The Empire’s New Clothes: How Racial Prejudice Has Evolved in the US.

We’ve healed so much from our dark history.

We ended slavery, shut down Jim Crow with the Civil Rights Act, made national heroes of Dr. Martin Luther King and other people of color. We passed laws to fight preferential hiring.  We twice elected a black president.

Many believe that if a black person can’t get ahead in this country, it’s their fault.

However, for the past 10 years or so, scholars, researchers, lawyers, and social activists have provided evidence for a different story – claiming that the preferential treatment of whites over other people of color is alive and well in our county.

It’s likely however that you haven’t heard this side of the story.  This information doesn’t tend to make the 6:00 news and certainly hasn’t seen much Sunday morning pulpit time.

Below is a quick “dummy” version – a primer if you will – of facts and figures that are critical to our understanding.  Consider the following in contrast to what many would say are common “white, evangelical” perspectives on current racial issues.

“We’ve Done Everything We Can”

Nobody would argue that blacks in particular are more educated, empowered, motivated, qualified – overall more “free” to pursue their dreams than ever before.   Yet black unemployment is currently twice that of whites.

It’s been that way for 60 years.

Regardless of the barriers that have been removed, the “leaps and bounds” we’ve made in education, hiring, etc., this statistic has held fast since we started measuring employment rates.

There’s more.

In 2004 researchers Marian Betrand and Sendhill Mullainathan sent fake resumes to 1300 employers in Chicago and Boston, targeting sales, administrative support, and customer service/clerical positions.  Half of the “applicants” had white sounding names (e.g. “Emily” or “Greg”), the other half had black sounding names (e.g. “Lakisha” or “Jamal”).  Resumes with “white” names received 50% more callbacks.

Devah Pager, Associate Professor of Sociology at Princeton University, is well known for her research in this area.  She and a colleague sent black and white, equally qualified, “tester” applicants for live interviews in the low wage labor markets of Chicago and New York City.  In two different studies her white applicants were 2x more likely to get a second interview than blacks.

In her concluding remarks, Pager makes note of the difficulties with our current antidiscrimination laws:

“In order for these protections to be invoked, however, potential plaintiffs must be aware of and able to document discriminatory treatment. Given the subtlety of contemporary forms of discrimination, it is often difficult to identify discrimination when it has taken place.”

The problem isn’t limited to the hiring process.  For example, studies show that blacks are the first to be fired when the economy weakens, and the “wage gap” between blacks and whites is larger than it’s been in 40 years.

“Blacks Commit More Crime”

For years we’ve imprisoned more blacks than any country in the world.  The numbers seem to speak for themselves, and fuel the perception that blacks are more likely to commit crime than any other race in the US.

While the prison numbers might support this, many crime statistics don’t.

Drugs

In 2010 Michelle Alexander published “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness,” introducing the disparities between black and white incarceration rates, and the stories behind them.  In 2016, Netflix aired director Ava DuVernay’s documentary “13th,” highlighting many of Alexander’s concerns.

Nobody should talk about racial prejudice in the United States without a basic grasp of these two accounts.  Both offer, among other things, strong evidence that whites and blacks use illegal drugs at the same rates, but blacks are somehow incarcerated at a much higher rate than whites.

Alexander and DuVernay claim that these consistent, way-out-of-balance statistics are driven primarily by the same spirit that fueled slavery in the US.

Violence

“New Jim Crow” isn’t without its critics.  Yale Law School’s James Forman Jr. wrote:

“While rates of drug offenses are roughly the same throughout the population, blacks are overrepresented among the population for violent offenses.  For example, the African American arrest rate for murder is seven to eight times higher than the white arrest rate; the black arrest rate for robbery is ten times higher than the white arrest rates.”

The phrase “arrest rate” can be misleading for those of us not well versed in statistical analysis.  It’s much simpler to look at raw numbers.  How many people are committing these crimes, what color are they, and how many from each group are we keeping behind bars?

For example, in 2011, BJS reported 42,768 black arrests for robbery vs. 38,599 white arrests.  To confirm Forman’s point above – a higher percentage of blacks were arrested.  However, in the same year 8,936 whites were incarcerated vs. almost 23,447 blacks in our state and federal prisons.

If roughly the same number of blacks were arrested for robbery, how is it that almost 3 times the number of blacks were incarcerated?

Following are yearly statistics on violent crime in general – note the disparity between arrest and incarceration numbers.

While the Bureau of Justice Statistics doesn’t publicly report Federal Prisoner race/offense statistics as consistently as they do for state prisons, their detailed 2015 and 2014 reports reveal that twice the number of blacks occupy Federal Prisons for violent crime than whites.

