Updated: Aug 20, 2020
In my last post, we discussed some of the ways that Christianity has contributed to the problem of systemic racism in the United States. We examined the biblical interpretations and theology that reinforced the racist conventions that are woven into the fabric of American society. If you have not read that post, I would highly suggest doing so because it lays a foundation for what we are going to be discussing in this post: the changes that need to take place within predominately white churches and how all Christians can help reform the systems of injustice that have oppressed black lives for hundreds of years.
The Nature of Race
“It is appalling that the most segregated hour of Christian America is 11 o’clock on Sunday morning.” - Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
A 2012 National Congregations Study confirms that this assertion remains normative for churches throughout the United States. According to the study, 8 in 10 Christians attend services in a church where a single racial or ethnic group comprises at least 80 percent of the congregation. If that was not damning enough, a 2016 study out of Baylor University discovered that churches attempting to buck this trend by intentionally creating a diverse community ended up with far fewer people in their congregations. Racially diverse congregations have 22 percent fewer congregants than racially homogenous congregations.
What does this tell us? Some might argue that these statistics support the racial theory that humans are most comfortable around other humans of the same race. White people prefer being around white people and black people prefer being around black people. Although this may seem empirically accurate, this assumption is unfounded.
There is nothing that genetically predisposes Homo sapiens to mate with people of a similar racial composition. Certain racial theories developed in the late 19th and early 20th century (otherwise known as Eugenics), espoused the view that humans are programmed to reproduce according to racial tribalism. In other words, our genetics compel us to want to mate with people of the same race.
Today, we know this hypothesis belies scientific evidence. For instance, if you’ve ever had your genetics tested by ancestry.com or 23andme.com, then you are probably aware of just how diverse our gene pools can be. Most of us are mutts composed of a variety of genes from different parts of the world. It is likely your ancient ancestors mated with people of diverse ethnic backgrounds.
To give you a sense of just how common this interbreeding was among our descendants, Stanford University produced a landmark study in 2002 that examined seven major geographical regions of 4,000 alleles (an allele is a variation of genes passed from parents to children). What they discovered is that over 92% of alleles were found in two or more geographical regions and nearly half were represented in all seven major geographical regions.
Bottom line, the notion that a specific “race” of people contain a specific set of genes is nonsense. From the perspective of genetics, there is no such thing as separate racial or ethnic groups. If they did exist, then geneticists would expect to find “trademark” alleles that are distinctive among a single group of people and would not be found in any others. Instead, the Stanford study found that only 296 of the 4000 alleles (7.6%) were specific to a singular geographical region and these alleles often only occurred in about 1% of the people from that region. What this tells us is that racial divisions are human constructions within culture and society rather than something that is hardwired into our brains.
The Fallacy of Colorblindness
For a long time, there has been a belief in place that children are born as blank slates and must be explicitly taught racial prejudice. Research has found this is not true. In a ground breaking study performed in 1997 by P. A. Katz and J. A. Kofkin titled Race, gender, and young children, researchers followed approximately 200 black and white children from the ages of six months to six years. They performed experiments where they discovered that at six months old, infants are able to nonverbally categorize people by race and gender. The infants spent more time examining the face of an unfamiliar race than the face of someone from their same race.
Their findings were so consistent across six-month olds that the researchers believe that “initial awareness [of race] probably begins even earlier.” What this tells us is that children are programmed to be aware that these differences exist. This is not to say that children see these differences as something to fear. Rather, this awareness is part of our programming that allows us to more readily identify our caretakers since infants and toddlers are so dependent on adult humans for protection.
Therefore, we are not colorblind. These are differences that we notice. Many of us assume that transforming this racial awareness into a racial prejudice requires direct teaching from parents, but this is not true. Many studies show that 3-5 year-olds not only categorize people by race, but that children also develop racial biases during those same years. We might assume that these biases are being taught at home, but in fact, numerous studies have shown that children develop their racial beliefs independent of their parents (Hirschfeld, 2008; Katz, 2003; Patterson & Bigler, 2006).
