Beyond Racial Gridlock
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Beyond Racial Gridlock

Embracing Mutual Responsibility

George Yancey

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eBook - ePub

Beyond Racial Gridlock

Embracing Mutual Responsibility

George Yancey

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Christians have struggled with racial issues for centuries, and often inadvertently contribute to the problem. Many proposed solutions have been helpful, but these only take us so far. Adding to this complex situation is the reality that Christians of different races see the issues differently. Sociologist George Yancey surveys a range of approaches to racial healing that Christians have used and offers a new model for moving forward. The first part of the book analyzes four secular models regarding race used by Christians (colorblindness, Anglo-conformity, multiculturalism and white responsibility) and shows how each has its own advantages and limitations. Part two offers a new "mutual responsibility" model, which acknowledges that both majority and minority cultures have their own challenges, tendencies, and sins to repent of, and that people of different races approach racial reconciliation and justice in differing but complementary ways. Yancey's vision offers hope that people of all races can walk together on a shared path--not as adversaries, but as partners.

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Four Secular Models of Dealing with Racism


Two Views of Racism

When we tackle the subject of racism, a huge issue that confronts us is our inability to talk with each other. I am not referring to immigrants who speak Spanish, Mandarin, Portuguese or some other language. I mean that even those of us who understand English often use the same words or phrases to mean different things when we talk about race. For Christians to be a part of the racial healing process, we have to deal with these contrasting definitions and the confusion they cause.
Perhaps the most important distinction between people of different races is the way we understand the concept of racism. Christians should not be surprised by the tendency to define racial problems differently. Such a self-serving tendency comes from our human desire to escape our own responsibility and/or to gain resources from others in society.


The way we define a social problem will affect the way we conceive of its solution. If we have an incomplete definition of a problem, then we will envision a limited solution. If the real problem is larger than our restricted definition, then our solution will be insufficient.
Years ago I was watching a daytime talk show which focused on interracial romantic relationships. On this show, the father of a white woman did not approve of his daughter’s engagement to a black man. Yet when members of the audience called him a racist, he objected. From his point of view he was not a racist because even though he did not like blacks, he would not use the n word. Because he defined a racist as a person who used a particular racial insult, he felt free from the charge of racism. His limited definition of racist (voicing racial epithets) led to a limited solution (only avoid saying racial epithets). He was blind to the pain that his attitude caused both his daughter and the man to whom she was engaged.
If we are honest, we will admit that we also tend to define racism in a way that allows us to escape blame or to gain social resources from others. The father on the talk show may differ from us in degree of hypocrisy, but not in the effort with which we seek self-serving definitions to excuse ourselves. By our manipulation of words, we try to define away our own sins.
There are two dominant ways in which people in the United States define racism: the individualist definition and the structuralist definition.


An individualist understanding defines racism as something overt that can be done only by one individual to another. This definition relies on the concept of freewill individualism, in which ultimate responsibility lies with the choices that human beings make. This philosophy assumes that individuals have the capacity to choose right from wrong and that sin is the result of our wrong choices. Society’s problems rise from the sins of individuals. For example, the wrong sexual choices of many people have led to the spread of suffering and death from AIDS.
The individualist definition of racism holds that racial strife is the result of individuals choosing to act in a racist manner. If an apartment manager decides not to rent an apartment to a black applicant, then that manager is guilty of the sin of racism. If a teacher uses an insulting racial epithet against Hispanics, then the students will suffer from a racist action. If a personnel officer refuses to hire an Asian applicant, that is another example of racism. Christians who accept an individualistic definition of racism perceive these choices as sinful, and they perceive the effect of these sinful actions as racism.
Important work done by Michael Emerson and Christian Smith indicates that white evangelicals are more likely than other whites to adopt an individualist concept of racism because they have such a strong concept of personal sin.1 The white racist is seen as a sinner who must repent of his or her sin. It does not take a great leap in logic to understand that if all people are capable of racism, then people of color who discriminate against majority group members are also guilty. People of color may be guilty of other sins connected with racial problems. For example, African Americans are less likely than European Americans to sustain intact families, a fact which contributes to their lower economic status.2 From an individualist point of view, racial economic disparity can be the result of the sins of African Americans.
If the problem of racism is due to the individual shortcomings of racists, then the solution to racism lies within the individual. If we can eliminate the tendency of individuals to engage in racism, then we will eradicate any mistreatment of people based on race. Laws can play a part in the solution only so long as they mandate that individuals will be treated equally. Teaching people about the evils of racism can also be a solution, since we will learn how to treat each other in an egalitarian manner. Whether by law or teaching, this view locates the problem of racism within the individual; the solution is to help individuals overcome the personal racism in their hearts.