Again, why?

One of the most prevalent narratives about blacks in the US is that they are on some sort of crime spree – they just can’t seem to reign in their impulse to break the law.  But the incarceration numbers – statistics most of us have never seen –  tell an entirely different story.

Legalized Discrimination

According to Alexander, DuVernay, and others, incarceration is only half the problem.

“Once you’re labeled a felon, the old forms of discrimination – employment discrimination, housing discrimination, denial of the right to vote, denial of educational opportunity, denial of food stamps and other public benefits, and exclusion from jury service – are suddenly legal.  As a criminal, you have scarcely more rights, and arguably less respect, than a black man living in Alabama at the height of Jim Crow.  We have not ended racial caste in America; we have merely redesigned it.” “New Jim Crow” pp. 2-3

This formerly incarcerated cross-section of our population is more likely to be poor, without hope, controlled, depressed, angry, and much more likely to commit repeat offenses than someone with a less “murky” future.

“All Lives Matter”

Many blacks have rallied around the phrase “Black Lives Matter,” citing the above issues (and more), crying injustice, and (still) calling for some semblance of equity.  Many Evangelicals have responded with “All Lives Matter.”

Evangelical Pollster organization, Barna Group, recently published their findings of a 2015/2016 survey of Americans regarding racism.  Among the participants, white Evangelicals and/or political conservatives were most likely to believe that

  • Racism is a problem of the past
  • People of color face no social disadvantages because of their race
  • Reverse discrimination is a greater threat to whites
  • Christian churches are currently playing an important role in racial reconciliation
  • “All Lives Matter” is an appropriate response to the black community’s cries for justice

We’ve come to believe that the problems mentioned above lie squarely in the hands of the black community to solve.  Having clothed ourselves with the illusion of equity on every front, we’ve become convinced that blacks have nothing to complain about.

That’s why we get so upset when some of them take extreme measures.

Brooke Hempell, Vice President of Research at Barna Group, summarized their findings with the following:

By failing to recognize the disadvantages that people of color face—and the inherent privileges that come from growing up in a ‘majority culture’—we perpetuate the racial divisions, inequalities and injustices that prevent African American communities from thriving…

There are now a growing number of white evangelical leaders, pastors, sociologists, and researchers claiming that racism is huge problem among evangelicals.  I know, we’re all tired of hearing about it, but that doesn’t make it false.  I’m currently working on a post here and hope to publish it soon.

And while I’m personally proud of the people who showed up en masse to protest the alt-right and white supremacy, I agree with the many voices who feel like the current racially prejudicial systems are far more dangerous – not just because they affect so many lives, but because they’re rarely-to-never protested.

“Look How Far We’ve Come”

I recently sat in a meeting where a white community leader offered a personal apologetic on how far we’ve come in our journey towards equity. “I just see all the progress we’ve made and I just want to celebrate it.”

But it’s difficult to talk about progress when we’re also talking about injustice.  To illustrate, consider the following parable:

Say you and I had an arrangement where I physically assaulted you once a day.  You had no say in the matter, it was something you had to endure.  It ruined you, weakened your sense of dignity, stole hope, etc.  One day, I announce that I’ll only be attacking you 3 times a week.

Technically that’s progress, but not the kind any victim would want to celebrate.  Even if the beatings were to stop altogether, there would still a glaring issue.

One of the dominant conversations when Civil Rights legislation was first being considered centered around the idea of justice.  Even if we could get to the point of perfect equity, who should pay for these centuries of abuse?

Any victim is right to expect that 1) the abuse will end and 2) justice will be served.  We’ve offered the black community neither.

Change

Racial prejudice in the US hasn’t gone away, it’s simply changed its clothes.  Gone are the white hoods and black iron bracelets.  Now we have laws – really impressive legislation that’s sometimes effective, but complicated enough to allow our contemporary expression of racial prejudice the space it needs to keep our ancestors’ foot-to-throat status quo well intact.

That’s why so many blacks aren’t celebrating.  They’re angry, tired, hopeless.  Some get desperate and riot, to which we respond, “See?  Nothing but a bunch of criminals.”

The facts and figures cited here only scratch the surface, but are enough to kick-start a new narrative –  one that acknowledges that blacks in the US have been set up for failure.  Some succeed, and are frequently used as evidence that there’s nothing to riot about.  But the many who do fail are used as further evidence for the centuries-old narrative that there’s “just something wrong with black people.”

These stories need to change.  Our understanding of the black community and of white privilege needs to change.  And the first step might be easier than you think.

