Review of Beyond Racial Division by George Yancey

Back in 2020, I wrote a positive review of George Yancey’s first book on race, Beyond Racial Gridlock. I still like that book, and I believe that his proposed approach, which he called the “mutual responsibility model,” is on the right track. On the other hand, I have learned from experience that Gridlock is not necessarily the perfect book to recommend to all Christians on the topic of race. For starters, the book is somewhat dated, because it was written in 2006. More importantly, I have been somewhat surprised to discover that many Christians that I would have expected to like the book actually react negatively to it. These reactions have made me more aware of how Yancey says some things that can trigger a highly negative response; one notable example is his discussion of “playing the race card” in Chapter 8. In fact, even Neil Shenvi, who has voiced strong opposition to critical race theory and could be considered more “conservative” than Yancey in that sense, has noted the “jarring language used to insist that blacks, as well as whites, share some responsibility for racial division.”

For these reasons, I was eager to read Yancey’s new book, Beyond Racial Division, to see if it might overcome the above shortcomings. In many ways, Division is very similar to Gridlock, since his fundamental message and recommendations have not changed. Since I have already reviewed Gridlock, I will not belabor the details of his main argument here. As before, Yancey emphasizes active listening, and trying to find common ground instead of trying to destroy the perceived enemy. Let me quote just one paragraph from Chapter 2 of Division that summarizes his main thesis.

A mutual accountability model is about finding win-win solutions. Instead of focusing on getting everything we can get, we focus on what we need so we can work together instead of against each other. The difference between this model and a colorblindness or antiracism model is the focus on healthy interracial communications. In other models we are asked to accept preordained answers. A mutual accountability model assumes we cannot know the answers to our racialized problems until we have engaged in collaborative conversations with each other. When individuals are convinced they already have the right answers, they feel justified using legal, political, and cultural power to enforce those answers. Such expressions of power make racial alienation worse. But collaborative conversations emphasize moral suasion rather than power. The focus is on community building rather than winning the racial war.

This is basically same message as in Gridlock. However, there are some important differences between the two books. Naturally, there are references in Division to some notable recent events, such as the election of Donald Trump in 2016 (which Yancey says “felt like a stab in the back for us as African Americans”), and the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd. A more substantive difference, which I believe to be an improvement, is that he has simplified and tightened up his message by presenting his proposed approach (which he now calls “mutual accountability” or “collaborative conversations”) as a third alternative to colorblindness and antiracism (as opposed to a fifth alternative to colorblindness, Anglo-conformity, multiculturalism, and white responsibility). Colorblindness and antiracism are indeed the loudest voices in the American racial conversation today, so I believe that today’s audiences will be able to relate to Yancey’s new book better than to his old book.

So is Beyond Racial Division my new favorite book to recommend to Christians on the topic of race? It may be, in large part because I have not yet found any other book that I think is clearly better. At the same time, I would not claim that Division is perfect. “Playing the race card” is still mentioned (on page 168), and there may be other language in the book that triggers some readers unnecessarily. The other reservation I have about the book is that even though I mostly agree with Yancey’s recommendations for action, I find some of his theoretical justifications to be weak.

This point about theoretical justification deserves more comment. Yancey has two major lines of justification, empirical and theological. One of his major criticisms of antiracism is that it “does not work.”

My problems with antiracism emerge with the third theme concerning the role of whites. In my mutual accountability model we are all at the table making decisions together. Whites are not put at a “kids’ table” or limited to supporting only the ideas of people of color. Many in antiracism believe it is fair to restrict whites in this way because the voices of people of color have been silenced for so long. Philosophically, I struggle with the notion that we can move forward in society with such a two-tiered system. If it could be shown to work empirically, I could put away my concerns, but the antiracism books and articles I read rarely if ever provide evidence that these techniques actually work. Maybe that is because research suggests they do not work.

Yancey goes on to cite numerous studies about the effects of diversity training and other educational efforts, as well as of attempts to redistribute economic resources. Yancey says that these studies show little evidence that antiracism “works.” I have not chased down these studies, but I confess that I find it hard to believe that any such studies would allow us to draw any firm conclusions about as vast and overarching a philosophical framework as antiracism purports to be. Academic studies, by their nature, must focus on a limited setting and timeframe, and examine easily measurable outcomes. They may be able to give evidence that Technique A does not achieve Effect E on Population P within Timeframe T. But they cannot reliably predict, for example, what a civil war that costs the lives of countless people, and overthrows the societal order, will give us a hundred years later. Given that the goal for many antiracists is a complete overhaul of society, with even violent revolution not necessarily off limits, it makes no sense to claim that “antiracism does not achieve its goals” on the basis of case studies with a small number of people. One would have to run randomized controlled trials on hundreds of copies of the United States in hundreds of parallel universes, which is obviously impossible. Furthermore, Yancey freely admits that empirical support for his own approach is also lacking, at least in the context of racialized issues. So the empirical argument strikes me as weak at best.

