Black in a White Man Territory: Proceed with Caution
As of 2019, in Divisions 1A and 1AA of college football, the largest population of players belonging to one racial demographic are Black (49%). Although the racial breakdown of position groups isn’t presented in the NCAA Demographics Database, anyone with general knowledge of the sport wouldn’t find it hard to assume. You will often find that, when you look at the racial makeup of a team, it is largely split between the offensive and defensive sides of the ball. And then again when you look at each position group. On offense, most of the Black players will be split between two position groups; running back or wide receiver. Then on defense, where the majority of Black players on the team are usually found, most of the White players will be split between linebacker and defensive line. This racial breakdown was certainly true of my team’s locker room in college and was consistent all four years.
Because of the racial breakdown of our team and our position groups, there was also a predictable dynamic in our team’s chemistry. Most of the time, you would find that our team’s social practices were split along the lines of race as well. With Black players socializing with other Black players and White players socializing with other White players with very few exceptions. This was due, in part, to the fact that we spent most of our time with our position group throughout the course of the season and off season. We would be grouped together for workouts and conditioning, watch film together, study our playbook together and obviously practice together. It can make sense to operate this way from a logistical standpoint. You have a natural numerical breakdown in your team because of the way position groups are dispersed so it seems like the most obvious way to split the team up. It also seems like a great way to ensure that the offensive and defensive units will have the most possible chemistry on the field. Because of these realities, it was almost inevitable for players to have closer bonds with teammates who played their position.
But impacting the social practices of our team was also the preferences of individual players. These preferences were almost always consistent along the lines of race. When we traveled for games or ate in the cafeteria after practice, our tables and meeting rooms would be mostly segregated. As would our team’s housing once players were able to get homes off campus. The most vivid example I can remember of this social segregation happened on the day of a home game my sophomore season. Always the last slot on our game day schedule was our pregame team meeting. As I walked in the meeting room, I remember naturally venturing towards the left side of the room to sit with a few teammates I was closest with and who happened to be a part of my position group as well. As the scheduled meeting time approached and everyone had found their seats our head coach walked in to address the entire team before we would head to the locker room to begin our pregame warmups. However, instead of starting, he seemed puzzled as he stood in front of us scanning the room. He then began to shake his head and laughingly asked: “Y’all are messing with me, right?” Our team cautiously began to look around at one another, knowing he was notoriously high-strung on game days and wondered if we had done something to upset him. When no one answered, he pointed out the fact that our team of close to 100’s seating was splitting the room virtually down the middle along the lines of race. Continuing to think we were playing a joke, and with no further commentary about the social segregation taking place before his eyes, he forced everyone to move from our seats in order to rid the room of its racial divide. We obliged and mustered-up a few pathetic counterfeit laughs to go along with the perceived joke. We knew what had just happened was certainly no accident.
What is evident to me as I think about that moment is the drastic difference in how that racial divide must have been perceived by my racial in-group and my head coach. He, for possibly the first time, noticed the survival tool that we had been utilizing since the day we stepped foot on that campus. For us, it was a vital component to our success in that environment. A tool that we cherished. But in his perspective, it was a joke. He failed to understand its importance because he had no use for it and benefited from it none. Who knows if my head coach, or anyone else in the team meeting, even realized that the social segregation we naturally preferred was a coping strategy on behalf of the Black players in order to survive our predominantly White campus and West Texas city. But as is true for many predominantly White spaces, once the essential tools that are cherished by the racial minority group and vital for their survival are identified by the majority racial group, they can be labeled as being of no use, laughed off and taken away without a second thought.
Consider the Cost
I was reminded of this occurrence while reading psychologist Dr. Beverly Daniel Tatum’s classic book titled “Why Are All the Black kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?” In the book she explains that racial grouping on the part of Black adolescents and adults in racially mixed environments is actually a “positive coping strategy” in response to the stress that is caused by racism. This grouping acts as a means of survival in order to find support. This positive coping strategy, the vital support that was needed for my teammates and I’s survival, is largely absent for most Black males in predominantly White churches. We saw this exemplified in Preston’s story when he had to look outside of his predominantly White church in order to find Black peers and mentors who could help him navigate his season of immense grief. In her book, Tatum tells a similar story regarding a young Black woman that felt isolated due to her inability to be fully accepted by White students or find commonality with other Black students who were bussed to her school. It wasn’t until she experienced intentional intervention from a Black teacher that she received the support she desperately needed. Having never had the same type of memorable experiences within the Black community that she heard her parents speak about, the young woman was finally able to receive the introduction she had longed for when this teacher “exposed her to the good Black community” and helped her find a same-race friend group.
