Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Moving Beyond Racial Gridlock and Embracing Mutual Responsibility

In a previous post I alerted readers to George Yancey’s forthcoming book, Beyond Racial Gridlock. I received my copy in the mail this afternoon, and read the book this evening.

Yancey argues that racial reconciliation will require intentional effort that demands honesty. He intriguingly references the issue of abortion to point out that religious faith informs that way some Christians reject this practice. If religious faith dictates one’s position with respect to abortion, Yancey asks why does religious faith not inform the way Christians view racism?

Yancey writes that “Racial issues are moral issues” (11) and spends the first five chapters delineating what he terms “secular models” of dealing with racism. Too often, Yancey argues, many Christians adopt secular models for addressing racism. These models are not wrong in and of themselves, Yancey maintains, and each model has its strengths. Some are individualist in thrust, while others address structural modes of racism. The major problem, he asserts, is that these models are incomplete.

Yancey identifies four models:

a. Individualist models
1. the colorblindness model
2. the Anglo-conformity model

b. Structural models
3. multiculturalism model
4. white responsibility model

Yancey ably exposits each of these models, offers helpful sociological data to undergird his assertions, and provides a brief historical sketch of where, when, and how each model emerged. Yancey is charitable in that he finds something positive in each of these models, yet does not withhold criticism when identifying the inadequacies of each approach. Read the book for specifics, and check the footnotes for a load of helpful sources.

So, what are Yancey’s proposals to move beyond racial gridlock?

First, he says people must acknowledge humanity’s sin nature. This means that sin is at the root of racism, and that racism is therefore a moral problem. Further, to acknowledge human sin, Yancey points out, opens up the possibility for honesty in dealing with racism and extends grace where grace should be extended.

Yancey writes: “I want to start what I hope will be an ongoing Christian dialogue about how our faith can help us deal with the sin nature that gives rise to our racial problems” (85). He calls this approach the “mutual responsibility model” (78).

The mutual responsibility model involves the intentional actions and thoughts by both European Americans and racial minorities (Yancey’s categories of description). “The sins of both majority and minority group members contribute to our society’s racial conflicts, but that does not mean both groups have identical roles in the solution” (88). This perspective informs Yancey’s chapters on European Americans and racial minorities.

Yancey’s chapter on European Americans and sin nature offers a brief historical sketch of institutional racism, offering theft of Native American lands and white flight as two key examples. What should be the response to these institutional sins? Corporate repentance. While Yancey acknowledges that some whites are not racist like their ancestors, they do benefit from the racism of their ancestors in myriad ways. In the spirit of mutual responsibility, white folks must acknowledge this dimension of institutional sin and own up to what white privilege was and is. Yancey concludes: “The mutual responsibility model balances concerns about past sins with the need for healing in future relationships” (98).

Yancey’s chapter on racial minorities and sin nature again points to the different responsibilities European Americans and racial minorities have in the context of embracing a mutual responsibility approach to racial reconciliation. Yancey decries playing the race card, and argues that “[f]ew actions damage race relations more than playing the race card” (101). Yancey goes on to discuss reparations, noting that in theory the idea is worthy of pursuit, but that in the end an economic response to centuries of racism and economic inequality would work against any genuine talk of reconciliation. This is a critical part of this chapter, and invites serious reflection and discussion. Regarding the pursuit of justice, Yancey suggests that “loving interracial relationships” (107) provide a way to pursue justice effectively. As a corollary of corporate repentance, Yancey argues that racial minorities should respond with corporate forgiveness to white people. In addition, he discusses reconciliation between persons of color as well.

The upshot of these two chapters – strong, convincing, and prophetic – means that “[o]nly if whites and nonwhites take their responsibilities seriously can we overcome the effects of centuries of racial alienation” (112).

Yancey cites Jesus as the “ultimate reconciler” (113) for 3 reasons. First, Christ’s prayer on the eve of his execution included a petition for reconciliation. Second, as a majority member of society, Jesus pursued reconciliation with the woman at the well, affirming her dignity yet acknowledging and forgiving her sin. Second, as a minority member of society, Jesus asked a member of the oppressors (Matthew) to be a follower, and then challenged the centurion to pursue the life of faith. As a member of the oppressed minority in these cases, Jesus “embraced grace” toward the Roman oppressor. And the application: from a majority group position, Yancey concludes, Jesus challenges a quest to maintain a white status quo, and from a minority group position, Jesus challenges hatred and dismissal of white folks with the necessity of service and “loving intergroup relationships” (124) even while pursuing racial justice.

