How to Fight Racism
An interview with Jemar Tisby and Heath Thomas
There is no shortage of discussion on the problems of racism, but moving from conversation about racism into actionable items that fight racism can be a daunting task. Historian, theologian, and bestselling author Jemar Tisby uses his latest book, How to Fight Racism: Courageous Christianity and the Journey Toward Racial Justice, to help Christians do just that by providing a practical framework for pursuing racial justice.
Heath Thomas, president and professor of Old Testament at Oklahoma Baptist University (Shawnee, OK), recently had a conversation with Tisby about the book, its framework, and how it can specifically help Christian college and university leaders think through these issues and develop practical, actionable steps to pursue justice and racial reconciliation. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Heath Thomas: In this book, you provide a practical, engaging approach. And it sounds very simple: Awareness, Relationships, and Commitment, or ARC. But it’s strategic. So talk to us a little bit about how you came to this formulation. Why these three [steps]?
Jemar Tisby: Every time I speak, or write, or teach about racism and racial justice, during the Q&A portion, every single time there’s the question: What do we do? Honestly, I’d get frustrated with my responses, because … they were a smattering of responses that weren’t really focused. So I started working on this framework, and I noticed patterns of different suggestions people would give for practically addressing racism. And it occurred to me that most of what I heard could fit into these categories.
Awareness is where you’re building your knowledge about the way racism and white supremacy function. That’s reading books, watching documentaries, visiting historical sites, things like that. But there was this other element that actually, evangelicalism was really strong on — the relational element. … Ultimately, you’re going to have to interact with real people, other image bearers, build relationships, understand one another, empathize with one another, right? But you have to do it well, you have to do it respectfully, you have to do it in a way that respects the image of God and other people.
Then the missing component for a lot of Christians, particularly white Christians, was this commitment aspect. Because we have to understand that racism is not just a matter of interpersonal attitudes — [like] one person not liking another, using the N word, saying you can’t drink from the same water fountain. It’s actually embedded in the way we do life together, which is structured around policies, broadly conceived.
Policies can be within your organization, where you recruit for new employees, who’s on your board of trustees, how you determine promotions, and things like that. Policies can also be at the governmental level — local, state, and federal policies. I love history, because it has the receipts. If you go back far enough and you look at some of the laws that are commonplace today, you can actually see that in their conception, they were very discriminatory in their intent, but it’s invisible [to us today] because they may not use the words “Black” or “white” or “race.” So we’ve got to look at that commitment to changing policies and interactions on a system-wide level.
Thomas: I’m an Old Testament professor by training, so all of this sounds strangely resonant to me. … We know about the Persian period and the Babylonian period, where God’s people lived in the land but the restoration was not nearly so bright as what God’s people might have thought. Because they weren’t quite in the Promised Land, they still had people over them. … Why do you think it is that there seems to be resistance when we apply that to America or other nation states subjugating vast swathes of people? What do you think the disconnect is there, especially for Christians?
Tisby: I think we need to understand, first of all, that race and religion have been mutually constitutive in the U.S. context; they grew up together and formed and shaped each other. In my first book, The Color of Compromise, we go all the way back to the colonial era. In 1667, a group of Virginia assemblymen — white Anglican men, you had to be a Christian in good standing publicly in order to serve in an office like that — make a law that says baptism would not free any enslaved Native American person, or African descent, or mixed-race descent. So there you have religion, race, and even the legal system all intertwined — which persists to this day. We can talk about them individually, we can distinguish between them, but we can never really separate race, religion, and politics.
At the same time, we are talking about a phrase that upsets some people: white supremacy. Racism is a component of white supremacy. White supremacy simply says in various ways that white is right, superior, or even central. A very innocuous example of this: When you go to the grocery store, it’s all just food — until it’s Mexican food, or Chinese food, or sort of non-standard, non-European. The same with theology. When I was in seminary, it was all just theology — until it was Black theology, or Latin American theology, or Asian American theology. It only needs a label when it is non-European or non-white. That’s part of the way white supremacy manifests itself.
All that is to say that if you are categorized as white in the United States, you’re not taught how racialized our society is. Part of it is that this is invisible to people in the majority, such that a lot of white people don’t think of themselves as white — I’m just Mark, or John, or Susie. You have to sort of remind them that they have a race, too.
Then the other thing is that there’s a vested interest in keeping the status quo if it maintains your advantage. It really takes a spiritual reckoning to say, “I’m going to lay down these privileges that come with race in the United States, so that others might have more opportunity or the opportunities that I now enjoy.” And so you get all of that together — that’s a recipe for resistance.
Thomas: When you think about this practical framework, this model would seem like it holds great promise for higher education spaces. But even in higher education, [this work] is very contentious. How do you see this model fleshing itself out in higher ed?
