In this podcast featuring Baylor faculty, Jonathan Tran shares his family’s story, unpacks scholarship in ethics, religion, language and more and examines lessons from his new book Asian Americans and the Spirit of Racial Capitalism.
DEREK SMITH:Hello, and welcome to Baylor Connections, conversation series with the people shaping our future. Each week, we go in depth with Baylor leaders, professors and more, discussing important topics in higher education, researching student life. I’m Derek Smith, and our guest today is Jonathan Tran. Dr. Tran serves as Associate Professor of Philosophical Theology and is the George W. Baines Chair of Religion at Baylor. He’s a leading expert in ethics, bioethics, religion, and the theological and political implications of human life and language. The son of refugees, whose family came to the US at the end of the Vietnam War, he’s been a sought after speaker and author on issues of race, religion, ethics, and theology. Tran is the author of the new book, Asian Americans and the Spirit of Racial Capitalism, just released by Oxford University Press. It’s been a busy time. Congratulations on the release of your new book, and thanks for taking the time to join us today on Baylor Connections.
JONATHAN TRAN:Thank you, Derek. It’s a pleasure, and honored to be on Connections with you all.
DEREK SMITH:Well, it’s great to have you and dive into what you do, because your research areas cover really a number of distinct, but also related areas. So just kind of set the table for our conversation. How would you describe the threads that tie your various research interests together?
JONATHAN TRAN:Yeah. This is a great question. The University Tenure Committee actually asked me this question about 10 years ago, when I was going through tenure, which is, “You write about so many different things, Tran. What unites it? What is the actual central research agenda?” And I wasn’t quite sure. I’m just interested in so many different things. I’m a theologian, and theologians think that thinking about God means thinking about God’s world. So there’s all kinds of different things in there, from race to language to bioethics.
DEREK SMITH:Well, you mentioned language, and that’s a word that comes up when I look at your website, when we were talking here, the intro; “The implications of human life in language.” What does that mean to you?
JONATHAN TRAN:It’s probably the most obscure and abstract part of my research agenda, but it’s also at the foundation of everything I do. So philosophers of language, linguists, evolutionary scientists have asked questions like, “What does it mean that humans are animals that speak language? What does it mean that language is the mode by which we engage the world and one another? What does it mean that language frames our ability to receive and live within reality, to communicate with one another?” And then there’s all kinds of thorny philosophical questions. For example, “When we translate from one language to the other, is something lost?” Another question might be, “Is language innate to human beings?” The great Noam Chomsky argued that, “Language is a basic faculty of the brain.” In some sense, you don’t need others to learn language. Other developmental psychologists have said. It’s certainly a product of socialization. We learn language by learning to live in certain societies and learning to speak different languages. So I’m interested in all those questions. One of the most important questions to me is, “What are the implications that we are joined in community through language?” That is, in speaking, you speak for me and I speak for you. That has profound political and social and interpersonal implications. And so one of the things I’m most interested in is these deep implications, connections that language means, insofar as we’re language-speaking animals.
DEREK SMITH:So what are some of the topics that influence us? If we were to sit in one of your classes, and we won’t even limit it to that one area, but if we were to sit in some of your classes, what are some of the conversations we’d hear you and your students engaging in?
JONATHAN TRAN:One of the things that Chomsky says, Chomsky’s famous for a set of concepts around what he calls universal or generative grammar. The idea is that humans, as a function of the kinds of brains we have, speak language naturally. An implication of this would be that communication, which most of us think is central to language, Chomsky doesn’t even think it’s secondary. It’s tertiary, he says. The primary thing language allows us to do is to generate original thought. And that thought mostly occurs in our mind, sometimes is expressed, and even more seldom is communicated. That has huge implications for people who intuitively think language is about communication. So Chomsky introduced a revolution in linguistics. Most of modern linguistics revolves around Chomsky’s innovations. I think that language is much more profoundly social than that, and has much more profoundly social implications than he is willing to grant. And so I look at those implications. Another question of course is theological questions. What does it say about God that God created humans with language? What does it say that humans are created in an image of God and God is referred to in scripture as “the word?” The primary way that God interacts with humans apparently in scripture is by speaking to them and coming as a word, as submitting to our linguistic habits. You think about the fact that some people refer to Jesus in language as “Beelzebub”, “Little Lord of the Flies”, as a glutton, as a heathen, as a pagan, and some people refer to him in language as “Lord”, and they submit to him and vow to him. Those are profoundly different ways of speaking of God. And so these questions about speech and theology are profound. I mean, at the heart of what theology is, just literally what it means, is speech about God. So what are the implications of the human life and language in relationship to God?
