Racial Justice at the Pace of White People’s Feelings Won’t Happen

I was going to name this post “Why Unitarian Universalism Must Change or Die,” but this is bigger than just that little corner of the liberal religious (and religious liberal) landscape.

PRRI in late June published survey data which shows that nearly one-quarter of white mainline/progressive Christians believe that businesses should be able to discriminate against African Americans if they are doing it for religious reasons. [the survey also shows results relating to discrimination against Jews,Muslims, queer people, transgender people, and atheists]

I can hear white mainline/progressives now…..”that means three-fourths of us don’t.” True. Not particularly comforting, but true.

The PRRI data brought to mind research from the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion* that shows white liberal churches are less welcoming of non-white newcomers. As the authors note in the abstract:
In response to these inquiries, representatives from mainline Protestant churches—who generally embrace liberal, egalitarian attitudes toward race relations—actually demonstrated the most discriminatory behavior. They responded most frequently to emails with white-sounding names, somewhat less frequently to black-or Hispanic-sounding names, and much less to Asian-sounding names. They also sent shorter, less welcoming responses to nonwhite names. In contrast, evangelical Protestant and Catholic churches showed little variation across treatment groups in their responses.  

Taken with the PRRI numbers, how should racial minorities look at this?

And then this month, the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology** published long-awaited research showing that white people who call themselves liberal talk down (or seemingly less educated/informed) in conversations with non-whites. From the abstract:
Most Whites, particularly sociopolitical liberals, now endorse racial equality. Archival and experimental research reveals a subtle but persistent ironic consequence: White liberals self-present less competence to minorities than to other Whites—that is, they patronize minorities stereotyped as lower status and less competent.

oh…I can hear you now, white liberals. “But Kim, I don’t talk down to non-white people.” Honestly, I don’t give a flying f*** whether you–individual white person–do or not. This research is not presenting a new phenomenon. It has been studied before.

Most mainline/progressive religious denominations are going through some racial justice crisis at the moment. Research shows that racial justice in these places is going to come (if it comes) in spite of white people’s feelings about non-white people, not because of some great change in white people’s feelings. The question becomes how do the denominations deal.


*–Wright, Bradley R. E., Michael Wallace, Annie Scola Wisnesky, Christopher M. Donnelly, Stacy Missari, and Christine Zozula. 2015. “Religion, Race, and Discrimination: A Field Experiment of How American Churches Welcome Newcomers.” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 54 (2): 185–204. doi:10.1111/jssr.12193.

**–Dupree, Cydney H., and Susan T. Fiske. 2019. “Self-Presentation in Interracial Settings: The Competence Downshift by White Liberals.” Journal of Personality & Social Psychology 117 (3): 579–604. doi:10.1037/pspi0000166.

2 thoughts on “Racial Justice at the Pace of White People’s Feelings Won’t Happen

  1. The PRRI study is considerably more complex than that. For example, 14% of non-white Protestants said businesses should be able to refuse service to African Americans. And the divide appears to be between Republicans and everyone else, except for African Americans, where the large majority of every group agrees it is not right – although it has increased tremendously for white evangelicals and mainline Protestants.

    There are no cross-tabs readily available, but evangelical Protestants are majority Republican, and mainline Protestants nearly so, more than any religion except Mormons. It seems to me the correlation between religion and intolerance in the PRRI study is probably due to politics, not religion. And I think the question to be addressed is why the large increases in intolerance since 2014?

    • I never said that the PRRI study wasn’t nuanced. I said that those results, tied in with other studies, present a picture.

      And you can believe that the intolerance is tied to politics, and some of it probably is. But the research shows that religion plays as big a role in this politics.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s