Study on race, religion lifts up unpopular truth of two Americas

Most of us do not like to admit it. Many of us do not want to talk about it.

But for all the racial progress of the last 50 years, including the election of an African-American president, we still live in two Americas.

The Panel Study of American Religion and Ethnicity reveals just how far black and white Americans remain apart. The massive effort involving 2,610 face-to-face interviews is now available at the Association of Religion Data Archives. The study was led by Michael O. Emerson of Rice University and David H. Sikkink of the University of Notre Dame, with funding from the Lilly Endowment and the two universities.

If you are a white Protestant, the study found, race is not a major concern. The vast majority said they did not experience racial prejudice, that race is not important to the sense of who they are and they really do not think about race that much.

In contrast, race is something more than four in 10 black Protestant respondents said they think about every day.

This racial divide is not fading away. The vastly different perspectives on race hold true among young adults, and both blacks and whites are reluctant to talk about race.

A plurality of respondents said race relations would improve if the country stopped talking about race.

“We tend to overestimate how far we have come” on race relations, Emerson said in an interview. “We have come a long way, but we have a long way to go.”

A nation divided

American religious groups have talked a lot about overcoming racial divisions. In recent years, large, predominantly white denominations such as the Southern Baptist Convention and The United Methodist Church issued historic public apologies.

But religious efforts largely have been unsuccessful at raising awareness and changes in houses of worship, which continue to be among the most segregated institutions in the country.

The new study, conducted from April to October 2006 among a random sample of adults, measured 666 variables in an “unprecedented” multi-level panel study on religion, with a particular focus on racial diversity. Blacks were over sampled, with 528 respondents.

Racial differences were substantial:

More than a third of black respondents said they had been treated unfairly because of race in the last three years. Less than 8 percent of white respondents experienced prejudice.
More than three-quarters of blacks, including 82 percent of black Protestants, said race is very important to their sense of who they are. One in five white respondents said race was very important to their sense of self.
Less than 15 percent of non-whites said they would be uncomfortable if their daughter married someone who was white. Four in 10 non-blacks said they would be uncomfortable if their daughter married someone who was black.

Some commentators see a natural evolution toward a “post-racial America,” as younger generations with more tolerant attitudes become a larger percentage of the population. But this hope, voiced about so many generations in recent U.S. history, is not supported by the panel study.

Thirty-two percent of 18-29-year-olds said race is very important to the sense of who they are, just under the 35 percent overall who said race was very important. A third of young adults said they think about what race they are nearly every day or more, compared to 28 percent of respondents overall.

Coming together

In his March 2008 campaign speech in Philadelphia addressing issues of race and religion, Barack Obama held up the different experiences and perspectives of black and white Americans. They are part, Obama said, of “the complexities of race in this country that we’ve never really worked through — a part of our union that we have not yet made perfect.”

A national dialogue on race is necessary, he said. “If we walk away now, if we simply retreat into our respective corners, we will never be able to come together and solve challenges like health care, or education or the need to find good jobs for every American.”

America, however, “is a long way from having that type of conversation,” Emerson said.

Forty-two percent of survey respondents, including 47 percent of evangelical Protestants and 42 percent of mainline Protestants, said one of the most effective ways to improve race relations in the U.S. is to stop talking about race. A third of respondents disagreed, with a quarter neither agreeing nor disagreeing. A plurality of black Protestants, or 44 percent, disagreed, but 35 percent said dialogue was only making things worse.

What blacks and whites did not agree on is why more talk is not the answer.

In follow up questions, Emerson said, white respondents who considered dialogue part of the problem reported, “There’s nothing to talk about. We’ve made enough progress. … It will just stir things up.”

Black respondents, meanwhile, said, the time for talk is over. Their perspective was, “We need to act on it now. We need to stop talking about it, and do something,” Emerson said.

“It’s sort of like the abortion issue,” Emerson said of the opposite views on race. “They just talk right past one another.”

That is why the Panel Study on Religion and Ethnicity is so important. The findings confront our complacency, and challenge us to gain the understanding necessary to take informed steps on the long road toward racial reconciliation.

Click here to explore results of the Panel Study of American Religion and Ethnicity


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