DEREK SMITH:I would imagine some pretty interesting conversations with your students as you dive into these things.
JONATHAN TRAN:Yeah. Students who are equally interested in obscure theoretical arguments within the philosophy of language or the history of philosophy and theology, but are also profoundly interested in questions of practical consideration, like politics.
DEREK SMITH:Visiting with Dr. Jonathan Tran. We’ll talk about some of those practical areas, and certainly areas that are really at the top of the national mind in a lot of ways, as we continue to visit. But before we do, I’m curious, what brought you to Baylor, and how does being here at Baylor really kind of help impact that work that you do?
JONATHAN TRAN:Well, I’ve been at Baylor for 15 years. I came in 2006. And that was really at the beginning. I was lucky to be involved in the beginning of this. That was really at the beginning of our more committed attempts to move into a Research I university. And so the last, say, 10 years of my life have been amazingly benefited by the movement to our I Research, the allowance for research leave, for grant money to come in with certain kinds of students. I lived on campus for nearly 10 years as faculty in residence. So all these kinds of things that are just par for the course at Baylor, my family and I have benefited from tremendously. The other thing is, it’s a Christian university, which, if you think about what that means in the history of higher ed and the education in the country, they attempt to do three things that Baylor is doing pretty well at right now; one, a top flight athletic institution; two, a serious research institution; and three, a Christian institution. The first two are relatively doable. You throw enough money at them and you can get somewhere in the proximity of those two. But to have the third not only involved, but as the profound integration of the other two, is really, I think, our secret sauce. And I think everyone knows right now that Baylor is on a pretty powerful uptick in terms of the types of students and faculty and staff that it’s drawing. It’s a pretty special time to be at Baylor.
DEREK SMITH:Absolutely. Visiting with Jonathan Tran here on Baylor Connections. And Jonathan Tran, let’s rewind here a little bit. Let’s go back to your formative years. I mentioned at the top of the program that you’re the son of refugees and often speak and write on subjects related to this. Could you just sort of take us back to your family’s experience; when they came here, what brought them here and what that was like?
JONATHAN TRAN:Yeah. So my family is from the Northern part of Vietnam. They came from the aristocracy and came from wealth and privilege. The Vietnam War began with the communist revolution in the north. My family lost its wealth, was driven south. And all of a sudden, we were refugees in America when the war ended in 1975. I had been born three years later. I think when you’re a refugee, even at that age, you’re always a refugee. You always imagine yourself as not quite belonging, as looking almost sideways on in the world that you call home. It’s a profoundly disorienting and unsettling experience, but I think it also grants you purviews into a society or a culture of people that other people don’t see. And so that’s been both an alienating and often isolating and lonely experience, but as an academic or an intellectual, it’s yielded, I think, insights into our life in America.
DEREK SMITH:What aspects of that for you were most formative? Again, as you’re coming up as a child and then a young man, what aspects of that were most formative or central to maybe shaping you, or that had the biggest impact on you?
