Phil Vischer, creator of the popular Christian animation “VeggieTales” and voice of Bob the Tomato, has been actively using his platform to address issues of racial injustice. The Christian Post spoke with the animator to discover his passion behind tackling these issues and his response to his conservative followers.
Following the police-involved death of George Floyd, many Americans are discussing issues pertaining to race and the debate around systemic institutionalized racism. To add to the discussion this month, Vischer first penned a blog, titled Racial Injustice has Benefited Me – A Confession, which he followed up with a video, “Race in America,” that’s available on the Holy Post channel on YouTube.
Below is an edited transcript of Vischer’s conversation with The Christian Post (watch full video interview below) where he talks about why he, as a Christian, feels a responsibility to push back against racial injustice. He revealed some of the conversations he’s had with conservatives surrounding his stance and why he is willing to speak out whether people try and take it out on “VeggieTales” or not.
Christian Post: Race is a topic you have discussed for some years now. Tell us what encouraged you now to share about how being white gave you access to opportunities that others did not have?
Vischer: Someone immediately said, “Oh, Phil, why weren’t you talking about this two weeks ago?” And so I pointed them to the podcast we did three years ago and said, “I was all the way back.”
That started [because] my brother is the dean of a law school in Minneapolis, a Catholic University, St. Thomas University, after the Philando Castile shooting, which I believe was 2016 and led to quite a bit of protest. I-94 in Minneapolis, during the protests, was shut down, a group of protesters walked out onto the Interstate and shut it down. A lot of people in Minneapolis were very angry about that. It came out in the press that one of the leaders of that protest was an African-American woman, was a law professor who worked for my brother. Angry alumni demanded that my brother fire her for participating in that protest. He said he wasn’t going to. And instead, he went back to them and said to these angry white alumni, “I want you to try to think of what it would take, what would have to happen in your life that would make you so upset that you would walk out onto an interstate and shut it down. What would it take for you to be that upset?”
My family started a Bible conference in northwest Iowa way back in the 1930s and it’s still going on every year. My brother and I were supposed to teach a whole week class in 95% white, northwest Iowa and my brother decided to do a day on racial justice, on racial inequality. So he did a whole mess of research and then he did a day. We’re talking about kind of hot button issues in our culture, but the data that he had come up with about racial inequality in America just blew my mind. So I came back to Chicago where we do the Holy Post Podcast, I mentioned on the podcast my brother taught this course, I just learned stuff, I had no idea. And people said, “Oh, tell us.” So I got my brother’s notes and I presented them on the podcast as a special episode. That became one of the most popular episodes we’d ever done as lots of white Christians like me saud I’d never heard half of that stuff. So that was 2017.
Then we get to George Floyd in 2020. And Minneapolis, again, protests, again, shutting down interstates in Minneapolis again and then spreading all over the country. And I’m starting to see pop up all over social media: “Why are they so angry? Racism is done. Racism, we ended it in the 1960s.” And I started pointing people to that podcast episode to say this might help but it’s an hour and 15 minutes long and you have to go 20 minutes in before it starts. So people just weren’t doing it. I’m seeing all these little videos fly back and forth. Here’s someone saying there’s no such thing as racism. Here’s two people arguing about white privilege. A lot of these videos just didn’t have any data in them. They were opinions, but not history. So I thought, “OK, well, what if I took that podcast episode, that hour and 15-minute podcast episode, and tried to cram it down into a short as possible video as I could?” which turned out to be a 17-minute video to walk through 100 years of racial history in America. It turns out that just went absolutely viral. As of yesterday, it’s been watched 5 million times.
CP: How did the information you learned turn from historical data to something where you thought you wanted to examine how racism has benefited you?
Vischer: The other part of the story is my family … moved from Iowa to the suburbs of Chicago in 1980. I had a month left of middle school and then we started going to a church; it’s in our denomination or local denominational church. … My mother’s been at that church without break for almost 40 years now. The church went through some really rough times, it was an aging white congregation and it was shrinking, just totally shrinking. And then we had no pastor and then it was getting smaller and smaller and it looked like we were kind of on death watch for our denomination. And our district superintendent in our denomination said, “Hey, I think you should talk. There’s another church in the denomination right down the street that’s growing that has a really dynamic young pastor. They don’t have a building. You have a building, no pastor and you’re shrinking. Maybe you guys should talk about merging.” And we said, OK, what church is it? And it was a second generation immigrant Korean congregation. Wait, what? You want to take a mostly white congregation and an Asian immigrant congregation and just shove them together and hope that that works. We spent about a year meeting and discussing it. It’s been four years ago now I was an elder at the time, both congregations voted and we decided to merge and create a multi-ethnic congregation.
So we have a Korean senior pastor, a Korean youth pastor, a Korean college pastor, a Filipino worship pastor, and then most of the rest of the staff is white from the old white church. And so we put all that together. But the amazing thing is, since we did that four years ago, the church has doubled in size. It’s now about 1,000 people a week meeting, and it’s African American, and it’s Latino, and we have Indians. And we’re getting like 120 college kids on a typical weekend because they want to worship someplace that looks like the world they’re actually living in, that they’re growing up in. Because of this, all of a sudden, I’m sitting around the fire in my small group with an African-American couple, listening to their stories of what it’s like to live in white America, in the white suburbs. I’m talking with an Asian family about what it’s like to be Asian in white America. I’m hearing stories that are just completely beyond my experience. That’s what led me to start to look at my own story and the way I tell my own story, and that was the theme of that blog.
If you know my story, my dad walked out when I was nine years old, my parents split up and we went from upper middle class to probably for a couple years, we were living below the poverty line because my mother had never worked before. She had a nurse’s degree but had never practiced. So she had to pull out the dusty nursing degree and try to find a job in Muscatine, Iowa, to support three kids after my dad had left. Then we relocated to the Chicago suburbs and we went to school and my brother went to Harvard and he became a successful college professor. And my sister has a doctorate and my mom got her doctorate and she became a college professor. So I used to tell the story like we had nothing, but we worked really hard and now look at us, what a success story!
Then I’m learning about, in particular, wealth inequality between African American families and white families, the average white family has 10 times the household wealth of the average black family. The average black family has 60% of the income of the average white family, but only 10% of the wealth. The reason that is because most wealth, most intergenerational wealth in America, is homeownership. That’s how most Americans have generated wealth to pass from one generation to the next. We very actively, starting in the 1930s, encouraged white families to own homes and discouraged nonwhite families from owning homes. There were policies that we put in place and there were specific reasons which made sense at the time; now they look horribly racist. In hindsight, we declared that white and black families were incompatible racial groups and should never live in the same community; that was in 1932 in the Federal Housing Administration guidebook … It was policy. Because of that, so few African-American families have homes that they’ve owned that have been passed through generations that have generated wealth for college, in particular wealth for how do you move and start your life over if your life falls apart? I realized that when our lives fell apart in Muscatine, Iowa, and we had nothing, we didn’t have nothing. We had a nice house for Muscatine, Iowa, standards and my mom was able to sell that house and use the money to buy a much smaller house but in a nice suburb of Chicago, which had funded, by all those nice houses, fantastic schools.
CP: There are people debunking that systemic racism exists. Can you talk a little bit about that?
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SOURCE: Christian Post, Jeannie Law