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 the definition of the word, but looking at specific events the discussion frequently devolves 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 really is valuable and most important (and will be most controversial) is the last several chapters where racism is less overt and where Tisby specifically is using comparisons with Billy Graham and a few others to show that even when there may not be 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 Color of Compromise I think was well chosen. Racism, like many other things is not just overt harmful action, but also the times when it is easier to just not say or do anything. The examples of Billy Graham compared to Martin Luther King Jr or other figures from our recent past really do give the best illustrations in the book about how subtle, but real, lack of attention to how racial lines create an other matters.
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 with in 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 of a situation, then we have drawn a line about who we included as children of God and who we do not.
The tragedy of the Color of Compromise is not just that slavery or Jim Crow happened and that at the church was largely on the wrong side. The tragedy of Color of Compromise is that because slavery and Jim Crow happened, and minority Christians were largely pushed out and separate White and non-White churches arose, leaving a relational break, which led to a cultural separation, which has resulted in 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 as not however, adequately grappled with how patterns of history have led to continued separation that today has resulted in a compromised church that is unable to squarely address racism.