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Overcoming racial polarization

We need collaborative conversations to help heal racial division


Overcoming racial polarization
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As I grew up, I encountered racism. I encountered those who did not believe in me because I was black. I dealt with those who placed vile stereotypes on me due to my race. I interacted with those who used the awful n-word against me and other blacks. But through it all, I did not think they could stop me. It was a post-Jim Crow world. I was convinced that, while I may have to work harder as a black man, if I did, then my racial handicap would not keep me from getting what I deserved.

Then in graduate school, I fell for a white woman with a racist mother.

No matter what I did, the mother opposed me. She refused even to meet me. Eventually, the woman broke up with me due to pressure from her mother. Nothing I could do would allow me to have this relationship. I found a barrier that I could not overcome with hard work. Racism had won.

It was a turning point in my life because I had been rejected purely because of my race. It made me want to know how race continues to impact people like myself. I will never forget the frustration I felt at that time in my life. Today I have three handsome sons. I would never want them to feel the pain I felt when the woman I loved became unavailable, purely because of my skin color.

Fortunately, I do not believe they will have to encounter this type of malicious racism today. In today’s society, instead of interracial dating being taboo, trying to stop someone from interracial dating is taboo. According to the General Social Science Survey, between 1990 and 2021, the percentage of individuals opposing a close relative marrying a black has decreased from 58.13 percent to 7.75 percent. I am grateful that this type of racism has largely disappeared.

What reduced that kind of racism? A recent CNN article indicated that at least part of the reason is positive contact between racial groups. Further, the increase in the number and visibility of interracial couples has allowed people to know one another better. We (I am in an interracial marriage) show people that we have the same hopes and aspirations as everyone else. We worry about our kids, mortgage payments, and neighborhoods like everyone else. Constructively expressing our concerns to others has been vital to the increased respect for interracial couples. 

Laws and regulations matter. We need the law to stop egregious violations and conduct. We needed Loving v. Virginia (the 1967 Supreme Court decision striking down laws against interracial marriage) to have a just society. But the Loving decision was not enough to create the sea change that has led to a more welcoming society today. Research has shown that under the right conditions, interracial contact alleviates prejudice. Only when we had developed the opportunity to have productive and collaborative conversations could we start to get beyond the madness of refusing to meet a girl’s boyfriend because he is black.

One significant way we can move beyond the racial barrier that stifles us and towards a better future is with an interracial community instead of racially charged polarization.

The larger lesson is that we must also have productive, meaningful conversations if we want to deal with the racial alienation that bedevils us on so many fronts. Research shows that collaborative conversations build volitional compliance in ways that combative attitudes fail to do. Such conversations allow us to learn each other’s stories. We understand how to talk to each other in ways we can be heard. We consider solutions that meet the needs of all of us, not just some of us. We stop talking to each other and start talking with each other.

One significant way we can move beyond the racial barrier that stifles us and towards a better future is with an interracial community instead of racially charged polarization. Until we are willing to listen to those with whom we disagree and seek solutions that address their concerns as well as ours, all we have left is to try to overpower them. And all they will have left is to try and overpower us. And that is what we have been doing. How is that working out for us?

I am happy that my boys live in a world where they are unlikely to be rejected as potential romantic partners purely because of their race. But I also want them to live in a world where interracial community instead of interracial conflict is the norm. A community where we work out our problems rather than scheme how to defeat those on the other side. A society where our default reaction to racial controversy is to move towards collaborative conversation rather than gathering arms for the coming fight. That is what I want for my boys. And if you have kids, I hope you also want that world for them.

It has taken decades to move from the world where my girlfriend’s mother refused to meet with me to the world we have today. It may take decades for all to get to that world. But that change can come with persistence and willingness to push forward. I pray that more of us become willing to do the work to help that change to come. Putting an end to racism must be our goal, and Christians bear a special responsibility to work for this cause. Believers understand that the problem of racism is not merely sociological—it is theological.

George Yancey

George Yancey is a professor at the Institute for Studies of Religion (Baylor University) and the author of Beyond Racial Division.

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