Michael Emerson and Christian Smith have a fantastic sociology book about race and evangelicalism in America. Through a lengthy survey about white evangelical perceptions of race, they argue that religion often legitimizes the continual division and racialization of America. I’ve written about this book before, but I think it is important to highlight the following quote in light of Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Here the authors talk about the inevitable ethical dilemma of group loyalty–namely that with in-group dynamics, members of a group rarely understand the needs and experiences of those on the outside who are marginalized. The same is true for white evangelicals and African Americans:
We see [the ethical paradox of group loyalty] in white evangelicals’ assessment of the race problem and racial inequality. Although they can perhaps talk with empathy about a black friend’s situation, when they assess the group, they speak in ways, as we have seen, that largely justify division and inequality. They know that most of their friends and relatives–who are predominately white–are not hate-mongering racists bent on keeping blacks down. And they know this much better than they can know the experiences of black Americans. So, when they must assess the “race problem,” given their cultural tools, they conclude that it must be blacks exaggerating, or to the advantage of some to claim their is a race problem, or that the race problem is but individual problems between some individuals of different races. In short, they speak in ways that support their own racial group and the American system. Almost no white evangelical suggests that inequality between groups is immoral and ought to disappear, for example. And, largely isolated in their own racial group, they fail to see their advantages. The exceptions are those white evangelicals so immersed in black social networks that they appear to identify more with black Americans than white Americans.
Emerson and Smith found that many of the people they interviewed used religious grounding for their responses, even when they sounded antagonistic towards blacks as a whole. Christian congregations are typically racially homogenous, with little focus on intentional diversity.
I of course believe it is a positive thing that most white Christians are not hate-mongering racists. But race issues in our world are not limited to the stigmatized things–the racial slurs or Donald Sterling-type instances. There’s a deeper, more systemic issue when we examine what it means to be white or black in our world. Emerson and Smith argue that the only lasting solution to all this would be to address the issue of divisive identity and social networks, both individually and collectively. In other words, congregations need to integrate and address racism on an institutional scale.
In many ways I think we water down MLK’s “I Have a Dream” speech. But King’s concept of joining hands is a truly revolutionary idea:
I have a dream that one day the state of Alabama… will be transformed into a situation where little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls and walk together as sisters and brothers.
With this faith we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.
It is easy to interpret this concept of togetherness as a sort of kumbaya idea where we simply ignore our problems. In doing so, Martin Luther King Jr. is a safe hero. After all, who wouldn’t want that? But what if you were to truly join hands across racial lines? Genuinely working, praying, going to jail, and standing up together are certainly not isolationist activities. With this in mind, the problems Emerson and Smith found in their survey could indeed be cured through solidarity and this struggle for liberation. But a major barrier to this reality is our idolatrous worship of the in-group, which simultaneously leads many to keep their hands in their pockets instead of joining them with black sisters and brothers.