From my experience, I have found that many disagreements around racial issues revolve around differences between the participants’ definition of what counts as racism and what does not. Hence, I have found George Yancey’s book, Beyond Racial Gridlock: Embracing Mutual Responsibility (IVP 2006), helpful in this regard. Yancey, a Christian sociologist at the University of North Texas, describes in the first part of his book two different definitions of racism and four basic models of racial reconciliation that flows out of them. In this blog, I want to briefly outline them for you.
The two dominant definitions of racism in the United States are the individualist definition and the structuralist definition. The individualist definition sees “racism as something overt that can be done only by one individual to another” (p. 20). Hence, racial strife is the result of individuals choosing to act in a racist manner. The solution, therefore, lies within the individual. “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” (p. 21). We can eliminate racism by eliminating the racist tendencies within individuals. The emphasis is on education and awareness training. If laws are brought into the picture, they should only mandate individuals to treat others equally.
The structuralist view, however, sees racism as both structural and individual and that social institutions can perpetuate racism. “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” (p. 22). Structuralists do not dismiss overt racist acts, but “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” (p. 22). Hence, in this view, the solution to racism cannot be simply education and awareness building but most definitely requires social, structural and institutional reforms.
It is interesting that Yancey notes research surveys found 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” (p. 21). The same surveys show that “African-American evangelicals are more likely than other blacks to hold a structuralist viewpoint” (p. 22). Hence, white and black evangelicals are more likely than non-evangelical whites and blacks to differ on their views of race and racism! In other words, evangelicals are more likely than any other group in the US to be divided in their approaches to racism along colored lines.
The first two models are based on the individualist definition of racism; the other two on the structuralist. For brevity’s sake, I will briefly describe and outline their strengths and weaknesses.
This model proposes that we will achieve racial reconciliation when we ignore race and forget the past historical discrimination. Concentrating on the advances we have made and acting in a colour-blind manner is the best way to overcome racism, according to its proponents.
- Goals are good. If we could create a colour-blind society, we won’t have racism.
- Helps correct the tendency of some racial minorities to look for problems of racism when they do not exist.
- Is adequate for dealing with some types of overt racism.
- Ignores the pain and suffering racial minorities have undergone.
- Doesn’t take seriously the fact that whites still benefit from historical oppressive racial structures.
- Can be used as a cop-out for those who want to ignore current racial inequalities.
This model encourages racial minorities to accept Euro-American values. The goal here is to help minorities imitate how whites have moved up the economic social ladder.
- It is important for racial minorities to learn the skills necessary to succeed.
- Enables us to look for ways to help racial minorities overcome their economic disadvantages.
- Gives racial minorities the responsibility to help themselves.
- Devalues racial minorities by placing unwarranted blame on them. Assumes it’s all individual effort, and therefore, their struggles are all their own faults.
- Reinforces the idea that Christianity can only, or best, be expressed within Euro-American culture.
- Discounts the fact that racial minorities’ cultures offer Christian perspectives that are overlooked by White Christians.
This model emphasizes the value and worth of minority cultures. Racial minority individuals and their subcultures, according to this model, are held in low esteem by the dominant society and so we must find worth in those individuals and cultures.
- Helps to correct some of the excesses of Euro-centrism.
- Can help minorities to celebrate the positive aspects of their culture.
- Theoretically allows for creation of a society that focuses on the cultural strengths of all the combined people groups.
- Tends to gloss over the failings of racial minority cultures.
- Allows racial minorities to “play the race card” – accusing racism when it is not racism – and blame whites for their own problems. Racial minorities must take the lead to hold those among them who “play the race card” accountable because this harms the cause of racial reconciliation in the long term.
- Sometimes ignores the accomplishments of majority group members.
This model locates racial problems totally within majority group culture and individuals. Racial minorities cannot be racist since they lack the economic and social power of whites. Solutions revolve around total empowerment of racial minorities.
