Black Christian leaders on impact of 2020 racial protests, riots on America’s future

A demonstrator holds up a Black Lives Matter sign while participating in the Get Your Knee Off Our Necks Commitment March in Washington D.C. on Aug. 28. 2020.
A demonstrator holds up a Black Lives Matter sign while participating in the Get Your Knee Off Our Necks Commitment March in Washington D.C. on Aug. 28. 2020. | The Christian Post

Americans are divided on whether racial tensions will improve in the United States as 2020 has been a year of protests and social unrest following high-profile officer-involved deaths of African Americans. Church leaders are also unsure of the impact the protests will have. 

A recent Pew Research Center study suggests that Americans are almost equally divided on whether the increased nationwide focus and attention on racial inequality will lead to positive changes for African Americans or lead to major changes in laws to address inequality. 

The data report released in early October is based on surveys conducted from Sept. 8 to Sept. 13 with over 10,093 respondents. It found that about half (51%) think there will not be major policy changes that will address racial inequality. 

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Church leaders also differ in opinion on the impact of recent media focus, protests, activism and riots. Some are hoping the last few months will catalyze improvement. However, others are unsure.

Bill Owens, founder and president of the Coalition of African American Pastors, told The Christian Post that racism still exists today. 

He cited a Yale School of Medicine study that suggests that as early as preschool, teachers of all races can display prejudices against African-American children. The effects of this can harm children long-term, he warned.

Owens also pointed to personal experience as he once took his son out of a private school, saying the teacher treated him unfairly because of his race. 

“There’s a lot of racism. Sometimes people call it racism when it’s really not,” he explained. “But racism is real. It’s very subtle now. It’s not like it was when I was growing up. Now they smile and it’s still racism.”

In college, Owens marched for civil rights alongside Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. However, he feels that modern protests are different as 2020 has also been marred by several violent riots. 

“The jury’s out. Since I marched with Dr. King, my whole mindset on it has changed,” the pastor said. “When we marched, we were instructed what to do. You had to go to class. You were set on a stool and people would curse, hit and slap you. If you couldn’t take it without fighting back, you couldn’t go march. What we see now is the opposite of that.”

Some protesters today believe in hurting people and destroying property, Owens claimed.

“Black people would have been destroyed if they did what they are doing now,” he continued. “Dr. King would turn over in his grave if he saw what young people are doing now. He put his life on the line. Most civil rights leaders didn’t expect to live.”

The Rev. Anthony Evans, president of National Black Church Initiative, a coalition of 34,000 African American and Latino churches that seek to “eradicate racial disparities in healthcare, technology, education, housing and the environment," told CP that he has a different understanding of the recent protests. 

He said hoping a few months of protests will change the African-American experience is “silly.”

“African Americans have been under this racial violence cloud for the last 400 years,” he said. “We are dealing with a [generation] of young whites who are far more progressive than their mothers and fathers. But who’s in a position to change things is their mothers and fathers, who refuse to change things.”

Evans maintained that America isn’t over racism because powerful white people have constructed society to their own benefit.  

To undo racial inequalities, Americans must change peoples’ perceptions of African Americans, the rules of the economy and the law, Evans stressed. Young white people must fix the problem, he said, because they will have the power. He contended that whether young white people will fix the issues once they are in their parents’ position is anyone’s guess.

“The racial composition of the workplace is a good place to start,” he said. “If you have a project, put a black woman in charge. If you look at any project committee, it’s always headed by a white woman. Because she’s a minority? That’s the biggest joke in the book.” 

White people don’t care about the problem of racism, he asserted. Until they face pressure and violence so disruptive that they can’t ignore it, they will look the other way.

“Violence and looting in any context is wrong, but when violence and looting comes out of a deep sense of frustration and racial inequity, those who commit these crimes are suffering from racial PTSD,” he said. “When they loot and riot, we don’t lose hundreds of lives. They had to burn some stuff to get some attention.”

Evans said he works with NBCI to build bridges between the African American and white American churches. But if Trump gets a second term, it will change American race relations forever, he believes.

“A Trump win will tell African Americans that white Americans will never reconcile their racial differences with them because this president believes the way to lead is to divide,” Evans argued. “Race relations in the future will be nearly impossible.”

Although Trump boasts of his administration's achievements aimed at helping black communities, such as restoring funding for historically black colleges and universities and creating opportunity zones to foster inner-city business development, Evans believes that Trump stokes racial division. 

“Race will trump all of those variables,” Evans said. “We have been used as a scapegoat before by white politicians.”

National Association of Evangelicals Vice President for Government Relations Galen Carey, who is white, told CP that the last several months have exposed racial injustices that society needs to fix.

NAE has worked to “pursue racial justice” with its For the Health of the Nation initiative.

“I think the events of the last several months have definitely shown a spotlight on racial injustices that still exist in our society,” Carey said. “That spotlight is welcome and needed. It’s a step in the right direction, but we have a long way to go.” 

Carey stressed that violence won’t make that process any faster.

“Violence is not the way of Jesus,” Carey assured. “Violence or hatred is not a strategy for social progress. It’s clearly been shown that when African Americans have stood up in nonviolent ways, they affected the conscience of the nation profoundly.”

The Pew report suggests many Americans think the best solutions to racial inequalities are diversity training, redrawing school boundaries and limiting police to handling serious and violent crimes. Owens said he doesn’t know if these solutions will work. But he said he knows one solution that does end racism.

“Keep trying. Keep trying with the people you know. Do it with your friends, people on the job. Be honest and put nobody down in the process,” Owens said. “If a person has a belief for a lifetime you can’t change them by hurting them. But you can change them by honest dialogue. Think about where we were 50 years ago and where we are now.”

As a missionary kid in the Philippines, Carey said he learned what it’s like to be a minority. However, he said he doesn’t know what it’s like to be a “despised minority.”

“It’s very different from people [whose ancestors] were brought here as slaves,” Carey said. “In a society that is built around the presumption of white superiority, it’s totally different.”

To improve race relations, people should narrow the economic gap between African Americans and Caucasian Americans, Carey said. 

Americans should discuss how best to do so, but there are many options, Carey added. White people could give African Americans money through government reparations, investment in education or simply giving money to the descendants of slaves.

“It’s one step removed from a white person going into an African-American community and handing out money, which is problematic,” he said. “But it also has a Christian witness involved.”

Carey said he lives in a multiracial community and sees reasons for hope in the increased number of multiethnic churches. At its root, spiritual issues cause racism, he said. After people shift their heart attitudes about race, the government can restructure society to be less racist.

“If you’re living in a society that is racially unjust, it’s inevitable we’re participating in some way in that,” he said. “So there’s definitely a structural dimension to our attitudes.”

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