White Fragility: The Order of Unity

Written by on August 19, 2020

I am grateful for the chance to have my writing reprinted in Christianity Today and to have a chance to continue the conversation beyond that first blog. In promoting collaborative conversations, I believe I have charted a path that is scriptural and effective. That path is in contrast to White Fragility as the ideals promoted in that book are unlikely to succeed in producing christian unity and justice.

I feel obligated to address an issue not brought up in those essays but nonetheless has come to my attention since the original blog. There are those who deny the reality of institutional racism. I define institutional racism as institutional forces that have a negative impact on racial minorities regardless of the personal intentions connected to the shaping of those institutions. Based on that definition there is plenty of evidence that institutional racism continues to exist.

For example, we know that there has not been any real decrease of racial discrimination in hiring over the past 25 years. There is statistical support for “driving while black” fears. Residential segregation still impacts people of color. Finally, there is evidence of racism in the beliefs and practices of medical heathcare providers. Those who deny the existence of institutional racism are either ignorant of the evidence or do not want to know if institutional racism exists.

Now there may be good reasons why we have rules or norms that have a disparate impact on people of color. True. Blacks are more likely, even after controls for individual characteristics, to commit murder. I do not think we want to rid ourselves of laws that punish murder. But we should still factor in institutional racial factors that may contribute to the disparity of criminal commission, as well as look at potential institutional factors that create this racial disparity. In doing so we may find that we cannot justify many of our current practices and institutions, which can force us to rethink our approaches to those institutions.

I believe the path that I have advocated is a sound way to engage in that type of rethinking. There are whites who have not really listened to the effects of institutional racism and its impact in the lives of people of color. When communicating in a mutually accountable way, we can work together to find ways to meet the needs these institutions address in ways that minimize or even eliminate unfair treatment of people of color. That is part of what it means to do justice.

But the ideas connected to White Fragility are not the keys to addressing issues of institutional racism or finding justice. I have heard people argue that we need to achieve justice before we can be unified. This is backward. We will not gain justice until there is unity. Until we are working together to achieve justice, then we will always have to fight strong resistance to our efforts. I am not talking about unity just for the sake of unity but developing unity so that we can confront our racial problems.

We know that when individuals develop a common identity, we see a decrease in bias and prejudice. Rather than stigmatizing people with claims of fragility, we should concentrate on our commonalities and identities. That would allow people of all races to confront the way they use unfair stereotyping to dehumanize racial outgroups. Only then are we in a position to unite in ways that achieve sustainable racial justice and be in the best position to confront institutional racism.

Our Bible tells about human depravity. Our inability to see the effects of that depravity can create in us a confidence that we are almost always right. So it is natural to think that unity only comes when others capitulate to us. This is where White Fragility can feed into the worst impulses of some people of color. It tells them that they should expect whites to just listen to them and do what they want. Not only does this expectation not help produce a unified front against institutionalized racism, but it can produce a backlash. I have had many whites tell me that they want to work on racial issues but are tired of being called racist because they have a different opinion.

What we need, and what we are not going to get from White Fragility, is the ability to enter collaborative conversation with each other. Those sorts of conversations can help us to work together, to be held accountable for our own biases, and to find solutions that we can live with. These are the conversations that get results. Research into corporate diversity programs has shown that trying to force managers to not discriminate does not increase the hiring of people of color, but getting those managers into a conversation, and bringing their own ideas on how to increase diversity works. Likewise if people of color work with whites, and come with a willingness to learn and teach, then we increase our chance of unifying for change.

So unfortunately, the book White Fragility, falls apart in several ways for Christians. It is theologically flawed, only recognizing human depravity among whites and not among people of color. It is empirically flawed as research indicates that such browbeating does not product positive results. It prioritizes capitulation over a unified front to confront contemporary racism. I appreciate the attention it has brought to institutional racism; however, this does not compensate for its many flaws. As such my recommendation is that Christians seek out ways to lead by having the type of collaborative dialogue necessary in our racialized fallen world rather than using the flawed model found within White Fragility.

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