Is Racial Dialogue Possible?

On George Yancey’s Beyond Racial Division

Professor George Yancey is an evangelical sociologist at Baylor whose research interests include “racial diversity, racial identity, academic bias, progressive Christians and anti-Christian hostility” (Baylor University, Deptartment of Sociology). This list doesn’t fit neatly into either conservative or progressive buckets and neither does Yancey’s latest book, Beyond Racial Division: A Unifying Alternative to Colorblindness and Antiracism. In it, he challenges the two most prevalent models for understanding race in our culture, “colorblindness” and “antiracism.” Both, he argues, are inadequate. He proposes an alternative “mutual accountability” model which prioritizes and makes central “collaborative conversations” (p.14) as the pathway to racial harmony. 

While both of us are fervent supporters of Yancey and believe his overall approach is excellent, Beyond Racial Division is flawed in certain respects. Its shortcomings are found not primarily in what it says, but in what it fails to say. In what follows, we’ll begin by briefly summarizing some of its emphases and then explore some of its many positives before turning to our concerns and offering a final comment.

Overview

Two models for understanding race dominate our culture: “colorblindness” and “antiracism.” Yancey understands “colorblindness” to be expressed in phrases like “I don’t see color” and to be promoted by intellectuals like John McWhorter, Heather MacDonald, and Coleman Hughes. It emphasizes the necessity of treating people as individuals, generally rejects special treatment for blacks and other minorities, and questions the degree to which racism impacts the lives of people of color (p. 64-67).

“Antiracism” is a foil to colorblindness. It does not merely mean “opposition to racism” but instead rests on several core tenets, three of which Yancey highlights: “the pervasiveness of racism in our society,” “the necessity of an intense commitment to defeat racism” and the belief that “the role of whites is to support the activism of people of color…whites are expected to defer to nonwhites” (p. 86-87). A significant conflict between antiracism and Yancey’s approach is in this final plank of antiracism. He writes: “I struggle with the notion that we can move forward in a society with [a] two-tiered system” that relegates whites to a “kids’ table.” (p. 89).

In contrast to both “colorblindness” and “antiracism,” Yancey offers what he has termed the mutual accountability model, which ensures that “we are all at the table making decisions together” (p.89). The essence of his approach is robust, other-oriented communication: “we strive to listen to those in other racial groups and attempt to account for their interests. In this way we fashion solutions to racialized problems that address the needs of individuals across racial groups instead of promoting solutions that are accepted only by certain racial groups” (p. 35). At the heart of Yancey’s mutual accountability model and his press for collaborative conversions is a belief in moral suasion to bring about change. The notion that “we persuade an individual that it is right to change his or her mind or to take certain actions. Once people become convinced the new action is the moral thing to do, then change is likely to occur” (p. 38). 

Yancey recognizes that every group has an unhealthy tendency towards self-interest. Consequently, everyone has to be accountable and no one is permitted to unilaterally impose their solutions on everyone else. That said, Yancey also rejects the idea that the roles for majority and minority groups, particularly whites and blacks are identical. He states, “In this country whites have been the group with not only the numerical majority but also the dominant power in society. It is realistic to think that ultimately they will have to make greater adjustments going forward than people of color” (p. 98). Such perspective by Yancey signals that even though his mutual accountability model gives some needed ‘equal time’ to all races and their responsibility in effecting racial harmony, he is rightly sensitive to the racial history of the US and how that might affect solutions to racial disunity in the present. 

Positives

The most welcome and crucial contribution of Beyond Racial Division is its staunch commitment to actual conversations. Yancey genuinely wants to bring people together with different perspectives to dialogue across differences. A panel on race composed of five “woke” (or five “anti-woke”) participants is not a dialogue; it’s a barely-disguised monologue. Moreover, it won’t do to have only one individual who is positioned as the other-side who in reality is a token, a mere shadow of the other-side’s argument. Yancey understands the pathway to racial unity will be paved with real conversations consisting of differing perspectives where all sides get a say. He asserts, “The key to this process is that everyone is allowed to participate, and everyone’s ideas are taken seriously. Everyone has a say in the final outcome” (p.14). He reasserts and expands this point by arguing that not only do we all get a say in conversations about race but “we are all accountable for creating the type of atmosphere where productive racial dialogue is possible” (p. 30, emphasis added).