For instance, children are imbued with prosocial behaviors that will allow them to thrive among groups of humans. As a result, we are designed to absorb broader cultural and social norms so that we can gain acceptance. If we were simply reliant on our families to glean this prosocial information, we would be at a severe disadvantage. So children gather information from a broad range of sources.
A good example of this is how children acquire accents. Hirschfeld says that if children looked primarily to their parents to learn behaviors and norms, then children of nonnative speakers would always acquire their parents’ accents. Instead, children acquire the normative accent of the region where they are growing up (Hirschfeld, 2008). In this way, children actively construct their beliefs and identity by collecting information from the world around them. What this means is that racial prejudice does not need to be taught at home. Racial prejudice is absorbed from culture and society, whether we like it or not.
This begs the question: how exactly do children learn racial prejudice from the surrounding world, even when a parent does their best not to expose them to such ideas? Well, as we discussed in the last post, systemic racism is infused in every part of our society, where white people are favored over people of color. Systemic racism is part of the air we breathe because it is endemic to our country’s history. This is reinforced most often within the communities where we grow up.
Although the demographics of certain regions in America are changing where there is more integration, we still tend to live in areas that are divided according to racial, ethnic and socioeconomic lines. White people live in areas where their neighbors are predominately white. Black people live in areas where their neighbors are predominately black. The same is true for Latinos, Hispanics and Native Americans. This is a vestige of practices like redlining where the federal government colluded with local governments and banks to prevent specific races from moving into certain neighborhoods.
This meant if you were a prosperous black family, you could not move into an upper class white neighborhood because there were legal stipulations that the owner of the house could not be black. Even if you could convince the family to sell you the house, the banks would either deny you a loan or prevent you from taking ownership of the title. In the rare instances that a black family was able bypass the redline rules, they would often be harassed so much by their neighbors that remaining in the neighborhood was untenable.
Why does this matter? It matters because as a child, you’re taking in these invisible dividing lines. If you’re a black child living in a predominately black neighborhood, you’re going to intuit that you only live around people who look and sound like you. The reason why you’re sequestered to this neighborhood doesn’t need to be explained to you. The child doesn’t require a nuanced understanding of the housing and banking regulations that placed him there. The child quickly comes to realize: there are unspoken rules that govern my life and, if I’m going to survive, I need to abide by those rules.
The same logic applies to the white child. The only difference is that the rules governing the white child are more advantageous. The white child might go through life never being taught to harbor prejudicial views towards people of color. The white child might truly believe that all people are created equal and never conjure a racist thought. Regardless, the white child, by the mere fact that she lives in a community that is predominately white, is being inculcated with the notion that such separation is normative and will likely continue to order her life around the rules maintaining that separation.
Systemic racism thrives under these conditions because the rules are unspoken. We so often think of racism in terms of overt bigotry where someone is yelling racial slurs or threatening violence against people of color. Although this type of racism is something we need to root out of our society, the more dangerous racism exists in the rules white people follow, but never question. The reason why these unspoken rules are so insidious is because they’re connected to our ability to secure a positive future for our progeny.
The rules that govern our society create a positive feedback loop for white people. As long as white people remain separate, they retain a larger share of the resources that can increase wealth over generations. For example, white families are twice as likely to receive an inheritance as black families and that inheritance is nearly three times as large as what a black family receives.
Likewise, these rules create a negative feedback loop for people of color where the community is continuously drained of resources. If we return to the issue of generational wealth, the median inheritance will increase the wealth of white families by more than $100,000 compared to $4,000 for black families. This means that among black families, every new generation is starting from scratch, which significantly inhibits upward mobility.
Adhering to the rules that benefit me and subjugate others means that I will be able to secure a good life for myself and my family. The white community knows these rules well. This is why so many white people dislike discussing the issue of systemic racism. They may not be able to articulate the unspoken rules, but they know intuitively that upending these rules could compromise their social mobility. And here we come to the crux of the matter because the church resides directly at the crossroads of where these issues collide.
