Privilege

I recently attended a one day seminar by Christena Cleveland, the newly appointed inaugural Associate Professor of the Practice of Reconciliation at Duke University’s Divinity School where she is also the faculty director of Duke’s Center for Reconciliation.  She is also the author of Disunity In Christ: Uncovering the Hidden Forces that Keep Us Apart.

One of the statements she made that stuck with me ran something like this…

Many people are willing to acknowledge that minority populations are discriminated against. However most of these same people fail to recognise that when a person is discriminated against someone else gains an “unfair” advantage, or privilege.

For example, numerous studies (HERE’s one) have been conducted which demonstrate that resumes with a white sounding name are 50% more likely to receive callbacks than applicants with black sounding names. When Kate or James get a job that launches them on to a successful career, they naturally think it’s due to their grades and previous life/work experience. They don’t realise (and probably their employer doesn’t either) that their odds of obtaining that job increased because black candidates with identical, or even better, qualifications were subconsciously discriminated against in the hiring process.

A 2008 research project in New York City summarised,

“We find that whites and Latinos are systemically favored over black job seekers. Indeed, the effect of discrimination is so large that white job seekers just released from prison do no worse than blacks without criminal records.”
Cheesy workplace diversity pic

Cheesy workplace diversity stock  pic

Yes, white job applicants do need to study hard, work hard and perform well to get their jobs. They do compete against everyone else: black, white and Latino. Because of their hard work they feel that they’ve earned their accomplishments, and they have. But because they have the “right” name they compete against less candidates than do the minority applicants. That’s privilege.

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How does this impact churches?

Church leaders have an opportunity to share studies like this with their communities. I know that many members of white churches bristle at the phrase, “white privilege”. So if black Christians (correctly) believe they’re often on the receiving end of discrimination, but white Christians won’t accept the inverse of that equation, there’s going to be conflict.
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White Christians have the opportunity to assist their minority brethren by using their social and professional networks to bring qualified candidates of color to the attention of those responsible for hiring. While it’s admirable to assist those we know, there’s an even greater opportunity to be advocates in the workplace for racial minorities during the hiring process. This awareness is not only necessary in multinational corporations with detailed diversity hiring guidelines, but in small businesses in small towns. This is not about being “anti-white”. This is about working to create true equality for all applicants regardless of whether their name is Sarah or Jamal.
Additionally, this understanding should impact our attitude toward minorities who find themselves unemployed. For some, in their reality it’s twice as difficult to find employment than it is for white Americans. Our attitude towards these people should focus upon compassion. All to often they receive criticism to accompany the despair of unemployment.
Understanding privilege should help us to love our neighbor as we better understand our neighbors world.
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Signs of Hope

Beginning with the shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri in August 2014 it seemed that almost monthly there was another tragic death or incident that revealed, or prompted, racial conflict in the United States. Most of my readers know the list, but here are some low-lights:

  • July 2014: Eric Garner (black) is choked by (white) police and dies on Staten Island for selling cigarettes on a street corner.
  • November 2014: In Cleveland, 12 year old (black) Tamir Rice is shot by (white) police for pointing a toy gun at people.
  • April 2015: Walter Scott (black) was shot in the back while running from a (white) police office after a traffic stop in North Charleston, SC.
  • April 2015: Unrest envelops Baltimore after Freddie Gray (black) died as a result of not being properly restrained while being transported in a police vehicle.
  • June 2015: 9 (black) people were shot and killed at an AME church in Charleston, SC by a young (white) male.

In the face of this barrage of shameful violence, I want to share some of my experiences and resources that I’ve encountered of the past few weeks that give me hope for the future.

hope sign 01In many ways it begins with the response of the families of those 9 people killed in the Charleston church shooting. Instead of responding with violence, the went to the courthouse and addressed the killer, Dylan Roof. In a dramatic and unexpected moment they expressed both their grief and forgiveness to Dylan.

From the outside this expression of grace seemed Christlike and exemplary to others engaged in racial conflict. But it’s not that simple. I also appreciate those family members that called upon him to repent. It’s very easy for white America to sit back and expect that past wrongs be forgiven by minority populations and then we can all just move on. There’s a Godly onus upon white government institutions, white corporations, white churches and white families to acknowledge past wrongdoings and repent of those sins. We cannot ask black America to forgive us for sins we refuse to admit.

So how do I find this hopeful?

I find hope because the conversation is starting. I find hope in the LA Times article that discusses the difficulties of forgiveness and atonement. I find hope in the airing of alternative perspectives such as those expressed in this article,We should be sick and tired of apologizing for who we are and what’s happened to us. If I hear that on the news again, I’m going to throw up.” That statement makes me uncomfortable, but it belongs in the conversation.

I find hope in this interview of civil rights leader John Perkins that was conducted at the North American Christian Convention a couple of weeks ago. In graphic detail he describes the moment he decided to pursue reconciliation rather than revenge. He also calls for repentance to accompany forgiveness.

I believe you will also find this interview with NACC keynote speaker, Sean Palmer, challenging as he reminds us that racial reconciliation is a Gospel issue, not just a nice idea.

I find hope because when I attended Lipscomb University’s Summer Celebration last week I found people wanting to talk about racial reconciliation and church integration.

  • Randy Lowry, the president of Lipscomb hosted a two-part Forum on Racial Relations in Our Country and Our Church.
  • Dr Lowry mentioned that about 18% of Lipscomb’s students are from minority populations.
  • Buddy Bell, the minister at Landmark Church in Montgomery, Alabama, used his keynote address to support the removal of the Confederate Flag from public institutions and to encourage white Christians to talk with African-Americans about what the flag means to them.
  • I had lunch with a friend who described a recent unity church service he’d attended where members of the African-American churches were given a venue to describe the discrimination they’d faced in that town. He told how (among other things) they recounted the reality of a hospital segregated by race and the story of a (black) woman forced to give birth on a mattress in the floor of a janitor’s closet while beds were available but off-limits in the white wing of the hospital. Not that the story is unique, but I find hope because this story was told within a church.
  • I find hope in the stories of different people I met who had participated, sometimes with their church groups, in a tour organized by Lipscomb of significant civil rights sites and the way that impacted their attitudes and worldview.
  • I’m encouraged that Summer Celebration had two sessions addressing the issues of racial reconciliation in churches.

These are small steps.

Much work and discussion lies ahead. Both NACC and Summer Celebration are overwhelmingly attended by white Christians. So these forums can have all the discussions they want, but changes also need to take place. Talk must lead to action. One racial unity service a year, or even two, isn’t enough. But it is a beginning.

I am convicted that the church can fulfill it’s mission as a force for reconciliation within our society, but there’s still a long road ahead.

I want to leave you with a powerful sermon that was delivered at Summer Celebration. Dr David Fleer is a homiletics professor at Lipscomb University. The sermon presented at Summer Celebration is available for purchase and download HERE. But Dr Fleer presented the same basic material at a racial unity service just a few days before. I encourage you to listen and pick it up in this video at the 30 minute mark.