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?
Comments are closed on this story.