Review: Beyond Racial Gridlock by George Yancey

“Gridlock” is a good word to describe the state of evangelical discussions on race today. The past couple years especially have witnessed a meteoric rise in the use (and misuse) of terms like “critical race theory” and “systemic racism.” If evangelicals are going to break through the current ideological impasse, then they need a reliable guide to shed light on America’s racial landscape.

It may come as a surprise that one of the best guides is a book that was published 15 years ago. Beyond Racial Gridlock: Embracing Mutual Responsibility by George Yancey was first published in 2006. That was during the George W. Bush administration. Before George Floyd, Michael Brown, and Trayvon Martin. Before Black Lives Matter. At the very dawn of smartphones and social media. A lot has happened since then, and yet I believe that Yancey’s book is still one of the most relevant books on racial justice today.

Yancey is a professor of sociology at Baylor University (though at the time of writing, he taught at the University of North Texas). He is also a member of the American Solidarity Party—if you aren’t familiar with it, think something along the lines of pro-life and pro-family Democrats. Further, as the black husband of a white woman, Yancey is well positioned to provide a balanced take on racial issues. I have read about two dozen books on racial justice this year, and I would say that none does as good of a job as Yancey in presenting all sides fairly and charitably. He is willing to look for the best in every view, without sparing it from critique.

One of the many helpful takeaways of the book is his fourfold taxonomy of secular models of racial reconciliation. The first two generally appeal to whites and conservatives, while the second two generally appeal to blacks and progressives (if Yancey were to update his book, it would be interesting to explore the influence of evangelical white progressives and black conservatives in recent years). Each model gets a full chapter, in which Yancey describes it and highlights its relative strengths and weaknesses. Yancey argues that all four models ultimately fall short, because they fail to take into account the spiritual roots of racism as sin, as well as denying the mutual responsibility of whites and blacks in achieving racial progress. It is worth summarizing these four models here:

  • Colorblindness. This model teaches that the best way to move beyond racial divides is to ignore race. That’s a bit simplistic, but the idea is that laws and policies should treat all people equally, regardless of race. It rejects both the discrimination of the Jim Crow South, and also the so-called “reverse discrimination” of affirmative action. Proponents of this view are especially fond of quoting Martin Luther King’s line about judging people “not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” The strength of this model, according to Yancey, is that its goal, if achieved, would certainly remove racial problems in society. Further, it provides a safeguard against the tendency of minorities to see racism where it does not exist. On the other hand, the colorblind model is (unsurprisingly) blind to the ongoing effects of past racism. Further, while not questioning the motives of most proponents of this model, Yancey worries that it might give cover to actual racists to maintain their racial advantages.
  • Anglo-conformity. Unlike the colorblind model, this model recognizes that problematic racial differences do exist, but it seeks to remedy them by socioeconomic uplift. This would be the approach favored by individuals like Booker T. Washington or Thomas Sowell. For Yancey, this view rightly recognizes that blacks’ generally lower socioeconomic status is a major cause of racial stereotypes and animosity. It also provides the best path toward economic success for minorities, while affirming their own agency and responsibility for their own success. It can also be integrated with the colorblind model by targeting class problems that disproportionately afflict minorities. For example, inner city renewal programs can be colorblind but still disproportionately benefit the majority minority populations of those areas. On the other hand, Yancey believes that today’s racial problems cannot be reduced to socioeconomic factors, to the neglect of structural factors such as government-backed residential segregation. Another problem with this model is its ethnocentrism and cultural favoritism. Anglo culture is not without its faults. Further, Yancey raises the possibility that capitalism might in some ways be the cause of racism rather than the solution. While not embracing Marxism per se, Yancey suggests that neo-Marxism might correctly identify certain inequities in free markets (in his endnotes, he specifically references dual-labor or split labor market theory).
  • Multiculturalism. This model sees America more as a mosaic than a melting pot, and it celebrates the coexistence of diverse cultures. Yancey sees its strengths as challenging Eurocentric excesses and encouraging us to see the values and contributions of people different from us. It also helps minorities to celebrate their own uniqueness and dignity, when they so often get overshadowed by majority culture. On the other hand, this model runs the risk of illegitimately denigrating the value of majority culture and overlooking the flaws of minority cultures. It can also breed a cultural relativism that fails to subject any cultural distinctives to moral critique.
  • White responsibility. This model is certainly the most controversial. It is rooted in Critical Race Theory, which entered into our popular vocabulary only in the past couple years, and yet Yancey was expounding it fifteen years ago. The essence of this model is that, even though overt racism has significantly declined in America, the effects of past structural racism continue into the present and benefit whites at the expense of minorities. Its proponents sometimes make the claim that only whites can be racist, since they are the only ones who have held the institutional power to discriminate against minorities. Yancey sees the strengths of this model in its highlighting where whites might be blind to the racism that still affects our society, in its refusing to ignore the problems of racism, and in its dignifying minorities by attributing their failures to external factors. Among this model’s drawbacks, Yancey points out that it tends to absolve minorities of any responsibility and paints them as helpless victims. It can also alienate whites and push them to react defensively against it, and it overlooks the sin nature of minorities, which might encourage them to “play the race card” in cases where racism is not actually a factor.

Yancey does an extraordinary job of assuming the best of all sides. He never impugns motives. Nevertheless, he helpfully encourages us all to examine our own hearts by drawing attention to the incentives of each group, the fears of each group, and the temptations of each group. He writes:

The groups who have benefited from historical abuse tend to want everyone to forget about the past and move on. The groups who have been historically abused tend to want to focus on historical evils and gain recompense for the wrongs done to them. In a nutshell this is the source of our contemporary racial conflict.