As a Christian, though, I am even more concerned about Yancey’s theological arguments. In this regard, Division strikes me as being decidedly weaker than Gridlock. I suspect that part of the reason is that in Division, Yancey has made a conscious decision to try to make his arguments intelligible to everyone, including those who are not Christians. Unfortunately, in doing so, Yancey has watered down his theological argument to the point where it is hard to see what is distinctively Christian about it. In Chapter 6 of Gridlock, there is ample mention of our sin nature, of the need for confession, and of the role of the grace and forgiveness of God through Jesus Christ. The theological basis for mutual responsibility begins with my recognition that I am a lost sinner, and that I need the regeneration of the Holy Spirit before I can even take the first step on the path to sanctification. I am in no position to remove motes from the eyes of others before the log in my own eye is removed, and I cannot do even that without supernatural help, because of my own depravity. This view of the human condition differs starkly from the secular attitude that the only thing about myself that needs reforming is my thinking, and that I can achieve such right thinking by dint of my own efforts.

In Division, however, much of this theology has been shorn away. Yancey retains the word depravity, which has overtones of the doctrine of total depravity that was championed by the Reformers. But here is how Yancey defines depravity on page 137.

Human depravity is the notion that we are not perfectible. A central message of Christianity is that we all have fallen short of perfectibility. We can, and should, strive to be better, but we must recognize that we will never get there. We need Christ because of our inability to overcome our innate depravity.

This is arguably the most critical philosophical difference between Christianity and humanist approaches to reality and morality. Christians believe that humans are fallen and, depending on what a particular Christian tradition emphasizes, Christ is needed in some way to help us find our full humanity. Humanist thought is focused on obtaining full humanity through the use of human abilities rather than looking to the supernatural.

It is hard to overstate just how important this difference is when it comes to separating Christianity from secular ideologies. If we believe that human effort and ability are key to solving problems, we have a great deal of confidence in humans’ ability to use rationality to solve these problems. Yes, we may acknowledge that humans do not always respond in rational ways, but that can be aided by engaging in study and thought. Once we have found the right solutions, education can be used to promote the ideals that will make our society better.

If we do not have such confidence in human ability, then we will be humbler about our ability to develop moral and ethical systems that serve all of us. If we believe we are compromised by something like human depravity, we may be especially worried about attempts to promote solutions as the “ultimate answer.” We will worry that we tend to promote answers that serve us and our friends at the expense of others in our society. If human depravity is real, then having mechanisms that allow us to compensate for our depravity is critical.

The barest outline of Christian theology is still detectable in Yancey’s capsule summary, but many crucial details have been lost. The role of Christ is vague; all we are told is that he is “needed in some way to help us find our full humanity.” There is no clear sense that my nature needs to be radically transformed, that my sinful nature must die and that I must be born again. Faith and repentance have no clear role. And as another Yancey—Philip Yancey—might say, we are left wondering, what’s so amazing about grace? Grace is not mentioned. It seems that all that is left is an exhortation to be conscious of my own fallibility, and to build some checks and balances into our systems to guard against a natural human tendency to be selfish. This much, most secularists already agree with.

The lack of Christian distinctiveness is also visible in Yancey’s definition of “mutual accountability.” One might think that the most important type of accountability is my accountability for my own sins—an accountability that Christ has now assumed on our behalf if we repent of our sins and believe in him. However, Yancey explains the term this way (on page 35): ‘By allowing those we disagree with to hold us “accountable” to their interests, we are forced to confront the ways we have fashioned solutions that conform to our own interests and desires.’

But let me end on a positive note, since as I have already said, I believe that Yancey is on the right track. From a practical point of view, one of the most interesting things I learned from the book was the existence of the websites of Game Changer and the Baylor Program for Collaborative Conversations and Race. Yancey is personally involved in the latter program. Game Changer was founded by Sam Sheppard, and leverages sports events to conduct training events that strive to build greater mutual understanding and respect between police officers and the communities that they work in. Having just learned about both organizations, I do not know much about them, but they sound promising and I look forward to learning more.
Posted April 2022

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