How White Evangelicals Perceive Racial Issues

Divided by Faith, by Michael Emerson and Christian Smith, offers three lenses (page 74) through which white evangelicals typically perceive racial issues.

  1. Racial problems are caused by prejudiced individuals, resulting in bad relationships and sin. This is the most common feature of white evangelical perception of race. Along with this is the notion that the best remedies are also individualized. For example, white people and black people should focus their reconciling energies on building relationships with one another, and through this process the divide will heal.
  2. Racial problems are caused by other groups, usually African Americans, who try to make race problems a group issue when there is nothing more than individual problems. Since white evangelicals put a great amount of emphasis on individual accountability, some attempts to address racial problems that deals with entire groups of people will be met with resistance.
  3. Racial problems are actually a fabrication of self interested people (such as Al Sharpton, Jesse Jackson, Jeremiah Wright, or some other lightning-rod figure) and exacerbated by “the media, the government, or liberals.” In this view, the profit motive of high profile black activists or sensationalized race baiting in the media and politics is the real culprit, but most people don’t experience these sorts of problems.

Divided by Faith attempts to let white evangelicals walk a mile in the shoes of other people and see things from their perspective. Racial problems do indeed stem from prejudiced individuals, but there are also social and economic systems in America that dole out rewards based on race. These problems may be exaggerated by celebrity activists, but that does not negate them.

Absent from their [white evangelicals] accounts [of racial problems] is the idea that poor relationships might be shaped by social structures, such as laws, the ways institutions operate, or forms of segregation.

Emerson and Smith conclude that racial problems are caused by sinful individuals and broken systems, and dealing with racial problems needs to encompass repairing relationships and repairing systems.

Two factors are most striking about evangelical solutions to racial problems. First, they are profoundly individualistic and interpersonal: become a Christian, love your individual neighbors, establish a cross-race friendship, give individuals the right to pursue jobs and individual justice without discrimination by other individuals, and ask forgiveness of individuals one has wronged. Second, although several evangelicals discuss the personal sacrifice necessary to form friendships across race, their solutions do not require financial or cultural sacrifice. They do not advocate or support changes that might cause extensive discomfort or change their economic and cultural lives. In short, they maintain what is for them the noncostly status quo. We thus have a common problem. White evangelicals want to see an end to race problems because both their Christian faith and their faith in the American creed call for it. But they are constrained by at least two forces. First their cultural tools point them only to one dimension of the problem. As Stokely Carmichael and others have noted, when problems are at least in part structural, they must be addressed at least in part by structural solutions.

These are strong words. What are your thoughts? Do you agree or disagree with the authors on this?

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