We need to talk about this – in our small groups, from the pulpit, among friends.  These truths can be spread just as easily as the falsehoods that are currently in residence.

Equity will require much more than awareness.  Injustice only answers to personal/corporate sacrifice.  But for now, since this current “style” of racial prejudice depends so heavily on ignorance, misinformation, false narratives, and naked, knee-jerk emotion, awareness would be a big first step toward something that our country has never known.

Uncle Don’s Cabin: Why so many Evangelicals are still Pulling for Trump

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Photo credit: Kenny Wiley/First Unitarian Society of Denver

Evangelicals are jumping off of the Republican ticket like never before – a truly unprecedented exodus.  But an estimated 65% still remain faithful.  While it’s true that Trump’s strong words against abortion, Gay rights, and the most vile human being an Evangelical can imagine have left so many still swooning, two recent studies suggest that Donald Trump’s racial animus might be playing a key role in this unholy union.

Racial Bias in the Church

The Barna Group, an Evangelical polling firm based in Ventura, California recently released  the results of two surveys they conducted on racial tension in America.  Of all the groups queried, Evangelicals were most likely to believe that racism is a thing of the past, that people of color face no race-based disadvantage, and that reverse discrimination is a far more serious problem.

Evangelicals were also most likely to respond to the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement with the phrase “All lives matter,” which Donald Trump and his congregants used to shut down a small group of BLM activists at a campaign rally in Virginia.  As an Evangelical minister of 15 years, having watched “All Lives Matter” gain so much popularity in the church, I can assure you that it has nothing to do with God, or love for humanity, and everything to do with white people responding to BLM’s appeals for justice with something akin to “Hey Black folk, you never had it so good.  Shut the hell up.”

Brooke Hempell, Vice President of research at the Barna Group, summarized their findings with the following perspective:

Our research confirms the fear that the church (or the people in it) may be part of the problem in the hard work of racial reconciliation…

More than any other segment of the population, white evangelical Christians demonstrate a blindness to the struggle of their African American brothers and sisters… This is a dangerous reality for the modern church. Jesus and his disciples actively sought to affirm and restore the marginalized and obliterate divisions between groups of people. Yet, our churches and ministries are still some of the most ethnically segregated institutions in the country…

By failing to recognize the disadvantages that people of color face—and the inherent privileges that come from growing up in a ‘majority culture’—we perpetuate the racial divisions, inequalities and injustices that prevent African American communities from thriving…

Dr. Jarvis Williams offers this lament from the perspective of an Evangelical seminary professor, and a person of color:

…I’ve learned to accept that there will be many evangelicals who will simply never get it, and they could care less whether they do. Just say the words, for example, white supremacy, systemic injustice, institutional racism, mass incarceration, or racialization in certain evangelical contexts and notice the deer in the head lights look on the faces of the Jesus-loving people to whom you speak those words. Their response of ignorance, apathy, or frustration will symbolically represent the fact that some Jesus-loving, bible-saturated Christians will simply never get the race issue.

Evangelical leaders have come out in droves to disavow Trump and his racist, violent, abusive, misogynistic persona.  Others have refused to respond to the BLM’s cries for justice with “All Lives Matter,” seeing it for the blatantly racist mantra that it is.

There are still so many who have yet to be converted.

This cross section of Evangelical Christianity might not be racist the way is a Klansman is racist, or an antebellum plantation owner – it’s more of a “What?  Me? Racist?” sort of thing, until someone cries “reverse discrimination,” or “Black Lives Matter,” then this brand of racism shows itself kin to the ages-old spirit that birthed it – one that for centuries has managed to hitch a ride on the holy heels of God’s white army.

Trump Supporters and Racism

Analysts of a recent survey conducted by The American National Election Studies have drawn a direct correlation between Trump support and racial prejudice.

On just about every measure, support for Trump increased along with measured racial animus.   … increased levels of overt racial stereotyping among white respondents — as measured by belief that black people, Muslims, and Hispanics are “lazy” or “violent” — strongly increases support for Trump, even after controlling for other factors.

In other words, If you’re a Trump fan, especially at this stage in the game, you might be harboring some less-than-Biblically-appropriate feelings towards people of color.

Maybe Trump knows what he’s doing.  Racist folk are historically fearful, angry, and not-so-highly educated.  These negative, unchecked passions could easily be used as “leverage,” the one thing Trump claims is fundamental to closing any deal.  The 2016 campaign has shown us that there’s more than enough racist energy in the US – specifically among Evangelicals – to make Trump a legitimate contender for the White House, so long as he leverages it properly.

