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Apr 19, 2012

Southern Baptists, Stats, and Race: Reflections on Some Unhelpful Remarks

Statistics can be true, but not helpful. Facts are our friends, but care is required with those facts, lest we unintentionally confuse rather than provide clarity.

For example, often two seemingly related happenings are influenced by another factor not readily apparent. These factors are called "confounding variables." A classic example involves deaths by murder and ice cream sales. Writing for Psychology in Action, Bob Spunt explains:

It is known that throughout the year, murder rates and ice cream sales are highly correlated. That is, as murder rates rise so does the sale of ice cream. There are three possible explanations:

Possibility #1: Murders cause people to purchase ice cream...

Possibility #2: Purchasing ice cream causes people to murder or get murdered...

Possibility #3: There is a third variable-- a confounding variable-- which causes the increase in BOTH ice cream sales AND murder rates. For instance, the weather... When it's hot in the Summer, people spend more time outside interacting with each other, and hence are more likely to get into the kinds of situations that lead to murder. They are also probably buying ice cream.

In this example the weather is the unnoticed connection-- the variable-- that confounds the relationship between murder rates and ice cream. Remove the weather and the correlation disappears.

All of us live with the ever-present danger of making connections based on factors we easily discern, but at the same time we miss (or do not communicate) the variable that provides the more complete picture. This is often the case when we speak of race and crime.

Recently a leader in my denomination, who has engaged in racial reconciliation efforts in the past, made several regrettable statements that have created an unnecessary controversy in the context of the Trayvon Martin tragedy. These comments included a commentary (in response to a caller on his radio program) that a black man is "statistically more likely to do you harm than a white man."

As one who gathers and analyzes statistics, and who cares deeply about issues of race, I will share two reasons I believe this comment is unhelpful to our denomination and to the racial conversation in our country. While he did offer an apology there is still reason to consider the wisdom in making this and other statements at all.

First, although this is statistically accurate, as we saw above, some will hear and see a direct relationship between two factors (race and crime). Yet, confounding variables may be part of or the true reason behind the relationship. Thus, the statistic can be true yet incomplete, and as many have shown, such crime statistics do not give the whole story when they do not include variables such as poverty, age, etc.

A second reason this comment is unhelpful is that the Southern Baptist Convention itself has not yet gained the moral authority to speak with full credibility on issues of race-- as evidenced by the recent response both outside the denomination and from African American leaders inside. The SBC rightfully apologized nearly two decades ago for our slavery-tinged beginning, and since then we have purposefully and successfully reached out to minority leaders and communities in ways that bridge racial divides.

The number of predominantly African-American SBC churches has grown, as well as the total number of African-American members. As I wrote several years ago, Southern Baptists have made great strides. For example, in 1990, the percent of SBC congregations that were classified as Anglo was 95%. In 2010, 80% of congregations were classified as Anglo. But now, even with all that progress, we remain a predominantly Caucasian denomination with most of our top denominational leadership positions held by Caucasian men eligible for AARP-- and that impacts both how and when we should speak.

It was not long ago when too many Southern Baptists were on the wrong side of the hoses in Birmingham, Alabama. Although individual Southern Baptists have done and continue to do great work in racial reconciliation, and the Convention has made intentional efforts with helpful initiatives, the Southern Baptist Convention still must earn a better reputation for racial inclusion and justice. As such, perhaps SBC denominational leaders are not the best persons to speak into racially charged situations, critiquing the actions of African Americans or African American leaders.

We remain a country not always at ease with racial issues. The scripture teaches, "A word spoken at the right time is like gold apples on a silver tray" (Prov. 25:11, HCSB). On the other hand, the wrong words can tear the scabs from healing wounds.

This summer, it is widely assumed that Dr. Fred Luter, a New Orleans pastor, will be elected as the first African-American president of the SBC. Southern Baptists I know are very pleased at the idea of Dr. Luter as president. This is an encouraging step, and, still, more steps are needed. My strong desire (and the desire of the Southern Baptists I know) is that the SBC will reflect the growing diversity of our nation and the ultimate diversity of eternity-- where men and women from "every tongue, tribe, and nation" worship around the throne of God (Revelation 5:9).

Until then, it is always good advice that we all should be "quick to hear and slow to speak" (James 1:19) and to focus on the reconciliation we all need.

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Posted:April 19, 2012 at 12:00 am


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