A Conservative “Disruptor” Leading the Charge on Racial Reform

Last Friday Gordon College welcomed public official and conservative think-tank president Kay Coles James for a special conversation with President D. Michael Lindsay in honor of Black History Month. At the Heritage Foundation, James is the first African-American and first woman to hold the position of president. Before she became a president herself, she worked four U.S. presidents—most recently as part of the presidential transition team under former President Donald Trump and as the federal government’s chief personnel officer under former President George W. Bush. Outside of her work at the Heritage Foundation, Jones chairs the National Coronavirus Recovery Commission and is a member of the NASA Advisory Council, among many others. Here is an excerpt of their conversation, which included questions submitted by the audience.

D. Michael Lindsay: I remember from your background that you were involved in going to one of the first desegregated schools in Virginia. Could you talk a little bit about that experience?

Kay Coles James: It was a traumatic and troubling experience. Most junior high school girls are concerned about how to sneak blue eyeshadow passed their moms. In school we were concerned about barking dogs and angry parents who showed up outside the school with barricades that we had to get through in order to go to class.

It was a very difficult experience—not just from the students who called us names. I have back problems today because I was pushed down steps and had a dislocated coccyx. We were also stuck with pins as we went down the hall. The hallways were crowded, so you never knew where the pin sticks were coming from. The teachers called us names. I had to go from being a straight-A student to getting mostly Ds and Fs because the teachers tried to discourage us and send us back to our segregated schools by giving us bad grades. That’s what we heard from our mentors and from the NAACP [National Association for the Advancement of Colored People] that were supporting us, our parents and relatives.

I came home one day crying because I knew I had done really well on a test. I said to my aunt who was raising me, “She didn’t give me an A, and I know this is an A.” She said, “Well, then you go back and you take an A. You make sure that everything on that paper is correct and she has no choice, but to mark it as an A.” Very early in life, I learned that I wasn’t going to be given As. I had to take them.

Lindsay: Going through that kind of an experience as a junior high student has to have a really deep impact on how you think about race relations in our culture. How did that experience affect your own understanding?

James: Well, I know that racism is alive and well. I experienced it not only then as a junior high school student, but as the president of The Heritage Foundation, even in today’s time and culture. One of the biggest challenges I have when I’m working within the conservative movement and within the evangelical movement is to help white evangelicals and conservatives understand that racism is a thing. I’m amazed that I even have to say that.

Somehow, people misinterpret that as meaning I believe America is a racist country. I absolutely do not. Do we still have racist individuals in our country? Yes. Do we still have institutions that are tainted by racism? You better believe it. One of the reasons I think we, as conservatives, have a difficult time reaching out to new audiences and helping them understand our perspective is that we don’t deal honestly with some of the biggest issues in our country.

We have an orthodoxy, and if you veer from that orthodoxy at all, the wrath of the right comes down on you. Some of your students and faculty may be aware of the flareup I had when I dared say, after the George Floyd murder, that racism is a thing. It was amazing to me that by saying we want to have honest conversations I came under attack. It’s one of the most disheartening parts of my job. I have a unique perspective on these things and I am determined to speak my truth. Quite frankly, the reason that I am a conservative today is because I believe certain conservative values and principles, and certainly beyond any shadow of a doubt, my faith convictions lead me to speak into the issues of the day in a compassionate and a compelling way.

Lindsay: What do you think is the right way for us to try and heal the divisions that we see in our society around racial tensions and how do we help try to make the common good more forefront for all people?

James: The first thing I think we need to do is to speak honestly and candidly to one another. I recoil at the cancel culture in our country today—not only from the left, but from the right as well. I refuse to have people on the right try to cancel out my experience and tell me it isn’t valid or real. I am determined to speak my truth with compassion, with a desire for healing, because once we do that and people truly understand, I think we, as Christians, have to lead this movement. We have the capacity to understand forgiveness. We have the capacity to understand what it means when we can move beyond our pain, forgive one another, embrace each other and walk forward. I have a special responsibility to speak the truth, to forgive when appropriate and to help plot a pathway forward. If we don’t do that as God’s people, I don’t think there’s much of a chance for the whole rest of the country. We as God’s people have to model what that looks like. The first thing white evangelicals have to do is be intentional about listening and wanting to understand. Why is it that we, as evangelicals, as conservatives, have not come up with a construct that really goes after racial conciliation? We’ve offered no alternative.

Lindsay: We hear the phrase “silence is violence,” but some of us are not used to leading the charge. Can I be a force for change on racial issues without being an activist?

James: At this point in our culture and our country, I think we all have to be activists. I think Christ calls us to be activists. He calls us to be activists for peace, he calls us to be activists for reconciliation, he calls us to be activists for the gospel. We might as well get in our heads that we are not going to go out and lead quiet lives. I always liked to tell college students something that I learned from a dear friend of mine, John Avery. He said, “Do you really think that God invested as much in you as he did, that your parents spent all this money to get you educated, that your grandparents are at home praying for you like crazy . . . so that you can go out and be mediocre? Everybody is doing that so you can go out and be disruptive.” If you are not planning right now in your life to go out and be disruptive, then you are not paying homage to the people who have sacrificed to make you who you are today. Nobody gets to not be an activist. Everybody has got to be a disruptor.

To tune into more upcoming events for Black History Month, visit www.gordon.edu/blackhistorymonth.