The resounding dissonance left by the deaths of Philando Castile, Alton Sterling, and five police officers in Dallas represent a dark moment for America. A surge in violence against police suggests that society stands on the brink of a chaotic response as a result of racial turmoil unmatched since the 1965 Watts Riots, which resurfaced in the 1992 Rodney King riots. The current crisis highlights the disconnect between black and white perspectives on race relations and exposes a growing impatience in minority communities with persistent and systemic forms of racism. The potential for positive change seems more distant now than any time in recent memory.
Yet, despite a pervasive sense of gloomy pessimism, the light of opportunity continues to flicker. Recent events offer the potential of generating a new, meaningful and action-inspiring conversation on race in America. As Martin Luther King Jr. said, “Only when it is dark enough can you see the stars.”
In this moment, American churches face the challenge and opportunity of addressing what some consider America’s “original sin.” A 2012 survey found that most evangelicals believe “one of the most effective ways to improve race relations is to stop talking about race.” More and more Christians realize that in order to do something, we cannot avoid these discussions or remain silent as society around us grapples with such an embedded issue.
Nearly all American evangelicals—94 percent in a Barna Group survey earlier this year—believe that the church has an important role to play in racial reconciliation. For many, the desire to act abounds, though direction remains unclear. The most pressing question facing Christians today in the area of race relations is “Where do we go from here?” The church has potential as a catalyst for God-honoring, positive social change in the area of race, and taking several steps can help us realize that potential.
1. Learn About the Experiences of Ethnic Minorities
Ignorance about the realities facing ethnic minorities serves as one of the most challenging barriers to productive racial dialogues. Well-meaning brothers and sisters often respond to allegations of racism by attempting to refocus the situation on black-on-black crime, fatherlessness, or the need for personal responsibility. These are serious issues to address, but focusing on such topics to reorient a conversation regarding racial reconciliation and social change clearly illuminates a misunderstanding of the problem. For example, the “absent father” persists as one of the most dominant stereotypes of black men like myself. Though growing up without a father in the home has been linked with various social risks, research suggests a more nuanced picture. Psychologists Rebekah Levine Cooley and Bethany L. Medeiros found that among fathers of children living in broken homes, black men are more likely than any other demographic to remain involved in their child’s life. More than that, African American dads were reported to “increase their efforts at providing involved and responsible parenting when their children show escalating problem behaviors.”
When it comes to systemic racism related to law enforcement—the targeting of communities of color, unlawful arrests, police brutality—most would not be solved through paternal presence as such. As a black youth, I did not receive a pass on harassment because my father was present in the home. Michelle Alexander’s powerful book The New Jim Crow offers a well-researched perspective on the deep, structural inequalities in the criminal justice system. She points out, “African Americans are not significantly more likely to use or sell prohibited drugs than whites, but they are made criminals at drastically higher rates for precisely the same conduct.” The disproportionate mass incarceration of poor African Americans in particular has effects across the entire community and, she writes, unfairly bolsters the label of black men as criminals. That is a stereotype that black men, regardless of their own criminal, educational, or economic background, are up against. Alexander’s book and Taylor Branch’s Pulitzer Prize-winning trilogy on the civil rights movement serve as excellent starting points to learn more about the contemporary realities and historical foundations of race in America.