When sociologists Michael O. Emerson and Christian Smith published Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America in 2000, it hit thinking evangelicals like a bombshell and spawned a wide ranging discussion about the problem of racism in our churches. Emerson and Smith argued that evangelical churches were contributing to the problem of racism in America because they focus on personal piety, individual conversions, and individual accountability instead of on structural social issues. Their historical survey showed that American churches have segregated blacks and whites for the last two centuries, and their sociological research confronts us with the fact that little has changed. Most striking was survey data they obtained through 2,000 telephone surveys and another 200 face-to-face interviews. To quote the summary provided in Christians and the Color Line (2014): “They discovered that on issues of race in the United States, the majority of white evangelicals hold some combination of three predominate views: (i) racial problems are the result of sinful individuals who harbor personal prejudices; (ii) the cause of racial tensions can be traced back to racial groups such as African Americans attempting to make isolated incidents of prejudice between individuals into broader group issues; and (iii) the problem of race in America is simply nonexistent and is a “fabrication” put forward by minority groups, liberals, the media, or the government.” White evangelicals are, to put it simply, color-blind. They don’t see that some people suffer just because of the color of their skin. No-one ever commented on their whiteness and they are never singled out for praise or condemnation because of their skin-color, so they assume that others are the same. They also don’t have much respect for African Americans. Using data from the 1996 General Social Survey, Emerson and Smith found that evangelicals are more likely than other white people to assume that if African Americans are poor it is because they are lazy, and not because of discrimination or a lack of access to good education.
Emerson and Smith were writing at the end of the twentieth century. Are their findings still valid today? A decade later, a group of evangelical scholars gathered at Indiana Wesleyan University for a conference aimed at reassessing Emerson and Smith’s conclusions. Christians and the Color Line (2014) is the result of that conference. Of the fourteen contributors, ten look white, two Asian, and two black. The skin color of the authors matters because even though their scholarship is empirically faultless and methodologically rigorous, many of these essays are theoretically flawed simply because they don’t take white privilege and structural racism seriously. A surprising number of the essays appear to suggest that it is enough to have good intentions, to try and form integrated churches, and to basically be nice to African Americans.
Whereas Emerson and Smith painted a pretty dark picture of evangelical race relations in the twentieth century, Miles S. Mullin, Karen Joy Johnson, Brantley W. Gasaway, and Tobin Miller Shearer all find examples of times when leading evangelicals and Catholics have thought about and campaigned for structural changes in American society. Mullin’s approach is the most sophisticated of the four, and he argues that “during the 1940s and 1950s, American evangelicalism was undergoing a transition from an older, culturally isolated fundamentalism too a more socially engaged evangelicalism.” This trend did not last, however. Mullin writes that “a moderate, individualistic approach” took over and dominated evangelicalism for the rest of the decade. These scholars claim to be adding nuance to Emerson and Smith’s story, but it feels like they are just looking for exceptions that can help evangelicals feel good about themselves. For his part, Shearer argues that Emerson and Smith were “too quickly dismiss the potential of relationships to transgress oppressive racial norms.” Both Shearer and Johnson tell the story of communities that struggled for decades to integrate themselves and were not always successful. They did try, however, and in the process they learned valuable lessons about white privilege that they could not have found in academic treatises on racism.
How much of a difference does being nice to others really make? Well, Edward J. Blum argues, when you have whites and blacks worshiping together eventually two of them will want to marry one another, forming a multiracial family. Because of their ability to integrate into a variety of communities and the fact that they have to deal with the structural implications of racism, Blum suggests, multiracial families might just be the solution to America’s race problem. Korie L. Edwards is not so sure. “Building cross-racial relationships might reduce racial misunderstandings and prejudice,” she writes, “yet symbolism, evangelism, and interracial relationships are not what changed our country. None of the major changes to the racialized social structure resulted from multiracial worship.” Multiracial churches cannot be an end in themselves, Edwards argues, because they are too inward focused. They need to be crucibles for bigger, outward-looking social movements that can change the discrepancies in education, employment, and access to services that significantly disadvantage people in this country.
By far the best essay in the book is the “theological afterword” written by Darryl Scriven. He maintains that the biggest problem in evangelicalism is “whiteness,” which is an idea, not a skin color. Scriven writes that whiteness is “a political construct, a notion that grants privilege and power through the imagery of purity, originality, and simply being considered normative.” At the same time, “whiteness is associated with ethnicity and is bestowed upon certain groups while it is withheld from others.” A simple example of how privilege is not necessarily connected to pigmentation is that whereas I am white because I am Australian, my wife is not because she comes from Eastern Europe. Her skin might be paler than mine, but her accent identifies her as an “immigrant,” whereas I will always be an “ex-pat.” Scriven’s solution to whiteness is “blackness,” which he defines as “a construction that presupposes solidarity with the downtrodden, the emiserated, the least in society, the dispossessed, the disenfranchised, and those who understand the world from the underside.” Blackness is easier for people of color because they often have no choice about being powerless. But whites can embrace it too, if they want to. Scriven writes that “blackness is the frontier for American Christians because it is a call that reflects what it means to deny oneself, take up one’s cross, and follow Christ in a market economy. Consequently, when evangelical efforts toward integration and multiracial churches fail, the unrecognized truth is that in a consumerist culture one cannot simultaneously repair the racial breach among Christians while retaining unearned privilege and embodying a faith that is complicit in the oppression of the poor with whom one intends to reconcile.”
What embracing blackness might look like is summed up in a powerful foreward by Michael O. Emerson, one of the authors of Divided by Faith. He writes about the day when he found a job ad that would involve him moving to another city:
“I asked my five-month pregnant wife to sit down for the news. “Remember how I said to you a few weeks back that we need to get ready, our lives are going to change somehow?” She nodded yes. “Well, here is what it is. I don’t know how I know. I simply can tell you that I know with a certainty that I have never known something before. When I accept that new job and we move, we are to move to a neighborhood where we are the minority, the racial minority. We are to send our children to school where they are the minority. We are to worship in a church where we are the minority. I don’t know why, only that we are supposed to do so.” My wife stared at me as the meaning of what I had said for our lives sunk in. Then she burst into tears. That night she wrote me a long letter, openly wondering if I had lost touch with reality. Had I thought through what I said, what it would mean for our children, for our planned-out lives, for our dreams? If this was really something we were to do, wouldn’t she know it too? I was torn up inside. I knew what we were to do, and I knew that it sounded crazy – I even knew it was incredibly presumptuous of me to expect my wife to go along with such a dramatic life change simply on the faith that I had somehow heard what we were supposed to do. … To make a long story short, through immense trials, marital strains, and miracles, we did make the move to an area of Minneapolis where we were the minority, we did enroll our children in a school where they were the minority, and we did join a church where we were the minority. We went through culture shock (understatement). Yet over time, our networks of friends changed. Our views of life changed. Our tastes changed. We saw something – racial inequality and discrimination – that we had before been sure no longer existed. We also saw our own prejudices, something we thought for sure we did not have. When we returned for visits to our former white world, we would now experience culture shock in the reverse. Separate worlds these were, that much was clear.”
And that, my friends, is what embracing blackness looks like.