A House Divided: A Review of Tisby’s How To Fight Racism

Jemar Tisby’s How to Fight Racism aims to provide practical ways for Christians to pursue “racial justice” and is essentially a book-length expansion of Chapter 11 of his best-selling Color of Compromise. While some of his suggestions are good and laudable, the book is plagued by imprecision, ambiguity, and faulty assumptions. Therefore, I can’t recommend it as a guide for Christians seeking a biblical approach to racial unity.

Positives

Tisby’s A-R-C model for racial justice divides the book into three major sections. “Awareness” focuses on understanding race, racism, our nation’s racial history, racial identify formation, and a biblical conception of human dignity. “Relationships” emphasizes that personal change happens through “knowing other people, developing friendships and collegiality” (p. 5). Finally, we need “Commitment” to “dismantle racist structures, laws, and policies” to “enact society-wide change” (p. 5).

I was encouraged that Tisby doesn’t dismiss the relational aspect of his project, since an emphasis on relationships is sometimes seen as a weakness when it comes to evangelical approaches to racial reconciliation (see Smith and Emerson’s Divided by Faith). Tisby insists: “In this book, I am not seeking to pit the personal against the systemic… Racial justice must occur at both the individual and the institutional level” (p. 12-13).

I also appreciate how Tisby regularly invokes Christian theology to ground his views despite the fact that his book is not written specifically for Christians. For example, in language that will be very familiar to evangelical readers, he writes: “The Bible reveals that God is not an abstract force but a personal and loving Creator who desires a relationship with the women, men, and children created in God’s very image. But there’s a problem. Whenever we choose to rebel against God, we do not simply break a rule; we rupture a relationship…We become our own little gods by creating rules for ourselves and defying the true and living God” (p. 86). Similarly, he correctly identifies race as a social construct and affirms the Imago Dei as the basis for the “incalculable and inviolable value” of every human being (p. 29).

Finally, Tisby calls attention to a number of instances of real injustice that merit reflection, even if you disagree with his interpretation or prescriptions. For instance, he highlights how federal courts struck down a 2013 North Carolina voting law because it intentionally disenfranchised black voters, targeting them “with surgical precision.” He also cites Bryan Stevenson’s work on the wrongfully incarcerated and the tragic case of Kalief Browder, who was imprisoned without trial for over three years for allegedly stealing a backpack, a charge that the state eventually dismissed. Kalief later committed suicide.

Christians should absolutely care about such issues, which should not only be addressed through the transformation of individual hearts, but through a consideration of public policy. Abortion shows that we can take a both/and approach: we can work both to change individual hearts through the gospel and to overturn unjust laws. Similarly, there are a number of valid insights and wholly unobjectionable recommendations scattered throughout the book. Few people would object to Tisby’s suggestions to study history, to listen more than you speak, to make diverse friends, or to sponsor a public school.

Definitional Problems

The book’s biggest problem is its definition of key words and phrases. Terms are either not defined clearly or are initially defined one way only to later be used in another way. This may seem like a minor objection, but it is of central importance. Imagine, for instance, writing a book that repeatedly used phrases like “reproductive justice” or “sexual minority” without ever defining them. Or a book that first defined “patriotism” to mean “appropriate love for one’s country” but later used it to refer to “support for the Republican party.” At best, this kind of semantic ambiguity would impede clear thinking. At worst, it would be a kind of verbal sleight-of-hand.

For this reason, we need to carefully examine how terms are defined and employed in the text.

What is “racial justice”?

How to Fight Racism‘s subtitle is “Courageous Christianity and the Journey Towards Racial Justice.” The term “racial justice” is used twice in the Table of Contents. It is used 29 times in the book’s first 10 pages. Yet, amazingly, the term is never clearly defined.

We can piece together a working definition based on other comments Tisby makes. In particular, he writes:

Throughout this book I often use the term equity rather than equalityEquality aims to promote fairness. This is only effective if all participants have similar starting points and the same access to resources for achieving their desired goals… Equity on the other hand demands that individual needs are taken into consideration. It accounts for identities (race, ethnicity, ability, nationality, gender, etc.) and circumstances that may otherwise hinder the success of one participant over another (p. 4)

and

what truly enables broadscale change on the racial justice front is a commitment to dismantle racist structures, laws, and policies…To enact society-wide change, people must commit to deconstructing laws that have a disparate impact on people of different races and rewrite the rules so they lead to greater equity among people of all races and ethnicities (p. 5-6)

Given this last sentence in particular, I’d suggest that Tisby’s working definition for “racial justice” is something like “dismantling systems, structures, laws, and policies that have a disparate impact on people of different races and creating systems, structures, laws, and policies that take race into account to offset racial disadvantages.”

Note that this definition of “racial justice” is not a state, but an action. As Tisby himself says: “Thinking of racial justice as a journey helps us focus on each step without growing discouraged when we don’t make the progress we desire. The destination is racial equity and justice for people of every racial and ethnic background. The endpoint is harmony, where unity in the midst of diversity prevails” (p. 7).

