A Long Review of Yancey’s Beyond Racial Gridlock – Part 3

Part 1 – Synopsis
Part 2 – Pros
Part 3 – Defining and Repurposing Terms
Part 4 – Conclusion

Defining Terms:

– Throughout the book, Yancey adopts terminology that is standard in academia, but which I believe to be unhelpful because it often suggests an incorrect or ambiguous meaning. Examining these terms is important because, upon close scrutiny, we find that they often combine disparate concepts under a single heading.

A foundational component of Dr. Yancey’s model is understanding racism primarily as a sin. In the Bible, sin is defined as a failure to live up to God’s requirements, whether in thought, word, or deed (1 John 3:4, James 2:10, Matt. 5-7). Given this definition of sin, it follows that sin can only be committed by individual moral agents. A group of human beings can sin, but the group itself does not sin. To put it another way, it is impossible for a group to be guilty of a particular sin if all the individuals who comprise the group are not guilty of that particular sin. Before we deny this claim, we should 1) try to think of a counterexample in the Bible where the group was guilty of a sin even through no individual in the group was guilty of that sin and 2) consider what a denial of this claim would entail for Jesus’ sinlessness; since Jesus was part of many groups (males, Jews, Galileans, etc…), would we want to claim that he was guilty of the group’s sin even though he was individually sinless? This understanding of racism has tremendous implications. I’ll first look at how various terms are frequently used in academia and in popular culture before turning to Dr. Yancey’s nuanced usage of these terms.

– Defining “Structural racism.” The terms “structural racism” and “systemic racism” are often used interchangeably to refer to “policies, practices, and institutions which reinforce racial inequities.” On this definition, it is possible for “systemic racism” to exist even if the people within the system harbor no personal prejudice (see Bonilla-Silva’s “Racism without Racists”). For this reason, the term creates confusion for anyone who agrees that 1) racism is a sin and 2) sin is something that individuals in groups commit, but that groups themselves do not commit. In their minds, referring to ‘systemic racism’ is analogous to referring to ‘systemic adultery’ or ‘systemic idolatry.’ Certainly, laws or institutions can encourage adultery or idolatry, but these sins are committed by individuals within the group, not by the group itself.

– A second problem with the term ‘systemic racism’ or ‘structural racism’ is that it includes a spectrum of disparate ideas. On a standard definition, the following would all be examples of ‘systemic racism’: 1) a law declaring that POC are not citizens 2) a literacy test for voting which was ostensibly colorblind but which was intended to disenfranchise POC 3) a criminal law which was not intended to harm POC, but which had the unintended effect of disproportionately harming POC 4) homeschooling laws which have the unintented effect of disproportionately benefiting whites. But do we really want to suggest that homeschooling laws should be dismantled as elements of ‘systemic racism’ (#4)? If not, do we really want to agree that some examples of ‘systemic racism’ are acceptable? Perhaps we should rethink the definition itself.

– Defining ‘corporate repentance.’ Ideas of ‘corporate guilt’ and ‘corporate repentance’ are similarly ambiguous. Occasionally, it is argued that the Bible includes the idea that groups can be guilty for certain sins even though these groups contain individuals who are personally innocent of these sins. Therefore it is legitimate for individuals to repent of sins that they have not personally committed (examples include Ezra 9, Neh. 10, Acts 7, etc…). There are two major problems with this view: first, all of the biblical examples that I’ve seen include the ideas of covenant and federal headship. Israel was part of a national covenant with God and could thus be deemed collectively guilty of violating this covenant. In contrast, neither ‘whites’ nor ‘blacks’ nor the ‘United States’ are covenant groups, so to charge them with corporate sin seems to have little biblical precedent. Second, if we take the idea of ‘corporate guilt’ and ‘corporate repentance’ as biblical, then we must be consistent. We cannot merely hold one group and one group only accountable for their sins, but all groups. For example, as a half-Indian, do I bear collective guilt for the caste system? Do Japanese Americans bear guilt for Japanese imperialism? Unless we call all groups to repent for their historical actions, we’re not being consistent.

