The ARC of Racial Justice
Review of 'How to Fight Racism' by Jemar Tisby
Something is different this time.”
Jemar Tisby tweeted those words in the aftermath of the death of George Floyd, a black man who died while in police custody. The videotape of a white police officer kneeling on Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes resulted in widespread outrage, organized protests, and criminal indictments of the officers involved. While similar incidents had provoked such responses before, the reaction to Floyd’s death seemed different, as if American society had come to a turning point on racism.
Turns don’t make themselves, however. They have to be made. In Tisby’s words, “racial progress does not occur apart from the sustained efforts of people who dedicate themselves to fighting racism in all its forms.” How to Fight Racism is Tisby’s contribution to those sustained efforts. It outlines a model of practical action he calls “the ARC of Racial Justice,” with ARC as an acronym for awareness, relationships, and commitment.
How to Fight Racism is the companion to Tisby’s 2019 book, The Color of Compromise. That book outlined American Christianity’s tragic complicity in slavery, segregation and racism from the colonial period to the present day. (I interviewed Tisby about it here.) If that book described “complicit Christianity,” How to Fight Racism describes “courageous Christianity,” a faith that “dares to love through action and to risk everything for the sake of justice.”
The book’s ARC model begins with awareness. According to Tisby, the concept of race is “a socially constructed category that offers certain privileges and advantages to one group, which in the US context is white people, to the detriment of all those who are excluded from that group — that is, ‘nonwhite’ people, or people of color.”
"Racial progress does not occur apart from the sustained efforts of people who dedicate themselves to fighting racism in all its forms.”
So defined, race contradicts biblical theology, according to which all people are “the image of God,” and therefore “a racially and ethnically diverse church” represents God’s redemptive goal. Because race is socially constructed, we need to be aware of how it has shaped and misshaped our racial identity as individuals, as well as our history as a community.
After awareness come relationships. The goal here is racial reconciliation. This “does not mean returning to a bygone historical era of harmony but rather revising our relationships to more closely match God’s foundational pattern for human interaction,” Tisby writes. As Christians, we must pursue this reconciliation both personally and community-wide.
Personally, we need to make friends across dividing lines of race and ethnicity. According to Tisby, this is important because it is “difficult to pursue effective structural remedies to racism if you have little understanding of the personal experiences of marginalized people. Relationships make reconciliation real and motivate us to act.” Churches are a good place to do this, especially since biblical theology demonstrates that God’s redemptive goal is a racially and ethnically diverse church.
But reconciliation efforts need to move outside the church walls too. Corporately, we need to take action to build communities characterized by “diversity, equity, and inclusion.” Tisby defines those terms this way: “If diversity focuses on who is present, equity says who has access to a community’s resources and on what terms, and inclusion speaks to the sense of welcome and belonging extended to each person or group.”
Finally, there is commitment. Here, the key terms are racial justice and systemic racism. The former names the end we should seek, what Martin Luther King Jr. called “the beloved community,” while the latter names the obstacle to that goal.
“It is one matter to acknowledge that all people are made equal and have inherent dignity in their very being,” Tisby writes. “It is another matter to identify the ways the image of God is defaced in groups of people through systems and policies and to work against those injustices.”
As a middle-aged minister, I have witnessed several racial reconciliation movements sweep through the church. They start well, as people experience the good feeling of beginning friendships across racial and ethnic dividing lines. But so far, those movements have petered out because once participants got past the good feelings, they found themselves disagreeing strongly, often sharply, about the nature, causes, and fixes for the persistent disparities between white and black Americans.
I worry that our post-George Floyd moment will suffer the same fate. Tisby takes pain to root his advice in sound biblical theology, but I know that many white readers especially will disagree with his advice. At certain points in the book, I did. Nevertheless, I encourage you to read How to Fight Racism in tandem with The Color of Compromise. Even better, read them with others in your church.
The beloved community — the place of racial reconciliation and justice — only comes about if we commit ourselves to God’s will and to one another and lean into the hard conversations these books raise. If we do these things, perhaps something will be different this time indeed.