While serving as allegories, stories from the previous two posts in this series focus much more on individual outcomes and impacts than on the systems themselves. One person doesn’t have the resources that another person has, and they experience a disparate impact due to the lack of resources. These stories serve as indicators of systemic issues insofar as they can be duplicated, as shown in the studies done by Paul Piff and the research group at Cal Berkeley. However, hearing stories such as these can lead to empathy and understanding with the people directly involved, but do not necessarily lead to an indication or understanding of how the system is affecting, influencing, and contributing to the situation.
Actually, let’s be honest. Difficulties in seeing and understanding systemic issues are seen more often in the United States among whites, and, unfortunately, very highly among white evangelicals. For anyone who hasn’t left after reading the previous sentence, let me explain.
In Divided by Faith (2000), Michael O. Emerson and Christian Smith set out to learn more about American life by examining the role of white evangelicalism in black-white relations. In the process, the two analyzed historical analyses, polling, surveys, and a large number of in-person interviews with people from numerous racial and denominational self-identifications (p. ix). Through the statistical analysis and wide array of interviews, Emerson and Smith were able to present statistical data related to different groups’ perceptions of race issues; namely, what sparks these issues, and how to solve the issues.
Overwhelmingly, white evangelicals were more likely than black individuals to cite personal issues rather than systemic issues as primary reasons for any racial issues, and were more likely to suggest interpersonal solutions to race problems rather than systemic changes. Additionally, white evangelicals had similar responses to white non-evangelicals, but to a larger degree than white non-evangelicals. In a survey asking for explanations to the black-white socioeconomic gap, 72% of white evangelicals surveyed cited black culture, lack of motivation, or both as primary reasons for the gap. In fact, 95% of respondents who identified as strongly evangelical cited Culture, Motivation, History, and receiving Welfare as explanations for the gap – only 5% of this group cited systemic issues, education and discrimination, as the only factors in explaining the gap. White Conservative Protestants were more likely to cite individual reasons and less likely to cite structural reasons than other white Americans. In contrast, Emerson and Smith recounted multiple black individuals who laughed at the notion that issues like these were not systemic because of the seeming absurdity of the question. Black Conservative Protestants were actually less likely to cite individual reasons and more likely to cite structural reasons than other black Americans, let alone white Americans.
In terms of responding to the racial divide, white Americans, especially white evangelicals, were more likely to cite getting to know people from a different race as “very important” to solving racial issues – 89% of white strong evangelicals cited this response. The more structural responses got, the fewer people responded to them as very important: 83% responded that working against discrimination in jobs or courts was very important; 58% cited integration congregations; and 38% cited integrating neighborhoods. Perhaps more importantly, most respondents placed a caveat on their answers: none of these things should be done through legislation or through forced action. Many also supported some more structural changes so long as they wouldn’t be affected, either having to move or change congregations to achieve a more integrated church or neighborhood.*
What is most striking, perhaps, is Emerson and Smith’s constant statements that individuals who were interviewed were using their cultural tools to analyze race issues. White individuals who identified as strong evangelicals were more likely to lean on interpersonal, individual responses because white evangelicalism has pushed further and further into individualism and towards a personal relationship with God. Gone are the times where a community (or even an entire continent) practiced one religion because it was the religion of the group; religion is now practiced with much more personal choice. Congregants will go to different churches because they feel more personally fulfilled at one than the other, and are more likely to go to churches with people who are similar to themselves (especially racially) because of a specific comfort level that comes from worshipping in these groups.
Cultural tools changed lenses and approaches not only between different races, but with whites who had greater contact and interaction with minority communities. These white individuals still brought their individual understanding of certain issues to the problem, but also had a broader understanding of how systems and structures affected the problems. Due to this, white evangelicals with closer ties to minority communities responded more similarly and thought more along the lines of black evangelical responses than whites with less connection to minority communities. A change in perspective came through a change in setting.
The struggle here is in understanding why there are such large differences between racial groups, and, quite honestly, whether anything has changed statistically in the nearly two decades since this research was conducted. My personal response will be far more anecdotal and of my own perceptions than Emerson and Smith’s research, but what I have seen and studied has led me to some specific conclusions.
I think a primary reason that certain individuals have differences in approach or difficulty in understanding certain issues is because of the group they identify with. Emerson and Smith speak to this: we are more likely to help someone we know than someone we don’t, and the closer we are to that person relationally, the greater our likelihood of helping that person. This would explain why blood (family) is such an important connection. The key here, I think, is in how we define and identify with our groups. It is easy not to connect with the problems of someone we’ve never met, or not to try as hard to help solve those problems. Not only do the chances of help wane, but the chances of suspicion or distrust of the “other” in the other group rise. Not only do we distrust the other, but we distrust their perceptions of what is causing problems.
Another primary reason that it is harder for structures to be seen as an issue is our relationship to the structure. I have heard more times than I can remember that it is difficult to see the issues of a structure we benefit from. The structure couldn’t possibly be the problem because I can see it working. Not only do we distrust the other and their assessment of the problem because they are not in our group, but our experience doesn’t support their answer. In addition, especially with regards to race, we (whites) have not only seen members of other races succeed by going through the system, but we have seen members of our own race (or possibly ourselves) hurt by the system. In terms of race, problems within the system cannot be racial because the results don’t hold completely for each individual race.
Thirdly, Emerson and Smith present four separate statements in their four page conclusion regarding reasons why white evangelicalism has difficulty understanding systemic issues. A primary theme from these four statements is complexity; not only does white evangelicalism create a toolkit that makes it difficult (or impossible) for white evangelicals to see these systemic issues, but the toolkit lends itself much more to a fast, high-energy, simplistic, unidimensional solution to a complex problem than to careful, methodical understanding of the larger issue. There is a need to operate counter to this impulse and to slow our approach down in order to understand the complexity that actually exists in structural, systemic issues.
Here’s the kicker to this conversation, at least personally: I’m a white evangelical. I have stood in a space with individualistic responses, disbelief of others’ explanations, and a blindness to issues. Am I someone who has suddenly seen some light and can say that I’m no longer blind, but everyone else is? No. Do I know some great thing that no other people could possibly grasp? No. Am I just here to throw white people, especially white evangelicals, under some proverbial bus? No. What I do have is a series of personal experiences that radically shook my understanding of what was causing issues and how to approach those issues. With a need to understand why my foundation had been shaken to such a large extent, I took time to try to understand, and found that there was more to the story than I’d ever known. I can’t pretend to know all of the answers at this point, but having lived inside of white evangelicalism, I think there are things we’ve historically misunderstood or categorically dismissed. At this point, these three posts are serving as an introduction to a deeper exploration, an exploration that will probably run longer than I can put a date or a pst number on. Instead, I’d like to continue to share my personal experiences and the stories, statistics, and data I’ve found as some way to try explaining why systems are important, and why we need to work inside of them to help affect change.
*Data from these paragraphs are summarized in Appendices A and B of Divided by Faith; anecdotes or expansions beyond the statistics come primarily from chapters 5 and 6.