Education in the U.S. has a special place in the minds of people around the world.
The resources of U.S. schools are a major reason for the way in which they capture the imagination of foreigners like me.
Access to large, well-staffed libraries, exposure to world-renowned scholars and the possibility to experience training in a foreign context attract many students from the global South to the U.S.
Paradoxically, former students of schools in the U.S., at times, develop resistance to aspects of U.S.-based education.
The tools acquired in those schools enable such resistance. The proximity to these schools also makes their shortcomings evident for foreigners who do not share a particular set of cultural assumptions.
Some foreigners from the global South who attend U.S. schools feel compelled to qualify the tendencies they saw and learned while on U.S. soil. Baptist education in the South offers an example of this complex dynamic.
Southern Baptist missionaries in Brazil, for example, sent promising natives to study in a segregated South since the end of the 19th century.
Baptist schools in the South educated the leaders of the Baptist denomination in Brazil in a particular discourse about God and in the Southern form of white supremacy.
Many foreigners appropriated the Southern way of being. José Piani, for example, became Baptist in Brazil, was educated in the South and worked for the SBC in a xenophobic crusade to transform immigrants into “true Southerners.”
C.D. Daniel, who was raised in Brazil, was founder and president of the Mexican Baptist Convention of Texas and planted a church in Recife, my hometown.
He also translated the message of the Ku Klux Klan to his Spanish-speaking audiences in Texas.
Many Brazilians who became denominational leaders in Brazil were educated in the segregated South.
This influenced an informal denominational segregation in Brazil in which white Brazilians forged racialized partnerships with the Southern missionaries who facilitated their rise in Brazilian denominational life.
It is no coincidence Brazilian Baptist denominational leaders share ideological dispositions with their Southern coreligionists.
Some foreigners, however, resisted. Gilberto Freyre, one of the most influential intellectuals in Brazilian history, did precisely that during his time at Baylor University – from which he graduated in the 1920s.
Freyre became Baptist in Brazil and, upon his shock regarding how U.S. Baptists treated their African American neighbors, left the denomination.
His shocking experience in Waco was part of the impetus behind his notion that Brazil, a very racist country, resembled a racial democracy.
Freyre suggested Brazil did not develop strict racial categories and the reality of racial miscegenation in Brazil made racism unlikely.
His thesis became both a tool for Brazilian white elites who camouflaged significant forms of racial prejudice and the basis of Brazilian national identity.
Brazil was far from being the “racial democracy” Freyre suggested, but the hate toward African Americans he saw at Baylor was so strong it not only distracted him from emphasizing forms of Brazilian racism, but also fed into a process that culminated in Freyre’s influential ideology.
This brings me to Baylor’s resolution on “Racial Healing and Justice,” adopted on June 26.
I thought about Freyre’s example because the statement mentions Baylor’s mission “to educate men and women for worldwide leadership.”
“Worldwide leadership” seems like a positive term but, to quote the song by Bronski Beat, “it ain’t necessarily so.”
Baylor’s resolution is important. However, as I read it, I wondered if institutions such as Baylor, despite their “mea culpa” regarding anti-black racism, realize the reach and complexity of their legacy.
Universities teach more than what the textbooks convey although even that can be problematic.
They teach ways of living foreigners often appropriate and take back to their careers abroad. In terms of race relations, Baylor’s legacy is a fountain flowing deep and wide.
Although Freyre reacted against racism at Baylor, his resistance was complicated.
His experience at Baylor was a starting point for the construction of what became a national ideology that romanticized the potential of race mixing for eradicating racism. But not all mixing was the same.
Mixing that “whitened” the race, and consequentially diminishing “blackness,” was preferable within the boundaries of the racial democracy myth. Brazil still deals with this legacy.
Reading the board’s resolution, especially the mention of “worldwide leadership,” reminded me of my brief address to the board in 2014.
Then, I said my hometown’s airport was named after an alumnus: Gilberto Freyre International Airport. The members listening smiled proudly.
What I did not tell them was the racism at Baylor pushed Freyre away from the Baptist denomination, or that his scholarship, informed by the racial hate he witnessed as a student, shaped race relations in the fifth largest country in the world.
Baylor’s resolution focused on the legacies of slavery, Confederacy and Jim Crow, paying particular attention to anti-black racism and without mentioning all of the ways in which the school benefited from its commitments to racial oppression.
It’s a good start, and the expressed desire to “intentionally listen to those affected by racism” will be essential.
However, it must be recognized this statement is not a complete description of the school’s partnership with and benefit from white supremacy.
As a matter of fact, the legacy of racism of schools such as Baylor is not only complex and broad, but also global. Sometimes, they even help shape race relations in other countries.