skip to Main Content

BI 3223 Worldviews, Lipscomb University

Unit 4a

The Racial Divide (part 1)

“Prejudices are rarely overcome by argument. Not being founded in reason,
they cannot be destroyed by logic.”  – Tryon Edwards

Many studies show that black and white people perceive the world in different ways, which explains why Americans are so often divided on what to do about issues concerning race. We don’t all see the world alike, largely because of different life experiences.

Note: while the problem of prejudice exists for other minority groups in America as well, most of the available research focuses on this particular topic of black/white problems.

White talk

McIntyre discusses “the infinite number of ways whites manage to talk ourselves out of being responsible for racism” (45). “White talk” uses various strategies (this list includes some in addition to those McIntyre mentions):

  • That was a long time ago (I never owned slaves): This strategy ignores the advantages that over the last 200 years, whites gained from their ancestors’ domination of others. Even for those whose ancestors never owned slaves, the simple fact of being white in a white-dominated society has its advantages. Whites think of history as past and gone, no longer relevant, while blacks view history as echoing in the present, still alive and affecting how they live (Williams 22).
  • Denying white privilege: Many white people refuse to admit that being white in our society has its privileges. They say, “I had to work hard for what I’ve got,” which may be true. But privilege isn’t about unearned benefits but the absence of obstacles. If you have a hard time recognizing your privileges, focus on the barriers you don’t have to go through to achieve success. We will discuss many of these barriers in the following notes.
  • The exception to the rule: The white worldview emphasizes individualism and may focus on the exceptions and overlook the norm. A successful black person causes whites to praise our “land of opportunity” and think, “Why can’t they all do that?” pointing to the individual strengths of these people rather than acknowledging the societal challenges these exceptions had to overcome (which most whites don’t face) and that keep most others from matching this success. Seeing the prosperity of Barack Obama or Oprah Winfrey blinds us to the way the cards were stacked against this kind of success happening very often.
  • Good whites/bad whites (I’m not KKK or a redneck racist): “This limited definition of racism lets the ‘good whites’ off the hook at the same time that it dilutes a critique of the multiple ways that white people perpetuate and benefit from white racism. It relieves ‘good whites’ of taking any responsibility for the maintenance of white privilege and advantage and places the blame on ‘bad whites’” (McIntyre 99).
  • Focus on the individual (I don’t treat others badly, so don’t blame me for the faults of society): Most whites accept individualism as a core value of European, prosperous, white civilization (in contrast to cultures which emphasize community: Asian, Islam). On the other hand, we blame black poverty on individual black failure, not recognizing institutional discrimination within society (see discussion in next unit). In surveys, 60% of conservatives believe black poverty is due to individuals not working hard enough, whereas only 20% of liberals agree. Liberals are more inclined to recognize the problems within society which contribute to discrimination and economic inequality (Hetherington, Prius or Pickup? 45).
  • Land of fair opportunity for all: “The assumption is that American society actually operates according to principles of fairness and merit, that the ‘deserving’ are rewarded for their efforts, and that the ‘undeserving’ are left out.” If we assume that everyone has the same opportunities, then those who do not succeed have only themselves to blame. “Thus, these formulations allow [whites] to see themselves as the rightful recipients of rewards based on individual achievement, and to defend a process that advantages them as a group, without ever having to justify their location in the organization of racial advantage” (McIntyre 65).
  • The situation is so much better today than a few decades ago: While true in many respects, this statement can be used by whites to minimize the problems which continue to exist. Laws may have changed concerning school segregation and restrooms for “whites only,” but laws do not automatically change human prejudices. Some people may look to Barack Obama, thinking that if a black man can become president, the days of discrimination are over. Minimizing the problem or denying that racism still exists leads to accusations against the victims; when they point out legitimate instances of discrimination, whites may say they are overly sensitive or “playing the race card,” while ignoring the real problems.
  • The colorblind myth (I don’t see people as white or black): Some people quote Martin Luther King, “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character,” assuming that we have reached that stage in our society.
  • Racism would not be such a problem if we just stopped talking about it: Here’s a response taken from a TV show over 40 years ago: “What is to be gained by forcing people to face the reality of racism? Christians especially should be guided by the words of Jesus, ‘You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.’ A person’s moral condition is utterly hopeless so long as he believes he is virtuous when in fact he is not. A man cannot be forgiven of his sin if he doesn’t admit he’s committed it. The first step in self-improvement is to concede that a wrong has been done.” (The Meeting of Minds, written by Steve Allen, PBS series, season 1, episode 1, 1977)

