Review of Beyond Racial Gridlock by George Yancey

If you want to start a dialogue about racism in your church, but are bewildered by the vast amount of material available on the topic, and don’t know where to begin, then I have a simple recommendation for you: start with George Yancey’s book Beyond Racial Gridlock. It is the book that I wish I had read first when, a few years ago, I became serious about acquiring a better understanding of racism and Christianity in America. I would have been so much better equipped to understand where different people were coming from.

There are two features of Yancey’s book that make it stand out. The first is that he explicitly spells out different viewpoints on the topic of racism and discusses their strengths and weaknesses. Too many authors simply come to the table with presuppositions that they do not explicitly state, let alone defend, and they fail to acknowledge that there are others who come to the table with totally different presuppositions that lead them to entirely different conclusions. It is no wonder that we quickly run into gridlock, as Yancey calls it. For example, one of the first issues that Yancey tackles is the definition of racism. He distinguishes between an individualist definition, which “defines racism as something overt that can be done only by one individual to another,” and a structuralist definition, which maintains that “society can perpetuate racism even when individuals in the society do not intend to be racist.” In many conversations about racism, people talk past each other because they employ different definitions of racism without making it clear to the other party what they mean by the term.

The second distinctive feature of Yancey’s approach is that he appeals to the doctrine of human depravity to fashion a uniquely Christian approach to the problem of racism. After laying out four popular models of racial reconciliation, he argues that they are all fundamentally secular, and that transcending their weaknesses requires a deep understanding of the Christian doctrine that we are all sinners. It is worth taking some time to describe Yancey’s four models, because most people I have encountered fit at least approximately into one of these categories (or perhaps straddle two categories).

The first model that Yancey describes he calls colorblindness. To understand the colorblindness model, we have to understand what its ultimate vision is.

The colorblind vision is of a society in which racial features such as skin color and facial structure are no more important than height or hair color. Then there will be no judgments based on race because race will carry no social importance.

But how do we get there from here? Advocates of colorblindness typically argue that if our goal is a society in which everyone is treated equally, then we should start by treating everyone equally now. If we postpone equal treatment until some distant utopian future, then that future will never arrive.

Laws concerning racial issues must aim for the completely equal treatment of people of all races. Such equality means that we must outlaw old-fashioned racial discrimination of the Jim Crow type. However, modern efforts to correct the historical effects of Jim Crow must also be curtailed if they include any component specific to one race, because if we emphasize racial issues, then we will continue to have racial problems.

Advocates of colorblindness generally oppose efforts to provide racial minorities with special treatment, referring to such efforts as reverse discrimination. Yancey goes further, and says that colorblindness demands that we ignore racial reality, since even the mere acknowledgment of race contributes to racial strife. In his criticism of colorblindness, Yancey accuses its advocates of “pretending that race no longer matters” and says that “they tend to underestimate the lasting effects of historic racism.” Yancey mentions Dinesh D’Souza, Ward Connerly, and Stephan Thernstrom as examplars of the colorblindness model.

Yancey’s second model is Anglo-conformity. Proponents of Anglo-conformity, such as Daniel P. Moynihan, William J. Wilson, and Jennifer Hochschild, acknowledge that historic racism has placed racial minorities at a disadvantage, and maintain that this disadvantage will not go away just by treating all races equally. Active measures must be taken to redress the imbalance. The goal is to pull minority races out of poverty by having them conform to the practices and culture of the majority.

Advocates of Anglo-conformity are strongly proactive. They assign responsibilities to both majority and minority group members. The majority must teach people of color how to succeed, while the minority is responsible for taking those lessons to heart so they can achieve economic and educational success. … Poverty, not overt racism, is the culprit. … If we help racial minorities achieve economically, their success will remove their social stigma and lead to more complete racial integration and a more harmonious society.

Yancey’s third model, multiculturalism, is in some ways the opposite of Anglo-conformity. Yancey gives Horace Kallen and Nathan Glazer as examples of multiculturalists. The ultimate vision of the multiculturalist is not a homogeneous society where everyone conforms to the majority culture. Rather, their ideal is “a society in which distinct racial and ethnic groups preserve their own identities.”

It is important to recognize where they lay the blame for racism: squarely on the majority’s denial of the worth of nonwhite racial groups and their cultural norms. They see that the value of people of color has been denigrated while the worth of dominant group members has been overvalued. Multiculturalism tries to correct the injustice by promoting respect and appreciation for minority cultures and the contributions of people of color.