Tisby: There’s also [a difference between] higher ed and Christian higher ed. In a way, the latter is even harder to change because, like I said, race and religion have been mutually constitutive. It’s also a matter of discipleship — you can’t start with a running start. You have to start with baby steps to really walk people into this, especially the folks who hold the levers of power in higher ed — they tend to be older and grew up with different understandings on this stuff. So it’s an uphill struggle.
So the first thing we actually need is courage; the second thing we need is to count the cost. Sounds a lot like the gospel, doesn’t it? I promise you, no matter how circumspect you are, no matter how well planned you are, you are going to tick some people off when you start to make some real changes around race and ethnicity so it’s more equitable. There’s a way you can do it that doesn’t make anybody mad, but that’s really just window dressing. It’s very superficial, and it’s not going to help the people who are most impacted.
By the way, that’s an awareness piece. This is a paradigm shift that we’ve got to go through. You have to center the marginalized; this won’t make sense unless you are prioritizing the needs of the people who have been victimized. If you’re looking at this from the perspective of the people who are already empowered and trying to slowly shift their mindset … it’s not going to work. What you have to do is keep in mind the most vulnerable in your communities and what’s good for them. Start with that, and then let’s change some things.
If I was an administrator or I wanted to make changes in my department, I would take that ARC model — Awareness, Relationships, Commitment — and develop a racial justice strategic plan based on it. I would assemble as diverse a team as I could; this has to be collaborative, and there has to be buy in. Then I would say, “What are we doing in our sphere of influence” — whether that’s the classroom, your discipline, your department, your school, your university — “what are we doing in our sphere of influence to intentionally build awareness around race, racism, and racial justice? What are we doing to intentionally build meaningful relationships at all levels? And what are we doing on a policy level?” You don’t even have to start with governmental policy — look at your campus and say, “What are the ways that we’ve structured this thing? What are the rules that we make and assume are race neutral? How might they adversely impact people of color and Black people in ways that we didn’t intend or anticipate but nonetheless are true?”
We’ve got to understand that when it comes to issues of racism, it’s not about intent — it’s about impact. Think of the analogy of a blind spot when you’re driving your car. You’ve got these mirrors, but there’s a blind spot, so usually you crane your neck to look behind you and actually physically check the blind spot. But say you don’t do that, you’re changing lanes when there’s a car in your blind spot, and you hit the car. Did you mean to hit the car? Was that your intent? No. But guess what, there was still impact, and you’ve still got to do something about it. It’s the same with race and racism. You may not intend to offend; a policy may not intend to be inequitable. But the impact is [there], so we’ve got to look at that, too.
Thomas: That’s an evocative illustration, but there are some who would say, “Wait a second, haven’t we already been talking about this? We’ve been talking about this ad infinitum for decades.” What would you say to those who would say, and with good faith, “Hey, we’ve been talking about this. What we’re trying to make people aware of is all differences. Aren’t we united in Christ? Isn’t that the great unity?” So how would you engage those who might say we’ve already got too much awareness?
Tisby: I’d be curious about what makes the person ask that question instead of inquiring to learn more about race and racism. I would bet if you peel back the layers, there’s feelings involved. Nobody wants to feel uncomfortable in this conversation. And certainly, if you’re white, you don’t want to feel implicated. You never want to think of yourself as racist or even simply participating in a racist system. So I suspect there’s more behind that question than a practical matter of tactics.
But if you want to address it on that, you would say, “Well, when did we have this great racial reckoning? When did we have this flowering of racial knowledge? As a matter of fact, aren’t there bills being proposed and passed right now, under the guise of protesting critical race theory but actually have nothing to do with critical race theory and [are about] everything to do with an accurate accounting of our racial history as a nation? So there are efforts not to raise awareness; there are efforts to curtail awareness on this issue.”
Think about Christianity. Do we ever stop talking about the crucifixion and the resurrection? Didn’t that happen a long time ago? Didn’t I confess my sins and become a Christian? Why do we revisit this every time we take communion? Why do we revisit this in every sermon? Why do we revisit this again and again and again in the Bible? Why? Because it’s important. Because we have to remind ourselves of these truths because we’re forgetful; we have to erect memorial stones.
The last thing I’ll say is that Christians should be the most ardent pursuers of truth. In what we’re talking about [when it comes to race], though it’s painful, it’s true. We know, as people of faith, that repentance begins with truthful confession. And we cannot begin to really change, let alone repair and reconcile, until we’ve spoken the truth again and again and again to whomever needs it. And it’s an iterative process, not something you hear one time and it’s done. So that’s why we have to keep talking about it now.
Thomas: In the book, you talk about doing reconciliation the right way, and one of the things [you mentioned for doing this] that I keyed on — and maybe this is because [as an Old Testament scholar, this has been] my area of focus for the past 15 years — is lament. So talk to us about lament and how it can aid in reconciliation.
