Race Talk in Colorblind Churches

In the wake of the weekend verdict over George Zimmerman’s shooting and killing of Trayvon Martin, my Facebook page was ablaze as various news outlets repeated the same story and as some friends expressed shock and a few fear. In the midst of this a colleague asked her friends for their reflections on how churches in America ought to respond to this moment that clearly bespeaks of the continuing racial divides in our nation. She sent us to noted progressive evangelical Jim Wallis’ reflections as a conversation starter. It got me thinking that I had left tabs open to several blog posts from noted Protestant Christian clergy, so I took it as an opportunity to synthesize the comments with Wallis’ post to start.

Wallis’ words are engaging as always. He joins some Christian bloggers in using this moment to speak directly about the anti-black racism in our nation, and how Christian can work against it. What focused my attention was his solution, the importance of multiracial churches, churches that have no more than 80% of its congregants reflecting one particular racial group. From here, Wallis contends, white and black parents can speak with one another, learn from one another and ultimately stand with one another against systemic injustices that are targeted against some but not others. Noted conservative evangelical John Piper echoed the same point in more theological language of “reconciliation.” His point is the same as Wallis; reconciliation requires some kind of exchange where individuals and groups address a grievance and restore a broken connection. Such an exchange presumes a preceding relationship, and for many Christians the relationships at church take precedence. Hence for racial reconciliation to be effective, multiracial churches must be part of the solution.

While I advocate the importance of racial diversity in our churches, I am not confident in their efficacy to raise the kind of awareness that many are calling for. Sociologist Korie Edwards observed a predominantly African American church as it tried to transition into a multiracial church.  Her observations were telling: even when African American Protestants led the church and were the larger numerical group, the culture of the church conformed to the new members who were white. Rather than an equitable exchange and compromise among both (or all) groups, inclusion of whites in non-white congregations often results in acquiescing to their perspective and cultural assumptions.

This results in colorblindness in matters of structural racism, while still maintaining the veneer of diversity. That is, a lot of churchgoers like the idea of diversity these days, just so long as we agree to “focus on Jesus” and remain silent and ignorant about injustices that affect people of color, women, sexual minorities and other vulnerable groups. So we can look like a racial mosaic while never really understanding that our fellow church members don’t experience their day-to-day lives the same way.

But again I want to support the importance of these churches because these form the largest voluntary organization in the US, and sadly the most segregated. Frankly, if we were to take Wallis’ idea to heart, American Christians have more opportunity for interracial interaction in the workplace and in some neighborhoods as well, much more so than their churches at present.

And yet, I suspect that even in our neighborhoods, our schools, and our workplaces, there is still limited conversation on matters of racial injustice. If my guess is right, our everyday discourse is individualistic at its root; each of us, in theory, is only responsible for our own outcomes. Even when we are in a group, a team, a business, a church, the default attitude seems to be individualist. This way of thinking and seeing the world is so taken-for-granted that many bristle when someone makes mention of anything systemic. It feels artificially injected somehow to bring up talk of racial inequality. So if Wallis’ point is that multiracial churches are key because they allow for conversations among Christians across different racial groups, I would say, let’s look at all the other contexts that different Americans should be having these conversations, in theory, and ask why aren’t we having more conversations outside of church?

To be sure, African Americans, Christian or not, are having these conversations. And the shared sentiment of lament, moral outcry speaks to me as a sociologist: the patterns of interpretation are so consistent and racialized. Compare the reflections from Wallis and Piper with theologian Reggie Williamscampus minister Sean Watkins, and Wheaton College professor Shawn Okpebholo. While not an ideal setting, their posts have helped bring their voices to my mind when I have no one in my network at my place of work who echo a similar sentiment.

While there’s no study out there I know of that can document whether this can work, I suggest that the key is to dialogue within deep relationships that engage the mind, the emotions, and the body. I picture this: coworkers in the breakroom talking about anything but work; one of them mentions this “thing he read in the news the other day” which seems, from his perspective, like racism. Repeat this scene on a semi-regular basis, and perhaps someone might speak up and say “yeah something like that happened to a friend of mine last week.” At first some coworkers will find this unbelievable, exceptional, and dismiss it off hand. But if the stories keep coming in, and different coworkers speak up as well, then we are witnessing a conversation that brings structural racism into the fore. Regular exposure to this kind of structural awareness may nudge more people, churchgoer or not, to reconsider the notion of colorblindness.