Yancey acknowledges and is concerned about antiracism’s disinterest in collaborative dialogue (pp 54-55). Given that antiracism scholarship can directly discourage cross racial dialogue arguing that “mixed-race groups are generally unsafe for people of color” and “danger and mistrust shadow the dialogic encounter”,1 we find this perspective eminently refreshing and wholeheartedly agree with this approach. Dialogue, active listening, and mutual understanding are the way forward, for both society and especially the church, even though many (though not all) proponents of anti-racism reject dialogue in principle as a tool of white-supremacy.

A second positive factor is the book’s concrete, goal-oriented focus. Yancey delineates his mutual accountability model in terms of five steps: “1) Define the racial problem, 2) Identify what we have in common, 3) Recognize our cultural or racial differences, 4) Create solutions that answer the concerns of the racial outgroup, 5) Find a compromise solution that works best for all” (p. 46).

Both “colorblindness” and “antiracism” tend toward, or even demand, ideological conformity. “Colorblindness” requires people to start with the assumption that “not seeing race” is the proper posture towards issues of race and racism. “Antiracism” demands its adherents adopt antiracism as a new identity, at times treating it as a conversion experience. In contrast, Yancey keeps his ideological commitments to a minimum and asks: how can we solve a particular problem? What can we agree on? What compromises can we accept? Consequently, people with very different basic assumptions can sit at the same table and genuinely attempt to find solutions.

Third, Yancey’s book points to empirical research. He relies less on abstract theories about race and more on available evidence which, he argues, contradicts both prevalent models. Although he acknowledges that we can’t assume that all disparities are caused by injustice, he rightly argues that injustice – both past and present – can contribute to disparities.

Because all of these effects are conditioned on race, Yancey correctly argues that a “colorblind” model which “ignores race” is inadequate to address the complexity of racial issues that exist today. On the other hand, Yancey underscores that antiracism efforts don’t work (p. 89, 94) and that the data we have on “antiracist” programs like DEI training initiatives show they can actually reinforce divisive racial stereotypes and consequently should be abandoned.

Fourth, Yancey is keen to point out that everyone individually and any people as a group can act in racist ways and misuse power to the unjust benefit of themselves and the hurt of others. Yancey helpfully points his readers to Group Interest Theory (p. 94), which confirms that all people are likely to support ideas and engage in behavior that benefits those in their ingroups, even to the hurt of those not in their ingroups. Yancey states, “But our desire to act in ways that are good for our own group means we will favor institutional systems that help our group even at the expense of others” (p. 95). Yancey continues the theme that everyone and every group is susceptible to an abuse and misuse of power in his discussion of human depravity (p. 134ff). We are thankful that Yancey is clear-eyed regarding human depravity and its extension to all people. Too many professing Christians who discuss race make statements and claims regarding ‘whiteness’ and ‘blackness’ that betray they are anthropologically and theologically bankrupt when it comes to understanding human nature and the downstream effects and implications of human depravity on every people group. Our race/ethnicity does not automatically implicate us in sin, nor is the sin of racial partiality limited to any one people group.

Fifth, Yancey has a biblical view of the omniscience and sovereignty of God. As such, he understands some crucial realities about truth that help guide his overall approach to any subject, including race. First, he understands that all truth is God’s truth no matter its apparent epistemological location, and consequently we shouldn’t fear or be superstitious about where we might find truth. He asserts, “Truth is truth and we should look for it wherever we can find it” (p. 129). Second, given his right view of an omniscient, sovereign God and the fact that “truth is truth”, he rightly sees no conflict between ‘religion and science’ (rightly understood). He states, “I am both a Christian and social scientist. I have found that good theology and good science generally go together; they are not in competition with each other. When they seem to contradict, what I have generally found is that there is either bad science or bad theology involved – sometimes both” (p. 129). Third, and most importantly, Yancey understands that biblical truth must be followed above everything else on any issue it speaks to, including social issues and race. He states, “As Christians we are called to be obedient to the Bible and to our faith. In theory this causes us to place biblical truth above all other efforts to gain knowledge” (p. 128). With the onslaught of deficient approaches, theories, and ideologies weighing in and attempting to dictate terms on race and racial reconciliation (from colorblind ideology to antiracism to critical race theory to critical social justice to white nationalism, etc.) it is necessary to cut through the stultifying fog and underscore unapologetically the Scripture’s preeminent authority in any social analysis.

Finally, the book is interwoven with personal stories of individuals moving away from both colorblindness and antiracism in an attempt to find a better approach to racial issues. These narratives are fascinating and helpful and will likely resonate with many readers who find themselves turned off by the paradigms of colorblindness and antiracism.

