A Review of George Yancey’s, Beyond Racial Division
Note: An abbreviated version of this post was published by Christianity Today on May 1, 2022, under the title “Don’t Ignore Race. Or Alienate White People.” CT edited it to fit their writing style and length requirements. We wanted to go ahead and publish the longer version that Monique submitted to CT here.
George Yancey’s newest book, Beyond Racial Division, aims to create “a better way” forward in our nation’s approach to racial issues (pg. 13). A Christian and a professor of sociology at Baylor University, Yancey describes how his Christian faith compels him to stand for a “mutual accountability model” that leads to “win-win” solutions to race conversations.
Mutual Accountability: What Is It?
Yancey’s model for race conversations, mutual accountability, involves a process through which, regardless of race or skin color, “everyone is allowed to participate, and everyone’s ideas are taken seriously. Everyone has a say in the final outcome” (pg. 14).
Yancey notes that all participants must actively listen to those we may not readily agree with if we want to “work together to find solutions we can accept” (pg. 15). He acknowledges that “humans have a natural ability to convince ourselves that what we ourselves want is best for everyone concerned” (pg. 33). Considering human depravity and human bias, mutual accountability “stipulates that we work to have healthy interracial communication so that we can solve racial problems” (pg. 35). These collaborative conversations allow “those we disagree with to hold us ‘accountable’ to their interests [so that] we are forced to confront the ways [in which] we have fashioned solutions that conform to our own interests and desires” (pg. 35).
Practically speaking, this process is achieved through moral suasion, an approach that includes intentionality, active listening, and relationship building. Yancey notes, “If I want to find solutions that serve the interests of everyone, I must listen to everyone” (pg. 34). “Real moral suasion,” he writes, “requires that we build rapport with those we want to persuade. It means we accurately understand their point of view” (pg. 40).
Two Models Yancey Says Should Be Abandoned: Antiracism and Colorblindness
Yancey carefully distinguishes his mutual accountability model from two alternative approaches: colorblindness and antiracism. He states that his approach focuses on healthy interracial communication and community (pg. 57, 58) while colorblindness and antiracism result in “racial alienation” (pg. 19), damaging our ability to connect with each other and work out our racial issues together.
Yancey believes that removing such triggering keywords and frameworks as antiracism and colorblindness would help to create a space where everyone could feel safe. That’s where he sees his model of mutual accountability as offering a better, more productive alternative (pg.18).
Yancey’s theological framework is built on several important theological ideas. For example, he affirms that Christians must place “biblical truth above all other efforts to gain knowledge” (pg. 128). He seems to place Scripture as a standard for truth on race issues.
He observes that the Bible does not actually mention racism, as our current cultural understanding of race did not develop until much later. He uses examples from the Samaritans and Jews to demonstrate that the concept of “intergroup conflict” is addressed in the Scriptures. He offers insight into how we should participate with one another today: treating others with respect and honoring the dignity, value, and worth of an individual.
Yancey also points out that most secular frameworks, including antiracism, have redefined humanity in a way that differs from the historic Christian position. Historic Christianity affirms the depravity of the human condition (pg. 137; see Romans 3:23 and 1 John 1:8-10). Conversely, secular ideologies tend to promote “human perfectibility” (pg. 134)—the idea that humans can create better societies (pg. 134). Yancey believes that having a full understanding of human depravity could lead to greater depths of compassion and forgiveness (pg. 143). In other words, when we are more aware of our own depravity, we may be more apt to forgive and consider “the needs of others as much as, or even more than, our own needs (Philippians 2:3)” (pg. 145).
A Few Critical Points To Consider
Addressing racism is always first an issue of righteousness. Whenever we consider arguments offering practical tools or suggestions for living out personal righteousness, it is important to examine these things through the lens of Scripture first. Scripture is the standard by which we define and arbitrate what is righteous. Considering Yancey’s position, there are elements that I believe are deeply in line with the historic Christian worldview, and elements that I find problematic.
Yancey opens with an appeal to listen to him because he is a black man. “When you are a black man in the United States, it is difficult to escape your racial status” (pg. 7). While his personal experience may be relevant, I thought this statement seemed counterproductive to Yancey’s endeavor to have collaborative conversations. Is it true that all black men find it difficult to escape their racial status? His statement could be seen as vaulting skin color above other data. This statement also seems to imply that his skin color provides him with special insight into race issues. Further, scripturally, truth is not decided by skin color. Truth is based on evidence: As Paul writes, “Every charge must be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses.” (2Cor. 13:1). In saying this, he calls to mind these words from Deuteronomy: “A single witness shall not suffice against a person for any crime or for any wrong in connection with any offense that he has committed. Only on the evidence of two witnesses or of three witnesses shall a charge be established.” (Deut. 19:15)
These two verses speak specifically to this matter. Skin color does not give me special access to truth any more than sex does. They may give me access to some shared experiences, but I cannot claim that just because I share the experience of some, that experience is true of the whole.
While I don’t agree with Yancey’s use of personal social location (being a black man) as a reason for why he is someone to be listened to, I did, however, find Yancey’s critique of antiracism particularly helpful. He points out several key problems related to antiracism, including implied permission to disrespect white people (pg. 97). Antiracism, he writes, “creates a clear delineation between the roles of whites and nonwhites in that the whites are expected to defer to nonwhites” (pg. 88). Because of the cultural popularity of antiracist authors like Ibram X. Kendi, Robin DiAngelo, and Layla Saad, many evangelical churches have also begun promoting these divisive works. Pastors would do well to carefully consider Yancey’s concerns.
I also appreciated Yancey's mutual-accountability model, in that it allows people on either side of an issue to speak and be heard. I see value in this approach. Far too often, the experiences and concerns of people, regardless of racial category, are negated or left completely unheard.
I do want to make a brief comment on one issue related to Yancey’s model that I felt could have used clarification. Throughout the book, I looked for an answer to a foundational question: What standard will be used to arbitrate what ought to be done for the “good” of society? Yancey’s vision for moral suasion is built on a premise of shared morality: “Once people become convinced the new action is the moral thing to do, then change will likely occur” (pg. 38). The desire to work toward change assumes that the groups involved will agree on some kind of moral standard. But what is that standard, exactly? Is it pragmatism? Is it group consensus? Or is it divine revelation? If the groups involved don’t share the same standard for reaching a consensus, then what? It is not clear at what point Yancey considers the essential tenets of Christianity to be non-negotiable guardrails in the conversation about racial unity.
Consider this important quote from Yancey:
We cannot force our solution onto everyone else, even if for the sake of argument, it is indeed the perfect solution. It is not just important that we find good workable solutions; it is vitally important how we discover and promote those solutions. Christians cannot propose new directions for society as if they were given to us from God and expect everyone else in society to obey. We must have an approach that accounts for the reality of human depravity but also works for those who do not accept our faith (pg. 142).
While we may not have any right to expect that culture will change to accept the righteous standards of Christianity, we do have an obligation to explain how the gospel offers the foundation for a truly transforming vision for racial unity. Out of the nations, God has called out one new people to be a big spiritual family. This is an objective, transcendent, global reality (Matt. 28:19-20). Calling the nations to discipleship is the only hope for lasting transformation in a sin-filled world. Christians cannot recognize real human depravity and yet not also recognize our real solution: Jesus.
I appreciate Yancey’s effort to reach across divided racial lines from a Christian perspective. His mutual-accountability approach adds a needed component to the conversation on race: a competition of ideas. Simply put, we need more models in the conversation about race. And for the Christian, all of these models must be weighed against the truth of Scripture.