JONATHAN TRAN:We grew up poor, and that was not something my mom … We came only with my mom. I mean, this is a longer story, but my mom and dad were separated by the war. And so my mom brought the three of us over with her. There was originally actually four of us, and my brother David was killed in a car accident shortly after we came to America. So you imagine the trauma, both of being a refugee, and a war refugee, of losing one’s home, establishing a new home, the death of a child, the attempt to make due in a country that is clearly not your own. I remember even as a kid that you could tell the people around us, many of them really kind, generous human beings, they just didn’t know what to do with us. The fact is, or was, that America had fought three wars in three subsequent decades with people who looked like me; first, the Japanese, then the Koreans, and then the Vietnamese. And the Vietnam War specifically is an especially impactful war in the American psyche because America, one, tells its history through a history of wars, and two, all those wars were victories, the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, both world wars, except for Vietnam. And so you have a kind of mark on the American conscience around Vietnam, and I clearly represented that as a Vietnamese kid. So these were profoundly impactful experiences for me, and I’m guessing most of the people around me. We did run into a lot of racism; racism from all corners. As I say in the book, I grew up at a time when racism was not only accepted, it was expected. Walking down the street, you just expected people to yell at the window, “Chink”, “Gook.” You expected to be bullied from school to school. You were expecting not to be understood or for people to be surprised that you spoke English. And so that was just kind of common life for us. In that way, race and racism forever colored my life.
DEREK SMITH:What helped you and your siblings, or your family, kind of get through that, or what did you rely on as you were kind of digging through that, from there until certainly now, where you are?
JONATHAN TRAN:Yeah. I mean, I think it produces a pretty significant inner life, especially for our family. Part of what poverty means oftentimes for families is we moved around a lot. I moved around 13, 14 times before I got to high school alone. And because my brother David, who is the closest in age to me, had died, and that was my first memory of life, seeing him killed in that car accident, you develop a pretty significant inner life. You make due by living in your own head. And I think those were the roots of my academic and intellectual journey. I mean, even when I think now, you know, my interest in language, this kind of obscure, abstract set of theories … I remember one time we were at a stoplight and my mom made a joke and I didn’t think it was particularly funny. And then she started to reflect on the fact that because English is not her native language, she and I will never share her ability to be funny, because if you think about what jokes are, it’s a pretty significant manipulation of a language, and if that’s not your native language, then there’s always a kind of distance between you and it. And then things like humor, which are so central to human relationships and communities, are the kinds of things that get blunted. I remember being deeply affected when my mom told me this story, not only then about, say, philosophical issues around language, but realizing the chasm that is fixed between us because of the different kinds of experiences and different kinds of languages we speak. So the refugee experience, like I said earlier, never leaves you, and it shapes the way you navigate the world and negotiate human relationships, and how you think about ideas and how I teach students. You know, all these kinds of things.
DEREK SMITH:When did that develop for you? Was that something as a young man you thought you might want to do? Or when did kind of pursuing these ideas in higher education become a possibility for you?
JONATHAN TRAN:Right up till the point where I started teaching classes in 2006 at Baylor. So I became a Christian late in life. In college, all the way through, once I had become a Christian, I was considering a calling to full-time ministry. I was lucky enough to become Christian in a Christian community that took very seriously the claims of Jesus on our lives, that the promises and the demands of the gospel were central to this community’s life. So it was always going to be a serious Christianity if we’re going to be Christians, that kind of thing. Well, I went to seminary, after years of ministry within a Varsity Christian Fellowship. And I went to seminary for the same reason a lot of people go to seminary. I didn’t know what to do with my life. All the way through seminary, and then through a PhD program, I applied to work in churches, and the churches said, “You’re crazy. No way.” And then eventually, a place in Waco, Texas, the heart of Texas, something I’d never even known existed, invited me to be a professor. And so I did that. But I imagine most of my life has been this negotiation between being a full-time professional academic, as I am, and thinking about ministry, which I suspect is the reason I lived on campus with students for 10 years, and the way I relate to students, as thinking about their moral formations.
DEREK SMITH:This is Baylor Connections. We’re visiting with Dr. Jonathan Tran, Associate Professor of Philosophical Theology and the George W. Baines Chair of Religion here at Baylor. Let’s talk about your new book. And then I think we can view kind of the lens of faith and how it shapes the way we can view some of these topics. Your book’s called Asian Americans and the Spirit of Racial Capitalism. Now available. Could you define for us racial capitalism and how that can kind of be a prism through which you view some of the things you talk about in the book?
