Jemar Tisby is president of The Witness, a Black Christian Collective and co-host of the “Pass The Mic” podcast. Tisby is also a Ph.D. student in History at the University of Mississippi studying race, religion, and social movements in the 20th century. He takes on those subjects in his debut book, The Color of Compromise: The Truth about the American Church’s Complicity in Racism.
This is part one of Faithfully Magazine’s interview with Tisby, conducted by phone. It has been edited and condensed for clarity. You can read part two of the interview here.
You wrote The Color of Compromise, a book that is intentionally trying to take a good, hard look at history to see the church’s role in racism. Why is history so important for Christians to learn and know?
The more you study history the more you see that when it comes to race and Christianity, it’s a story of compromise rather than courage. What I mean by that is, throughout U.S. history, when there have been opportunities in the church or in the broader society to stand against racism, to promote the equality of all people—particularly of Black people—many times, the church institutionally has shrunk back in that critical juncture. So, I’m always wary of highlighting instances when Christians have in fact pushed back against racism, not because they’re not important but because we like to latch onto those positive stories and make a blanket assessment of the entire American church narrative. So, we’ll look at—he’s not even an American—but, we’ll look at Christians like Wilberforce and say, “See! We are the heroes of our own story.” But the reality is that the Christians who’ve been against racism were in the vast minority. And when they did stand against racism, they faced incredible opposition from their own brothers and sisters in Christ.
History is about a narrative. There’s a Nigerian author named Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and she has this viral Ted Talk video on YouTube, and she talks about the power and the danger of a single narrative. Now she’s talking about having a single narrative about Africa and all these stereotypes that people have about folks who live in Africa. I think the same thing can be applied to religion and Christianity in America, that when you’re talking about the predominantly-White theologically conservative church tradition, there’s a danger of having a single narrative. There’s a single narrative that’s mainly White, from Euro-American theologians, pastors, thinkers, authors, leaders. But there’s also the danger of a single narrative about race in America and a single narrative about our sort of heroic history as Christians who stood against racism. And the problem with all of those single narratives is that it’s not being informed by others, particularly people on the margins such as Black Christians and others.
What happens when Christians in America don’t know their history—both of the American church and U.S. history in general?
Many predominantly-White Christian circles have yet to fully reckon with how America has been crafted as a White supremacist society. And a lot of people don’t like to put it that bluntly, but White supremacy means both the centrality and the superiority of whiteness, which is a myth at the end of the day. It’s an idol and that’s why it’s so hard to dislodge. We don’t like to dislodge our idols. We don’t like taking our idols down from their pedestals. But, to put it that way evokes a lot of anger and defensiveness among White people because they don’t like to think of themselves as racists or benefiting from White supremacy. But what happens is that White supremacy operates so pervasively that it becomes almost invisible to those who are embedded in it.
So, I think that a lot of the issue with the narrative being perpetuated is that people don’t see it. Some people refuse to see it, but there’s a good deal of folks who simply can’t see it due to the fact that they’re surrounded by people who are just like them in their thinking and whatnot. So, this kind of presses the issue that we need to be doing theology in community with other believers from other backgrounds who can add different perspectives and help point out each other’s blindspots.
But, there’s also the argument to be made for a greater examination of U.S. history in general, from the colonial era on to us to the present. We have huge misunderstandings at the popular level—which would include Christians—about what happened in huge events like the Civil War or the Civil Rights Movement. I mean, people to this day are still arguing that the Civil War was not about slavery, which is patently false, right? Like, you can look at the Articles of Secession of South Carolina, Mississippi, and you can look at theologians like [Robert Lewis] Dabney and [James Henley] Thornwell and others who are arguing from the Bible that slavery is right, it is moral, it is just, and Black people’s only proper place was in servitude. So, if you have this sort of blatant denial of basic historical fact, then you’ll never be able to overcome the myth of white supremacy.
“A lot of people call slavery America’s ‘original sin.’ I think it’s America’s original symptom, and the original sin is greed. Because what helped to construct a system of race-based chattel slavery was the pursuit of profit—getting the most amount of money with the least amount of expense.”
What are you trying to accomplish with The Color of Compromise, and what do you think your book adds to the discussion of Christianity and race in America?
The whole book, The Color of Compromise, is based on the notion that the more you study history, the more you see that [the] American church has a very racist past. In the book, I try to put legs on that. I try to flesh that out beyond just the impressions, because I think a lot of us have the sense that the church was involved in racism, but can we name names? Can we tell stories? Can we give the details? It’s a very sobering book because from 1492 when Columbus made contact in this hemisphere on up to the age of Black Lives Matter, the church has been complicit in racism. Many times, the church has been more than complicit. It’s helped to construct and protect a racist system. For instance, in 1667, the Virginia Assembly, which was made up of Anglican White men, passed a law that said baptism would not free indigenous people, mulattoes (as they called them), or Negroes, which went against English common law at the time, a very long tradition that said you couldn’t enslave other Christians. But, they made an exception for darker skinned people.
