Love is not the Answer to America’s Race Problem

The sociological research book Divided by Faith by Michael Emerson and Christian Smith shows how white evangelical Christians see the solution to America’s race problem coming at an individual level, not a systemic or legislative level (p.115, “Let’s Be Friends” chapter).  The predominant thought is that if everyone became a Christian, the race problem would go away.  The solution to America’s race problem is that we need to be more loving to each other.  “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

The irony of this view is twofold.  One is that true solutions come at a systemic level rather than the personal level.  The reason for this is that the problems facing people of color are systemic problems.  This leads to the second part of the irony.  When white Christians say the solution to America’s race problem is that we need to love each other, it gets them off the hook to actually do anything on a systemic level.  It’s easy to bake cookies for a black person or to hug them at a Promise Keepers rally.  It’s not easy to march with Dr. Martin Luther King, or teach about white privilege, or speak out against police abusing power, or attend a multiracial church or to intentionally decide not to live in an all-white neighborhood.  But you don’t have to do anything of these things if you bake cookies for black people.  You’ve already done your part to solve the race problem.

The proof of this can be seen in Billy Graham’s revival rallies during the 60’s.  He held segregated rallies in the South because he wanted people to get saved and white people might not get saved if things were integrated.  The idea that simply becoming a Christian makes someone anti-racist is a misnomer in and of itself.  Throughout our nation’s history, (the vast majority of) Christians have sadly only perpetuated our race problem by maintaining the status quo of segregation rather than ever doing anything about it.

The reason for this mindset is that there are several assumptions that white evangelicals face.  Full disclosure: I am a white evangelical.  If you are too, I encourage you not to be defensive about these things, but simply be a learner, thank God for opening your eyes, and ask him to show you how he wants to use you to combat injustice.

One of the main assumptions we make is that there is no actual racial inequity in America.  Meanwhile, Pew Research data indicates otherwise:


The short answer of how we got to this bar graph is slavery and the complete failure by whites to allow blacks into their society once slavery ended.  Our society was constructed in a way for whites to reign supreme (literally law after law after law that gave whites dominance over people of color).  Slavery ends and blacks aren’t allowed to become educated in white schools, they aren’t allowed to run for white offices, they aren’t allowed to do much of anything except continue to work the fields they used to be slaves in.  Or they could move to the big city for very low paying labor jobs…forming black ghettos in inner cities…banks keeping them there and not letting them move into nice white neighborhoods with the well-funded schools…which the ripple effects of can still be seen in every metropolitan city in America.

In Emerson and Smith’s research, white evangelicals consistently responded that loving their neighbor was the solution to our race problems, but also consistently denied that having integrated neighborhoods (where they themselves might have to move to join) would be of any solution at all.

Loving someone individually does not stop the systemic injustices.  White evangelicals need to use our privilege and our voices to fight against the systemic injustices that people of color face–which is the best way to truly love them. Acknowledging the systemic injustices they face is a way of acknowledging their experience. If we don’t acknowledge these things, we invalidate who people of color are.

White Christians will argue that we ought to see hearts and not skin color.  It’s not that I’m advocating that we see skin color first and hearts second, it’s that we are acknowledging the realities of skin color in America and what that color makes a person unjustly endure. To ignore skin color and say we are “color blind” is saying to a person of color that we don’t acknowledge the injustice they have to endure. To say “you’re just like us” is actually a lie and people of color know it (see Pew Research graph above to further prove this point). People of color know they’re not like us in that they don’t have the privilege and opportunity we have / life was a lot harder for them to get where they are than it was for us to get where we are (in most cases–and just because you might be a white person who is an exception to this rule, doesn’t change that it’s still a broad systemic problem for people of color). So on a foundational and theological level, yes of course they are just like us, created in God’s image (Genesis 1:27), and vice versa we are just like them, but we have to realize it’s not that way in America and we have to do something to fix it. If we don’t, we are being blind to what our brothers and sisters are going through, while using “love” as our excuse to do nothing about it.

All of this is to be bathed in love.  But love is the fuel, not the vehicle.  You can put fuel in a car or a chainsaw, but the results are going to be very different.

You probably heard the analogy of the boy throwing starfish back into the sea that washed up on shore during high tide and are now left to die.  A man comes and asks him why he’s wasting his time as he can never save the hundreds of thousands of starfish waiting to die.  The little boy holds up one starfish to the man and says, “Well, it matters to this one.” And he throws it back in.

