology of words is also very cool in my book so the learned backstory of the word was a nice touch. I look forward to reading more.

Learning IS Eternal said...

Funny thing is, wp never had a problem w/the liquor stō to church ratio ever 1.3 city blocks but as soon as one educated human being relays the truth, that causes mass hysteria? FOH.

Physical slavery is not far in our rear view but mental enslavement via reLIEgion is stronger than ever.

I will never understand how us as blacks share the doctrine of our oppressors. The KKK is a Christian organization. Those who claim "do not trust or accept anything the wm gives you," refuse to do away w/the one book he gives to all non-whites.

Neil Tyson DeGrasse, Mr. DeVega don't stop what y'all doing. This post is what put Pacquiao to sleep vs. Marquez.

Buddy H said...

Has anyone read the New Yorker piece about Tyson? He says he was asked to speak at his elementary school, and he refused. He told them "You don't want to hear what I'd have to say." He told them he succeeded in spite of those teachers.

He was told black people don't become scientists when he told them his ambition. His parents took him to museums and the planetarium; encouraged him. One night he and his father went up to their apartment roof with a telescope. Neighbor called the police. Tyson chuckled when he recalled the incident, he says maybe they thought the telescope was a bazooka.

In college, he was told maybe he should teach at a community college. Aim low. Black men don't get PhDs, etc. He was discouraged again and again, but again, thanks to the encouragement of his family he never sold himself short.

Carl Sagan, the pot-smoking star gazer who I remember was mocked endlessly in the media for saying "billions and billions of stars" told him he could be whatever he wanted, but I think his confidence can be traced back to his family and his own personal strength.

Myshkin the Idiot said...

Religion in America, the color line, a huge conversation. Malcolm X's father was a Christian preacher and a black separatist.. always striking.

A Poem by Phillis Wheatley:

On Being Brought from Africa to America

'Twas mercy brought me from my Pagan land,
Taught my benighted soul to understand
That there's a God, that there's a Saviour too:
Once I redemption neither sought nor knew.
Some view our sable race with scornful eye,
"Their colour is a diabolic die."
Remember, Christians, Negro's, black as Cain,
May be refin'd, and join th' angelic train.

Phillis Wheatley

Even Africa today is majority Christian or Muslim...

To me, religions refuse to see people as human if they exist outside of their organization. atheism, paganism, pantheism... anything outside of Christian texts is demonic. I think in America, that was internalized to this loathing of Africa and all things non-European.

However there was a lot of strength derived from Christianity for African Americans. Some of them probably felt they were better Christians than white people.

Myshkin the Idiot said...

Thanks for sharing that info about Tyson, I had no idea. I saw him say something about meeting Sagan when he was a kid and Sagan telling him he could do anything with himself and really giving him the confidence and wonder to pursue science. Tyson is so positive about it too.

I watched an episode of StarTalk where Tyson interviewed GZA the Genius of the Wu Tang Clan and Tyson seemed star struck.. GZA was also star struck by Tyson and I think they really connected and inspire each other.

Myshkin the Idiot said...

Anti-intellectualism makes a helluva potent drug

"a science committee that includes a congressman who describes evolution as a "lie from the pit of Hell" and another who claims that climate change is a liberal plot to "create global government to control our lives.""

""I don't mean to sound pejorative...but they're Weasel words—that in some areas, "globally" there's not more droughts, "globally" there's not more hurricanes and they're not more ferocious. Is that correct?"

"So we actually have more water and more drought? Okay, thank you very much."

Posey: I remember the 70s, that was the threat. We're going to have a cooling that's eventually going to freeze the planet, and that was the fear before Al Gore invented the Internet….


Justin M. White said...

My favorite response from the pious was in this article by Andrew Sullivan:

"David Sessions pans it. The segment previewed above is on the 16th century priest and philosopher Giordano Bruno, which includes deGrasse Tyson intoning that
the Roman Catholic Church sought to “investigate and torment anyone who voiced views that differed from theirs”. Really?"

Then in his quote from Sessions:

"Bruno’s conflict with the Catholic Church was theological, not
scientific, even if it did involve his wild—and occasionally correct—guesses about the universe. As Discover magazine’s Corey Powell pointed out, the philosophers of the 16th century weren’t
anything like scientists in the modern sense. Bruno, for instance, was a “pandeist,” which is the belief that God had transformed himself into all matter and ceased to exist as a distinct entity in himself. He believed in all sort of magic and spirits, and extrapolated those views far beyond his ideas
about the infinity of the universe. In contrast to contemporaries who drew more modest conclusions from their similar ideas, Bruno agitated for an elaborate counter-theology, and was (unlike the poor, humble outcast portrayed in Cosmos)
supported by powerful royal benefactors. The church didn’t even have a position
on whether the Earth orbited the sun, and didn’t bring it up at Bruno’s trial. While the early-modern
religious persecution certainly can’t be denied, Bruno was killed because he
flamboyantly denied basic tenets of the Catholic faith, not because religious
authorities were out to suppress all “freedom of thought.”"

