Black and White Issues

Compromise or cooperation? How black-led and white-led churches must unite.

On March 3, 1991, an amateur cameraman recorded one of the most significant segments of film recorded in the 1990s—the beating of Rodney King by four Los Angeles policemen. Despite its minimalist starkness, differing interest groups read much into the video's images. A year after the incident (April 29, 1992), a California state court acquitted the four officers of wrongdoing.

The verdict led to a major race riot that sent shock waves around Los Angeles and the world. Seven hundred million dollars of property damage, 13,212 arrests, 2,383 human injuries and 54 deaths lay in the wake of this initial lower court verdict.

With the current complications of growing black poverty, the tragic mishandling of Hurricane Katrina victims and a litany of other mounting black woes, it is easy to imagine future riots if substantive problems are not addressed.

As we are poised for change and transition in the United States, it would be great if we the church could conduct a national "intervention." We could confront all the parties involved and advance the nation instead of simply preventing loss. We could create $700 million of assets, transfer 13,000-plus ethnic prisoners back into the community as healthy contributors to society, save thousands from contracting AIDS, cancer, heart disease or diabetes and see thousands born again in the process.

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Am I presenting a pipe dream or a calling? You decide.

In the last 25 years, I have begun to recognize that black and white churches need one another desperately. Each has its own take on morality and social involvement. In fact, without a dynamic tension, neither the black nor the white church has historically maintained its moral equilibrium.

In recent years there has been a movement to espouse the virtues of racial reconciliation within the church. However, the church's goal should not be racial harmony for racial harmony's sake. It's time for the church (both black and white) to develop a unified political agenda. We need a shortlist of voting priorities that can be considered valid by both blacks and whites.

In general terms, black Christians have voted for social justice issues, while white Christians have supported personal righteousness issues. Black and white churches alike have become comfortable with a color-by-the-numbers approach to our culture. With our background settled, let's get specific and explore a few issues evangelicals—both black and white—should embrace. Together.

Affirmative action

African-Americans are often wedded to the idea that affirmative action legislation is one of the crowning achievements of the civil rights movement era. Whites, on the other hand, tend to think that America has changed so much that any kind of affirmative action is unwise and unnecessary. Let's review just a few stats from the U.S. Census Bureau and the U.S. Department of Labor concerning the black experience in America. We will use 1978 as a benchmark because affirmative action became legally codified in the late 1970s.

In 1978, a black child could expect to live five years shorter than a white child. Today, a black child's life expectancy is six years shorter.

In 1978, black family poverty was four times that of whites. Today, that ratio remains unchanged.

In 1978, the black adult unemployment rate was twice that of whites. Today, that disparity still exists. In a 2006 economy that boasts just 5 percent unemployment, black unemployment is more than 10 percent.

In 1978, the median income of a black family was 60 percent of the median white family income. Today, the median black family income has risen to 66 percent of white income after 28 years.

Analyzing these numbers, two facts stand out. First, blacks are still at a significant disadvantage in our society. Second, our approach to "leveling the playing field" is not working well. If black poverty is the ultimate measure of racial parity in America, history tells us that the heavy lifting was accomplished prior to affirmative action.

From 1940 to 1947, 87 percent of black families had incomes below the poverty line. By 1960, 47 percent of black families lived below the poverty line. Between 1960 and 1970, the poverty level of blacks declined to just 30 percent. Sadly, after affirmative action was formally instituted, the '70s yielded only one more percentage point of poverty reduction among black families.

As Christians, we should ask ourselves the questions: "How can we carry out Jesus' command in Matthew 25 to help the poor? Is the broader Christian community hardening its heart to the poor? How should we interpret the apostle John's words: 'If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him' " (1 John 3:17-18, NIV)?

Regardless of our opinion of affirmative action, there are policies the church should advocate in order to change the social justice dynamic of our nation. Blacks and whites should find a point of agreement for the sake of the nation and the advancement of the kingdom.