Defining Racism

No one wants to be called a racist. We object strenuously to the suggestion and refuse to admit any problem at all with our attitude toward others. The problem is how broadly the term racism is used today. In one study Wachtel (24-5) asks, should all these behaviors be grouped together as “racism”?

  • the KKK burning a cross in a black family’s yard
  • a white lady crossing the street to avoid black youths walking toward her on the sidewalk
  • a sports commentator saying blacks are naturally more athletic because of their African heritage
  • a world literature course surveying the greatest works from Homer to the present but no black authors
  • a white man compliments a black guest in a hotel, and offers her a tip, thinking she is a maid
  • a high school graduation requirement that all students pass a standardized English exam
  • promoting birth control in poor African countries where population increase is the greatest
  • in 1992 the Environmental Protection Agency fined toxic waste polluters in white areas 500 times more than for similar pollution in black areas
  • a white woman in an elevator clutches her purse tightly when a black man enters
  • requiring employees at a fast food job to have a high school diploma

Wachtel maintains that the term racist has such negative connotations, that if misapplied to some of these cases, it creates more defensive barriers, or allows whites to dismiss the charge.

  • We need to differentiate between racism as acts of hatred toward other races, and behavior better described as prejudice, discrimination, insensitivity, ignorance, and indifference. Prejudice, for instance, means jumping to an unfair conclusion based on previous assumptions (pre-judging), but for many people it does not imply the hostility and brutality of racism, and can be corrected with education and positive life experiences.
  • Whites are frustrated by “the enormous hypersensitivity by blacks that perceive slights where none are intended, as well as a readiness to blame virtually every failure or frustration they encounter on racism” (Wachtel 2). Accusing a white person of racism who may be insensitive but not a race-hater “fosters an orgy of self-righteous conviction of innocence, and conveniently diverts his attention from the offenses of which he is truly guilty” (Wachtel 37). Both sides need to step back and ask with cooler heads, “What did that person actually intend by that remark or action?” rather than jumping immediately to the conclusion that the other is a racist.
  • Orlando Patterson, a black professor at Harvard: “Racism, an undeniable fact of life for most African-Americans, has become for too many the explanation for every problem, the excuse for every failing, the moral whip with which to lash out at anyone who dares to criticize” (2).

Who’s to blame?

