For a long time, Americans committed to fighting racism have rallied around the ideals of colorblindness. Both legally and culturally, they have sought to build a society where, in Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous words, people are judged not “by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”
Over time, however, the persistence of racism has raised doubts about the colorblind approach. In response, groups like Black Lives Matter have seized on the rival paradigm of antiracism. Instead of aspiring to colorblindness, its proponents say, we should acknowledge that America is plagued by deep-seated racism—and then take aggressive steps to stamp it out.
In Beyond Racial Division: A Unifying Alternative to Colorblindness and Antiracism, Baylor University sociologist George Yancey seeks a new way forward, one grounded in a vision of healthy interracial communication and community. As Yancey argues, both colorblindness and antiracism result in “racial alienation,” which prevents us from working out our racial issues together in a way that honors the dignity, value, and worth of every individual.
In different ways, Yancey sees colorblindness and antiracism erecting barriers to this goal. As he puts it, colorblindness ignores the realities of racial injustice, past and present. As for antiracism, he faults it for exacerbating racial division, in part by issuing an implied permission slip to disrespect white people and creating a clear expectation that whites “defer to nonwhites.”
What can succeed where colorblindness and antiracism have failed? Here, Yancey emphasizes an ethic of mutual accountability and a reliance upon moral persuasion. This means, for starters, that when it comes to conversations on race, “everyone is allowed to participate, and everyone’s ideas are taken seriously.”
It also means an openness to having our opinions changed and our blind spots exposed. As Yancey remarks, collaborative conversations allow “those we disagree with to hold us ‘accountable’ to their interests [so that] we are forced to confront the ways we have fashioned solutions that conform to our own interests and desires.”
Much of Yancey’s argument is compelling. He’s right that too often in conversations on race, we neglect a range of perspectives. And I appreciated his critique of secular frameworks, like antiracism, for expressing a naive confidence in human perfectibility.
I am, however, left with certain questions and concerns. One relates to Yancey’s appeal to his own racial background. “When you are a Black man in the United States,” he writes, “it is difficult to escape your racial status.” Yancey’s personal experience may be relevant, but his statement seems to imply that his skin color gives him special insight into racial issues, which undercuts his emphasis on conversations where everyone gets a say.
I also would have preferred greater clarity on the standards that help determine what counts as racial progress. Yancey’s vision for moral suasion is built on a premise of shared morality: “Once people become convinced the new action is the moral thing to do,” he writes, “then change will likely occur.”
But this invites the question of which moral standard is in play. Is it pragmatism? Group consensus? Divine revelation? And if the parties involved disagree, by what standard will their disagreements be arbitrated?
To be sure, Yancey affirms that Christians must place “biblical truth above all other efforts to gain knowledge.” Yet elsewhere he states, “Christians cannot propose new directions for society as if they were given to us from God and expect everyone else in society to obey.” It’s true that we can’t expect our culture to embrace Christian standards of righteousness. Yet we are obligated to explain how the gospel offers a truly transforming vision of racial unity. Out of the nations, God has called out one new people to be a big spiritual family. Calling the nations to discipleship is the only hope for lasting transformation.
Ultimately, I appreciate Yancey’s effort to reach across divided racial lines from a Christian perspective. His language of mutual accountability adds a needed component to our conversations on race: a competition of ideas. Simply put, we need more models for pursuing these conversations well. But we should always weigh our models against the truths of Scripture.
Monique Duson is a cofounder of the Center for Biblical Unity.
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