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: Hoping that the March On Washington Finally Reaches the Church

A recent edition of The Chronicle Review caused me to pause and reflect on the progress the United States has made, in terms of racial unity, but also on the long way we have to go. More particularly, it caused me to reflect upon how far we, God’s church in the United States, are from his ideal for racial unity. In the article, “Our Long Walk to Freedom,” Peniel Joseph reflects upon the 50th anniversary of the historic March on Washington (August 28, 1963), in which several hundred thousand Americans marched in a unified effort to address racial disunity, economic security, class struggle, and voting rights.[1] Peniel, Professor of History at Tufts University, is right that the 50th anniversary “provides an important milestone to reflect on race relations in America. It’s natural to ask: How far have we come? And what has brought us here?”

Toward the beginning of the article, he notes that during the 2012 presidential election, black voter turnout surpassed white voter turnout for the first time. According to the U. S. Census Bureau, 66.2 percent of blacks turned out to vote, which (in contrast to 64.1 percent of non-Hispanic whites), which “represents a potential game changer for American politics” (B10).

Peniel writes that Democrats and Republicans read this data in different ways. Democrats see it as evidence of an emerging political consensus built around minorities. Republicans argue it is a result of Obama’s (2008) election itself and thus only an outlier in the otherwise normal voting trends. Joseph argues however that both narratives underestimate “the political intelligence and sophistication of black voters.” According to Joseph this is an intelligence and sophistication founded upon the hard, culture-shaping work of the civil rights movement of the 1960s.

The Democratic Party was not always the party of minorities, or especially of blacks, in America. By the late 1960s, however, the “Democrats found themselves identified primarily with the struggles of black and poor people” (B11). Though George McGovern was trounced in the Presidential election of 1972, as were most democrats from 1968–88, Martin Luther King Jr.’s “dream of a multiracial democracy did not die. It was, in retrospect, simply deferred: a sleeping giant waiting for demographic changes to come.” According to Joseph many of those changes may have come. The recent so-called “browning of America” “may turn the [Democratic] party’s identification with racial minorities from a political negative into an enduring electoral majority” (B11).

The possibility of such “an enduring electoral majority” has its beginnings, and its most important era, in the 1960s. As Joseph states, “The historic makeup of the Obama coalition can be directly traced back to events that took place a half-century ago.” Officially titled “the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom,” the demonstration pointed toward public policy issues such as economic security, class struggle, and voting rights that lay “beneath the surface of a battle for equality that many viewed, then, primarily through a racial lens” (B11). These issues arose again and again throughout the 1960s in the midst of conversation, debate, and outright battle over racial equality.

The March on Washington occurred in the most significant, and most tumultuous, year of that decade: 1963. The centennial of the Emancipation Proclamation witnessed several epoch-marking events. King was imprisoned in Birmingham, but from there wrote his “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” In it he evoked the nation’s founding as the “well of democracy” from which the civil rights movement was nourished. On June 11 of the same year, President Kennedy “voice full-throated approval of King’s words.” After asking “who among us” would like to switch places with King or other black Americans, Kennedy “concluded by defining civil rights as a ‘moral issue’ as ancient as Scripture but in dire need of public policy, as well as spiritual, intervention” (B12). Following Kennedy’s speech, the next day, Medgar Evers was assassinated.

The same month King served as keynote speaker at the Walk to Freedom in Detroit, which was at that time the greatest demonstration of the civil-rights era. That was until the March on Washington on August 28, 1963. This event “seemed to cull the year’s triumphs and tragedies to carve out what King described as a ‘stone of hope’ from a mountain of despair” (B12). Indeed more tragedy followed, with the bombing of 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham (which killed four girls) and Kennedy’s assassination in November. Yet these events, especially Kennedy’s assassination, “created the moral high ground that was absent while [Kennedy] was alive” and enabled President Johnson to enact several landmark legislative acts. The Civil Rights Act (1964) and the Voting Rights Act (1965) are two of the most notable.

Such progress would seem to indicate that the U. S. presidency of “a son Kenyan father and a white mother from Kansas” would be marked by an increasing resolution of race relations. Yet, as Joseph notes, these relations “remain contested” (B12). President Obama, for example, received 39 percent of the vote of whites in 2012, compared to 43 percent in 2008. Furthermore, John Kerry (2004) and Michael Dukakis (1988) both scored higher on this measure than Obama in 2012. Though young voters are less concerned with a candidate’s race than any previous generation, the racial tension remains and progress continues “in fits and starts,” according to Joseph (B12).