Negatives

Despite our wholehearted support for Yancey’s approach to dialogue and mutual accountability, we have a few concerns with his book, primarily with regard to what he left unsaid.

First, the book’s pragmatism is both a strength and weakness. While consensus-building might be politically necessary, it can be theologically impermissible; Christians cannot and should not accommodate to certain moral or theological opinions within society or the church. Because Yancey is writing to both Christians and non-Christians, this omission is partly understandable. But Christians must recognize that Scripture provides certain non-negotiable guardrails for how we approach any topic. Of course, dialogue is still important, even when we’re convinced that our interlocutors are seriously wrong. But where the Bible draws boundaries, we’re not permitted to erase or redraw them in the interests of compromise.

An example where this problem surfaces is in how Yancey accepts antiracism’s definition of “institutional racism” as “those mechanisms that lead to racial inequality regardless of whether there was intent to do so” (p. 71). We affirm institutional racism can exist, but this definition is flawed. Yancey recognizes that, under this definition, homicide laws would qualify as manifestations of “institutional racism.” But he justifies such laws on pragmatic grounds: “What we would lose from eliminating those laws far outweighs any benefit we would get from ending this racial disparity” (p. 72). This is an error. Murder is a gross injustice and any just legal system will punish it. A just law can be enforced unequitably, but that does not make the law itself unjust.

Another example is that Yancey seems to indicate he might be ok with the implementation of antiracism ideology (at least to some extent) if only it was effective (p.89). We reject this viewpoint. The ideology of antiracism is spurious and should be rejected on its face, regardless of any societal outcomes.

Another example is when he refers to the U.S. as “a nation dominated by white supremacy” (p. 93) implying that is its current state. The U.S. is not currently dominated by white supremacy in keeping with its standard definition that incorporates a “belief in the superiority of the white race”. The U.S. is white majoritarian (which is diminishing), but it doesn’t follow there is white supremacy at work in the nation as a whole. Critical social theory in the academy offers an expanded definition of white supremacy, but it is a false one if taken to describe America as a country which, as a whole today, subscribes to a morally abhorrent ideology.

A final example is when, speaking about Frank Byers in the context of reflecting on the killing of George Floyd, Yancey says “it was common for black men to be killed by police” (p.152). In reality, it is not common for black men to be killed by police. Statistically it is exceedingly rare under any circumstance, particularly an unjustified situation as with George Floyd. Given that most people have no clue what are the best, most accurate sources of crime and police data, and even fewer have thoroughly reviewed the data, such comments are unhelpful. We acknowledge that Yancey may have just been relaying the sentiment of Byers but it doesn’t appear so, nor is there any qualification offered.2

We recognize Yancey does not dedicate a lot of comment to these items. Nevertheless, the reckless statements and specious arguments that attend these issues in our national discussions compels us to mention them.

Second, the three defining elements of “antiracism” listed by Yancey are correct but need elaboration and expansion, based on the authors he rightly selects as representatives of “antiracism.”

In addition to the three principles he enumerates, he should add at least three additional beliefs common to antiracist educators and activists: 4) racism, sexism, heterosexism, and ableism are all “interlocking systems of oppression,” 5) whites are blinded by their privilege, while people of color have unique access to truth through their lived experience, and 6) racism is baked into our society through supposedly objective norms, values, and standards such that radical social transformation is needed to uproot it. We can find these ideas affirmed in the antiracist authors Yancey lists (Robin DiAngelo, Imbram X. Kendi, Layla Saad, and Reni Eddo-Lodge).

Yancey believes that the first two themes of antiracism (“the pervasiveness of racism and the necessity to counteract it”) both “fit well with a collaborative-conversations approach” (p. 88). But if we put these two themes in the context of the three additional beliefs mentioned above, that agreement becomes much more dubious.

For example, if you actually believe that whites are blinded to the truth due to their white privilege, you will necessarily tend to discount their voices, no matter how committed you are to dialogue. If you actually believe that racism is baked not only into our laws, but into most of the norms and values we all take for granted, what recourse is there for someone who objects that a particular antiracist proposal is “unfair” or “unjust”? They can merely be told that the very standards of “justice” to which they’re appealing (whether biblical or secular) are manifestations of white supremacy.

Our point here is that much of the compatibility that Yancey sees between his approach and antiracism is superficial. If someone truly embraces the core ideological commitments of antiracism, it will render collaborative conversations impossible. That conflict cannot be solved at the merely pragmatic level because a committed antiracist will reject compromise as an attempt to serve white interests and perpetuate the status quo.