This is a touching story but it’s flat-out the wrong approach for solving America’s race problem and here’s why:  in our society, white people have actually  created the tide system that has left people of color out to dry.  It’s not good enough to give a poor black kid a coat or to have some black friends.  There is a sinful system that is killing the starfish and we need to kill that system.  The tide system was created by people and it can be deconstructed by people.  Throwing a handful of starfish back into the ocean might appease our conscious or make us feel like we are obeying the Bible (even though we aren’t to it’s fullest application), but it also allows us to ignore messages of what the starfish really need: a new system.  A system where the evils of our nation’s past have been truly reconciled, not simply brushed under the rug and forgotten, so that the starting line for white people doesn’t continue to be light years ahead of the starting line for black people.


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7 responses to Love is not the Answer to America’s Race Problem

  1. Appreciate your passion against racial injustice in America, that it’s not just a passing issue with you. But the church will have no voice in this that counts for anything in society until it lives the reality of racial and ethnic unity in Christ in a real way in our gatherings. As long as ‘white church’ and ‘black church’ are not only descriptions but the reality we practice, there will be nothing church can add to the discussion that is more than mere words. It does no good to talk about how we are one in Christ when we choose and prefer to actually be apart. For all the changes and advances that have happened in the past 50+ years – and there have been advances – changes in laws have done little to change hearts.

    ‘Love is the answer’ is as much a cliche coming from the church as it is from society when all it means is feeling good and not hating. But the love of God in Christ calls for a meekness and humility that comes only from brokenness. Until we take up our cross instead of only gazing at His, our words will merely be ideals. And the compassion and pity and love we show others will be merely that which we can muster up in our souls rather than that shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Spirit. The church has no answer for culture apart from the reality of Christ being present.

    The church’s words on this would speak louder if there was some reality of unity backing them up. But as long as racial, ethnic, social, financial, denominational divisions are what is true about the church here we will have nothing to say to society as we have nothing to show them. Sometimes it seems that we treat Jesus’ words as poetry rather than as truth, but when he gives us the glory that the Father gave him, it was so that we would be one, and this so that the world would know and believe. His prayer that we would be one in him and the Father, and perfectly so, finds no answer in a church that prefers to live divided, and give words that have no power to a culture that would take note and be influenced by a church that was one.

    The hopeful note in all this is the the Spirit is the Spirit of unity and he is always leading there. The problems are systemic but God works thru individual believers. My own modest suggestion is as the Spirit leads, go and be with believers outside your local assembly. When traveling or on vacation, go be with believers from other racial or ethnic backgrounds. A few weeks ago, had to go down to DC on a Sunday and stopped at a black church in Baltimore. Sure it was a little awkward at first but after the initial novelty passed and worship started, there was fellowship and generosity of spirit. The brothers and sisters at St. Timothy Baptist are some of the warmest and most loving I’ve met. And the worship was so alive and joy-filled compared to the three praise choruses & a prayer that I had grown accustomed to.

    One of the good things about Jersey is the huge mix of peoples and the different expressions of church. Checked it out once and there are 40+ different ethnic churches within an hour drive. Last year when there was trouble for brothers and sisters in Egypt, found there are Coptic Orthodox churches in Jersey City and went and worshipped with them just to stand with them. Their way of worship has this sense of being the same as it was when it started in 100 AD. . . just amazing. I don’t know about Lansing but here there are Syrian, Korean, Indian, Chinese, Ethiopian, Lebanese, Vietnamese all of which are brothers and sisters in Christ who passionately love him. Find myself imagining how cool it would be if a local church for one week sent/released everyone to go out to be with and worship with believers who seem different so that they can experience that we are one. And then come back together the next week and share and celebrate that.
    Visiting a church isn’t the answer to the the unity needed over division but it’s a start and it’s more than talk. The church has no credibility talking about bridging the racial divide unless we have crossed the bridge.

  2. Why did you leave out the earnings for Asians?

    If society is slanted in such favor of whites, particularly white males, then why do Asians on average earn more?

    My parents (Im Korean) and everyone in the large group they came over with arrived with nothing and today the vast majority of them are successful or at least have successful children. Why do you feel this is the case? Why do Asians (an average) continue to be more successful in the same amount of time than their Hispanic and black counterparts?