  • In his book Race in the Mind of America: Breaking the Vicious Circle between Blacks and Whites, Paul Wachtel argues that blacks and whites see the other as the problem, not themselves. Both sides think, “They started it, I’m just responding appropriately.” Actually, the negative responses on both sides continue to feed a vicious cycle of misunderstanding, suspicion, and prejudice. Defensive mechanisms on both sides (“I’m not to blame”) impede open and honest discussion of the problems.
  • Recognizing that both sides are partly responsible does not mean that the blame is equal, however. The cycle began with white domination of black slaves, then Jim Crow discrimination in the early 20th century (laws separating white and black restrooms, lunch counters, water fountains). While whites today may not be responsible for the actions of their ancestors, those who want to be part of the solution must acknowledge that white society has benefited from those actions and thus has far more power, privilege, and money to rectify the situation today than does black society (Wachtel 10).
  • While prejudicial attitudes can be found on both sides of the racial divide, those in the majority who hold the power in society have more responsibility to address the problems which exist. Blacks have very few opportunities to influence the lives of whites in the same way that white society influences blacks. Whites own most of the businesses, especially the large corporations, and make up the leadership of most of our political system. Pres. Obama was a major exception: we have never had a black Senate majority leader or Speaker of the House. Blacks are underrepresented in Congress, White House positions, and cabinet posts.
  • On the other hand, liberals overreact by saying “Don’t blame the victim” whenever anyone points to real, self-perpetuating problems in the black community. “Residents of our nation’s inner cities are not oppressed only by something called ‘white society.’ They are oppressed as well by each other.” Crime drives businesses out of the inner cities, creating more unemployment, thus more crime. “The larger social order and the conditions it permits to exist must bear the ultimate responsibility for this state of affairs. But the day-to-day victimization of the residents of our inner cities is often at the hands of their neighbors” (Wachtel 43).
  • The failure of liberals to address these “in-house” issues for fear of “blaming the victim” has meant the avoidance of discussion of real problems within the black community and hence their perpetuation. Ironically, they have left the discussion to the conservatives who typically blame all the problems on the black community (Wachtel 62).
  • As unfair as both these positions are, Wachtel pleads for balance with those on the other side who deny any fundamental problems within the black community. He believes that years of oppression and discrimination have indeed taken their toll on the black community, creating a negative environment affecting self-esteem, aspirations, values, their worldview. “Boarded-up buildings, drug pushers, gang members with guns, and the ubiquitous presence of unemployed men and women tend rather effectively to block the view of the wider world of opportunity readily visible from the suburbs. Few children, white or black, have the capacity to see past such a compellingly bleak, immediate reality” (Wachtel 38).

Discriminatory stereotyping

  • Stereotypes of minorities may serve as a defense mechanism against guilt, helping whites to justify in their minds the existence of inequalities. Gordon Allport, one of the first psychologists to study prejudice in the 1950s, explained that whites rationalize in this way: we want to believe that we live in a land of equal opportunity, and that our society is just (the American worldview). So when whites see inequalities, we tell ourselves it must be because these other people are undeserving, not working hard enough, not taking advantage of the opportunities.
  • This is another example of the ironic vicious cycle: guilt over injustice creates the very stereotypes that perpetuate prejudice and unfairness. In the first century AD the Roman historian Tacitus said: “It is human nature to hate those we have injured” (Wachtel 101).
  • A white person may not hate minorities or consciously choose to discriminate, but may still hold inaccurate preconceptions. The solution is awareness of the potential problem and seeking better information.