Criminal justice

African-Americans know the U.S. justice system is not blind. Race is a defining variable that often determines the level of justice one receives in this nation. Let's review some stats from the Federal Bureau of Prisons:

910,000 African-Americans are in prison today.

Blacks make up 43.9 percent of the state and federal prison population, which totals 2.1 million inmates.

One-third of black males born in 2006 can expect to go to prison in their lifetimes.

Only 13 percent of all monthly drug users are black, but 35 percent of arrests for drug possession , 55 percent of convictions and 74 percent of prisoners sentenced are black.

Criminals are not the only blacks that have concerns about their contact with the law. David A. Harris wrote a provocative article for the Minnesota Law Review titled "Why Driving While Black Matters." His research showed that although blacks and whites violate traffic codes at similar rates, 72 percent of the people stopped and searched by the police in my home state of Maryland were black.

I could go on and on about excessive use of force, violent prison terms, insufficient prison aftercare and the generational impact of prison-induced fatherlessness. Suffice it to say, there is a need for Christian-based public policy to change the way justice is administered in our nation.


The middle class has quadrupled in the last 50 years and great strides have been made in alleviating the sting of poverty among blacks. But the lack of home ownership is one of the most discouraging aspects of poverty in America. Less than 50 percent of black families (compared to 75 percent of whites) own their own homes.

The church's responsibility to address the plight of the poor is fundamental to biblical faith. From the Bible, we understand that God hears the cry of the poor. Israel's deliverance from Egypt is a powerful example of God's justice on behalf of the needy (see Ex. 2:23-24; Ps. 68:8-10). Old Testament Law structured the life of Israel so that privileges were given to the landless poor (see Deut. 23:24-28).

Jesus declared, "The poor you will have with you always" (Matt. 26:11). This was not a cynical denunciation of the abilities of the poor. Jesus was quoting Deuteronomy 15:11, "The poor shall never cease out of the land: therefore I commend thee, saying, Thou shalt open thine hand wide unto thy brother, to thy poor, and to thy needy in thy land" (KJV).

We have a hidden problem of poverty in this opulently prosperous nation. If Hurricane Katrina showed us nothing else, it showed us that poverty and prejudice are twin sisters of torment for the black community.


The church has been strangely silent concerning the need for affordable health care. Many prisoners and homeless people of all races are individuals with undiagnosed and untreated emotional problems. The black community is especially challenged in the health arena. Peruse the following facts from the National Cancer Institute:

Black people are 10 percent more likely to suffer from cancer and 30 percent more likely to die from cancer than whites.

Nearly one-third (32 percent) of African-Americans do not have a regular doctor.

Only 20 percent of white Americans do not have a regular doctor.

Close to 1.8 million African-American children in the United States do not have health insurance.

African-Americans are 13 percent of the nation's population and account for 56 percent annually of new HIV infections.

Black women are diagnosed with AIDS at a rate 25 times that of white women.

A socially active church could make easy work of lasting healthcare reform, thus demonstrating our nation's compassion for the elderly and the sick.

In this article, I have sought to give a "short" list of problems that we can solve. It is imperative that the black-led church unite with the white church in America to protect marriage by seeking a federal constitutional amendment. In addition, the black church must join their white counterparts in speaking out against abortion.

The white-led church is truly a sleeping giant. Its numbers are massive, but its political muscles are not trained in the arena of social justice. If white evangelical leaders commit themselves to broaden their moral values agenda, they will find devout black Christians standing with them all over the country. The clearest cut issues with which to collaborate with the black church are: developing a federal marriage amendment, criminal justice reform, healthcare reform, education reform and home- ownership initiatives.

It's time for the church to arise, let its voice be heard and its influence felt.

Harry R. Jackson Jr. is senior pastor of Hope Christian Church (thehope headquartered in Bowie, Maryland, and a bishop of the Fellowship of International Churches. He is the author (with George Barna) of High-Impact African-American Churches.

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