The Logical Fallacies of the Contemporary Social Justice Movement: A Review of “The Color of Compromise”

Because proponents of social justice and identity politics have claimed the moral high ground, they often attempt to discredit those who oppose their assertions.

When racism is defined as a belief or practice that regards one race as inferior to another, Christians certainly should be at the forefront of confronting racism and calling for repentance. But proponents of the contemporary social justice movement have adopted a more expansive definition of racism. Their basic claim is that today’s whites are complicit in the oppression of blacks because systemic injustice towards blacks is built into the DNA of our society, a society in which whites enjoy privileged status. The problem with this claim is that it does not follow from the evidence that is cited in support of it.

 

A Review of The Color of Compromise: The Truth about the American Church’s Complicity in Racism, by Jemar Tisby (Zondervan, 2019)

On a recent tour of prospective colleges for my daughter, she and my wife attended a chapel service in which the speaker admonished the whites who were present for their complicity in racism. This is a prominent motif at many colleges these days. While there are faculty, staff, and students who are growing weary of this trend, many are reluctant to speak out against it because they know that they will probably be excoriated for doing so. If you express disagreement with the social justice agenda and its corollary, identity politics, you will likely be censured for bringing harm to people and making them feel unsafe. There have been multiple instances in which those who have refused to let “oppressed” identity groups on campus dictate how they should think, speak, and act have been denounced as bigots.

A similar phenomenon is taking place in some branches of the church, where individuals who have voiced concerns about their denomination’s promotion of social justice and other progressive elements have been rebuked for being intemperate or been accused of violating the ninth commandment. Because proponents of social justice and identity politics have claimed the moral high ground, they often attempt to discredit those who oppose their assertions. This is the logical fallacy known as poisoning the well, in which a position is disparaged without actually being engaged.

When racism is defined as a belief or practice that regards one race as inferior to another, Christians certainly should be at the forefront of confronting racism and calling for repentance. But proponents of the contemporary social justice movement have adopted a more expansive definition of racism. Their basic claim is that today’s whites are complicit in the oppression of blacks because systemic injustice towards blacks is built into the DNA of our society, a society in which whites enjoy privileged status. The problem with this claim is that it does not follow from the evidence that is cited in support of it. That is, it is a logical non sequitur.  Citing examples of racism in a society’s past does not prove that that society is still oppressing people along racial lines today, especially when that society has emphatically renounced those past forms of oppression, has gone to great lengths to guard against racial discrimination, and has even instituted policies that show preferential treatment to racial minorities. Neither does citing the disparities that exist between different racial groups in a society prove that the society is rife with systemic injustice. Disparities can be caused by a variety of factors. Their mere existence does not prove that there is systemic racial discrimination.

The logical fallacies of the contemporary social justice movement are on brilliant display in Jemar Tisby’s recent book The Color of Compromise: The Truth about the American Church’s Complicity in Racism. Tisby is a popular speaker at conferences and on college campuses, and he has played an instrumental role in recent discussions about race in Reformed circles. One of the endorsements provided in the book’s first pages is from a former moderator of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), who commends The Color of Compromise by saying, “Upon reading this book, one will come away having to reconsider how individuals who proudly boast of a Christian way of life in America continue to do so at the expense of others.” That is a good summary of the indictment that Tisby is bringing against contemporary white Christians in his book. He is claiming that they are guilty of oppressing blacks.

Tisby makes his case by first defining racism not merely as a matter of hating people and thinking they are inferior because of their race, but as “a system of oppression based on race.” (16) He then contends that white Americans have constructed a “social caste system” based on skin color that identifies white people and white culture as normal and superior. (16) This argument is reflective of critical theory, which traces its roots to the movement known as the Frankfurt school. This is a Marxist-inspired ideology that sees the world as a zero-sum game, explains social disparities by dividing society into oppressors and oppressed, defines justice as equality of outcome, and demands that the privileged give up power to those who claim oppressed status. Closely related to this is the application of the Marxist concept of class consciousness to the production of cultural forms and institutions, maintaining that the privileged class oppresses others by using its power to create culture.  Proponents of critical theory respond to their critics by saying that an unwillingness to accept the tenets of critical theory is evidence that a person has been deluded into embracing the views that are imposed by the oppressive hegemonic culture.

