A few years ago, I asked some fellow Black Christians a probing question: What guides your life decisions–your faith or your race? Most people immediately said faith. But when I probed more–asking about their social and political decisions–they weren’t so sure. For many Black Christians, answering that question honestly may mean admitting that racial considerations and our nation’s history of have as much or more influence as faith principles in their lives. Pastors and leaders who are not Black may not have considered this fact or its cause. But understanding this issue will help as they minister to multiracial audiences.
It is particularly telling that, while Christian voters overall usually line up with conservative values and candidates, Black Christians have overwhelmingly favored socially liberal candidates that are often at odds with the Bible. This is proven by the fact that some 90 percent of Black Americans have voted for one party for more nearly 50 years, and they do it primarily due to perceived racial benefit and/or racial unity.
For decades there has been a constant appeal in the Black community for racial unity to overcome injustice. Though times have changed, some people’s thinking has not, mostly due to deeply emotional wounds and memories. Consequently many Blacks, regardless of social class, still view the world through race-colored glasses. The dictionary defines this “racialism,” and those who practice it, “racialists.” These words differ only slightly from racism and racist. Racialism is defined as: “an emphasis on race or racial considerations; policy or practice based on racial considerations.”
While racial influence is not unique to Black people, studies show that Black people generally think about race more often than whites. UCLA Sociology professor Darnell Hunt says, “Whites don’t think of themselves as a racial group. African Americans do.” In fact, in a national survey by Black Women’s Health Study, more than 50 percent of Black respondents said they think about race “daily.” Another survey, by Behavior Risk Factor Surveillance System, found that African Americans are 10 times more likely than whites to think about race "constantly.” So, I decided not to tackle the external reasons for racialism but the internal ones.
I know it’s easy to get entrenched in race-focused thinking. I used to think that way myself. The first time I can recall thinking about racial unity was at age 10 after seeing two words spray painted on a boarded-up building. Though my two siblings and I grew up living in military housing in a quaint Maryland suburb, my parents wanted to ensure their sheltered offspring understood the impetus of the riots following the death of Martin Luther King. They drove us to downtown Washington DC past rows of stores that had been reduced to cinders by rioters. But a few in every block that were still intact bore the spray-painted words “Soul Brother.” My dad explained the words signified that the store was black-owned, and the owners were appealing to the mostly black rioters to spare the store. That image was perhaps the moment I started believing that black people, even in the midst of chaos, grief, and oppression, could change circumstances for other Blacks simply by being unified. That belief is subtly infused into many Black people born in the United States, and that point marks the transition from innocence to racialism. Racialism brings an outlook of victimization and a feeling that restitution must continue indefinitely. It means playing the race card, even though some chronic problems have more to do with personal responsibility that with race.
But for me, all that changed when I received Jesus Christ and came face to face with the power of the living God. I experienced a radical shift in my thinking and began to really believe I am "free indeed” by the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. I was no longer confined to a narrow view defined by skin color – no matter what others attempted to ascribe to me, no matter who tried to limit me. As I learned the Bible from some great pastors, the Word became real to me and began to shape my outlook on life and racial issues. At that point I set out on a quest to promote the Gospel and to support others who did the same. Jesus said, “Whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother” (Matt. 12:49-50). He was serious about unity in the Church. We should be likewise.
One of the best ways to do this is to speak openly, fervently, and often about Christian unity. Then demonstrate it by having multi-congregation worship services several times a year, infusing styles of worship music into one service. Perform service projects with other churches, and within your own congregations, don’t be afraid to broach the subject of race. Acknowledge the nation’s (and the church’s) history of racial injustice, but place more emphasis on the power of forgiveness and God’s healing. Finally, give a forum to Black Christians who have demonstrated in their own lives a willingness and ability to overcome racialism through the power of God.
Pamela Wilson is an Atlanta-based journalist and public relations consultant. She is author of Finding Soul Brothers: Dismantling Black Christian Racialism. Please visit: http://findingsoulbrothers.com.
Article posted July 22, 2009