  • Polls show that whites believe the majority of poor people in America are black (false). According to the US Census Bureau, in 2020 11.4% of Americans lived below the poverty level, or 37.2 million. 15.9 million were non-Hispanic white; 8.5 million were black (link). But it is true that the percentage of poor blacks within the total black population (19.5%) was higher than for whites (8.2%) (link). This stereotype is perpetuated by films and TV which often depict poor people as black, and most black people as poor.
  • A white person’s fear of young black men (locking car doors in certain neighborhoods, crossing the street to avoid them) might be rationalized by assuming that most violent crimes against whites are committed by blacks. False: 84% of violent crimes resulting in death against whites are perpetrated by whites, according to Dept. of Justice statistics from 1980-2008 (see link). In 2018, the Federal Bureau of Investigation reported that 81% of white victims were killed by white offenders, and 89% of Black victims were killed by Black offenders.
  • Young black men are associated with drugs in the media, yet white and other non-blacks account for 7 out of 8 illegal drug users (Feagin 116). Whites commit more white collar crimes (since they’re the ones at the top of corporations) Whites have a higher rate of drunk driving, causing more injuries and deaths than muggings (Wachtel 13).
  • 2011 FBI statistics on crime by race: total number of arrests for crimes in the US, 69.2% were white vs. 28.4% black. In murder cases blacks led whites by a slim margin (49.7% vs. 48%) but in most other crimes, whites were the main perpetrators, 2-to-1 in rape, assault, burglary, and motor vehicle theft. (link)
  • Police frequently stop blacks driving through white neighborhoods (but not whites in black areas), their offense being DWB, “driving while black.” This happens to well-known celebrities, judges, congressmen. One navy officer in uniform was stopped in his own driveway; the police didn’t believe him when he said he lived there until his wife came out to verify his story; the police offered no apology (Barnes 122).
  • A black lady told how she always has to show several IDs at the bank where she did business for years, but when a white person stole her check book, he was able to make a large withdrawal from her account without any question (Williams 35).
  • Wynton Marsalis, a successful jazz musician, was asked to leave the first-class section of a plane, for which he had a ticket; if he had been white, the flight attendant probably would not have questioned it.
  • On Jan. 20, 2021 at the invitation of Pres. Biden, Amanda Gorman, a 22-year-old black woman, became the youngest poet to participate in a presidential inauguration. On March 5, a security guard followed her on her walk home and stopped her, saying she looked suspicious. She showed him her keys to the building, and he left without apologizing. Her comment: “One day you’re called an icon, the next, a threat.”
  • Ryan Coogler, director of The Black Panther film and TV series, was detained by police in 2022 after being mistaken for a bank robber. Coogler was in Atlanta, attempting to withdraw $12,000 from his account with Bank of America. The teller received an alert on his account because the amount was more than $10,000 (Coogler is a multi-millionaire). The teller notified her superior that she thought Coogler was trying to rob the bank and 911 was called. When police arrived, Coogler was placed in handcuffs while police investigated the call. Two of Coogler’s colleagues, who were waiting for him in a parked vehicle outside the bank, were detained and placed in the back of a police car.
  • Blacks may have negative stereotypes of themselves. In Brainwashed: Challenging the Myth of Black Inferiority, Tom Burrell argues that popular images in society have convinced many blacks that they cannot compete with whites. When Burrell’s advertising agency was voted the “best among black firms” he says he would have preferred to be 24th among all agencies: “It’s far more important to be rated on a level playing field than to be a winner in an inferior category. … Black businesses and schools rank high in the restricted zone of ‘blackness’ but are often invisible on Fortune 500’s top American corporations” or best universities (167).