For multiracial churches to promote structural awareness, they have to raise the community’s consciousness away from the trappings of individualism both in its beliefs and in its practices as an organization. Frankly this is a very difficult road to travel and requires more commitment intellectually and relationally than most people want to give to a congregation. Churches may have the advantage of more opportunity for relationship building than the workplace, but few have the wherewithal to create real deep relationships that demand giving up “me time” for the sake of getting to know others who face struggles that are completely foreign to one’s experience. It’s not surprising then that many churches emphasize “me and Jesus” Christian individualism. And if a church emphasizes “us and Jesus” Christian collectivism it can still suffer from colorblindness, even when the church is noticeably diverse. All you need is a community culture that does nothing to promote deeper engagement with others beyond a hearty handshake and hymns sung in unison for 60 minutes once a week.

Beyond the challenges facing a typical congregation that would like to have richer relationships across racial boundaries, we should consider the education of the clergy themselves. To what extent is their theological training in any way equipping their worldview to think in terms of structures (apart from the church)? I suspect that today’s seminaries too often describe racial difference in paternalistic tones or in a tourist-y/ buffet-style understanding of culture. It’s this thin understanding of culture that can create a church that has a sense of “we-ness” and still be oblivious to systemic inequalities. Of course it’s important to know that some traditions worship differently; it’s more important to know how these traditions reflect the way blacks and whites have lived in American society as sociologists Jason Shelton and Michael Emerson explained.  Understanding the historic role of systemic racism in cultivating theological traditions and practices is a first step that seminaries can take in creating structurally-aware multiracial churches.

For now, perhaps we can heed the suggestion of Eugene Cho, a pastor in Seattle:

Can we just take some time to hurt and mourn with many of our Black brothers and sisters?
Can we take some time to hurt with many Black churches and communities?
With our black friends, co-workers, and neighbors, can we commiserate with them – however limited we may be in that commiseration?

For us – as Christians – if our Black brothers and sisters in Christ are hurting…If they are truly our brothers and sisters in Christ; And if we are truly the Body of Christ as we profess…can’t we just shut up, listen, and mourn with them? Can we possibly try to listen, hear, and capture a glimpse of why they are upset, concerned, anxious, worried, and even fearful?

  • jerryzpark

    Fair points Chuck and I appreciate your perspective. That you agree that *some* of the racial divide persists in America is reason enough to share in the mourning that Eugene Cho asks readers to partake. I interpret his point as that, our legal system as exemplified in this outcome did not align with the plain injustice of an armed man killing an unarmed teenager. The jury likely followed through exactly as they were asked, but the fact that that is all that the system could do to balance the death of an unarmed teenager, (especially one who tends to be profiled) is the kind of tragedy that many struggle with. We’ll never know all the details but there are persistent patterns of racial inequality and it clearly disfavors one group, especially the young men of that group.

    • Chuck

      I guess I interpreted Eugene Cho’s comments as referring to
      the outcome of the trial, but I certainly agree with mourning the tragedy of the circumstances. I think you’ve brought up a very interesting point about how racial inequality especially disfavors young men. This leads to think about the nature of profiling, which people do for a number of reasons. Sociologists would probably study profiling based on race, gender, and social class mostly, but humans seem to profile others based on just about everything else too, including political views, religion, body type, etc. Do humans have a tendency towards profiling? I think we do, because it helps us to know how to act towards others we really don’t know, and we can’t really know everyone we come into contact with so we need to use it sometimes. For instance, one might not tell a dirty joke around conservative Christians who one just met for the first time. Most profiling seems pretty harmless and helps to know how to act in social interactions, but profiling becomes very harmful when it is used unjustly, such as not giving someone a job merely because of their race or gender. Hopefully the job interview process reveals who someone truly is and there is no need for profiling to fill in the unknowns. What about profiling when there are unknowns though?

