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.

Race & Faith (1): A Prayer for Racial Unity and Diversity in our Churches

Over the course of the past twenty years, I have filled the pulpit of several hundred churches in the United States. Those churches belong to more than 20 denominations, though most are Southern Baptist. During this twenty-year stretch, I cannot remember more than, say, 20 churches that were multi-racial. Although I rarely encountered churches that were overtly racist, increasingly I have come to recognize the monochrome racial uniformity of our churches as an obstacle to the gospel. What is true of our churches often is true also of our seminaries.

For the past twelve years, I have been a professor at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, where I also currently serve as Provost. For better and for worse, our seminary reflects the Southern Baptist churches that created and support it (especially the churches in the South), and which populate its classrooms with budding ministers of the gospel. I am profoundly grateful for Southern Baptist churches and recognize the myriad ways in which they represent well God and his gospel. However, my love and appreciation for our network of churches causes me to reflect upon ways in which we do not yet reflect well God and his gospel, and one of those ways is racial unity and diversity.

Each semester when I sit on the platform for convocation and graduation, I notice the overwhelmingly white sea of faces. Similarly, when I preach in our churches, I am reminded that MLK’s famous statement still holds true: the Sunday hour of congregational worship does appear to be in many communities the most segregated hour of the week. This segregation appears as an odd anomaly in the midst of our broader American social and cultural context, where Anglos, African Americans, Hispanics, and Asian Americans live, work, and play alongside of one another. Each semester I pray that God would bless us by making our seminary a preview of his new creation kingdom in which all tribes, tongues, peoples, and nations will worship together.

As the faculty and administration at Southeastern we are working to make our seminary environment hospitable to non-Anglo students. We seek to teach to and for the concerns of non-Anglo students. Thus, I have been doing some reading toward that end. Among various books on race and racism, George Yancey’s Beyond Racial Gridlock: Embracing Mutual Responsibility stands out, providing a very helpful introductory treatment of racial unity from a Christian perspective.[1] Yancey’s book was in fact so helpful that I decided to craft a five-part blog series on race and faith, of which this post is the first installment.

Yancey argues that Americans in general, and Christians in particular, have not quite made the progress we might think we have in our battle with racism. Yancey argues that racial issues, not unlike life/death issues, are moral issues (11). However, while many evangelical Christians possess clear categories for conceptualizing and evaluating other moral issues (such as life/death issues; and can clearly articulate, for example, why abortion is immoral), Yancey argues that most Christians have not worked out moral categories or responses for racism. He writes, “My reading of secular and Christian literature on issues of race has not uncovered any unique stance on the part of the Christian church. When Christians write and speak about racial issues, they sound much like their secular counterparts. Instead of initiating our own solutions to the problem of racism, we merely copy the solutions offered by the rest of the world” (11).

Yancey recommends, however, that evangelicals more than most people should understand the doctrine fundamental to understanding racism—human depravity. “To understand how to best eliminate racism, I propose that we start with the Christian doctrine of human depravity. Secular solutions are incomplete because they ignore the reality of human depravity and our sin nature” (13).  For this reason, Yancey devotes the first part of his book to describing and critiquing four secular solutions to racial gridlock. In the second part Yancey provides his own constructive Christian treatment of the issue. Yancey’s categories and arguments are helpful enough that they will form the backbone of the current blog series.

[1] George Yancey, Beyond Racial Gridlock: Embracing Mutual Responsibility (Downers Grove: IVP, 2006). Yancey is associate professor of sociology at the University of North Texas, and is an African-American.

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Briefly Noted: Mark Bauerlein’s Journey Away from Atheism

In his recent First Things article, Mark Bauerlein (professor of English at Emory University) describes his journey into atheism and then out of it into Catholicism.[1] His article ironically exposes the thin intellectual and existential ground on which his atheism was built. As I see it, his testimony makes the same point, by extension, for the pop-atheism that pervades the airwaves these days (e.g. Rich Dawkins).

Bauerlein “discovered” atheism in his teens. As he tells it, one day it occurred to him that he thought and felt nothing about God. “God is not there, I realized, and that knowledge seemed to have come entirely from outside of me.” (48) Bauerlein did not tell his closest family or friends about his discovery, so as a bright student interested in literature, Bauerlein turned to the classic thinkers–Aristotle, Dante, Rousseau, Freud, etc.–for comfort. He also found what he thought was a certain intellectual gravity. Their writing was certification of his “entry into an august company of honest minds, adding greatness to truth.” (48)

Yet an odd thing happened to Bauerlein as a result of his entry into this “august” company. These great thinkers, he states, “ . . . did not save me from the consequences of believing in nothing.” (49) While he went looking for intellectual enlightenment and comfort for his soul in atheistic thinkers, Bauerlein found that “I’d lost God, and whatever his replacement might be (helping others, making money) left me cold.” (49)

Bauerlein began moving away from atheism. “I lived in the shadow of that unshakeable verity until, for some reason, a few scattered influences unsettled it.” A series of important events and people worked together in the unsettling process. He married a Christian woman whose faith he found wholesome, watched a respected colleague convert to Catholicism, and finally struggled to answer when his four-year-old son asked him “Daddy, where is God?’ (to which he did not reply “nowhere”). So he writes, “as the experiences piled up, the atheists I had joined no longer sounded so disinterested and broad-minded.” This is because none of them knew how to admit to a lack of understanding (50). In other words, Bauerlein’s journey away from atheism was a journey away from narcissism and nihilism.

As he journeyed away from atheism, Bauerlein began a journey toward faith in Christ. In late 2010, as he began reading about Christianity, he realized that he had a desire for God. “When I read ‘The desire for God is written in the human heart,’ I wanted more.” (51) As Bauerlein read he discovered that faith in God allows something atheism doesn’t, “it takes seriously the other side.” (51) He now found the other side empty. Nihilism was nothing. God was real. Before, he had simply failed to (try to) perceive, failed to (try to) understand him. The article concludes with what he now understands what he did not understand as a teenager: “God will not despise a broken and contrite heart” (Ps. 51:17) when that heart rests in God.

[1] Mark Bauerlein, “My Failed Atheism,” in First Things (May 2012): 47–51.