JONATHAN TRAN:Sure. So one of the questions the book tries to put front and center is the question, “If at this point in our society, it is almost universally agreed that racism is bad, that it is evil, that it’s unproductive, then why does it persist? Why does it go on? Why does it continue to grip our nation, both in the past, present, and certainly going on into the future?” The answer I try to offer in the book is, the reason racism persists is because it works. It does things, it enables a society. And so racial capitalism is a concept developed by the black radical tradition that says that what racism is, is a mode of justification that allows systems of domination and exploitation to go on. It’s something like the ultimate gaslighting process. You take a bunch of folks who suffer inequality, lack of access to healthcare or education, and instead of questioning the society that limits their access, instead it blames them. It says it’s something about them, something natural to who they are. It’s something about their race. And so racial capitalism is a way of looking at our histories of racism and tying it into the political economic structures of America, of the west, and of the world.
DEREK SMITH:So as we think about understanding it, and hopefully growing from some of these understandings, what are some areas that are central to people who want to have a positive impact in these areas, your students, or our listeners, or whomever, to sort of understand this better and look for ways, whether it’s through language, whether it’s through relationships, what have you, to move through this?
JONATHAN TRAN:Yeah, this is a difficult question, and again, at the center of the book. If racism is a function primarily of structures and systems, then it’s not going to be so easy as changing our attitudes or perceptions of one another. I think the popular vision or view of racism many of us have is that racism is primarily about prejudices, ignorance, implicit bias, microaggressions, and these kinds of things. It’s not that those things aren’t part of it, but they’re not the most central thing. Within this kind of popular view, we have these racist attitudes or misperceptions, and sometimes they rise to the level of structures and systems. I think that largely has it backwards. It goes the other way. Racism exists within these structures through which racism becomes useful, justifying inequality and domination, and then produces these attitudes. If that is the case, then we’re going to need to rethink our structures and systems. We need to rethink how education works, how housing works, how healthcare works. Once we begin to do that, and do that in a serious way, then we can begin to approach the interpersonal. But right now, any type of anti-racism that seeks to, say, change minds without changing structures and systems, I think is doomed to fail.
DEREK SMITH:Obviously you talk about things like a heavy lift. A heavy lift, for sure. What are ways that you help your students see through this, and opportunities that maybe they can have to do something with that recognition or understanding?
JONATHAN TRAN:So at the forefront of the book is this concept of racial capitalism. Two of the implications that come out of that have to do with, first, Asian Americans, and second, Christianity. One of the questions I try to ask is this; why does anti-racism in its current form, why does it tend to marginalize those already marginalized by racism? And here, I mean Asian Americans. The fact of the matter is, is that, within America’s contemporary discussions about anti-racism, and this has been true throughout our history, people like me, those racialized as Asian Americans, simply don’t count. People don’t know what to make of us. People are surprised to hear oftentimes that we are victims of racism, just like they’re probably surprised to hear that we are benefactors of racism. The history of Asian Americans in this country has been deeply tied to these very same political economic structures that produce and sustain, say, American chattel slavery. If you look at the 19th century political economy in its history, you see deep and very significant and ongoing and consistent parallels. We’ve not tended to pay attention to those things, simply for the reasons that Asian Americans don’t count. So last Sunday, October 24th, was the 150th anniversary of the Massacre of 1871, the largest mass lynching of Americans in American history. These were 18 Chinese men who were lynched by a lynching mob under the banner of labor and property. And so these are ongoing realities and things we often forget. Last spring, after the Atlanta shootings, and after a string of what ultimately came to thousands of incidences of anti-Asian American violence, it was really the first time Americans took notice and thought, “Oh, Asian Americans are here and they’ve suffered anti-racism.” But I’ll tell you, here have been many times, and this is an ongoing reality, where people have said to me, “I just didn’t know this was true about Asian Americans.” So that’s one of the things I try to put on the table. And for our Asian American students, our white students, black and Latinx students, learning this, I’m trying to give voice to it, but also, trying to give voice to all the abuses and violences of racism and the ways it affects all kinds of folks, has been a very significant experience. The other thing I try to ask in the book is, “Well, what about Christianity?” I think we all know that Christianity played a significant role in American racism, often justifying, within its structures and churches, and the ways it read scripture, American chattel slavery and racism. These are hard truths about us, but the better we are able to come to terms with them, the better we’re going to be able to redeem ourselves from the processes that we put ourselves into. And so I try to ask the question, “Is there something powerfully redeemable about Christianity?” And so I look at some Christian churches of mostly Asian Americans, incidentally, who have tried to do some pretty significant things. And my answer is that racism is internal to the Christian story about sin, and therefore is internal to the Christian story about reconciliation and redemption. And in this book, I try to tell both the story of what racism is, how it works, why it continues, but also the story of how Christianity might answer some of the challenges that bring us the world in which we find ourselves.
