Book Review: Beyond Racial Gridlock
“The task is important, not because we want to weigh in with politically correct notions about racism, but in order to do the foundational work of racial healing. Bringing estranged people together is a fitting work for those of us who claim to follow Christ.”
This quote from George Yancey’s book, Beyond Racial Gridlock captures in a sentence the struggle many Christians faced in 2020. With racial tensions rising to the surface and historic and contemporary hurt widening the chasms between Americans of color and white Americans, estrangement has felt inevitable. The American Church corporately has had an opportunity to state the truth clearly, evaluate itself, and take a stand publicly proclaiming the love of Christ for all nations and ethnicities. Citadel Square individually has had to wrestle with not just a complicated present but also a complicated past. Our building is seated at the heart of one of the most historically racially divided cities in the country, and the historical Citadel Square, dating back to 1854, was often tragically hard-hearted towards brothers and sisters of color in the city. How can Citadel Square love our neighbors now, and how can we repent for the racial sins in our history? What does it look like to honor Jesus in a racially estranged city? We looked into those issues in the Undivided series (available in video, audio, and text here) but our staff team also wanted to pursue truth and unity intentionally in our weekly rhythms.
To that end, the pastors and staff studied George Yancey’s book, Beyond Racial Gridlock: Embracing Mutual Responsibility. Yancey sparked hard conversations, difficult questions, repentance, and hope in Christ’s restoration of all things among our staff. We want to keep those conversations going and give the body opportunities to wrestle with the sin in their own hearts and confront their own biases and assumptions in the interest of being obedient to “do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8).
Below is a summary of Yancey’s book. If you want to read the whole book, you can find it here.
Yancey challenges readers to consider issues of racism from a uniquely Christian perspective, outlining secular models and their inconsistencies and offering an alternative in his Mutual Responsibility Model. He first addresses four secular models. While the language might not be familiar, everyone probably knows someone who leans toward each model: Colorblindness, Anglo-conformity, Multiculturalism, and White Responsibility. Yancey posits that while each holds limited merit, all ultimately fail.
One of Yancey’s clearest points is his distinction between individual and systemic racism. Yancey writes, “An individualist understanding defines racism as something overt that can be done only by one individual to another… This philosophy assumes that individuals have the capacity to choose between right and wrong, and that sin is the result of our wrong choices. Society’s problems rise from the sins of individuals” (BRG 20). One example would be “if an apartment manager decides not to rent an apartment to a black applicant, then that manager is guilty of the sin of racism” (BRG 20-1) This view is often held by white evangelicals because of their strong concept of personal sin. As a team, we concurred that this view of racism is the one we’ve come in contact with the most and describes how we generally think of issues of race. However, another way to look at racism is through the lens of structuralism. A structuralist view suggests that “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” (BRG 22). This perspective is more often held by people of color in the United States. The reality of structural (or “systemic”) racism, including redlining and poverty rates, are detailed later in the book. Yancey points out that while both views make good points, “neither definition speaks to the nature of humanity or to spiritual forces that transcend individuals and society… racism must ultimately be defined as a result of our human sin nature” (BRG 24). In other words, there is a deeper problem than just individualism or structuralism, and only Christianity has a true response to sin in the human heart. Without Christ, there is no hope for reconciliation. But from these two foundational definitions, four secular models develop.
Yancey laid out four contemporary secular models for dealing with racism. Read through the brief definitions below and see which ones most mirrors your perspective or the perspective of those around you:
To end racism, we must end racial reality. Laws concerning racial issues must aim for the completely equal treatment of people from all races. Overt racism doesn’t exist anymore, and as long as individuals don’t “see color” or treat anyone differently, anyone is equally and fairly judged. Acknowledging race leads to racial strife.
Problems: Colorblindness ignores the historical effects of racism. Even after racist policies have been eliminated, the lasting damage of segregation remains. This pain will not go away merely because it is ignored (BRG 29-40).
Economic inequality is the main source of racism. Minorities’ lack of success should not be blamed on contemporary racism, but on poverty. Minority groups can be successful if they work hard enough and are smart enough. The majority group should teach minority groups how to succeed. If we help racial minorities achieve economically, their success will remove their social stigma and lead to more complete racial integration and a more harmonious society.