I remember a similar authority figure intervention occurring on my team between years 2 and 3 when we received a new coaching staff. Along with that new staff came a confident, disciplined and caring Black defensive coordinator who immediately offered the same identity development for the Black players on our team as the young woman received from her teacher in Dr. Beverly Daniel Tatum’s book. The identity development our defensive unit received immediately changed much of the entire team’s culture. Although our team was explicitly instructed in the “team” rules to avoid “divisive topics” such as politics, there was no such rule among the defense. This allowed for us to have difficult and candid conversations about unique challenges facing the Black community without fear of being silenced. This atmosphere also gave the few White players and coaches in the defensive room the opportunity to learn from a Black authority figure and the Black experiences they were being exposed to. Perhaps for the first time in their lives. This created a culture among the defense that oozed over and positively impacted the rest of the team and staff. Even though they are often referred to in such a way, sports like football are far from the “great equalizers” or the “purest form of humanity.” They don’t transcend topics like politics, class or race. They are, however, more akin to a great distraction from these topics in order to fulfill self, group or organization-serving goals.
I long and work for the day where I can say that the church operates in a different manner and is truly the great equalizer that sports are made out to be. But unfortunately, as you probably know, the same label of divisiveness has been placed on such topics in the church, namely race. As imperfect as the church is, though, it does offer Christians the perfect, and biblically commanded, environment to engage in the work towards political, class and racial unity. However, in order to partake in this work in the church, specifically racial unity, it is important for all Christians, but especially Black Christians, to proceed with caution in light of Evangelicalism’s history that was documented in part two of this series. And as we’ve seen in parts 3-5, there are both potential and inevitable obstacles for Black Christians in predominantly White churches. Among them being discomfort, skepticism, racial apathy, White blindspots and intellectual superiority. Because of these obstacles, and because of the prominent cycle of Black males having to distance or depart from White Evangelicalism, I must implore Black Christians to first ask themselves a handful of questions before choosing to continue to attend, or attend for the first time, a predominantly White church. Before I present these questions, I must first conclude my justification for asking them.
An Amendment Not Yet Ratified
Removing the Stain of Racism is a book dedicated to the Southern Baptist Convention, but its author’s exhortations are applicable far beyond any one denomination. The preface of the book makes this case:
If the stain of racism is to be removed, the White majority must be willing to partner with and submit lovingly and humbly to the leadership of their vetted, qualified, and gifted Black and Brown brothers.
In the book’s conclusion, Dr. Curtis Woods declares the book as an announcement of “an amendment to the rules” that were created and defined to protect and serve the interests of the dominant White group. Although I believe this announcement to be true in its intentions, I strongly believe that in recent years the majority of Evangelicalism has been stuck in a recurring cycle of similar amendment announcements, regarding the rules of race, to Evangelicalism’s unwritten constitution. These amendments have been proposed by Evangelical “congressional” leaders, on both sides of the racial aisle, in sermons and books, at conferences and conventions and in social media threads and joint statements, but research is showing that they may be failing to be ratified by the majority of Evangelicalism’s legislature; individual congregations. Because of my endorsement for these amendments, I do not make this claim without first having a willingness to support it, lest it become just another hot take rooted in emotionalism and lacking valid justification. Of the many sources I could cite to make this claim, I believe two recent studies in particular illuminate the failure of the constitutional amendment ratification process regarding the rules of race in Evangelicalism.
The first is a 2018 analysis of The Changing Complexion of American Congregations by Sociologists Kevin D. Dougherty and Michael O. Emerson; previously mentioned in article 1 of this series. In it, they document the recent rise of multiracial congregations utilizing the National Congregations Study, conducted in 2012, and discuss its findings in context of other relevant congregational studies. Though the congregations study found an increase in racial diversity in all 4 protestant categories, the authors make seven statements that I believe support my claim that the Evangelical racial amendments may be failing:
- “The impact of more blacks and whites worshipping together is unclear. The rising volume of protests over racial injustice in law enforcement reveals deep rifts still separating White and Black in America.”
- “American congregations may be growing in diversity without altering the social conditions that inhibit full racial integration.”
- “While multiracial congregations have been celebrated as a remedy to racial division in America (DeYoung et al. 2003), recent studies on the effects of attending racially diverse congregations challenge this claim.”
- “Underrepresented groups, whatever their race, occupy the margins of mixed-race congregations—less attached and less engaged (Christerson and Emerson 2003; Martinez and Dougherty 2013).”
- “Copresence does not automatically result in cross-racial friendships in congregations (Wong 2014).”
- “A recurring critique is that racially diverse congregations often are culturally “white” in operation (Barron 2016; Edwards 2014). For diversity to spur integration, a deeper level of interracial engagement is necessary in congregations.”
The final statement I will include is the most relevant to my concluding argument:
- “Until we can track changes in a congregation’s members over time, our theories of race relations in congregations will remain incomplete. As such, whether or not racially diverse congregations can push American society toward racial integration remains an open question.”
These statements carry with them an immense amount of weight and, for many, more questions than the data can answer. This, however, is the reason the authors make it clear in the study that the data showing an increase in diversity is but a “snapshot” and “grainy images at best.” To speak candidly, if the best and most experienced sociologists contend that the data presented on the diversification of American congregations is but a snapshot into what is actually happening regarding race relations in these churches, Black Christians must take this into consideration and proceed into predominantly White and multiracial congregations with caution.
