Two of my heroes who promoted racial reconciliation after the civil rights movement are J. Deotis Roberts and John M. Perkins. In different ways these two men both wanted to see the church of Jesus Christ provide a post civil rights era image of racial unity and peace. While there has been much progress, many of their dreams have yet to come true.
But I am convinced that the church will only be able to lead society on race if it moves beyond reconciliation and pursues racial solidarity, which means embracing our common human dignity (Genesis 1:26-28) as a human family in ways that celebrate and respect differences between ethnic communities for the common good. This is beyond the failed concept of "color-blindness" and recognizes the importance of racial, ethnic, and ideological differences as a catalyst for loving our neighbor's well (Matthew 22:36-40; John 17).
As such, I believe racial reconciliation has largely failed for four reasons:
- Racial reconciliation fails to interrogate white privilege. There is no denying the dominant cultural group in America is Caucasians. Being a white person in America comes with many unarticulated advantages. In 1988, Peggy McIntosh launched a national discussion by suggesting a framework to engage this discussion-a topic that evangelicals have yet to explore. White privilege has been defined this way: "A right, advantage, or immunity granted to or enjoyed by white persons beyond the common advantage of all others; an exemption in many particular cases from certain burdens or liabilities."
- Racial reconciliation advances according to the limitations of white social norms. Because there is little discussion of power in relation to white privilege, minorities are usually put in positions where they have to check their ethnicity at the door in order to engage.
- Racial reconciliation does not advance nor advocate whites submitting to minorities in authority. Evangelicalism remains one of the few places in America where racial disparities in organizational structures seem no different than the era of Mad Men. But much of this is simply a consequence of scarcity.
- Racial reconciliation misunderstands homogeneous ethnic churches as outmoded. This, in part, has much to do with many whites denying that they have cultural norms and the failure to recognize that ethnic minorities do need cultural centers for survival.
Moving forward, if Christianity is to put the difference the gospel makes in relationships on display, we need a racial solidarity movement that seeks to do at least the following:
- Situate race discussions within an understanding of white privilege. It is what it is. Instead of denying it, we need to think creatively about how it can be used for the common good. I raised this issue recently at the Marketplace One Leadership Institute in Phoenix.
- Advance racial solidarity in ways that do not require sub-dominant minorities to conform to white evangelical cultural norms. Evangelicals seem ignorant of Gordon Allport's 1954 "Contact Hypothesis" criteria. As a result, many believe the myth that simply having multiple races share the same physical space changes racial attitudes. Allport's criteria demonstrate that racial attitudes change under certain conditions: when races have equal status, common goals, acquaintance potential, and support of authorities and customs.
- Develop leaders who are not primarily white males. Christian conferences are great indicators of who evangelicals consider leaders. Great examples of progress would be racial diversity at the Coalition for Christian Outreach Jubilee Conference, while good groups like Together for the Gospel still lag slightly behind on displaying Asian-American, Latino, and black leaders as authorities worth following and those to whom others should submit.
- Recognize the necessity and importance of homogeneous ethnic churches because of the reality of white privilege. So far, the Rev. Tim Keller, pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City, is the only white evangelical I know of who can accurately explain why ethnically homogenous churches are necessary in America in this video. Because of white hegemony, homogeneous ethnic churches provide a safe haven for minorities in a dominant culture that demands conformity to social customs and norms that are not their own. Also, as Keller highlights, ethnic churches serve as needed cultural centers for survival.
In the coming decades, there are great opportunities to put multi-ethic implications of the gospel on display (Galatians 3:28) as we seek to love our neighbor in ways that Perkins and Roberts challenged us to do decades ago by incorporating new categories to an on-going problem.