My wife and I will be celebrating 20 years of marriage this June. Even before our wedding day, I set out on a journey to understand my wife’s ethnic identity and to question my own assumptions about race. I have lost track of the books, the movies, and the specials I have watched over the years in the continuous education process that is both marriage and multiethnic community. But in the last few years, I have grown increasingly frustrated with the language that both white and black pundits spill on the airwaves or type on the page.
I have long since learned to ignore the narrow definition of racism the majority of conservative commentators and church leaders produce on a regular basis that limit racism to individual action or beliefs. “He was caught stealing from a store moments before.” Or “It was dark and he should not have had a hoodie on.” Such comments are not ever enough to justify homicide. The extreme dedication of a few minorities or simple good fortune of a handful of people of color that then “proves” structural racism a fantasy is exhaustingly tiresome and patently false.
On the other hand, in response to increasing attention to structural issues of power and discrimination a new crop of voices has arisen. Jamar Tisby, Austin Channing Brown, Ta-Nehisi Coates are just three and there are others in the world of print, music, and film who creatively put a spotlight on issues of racism and ethnic discrimination. But even so, as constructive as I find many of these voices to be, their words bold and striking I grow increasingly troubled by the tenor of some of their words. For example in her book, I’m Still Here Austin Channing Brown writes “It really doesn’t matter. At the end of the day Blackness is always the true offense Whiteness needs just a hint of a reason to maintain its own goodness” (page 146). In a number of ways these voices proclaim, whiteness and white people are the problem.
George Yancey in his book “Beyond Racial Gridlock” addresses my increasing unease with the language used in discussing racial unity by both sides. The language used, Yancey argues, reveals four linguistic-philosophical paradigms that lead to confusion and ultimate failure. For example, in what he labels the colorblindness model, the anglo-conformity model, multiculturalism model and white responsibly model there exists a common failure to deal with the underlying cause of racial gridlock.
The models mentioned above all define racism and the methods of its eradication differently. Colorblindness defines racism as overt acts of hostility to an individual based on physical characteristics. It denies the existence of structural problems. The solution, therefore, is to deny that these characteristics have any value or meaning. I have personally encountered this well-meaning strategy as people have commented: “ I don’t see your disability; I just see you as normal.” The failure to see how my physical reality has shaped my personality and life experience result in a failure to see me as I truly am.
The Anglo-conformity model stresses minorities’ physical and economic conditions. The model does concede the possibility of structural prejudice but limits the solutions to economic development and educational disparity. As Yancey writes, “Advocates of the Anglo-conformity . . . argue that part of the explanation is ignorance about how to succeed in our society. Therefore they often attempt to train people of color how to succeed educationally and how to impress one’s employer” (page 44). However, this model places to much emphasis on the physical nature of the problem if minorities had more money or more education the problems would be solved. Secondly, the model suffers from making white and European definitions of hard work, success and wealth the universal definitions for all racial groups.
The multicultural and white responsibility models have similar problems but as opposed to the Colorblind and Anglo-conformity models originate from loci more associated with minority perspectives. Multiculturalism forms its philosophy believing first in the uniqueness and intrinsic value and good of every culture and tradition. Thus, “No matter where we find multiculturalists . . . they lay the blame for racism: squarely on the majority’s denial of the worth of nonwhite racial groups and their cultural norms” (page 55). In reading this chapter I discovered that the model I thought of as my own had flaws I had never considered. On page 58 Yancey citing another author notes how multiculturalism goals are cooperation and harmony, not truth and justice. It is going to take me a while to unpack the importance of this difference since I had never seen it before.
As alluded to above white responsibility advocates blame all the problems on majority white culture, particularly its structures. “The greatest strength of the white responsibility model is its ability to point out subtle ways in which the majority dominates society and perpetuates racism”(page 67). The model then denies that minorities have any responsibility for racial tensions, even going as far as to say a minority can not be a racist. The irony is white responsibility model often denies the agency of people of color.
Yancey asserts that all four of the models fail as the result of a common denial of the nature of sin. Each of the models, in fundamental ways, fall short of comprehending the extent and depth of sin in the individual or the society. Yancey goes further to suggest that only Christianity provides a proper model of racial reconciliation because it does not hide the pervasive brokenness of both individuals regardless of color and the systems those individuals build. The secular world fails to find an answer to racial woes since it denies the spiritual reality of the problem. Yancey forms his model of reconciliation out of Romans 3:23 “ for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”
One has to wonder after Yancey states his case for a Christian model of reconciliation why are we as Christians so bad at it. Yancey provides the answer—- fear. We are afraid to admit how we have benefitted from being part of the majority culture. We are afraid of what we might lose if we forgive those in the majority. Fear prevents us from engaging our hearts and looking ourselves in the mirror. In this season of Lent as we reflect on our shortcomings and failures. It might be time to examine our own fears surrounding racial reconciliation and confess them honestly.
George Yancey’s “Beyond Racial Gridlock” would not be my first read if I am just wading into the waters of Racial Reconciliation. It is not appropriate for a Sunday school or even a Bible study since the first half of the book relies on sociological models rather than on scripture. To those who have walked toward racial reconciliation for a while and read numerous books on the subject and done their own soul work this book does have its place. The book clarifies issues, categorizing them and shading both positive and negative lights on the fashionable models of the day. This book also reminds us that there is no answer to the quest for racial unity without Christ at the center and for that, we can be grateful.