Summary: An introductory survey of American history and the relationship of the church to racism.
Racism is hard to talk about because we have a hard time agreeing with what racism is. Not only are there disagreements on what the definition of racism is, but conflicts often devolve into, ‘That was racist’ and ‘I don’t understand how you can say that was racist.’
The Color of Compromise is an introductory survey of how the church has compromised with racism over history. Early chapters cover slavery and the divides within the church over the Civil War, Jim Crow, segregation, and the Civil Rights movement. All of this is well done and important, but also a history that I think many will be relatively familiar with.
I think where The Color of Compromise is most valuable and essential (and will be most controversial) is the last several chapters where racism is less overt. Tisby uses comparisons with Billy Graham and a few others to show that even when there may not be an intention, harm can still occur.
In previous eras, racism among Christian believers was much easier to detect and identify. Professing believers openly used racial slurs, participated in beatings and lynchings, fought wars to preserve slavery, or used the Bible to argue for the inherent inferiority of black people. And those who did not openly resist these actions—those who remained silent—were complicit in their acceptance. Since the 1970s, Christian complicity in racism has become more difficult to discern. It is hidden, but that does not mean it no longer exists. (page 155)
The word ‘compromise’ in the Color of Compromise was well chosen. Racism is not just overt harmful action, but also the times when it is easier not to say or do anything. The examples of Billy Graham compared to Martin Luther King Jr, and other figures from our recent past do give the best illustrations in the book about how subtle, but real, lack of attention to how racial lines create reinforce historic racial divides.
Early in the book when talking about Reconstruction, Tisby says,
“Even after the calamitous events of the Civil War, many citizens and politicians maintained a moderate stance on race and civil rights. Unionists in the North tended to show more concern about the status of former white Confederates than for the status of freedpeople (page 92)”
It is easier to see with overt actions, but the later chapters are important in showing that when the church is racially isolated or assumes White normative culture or bias, those that are not White are alienated. Said another way, if we as individuals have a view of the person we are identifying within a situation and we default to identifying with the White people in the story, but we do not include identifying with non-White people in the story, then we have drawn a line about who we have included as children of God and who we have not.
The tragedy of the Color of Compromise is not just that slavery or Jim Crow happened and that at the church was mostly on the wrong side. The tragedy of the Color of Compromise is that because slavery and Jim Crow happened, and minority Christians were largely pushed out. Separate White and non-White churches arose, leaving a relational break, which led to a cultural separation, which has resulted in a modern lack of empathy and a lack of awareness among much of the White church that there even is a problem.
The church as a whole is no longer fighting about whether slavery is biblical (there is still some discussion on these questions, but not much). The church as a whole has not; however, adequately grappled with how patterns of history have led to the continued separation that today has resulted in a compromised church that is unable to address racism squarely.