Congregations and Pastors Want to Talk about Race and Racism, Religious Discrimination, and Hate-Crimes on Campus. (Just Kidding. They Don’t. But American College Students Do.)

There is an old joke about a dog food company that was failing.  The CEO called her top executives together and railed at them. “Why is our product such a loser?” she snapped.  “We have the best people, the best kitchens, and the best marketing and advertising campaign. We deliver our product to the best stores, and we have the best supply chain. Can anyone tell me why our sales are tanking?”

No one looked at the CEO. No one spoke. Finally, after an interminable silence, a timid, stuttering soul in the back of the boardroom spoke up:  “Mmm-maybe the dogs don’t like our d-d-dog food.”

I thought of this rather silly joke the other night, after a few of us in the New York Conference gathered online for a Zoom “Prayer and Share” service, in response to a series of racial and anti-Semitic hate-crime incidents that took place recently at Syracuse University. It was a small gathering (although, honestly, we did not expect it to be small).  Besides myself, only five Conference staff members, and the pastor who led the service clicked on.

The low attendance was a shame, we all thought, because our community and churches needed this service.  At least five racial and anti-Semitic hate-crime incidents had been reported on American colleges and universities, just in November 2019.  At nearby Syracuse University, the discovery of swastika graffiti, and reports of students yelling “racial epithets”—along with “the university leadership’s slow response to these incidents—[had] sparked protests on campus.  At the University of Georgia, someone drew swastikas on placards and message boards [in] two residence halls.  At Iowa State University, a swastika was etched into a dormitory door, and racist stickers and posters were found on light poles and bus stop signs. At the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, racist social media posts from a private Snapchat discussion became public.  The posts included an image of a burning cross at a Ku Klux Klan rally, and hateful comments about a black male empowerment group.”  And “at Auburn University, a noose was found hanging in a campus residence hall” (Faith Karimi, “There Have Been at Least 5 Hate Incidents Reported on College Campuses This Week,” CNN.com, November 23, 2019).

Those of us who attended the “Prayer and Share” service wondered why so few people clicked on. Perhaps people were distracted by holiday grocery-shopping, cooking, and decorating:  after all, it was only four days before Thanksgiving. Or maybe, people didn’t click on because they didn’t know about the Zoom service. There hadn’t been a lot of advertising for it. The whole thing kind of reminded me of the title of a 1970 antiwar comedy:  “Suppose They Gave a War and Nobody Came?

I can make a lot of other excuses, but I also suspect that at some level, the service was not well-attended because—like the joke about the failing dog food company—white church people, and particularly the white “Baby-Boomer” and “Silent-Generation” Christians who populate our United Church of Christ (UCC) congregations, don’t like to talk about racism and religious bigotry.

It’s a terrible thing for me to say, I know, but I believe that many of us white Americans are in denial about our own racism, anti-Semitism, and Islamophobia—which is why we look the other way and have nothing to say when hate-crime incidents occur on American college and university campuses. This is an awful kind of heart disease, and as long as we continue to deny our condition, we’re not going to get better.

Which is why I believe that my “Politics and Multiculturalism” students at SUNY-Cortland did something fairly remarkable at the end of last semester. They participated in a simple role-play exercise designed to test their learnings, and help them apply what they had learned to present-day and future American political culture.

In this exercise, I told my students that they were members of one of six small (5-to-7 member) Blue-Ribbon Panels, assigned by Congress to study and evaluate the current and future state of American multiculturalism and diversity.  These panels were asked to examine current demographic and cultural trends related to racism and race relations, immigration, and religious intolerance in America—and to extrapolate their meaning twenty-five years into the American future.

I acknowledged to my students that it is hard enough for most of us to predict what will happen next week, let alone what will occur over the next twenty-five years, but I asked them to try to tease out what America might look like in 2045, based not on guesswork or crystal ball-gazing, but rather, on their careful study and analysis of present-day trends.

My students’ responses were honest, nuanced, and fascinating.

In general terms, my students understood that the United States is rapidly becoming a Minority-Majority country. They realized that by 2045 white Christians will make up less than 50 percent of the American population. Most of my students said they accepted, and did not feel threatened by, this reality.

My students recognized that in the past, the very definition of “America” and of “what it means to be an American” was wrapped up in “whiteness”—in the idea of a dominant white culture, and in “living” white and “thinking” white. But my students also understood that this racialized view of America and of Americanness is rapidly vanishing, if it is not entirely gone yet.

Relatedly, many of my students believe that concepts such as “whiteness,” “blackness,” and “color” will lose their meaning by 2045. When pressed, they admitted that they did not believe that racism would be eliminated altogether from America over the next 25 years: “America’s original sin,” racism is too deeply entrenched in our country to be fully eradicated. Nevertheless, they agreed with City University of New York professor and demographer Richard Alba that “whiteness,” and a “white majority,” will likely persist in the United States. Indeed, said Alba, a great many Americans will claim mixed heritage in 2045, but will think of themselves as “white” (Richard Alba, “The Likely Persistence of a White Majority:  How Census Bureau Statistics Have Misled Thinking about the American Future,” The American Prospect, vol. 27, no. 1, Winter 2016, pp. 67-71).  Many more Americans will resemble golfer Tiger Woods, former President Barack Obama, and pop singer Beyonce, in 2045, and like these celebrities, they will not identify as “Black” or “African-American;”  rather, they will live white and identify as white.