Either way, he’s made it clear that easing racial tensions in the US, challenging systems that advance or perpetuate white privilege, and giving voice to historically marginalized/mistreated people are all issues  that  his administration won’t be tackling.  The ever-increasing cries of injustice from the Black community will continue to be met with clueless racist slogans, along with frequent reminders that there’s nothing to complain about, while we send the Muslims packing and build a wall to keep the Mexicans out.

Sadly, Trump’s vision of a shiny white America might be giving so many Evangelicals hope; and hope trumps reason every time.

Action Required

Imagine yourself a Black man somewhere between the ages of 17 and 50, being pulled over by a police officer, believing that the chances you’ll be shot in the next 15 minutes just went up astronomically.  That police officer will most likely follow protocols, asking you to do some really simple things, things a 4 year-old could do.  But now your mind is in “fight or flight” mode – you’ve lost some ability to behave rationally – following simple instructions just got harder.  How will the officer respond to your agitation, or your lack of compliance?  What if he’s racist?  What if he’s scared?  Or both?  You don’t know.  I can’t imagine what that’s like.

I appreciate our police force.  I live in Denver – you can’t not have an armed police force in a city like Denver.  I appreciate their courage and commitment to keep myself and my family safe.  I know from time to time there will be accidents, very unfortunate ones.  I understand that it’s common for white cops, especially those in urban areas, to have some fear of Black people.  Especially now.  The guy that just pulled you over might be as scared as you are.

However, of the unarmed people shot and killed in 2015, 40% were Black.  There’s something going on that transcends “accidents.”  You might be tempted to offer some statistics about the crime rate among Blacks in the US, blaming them for this outrageous statistic.  You might be outraged about the outrage, citing the very rare occasion when a Black cop shoots an unarmed white man and nobody says anything.  But if you’ve been responsible to study the statistics, and fail to see the injustice here, regardless of what’s underneath – racism, fear, or both – you should be outraged at yourself.

Everyone’s Problem

Ask most white people about racism in our country and you’ll get something akin to “We put that to bed,” or, “I love MLK.”  I’ve never gotten anything like that from a Black person.  From their perspective, systemic racism is alive and well in our country.  The more I study this issue, the more I find it to be true.  Either way, there’s a huge chunk of our population that feels powerless.  Now add fear.  So many of these people believe that there are armed government employees who, for whatever reason, are likely to shoot them for the slightest infraction.

Regardless of where you stand, understand the negative effect this will have on our world if unarmed Black people continue to die in outrageously disproportionate numbers at the hands of our police.

If we don’t deal with injustice, we will very quickly find ourselves victims of it.

If you’re a religious person, especially one that gives some weight to the Bible as I do, there’s another layer to this.  There’s an episode in the Old Testament where God sends messengers to His people, begging them to cease whatever injustices they’d embraced, and if they didn’t listen, they’d be punished.  Really punished.  They didn’t listen.  They weren’t slapped on the wrist, or infested with frogs, they were removed, all of them, to enemy countries, to places where they’d now be the victims of injustice.

If we do nothing, this problem will actually go away, sort of like forest fires go away – when there’s nothing left to burn, problem solved.

I dare you – attend an event hosted by your local Black Lives Matter chapter and get to know a few people there.  Listen to them.  Engage.  I know, the internet’s crawling with all manner of vitriol for this movement, but don’t listen to what others say about BLM, go hang out with them and judge for yourself.  I have, and I’m none the poorer for it.  My wife and I have made friends with BLM Denver activists.  We marched with them in the MLK marade this summer.  The most violent think BLM did during the marade was to break off from the main route, beat the mayor to the stage, and call the city to account.  He turned his back on them.  Symbolic.

These are good people, they’ve got something to say.  Hang out with them.  They’re not perfect, and yes they’re angry, and scared, but they’re doing something that we should all be part of.

My problem is that I land squarely on one side of the issue.  I’ve rubbed elbows, heard stories, mourned, lamented, and considered opinions of the people who agree with me.  If I’m to figure out my role in all of this I need to know what I’m talking about.  So I’ve been reading, watching videos and hopefully soon I’ll be rubbing elbows with people from the other side.  There are stories there, and ultimately, people.  Sure, I’ve come across some stupid stuff, there’s stupidity on both sides, but I think there’s truth on both sides as well.

Ultimately I’ll have to do something, something costly.  Problems like this will cost something to rectify.  I’m not going to excuse myself from responsibility with “Cops just hate Blacks – there’s nothing you can do,’ or, “All lives matter – BLM just needs to shut up.”  I just hope that when I get to that point of action, I have the maturity and courage to do something, and lead others to the same.