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.