Yancey, Beyond Racial Gridlock, 24

Because of this dynamic, Yancey observes that in discussions of race, the greatest fear of whites is generally that they would be accused of being racist. In order to avoid this accusation, their tendency is to ignore, withdraw, or redirect the conversation to other issues. This explains the appeal of the colorblind and Anglo-conformity models to whites. On the other hand, the greatest fear of blacks is that when they bring up ongoing racial problems, they will be ridiculed or dismissed as troublemakers or race-baiters. For this reason, they may be tempted to support anyone who speaks publicly against racism, even when claims of racism are dubious. This explains the appeal of the multiculturalist and white responsibility models for many blacks. Yancey also states that minorities need to recognize the temptation to overstate historical grievances in order to maximize their perceived due, while whites similarly need to recognize their temptation to do the opposite.

Sinful self-interest exists in every human heart, and a Christian solution to racial gridlock must begin by acknowledging that problem. On this basis we can move toward Yancey’s alternative “mutual responsibility” model, in which both sides must bear responsibility, but their respective responsibilities differ. Yancey says that whites need to wrestle with the question of whether it is right for Christians to “accept wealth that was stolen, even if they did not do the stealing” (89). He cites the specific examples of theft of Native American land, and the phenomenon of suburban “white flight,” which has left many urban black neighborhoods tragically under-resourced. Yancey therefore encourages white Christians to consider cultivating practices of “corporate repentance” (I have written on this topic in my TGC article, “Are We Held Accountable for the Sins of Our Forefathers?”). In turn, Yancey says that blacks need to be aware of the danger of overextending their hand by illegitimately playing the race card. They must also learn to practice corporate forgiveness, which means not holding onto past grievances to cash in at a later date.

Yancey does not avoid hot-button issues like reparations for slavery. Again, his approach is balanced and sympathetic to all sides on these issues. He describes the calls for reparations accurately, validates the concerns behind them, and expresses thankfulness for the dialogue spurred by these calls. But he also acknowledges a downside to reparations. The fact is that the cost of reparations would be gargantuan—estimates range from $1 trillion to $10 trillion—and most whites don’t want to bear a crippling cost for crimes they did not directly commit. Further, what happens after such reparations have been paid? Yancey raises the concern that many whites, if forced to pay this bill, will treat it as a kind of big payoff or “hush money,” forestalling any future attempts at racial progress. Most of us know that racial problems won’t disappear after reparations, but many whites will doubtlessly have the mindset, “They’ve been paid off. Why are they whining now? They just want more money from us” (106). I might add one other unintended consequence of reparations: it will doubtlessly have a radicalizing effect on poor and working-class whites, who feel (with good reason) that they have not directly benefited from past injustices against blacks, and it will push them into the welcoming arms of extremist Alt-Right movements. The justice principle behind reparations is valid, but is it worth these kinds of cost? Will it actually heal our racial wounds?

This is an excellent book, and I found very little of it that I would critique. Perhaps one critique would be in his presentation of the Anglo-conformity model. This is the model with which I personally feel the most affinity, so perhaps that’s my reason for wanting to give it a more nuanced take. To begin with, he’s right about the inappropriateness of making Anglo culture normative. We have our flaws too, and I would mention four of our shortcomings here: neglect of our elderly, sexual immodesty, opiate abuse, and high suicide rates. In these and other areas, I think that many non-Anglo cultures have a better record than we do. So rather than calling this model “Anglo-conformity,” I might call it something more objective, like “moral conformity.” (I recognize that this modification moves closer toward Yancey’s own mutual responsibility model.)

Additionally, we need to be careful not to automatically assume a direct or simplistic causal link between past racial discrimination and present racial disparities. Yancey mentions the past injustice of residential segregation, with its apparent ongoing effects in crime, poverty, and educational outcomes for blacks. While segregation is doubtlessly one factor in these disparities, it is questionable to what extent it is the only factor or even the primary factor.

For instance, what about other ethnic groups that also experienced systematic segregation but do not suffer from similar disparate outcomes today? One example is San Francisco’s Chinatown in the 1960s, where Chinese immigrants had the lowest income in the city, the highest unemployment, the least education, the highest proportion of substandard housing—and one of the lowest crime rates of any ethnic group in the entire state of California (Jason Riley, Please Stop Helping Us, pp. 75-76). One could also point to the example of the original ghetto residents: European Jews. They faced many of the same kinds of discrimination as African Americans, and yet they are one of the most socioeconomically successful groups today. History is a tangled web of cause and effect, and it is not always easy to separate structural causes from cultural or behavioral causes.

Lastly, I would raise a concern about his use of the neo-Marxist split-labor market theory. Now I must admit that I’m no economist myself, but it is worth mentioning that there is disagreement over the validity of this theory among economists. For example, William J. Wilson writes, “The split labor-market theory can only be used to explain racial stratification in the late antebellum North and the origins of Jim Crow segregation in the postbellum South” (The Declining Significance of Race, p. 60).

Nevertheless, these critiques are relatively minor compared to the value of the book overall. If there was one book that I would recommend on the topic of racial justice, this would probably be it. Yancey is an honest, charitable, and humble conversation partner, and if we Americans are to succeed in moving beyond racial gridlock, the roadmap will probably look a lot like what Yancey charts here. The book is only 150 easy pages, so an ambitious reader could finish it in a day or two.

About Kyle Dillon

A teaching elder in the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), assistant pastor of theological instruction at Riveroaks Reformed Presbyterian Church, and theology/languages teacher at Westminster Academy in Memphis, Tennessee.

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