Helpful or Hurtful—How Practicing Christians View Race’s Impact on Their Lives


Articlesin Culture & Mediain Faith & Christianity•August 11, 2021

When it comes to “getting ahead” in life, do practicing Christians think of their race as something that has helped or hindered them?

This article features recent data from Beyond Diversity, a study conducted in partnership with Dr. Michael O. Emerson and the Racial Justice and Unity Center, exploring whether or not practicing Christians from various racial backgrounds think their race offers them an advantage in life, as well as how they feel when the term “white privilege” is mentioned.

Diversity Is Not the Goal

Over One-Third of White Practicing Christians Says Their Race Has Given Them an Advantage
Recent research from Beyond Diversity shows that white practicing Christians are generally hesitant to think about their own race, hesitant to say racial minorities face discrimination—and, likewise, they are hesitant to say that being white gives them a boost.

Meanwhile, Black practicing Christians are the most likely racial group to acknowledge a disadvantage due to their race. In fact, the proportion of Black practicing Christians who say being Black has hurt their ability to get ahead (39%) roughly equals that of white practicing Christians who perceive their race has helped them (36%). Though Hispanic practicing Christians are the minority group most likely to report some advantage, 28 percent still acknowledge some obstacles due to their racial identity. For the most part, Asian practicing Christians have no strong feeling on the topic; 51 percent say being Asian has neither hurt nor helped them in life.

Just over one-third of white practicing Christians (36%) says their race has given them advantages. Only 5 percent say that being white negatively impacts their ability to get ahead. The next lowest figure on this side of the scale is among Asian Christians, 21 percent of whom say that being Asian holds them back at least a little bit.

As in other points of the Beyond Diversity study, among white practicing Christians, younger generations are more likely to say being white gives them some ability to get ahead. One in four white practicing Christian Millennials (25%) says their race has helped them “a lot.” Though the white practicing Christian Gen Z segment is too small to report on here, the early pattern in their responses suggests they strongly feel the same as Millennials. Gen X and Boomers are largely neutral on whether this advantage exists.

Anger Noted as Top Emotion When "White Privilege" Is Mentioned
Though the term “white privilege” is now relatively mainstream, it provokes mixed feelings in respondents. Black and Hispanic Christians experience anger over white privilege, a feeling both this survey and focus groups suggest is tied to fear, powerlessness or frustration that unfairness exists. Meanwhile, white practicing Christians also express anger, but this relates to feeling judged or sad over this reference to their potential privilege; nearly one-third selects each of these emotions, respectively. In focus groups conducted for this study, some white adults felt confused or upset about “reverse racism” when white privilege is brought up.

Overall, most white participants are reluctant to agree they have received greater opportunity because of the color of their skin. Interestingly, this is the case even if they acknowledge the inverse, that Black, Hispanic or Asian people are treated in a negative way because of their racial identity.

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About the Research
This multi-faceted research study involved multiple phases of data collection in 2019 and 2020.

Qualitative research: Focus group interviews were conducted with 200 individuals from 20 churches and five cities. Group types covered men and women and multiple races, with the goal of examining the extensive diversity of peoples. Additional leader interviews were conducted with 67 leaders and experts and 68 church staff members from three churches.

Quantitative research: This study of 2,889 U.S. adults was conducted online between July 19 and August 5, 2019, via a national consumer panel. The survey over-sampled practicing Christians and Black, Asian and Hispanic adults. 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 1.9 points at a 95 percent confidence interval.

In 2020, Barna (in partnership with Dynata) repeated some questions in a survey of 1,525 U.S. adults conducted online between June 18 and July 6, 2020, via a national consumer panel. The survey over-sampled Black, Asian and Hispanic adults. 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 points at a 95 percent 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. 

Photo by Nsey Benajah on Unsplash.

About Barna
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, 2021

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