What We Believe
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How to Fight Racism: Courageous Christianity and the Journey toward Racial Justice, by Jemar Tisby. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2021, 227 pages, $24.95.

For many years, people in Reformed and evangelicalism knew Jemar Tisby for his work with the Reformed African-American Network (RAAN), a parachurch endeavor designed to bring the theology he learned at Reformed Theological Seminary, Jackson, to African-American Christians. Around 2015, partly in response to the publicity and public outcry surrounding police shootings of black men in the United States, Tisby turned from theology to race—for instance, the disparities between whites and blacks in the United States, the place of blacks and whites in American churches, and the persistence of personal and institutional racism. Around this time he also began doctoral studies in American history at the University of Mississippi. Signs of the change in Tisby’s thought came first with RAAN becoming The Witness: A Black Christian Collective. The organization’s purpose is to encourage black Christians “to be stewards of the Black prophetic tradition.” Tisby’s 2019 book, The Color of Compromise,[1] a history of white Protestant church’s complicity in American racism, combined his historical training and advocacy for The Witness. (Since writing this book, he has taken a position at Boston University’s Center for Anti-Racist Research, founded by Ibram X. Kendi.) Tisby’s latest book, How to Fight Racism, is less scholarly and, as the author admits, more practical than his previous one. That aim may be less successful than planned thanks to a manner of presentation that offers a range of practical pointers without identifying which are the most important or how they cohere.

The meandering nature of this book may stem from Tisby’s assumption that many readers want to fight racism and so do not need to be convinced to do so. In the introduction the author seems to concede this observation by advising readers not to worry about what sequence of tips or sets of data to follow but simply to “jump in.” Rather than summaries of policy initiatives, legal remedies, or even spiritual counsel for combating prejudice, Tisby implores readers to take a “journey” of self-discovery (7). “Don’t worry too much about where to begin,” he writes. “If you want a complete step-by-step plan … you will remain stuck in place” (14). This seemingly non-urgent approach could conceivably lead readers to a measure of complacency in their fight against racism. In fact, the procedure that Tisby follows in this battle is often abstract and when specific relies on common talking points.

The three parts of the book revolve around the grids of Awareness, Relationships, and Commitment, which comprise a cycle of practical, social, and psychological tasks by which to battle prejudices. As such, awareness of the problem is one part, which along with relationships with those hurt by racism and commitment to dismantle racist structures form the book’s contents. It adds up to an “invitation to dream” of a world in which racism does not “define so much of our reality.” Tisby wants readers to “reimagine a life where we acknowledge our differences but do not use them to dismiss or dehumanize others” (11). This rationale explains why in library catalogs How to Fight Racism is listed under subject headings for “Christian life” and “personal growth.”

Each of the three parts of the book, Awareness, Relationships, Commitment, receive three chapters, and within each chapter an “essential understanding” orients the contents. That formulaic quality again undercuts a sense of injustice and sin that demands repentance, forgiveness, and remedy. The book’s “essential understandings” likely reveal more about the author’s habits of mind than they provide a roadmap for personal growth and social justice. To develop an awareness of racism, readers need first to understand that race is a social construct, then consider the degree to which race informs self-awareness, and finally learn from the past, from slavery and its justifications to police brutality. In the section on relationships, Tisby begins by showing such personal bonds are basic to racial justice, before calling for humility and listening to others, and then exploring diversity, equity, and inclusion (all of which point to a fully integrated society). An ideal society is like a party to which everyone is invited (diversity), all guests have a chance to set the play list (equity), and all revelers get to dance (inclusion). To build commitment, Tisby first appeals to love of God and love of neighbor (part of Christian duty), then argues that racism is not simply about intentions but is part of institutions, and finally asks readers to recognize contempt as foundational to racism. These essential understandings are part of the book’s advice but remain an intellectual jumble without an obvious logic. Again, Tisby’s intent may be simply to invite readers to a journey. But that is a fairly disappointing strategy for correcting the wrongs and abuses of racism.

Such an evaluation should not be read as a dismissal of the book, though Tisby hardly writes much that is novel or provocative. The point here instead is that the book already assumes readers oppose racism and want directions for their awareness. Instead of saying, “well, before you enter the field of protest or policy, look in your own heart and relationships,” (6) which could be a worthwhile caution against presumption, Tisby mixes a set of platitudes about racism that render it more a social nuisance than a grotesque feature of American society (and its churches). The only mention of specific policies, though very brief, are voting rights, immigration reform, and reparations. But these difficult proposals seem to come more from the headlines than from an informed assessment of the best steps to take, and in which order, to combat racism. The failure to think these policies through becomes apparent in Tisby’s inclusion of immigration, since finding more immigrants to enter the United States is not obviously advantageous to American workers at the bottom of the pay scale, many of whom are black.

The failure to go into depth also applies to Tisby’s appeal to “Courageous Christianity” in the book’s subtitle. Scripture and theology do not drive this book. Notions like men and women being created in the image of God, or appeals to the moral law, or seeing opposition to racism as part of sanctification appear in the book. But they are not its backbone. At times the book does not even appear to be written for Christians. In his conclusion he writes that “we believe that a poor carpenter from Nazareth conquered death and is forming a people who will join in this triumph” of fighting racism (206). Yet, in the beginning, Tisby says that even though his approach is from a “Christian perspective,” the book is “intended for anyone who wants to work toward racial justice” (10). The specifics of this Christian outlook involve the church’s reckoning with its complicity in racism along with the foundation the gospel provides for rebellion “against racism and white supremacy” (10).

Tisby ends on a note of hope, but it is an optimism grounded in his recent work rather than a broader perspective on American history. His previous book, The Color of Compromise, was a catalogue of racism in white Protestant history. It fit the dominant mood in the Trump era that racism has been a deep and abiding part of American history. With a growing recognition of racism’s pervasiveness, Tisby believes “tomorrow can be different.” “The journey for racial justice continues, but the music we hear … is not a funeral dirge” but “festival music leading us to a banquet of blessings” (205). Tisby’s is a different version of hope from the one that the candidate, Barack Obama, offered while running as the candidate of hope in the Democratic presidential primaries. In 2008 the U.S. Senator explained that racism in America has not been static, “as if no progress has been made.” But “we know” and “have seen” that “America can change.”[2] That was six years before Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson, Missouri, elevated racism to prominence in discussions of national identity. Will Tisby’s book transcend the current climate of opinion about race, policing, and systemic injustice? If Obama’s understanding proved to be so fleeting, it is hard to imagine that Tisby’s outlook will endure the next cycle of news.

Endnotes

[1] Jemar Tisby, The Color of Compromise: The Truth about the American Church’s Complicity in Racism, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2019.

[2] “Transcript: Barack Obama's Speech on Race,” March 18, 2008. https://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=88478467. Accessed May 11, 2021.

Darryl G. Hart is distinguished associate professor of history at Hillsdale College in Hillsdale, Michigan and serves as an elder in Hillsdale Orthodox Presbyterian Church in Hillsdale, Michigan. Ordained Servant Online, August–September 2021.

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Ordained Servant: August 2021

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