This week an extended conversation with historian, activist, and New York Times best-selling author Dr. Jemar Tisby explores the inspiration behind his new book, How to Fight Racism: A Young Reader’s Edition. The founder of the Witness: A Black Christian Collective and co-host of the podcast Pass the Mic explains why his scholarship and activism focus on the “coalition of the willing” and why he believes the racial reconciliation programs in faith communities often fail to produce systemic change.
Engaging the ‘Coalition of the Willing’
On January 6, 2022, best-selling author Dr. Jemar Tisby shares reflections one year after thousands of Trump supporters stormed the grounds of the U.S. Capitol. TIsby sees a growing tendency in political discourse to separate the threats to democracy from the racial dynamics at play around the question of who gets to vote and who is being elected. Those views, according to Tisby, emerge in the public school battles around anti-racism education curricula.
Although Tisby had seen similar arguments percolate in white Christian nationalist circles for several years, he saw a crucible of events in 2020 lead to greater racial anxiety among white Americans. “There was all this focus on anti-racism and people reading books like White Fragility and how to be an anti-racist and things like that, that’s when people said, oh, no, this is like pervasive and we need to oppose it.”
For Tisby, the backlash was an inspiration, “it just bolstered my conviction that fighting racism has to be an intergenerational endeavor.” He describes how his efforts now focus on engaging and equipping the “coalition of the willing” to do the work of racial justice.
“We are heavy on the diagnosis and relatively light on the prescription”
In Tisby’s new book, How to Fight Racism, The Young Reader’s Edition, he presents young readers with an overview of key historical events, portraits of children who championed civil rights along with a framework for grappling with reflective questions.
The simplified history he argues may also be instructive for older readers. He wants to challenge readers to go beyond understanding the problem, “it’s instilling the idea that yes, how you individually treat people matters, but also how organizations and institutions treat people.”
Tisby’s three-pronged ARC framework for advancing racial justice is an acronym that stands for awareness, relationship, and commitment. According to Tisby, the larger movement of rights work is very effective in identifying the problems, but too often “light on the prescription.” A problem he seeks to address in each section of the book. Without commitment to creating systemic change in the institution’s one belongs to, Tisby believes, change will not be realized.
“Christians have been such a big part of the problem, they need to be part of the solution”
On the eve of the national holiday commemorating the birth of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Tisby gets candid about the job of white Christian leaders in addressing racism today. Sharing a story from the MLK50 celebrations in 2018, Tisby relays how the slow-paced response of white Evangelical leaders is reflected in the political debate around systemic racism. While he sees disaffiliation as a challenge, he finds hope in seeing young leaders find creative ways to engage and build spiritual resilience. Noting that while some Christians are “arguing about whether this is part of the gospel or not, other people who may not claim any faith at all are out there actually doing work to try to make the nation in the world a more equitable place.” While he sees disaffiliation as a challenge, he is hopeful that this younger generation is prepared and ready to create the change they seek in this world.