The Color of Compromise
The Truth about the
Complicity in Racism
by Jemar Tisby
Geoffrey W. Sutton
“On July 4, 2016, as my social media feeds filled with images of American flags and friends’ backyard barbecues celebrating America’s independence, I took to Twitter and posted a picture [sic] seven African Americans picking cotton in a field with the following caption: “My family on July 4th 1776.” (From the forward by Lecrae, p. 9)
Few would disagree that American slavery was immoral. As I examine The Color of Compromise in July 2020, I am keenly aware that my lessons in American history were whitewashed. And worse, I was never exposed to the degree to which the American Christian church failed to address slavery and its legacy of racism.
Tisby tells the story of American anti-black racism in 11 chapters arranged in chronological order. However, The Color of Compromise is not just the story of racism; it is the story of what Christian leaders said and did that supported slavery and the post-slavery stereotypes, prejudices, and acts of discrimination that persist in overt and covert ways to this day. As Tisby says racism is adaptive.
It is surely axiomatic by now that humans prefer to hang out with people like themselves. As an immigrant family, we interacted with other immigrant families as if we had a common bond. Strangely, I realized that a substantial proportion of the people in my book study group were born outside the US. We humans tend to like, help, and prefer those within our groups. But that natural tendency is far different from creating an economic system based on enslaving people with black skins. As Tisby writes in chapter 2, in the early years of colonial America “the colonists had not yet cemented skin color as an essential feature of life in their communities. Race was still being made (p. 26).”
In chapter 3, we are reminded that liberty was white and not black after British North Americans fought against their countrymen for liberty and justice for all. Africans fought on both sides but, as we know, the thirteen United States would not deal with the matter of slavery. By the time of the Civil War, Americans had built structures and economies based on slave labor for over 300 years1. Following the War for Independence, Christian revival meetings led by Methodists and Baptists won converts to these enthusiastic and less formal worship styles. Tisby adds the story of two famous slave-holding clergy to illustrate the support for slavery in the 1700s—George Whitfield and Jonathan Edwards.
We learn more about the ugliness of chattel slavery in chapter 4. Thus, American slaves were not just men or women working to gain their freedom like a servant. Tisby quotes African American minister James W. C. Pennington:
“The being of slavery, its soul and its body, lives and moves in the chattel principle, the property principle, the bill of sale principle: the cart whip, starvation, and nakedness are its inevitable consequences.” (p. 60)
The Civil War (chapter 5) not only spilled the nation’s blood, but it split the Methodists and Baptists too. In this context, we learn how the church found a biblical basis to defend slavery.
In chapter 6, Tisby traces the rise of white supremacy and the increasing oppression of black people through intimidation and restrictions on important dimensions of life like voting. As the new century dawned, so did the promise of Pentecostalism (chapter 7). Unfortunately, the Pentecostals became segregated like the rest of society. The two world wars do not get much time in Tisby’s story. I suggest they should as President Truman ended segregation in the military in 1948.
Unfortunately, the church did too little during the 1950s and 60s (chapter 8). This is the era of Emmett Till and Rosa Parks, the rise of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and that North Carolina moderate, Rev. Billy Graham. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was a temporary high-water mark.
In chapter 9, Tisby reminds us of the rise of the Religious Right and the Moral Majority. For those who are not old enough or who forgot, Southern Baptist pastors supported abortion in some cases before the Row v. Wade decision on abortion. Southern Baptist leader, W. A. Criswell’s view was:
“I have always felt that it was only after a child was born and had life separate from its mother . . . that it became an individual person.” He further explained, “It has always, therefore, seemed to me that what is best for the mother and for the future should be allowed.” (p. 181)
However, that view of abortion was about to change. Desegregation moved forward. Segregationist Bob Jones University (BJU) admitted black students, but mixed dating was prohibited. That race-based dating policy led to a loss of tax-exempt status in 1976. The Moral Majority rose to power on a platform of restoring Bible reading and Christian prayer to public schools and the wedge issue of abortion. The movement strengthened as Falwell and his organization blessed Ronald Reagan. Reagan spoke at BJU in 1980 and soon thereafter, their tax-exempt status was restored. The marriage of evangelical Christianity to the Republican party and an antiabortion rallying cry remains strong.
Chapter 10 takes us through the end of the 1900s and into the 2000s. Promise Keepers promotes racial reconciliation and offers some hope. Some Christian churches begin to diversify and in fact want to learn how to improve diversity. But the religious-political rift is exposed as black people are killed (Trayvon Martin, 2012). “Black Lives Matter” becomes a rallying cry only to be slammed by Christians who recoil at organizational links to LGBTQ rights. Tisby explains there’s a difference between an organization and a movement, but I doubt this will undo the emotionally tagged mental connection between Black Lives Matter and traditional enemies of Christian America. The chapter closes with a picture of a divided church and the 2016 presidential election. Tisby reports the statistics-- 84% of Blacks voted for Clinton and especially noteworthy, 94% of black women. In contrast, 81% of white evangelicals voted for the Republican ticket.
In chapter 11, Tisby evaluates American progress. Although the external "whites only" signs are down, Blacks and Whites are segregated in society, politics, and the church. He reminds us of differentials in unemployment and incarceration. On page 195, Tisby appears to respond to questions of “What can I do?” We can increase our awareness through books and videos and connect with Blacks and other minorities, he tells us. And we can use our other gifts or talents like writing and speaking to address issues of racial and social justice. There’s more here, which makes the chapter a useful guide to readers who have now developed their awareness of racism in US society.
Tisby concludes with a short essay on the importance of being strong and courageous.
I recommend The Color of Compromise to all Americans and those who want to understand racism in America.
The years of chattel slavery and the subsequent century of oppression are unique among the world’s wealthy modern nations. The legacy of slavery has resulted in decades of white control of the federal and many state governments, wealthy multinational companies, political parties, and large church bodies. Tisby’s book will further enlighten sensitive white Christians and has the potential to energize some to act according to their gifts and resources. I do not think The Color of Compromise will reach those who do not identify with the blatant racism of the past or who are focused on the fetus and concomitant perceptions that they are fighting a spiritual battle against socialists and Marxists intent on destroying Christian America. I hope I am wrong.
Watch Jemar Tisby's Trailer on YouTube
1. Although Tisby gives the short story of slavery, the first slaves entered Florida in 1539 where they built St Augustine, America’s oldest city.
Worth Quoting from Tisby
“The failure of many Christians in the South and across the nation to decisively oppose the racism in their families, communities, and even in their own churches provided fertile soil for the seeds of hatred to grow. The refusal to act in the midst of injustice is itself an act of injustice. Indifference to oppression perpetuates oppression.”
“History demonstrates that racism never goes away; it just adapts.”
“Being complicit only requires a muted response in the face of injustice or uncritical support of the status quo.”
“there would be no black church without racism in the white church.”
“Another definition explains racism as prejudice plus power. It is not only personal bigotry toward someone of a different race that constitutes racism; rather, racism includes the imposition of bigoted ideas on groups of people.”
“Through the centuries, black people have become the most religious demographic in the United States. For instance, 83 percent of black people say they “believe in God with absolute certainty” compared to 59 percent of Hispanics and 61 percent of whites. Additionally, 75 percent of blacks say “religion is very important” to them compared to 59 percent of Hispanics and 49 percent of whites.”
“History and Scripture teaches us that there can be no reconciliation without repentance. There can be no repentance without confession. And there can be no confession without truth.”
Links to Connections
My Page www.suttong.com