    A separate issue but do you feel your mission to create a diverse church (which is great btw) puts you in position where you feel the need to be subservient to blacks? The reason i ask is because a Hispanic friend of mine who is attempting to diversify his church said there are times he feels like the only way to get blacks and whites to his church is to tell them whatever they want to hear even if it risks offending his Hispanic followers.

    • I think a point worth making here is that people of Asian descent have integrated more easily in the United States because many “Asian” nations were integrated into the global capitalist order in its formative stages (especially China/Japan). South American and Africa have far more problematic histories of colonialism and exploitation (arguably, both these legacies continue fairly unchanged today) Understanding race within a nation requires a global historical context as well as a national one.

      • Good point Brett. I think two things are interesting about how Asians have integrated into the United States’ society… one is that they simply look more white. I know that sounds trivial, but it’s true. In 1922, Japanese man Takao Ozawa appealed to the Supreme Court that he and all Japanese-Americans should be given the rights of white people. His argument was that he was scientifically white (after a similar Armenian case had been rejected because the Armenian was told he wasn’t scientifically white). Ozawa’s case was also rejected, as the Supreme Court deemed that Japanese are part of the Mongoloid race (which was subjective, not scientific) and thus non-white. –I only bring this up here because it reminded me of how a Japanese man appealed to the Supreme Court that he was more white than other skin colors were. But the second point, and similar to what you are saying is that Asian ethnicities bring with them economic gain for America so are welcomed, and so we also stereotypically view them as educated, higher classed, etc. Whereas Mexicans, blacks, etc. do not bring economic gain to America, so whites stereotypically view them in the opposite light. Blacks have their legal rights now, but Mexican immigrants don’t. If Mexico wasn’t an impoverished country and had more to offer America financially, you can bet that our government would be much more apt to allow Mexican immigrants in. It’s all about the dollar to our government, which is sad.

    • Hi MKN, sorry for my long delay in responding. I think I hit on the first part of your question in my response to Brett, who also replied to your thread. As far as your question about creating a diverse church, it’s a very delicate challenge. I would not call it subservient, but when you have a homogeneous group who also is the same group that is the majority in society and holds most of the power in society — and this homogenous group is trying to make minority groups feel welcomed and hospitable, the homogenous group has to ask questions about how they can make their group (church in this case) feel more hospitable to the minority group. Instead of the ethnocentrism we usually have that our ways our the best ways. It’s a way of serving, yes, which is loving and relational. But not subservient, which is forced and power-focused.

  3. I agree with Noah’s concerns. I have reflected a lot in the last four years about my own attitudes about the inequities that impact my fellow black citizens. I hired a black woman as an admin. assistant and learn a lot first-hand, and helped her get an even better job later. I have had the wonderful privilege of making friends with fellow black ministers most recently and experienced the vulnerability of listening to their pain. I watch a lot of documentaries on the black situation, and yet I still find myself challenged to do something broader that really helps.
    Systemic problems are easy to point to, but elusive to nail down and solve, because they are so deep-seated and engrained in our society. I despair that any legislative change or any measure of reparations would give us the progress which truly meets the needs of all of our citizens in any reasonable timeline, short of instituting something that smacks of dictatorship, marshal law or outright communism, which historically works out badly for everyone in the end.
    This is a heart issue, too. Christians and spiritual awakening have been the leaders of all social improvements in history from women rights to civil rights. If walking in a parade, passing civil rights legislation, imposing quota’s on employers, etc. worked, we’d be experiencing the utopia we all hope to see in our lifetimes, because we have done all those things with less than satisfactory results, sometimes even counterproductive. What would we do now that we have not already done or are doing now? I only hear the same recurring solutions that don’t really work, instead it is token and lip-service and political power grabbing.
    We need a spiritual awakening again, or for Jesus to return. Perhaps, our visions of utopia are not possible even with the most rigorous attempts at systemic change until then. But we must try out of love for our fellow human beings. Don’t discount the power of love, regardless of what people say in surveys. Live it, and you don’t need an agenda that divides or pre-judges people on either side of the issue. Pray for it, and we unlock miracles like that of Lincoln and Wilberforce and MLK, Jr. Work for it, and change your neighborhood, like Lansing BreakThrough movement is doing, one by one. Too much stock put in modern politics leads to market crashes of disappointment and betrayal. It is hypocritical to call and push a representative, then not get personally involved in your own community. Chipping away bit by bit over time brought down the Berlin Wall, gave birth to American democracy, abolished slavery in 1860’s, ended apartheid in S. Africa, etc. Do not discount small victories which can lead to greater ones.

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