In contrast to the individualist definition of racism is the structuralist definition. According to this view, society can perpetuate racism even when individuals in the society do not intend to be racist. The structuralist viewpoint rests on the idea that humans are affected by the social structures in which they live. People do not merely make personal choices; they make choices influenced by the structures of their society. Merely exhorting weak-willed individuals to stop sinning will not solve racism; our social structures must also be reformed.
For example, black and Latino youths tend not to do as well academically as majority group members.3 Advocates of structuralism would argue that the difference has nothing to do with the students’ innate abilities. They would say that the disparity exists because black and Latino students attend schools that are inferior to predominantly white schools. The structualist explanation does not necessarily blame overt white racism for the poor schools but instead finds fault with the insufficient funding that the schools receive. Public schools are funded largely through property taxes. Through these property taxes, wealthy people pour more money into their children’s schools than poorer people are able to do. Personal racism is not to blame for the poor education of people of color; we should blame the social structures by which schools are funded.
The downplaying of individual blame is an important part of the structuralist view of racism. Those with a structuralist view do not dismiss the evidence that overt racism still plays a role in some racial problems. However, they assert that racism can affect the life prospects of people of color even when majority group members do not intend to act in a racist manner. The structuralist viewpoint sets forth an expanded definition of racism which includes acts of personal racism but also goes beyond them to include the way racism plays itself out in social structures. Since structuralists no longer need to prove ill will on the part of the majority, they are free to examine how social structures solidify racial inequality even when people do not overtly support such racism.
Emerson and Smith also note that African American evangelicals are more likely than other blacks to hold a structuralist viewpoint.4 We can attribute this tendency to black people’s desire to define racism in a way that will aid people of color. If blacks and other people of color include social structures as an aspect of racism, then they are more able to demand that society change those structures. Since racial minority groups have less than average income and wealth, they are motivated to push for social changes which will bring more economic equality. Obviously social reforms that concentrate on producing economic equality will lead to policies such as affirmative action, which work to the benefit of racial minorities. Structuralists may differ among themselves about how best to help people of color, but they agree that an alteration of social structures is part of the solution.
I want to make one final observation about these two basic definitions of racism. Emerson and Smith observed that blacks are more likely than whites to be structuralists.5 But, as noted above, white evangelicals are even more individualistic than other whites, and black evangelicals are even more structuralist than other blacks. In other words, in their ideas about how to solve racial problems, white and black evangelicals are even farther apart than whites and blacks in general. How can it be that white and black evangelicals, who largely share the same theological beliefs, have such divergent views about racial issues? It is vital that we begin to explore a common faith-based way to tackle racism, if for no other reason than to enable us to pull together Christians of different races into a truly unified body of Christ and present to the world a witness worthy of our Lord.


Individualists do not understand why fixing racist structures in society is so important because they do not believe that racism is found in social structures. Likewise structuralists cannot understand how individualists can fail to see the problem with structures, and they believe that individualists are insensitive to the real issues of racial inequality.
Both the structuralist and the individualist definitions ignore the spiritual dimensions of racism. They are secular definitions. Neither definition speaks to the nature of humanity or to spiritual forces that transcend individuals and society. Christians should not be limited to thinking only about the spiritual dimensions of racism, but racism must ultimately be defined as a result of our human sin nature. The sin nature of both majority and minority group members leads to racial conflict and tensions. We cannot end racism until we confront our own sin nature.


It is easy to get swept up in all the statistics, arguments and calculations which surround racial issues in the United States. Sometimes it is useful for us to step back and take a simple look at a complex problem.
For centuries certain racial groups have been abused by a racial group that has enjoyed a lot of power. Recently our society has seen the error of its ways and has granted those abused individuals equal legal and political rights. However, the granting of such rights has not wiped out the effects of centuries of abuse. Estranged relationships between those who have been in power and those who have been abused do not heal merely because we have passed certain egalitarian laws. There must be an intentional effort at racial healing.
So what do we do now? The groups who have benefited from historical abuse tend to want everyone to forget about the past and move on. The groups who have been historically abused tend to want to focus on historical evils and gain recompense for the wrongs done to them. In a nutshell this is the source of our contemporary racial conflict.
Such a simplification is useful because we can clearly see our sin nature in our own reactions to past events. Our sin nature seeks to be released from all measures of accountability. It is in the interest of whites to ignore the perspective of people of color and to minimize their concerns about racial justice. If whites take seriously the effects of historical and contemporary racism, then they will have to take measures to eliminate or at least limit those effects. The power and influence of the majority can only be diminished, since they already possess disproportionate amounts of power and status. I do not mean that all European Americans are well off and all racial minorities are poor, but in general whites have more social resources than racial minorities. If we assume that racial groups do not differ in intelligence, work ethic or other aspects of human ability, then we must assume that something in contemporary society and/or from our racist past ac...

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