Why Are White Christians Less Motivated to Address Racial Injustice?
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because despite everything that's happened recently, white Christians are less likely to address racial inequality ... and finding out why is crucial to changing hearts and minds.
By Nick Fouriezos
The United States has been undergoing a national reckoning on race. At least, that’s what the headlines say. However, as the summer has faded into fall, it’s unclear that all Americans are taking those lessons the same way.
In fact, months of protests seeking racial justice in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd have some people less likely to say that the country has a race problem … and even less motivated to do something about it.
36 percent of white Christians say they are now “unmotivated” or “not at all motivated” to address racial injustice in society — a 56 percent increase from 2019.
In fact, only a third of them say the country definitely has a race problem at all, when two-fifths were willing to say so just last year, according to an annual survey of 1,525 Americans between mid-June and July by the Barna Group. So what is happening? Have white Christians become more racist in 12 months, or are there other forces at play?
A majority of both nonreligious and Christian voters of color say race is definitely an issue in America. In fact, more Black and Hispanic adults identify it as a problem than in 2019, although their motivation to do something differs — while only 5 percent of African American Christians aren’t motivated to act, the same as in 2019, unmotivated Hispanic Christians have jumped from 16 percent to 24 percent.
So Hispanics have also seen a dip in enthusiasm, albeit a smaller one than white Christians. And there are a number of reasons why both groups may be less motivated to address racial justice than in the past. “Part of it is that there are a lot of things in 2020 competing for attention,” says Natalie Jackson, research director at the nonprofit Public Religion Research Institute, which also conducts its own polling of Christian groups across the United States.
“What we’re seeing is a lot of focus on the economy and how we get back to where we were before the pandemic, and for white Christians, for whom the racial justice issues are not a daily part of their lives, they are able to tune that out.”
However, it seems naive to think that white Christians have been able to ignore the conversation about policing and race that has led to millions marching in Black Lives Matter protests nationwide. And here is where white Christian distrust of media outlets, which have dedicated almost wall-to-wall coverage to the protests, may be playing a role.
“White Christians are not very favorable toward the news … so the portrayal of racial justice and protests, the balance of violent versus peaceful protest, can really skew their opinions of it as well,” Jackson says, adding that while ardent news watchers are aware that most of the protesters have been peaceful, the casual watcher “might not realize that, might just see the chaos.”
To be clear, a majority of white Christians — 54 percent — range from “somewhat” to “very motivated” to address racial injustice in American society. And political divides are likely at play, as the Public Religion Research Institute has seen a two-year trend of white Democrats and liberals becoming more supportive of efforts to tear down Confederate monuments and address police violence against Black Americans.
Still, the fact that the number of unmotivated white Christians increased is notable given the work many organizations — including faith groups — have done to bring attention to racial disparities. One theory is that the term “racial injustice” itself has become politicized, carrying baggage it didn’t have in 2019. White Christians may feel like promising to address those issues would tie them to other, liberal, stances they are less comfortable with — such as calls to defund police or expand abortion access.
Plus, there may be a psychological component to their response. One 2018 academic study found that people who were exposed to language that accentuated racial differences (rather than more colorblind approaches) actually lowered people’s belief that racial equality is a problem — and increased their belief in racial essentialism, the idea that individuals are fundamentally defined by the color of their skin.
“These findings raise the ironic possibility that well-intentioned efforts to portray the value of differences may reinforce the belief that fixed, biological characteristics underpin them,” the study authors, led by psychologist Leigh Wilton of Skidmore College, concluded. Many other studies have shown that workplace diversity training meant to combat racism has actually backfired and created increased bias among employees, likely for the same reasons.
Much of the last summer has been spent emphasizing race education in similar fashion, and America may be facing a similar response across society. Which may help explain the “us versus them” phenomenon emerging among conservative, white Christians who just last year said they were at least more willing to address issues of racial injustice. As the Barna Group writes: “In the Church especially, there is a sense that people are doubling down on divides.”