Tisby: I’m so glad that you’re studying lament, because I think it has so much to do with racial justice in our pursuit of repair and reconciliation. You can’t understand the good news until you understand the bad news. You can’t really have your heart healed by Christ until it’s broken over your own shortcomings and rebellion. As we’re looking at the racial sins of this nation, I’m convinced that so many people are hard-hearted; their hearts have not been broken over it. I’m convinced that people who make facile analogies to some contemporary event or social media outrage and call it like a lynching have no idea what lynching was actually like. I’m convinced that people who do their weddings on plantations have no idea what plantation life was like for the enslaved. I’m convinced that people who proudly fly Confederate flags and would march and rally in protection of Confederate monuments have no idea the true causes of the Civil War nor what it cost.
For me, history has helped to give me a much more tender heart for what’s actually happened. I studied the Elaine Massacre [of 1919], which occurred about 30 minutes from where I live. Nearly 200 Black women, men, and children sharecroppers were killed by white people who took trains from three different states to converge on this tiny town based on the lie that Black people were assembling to take over the region by force, when all they were doing was organizing to get fair prices on the cotton they themselves picked. When you read about the fact that they were literally hunted down like pheasants or ducks in fields, that the U.S. military was involved, and that no one was ever held to an account, you have a broken heart for this.
So start with history, because it is never better than we thought; it’s always worse. Especially for white Christians. I think there’s this tendency to think that even if you acknowledge that racism was bad, it’s past tense; that it all occurred before, it was solved, and that, yeah, there’s issues here and there, but by and large, everybody has a fair and equal shot in life. But I don’t know that the white church in the United States has developed the spiritual discipline of lament, particularly over racial sins and their complicity in it. If your church or school was around in the early 1970s or before, there’s probably some racial history that you’ve got to dig up, confess, lament, and repair. …
Thomas: Commitment is key. I’m in Oklahoma, and in 1921, the Tulsa Race Massacre occurred. Going back to our [university’s] history, one of the pastors of a Baptist church around here — who ended up being a president in my seat — he linked that to the curse of Ham. So it’s impossible to not face that head on. One of the things that we’ve done is that we established the 1921 Memorial Scholarship with some of our African American churches in the Southern Baptist [Convention] or the Oklahoma Baptists. We’ve partnered together to provide full-tuition scholarships for some of our African American brothers and sisters.
We can’t change the past, but we can project a new future. That’s going to take what you’ve said — courage, commitment, a lot of good relationships, and getting outside of ourselves more than we thought necessary. So in terms of commitment, I’ve just framed up an example that might be useful, but share what you think commitment could look like in higher education.
Tisby: Scholarships are great. I mean higher ed, as we both know, can really transform the prospects of somebody’s life — and even more importantly, [transform] somebody’s paradigm and perspective and empathy for humanity. That’s what a good education brings.
I would also say, in the same breath, that even before I offered a scholarship [for students], I would make sure my institution was a place where Black people and people of color could flourish. … I say that from an experience standpoint. I originally enrolled in a Ph.D. program at a seminary. But I got out after a semester because it was a predominantly white institution and did not have the faculty, the library resources, the archival resources to do the kind of work I wanted to do on race and religion. So all of this is commitment; all of this is policy stuff.
So one, have we done focus groups and surveys of current and alumni Black students and people of color, and really made changes based on their input? Because otherwise you’re bringing more and more people into what’s going to end up being a toxic environment. Number two, have we audited our curriculum for places we can strategically and proactively incorporate lessons about race and racism in all disciplines? Obviously, it lends itself to things like history and sociology, the humanities, and literature, but every discipline has a history. Where does race show up in the history of the development of mathematics, or economics, or whatever it might be?
The other thing is, where do you recruit your students? Where are you getting them? What churches are they going to? And are there partnerships with churches where you can work in tandem? Because it’s not just the life of the mind, it’s the life of the spirit that you’re trying to cultivate in students.
And really, I would start with trustees and executive leadership. If people at the top don’t actually want this — and I don’t mean in a “we’ll sign the paper that authorizes the group or the initiative” way, I mean, really want it — it’s always going to hit a wall. It’s going to get tough; there’s going to be donors who threaten to withdraw money. … If your executive leadership isn’t prepared to lose seven figures, forget it.
Learn from HBCUs [historically Black colleges and universities]. These are the places that continue to produce the highest proportion of professionals — from doctors, to lawyers, to engineers — who are Black. What are they doing there [that helps them succeed]? Now, you’re not going to be able to replicate everything, because they’re all Black, and that’s a big part of it. But you can learn from them. Every situation is different. But if we do begin with the understanding that the sort of way we do things in terms of policy needs to come under scrutiny, then I think that’s actually a good start in terms of a mindset.
