by Jennifer Harvey
Wm. B. Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, Mich. 272 pages
REVIEWED BY KRIS HAIG
This volume, part of Eerdmans’ “Prophetic Christianity” series, is a provocative analysis of the current state of race relations, specifically the (at best) marginal success of church efforts to bring about racial reconciliation in the 50-plus years since the Civil Rights era. The author, a professor of religion and ethics, argues persuasively that the focus on reconciliation has itself been problematic. Instead, she proposes a new framework for addressing racism and race relations — one grounded the diligent study of U.S. history and the ongoing effects of the legacy of slavery. She writes, “Separation exists between us as racial beings because of the activities (slavery) in which racial differences were first given meaning.”
True reconciliation, she asserts, will only become possible if and when white Christians come to terms with the reality of white privilege, acknowledging the pervasive ways in which white Americans still benefit and black Americans still are harmed by social realities that had their origins in the 1600s. Until white Christians acknowledge and attempt to redress these harms, Harvey argues, attempts at reconciliation will be premature, rendered impossible because of the very different situations of power that are occupied by whites and blacks.
Part of her analysis (and she cites substantial research throughout) points out that a reconciliation approach has implicit assumptions, including the assumption that the “problem” needing to be fixed is the separation of the races; the goal is unity, diversity and inclusiveness. Harvey is convinced that this is neither the real problem nor the best goal. The brokenness of race relations is not a problem of separation but of injustices; the remedy is atonement and reparations, and it must begin with white Christians committing themselves to the difficult and painful process of learning (and unlearning) our history — which is not just a story of the South but of all America.
It is also the story of American Christianity. Harvey particularly focuses on the end of the Civil Rights era and the disunity that developed between black and white Christians in the late 1960s. As black religious leaders increasingly called for redress of grievances, white Christians’ responses, although well-meaning, were marked by paternalism and discomfort, resulting in black anger and discouragement and white frustration and confusion. The author then deals extensively with recent denominational efforts to address racism, including the PC(USA) curriculum “Facing Racism: a Vision of the Beloved Community” (1999), which she commends despite some (to her mind) flawed assumptions.
This is a difficult book, and not only because it sets a discomforting agenda for whites. It also is rather unevenly organized and written, with much repetition and circularity in the early chapters, which also are written in language perhaps more suited to an academic dissertation than a general audience. The content of the book, however, is well worth the extra effort. Events in Ferguson and New York City last year bear witness to the profoundly unsettled state of race relations in this country, a brokenness that cannot be healed by simple Christian goodwill. If it is true, as she claims, that “nearly all current disparities result from or link back to the institution of slavery,” we have much yet to learn. For those who are willing to look deeply into our history — to remember, to repent and to repair — this book is a most valuable resource.
KRIS HAIG is a semi-retired Presbyterian minister living in Bethel Park, Pennsylvania.