DEREK SMITH:You know, man, when you’re writing a book like that, you are educating others, but there’s also aspects where you’re probably learning things through the process. Were there any significant things for you that you took away from the process that were most meaningful to you of writing this?
JONATHAN TRAN:Yeah, that’s a wonderful question. So at the center of the book is two large case studies. One is of Chinese migrants who settled in what is often called “the most Southern place on earth”, the Delta Mississippi region. These were Chinese folks who were brought here as cheap labor during the reconstruction era, when the south needed very, very cheap labor or labor that they could re-enslave. And so these Chinese came here in the late 19th century and they stayed for about a hundred years in the south. There’s still many Delta Chinese in the south, in the Mississippi area. And they built grocery stores in African American communities. On the one hand, you sell significant gestures of trying to live with other oppressed peoples. On the other hand, these folks made a lot of money, and the very sad reality of exploitation. One of the things I try to argue in the book is that that is a more powerful picture of how racism usually works. It’s not racism that’s driven by, say, evil intentions or acidic views of other people. It’s often driven by people who are good otherwise, but make use of the benefits and profit from racial capitalism. So that was a sad and powerful thing to realize, insofar as I realized the ways I’m also complicit in versions of that. But the other thing was this church community, Redeemer Community Church in San Francisco, that has decided, because they love Jesus and they think Jesus is on the side of the marginalized and the oppressed, these are folks who graduated from places like UCLA, UC Berkeley, Stanford University, and have taken it upon themselves to dispossess themselves of their advantages, take the skills they have as electrical engineers or teachers, and start a church or move their church to the most marginalized part of San Francisco. There, they’ve created, along with their church, a software company that redistributes money from the software company to a local school that they’ve also started for the community. And so this was surprising. The way I think about it is, as a person who came to the faith late, and maybe whose default position is generally unbelief, these people make me believe in God, that God hasn’t abandoned us, that God continues to do amazing things, that the spirit is alive.
DEREK SMITH:That’s great. And the book is called Asian Americans and the Spirit of Racial Capitalism, released by Oxford University Press. Where can people find this?
JONATHAN TRAN:They can find it on the Oxford University Press webpage. Make sure you order the paperback version, which is significantly cheaper than the hardback. As well as Amazon and other places.
DEREK SMITH:That’s great. Well, Dr. Tran, we are about out of time here, but it’s been really great to visit. Thanks for sharing your story and more about the book, and just some of these topics to think about that are certainly, you know, really, I think, top of mind in a lot of ways, as we’ve dealt with just so many things in the last year and a half, which probably makes it a pretty interesting time for you to talk to your students about some of these issues.
JONATHAN TRAN:Yeah. We live in a pretty significant moment in our history, where we are becoming increasingly conscious of what we’ve done, and how will we take what we’ve done and help us learn from it and move well into the future? Thanks for having me on the show, which is a tremendous gift to our community.
DEREK SMITH:Well, thank you so much. It’s really great to visit with you. Dr. Jonathan Tran, Associate Professor of Philosophical Theology and the George W. Baines Chair of Religion here at Baylor. I’m Derek Smith. A reminder; you can hear this and other programs online at baylor.edu/connections, and you can subscribe to the program on iTunes. Thanks for joining us here on Baylor Connections.