My students had mixed responses to the question of whether white people will have a better and more nuanced understanding of their white privilege—and more fundamentally, of whether the concept of white privilege will still make sense—in 2045. Analogously, most of my students do not believe that Affirmative Action programs will be needed in America, or that such programs should guide college and university admissions, or hiring and promotion policies, twenty-five years from now.

A number of my white students come from small towns and rural villages in New York state, and some are either criminal justice majors or have family members who are employed in law enforcement. Some of these students believe, wrongly in my opinion, that the Black Lives Matter movement is anti-police. They acknowledge that some police officers in America have a tendency to “shoot first and ask questions later,” and they consider the spate of shootings by white officers of unarmed people of color to be tragic, but they do not believe that police departments or white law enforcement officials are racist. Many of my white students also point out that there are many more incidents of “Black-on-Black” violence than of white police officers shooting unarmed Black people on America—an argument that misses the point and the utter horror of institutionalized racism.

Most of my students believe that rural, poor, white communities will continue to exist in America in 2045, but they don’t know how such regions will fare economically—particularly since many rural communities are agricultural, and farming jobs don’t pay well.  Indeed, they point out, many young people are leaving such communities and moving to the cities in search of better-paying jobs. My students believe that rural communities will continue to be culturally and politically “traditional” or “conservative,” but they will not be entirely white in the future. Increasingly, immigrants from Mexico, Guatemala, and other Latin American countries are arriving, and are finding work on America’s farms. Hopefully, my students say, these immigrants will be able to live and work openly as migrant, or guest, workers, rather working “underground” as undocumented immigrants.

My students are not particularly religious, and they accept the demographic data about the decline of the church, and the increase of religious “Nones.” At the same time, they say that they are not frightened by religious heterogeneity, or by non-Christian faith traditions. They see current expressions of anti-Semitism and Islamophobia as the last vestiges of a white Christian nationalism that has no place in twenty-first-century America.

Finally, most of my students are frustrated and embarrassed by the incivility and the deep cultural and political divisions that are evident in America today; and they see the hate-crimes occurring on American campuses as the work of “a few idiots.”  They don’t know how these rifts on campus and in American society will heal, but they believe that the American government, polity, and Constitution will survive the current polarization, more or less intact.

Chris XenakisRev. Chris Xenakis is a UCC pastor currently serving Groton Community Church (UCC) in Central New York. In addition, he is an adjunct lecturer at SUNY-Cortland, teaching courses this year on world politics, democracy, U.S. foreign policy and multiculturalism. Chris has written numerous books and articles, which can be found on his blog.

One thought on “Congregations and Pastors Want to Talk about Race and Racism, Religious Discrimination, and Hate-Crimes on Campus. (Just Kidding. They Don’t. But American College Students Do.)

  1. As I sat and watched one of my churches Christmas programs recently I was struck by how out of the fourteen kids that took part the majority were a mix of Native American and Euro. Three more were African-Euro mix. I believed the rest were all Euro but couldn’t prove it. The hospital in town is hiring more and more immigrants to fill staff positions. My wife will in February begin training a woman from overseas to replace her when we retire. Want a well paying, with full benefits job working in manufacturing or how about pharma? There are several factories in northern Minnesota in need of skilled workers. Yes there are low paying jobs in the area but there are also some very good jobs but few people will come here to fill them because people continue to spread images of rural America based on old TV shows or stereo-typical images they see while flying over or driving by on the interstate.
    More to the point I’ve found the people here willing to talk openly about issues like Islam, and racial issues because in a large part many of their own families are multi-racial. But also they realize that if their communities, schools and churches are going to survive all people have to work together for the good of all. Yes we have white power groups but we also have people speaking out against them. Much of the hate, violence and anger here is in from the outside urban sources. When only one side of the argument dominates the discussion because evil is always more aggressive and there are few voices in an area like this challenging them. In part the lack of voices countering the evil is caused by the unwillingness of people speaking for justice and peace to come to areas like this across America and speak out. While anti-Islamic groups will sponsor speakers to come here. It is tough to find others to counter their arguments. But as long as people are convinced not to invest in such areas as this because they are lost causes because, well we just know they are, so why bother or risk resources.
    I hope your students are right but I would remind you MLK is killed in 1968. I was surrounded by racial unrest on college campuses in the late 60’s and 70’s. I had to take tests with a dorm ping pong table as my desk because a campus building was burned down in an incident of believed racial violence. And at that time we were willing to talk about it as campuses but to no avail. Issues like racism will not ‘Go away” if we ignore them by 2045. But what our unwillingness to talk about them or even with them, will be small churches speaking out about justice, peace, and against racism and other similar issues across rural America. To paraphrase a common slogan “If you don’t see URBAN or coastal arrogance you’ve got it.”

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