– Furthermore, note that ‘collective guilt’ will include far more than misuse of power. Oppression is a sin, but it is not the only sin. So we will have to call not only ‘oppressor groups’ but also ‘oppressed groups’ to repent of their collective sin.

Repurposing Terminology:

Although Dr. Yancey uses the same terms as other race scholars, he appears to modify their definitions to make them consistent with his (correct) view that racism is fundamentally a sin. For example, when he refers to “the structural definition of racism” he talks about how social structures influence our behavior and thinking. In a key passage, he notes that “exhorting weak-willed individuals to stop sinning will not solve racism; our social structures must also be reformed.” (p. 23) If racism is a sin, and if individuals commit sins but “structures” do not, then “structural racism” must be understood as “structures which encourage individual sin.” For example, in Nazi Germany, even if a particular soldier were not an anti-Semite, he would have been conditioned by his environment to commit tremendous evils. Structures would not commit the sin, but they would enable and encourage the sin. I fully agree with this idea.

– Similarly, in another key passage, Dr. Yancey critiques “individualistic ideas of sin” which ignore “structural sin” (p. 39). However, when he gives examples, he points to “usury which kept people poor and in slavery (Neh. 5:6-11)”, “unfair treatment of laborers by the wealthy (James 5:1-6), and “those who imposed heavy rents on the poor (Amos 5:11).” He summarizes by saying that “institutional practices can be sinful if they punish society’s unfortunate ones” (p. 39-40). Again, he does not seem to be claiming that groups sin independently of individuals. Rather, he seems to be claiming that groups and nations can be made up of sinful individuals and can create structures which encourage sin.

– Because Dr. Yancey sees racism fundamentally as a sin, he also appears to reject the idea that only whites can be racist, in contrast to some proponents of the “white responsibility” model who would deny that minorities can be racist (although they can be “prejudiced”; see p. 69). Consistent with Christian theology, we should recognize that the seeds of every kind of sin are present within every human heart; there are no races, or ethnicities, or genders which are exempt from certain sins.

– Finally, when Dr. Yancey discusses ‘corporate repentance’ he clarifies that it is not about “whites repenting for their own personal failings, although some may need to do that. It is about sorrow the historic and contemporary mistreatment of people of color” (p. 95). Here, Dr. Yancey links ‘corporate repentance’ to ‘lamentation,’ a recognition that whites “benefit from racism even though they are not racist themselves,” and how their indifference “may contribute to the maintenance of the racial status quo.” (p. 95) Note again that he does not directly address the question of ‘corporate guilt’ for historical sins and offers a definition that is wholly consistent with whites being guilty only for their own behavior, not that of whites in the past.

– If I am correct about Yancey’s definition of these terms, then I am in agreement with all of the statements he makes here. He carefully nuances his definitions to make them compatible with his view of racism as sin. Moreover, he can still rightly criticize ‘individualistic’ notions of sin which fail to see how sin can infect whole communities or institutions. Human beings rarely question norms. We naturally follow orders, imitate our peers, and do what we’re told without considering the morality of our actions. This tendency itself is a sin! Consequently, unjust laws and social norms can lead individuals to commit horrendous sins which they would never contemplate apart from the structures which facilitate them. Nonetheless, it is the individuals who commit the sin, not the structures. My only concern is that people who see these terms may not notice the careful nuance they are given by Dr. Yancey.

– On the other hand, if I am misreading Dr. Yancey (which is certainly possible), then he (and other people who use these terms) needs to give a biblical account of how sin can exist without sinners or how groups can sin independent of the sins of their members. I am open to this idea, but it needs to be defended rigorously.

– One final concern I had was the somewhat jarring language used to insist that blacks, as well as whites, share some responsibility for racial division. While I agree with this idea, I think that the particular examples and language Yancey uses may be off-putting to minorities. Here, we need to balance clarity with prudence. Both whites and blacks can withdraw from racial conversations if they feel threatened. On the other hand, as a half-Indian, it’s difficult for me to assess what language will disconcert African Americans, so I’m more than willing to give Dr. Yancey the benefit of the doubt here.

Last: Beyond Racial Gridlock – Part 2

Next: Beyond Racial Gridlock – Part 4