Near the beginning of The Color of Compromise, Tisby attempts to head off criticisms that would associate his position with Marxist ideology by contending that such “arguments have been used throughout the American church’s history to deny or defend racism.” (21) The irony is that by dismissing rather than engaging these criticisms, Tisby exhibits what philosopher Karl Popper famously identified as the fundamental flaw that discredits Marxism as a social science theory: Marxism’s refusal to accept the legitimacy of any outside critique renders it unfalsifiable and, hence, unscientific.[1]

THE SINS OF THE FATHERS

The bulk of The Color of Compromise recounts examples of racism committed by Americans of past eras. However, Tisby assesses his subject matter from a perspective that largely ignores the complexities of history and the evils that blight the mainstream assumptions of our own time. While we should not excuse or make light of the racism of those who have gone before us, our assessment of them should take into account the significant differences between their cultural context and ours. To fail to do so is to be anachronistic. There is a real danger of thinking that we are morally superior because we see ourselves as living on ‘the right side of history.’ Such a perspective loses sight of the fact that our present culture has in many ways degenerated when measured against the past. Moreover, when race is the exclusive lens through which the past is evaluated, the sin of racism is seen as utterly discrediting to a person, while other serious sins do not carry the same stigma. Consider the call to remove monuments to figures like Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson because of their racism. If we are going to do that, shouldn’t we also remove the Washington D.C. monument to Martin Luther King, Jr. because of his womanizing?[2] To insist upon the former while taking offense at the latter is to be guilty of a double standard. Why can’t we recognize the admirable achievements of people from the past while being honest about the fact that they sometimes had major flaws and failings?

Tisby honors those who show what he deems to be a sufficient level of zeal in the struggle against racial oppression, including some figures known for their acts of brutality, serial adultery, or theological error. He also denounces as “racial moderates” people and institutions who fail to engage in fervent racial activism. He even goes further than that. For example, Pepperdine University is charged with being complicit with racism because early in its history it taught

its students to distrust unionism and federal intervention, specifically in the form of welfare programs geared toward the poor. Schools such as Pepperdine indoctrinated a new generation of white Christians with ideas that would lend educational and ideological support to an individualistic approach to race relations and that would lead to an aversion to government initiatives designed to promote and protect civil rights. (121-122)

Notice what Tisby is doing here. The Scriptures do not specify what position Christians should take when it comes to public policy about welfare programs. Yet those who disagree with Tisby’s position are said to be complicit in racism. He has not proven that his position is the biblical position. He is simply begging the question. What makes this particular example so ironic is that studies have indicated that one of the key causes of socio-economic inequality for blacks today is the vast expansion of the welfare state in the 1960s.[3]

Because Tisby defines racism as a social structure that privileges some while disadvantaging others, he claims that the racial sins of previous generations are imputed to present-day believers, even when the latter repudiate the racist attitudes and racial discrimination of the past. This is a notion that is explicitly denied by Scripture. For example, in Ezekiel 18 the Lord tells his people, “The soul who sins shall die. The son shall not suffer for the iniquity of the father, nor the father suffer for the iniquity of the son.” (v. 20a) In other words, each generation and each individual bears responsibility for their own choices and actions. As one commentator puts it, “No generation is merely the moral extension of another.”[4] Tisby repeatedly asserts the exact opposite, contending that the fact that today’s whites live in a culture whose past is filled with examples of racial injustice makes them complicit in that injustice. It would seem that the only way white people can show sufficient repentance for their involvement in this sin is by continually acknowledging their collective guilt and by continually advocating for interventions that undermine personal responsibility by attempting to orchestrate equality of outcome among racial groups.

