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Book Review: George Yancey, Beyond Racial Division: A Unifying Alternative to Colorblindness and Antiracism. IVP, 2022.

Does George Yancey have any friends? His new book Beyond Racial Division rejects dominant models for racial engagement, an unpopular approach that clears space for a third way. In challenging colorblindness, the perspective probably held among most evangelicals, he risks offending friends on the right. In challenging antiracism, the dominant perspective in the American academy, he may strain friendships on the left. CSR blog readers may be familiar with his paradigm-rattling arguments about race, including in particular An Abusive Relationship and Race Relations.

If any reader finds racism in America fatiguing, exasperating, or intractable, they will find this book profitable. It opens with Yancey worn out with serious writing about race, and then reinvigorated in the work by current events, police violence in particular. A sociologist, a Christian, and a Black man, Yancey uses empirical research, theological exposition, and stories from his life and others to describe a third path that overcomes the racial divisions reinforced by both colorblindness and antiracism.

The third path is mutual accountability, a call to persevere in face-to-face relationships in which deep conversation and generative conflict can result in personal and social change. We should engage race with the goal of unity, not recompense. We should engage the world’s dominant ideologies with curiosity and critique and then develop alternatives grounded in the Christian faith.

As sociologists do, Yancey raises our sights from current events and personal experience to a broader perspective, describing the change in racial engagement over recent decades and framing the present as dominated by two models: colorblindness and antiracism. Colorblindness sees people as “just people,” minimizing race in favor of common humanity. This “ignores the damage our racialized society has sustained. It seems an easy path, but ultimately it sends us around in circles” (p. 2). Antiracism inhibits true relationship by requiring deference from those in majority groups to the neglect of errors and flaws – both willful and unwilful – on the part of people of color. The cultural mandate to validate and affirm the views of those with suppressed identities may even be patronizing and neocolonial in its own way, an accommodation to presumed delicacy that excludes a person from backing-and-forthing toward truth or accuracy.

The third path is mutual accountability: from our different subjectivities, life experiences, and associations with society’s power structures, we talk things through. Spiritually, we are equal in our human dignity and in our fallen natures. Socially, we are not the same in how social inequalities impact us. Thus, we should lean more on “moral suasion” than on power in weighing views and proposals. He sees humanist-based approaches using power to “force others to capitulate,” whereas “a Christian-based approach desires to move individuals into healthy conversation with those with different perspectives” (p. 148).  Such conversation must include social justice as well as evangelism and individual morality.

Theologically, this approach leans heavily on a Christian understanding of human depravity and power. If all persons have a fallen nature, then no person or group of persons can be perfect or correct in their vision of how society should reform. This point is valid but penultimate. Engaging social inequality from a theology of personal sin sidelines more foundational doctrines of the character of God, creation, and redemption. Situating human fallenness within the broader narrative of a loving God, a good creation, and Christ’s redemptive work would bring stronger theological bearings to this racial project, and also more hope and joy.

Mutual accountability hearkens an earlier evangelical model of racial reconciliation that is focused on friendship and multi-racial worship and church life. That model was critiqued for focusing on the interpersonal at the expense of the institutional and for asking too much from persons of color in helping White persons and organizations to diversify. With today’s reliance on and even preference for digital communication in corporatized social spaces, this call is vital in encouraging people to talk together in real-world settings. Whites who “do not see color” may be challenged to acknowledge how profoundly race impacts society and the lives of people of color. Those committed to antiracism may be challenged to favor mutuality over compensatory communication styles in which some hold power over others as a response to historic and current inequalities.

In the book’s concluding chapters, Yancey puts his ideas of moral suasion into practice, which makes me surmise he surely has plenty of friends of many perspectives. After issuing a call to mutual accountability, he describes possibilities for collaboration with those still committed to colorblindness and antiracism. He also puts his ideas into practice ongoingly at the Baylor Program for Collaborative Conversations and Race, a useful resource for Christian colleges and universities.

Beyond Racial Division will make fantastic required reading for Christian college and university administrators, faculty, and staff. It raises important questions about what constitutes a truly Christian approach to race, and the place of interpersonal relationships and communication in a model of racial healing. Employees of varying political and denominational backgrounds could engage the book to examine their points of view, and to move beyond a Christian blessing of extant ideologies toward engagement with race that originates from their faith. The book offers good material for undergraduate and graduate classes in social science and Bible/theology, diversity-related general education, and co-curricular areas including ministry, outreach, or residential life.

Jenell Paris

Messiah University
Jenell Paris, Ph.D., is Professor of Anthropology and Sociology at Messiah University in Grantham, PA.