Reviewed by Walter McConnell
Mission Round Table 18:1 (Jan-Jun 2023): 44
To read articles in this edition, visit this post on Mission Round Table 18:1.
The nineteenth century politician Otto von Bismarck has been quoted as saying that “politics is the art of the possible, the attainable — the art of the next best.” His idea has sometimes been restated as “politics is the art of compromise.” Whatever acceptance this principle may have historically, in many countries today it is vigorously rejected by opposing political factions that insist that compromise is failure. Their way, and only their way, must be wholly accepted and serve as the basis for law. To give in to the demands of others is unthinkable, despite the inevitable stalemate.
George Yancey, writing from his context of being a black man in America, has perceived a similar reality when it comes to seeking solutions for racial relations. He begins Beyond Racial Division by describing the racial alienation that exists in the United States between the majority white population and blacks and other people of color. He then critiques the two most popular solutions given for the problem—colorblindness and antiracism—and contrasts them with his preferred approach, which he calls “mutual accountability,” a model that “stipulates that we work to have healthy interracial communications so that we can solve racial problems” (35). But before we consider his solution, we need to review the others.
Colorblindness is an attempt to treat all people on the same level regardless of their race—thus, no affirmative action. While the concept was present in Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech, and is often promoted as a logical way to treat people fairly, Yancey argues that it falls flat.
The key sticking point with those advocating a colorblind perspective is the question of the degree to which we have overcome the effects of racism. If the effects of racism are relegated to a few racist individuals, then perhaps efforts to be colorblind can reflect our basically fair society. However, if there are still powerful effects from historical and contemporary racism that affect people of color beyond the hatred of a few racists, then colorblindness is not viable (66).
And the fact is, as multiple studies show, American life is systemically unfair against minority groups, particularly blacks, and colorblindness does little to correct the wrongs of the past and bring more balance to society.
The counter solution to this approach is antiracism. According to Yancey, antiracism can be defined by three operating themes: (1) “a belief in the pervasiveness of racism in our society,” (2) “the necessity of an intense commitment to defeat racism,” and (3) in antiracism, “the role of whites is to support the activism of people of color” (86–87). And while Yancey, as a black man, understands why people are attracted to this approach, he feels that it is, at best, a limited solution. In part, this is because he does not believe that whites will always do what is needed to reverse historical racism. It is also because the requirement that whites actively promote the welfare of people of color only reverses the power structure and creates its own kind of unfairness (98) and further lacks safeguards to prevent overcorrection.
Better than clinging to one of these polar positions, he argues, is setting a course that treats each other as equals—no inferiors and no superiors. Here is where our response to racial inequality becomes an “act of the possible.” Rather than demanding our own way, Yancey promotes entering “collaborative conversations” so that we truly understand each other’s positions and reasons for them. During such conversations, we should engage in “active listening”—not merely listening to someone while waiting for space to present your own views—but ensuring that you truly understand theirs. We will know that we have reached this place when we say to the person, “Now, let me repeat what I think I heard you say,” and, when you are through, they say, “Yes. That’s exactly right.”
Once we understand each other, we can discuss issues that are of primary and secondary importance and, in collaboration with the others, decide which of our preferences we can live without for the benefit of all. As Yancey says, “it becomes a matter of trading off the nonessentials so both groups gain their essentials” (165). And even though it will not always work out perfectly and can prove scary (for both sides), it is a positive step forward that focuses on the common good through mutual accountability.
I highly recommend that anyone who relates to people from different racial or ethnic groups read this book as it is an extremely helpful guide for thinking through issues of racial disharmony and acting upon them. This is true even for those who are neither black nor white or living in America, as racial disharmony is not limited to that context. Anywhere there are majority and minority populations, particularly in settings where historical or cultural dichotomies exist, similar relational problems can be found between races. By showing us why we need to engage in active listening and how to do it, Yancey prepares us to relate to those who are “other” racially.
There is more of value here that the author may not have considered that is a considerable bonus for people engaged in mission. Yancey’s approach to racial division can be further applied to our relationships with those who are “other” religiously or (within the context of Christianity) theologically. By actively listening to those who differ from us on any number of issues, we will better understand their positions rather than perpetuating a caricature of their beliefs and continuing to be in a polarized relationship. Consequently, doors will open for communication and collaboration that we may never have thought possible.
Is it scary to interact with people in this way? Yes, no matter if we are separated by racial or other divides. Will it take work? Yes, but even though we may not get everything we might like out of the interaction, we can grasp the power of the possible for the well-being of all.