Third, and finally, towards the very end of the book, Yancey offers an analogy with three scenarios regarding an abusive husband and an abused wife to help people think through our contemporary racial situation (p. 170ff). This analogy is seriously incorrect relative to our current situation and represents the nadir of Yancey’s analysis. It positions whites as a single group and designates them as an abusive husband. It positions POC as a single group and designates them as an abused wife. Space will not allow a complete deconstruction of the analogy. We will just mention that the majority of modern whites in the U.S have not engaged in any sustained, extreme racial abuse of POC and the majority of modern POC have not received any sustained, extreme racial abuse from whites. In addition, it is extremely misleading to lump a 27 year old white woman in the same category as a 92 year old white man as it pertains to the societal opportunity to be racially abusive; just as it is misleading to lump a 14 year old black boy in the same category as an 87 year old black woman as it pertains to the societal opportunity to be racially abused. Whites and blacks in the 1930s were facing very different social circumstances than those who grew up in the 2000s. Not to mention that POC can sin racially and whites can be the recipients of racial sin. 

In addition, the analogy represents a significant category error. In an abusive marriage sin necessitates repentance and restitution between the actual parties because they were actually involved, whereas in our racial situation we are dealing with effects from a racialized history that is outside of the actions of the people being called upon to bridge the racial divide. These two situations are not analogous.

A better analogy would be a husband and wife who both came from dysfunctional families with a long line of abusive fathers. It is quite possible that the wife in such a scenario will have a residual mistrust of men and it is also possible that the husband will be tempted to mistreat his wife. It will take time, effort, love, and the work of the Holy Spirit, to overcome the effects of past dysfunction and abuse. But it would still be wrong (and terribly unproductive) for the wife to treat her husband as if he had actually abused her because other husbands had been abusive in her family’s past, just as it would be wrong for the husband to justify his mistreatment of her because of his past familial influences. One final note: We believe Yancey would likely argue that describing all whites as being like abusive husbands is wrong and that to argue in this way is an overextension of the metaphor. But we’d suggest that the metaphor itself imposes this application and hence needs to be abandoned.

Conclusion

Despite these reservations, we affirm that our society and the church would be in a better place if we had adopted Yancey’s model when he first outlined it over a decade ago. The intervening years have seen increasing polarization and antagonism that may have been avoided if both “camps” had been committed to the kind of truly honest, ideologically-diverse dialogue that Yancey commends. In fact, Yancey’s model itself is ideally suited to absorb and incorporate the very criticisms we’ve offered. We’d like to position this review itself as a kind of collaborative conversation, one that starts by acknowledging and restating the substantive agreement we have with the book, offers our own perspective on its shortcomings, and then remains open to either agreement or disagreement. Collaborative conversations by their very design are not brittle. May the church be a place where we can promote such dialogue as brothers and sisters in Christ in front of an open Bible, under its authority, and before a watching world.

*Image Credit: Pexels

  1. Puchner, L., Markowitz, L., & Roseboro, D., Whites-Only Anti-Racist Groups Promise & Perils. Multicultural Education, 28(1/2), 2020.
  2. ​​For actual statistics see FBI, DOJ, Council on Criminal Justice, National Academy of Sciences. Also, Roland Fryer’s reports indicate that non-violent black suspects are not in fact killed at a higher rate than other races.

Share This

Pat Sawyer

Pat Sawyer Pat Sawyer has an M.A. in communication studies and a Ph.D. in educational studies and cultural studies. He is a faculty member at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. He is co-editor of a peer-reviewed education journal and his work is published in peer-reviewed journals, edited academic books, and popular magazines and outlets including The American Conservative, The Gospel Coalition, and The Federalist, among others. He is co-author of the upcoming, Disney as Doorway to Apologetic Dialogue: Exploring Disney’s Moral Metanarrative. He can be found on Twitter @RealPatSawyer.

Neil Shenvi

Neil Shenvi Neil Shenvi has a Ph.D. in Theoretical Chemistry from UC Berkeley and an A.B. in Chemistry from Princeton. He is the author of Why Believe? A Reasoned Approach to Christianity (Crossway, 2022) and has published at The Gospel Coalition, Themelios, Eikon, and the Journal of Christian Legal Thought. He homeschools his four children through Classical Conversations and can be found on Twitter at @NeilShenvi.