Media bias

  • An alien race receiving TV signals from Earth might think that all black people are criminals, drug pushers, athletes, or single mothers, with the few exceptions of Barack Obama and Oprah (Williams 165).
  • In 1991 police were found not guilty in the videotaped beating of a black man, Rodney King. The verdict sparked massive riots in Los Angeles. Although 51% arrested were Hispanic, and 9% were white, the media mostly showed pictures of black rioters (Myers 98).
  • One study found that the news media give a distorted view of crimes committed by blacks against whites. While only 10% of violent crimes during the period involved a white victim and black assailant, these crimes made up 42% of cases televised by local news. (link)
  • One study in 2021 found that media showed images of black defendants using their police mug shots (making them appear guilty) five times more than white defendants, who more often were pictured wearing more dignified suits and ties. (link)
  • Major news magazines have influenced the public’s association of poverty and black Americans. In a study from 1950-1992, 53.4% of poor people pictured in articles on poverty were black, whereas in reality the percentage of blacks among the poor during this period was almost half that number. The bias was even greater on television (Gilens 113).
  • Supporting this earlier research, one study analyzed a random sample of television, print and online news stories over 2015 and 2016 and found that 59% of the poor people discussed or depicted in them were black. White families, by contrast, accounted for only 17% of poor people shown, though they constitute 66% of the poor population. (link)
  • In TV news, blacks are rarely interviewed about matters of general public interest (politics, foreign policy) or requiring technical expertise (science, economics), but appear mainly in coverage of sports and entertainment or problems specifically involving blacks such as inner-city crime. In a 1997 study of all three network news programs, only one black person was asked about economic issues compared to 86 whites; only one black spoke about foreign affairs as opposed to 99 whites. In another study blacks spoke as experts on non-racial issues 15 times during the sample period, compared to more than 700 comments by white experts (Entman 64, 68).
  • White victims of crime receive more air time than black victims, about 3 to 1. “Racial representation of television does not appear to match crime statistics, with local news over-representing black perpetrators, under-representing black victims, and over-representing white victims.” During one period studied, the news presented blacks in physical custody (handcuffs, restrained by officers) more than twice as much as whites, although the actual crime rate did not reflect this percentage (Entman 81, 83).
  • During major flooding in New Orleans (2005), one news report showed a picture of a black man “looting” a store. Another report described a photo of a white couple who had “found” food and water. Why the difference?
  • A 2014 study found that news media in New York City overrepresented black crime. In their reports 3 out of 4 criminals were black, whereas police reports during that period show that crimes were perpetrated by whites and blacks almost equally (51 to 49%). (link)
  • Overemphasis on white stories, neglecting others: In 1994 very few in the US knew of 800,000 killed in Rwanda, Africa, as we were focused on who killed two whites, Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman. “This is perhaps the most troublesome aspect of the media’s selective focus: they implicitly tell the audience that some lives are more important than others.” (Radford, Media Mythmakers, 2003)
  • In 2014, when an unarmed black teenager was shot six times and killed by a white police officer in Fergusson, Missouri, prompting massive protests, conservative media commentators criticized Pres. Obama for “making too much of race” over this issue, calling him the Racist in Chief. Another asked why the president offered condolences to the family of the victim but not to the police officer who shot him. Polls showed that 61% of Republicans and 47% of whites at the time thought that race was not an issue in the shooting.
  • In 2015 riots broke out in Lexington, Kentucky, when their basketball team lost in an NCAA tournament. This was the second year in a row that rioters set fires, injured bystanders, caused property damage, and confronted police. However, because most of the rioters were white, these incidents barely made the news. Conservative commentators refrained from mentioning or criticizing it, in contrast to their strongly negative responses to black riots after the deaths of young men shot by police.
  • In 2017 Justine Damond, a white woman, was shot and killed by a police officer outside her apartment when she reported suspicious activity. Conservative news media heavily reported this incident, calling it a terrible crime, while they downplayed or ignored several other similar cases of innocent people being killed by police misconduct, when these victims happened to be black. (link)
  • In the summer and fall of 2021, the media repeatedly reported about the case of missing woman Gabby Petito, who was white, while during the same time they ignored several cases of black men and women who went missing. Critics called this “missing white woman syndrome.”

Subtle forms of prejudice

  • One problem occurs when someone assumes that if a black and a white person are together on official business, the white person is in charge: a black congresswoman was visiting the White House with her 23-year old, white assistant. Security guards addressed all their questions to the young white woman (Williams 36).
  • A salesperson assumes that a black person can’t afford the items she is considering; the author said she always wore her best clothes to shop and held her American Express card in an obvious manner in order to get decent service. Or worse, a clerk following a black person around the store to keep them from shoplifting (Williams 37).
  • Assuming that a black person at a ritzy hotel must be a porter; a white lady once tipped Jesse Jackson (prominent figure and one-time presidential candidate), asking him to carry her bags. A black federal judge waiting for a cab outside a hotel was told to get the luggage, as if he were the doorman.
  • Williams admits that blacks can irritate whites as well, turning every little thing into a racial issue. Some black women criticize white women for tossing their long blond hair, as if they were flaunting their white beauty. Williams says black women obsess over their hair texture, and resent all the media images of beauty based on white standards (14, 186).
  • A black woman claimed to be offended when restaurants offered French, Italian, or Russian dressing: these symbols of Western culture “denied her existence” as an African American (Thernstrom 372). Such trivial complaints take attention away from real problems.
  • Even small misunderstandings become big issues: in 1999 a white aid to the Washington, DC, mayor used the word “niggardly” (which means miserly) in a speech. Many who didn’t know the meaning of the word (which has nothing to do with the racial slur) started an uproar causing him to lose his job.

