I used to take a certain amount of pride in being the first African American on staff at Christianity Today. But I was routinely humbled when I realized that being first isn't all it's cracked up to be. When you're the only one, there's always a sense that you're in an extremely unstable position, as if one healthy gust of wind could topple youand with you, the hopes of other people with your skin color.
Sometimes, I had to remind myself to "be black," to make sure the rest of the editors weren't overlooking some important point or advancing something that might be insensitive to nonwhites. This became exhausting. On the one hand, I wanted to be a good race man and represent "my people" well. But on the other, I hated all that responsibility. I just wanted to be an excellent journalist.
Washington Post sports columnist Michael Wilbon echoed the opinion of many African Americans when, in a column about golfer Tiger Woods, he wrote, "There's a social responsibility that comes with being black in America, regardless of the profession, and that obligation increases exponentially with stature. There are rules adopted out of necessity, even desperation, by the subculture we as black folks inhabit. One of the rules is you speak up, even if it means taking some lumps."
I did my best to speak up when it seemed necessary, and at times I caught grief for it. Other times, I decided it would be best to act like Jesus before Herod and simply say nothing. It gets old, you knowthis taking-your-lumps business.
"People sometimes ignore you," says Bruce Fields, a professor of systematic theology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Illinois. "Or, if there is attention directed toward you, it is subtly communicated that you are not to be taken as seriously as a white person of similar status, experience, and credentials."
Fields was the first full-time African American professor on Trinity's staff, and in July 2005, he became the first to be tenured. Yet being one of the few blacks at the institution, he continues to harbor doubts about his presence there. "I think about being a minority here all the time," he confesses. "There is rarely a time when I am not thinking about it. I am thankful for who God has made me, and I am grateful for his call on my lifebut not all the time. I find myself being distant, untrusting, and often angry that I have internalized a certain sense that I am not good enough. I know this is wrong, and I've been working with a support network to overcome it. But it's difficult."
From a young age, many of us have been told that it isn't good enough just to be good. As a black person (and I've heard members of other ethnic groups make similar statements), you had to be better than whites in order to make it. I think this notion was probably even more true in past years, but there will always be some whites (and even blacks) whose opinion of African Americans is so low that they're just waiting for them to slip up. Oftentimes, whites don't even realize they think this way.
Over the years, I've noticed a pattern of African Americans joining evangelical organizations, often as the first black, only to leave two, three, or four years laterusually in frustration. In dozens of interviews with black evangelical leaders, I heard story after story of alienation, anger, and defeat.
When so many otherwise successful African American Christians still express disappointment over the state of race relations in the church, as my research indicates, something is not right. We need to listen and learn. As members of the body of Christ, we should be determined to hear and understand the concerns of our brothers and sisters. If one part of the body is hurting, we should respond. But first we need to understand the reasons. Why do so many successful black evangelicals feel marginalized in evangelical institutions? Worse, why are some giving up on the idea of racial unity in the church altogether?