Monday, November 4, 2013

Racial Inequality, Public Opinion, Christianity

As I recuperate from my surgery I'm doing a little blogging. It's a guilt-free break from grad school! The Center for American Progress recently gathered some pretty extensive survey data about Americans' attitudes toward diversity and their support for steps to combat inequality. There is some really fascinating stuff here. For now, I'll just note this chart:

First, I like this question. It's simple, but it gets to the heart of the matter: few people quibble over the ideal of reducing inequality. The sticking point is whether you favor any substantive action to do something about it. Decades of public policy and historical and sociological research have shown that tackling inequality--especially racial inequality--will require robust action. Just as a combined government/civic/church/society/business effort built White supremacy, a similarly multi-pronged and comprehensive approach would be required to tear it down. The good news is that, in the abstract, Americans support that. It is, perhaps, a vague platitude, and as soon as we start talking tax rates we'd be into entirely different territory, but it's better than nothing.

But there are two things that stand out in this chart. First, Whites are dramatically less likely to support efforts to reduce inequality. Second, this is entirely driven by the attitudes of White conservatives. White liberals as a group are actually right in line with African Americans in their support for efforts to reduce inequality. Now, I don't actually think this support runs deep for many White liberals, especially once you get into the nitty-gritty and they see the prospect of losing some of their unfair privileges. But it does suggest that at least on a rhetorical level, White liberals as a group have embraced an ethic that says others' gain is not necessarily their loss, that indeed all are strengthened by policies benefiting the poor. There is certainly a subset of the White population that finds White supremacy so repugnant that they are genuinely willing to endure added personal hardship to see it torn down. It's hard to quantify how large that population is, but anecdotally I've certainly been privileged to see it in action. Contrary to popular perceptions, some of the most committed folks I've known on this front are White evangelical Christians.

But that is somewhat of a segue into the second thing that is so noticeable about this chart, because most White evangelicals fall into the conservative category, and less than half of them said they would support new efforts to reduce inequality. I think it is important to be precise about what this might mean. It doesn't mean conservative Whites are uniquely bad. But nor does it mean it's a mysterious statistical quirk. It's actually excellent evidence of the value conservatives Whites continue to place on their supremacy in American society. Why should a privileged group support efforts to reduce inequality when it is the beneficiary of the current inequality?

The other thing that might be mixed up in this is attitudes toward government. Many conservative Whites are much more concerned about activist public policy than they are about our society's deep-seated inequality born of racist practices. This is an explanation, not an excuse. I have no quibble with conservative perspectives on government's proper role. It should be stated with clarity, however, that Christian conservatives must not elevate their perspective on size of government (a matter of preference rather than morality) above the need to combat racism (a moral imperative rather than a preference). I feel quite certain about this. It doesn't necessarily imply any particular stance on public policy (I've known White families deliberately raising their kids amid poverty and shooting and I'm pretty sure voting Republican while they did it). But what I see much more often is Christians who actively reject the ethics of their faith, pretending that particular views about government's role are Christian principles, while fighting racial inequality is a liberal concern rather than a Christian mandate.

It's hard to thread the needle, but I do think we need to be able to insist on certain sets of priorities that are Christian or not, without distilling those priorities into a particular political agenda that becomes a litmus test of faith. It is sometimes difficult to withhold judgment, though, when we feel that people's political agendas reveal their priorities so loud and clear.

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