Two problems emerge from this understanding of “racial justice.” First, at many points in the book Tisby seems to conflate racial disparities with racial injustice (see p. 5-6, p. 160, p. 180, etc.). However, not all racial disparities are produced by injustice. The disproportionately high percentage of Blacks in the NBA or Asians in Ivy League universities are obvious counterexamples (see Sowell’s extensive treatment of this issue in Discrimination and Disparities).

So does Tisby take the extreme view that all racial disparities are unjust? Not necessarily. He writes: “If the result of a particular policy is to generate or sustain racial inequality, then such a policy might be racist” (p. 160; emph. added). Unlike Ibram X. Kendi, who explicitly argues that all racial disparities worldwide are only the result of racism, Tisby recognizes that disparities only might be produced by racism. Unfortunately, Tisby never elaborates on how we should determine which disparity-sustaining policies are racist and which are not. This is obviously a crucial point, since all kinds of policies sustain racial disparities: laws protecting private property sustain racial disparities in property ownership, laws against homicide sustain racial disparities in homicide convictions, etc. Without a way to determine which of these laws are just and which are unjust, the nature of “racial justice” will remain ambiguous.

Second, Tisby’s distinction between “equality” and “equity,” which is common in antiracist circles, explicitly and intentionally challenges colorblind approaches to “racial justice.” Of course, this distinction is sometimes reasonable: no one thinks that it is “unfair” to build wheelchair ramps on the grounds that we are giving “special treatment” to disabled individuals. On the other hand, many people are understandably uncomfortable with the idea that race alone entails that a particular individual needs differential treatment to offset the disadvantages they face. To give special consideration to a wealthy Black student whose parents are both doctors on the grounds that he is somehow disadvantaged seems both unrealistic and condescending.

For these reasons, the omission of a clear definition of “racial justice” is very serious. Without one, the church will be placed on a treadmill, chasing some vague goal with no sense of whether or how it can be achieved and leaving it always open to accusations that it is not “doing enough” to promote “racial justice.”

What is “Racism”?

Tisby provides an important definition of “racism” at the start of his book: “racism [is] a system of oppression based on race…everyone is either fighting racism or supporting it, whether actively or passively” (p. 4). For this reason, Tisby adopts the popular assertion that people of color, by definition, cannot be racist.

According to Tisby, “reverse racism” is the “erroneous concept… that the effort to address historic racial inequalities has led to racism against white people. It is clear that people of color may act in prejudicial ways against white people by judging them solely based on their skin color. But racism is more than an individual or interpersonal attitude. As journalist and author Renni Eddo-Lodge’s explained it in her book Why I Am No Longer Talking to White People About Race, ‘Everyone has the capacity to be nasty to other people, to judge them before they get to know them. But there simply aren’t enough black people in positions of power to enact racism against white people on the kind of grand scale it currently operates against black people'” (p. 49-50).

I’ve noted elsewhere that this definition of “racism” is in conflict with the recognition that racism is a sin. However, I’ll simply observe here that there is an intrinsic asymmetry in Tisby’s definition that will have significant consequences.

What is “Black”?

While Tisby correctly identifies race as a social construct rather than a biological or spiritual reality, his definition of “Black” is troubling. He writes:

Throughout this book, the word Black is capitalized when referring to the people group descended from people from Africa. This is because naming is a political act, a demonstration of power. For generations, Black people have been denied the power of naming themselves, of self-identifying according to their history, heritage, and personality. Capitalizing the B in Black is an act of reclamation and dignity… Black is inclusive of all people in the African diaspora regardless of their affiliation with the United States and connotes the global phenomenon of anti-Black racism (p. 1)

But is it really true that a Nigerian garment worker, the CEO of a Brazilian industrial firm, and a middle-class business owner in Seattle share meaningful solidarity based solely on their socially constructed “Blackness”? This question is particularly important given that many people would reject this assertion (for example, in many African countries, tribal differences are more politically salient than “Blackness” since nearly everyone there is “Black”).

Furthermore, we would recoil in horror if a someone tried to forge a coalition of “Whites” based on their inclusion in the “European diaspora.” In my opinion, we should heed the warning of Pastor Thabiti Anyabwile, who wrote:  “damage to healthy, biblical identity occurs because we uncritically take real cultural differences, root them in an imagined and often idolatrous trait like ‘race,’ and proceed to engage the world on this basis. So much of our identity is rooted in a racialized and cultural self-understanding that the pillars of our persons would appear to tremble and collapse with any significant re-examination of the notion of ‘races’ or fallen culture.”

