White evangelicalism perpetuates racial inequality

White evangelicalism perpetuates racial inequality June 7, 2016

The United States is a racialised society—a society where the colour of your skin makes a massive difference the opportunities and experiences you will have in life. To give a few straightforward examples: Black people make up 13% of the the US population but 35% of its prison population. The median net worth of black households is just 6% that of white households ($7,113 vs $111,146), and black students are still rarely enrolled at elite universities.

These problems are not limited to the US. In this video, the English rapper, poet, and academic Akala concisely and powerfully argues two things: That racism is not limited to personal acts of prejudice, and that the UK has many of the same issues as face the United States. The good stuff starts 30 seconds in:

The problem is structural and institutional racism, and if you follow a highly individualistic religion, that’s difficult for you to acknowledge. In science there’s a problem known as ‘theory blindness’, which is when your expectations are so guided by the theory that you’re unable to see what’s really happening. If you’re convinced that everything in the world is down to individual actions, structural racism is hard to see. Most white Americans are pretty individualistic, but as Michael Emerson and Christian Smith have shown, white evangelicals employ way more individualistic explanations even than their fellow citizens.

Akala schools some white people on racism. BBC screenshot.
Akala schools some white people on racism. BBC screenshot.

In Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America, Emerson and Divided by FaithSmith set out to discover how white evangelicals explain these racial inequalities. They conducted a nationwide (USA) telephone survey of nationally-representative sample of more than 2,000 people, and then they did follow-up interviews with 200 self-identified evangelicals. The problem, as Emerson and Smith pose it, is this:

Equally Created + Equal Opportunity + X = Unequal Outcome

Equally created. Although in the past evangelicals have suggested that God created black people to serve white people, or made them inferior, that is no longer the case. White evangelicals believe that all humans are created equal by God.

Equal opportunity. Racial discrimination is now outlawed in the US. There is also now, on paper at least, equal opportunity for people in the US regardless of their skin colour.

Unequal outcome. Despite being equally created and having equal opportunities, we nevertheless see these vast inequalities in US society. So, X. What’s the missing factor? Why do black people experience a quality of life that is in many ways inferior to what white people typically enjoy?

The first thing to note is that many of the white evangelicals Emerson and Smith interviewed were unaware of racial inequality. They were frequently unable to give examples of contemporary racism. A lot of them said there wouldn’t be a race problem if people would just stop moaning about it and get on with their lives. The explanations they offered when prompted? Well… Here are two of the worst:

The you need Jesus explanation

Says a Pentecostal woman:

I know myself that when people find God, one of the first things they do is clean up and get a job.

Another woman added:

I see the breakup of the family as being the key to the whole thing, just the nonblessedness of the people. [For those who are not poor] I thin it’s because they have been in Christian families.

The lazy-butt explanation

A lot of them don’t care. They don’t want to work. … You go downtown and you see some of these apartments, low-income housing. It’s trash. I mean, they don’t care and then they complain. Well, get off your duffer and do something. Make a better life for yourself. Clean up your house, pick up your trash, get some kind of job.

Here I need to raise my biggest objection to the book. The authors argue strongly that the perpetuation of racial inequality by white evangelicals is not because of personal prejudice. They argue instead that white evangelicals act in ways that perpetuate inequality, and these acts are inspired partly by their theology. It’s a good argument, but as you can see, there’s obviously some personal prejudice at play too. The two quotes I’ve given above are some straight-up racist bullshit, and there’s more where that came from.

I’m not sure whether Emerson and Smith really think that someone who can use “the nonblessedness of the people” to refer to black people en masse is not personally prejudiced, or if they’re just ignoring it to make their larger point. I partly suspect that this book aims to make white evangelicals see the error of their ways, so it is deliberately written in a way that will not offend them (there is a sequel, United by Faith, which more explicitly has this aim). Either way, I think it’s a mistake. Structural racism, as this book argues, is a major reason why inequality persists. But another reason is that we act like ‘racism’ only means outright hatred of black people and explicit opposition to their freedom. It’s a condition only bad people have. Then we think “I am not a bad person, so I must not be racist.” Actually, we need to recognise and challenge prejudice where it exists, and, like I said, this book quotes some white evangelicals making outright racist statements.

Nevertheless, the larger point is important. Despite pockets of white supremacy, I’m not aware of any evidence that white evangelicals overall are more personally prejudiced than other white people in the US, and they may even be less so. Emerson and Smith, however, provide powerful evidence that they are less able than most to understand or acknowledge structural racism.

The reason for this is that white evangelicals understand the world through lenses of ‘accountable free-will individualism’ and ‘anti-structuralism’ (an inability or unwillingness to see macro social forces that shape society), and ‘relationalism’ (assigning central importance to interpersonal relationships).

This is in no small part because of theology.

Once you realise that social influences affect your life decisions, evangelical theology starts to look profoundly unjust.

Evangelicals believe that when we die, God is going to hold us accountable for our actions on Earth. Those who made The Right Choice will receive eternity in heaven. Those who did not will be punished for their wrong choices in fiery hell.

This only looks like justice if you believe that we are individually responsible for everything we do. If you acknowledge, for example, that crime is in part the product of poverty and deprivation, that’s a threat to evangelical theology. What if we take it even further? What if you acknowledge that how you are raised, what education you receive, and what society you live in will profoundly impact the chance about whether you will decide to accept Jesus or not?

Well, if that were true then God would be evil.

I am putting the argument more strongly than Emerson and Smith do. But they find repeatedly that white evangelicals simply cannot or will not acknowledge the way society stacks the deck against black people. Too often, evangelicals assume that if everyone would just accept Jesus, they’d become good, hard working Americans with the work ethic to succeed. Black evangelicals were rather better at spotting institutional racism, presumably because it’s a lot harder to pretend something doesn’t exist when it actually affects you. Where white evangelicals did acknowledge racism, it was in acts of individual prejudice, and the solution for this, they say, is for both parties to repent of their sin and allow Jesus to change their attitudes.

As a result, the white evangelicals were really opposed to efforts to dismantle structural racism. Benefits, healthcare, and affirmative action (what we Brits call positive discrimination) were particularly offensive to them, because they undermine individual effort. And that’s why, no matter how well intentioned, white evangelicals continue to be an obstacle to racial inequality. Their theology leads them to oppose meaningful changes.

It’s a reasonable question whether an equivalent study in the UK would produce similar results. Evangelical theology in the UK is not much different from its’ US counterpart, but the political climate is different here: even conservative evangelicals in Britain rarely campaign for the abolition of the NHS. My guess is that UK evangelicals would couch their arguments in the language of the deserving and undeserving poor, and the effect would be similar.

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