“Christian Racism”: These Wounds I Suffer in the House of My Friends

(Note: I am posting this for a colleague of color who wishes to remain anonymous.)

This week researchers at Baylor University published a study finding that people who were primed with Christian words (Jesus, Bible, faith, Christ, etc) demonstrated more covert and overt racism against African Americans than people who were not primed with Christian words. In other words, people who are thinking about American Christianity (or thinking through a Christian frame, the study speculates) feel and express more anti-Black racism than people who are not thinking about Christianity. The ABP news service, with a quotation by one of the study’s authors, sums up the point nicely:

The study [pdf here], published in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science, found that people subliminally “primed” with Christian words reported more negative attitudes about African-Americans than those primed with neutral words. “What’s interesting about this study is that it shows some component of religion does lead to some negative evaluations of people based on race,” said Wade Rowatt , associate professor of psychology and neuroscience at Baylor, who led the study.

According to Rowatt, there is something about American Christianity that leads to whites’ anti-black racism. Rather than preventing white on black racism, white Christianity actually leads to (i.e. activates, maybe even produces) racism.

The study only subliminally primed people with Christian words and measured the effect of that incredibly minuscule stimulus. That they found any effect at all is remarkable! In reality, people are not subliminally primed with singular Christian words; they are overwhelmed with Christian words and symbols. Extrapolating from the study, each Christian stimulus primes people for anti-Black sentiment. If people in short laboratory studies in which they “heard” only one Christian word exhibit increased anti-Black racism, how much greater is the effect when people have been in church!!! Given the flood of Christian symbols around us–crosses, t-shirts with verses, people praying over their food, “blessings” when we sneeze–it is no wonder people of color face white racism everywhere, all the time.

Of course, the Church is not the only central purveyor of white racism. But the study is important because it indicates two critical things: 1) in the United States, Christianity and white racism reinforce one another; and 2) churches are sites where whites do racial harm and amplify racism. White churches are not sites of racial harmony; they are places where people of color are wounded in the houses of their white friends (see Zechariah 13:6, from which I drew this post’s title).

I have many thoughts on this subject, but I will save most of them for another time. Suffice it to say here, the white Church has a lot of work to do if it hopes to succeed at the “racial reconciliation” project many churches have taken up over the last half century. Having worshiped and served in predominantly white churches, I can give innumerable first hand accounts of the covert and overt racism the researchers found. In one instance, a white evangelical with whom I was living actually said to me “if you were my slave, it would be fine.” My experiences are not unique. People of color who have taken the leap of faith to join white churches usually find those churches to be houses of racialized pain, and suffer many wounds as a result. The book, Reconciliation Blues, has many accounts documenting that fact.


  1. Hillbilly

    This study ties into a piece by Michael Emerson, Christian Smith, and David Sikkink titled “Equality in Christ, but Not in the World” that found white Christians cannot “see” the structural inequality facing black Americans. With this in mind, Emerson and colleagues found whites used “cultural tools” associated with Christianity that allow them to use individualistic and anti-structural arguments and victim blame blacks for the inequality they experience.

  2. Will

    I know for centuries we were taught that Jesus was a white male and that blackness is a sin. Still, there’s a population of blacks who worship Christianity, and who still believes that God is white.

  3. Will

    I think I answered my own question.

    I think this plays into the brainwashing of blacks that helps define whiteness and blackness. The picture of a white Jesus along with the theme that “whiteness” is pure, clean, honest, and innocent has been around for centuries, and was brutally installed into the minds and hearts of blacks for years upon years. Likewise, the theme of “blackness” is the opposite of “whiteness”, a theme that is strong and constant to this day. At the same time it creates this notion that only whites and white Jesus can save blacks that is in the minds of both whites and blacks.

  4. Kristen

    After the hundreds of research studies I’ve read, I’m surprised that I was surprised by this finding! Wow, what a study with quite serious implications. I agree with the writer here – that the researchers discovered an effect at all is amazing… and troubling. Similar to Will, I wonder about the effect among testers who are not white. Because of what we know about implicit association tests, my assumption would be that there would be the same effect among black testers, but it would be smaller than the effect among whites.

    I wonder also how much the mainstream media will discuss this, or if Christian leaders (especially white) will take the issue on.

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