Yancey also has a good and thorough chapter on what he calls the “fear factor” in racial reconciliation: the fear whites have of being labeled racist for broaching conversations about race and the fear racial minorities have of being labeled troublemakers for consistently pointing out racial inequities. Yancey suggests that churches create safe places to honestly reveal and discuss fears, and challenges church leaders to devote the time necessary to help create these kinds of spaces.

In a powerful closing chapter, Yancey asks what a “Christian approach” to end racial alienation might look like. He offers an analogy from marriage (using his own marriage to make his points) to describe the nature of new relationships that must emerge, and discusses affirmative action. Finally, Yancey suggests four places to begin to end racial gridlock: multiracial congregations, social networks, political activism, and the responsibilities of both students and faculty at Christian schools and colleges to confront, challenge, and offer a new vision for the church’s racial future.

Beyond Racial Gridlock, by its author’s admission, is not a complete picture, but what he hopes is a true start to end racial alienation in a community whose founder prayed (and prays) for its unity.


Jenell Williams Paris said...

I also wanted to thank you for mentioning Yancey's book. He gave a lecture at Bethel on his model, and I've been using it in class. It is a critical model, however, not constructive. It includes everything but the mutual accountability model, which is obviously a completion of the line of thought. I've got to get that book, too!

Phil said...

Thanks, Jenell. I'm glad his approach, despite the criticism, is getting a wider hearing. It is an important contribution to the literature and to the conversation.

Gangster Epistemology said...

"Yancey decries playing the race card, and argues that “[f]ew actions damage race relations more than playing the race card” (101). Yancey goes on to discuss reparations, noting that in theory the idea is worthy of pursuit, but that in the end an economic response to centuries of racism and economic inequality would work against any genuine talk of reconciliation. This is a critical part of this chapter, and invites serious reflection and discussion."

I have not read Yancey, but this statement is simple minded and one-sided. It's sort of like saying that a wife who has been cheated on shouldn't bring it up to her husband, because it could cause friction and interrupt their relationship.

Moreover, his comments on reparations are equally offensive. I'm not an advocate of reparations, but I think that it is a biblically sound principle for a Christian discussion on racism. Forgiveness is a principle as well. But, when we try to separate the past from the present, then we can dismiss present offenses as playing the race card and reparations as unreasonable. Likewise, our country has no problem spending billions in Iraq and giving millions away to nations who are really our enemies. Meanwhile, we think African-Americans are blind to the fact.

Actually, after hanging out around here and hearing the complex connections people are making regarding race, science and's difficult to even read Yancey's simplistic reductionistic models of secular approaches to this issue. See Nancy Krieger for example:

I've said on many occasions, that thinking-wise, the secular world is light years ahead of the church on racial issues. Finally, I find it most offensive that (white) Christians today don't want to recognize how their position of privilege are predicated by a history of oppression and exploitation. I often wonder if it will take Jesus coming back before there is genuine reconciliation.

Gangster Epistemology said...

PS-It sounds like he's saying what folks what somebody is paying to hear.

Anonymous said...

I think that the key to the above statement is that "I have not read Yancey" Had he read my book he would have realized that I am not asking for some blind forgiveness but also for real repentance. He would have also seen that I critized reperations but not economic solutions to the racial ecomomic disparity. I welcome honest dialog on some of my ideas. But it is clear that the previous poster has not read the book but is taking some of the excerpts out of context to put me in some preconcieved box.

gyancey said...

Oh I am new at this and did not put my name forward. The previous anonymous post is mine.

Anonymous said...


Hey Phil,

Thanks for the thoughtful posts you write, I really appreciate them. I'm sorry that I didn't write something on this topic sooner. I read George Yancy's latest book a few months back, maybe May/June. I have read several of his other books and I think he should get a much wider hearing. I like his message and the tone which he uses to express it.

I have read the works of several other Christian authors on the topic of race relations and I think that Prof. Yancy has done an excellent job of taking the conversation to the next level. His presentation of the various other approaches to race relations is clear and concise. Most Pastors and laymen are not familiar with this material so Prof. Yancy has provided the believing community with a great resource. Not only does he introduce the new reader to the subject, but he also outlines a fair critique of each current idea in relation to the other positions, as well as his new proposal of a "mutual responsibility model."

While I highly reccomend Prof. Yancy's work, I find his position that he is the first to present a "Christian" approach a bit arrogant, although I'm sure he doesn't mean to set himself above anyone else.

I hope that this conversation will indeed go forward and I can't thank you enough for your own efforts in this direction.