The recent not-guilty verdict for George Zimmerman touched off a series of nationwide protests. President Obama reflected publicly and personally on the effect of the verdict for many black Americans. Such tension, then, marks Obama’s generation. He did however strike a hopeful tone with regard to the next generation: “they’re better than us” (B12). Joseph also comments on the disproportionate number of blacks imprisoned on drug charges as evidence of remaining racial tension. More generally, Joseph states, “blacks and whites are still more likely than not to live, work, socialize and die apart” (B12). (One may also think of the oft-quoted line, “Sunday morning is the most segregated hour of the week.”)

Good and bad fruit has come from the events of the 1960s, but no doubt fruit has come. Joseph sees this 50th anniversary as landmark for several reasons. “The most profound lesson that 1963 has to offer the present is about the power of collective, organized action . . . . Most of all [the civil rights activists, especially King] promoted a radical vision of American democracy with a tenacity that has almost allowed us to forget the long road we’ve traveled since then, and to pay scant attention to the hard journey that remains” (B12).

Some Reflections

In response to Joseph’s article, I’ll limit myself to four theological reflections which, taken together, underscore my hope that the March on Washington will finally reach the church, that our churches and seminaries will increasingly be places known for racial diversity, racial unity, and interracial healing. For the deepest and truest racial reconciliation is wrought by the cross of Christ, just as the ultimate reasons for honoring and loving our racially-different brothers and sisters are theological rather than social or political.

First, God built diversity into his good creation. In Genesis, we are told that God created the heavens and earth and declared it “good” and even “very good.” Part of that goodness is the multi-splendored diversity which marked both the human and non-human aspects of his creation. He could have created the world dully, grey, and monochrome. But instead, he created it pulsating with life and color. At the center of his creation stood humanity, who he created to live in a unified diversity, loving him and loving each other.

Second, Christ’s atonement enables the racial unity God desires and overthrows the racial arrogance he detests. During the dramatic narrative of Revelation 5, all of heaven’s inhabitants gather around the throne, as “they sang a new song, saying: You are worthy to take the scroll, and to open its seals; for You were slain, and have redeemed us to God by Your blood out of every tribe and tongue and people and nation” (5:9). This verse is a culmination of a major theme in Scripture: the God who created humanity is so profoundly true, so comprehensively good, and so strikingly beautiful that he will find for himself worshipers among every type of person who has ever lived on the face of the earth. If God were worshiped merely by one race in the United States, his glory would be diminished. But as it is, he is worshiped both by black Americans and white Americans (and Asian, Hispanic, and Native Americans), and this togetherness is an object of God’s delight. Christ shed his blood to win white and black worshipers, so that he could delight in their unified worship.

Third, we will not know Christ in his full glory until we know him as the King of the Nations. As we noted, Revelation 5 depicts a scene in which Christ is worshiped by every type of person who has ever lived on the face of the earth. And at that moment, in this midst of this unified worship, it will be crystal clear that our God is not some tribal deity who is worshipped in a corner by one tribe of people (e.g. white Americans or black Americans). Instead, he is the King of the Nations, whose truth, goodness, and beauty is made known by the combined worship of all his people (both black and white, and other). We will not know him fully until we see him riding in as the King of the Nations.

Fourth, God calls us to shape our communities (socially and politically) in ways that preview his kingdom. As believers, we live in a time “between the times,” and one of our tasks is to bring every aspect of our lives (including social and political aspects) under submission to Christ’s Lordship. In so doing, God’s people provide a glimpse of the goodness that waits in Christ’s kingdom. In relation to racial unity and diversity, we are well served to ask three questions: what is God’s creational design for racial unity and diversity in the social and political realm? How has God’s design been corrupted and misdirected? How can we as Christians bring healing to this realm by redirecting it toward Christ? To be concise to the extreme in answering those questions, God’s design is a unity-in-diversity fueled by Christian love. This design has been corrupted and derailed by racism and segregation at the personal and institutional levels, and often is perpetuated by our society’s mediating institutions (of which the church is one). Following the lead of men like Norman Peart (Separate No More) and Jarvis Williams (One New Man), we must build churches which picture the gospel in their racial makeup and witness, and which work hard in the social and political realm to make racial reconciliation and unity a tangible reality.

When our churches are racially divided, and when they are monolithically uni-racial, we send a message that is diametrically opposed to the gospel. In effect, we say, “Christ is a tribal deity whose gospel is not powerful enough to transcend racial barriers, and whose beauty is not great enough to win admirers from all races and cultures and teach them to worship together.” For this reason, we need to pray hard and work hard for a powerful display of Christian unity between believers of all races—Caucasian, African-American, Asian-American, Latino, and Native-American. In these days following the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, may we pray that God will glorify himself among our churches, and will do so first of all by teaching us to worship him alongside of one another.

[1] Peniel E. Joseph, “Our Long Walk to Freedom” in The Chronicle Review (August 16, 2013: B10–12).