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.