Making too much of racism

  • On racism faced by middle-class blacks, black author McWhorter disagrees with authors that present racism as a daily struggle. He quotes one professional’s negative assessment: “We live lives of quiet desperation generated by a litany of daily large and small events, that whether or not by design, remind us of our place in American society.”
  • McWhorter disagrees, and refuses to allow occasional episodes of discrimination to define his life (205). Quoting Gerald Reynolds: “It’s not that these things aren’t around, but that they are so minor that they cannot color one’s sense of existence” (219). Quoting James Weldon Johnson: “I will not allow one prejudiced person or one million or one hundred million to blight my life. I will not let prejudice or any of its attendant humiliations and injustices bear me down to spiritual defeat. My inner life is mine, and I will defend and maintain its integrity against the forces of hell” (215).
  • McWhorter sees two kinds of black responses: those that make a big deal about every slight infraction, and those that don’t allow such things to bother them, or who are open to thinking that the behavior wasn’t intended as they took it. A salesman following a black customer around may in fact want to sell him something.
  • Once when McWhorter, who has a PhD in linguistics, was visiting a foreign language bookstore, the owner, an elderly Polish lady, eyed him suspiciously the entire time: “I know I am supposed to decry her as stereotyping but I cannot. She was just human.” He admits, how many young black men would usually visit a Polish bookstore except for the purpose of robbery? (201)
  • “Is the ‘racial crisis’ we read and hear about every day real? Or is it largely a crisis of perception, which I hasten to add, can become real if people genuinely believe what they falsely perceive?” Patterson, a black Harvard professor, argues that with the real gains of integration during the last 40 years, much of the conflict is a natural part of two societies learning to live with one another. When whites and blacks were segregated in housing, education, and occupation, there was less opportunity for conflict. Each community lived in its own separate world, and when their paths did cross, the relationships were strictly defined. With more integration in the workforce, schools, and neighborhoods, the probability of conflict increases. The paradox of integration: as conditions improve for blacks, leading to more interaction with white society, more conflicts will arise, creating the perception that racial problems are worsening, whereas whites will see them as getting better. A 1997 poll showed a majority of blacks saying that discrimination in society was not improving or even getting worse since the 1960s; however, when asked how they were doing individually, 74% believed that their family’s lives had improved. Another paradox: the more social power blacks have in society (better educated leadership, more media access), the more opportunities exist to air grievances, no matter how slight. In earlier, more repressive times, the black community had to suffer in silence (Patterson 16, 51, 54, 55, 64).

RACE AND RELIGION

Divided by Faith (Michael Emerson and Christian Smith, 2000)