This is not a good prescription for fostering better relationships between whites and blacks.[5] In fact, it raises the question of whether reconciliation is really the thing that is being sought. That question is brought into focus by considering the criticisms that were leveled at the film Green Book, winner of the 2018 Academy Award for Best Picture. Some social justice proponents denounced Green Book as “nothing more than a White Savior fantasy.”[6] What makes this so bewildering is that the film tells a humorous and heartwarming story about the forging of an unlikely friendship between a black man and a white man, a friendship that has a transforming effect upon them both. My wife told me that when her aunt and uncle saw the film in the theater, both her uncle (who is white) and a black man sitting behind him laughed heartily at various points throughout the showing. Then, as the credits were rolling, her uncle turned around and the two men embraced, prompting the entire audience to burst into applause. What a beautiful moment! When a movie like Green Book is deemed racist, one begins to suspect that the contemporary social justice movement actually wants to perpetuate, rather than overcome, racial tensions. After all, those tensions fuel the narrative of ongoing racial oppression and the ensuing calls for racial activism. If word were to get out that it is possible for blacks and whites to be friends, the social justice movement might be put out of business.

THE “DEPLORABLES” OF TODAY

As Tisby moves into a consideration of the contemporary period, he consistently uses politics as a litmus test to detect complicity with racism. This is especially evident in the chapter “Organizing the Religious Right,” which essentially makes the following argument:  racism causes people to support politicians who are committed to maintaining law and order and who are opposed to expanding government-funded entitlement programs for racial minorities; white evangelicals support such politicians; therefore, white evangelicals are guilty of racism. This is the logical fallacy known as affirming the consequent, in which a deduction is made by overlooking other explanations. While racism could be an explanation for why white evangelicals vote for these politicians, it is certainly not a necessary explanation for why they do so. Their voting patterns do not prove that they are complicit with racism. They may simply be convinced that leniency towards crime is bad for society and that expanding government-funded entitlement programs will only exacerbate the socio-economic disparities between whites and blacks.

While Tisby admits that there may not be a “smoking gun” that connects contemporary American Christians to cooperation with racism, he contends that such explicit evidence is unnecessary because of the “structural mechanisms of exclusion” (160) that “grant advantages to white people” and “put people of color at various disadvantages.” (171) He writes, “Nowadays, all the American church needs to do in terms of compromise is cooperate with already established and racially unequal social systems.” (160) This is another example of begging the question. Tisby does not offer any proof to support his claim that the socio-economic disparities that exist between blacks and whites today are the result of systemic racism. He simply assumes that this is the case and then declares that anyone who fails to advocate for systemic change geared toward equality of outcome is complicit in America’s racist system.

Another subject that receives attention in this book is the Black Lives Matter movement. At the heart of Black Lives Matter is the contention that systemic injustice and implicit racial bias lie beneath the high percentage of blacks who are arrested, incarcerated, and shot by police officers. There may very well be some lamentable instances in which police officers discriminate against blacks and other minorities. But the sweeping claims made by Black Lives Matter activists fail to reckon with the fact that involvement in street crime is disproportionately higher among blacks than it is in other racial groups. As Heather MacDonald explains,

[S]treet crime today is almost exclusively the province of ‘people of color.’ In New York City, for example, blacks and Hispanics committed 98 percent of all shootings in 2016; whites, who, at 34 percent of the population, are the city’s largest racial group, committed less than 2 percent of all shootings… [C]rime is the overwhelming determinant of policing today, and to pretend that implicit bias drives policing distracts from the challenges that officers face… That is the dilemma facing officers today: If they enforce the law, they will generate the racially disproportionate stop-and-arrest statistics that fuel specious implicit-bias charges. But it is the reality of crime, not bias, which results in those disproportions.[7]