- Takes racism very seriously by recognizing the differential social positions of whites and non-whites in the US.
- Can be useful for tackling the inherited advantages of majority group members.
- Is effective in reducing the stigma some racial minorities perceive because of their racial status.
- Totally ignores the responsibility of racial minorities.
- Tends to alienate whites that do not already feel guilt and so is not helpful for creating harmony between whites and non-whites.
- Ignores the fact that all people have a sin nature.
Sin or Human Depravity
In Part 2 of his book, Yancey argues that a Christian contribution to these four models is the doctrine of sin or human depravity. Yancey believes that human sinfulness:
- Convinces whites to ignore racial issues and keep the status quo (colour-blindness).
- Convinces whites that people of colour need to imitate them (Anglo-conformity).
- Convinces people of colour that all problems reside within the culture of the majority group (multiculturalism).
- Convinces people of colour that they have done nothing to create their problems (white responsibility).
It is only when we take into account of the fact of human depravity, according to Yancey, that we can find a way to talk to each other with respect and to find a solution.
I recommend you read Yancey’s book for the rest of his suggestions for “the mutual responsibility model” he proposes as a Christian approach to dealing with racism, which is essentially, combining the strengths of the above four models, while acknowledging our sinfulness and fears, and hence, self-deception/self-justification, while looking to Jesus as our ultimate model of reconciliation.
I would add four things to this fine exploration by George Yancey.
Firstly, I personally define racism as sinful prejudice expressed and enshrined into a sinful system. I try to combine both the individualist and structuralist definitions. But by that definition, I tend to agree that, technically speaking, North American racial minorities cannot be guilty of racism but can be guilty only of prejudice, which is also a sin [update]. Because their prejudice is not systematized into North America’s social structures the way racial majorities’ prejudices do. Now, the roles may be reversed in other countries. I suspect, for example, that the dominant Chinese majority in China can be guilty of racism towards non-Chinese minorities (including whites) because their prejudice can be systemic while the non-Chinese minorities, if they have prejudices towards the Chinese, do not have systemic power fused with their prejudice over there.
In other words, to say that Asians, for example, cannot be racist in the United States is not to say that Asians cannot be prejudicial towards whites and neither is it saying that Asians cannot be racist in Asia. It is, to me, merely being accurate in our terminology to acknowledge that racism is prejudice plus systemic power, not simply prejudice alone. Hence, only the dominant cultural/racial group in any nation/culture can be guilty of racism due to their inherited systemic structural power. Calling a minority group racist, instead of simply prejudiced when they display prejudicial behavior, is like calling any counselor a psychiatrist; both are helpful to a person suffering from depression, but only one can legally prescribe medication. Similarly, both majority and minority persons can be prejudicial, but only the majority is part of their culture’s systemic sin of racism.
This leads to my second thought – an expansion of Yancey’s doctrine of sin or human depravity. I believe that sin is not merely personal but also systemic and structural. There is not only personal idolatry but also collective idolatry. When a community collectively turn certain values into idols that dethrone God, this produces and shapes social systems and social structures that in turn impact everyone in that community. Sexism and Patriarchy are other examples, in addition to racism, of such systemic sins.
Thirdly, I would suggest that the doctrines of creation and redemption (including the ultimate fulfillment of redemption in the new heaven and earth) need to supplement the doctrine of sin in a uniquely Christian approach to racism. I don’t have space here to expand too much on this but I have written elsewhere my emerging biblical theological framework for engaging cultural diversity. All I will say here is that the doctrines of creation and redemption, properly understood, help us to see the original intent of ethnic diversity and the direction of its restoration in Christ Jesus.
Finally, I would add that a uniquely Christian approach to racism must include an understanding that engaging ethnic/cultural diversity is inherently spiritual, as an experience that helps us grow spiritually as God’s image-bearers. Hence, I believe we must move beyond the socio-political level that so much of our discussions on race and ethnic diversity have stuck on in North America.