Book Review: The Color of Compromise
I’ll start with my confession. I have given a polite nod to racism, I see you insignificantly hiding in the corner, but no real consideration. I had casually assumed racism was a few crazies in the deep south. Obviously, I am personally cool with POCs because, hello, I had a black boyfriend once and went out with at least one guy from every Central American country plus Cuba. None of them complained overly much about racism as serious problem.
If I’ve already made you a little nervous, you might consider watching this video…
When I was ordained in 2013, I became the only woman in the processional of pastors at district conference (yeah, it's a thing) until my pal, Sheralyn, joined me a few years later. She and I were at pastor’s retreat with our husbands, and I had just been handed the wives’ gift, a book, Sacred Privilege: Your Life and Ministry as a Pastor's Wife by Kay Warren. I offered the book to Adam as a consolation prize and was immediately inspired. I decided that we needed a lady pastors book club. We’ve read several excellent (and a couple not excellent but we got through them) books on leadership, theology, personal growth, etc. Kendi’s most recent pick, The Color of Compromise: The Truth about the American Church’s Complicity in Racism by Jemar Tisby was exceptional enough to warrant a review, a recommendation and what I hope is a conversational blog post.
The Color of Compromise tells the story of our nation and the church from the beginning. We all know of the brutality inflicted on African American slaves, high mortality rates and sexual assault, but reading these specific stories was painful and extremely uncomfortable. Kendi said she might not have gotten through it if she didn’t have book club to answer to. Early in our country’s history, blacks were categorized as chattel to justify inhumane treatment. Where was the church in all of this? Unfortunately, the majority of religious folk were either complicit or fervent supporters of slavery. In true American style, our founding fathers were extremely economically motivated, and free labor was the fuel that fired our nation’s prosperity. I wondered how much of our dominance in the world market today might be due in part to slavery.
My friend, Sheralyn, went to winter jam a few weeks ago. She said she realized for the first time how white it was. #winterjamsowhite Apparently, even the rapper was a white guy. SMH… so wrong. She was caught by the oft-recited rhetoric that our country was founded as a Christian nation. While reading this book and being confronted with the story of slavery, it’s tough to be proud of that.
Here are a few things I found noteworthy:
I had no idea where the term “Jim Crow” came from. Also, black face is a big deal. I’ll admit, I really didn’t get why it made people so upset for a white person to dress up like a black person. Tisby explains, “The name ‘Jim Crow’ comes from a minstrel character played by Thomas D. Rice in the 1830s and 1840s… Although he wasn’t the first white actor to utilize ‘blackface,’ his career skyrocketed when he began painting his face black and playing the role of likable trickster named Jim Crow. The plays portrayed stereotypes about black intelligence, sexual appetites, contentment under slavery, and obeisance to white people.” In essence, these actors in blackface who performed for the better part of the nineteenth and early twentieth century, made black men out to be pretty terrible sexual predators and basic degenerates. It was an ah-ha moment for me. I started to wonder how much of the negative stereotypes and expectations in our culture are left over from this hundred-year old vile miss representation.
Another important concept I learned relates to redlining and racial segregation. I had never given this much thought. I’m embarrassed to admit, I just assumed POCs just preferred to live close to each other or couldn’t afford to live in a better neighborhood. Tisby spells it out this way,
"In the postwar era, residential segregation became a major battle front in the black freedom struggle both in the South and beyond. Few decisions are more personal than choosing where to live. Proximity to good schools, extended family, grocery stores, workplace, and local amenities, among other factors play into where one decides to reside. Owning a home in the neighborhood one chooses has often been seen as a decision based on hard work, individual effort, and free choice. Consequently, patterns of racial segregation appear to be the innocuous and unavoidable coincidence of individual preference, devoid of any major racist component. Views like these belie the deliberate and intentional nature of residential segregation. Through a series of rules and customs, government employees and real estate agents have actively engineered neighborhoods and communities to maintain racial segregation."
Redlining has its roots in the Great Depression when the government began buying foreclosed properties. Low income communities, and any neighborhoods in which even middle class black residents lived, were considered unstable and coded red, causing lenders to deny home loans. Racial segregation was further compounded by the formation of homeowner’s associations that explicitly prohibited black residents. When those measures failed, many white homeowners resorted to violence and terror to maintain the status quo of segregation.
In my own city, color lines are still as prominent as ever. When I first moved here, I would drive from Shawnee, KS to seminary at 63rd and Paseo in Kansas City, MO. In a span of 6 blocks I would pass by the largest most expensive mansions of Mission Hills into one of the lowest income black neighborhood in the city, from Wornall Rd and Brookside Blvd to Troost Ave and Prospect.
Just a few weeks ago we celebrated MLK day. I scrolled through quote after inspirational quote from religious and political leaders on every side. After reading this book, I realized the church’s admiration of King has been slow in coming. In fact, most clergy in his day, including some black pastors, felt like King needed to just calm down. Things would happen when they happen, why try to push for change?
When I take the time to listen, I hear voices like David Alan Grier, who remarked in a recent interview that in the 80s he had hope that we would be further along by now, but racism is still largely unchanged. “I just want to be free,” he said. I think the voice of minorities, and African Americans specifically, are worth hearing. They keep telling us that racism is still a thing. Maybe I’m personally unaffected and unaware, but that doesn’t mean it’s not happening. America is supposed to be the land of opportunity, and it’s tempting to think that opportunity is equally available to everyone. What our fellow citizens are telling us, what our black brothers and sisters in Christ are still saying, is that oppression didn’t disappear with slavery.
As I read this book, the question kept ringing in my mind, so what can we do. The last chapter titled “The Fierce Urgency of Now” attempted to give helpful insight to this very question. I’ve written this review because I’d like to spark thoughts about how the church might bring about more consistency between what we believe and how we live out our faith specifically as it pertains to racism.
Systemic racism didn’t happen overnight or by accident and it’s not likely to go away quickly or on its own. On paper, our values as believers look fantastic. We are all God’s children, created in God’s image, no racism here. But in practice, we have more or less reflected ideas and practices of the larger culture around us. This realization is challenging for sure in more areas than just racism. We Christians have more often been part of the problem than the progress. By God’s grace, I hope we can learn from our history. I would highly recommend this book. I hope by reading it we will be more attentive to the voices that are still asking for equality.