This does not stop Tisby from citing the unwillingness of many evangelicals to endorse Black Lives Matter as further proof of the church’s complicity with racism. For example, he points to a 2015 Urbana missions conference address given by Michelle Higgins in which she belittled the significance of the pro-life movement in comparison to the cause of Black Lives Matter. Tisby laments the “flood of condemnation” (183) that came in response to Higgins’ message and says that this is yet another example of the church’s “muted response in the face of injustice” and its “uncritical support of the status quo.” (181) He also asserts that Christians who respond to the phrase “black lives matter” with the phrase “all lives matter” are guilty of racism. (191)

Another component of Tisby’s indictment of today’s white evangelicals is that they see individuals as accountable for their actions and see social problems as fundamentally due to individual choices and broken personal relationships. This “accountable individualism” is condemned by Tisby because it dismisses the invocation of social structures as the cause of racial disparities. (see 175-176) It is difficult to see how a Christian can take issue with seeing individuals as accountable for their actions when the Bible itself contains statements such as, “If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat” (2 Thess. 3:10), and “A little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to rest, and poverty will come upon you like a robber, and want like an armed man.” (Prov. 24:33–34) Also, there are conservatives who acknowledge the interplay between the personal and the structural when it comes to social problems.[8] If Tisby were to stop dismissing conservatives as racists, he would find that some are willing to talk about ways social problems might be addressed politically without subverting personal responsibility.

The book also contends that the American church’s complicity in racism is evidenced by the fact that in the 2016 presidential election Donald Trump received 81% of the vote among white evangelicals. One doubts that Tisby would be willing to apply the same reasoning to those who voted for Barak Obama and say that they are complicit in the murder of the unborn. While Tisby and those who share his views maintain that President Trump has “obvious racist tendencies” (187), others find this allegation to be facile. Moreover, Trump’s unlikely election was brought about by the convergence of many different factors.[9] Some of his supporters simply saw him as a better option than Hillary Clinton. Some had lost confidence in the political establishment. Some were concerned about irresponsible ways of handling immigration. Some were grieved over the sway that the abortion lobby holds over the Democratic party. Some were troubled by threats to religious liberty. Some were weary of the economic stagnation that the nation experienced under the Obama administration. Some were fed up with political correctness and identity politics. Some wanted to elect a president whose judicial appointees would be constitutional conservatives. None of these things makes a person a racist.

One of the things that Tisby proposes that Christians should do to combat their complicity in racism is support the payment of reparations to descendants of slaves. There are a host of reasons why this idea is misguided.[10] There are more reasonable and more responsible ways that our society can try to address the serious problems facing today’s black Americans. One such example would be the charter school movement, but Tisby has nothing to say about that. Instead, he advises Christians to push for the removal of Confederate monuments, to subsidize black pastors and ministry initiatives, to provide college scholarships for blacks, to learn from the insights of black theology, to start a new seminary that would be racially diverse from its inception, to teach people about civil rights and activism, and to add a national holiday commemorating the abolition of slavery. These suggestions do not seem likely to do much more than amplify the sense of alienation and victimization that is such a key part of the problem.

CONCLUSION

While The Color of Compromise does contain informative historical content, it is used in support of an overall argument that is false and harmful. The strategy of grievance polemics may enable blacks to feel that they are finally being listened to, and it may provide whites with an opportunity to expunge their sense of guilt by giving blacks a platform. Nevertheless, it is a strategy that mainly fosters resentment and alienation. Tisby’s book serves as an example of what makes discussions about race so difficult in America. The thing that is most needed — what Peter Myers describes as “a concerted effort in self-help or cultural renewal by black Americans”[11] — is often the thing that is most resisted. And it is understandable that blacks would be resistant towards this. As Myers explains,

The story of America’s chronic resistance to full integration may highlight the need for it, but it may also bolster the racial pessimists who see in that story the futility of hoping for a post-racial America… Long after subjection to actual injustice has been overcome, its memory endures… The proposition that blacks should adopt the values, even the virtuous and beneficial ones, of those who had tyrannized them stirs a powerful sentiment of revulsion.[12]

