05/13/2010 01:00 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Legacy of White Christian Chauvinism in Arizona's Ethnic Studies Bill

As I sat in a pew in Catholic church, I stared up at the enormous crucifix suspended from the ceiling on which a distinctly white man gazed theatrically toward the heavens. I looked around at the other black folks sitting around me in the pews, and realized that even then, in the heyday of the Civil Rights Movement, even as Martin Luther King used the language of Christianity to shame the majority into treating other men as men -- I realized that, for black Americans, Christianity was like the atom: tearing it apart might heat your house, but that doesn't lessen its potential lethality.

Arizona's outlawing of ethnic education revived this memory. Just as black Americans have historically ignored the more toxic aspects of the Christianity foisted upon us by our former slave masters, that toxicity continues to infect not only us but the descendants (literal and figurative) of those who enslaved us.

Mainstream Christianity rests on the belief in an historical Jesus. By any American standards, this living, breathing man would have been classified as "white" -- swarthy yes, but white. Of course, Europeans recreated him in their own image, blond and blue-eyed. But even when historical reality crept it and Jesus' skin took on a bit of a taint and his hair a bit more curl than was strictly Nordic, it was not that much of a stretch. White he remained.

God chose a white man to bear his image on earth. Thus, white men are clearly closer to God, dearer to God, more in his image than any black-skinned being with nappy hair. Christianity has always borne this toxic underpinning of white supremacy due to its historical pretensions. Jesus is not an allegory who can be effectively transformed to suit the occasion. He is both the son of the One True God and an historical fact -- and he is white.

Europeans used this aspect of Christianity to justify varying forms of brutality and enslavement. Americans used it in the founding of this nation, in drafting its Constitution, and in its official governance for most of her history.

That history of violence is not easy for some white Christians (most of whom would call themselves "conservatives") to accept. The Godliness of their image precludes the possibility of centuries of monstrous behaviors. God has singled them out as most like him and he has granted them dominion over the earth and its creatures. The idea that they lustily participated in butchery, rape, murder, and dehumanization vicious enough to give most historical perversions a run for their money -- that simply cannot stand.

So they deny. They declare certain sections of the past off limits even as they revel in others. It is fine to dwell on the past of the Confederacy, but it is off limits to dwell on the past of slavery and Jim Crow. The former is considered healthy respect for one's forebears, the latter an incitement to resentment against white people.

Clearly, shame and arrogance commingle here. It is the shame of those who know the facts and paint them unkindly. It is the arrogance of those who believe themselves inherently superior in the eyes of their God, who believe that lesser men have no right to shame them, who believe somewhere deep down that they had the right to commit those heinous wrongs.

If Arizona's white legislators want to erase ethnic-specific education, they should close every school in the state, for most of their curricula are white-specific. But of course, the goal is to ensure that black and brown children continue to see the world only from the majority's point of view, continue to see the majority through the traditional American Christian prism -- closer to God, good and pure -- clean and right.