Review: Beyond Racial Division

Beyond Racial Division, George Yancey. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2022.

Summary: Proposes as an alternative to colorblind or antiracist approaches, one of collaborative conversation and mutual accountability to overcome racial divisions.

I witnessed it in our Ohio senatorial primary. One candidate stood at the Edmund Pettus Bridge invoking Dr. King in support of race blind policies. Another candidate spoke against the ire raised by being called “racist” for concern about people entering the country illegally. I do not wish to debate these claims but to cite them as an example of the divergent approaches being used to address the racial fault lines in this country: one being colorblindness, arguing that it is the emphasis on race that exacerbates our divisions, particular the invidious label of “racist.” The other is the “antiracist” strategy, one that is used widely in various forms in diversity training. It argues that a majority group inherently seeks to preserve its power and to subordinate others. Antiracism challenges all the systems and structures that maintain this power, demands activism (“you are either an antiracist or a racist”), and that whites must support antiracist efforts of blacks by persuading other whites and pressing for financial restitution for historic abuses.

George Yancey, a black sociologist at Baylor University believes neither of these strategies are working, and are actually contributing to deepening divisions. Colorblindness fails to acknowledge the present effects of historic abuses and the systems and structures that sustain discrimination against racial groups. Antiracist approaches often antagonize and alienate the very parties needed to make progress in addressing racial ills, shaming and stigmatizing those they consider the problem. They may gain grudging compliance or achieve political victories while fostering ongoing resentments and resistance.

What he proposes instead is a mutual accountability model. He describes this model as follows:

This model stipulates that we work to have healthy interracial communications so that we can solve racial problems. In those communications 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. By allowing those we disagree with to hold us “accountable” to their interests, we are forced to confront the ways we have fashioned solutions that conform to our own interests and desires.

Yancey, p. 35.

Active listening is an essential skill necessary to these collaborative conversations–the listening that seeks to understand rather than to fashion an argumentative response. It is an approach that take problem-solving rather than venting seriously, following this process:

  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)

Before going on to contend for this model, he addresses the failure of colorblindness to address the reality of institutional discrimination and the failure of antiracism due to its reliance on power and compulsion rather than the moral suasion where former adversaries become convinced allies.

Yancey offers empirical support for his model with a qualification. He cites research showing the effectiveness of mutual accountability in fostering agreement and collaboration between parties. The big “but” is that no significant research has yet been done on the effectiveness of this model in reducing racial bias, although some research from diversity programs suggest that “intergroup contact and cooperative interventions within diversity training efforts have promising potential to reduce prejudice.” He then turns to theological support for his model, noting the examples of resolution of intergroup conflict such as Acts 6. In a world under the illusion of human perfectibility, the Bible reminds us of our depravity and the folly of relying on our own intelligence and moral sense. Finally, he considers how mutual accountability might work in our lives.

He concludes with a call for a mutual accountability movement in addressing racial issues. He offers the example of Sean Sheppard, founder and CEO of Game Changer, a California-based organization working with communities and police departments using collaborative conversation and mutual accountability methods. While not seeing himself as a movement organizer, he hopes to mobilize social media influencers and to promote the work of the Baylor Program for Collaborative Conversation and Race, a research and training center to fill the gap in empirical research in apply mutual accountability models to racial issues.

I have to acknowledge that my response to this work is that of a white boomer male. I admit to having felt shamed and stigmatized and silenced precisely because of that status, which I cannot change no matter how much I do in the cause of antiracism. I also have seen how inadequate colorblind solutions are, which I believe are attempts to “heal lightly our nation’s racial wounds.” Yancey gives word to the lack of ease I’ve had with both of these approaches. What he advocates seems to me to be rooted in the way of peace and reconciliation I’ve learned as a Christian.

Still, I find myself wondering whether this alone is adequate. I can’t imagine there being those willing to sit down in conversations of mutual accountability to desegregate schools, public accommodations, or grant voting rights. Strategies of court cases, disciplined protest marches and boycotts, non-violent resistance, and the return of love for hate were necessary because no one was at the table with them.

I also wonder how words like “mutual” and “collaborative” work when through history Blacks have born far more than their share of the burden of reconciling our race relations. I think there is a point to be heard in the insistence of antiracist trainers that Whites “need to do the work.” I suspect that language can alienate, but I’m afraid that Yancey’s language could allow those in the majority culture to offload their own responsibility in an unhelpful way.

Still, while there have been real advances in civil rights, I see us more deeply racially polarized and tribalized than almost any time in my adult life, despite extensive DEI efforts in many companies and institutions. Might it be time to try approaches that get people together as collaborators in shared solutions to which they are mutually accountable? That’s the question Yancey is asking, and one that I think is not unreasonable, based on both research and the failings of other approaches.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.