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How Churches Can Resist Oppression through Radical Integration
Subtitle: A Listener Responds to our Shake the Dust Episode with CNN’s John Blake
Editor’s note: This is a guest post sent in by a listener who is currently working on her PhD in social psychology.
In the season three premiere of Shake the Dust, CNN journalist and author John Blake argued that Americans need to renew our interest in the idea of integration if we want to make meaningful change on matters of racial justice. He cites psychologist Gordon Allport’s groundbreaking 1954 book, The Nature of Prejudice. I want to expand on what Blake said to give listeners a better sense of how they can use insights from social-psychological research to try and create church spaces that reject racial and other forms of domination in favor of healing and justice.
Allport’s intergroup contact hypothesis states that a positive interaction between members of two different groups reduces prejudice when the participants work toward a common goal in situations where they have equal status, with the support of institutional powers that be. Subsequent research has validated, expanded, and critiqued Allport’s claims in ways that can help us broaden our imagination regarding how we can facilitate positive intergroup contact, as well as put some important caveats on that work.
Today, research suggests that we can reduce a broad range of prejudices—having to do with race, gender, sexual orientation, disability, and beyond—even when members of different groups have what is called indirect or mediated contact. For example, indirect contact can be parasocial, through the development of a one-sided connection to a public figure from a minority-status group. Mediated contact happens through seeing depictions of intergroup contact. Blake referenced a classic example of this, the movie Remember the Titans. Blake's memoir, discussed in the Shake the Dust episode, is itself another example. Research indicates that even guiding people through an imagined positive intergroup interaction can be effective at reducing prejudice. Thus, the people churches elevate as leaders, the media they put in front of their congregations, and even the stories pastors tell from the pulpit, are all opportunities to positively disciple through beneficial forms of indirect and mediated contact.
And it is particularly important to take advantage of these opportunities because intergroup contact, when it goes poorly, can result in negative, counterproductive outcomes. The research tells us that when things go poorly, when people come away from intergroup experiences with a bad taste in their mouths, people in the majority-status group do not change. In fact, they experience adverse outcomes, like an increase in their emphasis on the importance of their group identity, and higher degrees of anxiety when anticipating intergroup experiences.
The criticisms of Allport’s theory are also important for us to keep in mind. First and foremost, there is no way to show that intergroup contact, by itself, does anything to reduce structural oppression. Arguably, it prepares majority-status people to be more supportive of changes to the status quo, but it does not guarantee that change will occur. Second, the prejudice-reducing effects of intergroup contact tend to be smaller for minority-status individuals. Majority-status groups are, indeed, usually the majority of people. For instance, visibly disabled people find themselves in intergroup contact situations more frequently than their able-bodied counterparts. This may partially explain why arranging further contact with able-bodied people would have lesser effects on the views disabled folks have of non-disabled people.
Moreover, a bias against a majority group is, at times, protective. A story from Blake’s book illustrates this point. After Donald Trump was elected, a White person at Blake’s church said that the congregants needed to investigate why so many people voted for Trump to better understand their perspectives. After, a Black woman spoke to asked why. Why is it always on Black people, the oppressed, to understand their oppressors? She, and Blake, were tired and angry from too many unsuccessful attempts at conversations about race with White people who just didn’t care. To assume that any given White person was interested in or prepared to do the work was foolish. To assume that most White people were fairly ignorant about race and unprepared to have helpful conversations on the subject was both justified by experience and useful in preventing painful interactions.
On Shake the Dust, Blake said that he feels as though integration has gone out of favor. I agree, and I suspect the above criticisms of contact theory are at least part of the reason for this. It is therefore incumbent on churches, through discipleship and community building, to avoid the pitfalls. They should take a leadership role in connecting the dots between folks’ changing views of “the other,” and the need for systemic change. And churches should actively recognize and support minority-status individuals who are willing to help change people’s minds through intergroup contact, while extending empathy, understanding, and supportive fellowship to those who aren’t.
But another reason integration has gone out of fashion is that, as I’ve said, it often works. I think most people know this on some level. The critical race theory boogeyman scares certain White people the same way integration petrified their parents and grandparents. And their way to deal with the perceived threat is also the same: keep away from those people, their history and their ideas, so they don’t corrupt you or your children. Some people believe it is impossible to be LGBTQ+ and a Christian, or to have a church led by a woman. They frequently argue that associating with such people will lead to the destruction of your faith or morals. But avoiding those Christians also allows people to dismiss the explicitly feminist and LGBTQ+-affirming churches that have met and borne fruit for decades.
In the end, all this separation does is fracture further what Jesus told us to heal. I’ve seen Christians misuse the language of Galatians 3:28—“There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus”—to mean that we should move beyond our social identities to focus only on our identity in Jesus. But, as the hymn says, “in his name, all oppression shall cease.” If there are not supposed to be differences between majority and minority groups in the church, then we must actively work to end the hierarchies that reproduce and reinforce those differences. Positive, thoughtful intergroup contact is one of the tools we can use to demolish those oppressive structures, and build the kingdom of God in their place.