  • Evangelicals throughout history have tended to be conservative and avoid “rocking the boat” when it comes to social injustices. For instance, during the 19th century they spoke about converting slaves to Christianity but accepted the system of slavery as an unchallenged fact, many supporting it with the Bible.
  • Conservative Christians focus on evangelism and individual conversion to Christ. Even those that are sensitive to racial issues typically call for individual solutions, leaving the dominant social structures intact. This acceptance of the status quo inadvertently grants more power to these institutional forces. “Evangelicals usually fail to challenge the system not just out of concern for evangelism but also because they support the American system and enjoy its fruits. They share the Protestant work ethic, support laissez-faire economics, and sometimes fail to evaluate whether the social system is consistent with their Christianity” (21-2).
  • The Promise Keepers group, popular especially in the 1990s for Christian men, has made public declarations that racism and discrimination have been problems in society and in the church for which we should repent. However, their proposed solutions focus on individual reconciliation, treating other individuals with love and respect. Black Christians note that “tears and hugs and saying I’m sorry is a good first step” but there is little said about working to change institutional discrimination. “Declaring that we are equal without repairing the wrongs of the past is cheap reconciliation.” Another black leader said: “Calling sinners to repentance also means calling societies and structures to repentance” (66-7).
  • If a building is collapsing due to poor structural design, replacing individual bricks will not save it. “Evangelicals, for all their recent energy directed at dealing with race problems, are attempting to improve the bricks, but are not doing anything about the faulty design” (130).
  • “The concerns of black Americans are not of dominant concern to white evangelicals” (67). When asked about the top ten problems in America today, only 4% of evangelicals named racism as an issue; they were more concerned about abortion, gay marriage, divorce, crime, and education. Among black Christians, 25% said racism was the number one problem. Much of the difference in perception stems from isolation. The white majority has little contact on a daily basis with blacks, whereas blacks as the minority cannot avoid running into whites. In the survey most white Christians could not even think of examples of discrimination (87).
  • Black Christians tend to be conservative and usually are anti-abortion, but they believe that white Christians have focused on this issue to the exclusion of other social ills. They also ask if whites would be willing to adopt the poor black babies that would otherwise be born if we had no abortions.
  • Studies show that most white evangelicals place the blame for racism on prejudiced individuals and on blacks who cry racism over issues that are not. The latter are supported by those who benefit from controversy, black leaders, politicians, liberals, and the media. They see the problem mostly as “perceived” racism, people making more of the problem than it deserves (74).
  • Individualism is a core American value, but even more so among evangelicals with their religious emphasis on a personal relationship with Christ, individual salvation, free will, and responsibility for one’s actions. Individuals are essentially free to carve out their own destiny, independent of social structures and cultural factors. They are responsible to a great extent for their life situation and success, and also responsible for their own mistakes or sins. Evangelicals usually oppose affirmative action because it challenges the idea of personal accountability. They believe that sinful humans typically deny their own personal sins by shifting blame somewhere else, such as on “the system” (76-7, 79).
  • As individualists, evangelicals also tend to be ahistorical, disregarding how the past influences and restricts opportunities in the present. Many in the survey criticized blacks for still “holding a grudge about slavery” (81).
  • White evangelicals see welfare as a violation of the Protestant work ethic, either causing people to lack individual motivation and responsibility or catering to the human tendency to take the easy road (104).
  • Most white evangelicals claim that as individuals they have no problems with the individual blacks they infrequently meet. They don’t approve of discrimination, want to see people “all get along” and have equal opportunity. They want a color-blind society. However, the religious worldview of evangelicals, with its emphasis on individualism, and the racial isolation of most whites limits their ability to perceive the larger problems in society which cause the racial divide. Although honest and well-intentioned, their perspective actually supports the systemic problems by denying their existence (89).
  • “For most white evangelicals, the race problem does not include economic inequality.” They see this as a separate issue unrelated to race itself. They strongly believe in the Protestant work ethic, and that America is truly the land of equal opportunity for all. Thus, two-thirds of white Christians in the survey thought that economic inequality for blacks was due to lack of personal motivation and initiative to rise above poverty; with their emphasis on individual responsibility, this was higher than the 50% of white Americans who agree. White evangelicals are also less likely to see institutional discrimination as the cause for black poverty than most white Americans. In their view a black individual has the ability and the responsibility to rise above any given problems or limitations within society. The fact that many do not succeed in doing so is seen as a problem within black culture itself, a different set of values that do not promote self-reliance and determination (96).
  • On the other hand, black conservative Protestants are less individualistic and more likely to blame systemic discrimination than whites or other blacks. “In accounting for economic inequality, conservative religion intensifies the different values and experiences of each racial group, sharpening and increasing the divide between black and white [Christian] Americans” (97).
  • When asked about solutions to racial isolation, specifically inter-racial churches, many whites were receptive to the idea in the sense that they wanted anyone to feel welcome at their church. However, most were not open to moving to a black congregation themselves, nor did they discuss how their church could adapt its music or preaching style to attract black members. If blacks wanted to attend a white congregation, fine, but they would have to adapt, not the white members (122). “Like many other white Americans, at least some white evangelicals do not want to substantially rearrange their own lives to reduce the race problem” (130).
  • In America today, people have a smorgasbord of options when it comes to choosing a church. Human nature being what it is, most people, black or white, tend to join churches with others who are similar to themselves. As a group of people bonds together with similar goals and characteristics, they form social boundaries that distinguish them from other groups. Groups without these boundaries lack solidarity and often do not last. However, studies show that people within a group tend to exaggerate their similarities and downplay their differences, whereas they emphasize the differences of outsiders. Groups tend to see more positive traits within the group, and more negative traits in other groups. Within groups, people are seen as individuals, but outsiders are seen as a group, thus leading to negative stereotyping. The psychology of group dynamics leads segregated churches to become more divided by race than they are united by faith (156-7).
  • Church segregation today may be less the result of whites enforcing separation as blacks choosing it. For some, they may feel that the only time they can just be themselves and not have to worry about the reaction of whites is when they are together in church. Likewise, cooperative ministries of white and black churches are impeded by suspicion. Some black Christians observe how white Christians always seem to become the leaders of any group effort.
  • Many Christians speak of the “miracle” solution: as more and more individuals become Christians, personal and social problems will disappear. However, this belief overlooks that people do not automatically become mature Christians, much less perfect, after conversion, that Christians are still sinful human beings, and that social structures are made up of individual human beings. Relying exclusively on the miracle solution can become a hindrance to fulfilling Christian responsibility to work for solutions within society (131).