The fourth of Yancey’s models he calls white responsibility. As Yancey points out, white responsibility is closely related to critical race theory, a term that has gained wider currency today (2020) than when Yancey published his book (2006).

The core of the white responsibility model is that the dominant group creates problems of race and ethnicity. We might argue that the disappearance of overt racism is evidence that majority group members no longer have disproportionate racial power. But advocates of the white responsibility approach argue that majority social structures continue to victimize people of color … [and] that people of color have limited, if any, responsibility for racial problems. In fact some assert that African Americans, and by extension other people of color, are unable to be racists. From their viewpoint, racial minorities can have prejudice, but they cannot be racist because racism requires structural power. Since only dominant group members have structural power in our society, only dominant group members can practice racism.

Although Yancey regards all four models as having strengths, he says that they are all incomplete, primarily because they all have a tendency to lay the blame on other people. Those in the majority tend to favor one of the first two models because it allows them to escape blame, and those in the minority tend to favor one of the latter two models because it allow them to escape blame. But a fundamental truth of the gospel is that we are all sinners in need of repentance and forgiveness.

A core principle of Christian faith is the concept of the sin nature. It is one of the defining ways in which Christianity differs from the other religions. Our sin nature drives majority group members to look for both overt and subtle ways to maintain the advantages of their racial status. Our sin nature motivates people of color to use their victim status to gain whatever they can. Our sin nature blinds us to the ways in which we protect the interests of our own racial group. Our sin nature also influences us to blame others for the problems we cause ourselves. …

Without an acknowledgment of our sin nature, we put too much faith in our own abilities. When we examine the secular models, another important similarity they all share is their overreliance on human ability and their underestimate of our fallen nature.

If our sinful nature were the only truth that the gospel had to offer, it would scarcely deserve to be called good news. But of course, there is good news, which is that we need not be afraid of admitting our sinfulness, because the grace of God is available.

The wonder of Christ is that he offers grace with such freedom that it astounds us. His offering of grace helps us come to him with our sins and seek his face. We can be confident in repentance because we know that forgiveness is certain through him. However, the other side of grace is our willingness to extend that grace to those who have sinned against us. Christ calls us to forgive others as we have been forgiven (Matthew 6:12). When Christians incorporate the pattern of recognizing sin and extending grace to each other, we will go a long way toward addressing our society’s racial issues. We then take the spiritual principles on which we base our faith and bring them into our solutions for racism.

What does Yancey’s proposed approach look like in practice? He freely admits that he does not have all the answers, but he does present some examples. Perhaps most interesting are the examples from his own personal life. Yancey is black, and his wife, Sherelyn, is white. In the introduction to the book, after mentioning his youthful appearance, Yancey goes on to describe something that has troubled him for most of his life.

Perhaps my appearance explains why, until recently, I often heard a sound familiar to black men under the age of thirty: KA-CHUNK! It is the sound of car doors locking. I have heard this sound as I walked through a parking lot and even as a car whizzed past me at forty mph. It is a sound of the fear which whites still feel toward blacks in our society. It is a sound which represents the higher incarceration rates of blacks and the beating of Rodney King. It is a sound which many black men come to hate. And make no mistake about it: it is a sound reserved for black men. When I asked my sociology students about the sound of car doors locking, black men were the only ones who had heard it, with one exception, a Puerto Rican female.

Yancey returns to this issue later in the book.

Early in our marriage I noticed that Sherelyn would lock the car doors whenever she stopped at a stoplight and any men were close by. Her habit became a source of tension between us. For her, it was not a racial issue but a safety issue. While I believed her when she claimed that she had no racial motivations, I could not dismiss my own experience. If Sherelyn had adopted a colorblindness perspective, she could have ignored my concerns. Her reaction would have made me more defensive and resentful toward her. Either we would have continually argued about the issue or I would have stopped trusting her to look out for my good.

We developed a compromise. We agreed that Sherelyn can lock the car doors before we drive or if there is no one else around. However, she no longer locks the car door as we drive by a man of color. She will wait until we are far enough away from him that he cannot hear the doors locking. This eliminates the insult of the sound of car doors locking yet allows her to feel secure as she drives. The key is that she had to listen to my concern and take it seriously before we could find a solution.

Yancey tells another touching anecdote involving his wife.

We were attending a Native American festival, and she went to the food stand to get something to eat. Behind the booth was a Native American man who was a war veteran. After striking up a conversation, she told him of a time she attended a Nez Perce powwow where she saw a warrior dance in honor of the United States flag. The sight brought tears to her eyes because she knows enough of Indian history to know how much damage has been done under the banner of the Stars and Stripes. Yet the Nez Perce nation and that veteran at the festival had risked their lives for the country that had mistreated them. They had not even been thanked for such service. The heart of this American Indian was clearly touched. He told her, “Well, someone has thanked us now.”

