This year, the killings of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor and the shooting of Jacob Blake have sparked a nationwide conversation about racial justice. Some of the more prominent responses include a series of marches with historic attendance, a players’ strike in the NBA and WNBA and new policies concerning issues such as Confederate symbols on flags and reparations for Black residents. Social media has swirled with resources and hashtags, books on anti-racism have risen to top of the best-seller lists, and leaders in government, business and religious institutions have invited deep and at times public examination of their actions and influence.
One might assume that the events of 2020 have increased awareness of racial injustice in the United States and motivation to address it. But the story isn’t so straightforward, new Barna research (conducted in partnership with Dynata) suggests. Yes, there are signs the past year has clarified how Americans think about racial injustice—but that doesn’t mean they see the issue, or their role within it, with greater urgency. In the Church especially, there is a sense that people are doubling down on divides.
Christians Increasingly Acknowledge Past Racial Oppression—But Not Present Problems
As Barna previously reported, data from the summer of 2019 show 46 percent of practicing Christians say the country “definitely” has a race problem, just behind the 51 percent of all U.S. adults who feel this way. Have recent events, including several months of widely covered protests and demonstrations, changed perceptions at all?
As of the July 2020 survey, practicing Christians—self-identified Christians who say their faith is very important in their lives and have attended a worship service within the past month—are no more likely to acknowledge racial injustice (43% “definitely”) than they were the previous summer. There is actually a significant increase in the percentage of practicing Christians who say race is “not at all” a problem in the U.S. (19%, up from 11% in 2019). Among self-identified Christians alone, a similar significant increase occurs (10% in 2019, 16% in 2020).
Like in 2019, Black adults remain much more likely than their white peers to say the country has a race problem, and this sentiment is even stronger among self-identified Christians (81% vs. 76% of all Black U.S. adults). To best look at the intersection of faith and race / ethnicity, this release will report most on self-identified Christians among a nationally representative sample. Barna is unable to report on Asian Christians due to low sample size.
There is, however, a boost in Christians’ willingness to strongly agree that, historically, the U.S. has oppressed minorities—from 19 percent in the 2019 survey to 26 percent in the summer of 2020 (for both self-identified and practicing Christians, respectively). As this increased acknowledgment of past injustice does not correspond with increased acknowledgment of present injustice, it might indicate that either more people are beginning to gain education and understanding of U.S. racial history, or that more people are beginning to regard racial oppression as an issue we’ve moved beyond.
Motivation to Address Racial Injustice Has Declined in the Past Year
When Barna asks “How motivated are you to address racial injustice in our society?”, we see numbers moving out from the middle—toward being less motivated. In 2019, one in five U.S. adults was “unmotivated” (11%) or “not at all motivated” (9%); just a year later, in the summer of 2020, that percentage has increased to 28 percent (12% unmotivated, 16% not at all motivated). Meanwhile, the number of those who are “somewhat motivated” has shrunk and the number of those who are motivated has held fairly steady over the past year, indicating some of those who might have previously been on the fence about addressing racial injustice have become more firmly opposed to engaging.
The unmotivated segment has seen growth among both practicing and self-identified Christians. Among self-identified Christians, the unmotivated group has shifted from 19 percent in 2019 (10% unmotivated, 9% not at all motivated) to 30 percent (12% unmotivated, 18% not at all motivated) in 2020. For practicing Christians, those who were unmotivated in 2019 (9% unmotivated, 8% not at all motivated) have also increased to 30 percent (12% unmotivated, 18% not at all motivated) in 2020. In one year, that’s more than a 11 percentage point increase overall in Christians who are uninspired to address racial injustice, including a doubling of those who say they are “not at all motivated” in both the practicing and self-identified groups.
Some Christians are willing to admit uncertainty on the topic; one in five is “unsure” about whether they are motivated to address racial injustice (10% in 2019, 9% in 2020).
Some minority groups are, naturally, highly motivated to address the racial injustices that may affect them. Among self-identified Christians, Black adults in particular (46% “very motivated”), followed by Hispanic adults (23% “very motivated”), are eager to be involved—something few white self-identified Christians express (10% “very motivated”).
Visit Barna Access to read the full briefing, Race Today: How the Summer of 2020 Changed Perceptions of Racial Justice—and What It Means for Christian Leaders. The full Barna briefing takes a deeper dive into how faith, age and ethnic and racial segments perceive this heavy topic. It also offers church leaders helpful insights on current racial justice demonstrations—including public perceptions of practical initiatives and messages like “Black Lives Matter” and “All Lives Matter”—as they plan next steps for educating themselves or their congregants on matters of race and faith.
- Read Barna’s perspective on race and the Church, from president David Kinnaman.
- Learn how research can help us see someone else’s point of view.
- Explore the Race & the Church channel in Barna Access for more research, interviews, tools and check-ins to help you communicate well on this subject.
- Read Where Do We Go from Here?, a Barna report that assesses the nation’s reputation of racism, past and present.
- Explore a panel on racial justice in which expert contributors from Where Do We Go from Here? outline next steps for Christians and churches who want to confront racism.
- Stay tuned for more research from Barna in late 2020 and early 2021 covering topics like the multiracial Church, views of racial injustice and the reputation of the Black Church.
A previous version of this article mentioned the “murders” of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor. To better represent the present legal status of these respective cases, that wording has been changed.
About the Research
2020 Survey Conducted in Partnership with Dynata
The research for this study surveyed 1,525 U.S. adults online between June 18 and July 6 2020 via a national consumer panel. The survey over-sampled African American, Asians, and Hispanics. Statistical weighting has been applied in order to maximize representation by age, gender, ethnicity, education, and region. The margin of error is plus or minus 1.8 at a 95% confidence interval.
Due to low sample size when segmenting practicing Christians by race / ethnicity in the 2020 study, Barna instead chose to report on self-identified Christians—a nationally representative sample—throughout the briefing. Barna is also unable to report on Asian self-identified Christians or U.S. Elders due to low sample size.
2019 Survey Conducted in Partnership with Racial Justice and Unity Center (Michael Emerson, Glenn Bracey, Chad Brennan)
The research for this study surveyed 2,889 U.S. adults online between July 19 and August 5, 2019 via a national consumer panel. The survey over-sampled Practicing Christians, African American, Asians, and Hispanics. Statistical weighting has been applied in order to maximize representation by age, gender, ethnicity, education, and region. The margin of error is plus or minus 1.89 at a 95% confidence interval.
Practicing Christians identify as Christian, agree strongly that faith is very important in their lives and have attended church within the past month.
Christians are self-identified Christians, including those who identify as Catholic, excluding those who identify as Mormon or Jehovah’s Witness.
Gen Z: Born between 1999 and 2015
Millennial: Born between 1984 and 1998
Gen X: Born between 1965 and 1983
Boomer: Born between 1946 and 1964
Elder: Born before 1946
Barna research is a private, non-partisan, for-profit organization under the umbrella of the Issachar Companies. Located in Ventura, California, Barna Group has been conducting and analyzing primary research to understand cultural trends related to values, beliefs, attitudes and behaviors since 1984.
© Barna Group, 2020