The second study was published in 2019 by LifeWay Research and was based on 1,000 surveys of Protestant pastors. In a Christianity Today article shortly after the study was released, the author, LifeWay media specialist Aaron Earls, stated:
The research gives a clear picture of the state of Protestant churches in America today. Most have fewer than 100 people attending services each Sunday (57%), including 21 percent who average fewer than 50. Around 1 in 10 churches (11%) average 250 or more for their worship services.
This data is extremely important as we think about the experiences of Black males in predominantly White Evangelical churches. Though the amount of multiracial Evangelical Protestant congregations increased to 14.8%, we must remember “multiracial” congregations are defined as congregations where no one racial group accounts for 80% or more of the people. Therefore, if the LifeWay’s study found that only 11% of Protestant congregations have more than 250 in attendance, then we can assume that the opportunities for most Black males in Evangelicalism to find same-race church community in order to participate in racial-grouping as a positive coping strategy to the environmental stressors of racism will be extremely limited. This reality does not bode well for Black males in predominantly White churches.
Both of these studies, and numerous others like them, illuminate that, for the majority of Evangelical churches, the amendment announcements to Evangelicalism’s unwritten constitutional rules of race may not even be reaching the congregations they were intended to. As Removing the Stain of Racism’s author Jarvis Williams states:
…it’s difficult for mono-ethnic churches to make the necessary multi-ethnic negotiations for a multi-ethnic gospel to produce a multi-ethnic church.
Marks of a Healthy Church for Black Males
In response to this data Black Christians, males in particular, must proceed with caution in attending a predominantly White church. I am not advocating for there to be a complete exodus of Black males from predominantly White churches. For that would certainly leave many, as I experienced in college, with no options to attend a healthy church home apart from their predominantly White church. Nor am I advocating that there is no such thing as a healthy predominantly White church for Black males. However, we must take into account the recurring cycle of Black men disassociating from Evangelicalism in article 1, the obstacles many of us have faced presented in articles 3-5 and the data on race relations in multiracial churches that researchers admit is incomplete. Yes, the pursuit of membership in a healthy church should always be our primary concern. The essential marks of a healthy church must continue to be valued. I, however, am advocating that for Black males there are other marks of a healthy church to be valued that are unique to us as Black Christians. These marks, presented as questions for us to consider, include:
- Can the church community value any racial, theological or political differences you might have without tending to disunity?
- Is it evident that the church leaders (elders in particular) have a deep, rich and affirming understanding of what racial unity looks like both ecclesiologically and socially?
- Can you thrive in both spiritual and cultural maturity in the areas you desire?
- Will you have a same-race community to participate in racial-grouping with in order to positively cope with the stressors of racism inside and outside of the church?
- Is the church community reckoning with the historic and contemporary role of racism and race relations in the United States and the church?
It may take time to wrestle and pray through these questions in order to discern whether or not your church community is a place for you to have a healthy experience as a Black man. And that’s ok. For some, these questions may be of little importance. But, it is my hope that through this series, regardless of your comfort level in a predominantly White church, you have been able to understand the obstacles that so many Black males are facing and agree that these questions, although just a starting point, are important and worth considering. As we wait for more data to emerge in the coming years that can better inform us regarding the deeper nuances of race relations in predominantly White and multiracial churches, may we not neglect to continue working with members of other races in efforts towards racial unity. We must continue to do so. But as we do this work, we must do so mindfully. Mindful of the history and the current trends of race relations in the church. Mindful of the unanswered questions and unknown health of Black Christians in the churches studied. And if necessary, until predominantly White Evangelical and multiracial churches display an actionable and statistical readiness to ratify the amendments Dr. Curtis Woods spoke of and become a place for Black Christians to thrive both spiritually and culturally, it may be best for Black Christians to pursue membership elsewhere. Proceeding with such caution is not a sign of selfishness or unfaithfulness. Instead, it is a sign of wisdom; a desire to rightly apply the righteousness of God in our complex context. It is acknowledging that, as Pastor Anyabwile said a little over a year ago, “we won’t be able to microwave a wider, deeper reconciliation. It’ll take slow cooking, careful use of ingredients, and a lot of love.”
Let us continue to maintain the heat for this slow cooking reconciliation until we have the proper ingredients to make it right!
Jarvis Williams & Kevin Jones. Removing the Stain of Racism from the Southern Baptist Convention. B&H Publishing. 2017. https://www.bhpublishinggroup.com/products/removing-the-stain-of-racism-from-the-southern-baptist-convention-2/.
Jarvis Williams. Why American Evangelicalism Might Defeat Racism Part 6. The Witness: A Blck Christian Collective. April 13, 2017. https://thewitnessbcc.com/american-evangelicalism-might-defeat-racism-part-6/.