Separated Brethren: Black and White Christians

There’s an old movie of the “so bad it’s good” variety called The Thing With Two Heads (1972) that could be interpreted as a bizarro world allegory about American race relations. In this film,  a rich, racist white man is dying of cancer and demands to have his head transplanted onto a healthy body. The doctors oblige, but the only body available is that of a wrongfully accused black death row convict. Hilarity ensues, and we have the perfect analogy of race in America: a two heads on a single body, constantly beating itself up:

Of course, race in America is more than black and white, so maybe a better analogy might be a hydra with self-destructive tendencies. Nonetheless, the thing with two heads is a good way of thinking of race in the South, which is still largely a black and white affair.

The main reason why we in the US “can’t have nice things” (i.e., a more robust social safety network like our brethren in Western Europe) is because conservative whites, particularly in the South, refuse to support any program that could possibly benefit blacks, even if refusing such a program harms themselves in the process. The book, When Affirmative Action was White: An Untold Story of Racial Inequality in Twentieth Century America by Ira Katznelson, details this history very well. For example, the only reason the New Deal legislation was able to pass was by assuring white congressmen from the South that the two occupational categories that were heavily black — domestic work and agricultural labor — would not be covered by the new labor protections. The Aid to Dependent Children program that began in 1935 was very popular with whites for most of its existence, because it was limited to single white women who weren’t in the workforce. Black women could not participate in the program, ostensibly because many of them were already in the workforce, but really because they were black. The Great Society remedied this situation by opening up Aid to Dependent Children to all single mothers, regardless of race, and that’s when many whites turned against the program. Given this ignoble history, I suspect that many whites would be in favor of a single payer healthcare system if blacks were excluded from it.

Now the interesting thing is that there’s really not much of a difference between blacks and whites in the South, especially when it comes to religion. Most whites are Christian, and so are most blacks, with Baptists being particularly prevalent. Blacks and whites both have forms gospel music, with the latter being known as “country gospel,” “Southern gospel,” or “bluegrass gospel:

The differences between Southern blacks and whites are quite minuscule when compared with a country like Israel, where there are not only huge gulfs between Arabs and Jews, but between secular and religious, Ashkenzai Jews and Jews from non-European cultures, Muslim and Christian Palestinians, settled and Bedouin Arabs, etc. However, black and white Christians live in completely different moral universes.

I’ve written a lot on this blog about how the behavior of white Christians, specifically Catholics, has disillusioned me about the possibility of Christianity being a positive force for building bridges between different groups. I have been wondering why the appalling behavior of white Christians against blacks isn’t enough to cause more black Christians to question why being a professing Christian doesn’t lead to more ethical behavior, but then I realized that it all goes back to the idea of “the tribe at prayer.” From this perspective, the bad behavior of white Christians can be rationalized as some other tribe “doing Christianity wrong,” whereas the tribe of black Christians is “doing Christianity right,” and vice versa. This same mentality explains why “Christian nations” in Europe have continually gone to war against other “Christian nations,” with each side convinced that god smiled on their cause.

Black Christianity in particular interprets the Exodus story as an allegory of the African American experience from slavery to freedom, with blacks in the role of the Israelites, the plucky but constantly oppressed tribe beloved of god, and whites in the role of Pharaoh and the Egyptians. Black suffering becomes intelligible, because it is simply the result of a righteous people being temporarily oppressed by another, “unrighteous” tribe, who will soon get their comeuppance in one form or another. In comparison, white Christianity tends to see white Christians as the beloved of god, and black Christianity is a deformation of the faith in some form or another, whether in terms of theology or liturgy. White Christians tend to assume that Christians of other races are looking up to them, as “elder brothers” in the faith, because they did it first, and best. The manufactured controversy that occurred over Jeremiah Wright is essentially a clash over these two tribes at prayer. That, and the fact that white Christians have no idea what happens when black people gather among themselves.

Although 1 John 4:20 famously proclaims that, “Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen.” it appears that many, perhaps most, Christians hate their brothers and love god, and see nothing contradictory about it. “Actually existing Christianity” tends to define one’s “neighbor” in the literal sense of fellow members of the tribe, rather than the more universalist way described in the Good Samaritan story. This is another reason why I don’t think that more Christianity is the answer to our country’s racial problem, since it is the root of the problem in many ways. When white evangelicals say racism is a “sin problem,” they don’t even believe it, since they aren’t out there having rallies against racism like they have rallies against abortion or whatever the right-wing “two minutes of hate” is about. Until black and white Christians can move beyond seeing themselves as tribes at prayer, they will be like the thing with two heads, locked in eternal combat.