Problems: Anglo-conformity assumes that racial strife stems from economic issues, ignoring individual sin and systemic inequalities. It tends to prefer European American culture over minority cultures, ignoring cultural differences and expecting people of color to “conform” regardless of ethnicity or background. This devalues cultural perspectives of racial minorities and perpetuates racial hierarchy (BRG 41-52).
Each ethnic group should preserve its own traditions, language, customs, and lifestyle. America is hyper-focused on Eurocentric excesses. We should celebrate minority cultures, especially those that have been devalued. Racism comes from assimilation. If each culture was celebrated by all members of society, racism would not exist.
Problems: Theoretically values all racial groups, but in reality tends to denigrate majority group culture. Leans towards a false dichotomy of “minority culture = good. Majority culture = bad.” Tends to overlook minority shortcomings and blame all problems on the majority group. Does not have the moral basis to confront personal and societal evil and can easily devolve into relativism (BRG 53-63).
4) White Responsibility
The dominant group creates problems of race and ethnicity. Americans of color have little, if any, responsibility for racial concerns. European Americans set up the social structures that perpetuate racism, so European Americans should be the ones who dismantle those structures. Critical Race Theory is accurate in asserting that though overt racism has receded, insidious institutional racism still remains.
Problems: Completely denies the responsibility of minority groups, laying all the blame on the majority. Disempowering for racial minorities, who cannot affect racism at all. Alienates whites who do not feel racial guilt. Creates defensiveness and anger, not harmony. Ignores the fact that all people, even racial minorities, are sinners (BRG 64-74).
Which one most resonated with you? Is it surprising to you that you have a “view” of racism that might be incomplete? Yancey next explained in detail a different model for dealing with racism rooted in the gospel. He calls it “Mutual Responsibility.” Yancey writes, “[The secular models’] weakness lies in their refusal to identify other sources of the problem… Racism is a spiritual and moral problem” (BRG 79). This is why we need a uniquely Christian solution: “Clearly there are individualistic and structural elements, but at its heart, racism is spiritual” (BRG 81). In this mindset, Christians are able to step away from their own interests and listen well to those hurt by racism around us.
A Christian Solution
The second half of Yancey’s book focuses on defining a Christian solution. He addresses the specific racial sins of majority group members, the specific racial sins of minority group members, and explains how Christ is the ultimate reconciler. He looks at how Jesus acted when he was in the majority or minority, in power or oppressed.
Even as he sought relationships with members of other ethnic groups, Jesus also dealt with issues of oppression and justice. He reached down to a woman who was considered inferior to him, and he did so on her terms rather than his own. He served Romans without playing guilt games with them… Jesus’ actions do not conform to any of the four secular models. Rather, they fit a model in which we have mutual responsibility to each other (BRG 123).
In the same way Christ did, we can love one another. This is Yancey’s overarching point in his final chapter, “What would a Christian Solution Look Like?” He explains how multiracial churches can corporately show Christ’s power in a divided world. He mentions that “people of our own race tend to make up our social networks” and challenges believers to go out of their way to develop cross-cultural friendships that glorify Christ. He explains how political activism in the interest of racial justice and Christian academic institutions who pursue racial unity can glorify Christ. Yancey does not lay a complete solution on the table, but he does offer manageable steps to take. He challenges readers to learn about differing perspectives and question their own assumptions that might not be true or gracious.
As a staff, we recommend this book to anyone who wants to learn about the historic and current issues of racial reconciliation from a Christian perspective. It was formative for us as a team, and we’d love to process questions and concerns with you about this topic. If you’d like to connect with someone, or if the racial issues in America this year have raised questions for you, we encourage you to reach out using this form. Jesus is the ultimate reconciler, the uniter of all peoples.
“And they sang a new song, saying,
‘Worthy are you to take the scroll,
and to open its seals,
for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God
from every tribe and language and people and nation,
and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God,
and they shall reign on the earth.”
Then I looked, and I heard around the throne and the living creatures and the elders the voice of many angels, numbering myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands, saying with a loud voice,
‘Worthy is the Lamb who was slain,
to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might
and honor and glory and blessing!’”