Race Riots and Religion in America

Very few weeks go by in the United States without a major headline featuring a story about race. Whether it’s the events in Ferguson, riots in Baltimore, or disputes over Eric Garner’s death in New York, racial tensions have been simmering here, provoking a number of writers, journalists, and thinkers of all stripes to explain what’s going on.

As with any cultural flashpoint, the perspectives have varied widely. One could pick any number of binary categories—rich/poor, religious/secular, male/female, etc.—to see how different groups respond to the same question. Not surprisingly, one category that jumps out, once again, is race. As the Pew Forum reported last year, white and black Americans judge the events in Ferguson, Missouri differently.[1]

Slide1

As the results of these polls show, African Americans are about twice as likely as whites to think that the Ferguson shooting raised important issues about race and that the police response went too far. To account for this disparity, we must realize that the conditions of black and white Americans are the product of both structural and cultural factors. As Harvard sociologist William Julius Wilson points out, the displacement of low-skilled jobs by new technologies, globalized outsourcing, and poorly performing inner-city public schools have combined with employer discrimination, broken families, and cultural attitudes of distrust to produce severe disadvantages for inner-city black males.[2]

Given the challenges facing black Americans and other minorities around the world, what should Christians—of all racial and ethnic backgrounds—know when the next race-related event hits the newsstands this summer?

One helpful resource I’ve found is Michael Emerson and Christian Smith’s Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America (Oxford University Press, 2009). As Emerson and Smith explain, evangelicalism in the American context is deeply affected by a belief in freewill individualism and personal accountability before God, making white evangelicals less likely to recognize the structural realities that produce a racialized society. In other words, by insisting that racial inequality is merely the product of racist individuals rather than baked deep into our flawed human institutions, white evangelicals often unknowingly and unintentionally dismiss the realities of racial problems. Of course, this does not mean that evangelicals are racist bigots through and through, but this is exactly what Emerson and Smith want to stress. White evangelicals often see racial injustice as an atomized problem they would like to abolish. In reality, however, a substantial part of their own theological outlook may perpetuate the very problems they wish to solve.

This may seem like a bleak assessment, but I should end by pointing out that the Gospel contains profound injunctions to abolish slavery and the racial tensions found around the world. Even in my own hometown of Memphis, TN—the same city where Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated—there exists today a diverse, interracial church that would have been unthinkable just a few decades ago.[3] For sure, then, while we often miss what’s at stake when we live out a certain theological agenda, the injustices that exist are neither inevitable nor permanent. On the contrary, by letting the norms of Scripture shape us more than the momentum generated by flawed individuals, ideas, and institutions and by understanding the complex realities of our local communities, we can find unique and creative ways to live out what is required of all humans: “to act justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with God” (Micah 6:8).

Paul McClure

[1] http://www.people-press.org/2014/08/18/stark-racial-divisions-in-reactions-to-ferguson-police-shooting/

[2] William Julius Wilson, More than Just Race: Being Poor and Black in the Inner City (New York: W.W. Norton, 2009).

[3] http://www.downtownchurch.com/; http://www.commercialappeal.com/news/local-news/downtown-churchs-diverse-congregation-moves-to

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