We’ve talked a lot about race, but we also need to talk about money. A lot of people call slavery America’s “original sin.” I think its America’s original symptom, and the original sin is greed. Because what helped to construct a system of race-based chattel slavery was the pursuit of profit—getting the most amount of money with the least amount of expense. And typically, for any business, your biggest expense is personnel; you’ve got to pay people’s salaries. Well, you can cut that whole slice out of the pie if you enslave people. You never have to pay them. The only thing you have to do is give them the bare minimum of food, clothing, and shelter, which you would never choose to live in yourself because it’s so deplorable. And then, what happens? You make as much money as you possibly can.
We live in the richest nation in the history of the world, and I don’t see that money factors in often enough in our conversations about race. It’s greed and the pursuit of profit that have helped construct a system based on skin color. But, I have to add the caveat—it’s not that bigotry and prejudice and racism didn’t exist prior to American slavery. It was always there. Humans don’t need any excuse to look down on other people, especially those who are different from them. What I’m saying is that it amplified that personal prejudice and made it into an entire economic system that we’re still experiencing the residual effects of today.
Who is your intended audience for the book? What do you want to be the ultimate takeaway for readers?
I think this book has broad appeal to both Christians and non-Christians, to White people and people of color. My hope is that it would be persuasive to the people in the middle, the folks who are sort of deconstructing and reconstructing their ideas about race. And I mean, particularly, theologically-conservative White Christians, or you could say, White Evangelicals. For Black Christians though, I hope that the book will give them data to back up their instincts. As Black people in the church, we know there’s a racial problem. But, sometimes it can be hard to articulate precisely what it is and where it came from. So, I hope that by elucidating these stories that they’ll be able to point to a specific moment in our past and specific figures that say this is part of the reason why Christianity is so wrapped up in white supremacy. And it’ll validate them, because a lot of times when you’re a minority, you start to second guess yourself and ask yourself, “Am I being too sensitive? Am I wrong about this, because no one seems to agree with me?” So, what I hope this book will do is say, “No, you’re right! In fact, you’re more right than you may even know because the history is so much more troubling than we’ve [been] led to believe.”
I think it has an appeal to non-Christians as well because, though America is not a Christian nation in any formal sense of the term, Christianity has been an indispensable aspect of our national history. And so, if you want to understand America, you have to understand the role the American church has played particularly in creating and perpetuating ideas of race. So, for anyone who’s interested in the state of race relations today or how we got here, it would behoove them to study the role of the American church because it’s been thoroughly wrapped up in the construction of race in America.
"Black Lives Matter" is a misunderstood phrase in portions of American culture. In The Color of Compromise, I talk not only about distant American history, but also about contemporary history and how we got here.https://t.co/LSRrsmIpfq #ColorOfCompromise pic.twitter.com/voGAK0Skb6
— Jemar Tisby, PhD (@JemarTisby) January 24, 2019
I discovered during my research for an article that influential figures inside and outside the church like J. Gresham Machen and Woodrow Wilson pushed for segregationist policies at their institutions by creating a false narrative that said that Black students never attended Princeton Seminary and Princeton University. Is this something that went on more broadly in our history?
As you were talking, this phrase came to mind: White innocence requires Black erasure. That is what Wilson and others were doing. One of the reactions to saying that America was founded on white supremacy is a desire to exonerate oneself. If you’re White, that’s to say, “That’s not me,” “That’s not my people,” or “I wasn’t a part of that.” That’s White racial innocence, which is, apart from any personal malice, if you’re White, you benefit from whiteness. And that’s just a sociological and historical fact. It’s not saying you’re a bad person. It’s saying that our society was constructed in such a way that people who are categorized as White get certain advantages, and those who aren’t get certain disadvantages. And by simply being in America, you participate in that. But in the sort of rush to proclaim one’s innocence, what happens is you erase the narrative of Black people. This happens all the time and it’s still happening in White theologically-conservative Christian circles.
One of the main ways Black erasure happens is a lack of Black pastors and theologians informing the streams of thought of Christians today. So, even if you look on Twitter… look at the folks who prominent Christian leaders are quoting. They’re almost always White men. Even in this era when we’re talking about racial justice and we’re talking about coming together, we still haven’t made the simple move to say, “I need to diversify my bookshelf” and “If I’m going to quote someone, let it come from outside the small group of dead White guys who we always look to.” I mean, I think that’s a very actionable and easy to achieve step, and yet, our leaders, our writers, bloggers, pastors, theologians, conference speakers… they’re all still quoting the same folks by-and-large. And what that does is not just promote one version or several very common versions of Christianity; it erases all these other traditions, such as the Black Church tradition. And so, erasure isn’t just literally changing the history books or the narrative; it’s leaving people out. It’s neglecting to reference them as authoritative sources. This is continually happening within the White church.