I do not know if that Native American veteran was a Christian. If Sherelyn had met him in a Christian context, the two of them could have explored the spiritual dimensions of his healing and her repentance. Their exploration would have made it easier for them to work together to heal the racial barriers that remain in the body of Christ. Sherelyn did not have to agree with the man on all racial issues, but her respect for his history and service opened up a conversation that enhanced racial understanding.

At the level of individual personal interaction, I find that Yancey’s suggestions have much to commend them. They seem similar in flavor to Mark Vroegop’s lament/empathy recipe as described in his book Weep With Me. I have no doubt that the cause of racial reconciliation would be greatly advanced if we were all to take to heart Yancey’s call to be quick to admit our own sinfulness, and if we were to focus more on empathizing with people we disagree with than on arguing against them.

Overall, then, my impression of Yancey’s book is highly positive. At the same time, I do feel that there are some weak points. Perhaps the most salient is Yancey’s discussion of corporate repentance. I do not dispute Yancey’s assertion that “social structures and institutions systematically work against the interest of people of color”—i.e., that what Yancey calls institutional racism exists. What is less clear to me, and what I do not think that Yancey makes a convincing theological case for, is his claim that institutional racism is sin, and that the appropriate response is corporate repentance. The conclusion does not follow automatically from the definition; for example, sickle-cell anemia “systematically works against the interest” of Americans with African ancestry, but would anyone refer to sickle-cell anemia as sin in need of repentance? Yancey does make some clarifying comments about what he means by corporate repentance.

Corporate repentance is not about whites repenting for their own personal failings, although some may need to do that. It is about sorrow for the historic and contemporary mistreatment of people of color. Its goal is that European Americans will be grieved to realize that they benefit from racism even though they are not racist themselves, and they will seek to understand more of the plight of people of color because they want to end the pain of racism. They will begin to understand how their racial attitudes are not so benign as they thought and may contribute to the maintenance of the racial status quo. From such new awareness, whites will act on behalf of racial minorities. Bringing reconciliation will become more important than protecting their own racial and social position.

But now let me suggest that we draw an analogy between “institutional racism” and global poverty. Global poverty has many roots, but in many cases, it is clear that one of the causes is historic mistreatment of those who are now suffering from poverty. Global poverty is something we can all grieve over, and as we develop greater awareness, we can learn to value ending poverty over protecting our own wealth. But now let me pose the question: Are we therefore all institutional classists and do we need to engage in corporate repentance for global poverty? There is no doubt that personal attachment to wealth can be a sin; Jesus himself made this point in his conversation with the rich young man who was unwilling to part with his riches. But I am much less sure that all of us in rich countries—including those who are impoverished—are called by God to corporately repent of our collective wealth.

Word choices do matter. Yancey devotes many pages of his book to pointing out that whites are very sensitive to being called racist and that inappropriately “playing the race card” is something that racial minorities should usually avoid. It is one thing to argue that there exist structural forces that perpetuate inequality, but quite another to use the term “institutional racism” to describe this phenomenon, to maintain that institutional racism is sin, and to say we are obliged to engage in corporate repentance for that sin. Corporate repentance is a tricky theological topic; I have found the nuanced discussion of Kevin DeYoung to be one of the best treatments of the subject (see pages 11–13).

A second concern I have concerns Yancey’s description of colorblindness. Yancey follows the practice that I have noticed among many writers, especially people of color, of failing to distinguish between having a vision of a society where race does not matter and pretending that racial issues do not exist today. Both of these views are lumped together under the word “colorblindness.” It seems to me that inextricably linking the two distinct ideas, by using the same word for both, forces us to throw out the baby (the strengths of the colorblindness model) with the bathwater (the weaknesses of the colorblindness model).

Having said that, I want to emphasize that despite these minor disagreements that I have with Yancey, I still wholeheartedly recommend his book. Simply by laying out the issues so clearly and fairly, Yancey has performed a tremendous service. On top of that, his distinctively Christian approach, which is backed by examples from the life of Jesus, are inspiring to all of us who want to understand what the church has to offer that the world does not have. I know of no better starting point for those who want to engage in a serious dialogue about racism that confronts the hard issues in a sensitive and productive manner.

[Note added April 2022: See also my review of Yancey’s later book, Beyond Racial Division.]
Posted November 2020

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