Thomas: So let’s conclude this time with the title of your book: How to Fight Racism. Now, intuitively, we know racism is wrong. But talk to us in more granular detail. What is racism? Why should it be fought? What is the emulation of Christ that comes as we fight racism together?
Tisby: There [are a couple of] shorthand definitions of racism that I use. [One is] Beverly Daniel Tatum’s, where racism is a system of advantage based on race. Another shorthand definition: racism is prejudice plus power. These are especially important as we talk about accusations of reverse racism. True enough, anybody of any race or ethnicity can be prejudiced towards somebody else because of their race or ethnicity. That’s absolutely true because all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. But it is not true that every race or ethnicity has the power to enshrine their prejudice into policy, which is what has happened in the United States when it comes to white people putting it into practice on a broad scale.
In my book, I’ve emphasized the systemic and institutional aspects [of racism], but [there are] interpersonal aspects that I think we don’t realize when it’s happening. There are three main movements in terms of how racism manifested itself interpersonally in terms of beliefs and attitudes. One was a theological justification for racism. You mentioned the curse of Ham — [the idea that] God made it this way. In the early days [of racism], that’s what people really clung to. That transitioned in the mid- to late-19th century — particularly around Darwin[‘s time] — to a biological justification of races. …
But the latest manifestation, which is invisible to most people, is cultural racism. It is the idea that a people group, because of their culture, are experiencing these inequalities and hardships and bringing it on themselves. So here’s how it looks: “Don’t go to that part of town.” “Those people just want a government handout.” “Those people are just more prone to crime. It’s not a problem with policing, it’s that they commit more crimes.” But here, you are saying an entire group of people, which usually happen to be Black or people of color, are actually more prone to criminal behavior — why? When you peel back the layers, that’s when you get to the racism.
So all of this is happening. And the scary part is, it’s getting more bold and more vocal. … A couple of years ago, at the grand opening of the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum in Jackson, Mississippi, Myrlie Evers-Williams — who was the widow of Medgar Evers and a civil rights activist in her own right — held a private press conference that I was able to go to. Somebody asked the question — and this is back in 2017 — “How does now compare to you to the 1960s in the Civil Rights Movement?” And she says, “It feels the same.”
I’ve often said we are in the midst of the Civil Rights Movement of our day, and I’m not being hyperbolic. I firmly believe that, as we look at the erosion of voting rights, as we look at the promulgation of laws and rules against teaching certain kinds of history, we are going to have to be active in terms of marches and boycotts and maybe even getting arrested for nonviolent direct action protests, the same as we were in the 50s and 60s. And here’s the thing: As we look back at that movement, we asked, “Where were Christians? We know that a lot of Black Christians were involved; where were white Christians?”
So the question is: Where are we going to stand in the Civil Rights Movement of our day? A lot of us look back and say, “Well, if I was alive, I would have marched with King; I would have done the protests; I would have stood up for justice.” But the reality is, what you’re doing right now is exactly what you would have done then. So we’ve got to think about the kind of world we want to live in, the kind of people we want to be, and the kind of legacy we want to leave. It’s not for some other people or some other generation. It’s for us right now.
Thomas: Right, and so as followers of Jesus, what is our guiding light? What is our principle? Is it Micah 6:8? What is it?
Tisby: I think the Old Testament has so much to teach us for this moment in any ways that we want to pursue justice. For me, my go-to verse has been Joshua 1:9. God says, “Be strong and courageous,” but what I love about it is God just doesn’t give us a command — he attaches a promise to it. He says, “I’ll be with you wherever you go.” That’s the promise of God’s presence. That’s the promise that God will be with us, which became a person — Emmanuel, God with us in Jesus Christ. So now, as Christians, we have every reason to be strong and courageous in this struggle against racism and this journey toward racial justice because not only do we have God with us, we have God in us through the Holy Spirit. … And guess what? We were never going to be a majority. [God said] we’d be more like the leaven, the mustard seed, the remnant. So don’t wait for the crowd; it’s not coming. …
And we’re dealing with powers and principalities; we aren’t dealing just with earthly stuff here. But what I’ve learned — and I’m no activist, but to the extent that I’ve taken a stand for racial justice, I’ve experienced a nearness of God and an intimacy with God that I never knew before. Because there’s an experiential aspect to the faith. You’ve got to live it. Right? When we jump to the New Testament, we’ve got to read James again.
Thomas: Be doers of the word.
Tisby: And when you do the word — which is earlier in Joshua 1, right? “Do not let this book of the law depart from your mouth. But be careful to do all that is in it.” And when you do it, that’s when you experience God’s presence. You can’t sit back and pontificate and think your way into the promises of God. You’ve got to take the step of faith and live your way into experiencing those promises.
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