Even more troubling is Tisby’s affirmation that “anti-Black racism” is the basis of “Black” as a global label. It is racism that binds Blacks together across ethnic groups, cultures, and nations. Yet, again, I have to ask whether this is a plausible claim. For example, less than 1% of the population of Kenya is Arab, Asian, or European. Given this reality, is anti-Black racism really a significant part of the day-to-day experience of the average Kenyan? It seems reasonable to worry that adopting “Black” as a politically-relevant identity built on racism will warp people’s self-understanding. In his book Liberating Black Theology, Prof. Anthony Bradley writes: “Victimology is the adoption of victimhood as the core of one’s identity” and “In the end, victimology perpetuates a separatist and elitist platform that provides no opportunity for racial reconciliation” (p. 19). In other words, allowing racism to define a key part of our identity is a recipe for alienation rather than unity.

Dividing the Church

Tisby’s understanding of “racial justice,” “racism,” and “Blackness,” can be characterized by one key attribute: asymmetry. For example, the distinction between “equity” and “equality” depends on treating Blacks differently than non-Blacks. His understanding of racism entails that people of color cannot be racist by definition. He views a trans-cultural Black identity as acceptable while he would (presumably) strongly reject a call for a trans-cultural White identity.

Given this framework, it’s not surprising that the book contains many controversial statements. For example, Tisby writes:

White supremacy, of which racism is a component, constructs concentric circles with white people of European descent in the center, the place of privilege and importance, more financial wealth, and the presumption of innocence and normality. Outside of this central category are all other people of color…No matter how much Black people attempt to assimilate by adjusting their patterns of speech, style of dress, and social networks, blackness in a white supremacist society can always be weaponized at any moment as a tool of dehumanization…No matter their level of achievement, people of African descent in the United States, especially those with darker skin, are always situated in the outermost ring of American social circles. This is what a white-centered society looks like. (p. 22)

Or this:

White people must constantly cultivate humility in order to acknowledge their complicity in racism and engage in the process of repentance and repair. Racism is designed to be invisible to white people–just the way things are, or this is the ‘right’ way to do things–so when they are confronted by the reality of racism, it can offend their sense of personal innocence. There is no way around this feeling. You have to go through a process of deconstructing the ways white supremacy has skewed your perception in order to see the reality of race more clearly (p. 184-185).

Or this:

It is time for many of us to go home to the Black church or other ethnic-specific fellowships. The sad truth is that as long as there is racism in the white church there will always be a need for churches comprised primarily of racial and ethnic minorities. It is not about re-segregating ourselves, it is about gaining the strength to persevere as a person of color in a society enthralled by white supremacy (p. 118)

In addition to calling for national-level programs for reparation to Blacks, Tisby also repeatedly recommends and applauds local groups and individuals who make reparations to Blacks. In his section “How Individuals and Organizations Can Pay Reparations” he gives examples of offering special scholarships to Black students who attend HBCUs (Historically Black Colleges and Universities), offering “reparations pricing” for a free concert that “invited white participants to voluntarily pay $10.79…to cover the costs of their attendance and that of Black attendees” (p. 172) or offering in-kind contributions of service or expertise to Black-led non-profits.

When I shared some of these examples on social media, they were understandably met with horror by many Christians (both White and Black), who recognized that —were the groups reversed– we’d see these statements as appallingly racist. Yet other Christians saw this negative reaction as misguided and ahistorical. In their view, we simply cannot apply the same standard today to both Blacks and Whites given the historical treatment of Blacks in this country.

The divide between these two approaches is deep, especially given the centrality of racial justice to Tisby’s thought. His final chapter is entitled “How to Orient Your Life to Racial Justice.” In it, he insists that “Fighting racism… must flow from an entire disposition that is oriented towards racial justice. We have to reposition ourselves spiritually, emotionally, culturally, intellectually, and politically.. Racial justice is a lifestyle, not an agenda item” (p. 181-182).

Summary

There are several significant divides today within evangelicalism. Tisby would argue that one major divide is between “Complicit Christianity” and “Courageous Christianity,” between those acquiescing to the racial status quo and those committed to fighting it. If he’s right, his work is not creating this divide; it is merely revealing a divide that already exists.

In contrast, I’d argue that a more serious divide exists between evangelicals who increasingly view social reality through the lens of “systemic power dynamics” and those who don’t. The majority of Christians abhor racism but also reject the various assumptions upon which Tisby’s antiracist framework is built. This framework is highly influential not just in the church but in our culture as well, which explains Tisby’s positive citations of Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility, Ibram X. Kendi’s How to Be An Antiracist, and Eddo-Lodge’s Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race. If we adopt their perspective, compromise seems impossible because anything less than full-throated affirmation of antiracism is viewed as complicity in racial oppression.

For pastors trying to bridge these divides and hold the church together, my only advice is to continue to preach the same message you preached 10 years ago. Be willing to examine yourselves and interrogate your blind spots, but don’t merely fall in line with the latest fad. You are not called to be popular, but to be faithful. Pray with people, love them, admonish them, and be open to correction. But stand in the dead center of biblical theology and refuse to move. Only there, through the power of the gospel, is true unity possible.


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