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.