Challenges for integrated churches, religious schools (Christerson)

  • Based on several case studies of multiethnic churches and colleges, Christerson’s study identified several key issues:
  • How balanced racially is the leadership? Whites tend to seek out leadership positions more than other groups in order to steer the church toward their particular goals (171).
  • Worship organization: strict, formal, routine or free, casual, spontaneous? White and Asian cultures tend to respect punctuality and want services and classes to begin and end on time; they believe those that come in late show disrespect for God, as if worship is not important. Black and Hispanic cultures are more flexible about time, don’t care how long the service lasts, and feel that the “clockwatchers” are limiting the work of the Spirit in their worship. As each group sees these cultural differences in absolute terms, arguments about time soon become arguments about God, making them more divisive than they would be in secular settings (27, 174).
  • Styles of music are often a point of tension, especially when an all-white church attempts to change into a multiethnic congregation. They recognize the need to offer music appealing to other groups, but often do not want to give up their own musical heritage. Some churches split into different styles of services, but can they truly be called one church then, or are they two separate churches sharing the same building?
  • Do we discuss our differences openly? Many whites want to downplay racial differences in church and promote a color-blind philosophy, saying “we are just Christians.” Any discussion of racial tension is criticized as divisive and causing trouble. With the Protestant emphasis on individual faith in Christ, whites see diversity and multicultural issues as a “liberal political agenda” having nothing to do with faith, and thus avoid issues important to non-whites, allowing frustration to build without a proper outlet (142).
  • Even in churches that strive for a multiethnic membership, subgroups tend to form along ethnic lines, “cliques” which make others feel distant or excluded. Most people report that their closest friends within the church are of the same race. Whites seem to be hypersensitive about non-whites gathering together, accusing them of being exclusive, whereas they have no problem with whites forming social groups.
  • In general, within religious organizations, turnover rates are higher for those in the minority groups (whomever they may be) than in the majority, unless the leadership works hard to involve the minority in the core (152).
  • In any multiethnic group, there will be minorities, who may feel excluded, on the perimeter of the church. “Whites … have less tolerance for not being the core group, the position they are accustomed to in the larger society. Non-whites appear to have greater patience for cultural practices and social structures that do not favor them, in part because these are what they face daily in the larger society” (55).
  • Whites are more likely to leave interracial churches than non-whites, for several reasons. Whites tend to be more affluent and thus more mobile, as new job opportunities arise. But whites are also likely to leave interracial churches if their particular preferences and interests are not met. “Whites seemed to have a greater expectation that the organization would be run according to their standards. In addition, the non-white leadership seemed to take more notice of the complaints of whites than of [non-whites]” Non-whites seem more willing to collaborate and compromise for the good of the group. “Their greater willingness to compromise or yield to the desires of whites is likely the result of regularly having to accommodate whites in almost all other contexts. … [For whites] having to do this is a rather foreign experience. Whites are accustomed to being in control in social contexts. Their norms and values are in most cases accepted without challenge. … However, whites are not necessarily aware of their privileged status as the dominant racial group, nor are they aware how their own actions perpetuate it” (167-8, 171-2).

 

Back To Top