      Amazon and Netflix use algorithms to profile us in order to help us choose books and movies. Do also humans use algorithms to profile others? America seems to believe the algorithm George Zimmerman used is based almost entirely on race, but you brought up age and gender in the last sentence of your comment, and I think you’re completely right. If Trayvon Martin were Teresa Martin, an 85 year-old black woman, would George Zimmerman have acted the same way? You seem to suggest that many profile based on an algorithm involving race, gender, and age, but I think it’s more complicated than that too. Would George Zimmerman have acted the same way if Steve Urkel were walking through the neighborhood? It seems that George Zimmerman’s algorithm was based on race, age, gender, time of day, demeanor (walking fast), clothing, and a history of crimes being committed in the neighborhood. Was it unjust for Zimmerman to suspect an increased likelihood of this person committing a crime in the neighborhood? If any one of these characteristics had been different, how would it affect Zimmerman’s suspicion? If the percent decrease in suspicion would be the same for changing either race (young Asian man), gender (young black woman), or age (old black man), then is it fair to say that Zimmerman is as sexist and age-ist as he is racist? If you or I feel safer approaching 4 young black women compared to 4 young black men on the streets at night, does that make us sexist? What about the fact that young black men commit a significant proportion of crimes on the street? (For what it’s worth, I’m more fearful of middle-aged white men embezzling my money than young black men). Is it wrong to include race as a factor in our algorithm? Is it wrong to have an algorithm, considering certain demographics commit the major of crimes? You being scholar of race, I’m interested in your responses.

      No matter, it is certainly tragic that someone with Zimmerman’s algorithm encounter someone with Trayvon’s characteristics and
      under the circumstances (time of day, history, etc). It’s tragic that Zimmerman chose to approach Trayvon and say/do whatever he did, and it’s tragic that Trayvon chose to fight instead of flee.

      • jerryzpark

        Chuck, thanks for your reflections. The research on discrimination shows that African American males are more recipients of discriminatory behavior. You’re right, the media makes a bigger play of race, but it’s a combination of race, and gender and age. And when we look at the research, there’s pervasive stereotyping along these characteristics which invariably lead to one demographic group that some media outlets mentioned: young black men. It makes me wonder if our national conversation would advance further if we got more specific as your observations note. Instead of talking about racism, perhaps we should be asking anti-young-black-male-ism? The research in the academic journals aims for this kind of specificity, but somehow it gets sidelined more often in the debate.

        And yes profiling, or stereotyping is wired deeply into our psyche. Experiments that examine implicit bias shows how deep this wiring goes. I think I have only seen 1 study that suggests that stereotyping can be changed. So yes we make all kinds of stereotypic assessments of one another. How far does it go? The best answer I can give is that race and gender discrimination seem to explain a lot when we examine stereotypes. And I’ll suggest this: if we get to a point where we cannot make find differences in the consequences of our stereotypes based solely on race and gender, I think we will have actually made progress. As you point out, time of day, demeanor, clothing all of these make up a potential algorithm we use to make judgments. But the research shows that race and gender stereotyping clearly matter (significantly) regardless of these other factors. If we reach a point where these two characteristics don’t matter, but clothing and time of day do, that will be a major shift in society.

        The question changes to whether such profiling, if it’s deeply ingrained, is something that civilized and educated people should work to remedy. Do we accept it as is and throw our hands up and say “well I feel bad for young black men?” Or do we work to find ways to overcome those impulses and biases especially as our society diversifies? How else might we get along with one another if our biases continually disadvantage a visible demographic?

        One side question that occurred to me the other day too, was whether our conversation would differ if Zimmerman had simply used a taser and Martin had lived?

  • http://AAPastor.com/ Daniel K. Eng

    Thanks Dr. Park, for writing this! I always found myself uncomfortable with the idea of “colorblindness”. I always felt like I was being told to blend in with everyone else: I don’t see you as different. Basically, I felt like I was being told to be white. “I don’t think of people in terms of color.” It basically sounded like color or race was a bad thing. I wanted to ask “Does my color bother you?” I didn’t want to be white. But I wanted people around me to at least try to understand what I experience everyday.


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X