Churches are reflections of their communities. Dr. King’s observation that 11am on Sunday is the most segregated time in America was intended as an indictment of how the church has abandoned its duty to be the moral arbiter of our communities. If the church were doing its job properly, then it would be a driver of social change, unravelling systems of injustice. Instead, the church has become a complicit partner in this system because it often benefits from these unspoken rules.
If my church is predominately white and those members are supporting the church with large donations, why would I want to interrupt that cycle? It is in my best interest to remain quiet and allow the system to do its work so that I can receive my salary, keep the building maintained and run the programs that my members enjoy. Unfortunately, by never questioning the homogeneity of my community, I am reinforcing the notion for my members that these unspoken rules of separation are innocuous. Indeed, by never speaking out against them, I am inadvertently validating the racist system that created them.
What’s worse is the way white churches attempt to ameliorate the guilt that results from these unspoken rules. They create ministries to “fix” the disparities this lopsided system has created. These missions are often well-intentioned, but they miss the larger issue at play. For instance, an education program that tutors inner-city kids whose schools are so bad they cannot get an adequate education. The irony of this type of mission is that the white tutors are the very reason why they are needed in the first place. I guarantee you that the white tutors live in an area where there are substantial resources to educate the children in their communities. If those resources were being widely shared, then the need for those tutors would not exist in the first place.
The truth is that the white church is ground zero for unravelling these systems of injustice. We simply have to possess the courage to use our churches for this purpose. This is why Dr. King, in his Letter from Birmingham Jail, indicts the white Christian moderate as being the primary culprit for the racial disparities we experience in America:
First, I must confess that over the last few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Council-er or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can’t agree with your methods of direct action;” who paternalistically feels he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by the myth of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait until a “more convenient season.” - Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
The season is now and the white church must be willing to take direct action. First, we must speak out about the ways in which simply being white creates disadvantages for those who are not. Second, we must have conversations where we convince the white skeptics in our midst that the unspoken rules are real and are still deleteriously impacting people of color. Finally, and most importantly, we must tell our people that it is their responsibility to create equality in this country. This is the point I really want to drive home.
The Bible espouses the view that God creates all humans in the image and likeness of God. (Gn. 1:26) What this means is that God views all people as possessing infinite value. To this end, the most fundamental Christian value is that all people are inherently equal. But human society is inherently inequitable. We are not all born on equal footing. Some of us are born into good homes with resources, others are born into broken homes with few resources. Our job as Christians is to level the playing field.
This is the notion of God’s kingdom in the Bible. The Jewish prophets describe God’s kingdom as a place where nobody suffers. Everyone has enough to eat; everyone has clothes to wear and a roof over their heads; everyone is treated for their illnesses; nobody is forgotten. (Is. 11:1-8, 58:6-11, 65:17-25, Mc. 4:1-3) God’s kingdom is not a reality that will happen on its own. We are the ones who have to bring it about. The responsibility rests on our shoulders.
The way we create God’s kingdom is through extensive sacrifice. This is what Jesus requires of his disciples. We have to give up our resources for the benefit of those who have less. In the context of systemic racism, this means as we work to undo these systems of injustice, the privileged will end up with a smaller share of the pie. This is incredibly difficult because white people must let go of their safety net. We have to be willing to sacrifice a portion of our generational wealth so that those who are disadvantaged can build an unencumbered life for themselves and their progeny.
Come Sunday, we need to convince our congregations that our role as Christians is to create equality in every facet of our lives. We cannot sit back and wait for equality to happen on its own because, frankly, if we do, it will never happen. The system is not designed for equality to naturally manifest itself. The onus is on us to create this change. So let’s start having these necessary conversations, because that is the first step in this process of unravelling systemic racism.
In the final post on this topic, I’m going to discuss the practical ways we can manifest equality in our communities through efforts of integration and the reallocation of resources that contribute to the upward mobility of minorities in this country. Stay tuned!