A Feature Review of
The Color of Compromise:
The Truth about the American Church’s Complicity in Racism
Reviewed by Dorothy Littell Greco.
Writer, speaker, and historian (PhD Candidate, University of Mississippi) Jemar Tisby has created an authoritative masterpiece. The Color of Compromise relies on history as “the main vehicle to take us on a journey toward greater racial understanding.” And what a journey Tisby takes us on.
The author topples multiple sacred cows as he dismantles the prevailing textbook narrative that nearly deifies both the early European settlers as well as the men who wrote the Constitution. Yes, the document was vital for our nation, but it also legalized systemic racism—and misogyny. Had the Founding Fathers actually been willing to “establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence” for everyone (as written in the preamble for the US Constitution), the history of the United States would have been radically different.
By defining racism as “prejudice plus power” and a “system of oppression based on race,” Tisby challenges the false belief held by many white Americans that they’re not racist simply because they do not commit overt acts of racism (e.g., they’re not members of the KKK and they refrain from using demeaning racial language). The tragic truth is that nearly every American has been or continues to be affected by racism: Either we benefit from the system or we have been victimized by it. That’s because systemic racism is a root sin that was poured into the cement of our country’s foundation. (Root sins are also evident in smaller institutions—e.g., certain churches or denominations—and family systems—e.g., the sexual immorality in King David’s line.)
The concept of root sin helps to explain why, as a nation, we’ve repeatedly chosen capitalism and economic gain over the bodies and souls of all men and women. Tisby gives the following example:
Tragically, the economic value associated with an enslaved person was of more value than their family ties.… [O]f the more than 600,000 interstate sales that occurred in the decades prior to the Civil War, 25 percent destroyed a first marriage, and 50 percent broke up a nuclear family. Oftentimes, children younger than thirteen years old were separated from their parents and sold, never to be reunited.
The selling of human beings for profit was just one of the many evils accepted and practiced by white Americans that preserved their privileged way of life.
Though slavery officially ended in 1865 when the 13th Amendment was ratified, a quick perusal of the last one hundred and fifty four years demonstrates that far too many white folks have remained committed to protecting their status and privilege. This is evident through the brutal lynchings of black men (and boys) for the “slightest offense, real or imaginary,” the raping of black women as “a sexualized form of racial terror,” redlining, school segregation, the war on drugs and disparate incarceration rates for men of color, voter suppression, and the number of unarmed black men and women who have been killed by police in the past few years.
If Tisby had simply provided a timeline of racism in the United States, this book would be well worth the sticker price: he’s a brilliant writer and historian. However, the real power of this book becomes evident as the author illustrates how the church failed to differentiate from secular culture.
For example, during the Great Awakening, even as leaders proclaimed the power of the gospel to set humanity free, they avoided condemning slavery or promoting the equality of all mankind. (George Whitefield did advocate for the humane treatment of slaves but did not push for abolition and the great evangelist Jonathan Edwards was himself a slave owner.) Starting in the 1700s, many white churches either refused to allow blacks to worship with them or segregated them in the back. Multiple private Christian school and colleges remained mostly segregated well past the half-way mark of the twentieth century and it wasn’t until 2000 that Bob Jones University dropped its ban on interracial dating. By refusing to denounce slavery when our country was born or to fight consistently for equality since then, white Christians must recognize the part we have played—and continue to play—in perpetuating injustice and violence against People of Color.
Despite the highly charged subject matter, the author does not resort to venting, guilting, or shaming to get his point across. He doesn’t need to. He simply lays out a historical timeline of white church’s complicity and allows the facts to (hopefully) bring conviction.
Tisby’s meticulous scholarship also introduces readers to lesser known heroes and heroines of American history such as Lemuel Haynes, William Seymour, and Augustus Tolton. The Color of Compromise offers something for those who are only beginning their journey of racial awareness as well as readers who have been walking down this road for their entire lives. The final chapter, The Fierce Urgency of Now, inspires us to not only wonder how could things be different but then to actually imagine what could I do to help bring that about?
Early on Tisby writes, “This book says, ‘Don’t look away.’ Don’t look away from Christians using the Bible to justify the inferiority of African people. Don’t look away from the political cowardice Christians displayed when they could have changed the laws of the land. Don’t look away from the nation’s bloodiest war, which was fought over the issue of human bondage, and the many Christians who risked their lives to preserve it…. Don’t look away from the horror of the American church when it comes to race.”
With regard to the church, our country, and racism, there is indeed a “fierce urgency of now.” The challenge is before us. How we respond starts with a willingness to not look away but rather to be confronted and grieved by the sins of our past.
C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com