Race & Faith (2): Four Secular Models for Dealing with Racism

In the previous installment of this series, we noted that evangelicals have not quite made the progress we might think we have in terms of overcoming racism. One reason is that many of us have not crafted a biblically informed and conceptually clear model for understanding race and racism. If we give any sustained thought to race and racism, we tend to adopt secular models and assume that they are compatible with a Christian framework for thinking through the issues.

In the United States, four models dominate the discussion of race and racism: colorblindness, Anglo-conformity, multiculturalism, and white-responsibility. Each of these models is “secular.” Moreover, each of the models stems from one, or both, of two deficient definitions of racism. These definitions do not account for the full biblical teaching on sin and redemption. None of the models are shaped by the Bible’s storyline, and therefore none of them are fully sufficient for addressing race and racism.

Yancey thus begins by noting how the four predominant models for dealing with racism stem from two contrasting definitions of racism: individualism and structuralism. The individualist’s “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 . . . . The individualist definition of racism holds that racial strife is the result of an individual choosing to act in a racist manner” (20). Citing work by Michael Emerson and Christian Smith, Yancey notes that white evangelicals are especially prone to adopt this definition because evangelicals have a strong concept of personal sin (21).

The structuralist definition, however, holds that “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.” (21–22) Again citing Emerson and Smith, Yancey observes that blacks are more likely than whites to be structuralists. Yet the difference is even more acute among evangelicals: “white evangelicals are even more individualistic than other whites, and black evangelicals are even farther apart than whites and blacks in general” (23). Yancey argues that both of these definitions on their own “ . . . ignore the spiritual dimension of sin. They are secular definitions.” (24).

Emerging from these two definitions of racism are four secular models for dealing with racism. Yancey describes the models and evaluates them, finding each one insufficient for building a Christian understanding of racial unity and diversity. The remainder of this post includes a brief summary of his description and evaluation of each model.

Yancey first describes the colorblindness model. Its proponents claim (or imply) that, “to end racism, we have to ignore racial reality. Advocates of colorblindness contend that efforts to alleviate our economic racial divide only elevate the importance of race, which in turn only reinforces the negative power of race in our society” (29–30). Yancey notes that politically conservative Christians often baptize this secular view because they believe the individual is (largely) responsible for his or her own flourishing in society. The strengths of this model are twofold: its laudable goal (for individuals to stop being racist) would certainly improve our society, and it helps minorities avoid looking for racism where it does not exist (32–33). Yet Yancey finds marked weakness in this model. Advocates of this view are, at best, naïve about their own ability to deal with the historical effects of racism. Further, this model can also lead to distortions that actually perpetuate racism. Also, and more subtly, Yancey sees the possibility for an incipient avoidance of racial equality in this model (34–36). Finally, a certain doctrine of sin, which errantly tends to locate the causes of racial disunity exclusively in the individual, underlies this view (39).

Second, the Anglo-conformity model overlaps with the colorblindness model in that its proponents assume “that minorities’ lack of success cannot be blamed on contemporary racism.” That is, “If racial groups can obtain relative economic equality, then conflict between them will lessen or even disappear” (41). In other words, in this view non-Anglo persons should seek the sort of upward economic and social mobility that many whites have. Racial problems are class (economic) issues. Once the class-economic problems are alleviated, usually through government-sponsored programs, the race problems will likewise be alleviated. Positively, this model acknowledges economic realities and it looks for minorities to take the lead in solving the ills of their families and neighborhoods (45–46). However, the model has several weaknesses: it puts too much emphasis on economic solutions, devalues minority cultures by making such a big deal out of Anglo culture, and finds itself so tied to a certain view of capitalism that any alternate economic proposals find no place in the discussion. Even though many Christians have adopted this view, Yancey argues that it comes up short of the humble nature of Christianity, which eschews rather than gobbles up power (51).

Third, the multiculturalism model seeks to build a “society in which distinct racial and ethnic groups preserve their own identities.” Examples of multiculturalism include the use of multiple languages on official government forms, and the way primary school curriculum (especially history) represents multiple cultures. Yancey finds that this model helpfully tries to correct many of our society’s “Eurocentric excesses” (55), and allows minorities to both know and critique their own cultures from within. Yet ironically, under the multiculturalist model minorities tend to degrade the culture of the majority (57). Yancey finds this reality working its way into Christian perspectives, as the work of Randy Woodley and Clarence Shuler illustrates (60–61). Again, the problem with this model is how its relativistic impulse overrides the Christian claim of moral right and wrong. Thus, minority cultures go un-critiqued while the majority culture is perpetually on the hot seat.

Fourth, the white-responsibility model places the blame for racism squarely on whites (64). In this perspective, “racial minorities can have prejudice, but they cannot be racist because racism requires structural power” (65). The dominant group, i.e. whites, hold the structural power. This model emerged from the civil rights movement that birthed ethnic studies programs in American colleges. These in turn gave birth to critical race theory, which argues that racism is an inherent part of American culture (65). Proponents of white responsibility therefore seek to change the power structures in our country. Yancey notes that the greatest strength of this model is its observation of the subtle ways a single group can dominate society and so other groups. However, this model discounts the responsibility of racial minorities: if the majority is always at fault, then minorities have no responsibility. Further, it “alienates whites who do not already feel a significant level of racial guilt” (69). Finally, and most significantly, it ignores the fact that all people––majority or minority––are sinners. As such, it is hard to call the Christian version of this model “Christian.”

Yancey weighs the secular alternatives and finds them wanting. He is right to find them deficient.

I agree with him and will voice that agreement in the last post of this series. I will also offer an additional line of argument.

Before doing so, however, in the next two blog posts we will turn to Yancey’s proposed model. His model seeks to diagnose the problem of racism by building a more full-orbed biblical doctrine of sin, and then by encouraging us to embrace a “mutual responsibility” model. In this way Yancey hopes to bring healing to our racially divided communities.

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  1. Martie Mangum   •  

    I am excited you have decided to tackle this difficult issue. I wanted to hold most of my comments until I have read your summary of Yancey’s model as well as your additional arguments, but I found it irresistible.

    One thing I have found to be most helpful is to define the terms clearly. For instance “Race” as I understand your blog posts so far means more in line with what I would call “Ethnicity”. Forgive me if I am misreading you.

    I haven’t read Yancey, but you suggest he tries to take it back to human depravity. I would argue we must take it all the way back to creation. In Genesis 1 the animals were created with some type of categories in mind (“after their kind”). Man is unique in that he alone is made in the image and likeness of God.

    When we speak of “Race” or “Ethnicity”, we have to be clear that we are not talking about different “kinds”, but the same “kind”. It is crucial in my opinion that we build on this foundational understanding of man. While we are the same “kind” there is no denying that we are very different. Our skin color and culture are the two most prominent ways in which we are different.

    Viewing men as made in the image of God will help us show the proper dignity and respect for all peoples. Understanding that the fall fractured us and leads us to “make a name for ourselves” according to newly defined categories(I’m thinking Babel). The “racial” harmony we are looking for will only come through Christ who has promised to reconcile & restore all things. In Christ our old identity/categories are removed and together we find our identity as those who are being renewed into the image of God.

  2. Bruce Ashford   •     Author


    Thank you. I’m glad that you couldn’t help yourself! Yes, i’m talking about ethnicity and yes, i agree, that unity-in-diversity goes back to creation. that will be one of two points I make in the final post. And then, of course, unity-in-diversity in another sense goes back to the Godhead which is even prior to creation.

    Thank you for your thoughtful and helpful reflection.


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