So... in answer to Sullivan's question: Yeah, really.

joe manning said...

Tyson's intellectual acumen exposes the fundamentalist credulity that provides a seedbed for anti-intellectualism and racism. "Uppity" is also routinely used to derogate women as well as all out-groups so lets organize.

chauncey devega said...

You are dealing with fundamentally anti-intellectual, and quite frankly, stupid people. But these stupid people have an agenda, power, and and are being manipulated by folks w. real insight and who know what their plans are. Don't forget that there are mythological thinkers who actually believe that God gave the Earth to man to do whatever he wants with it. So you can destroy the environment for a profit while then using religious silly-talk to mobilize the dumb masses behind you.

chauncey devega said...

Tyson's podcast is great too. I didn't know about that early exchange. I hope that one day he will be able to drop the mask a bit and share if he thinks that racism is behind some of the anger towards him.

chauncey devega said...

I hope that your phrase "little white girl" was just some self-effacing snark :) One of my pet peeves is how some folks who are trying to be reflective and do the right thing in turn minimize their own experiences and insights. You are clearly bright and engaged; please do not hate on yourself.

That is the hard thing no? Realizing that while you/us may be radically humanistic others are not. We live in their world too, and they hold too many of the cards which is why we have to keep trying to live the good life and do the right thing.

I do hope you comment some more and I am glad you happened upon the site.

Myshkin the Idiot said...

My dad actually believes that "God gave the Earth to man to do whatever he wants with it. So you can destroy the environment for a profit" I mean, exact words out of his mouth

Myshkin the Idiot said...

I don't know, that's a walk most people are not willing to go through with his kind of notoriety.

OldPolarBear said...

I am not as familiar with Dr. Tyson's work as I would like to be and should be, although I have watched some of his short videos about various subjects on YouTube. Also, I have not seen Cosmos yet, as we have a very limited cable subscription that does not seem to include Fox News and I'm not sure I would tune into it even if we did, even just to see the show. I am hoping I can watch them some other way.

You are spot on as usual, though, and it makes me wonder why a thing like Fox News would even put him on in the first place. Maybe it is a sincere effort to broaden out their offerings, given that their demographic is old and probably shrinking, or maybe there is an agenda. Are they just using him as rage-bait to stir up their base? That would be too bad but I hope he can use the platform to put the information out there and encourage people, including young people of all races, nationalities and genders to think about science.

OldPolarBear said...

There is a non-trivial percentage of the population of the USA who believes that after the Rapture takes all the good people directly to heaven and all the "bad" people are killed, Jesus will fix all the damage on Earth, no matter what we've done to it, restore all the animals, forests, etc. Like the reset button on a video game.

kokanee said...

It's pretty clear that Neil deGrasse Tyson blackness is being attacked because of his message. It's not that because Neil deGrasse Tyson is black that they are attacking his message. I've yet to watch the fourth episode but I love this quote from the second episode, "The theory of evolution, like the theory of gravity, is a scientific fact."

Louis Dixon said...

Chauncey, conservatives would view most of this post as a challenge, but this paragraph as a lie:

"To 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 House."

They would say, what's dangerous is Obama's a Leftist, and they'd feel that way about anyone with his credentials. They'd offer Herman Cain as grinning evidence you've got them all wrong - and it's you who are racist against whites. Rand Paul would in a hot minute.

Enforced historical amnesia is the order of the day.

Miles_Ellison said...

Of course it is. Since it's no longer permissible to simply scream the n-word over and over again, racist opprobrium has to be couched in "disagreement" over ideas and policy. It basically amounts to the same thing, but white conservatives can say that they aren't racists because they aren't wearing hoods, burning crosses. or hanging dead, burnt black people from the nearest tree.

OldPolarBear said...

Thanks I will check 'em out!

DanF said...

Late to the party, but I think the fact that NdGT is black is just a cherry on the top. The hatred, and really just plain fear, of the anti-science crowd is that someone will make a cogent rational argument explaining our existence sans god which will lead the people away from their truth. Being black helps discredit the messenger for some, but they were always going to go ad hominem. By the definition of "science" there are no science based arguments to refute from.

Justin M. White said...

Potholer54 has a great series on YouTube about global warming that not only goes over the science, but also the cultural/media myths that get propagated, including the one you mentioned about the "consensus" of global dimming in the 1970s (apparently Time magazine is a scientific journal--who knew?).


rikyrah said...

Black Scientist.
Brilliant Black Scientist.
To answer your question: