Racial Discrimination among US Churches: Communicative Evidence

As a Twitter user, I am asked to provide a brief bio. In doing so, I thought about identities that were important to me. As seen in the image below, these identities include partner, dad, diversity scholar, cyclist, Episcopalian, and change advocate. 

Twitter Bio

Twitter Bio

These identities were primed this week when I read an article from Bradley Wright and colleagues.* The authors conducted an experiment where they created an email account and communicated with churches across the country. They pretended to be new to the area and seeking information. The caption below shows the information sought and format of the correspondence. 

From Bradley  et al.  (2015)

From Bradley et al. (2015)

They varied the signatures by names stereotypically associated with different races. These included Greg Murphy for Whites, Jamal Washington for African Americans, Carlos Garcia for Hispanics, and Wen-Lang Li for Asians. The authors then tracked the responses, response type, and time of responses, looking for potential differences based on race and type of church. 

The authors observed many differences based on race in the types of communications. I first provide an overview of all churches. Compared to Whites (64%), African Americans (59%), Hispanics (59%), and Asians (54%) were less likely to receive a reply email. There were no differences in the days to respond, but Whites received longer emails than did others. They were also less likely to receive terse email responses (1-2 sentence emails that did not answer the questions asked). 

In looking at sub-group differences, there were a number of racial differences among mainline Protestants, in which the Episcopal Church is included. This includes differences in mean days of response and the percent of terse emails. 

These results are pretty damning. They show that subtle forms of bias, as reflected in the communications with people believed to be from different racial groups. As responses to emails are not necessarily required, that the church staff was more likely to respond to Whites than to others shows an implicit bias. 

This is not a particularly new revelation, as critical race theorists suggest racism is embedded into all social institutions, including the Church. Furthermore, the authors note that a large percent of churches draw at least 80 percent of the congregation from a single race. 

More broadly, I suggest the results highlight two points: 

  1. While many Protestant churches formally hold a social justice mission, and racial equality and social justice is often preached from the pulpit, these principals might not be widely adopted by church staff and the members. 
  2. For an institution in decline (PEW numbers show decreases in church affiliations), that only 6 in 10 people received a response, regardless of race, is troubling. A non-responsive entity, whether a church or for-profit organization, will not thrive. 

Overall, the findings point to the need for greater racial integration, greater reflection, and bias reduction among churches and their members. In seeking to do my part, I brought these findings to our parish leadership and will continue to do my part to ensure a welcoming and inclusive space. 


* Wright, B. R. E., Wallace, M., Wisnesky, A. S., Donnelly, C. M., Missari, S. & Zozula, C. (2015), Religion, race, and discrimination: A field experiment of how American churches welcome newcomers. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 54, 185–204.