Yet this does not mean that racial pessimism is the only alternative to Tisby’s misguided fixation on racial grievances. As Myers also points out,

Race… is America’s failure — to which one must add, it is also among America’s great successes. That success has been achieved fitfully and incompletely, with advances and reversals and no small incidence of violence. It supplies no cause for complacency. Yet the nation’s success in this monumental task must not be downplayed or obscured, for its recognition is an indispensable stimulus for further efforts.[13]

If this can be said of America in general, then it can surely also be said of the church in America. Let us be thankful for the ground that has been gained in race relations in the household of faith. And let us be mindful of the glorious truth that undergirds our unity. The church is a community of redeemed sinners from all nations, peoples, and languages. We have Christ himself as our peace, and in him we are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit. What a shame it would be to sell our birthright for the angry and divisive rhetoric of identity politics. Oh, that we would heed the lament exclaimed by J. Gresham Machen nearly a century ago:

Weary with the conflicts of the world, one goes into the Church to seek refreshment for the soul. And what does one find? Alas, too often, one finds only the turmoil of the world. The preacher comes forward, not out of a secret place of meditation and power, not with the authority of God’s Word permeating his message, not with human wisdom pushed far into the background by the glory of the Cross, but with human opinions about the social problems of the hour or easy solutions of the vast problem of sin… Thus the warfare of the world has entered even into the house of God. And sad indeed is the heart of the man who has come seeking peace.[14]

Andy Wilson is a minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and is the pastor of Grace Presbyterian Church (OPC) in Laconia, New Hampshire.


[1] See Karl Popper, The Open Society and Its Enemies, (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1945).

[2] The recent de-classification of FBI files on King has shed disturbing light on the extent of his immorality.

[3] See John McWhorter, Winning the Race: Beyond the Crisis in Black America, (New York:  Penguin, 2007), 5-14, 63-72, 114-134.

[4] Daniel I. Block, The Book of Ezekiel, chapters 1-24, NICOT, (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1997), 563.

[5] The divisiveness of many of the “racial reconciliation” efforts in the church today is explored by Samuel Sey in his article, “Whiteness, Blackness, Christless,” April 12, 2019, accessed May 3, 2019, https://slowtowrite.com/whiteness-blackness-christless/

[6] “Did ‘Green Book’ Really Win?,” Ally Henny, The Witness, February 27, 2019, accessed April 5, 2019, https://thewitnessbcc.com/did-green-book-really-win/

[7] Heather Mac Donald, The Diversity Delusion: How Race and Gender Pandering Corrupt the University and Undermine Our Culture, (New York: St. Martin’s, 2018), 105, 106.

[8] For example, see J.D. Vance, “Towards a Pro-Worker, Pro-Family Conservatism,” The American Conservative, May 29, 2019, accessed May 29, 2019, https://www.theamericanconservative.com/articles/towards-a-pro-worker-pro-family-conservatism/

[9] While Tisby acknowledges some of these factors, he still concludes that Christians who support Trump are complicit with racism because he is “a president whose racism has been on display for decades.” (191). Those interested in a more insightful analysis of the key issues behind Donald Trump’s surprising election should consult Victor Davis Hanson’s recent book The Case for Trump, (New York: Basic Books, 2019).

[10] Here are a few thoughtful critiques: “The Case Against Reparations for Slavery,” Richard A. Epstein, May 27, 2014, https://www.hoover.org/research/case-against-reparations-slavery; “Taking Reparations Seriously,” Noah Millman, May 29, 2014, The American Conservative, https://www.theamericanconservative.com/millman/taking-reparations-seriously/; “The Impossibility of Reparations,” David Frum, June 3, 2014, The Atlantic, https://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2014/06/the-impossibility-of-reparations/372041/

[11] Peter C. Myers, “An Honest Conversation about Race,” Claremont Review of Books, Spring 2018, p. 48.

[12] Myers, p. 50.

[13] Myers, p. 50.

[14] J. Gresham Machen, Christianity and Liberalism, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009), 151-152.

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