Study: when it comes to detecting racial inequality, white Christians have a blind spot

How do Americans perceive the discrimination faced by its own minority groups? It depends on whom you ask.

The idea that certain groups misjudge the amount of discrimination that other groups struggle with is probably not such a shock. But more surprising may well be what’s one of the clearest indicators of perspective on bias in America: faith.

One of the most notable markers of difference in how people perceive prejudice in America turns out to be faith identity. The American Values Atlas by the nonpartisan Public Religion Research Institute reveals marked discrepancies in how members of different faith traditions perceive prejudice against African Americans, immigrants, and members of the LGBTQ community. The biggest divide? As Dr. Robert Jones, PRRI’s CEO and author of The End of White Christian America, told Vox, it’s between “white Christian groups — and everybody else."

The AVA is based on 40,000 telephone interviews conducted across all 50 states. On average, the study found that 63 percent of Americans acknowledged “a lot” of discrimination against immigrants, 57 percent against black people, and 58 percent against gay and lesbian people. Overall, about two-thirds of Americans see discrimination against at least one minority group as an issue, with 42 percent identifying discrimination as an issue among all three groups.

But among white Christians, those figures dropped significantly: Only 36 percent of white evangelicals, 50 percent of white mainline Protestants, and 47 percent of white Catholics reported perceiving discrimination against black people (the survey did not ask about other races). For contrast, 86 percent of black Protestants reported perceiving “a lot” of discrimination against black people in America, as did 67 percent of the religiously unaffiliated. Even higher proportions of Buddhists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Unitarians reported discrimination.

Similar trends characterized attitudes toward discrimination against immigrants and LGBTQ individuals. It’s striking, said Jones, “how race and religion influence what people see — and what they don’t see — in the country.”

In other words, people from certain majority ethnic and religious groups aren’t just insulated from bias themselves. They’re less likely to even acknowledge it when it happens to other people.

“Oh, no, we’re the ones being persecuted”

Jones noted that among white Christians, there’s "a difference in degree, though not a difference in kind” between the responses of mainline Protestants, who have traditionally been more progressive, and white evangelicals. To explain these differences, Jones pointed to historic divisions between these camps in both geography (mainline Protestants tend to be clustered in the Northeast; evangelicals in the South) and positions over race issues (many mainline Protestant churches were deeply involved in both the abolitionist and civil rights movements, while many Southern evangelical churches had roots in pro-slavery and segregationist causes).

Yet he argued that mainline Protestant denominations have in many ways gotten more conservative in recent decades, largely as a result of an aging demographic and mainline churches’ failure to retain younger, traditionally more left-leaning members. They’re “not quite as liberal as you would expect them to be,” he said

The Catholic Church is becoming less white (one in 10 Americans, most of them white, identify as a lapsed Catholic) and more Latino in the US. But major demographic shifts, Jones emphasized, are happening in white evangelical churches too. “There’s a second wave of white Christian decline that’s really hit the evangelical world more heavily than it has the mainline Protestant world,” he said, pointing to the 10-straight-year decline in baptisms among the Southern Baptist Convention, the largest Protestant group in America. “[They] assumed that they were going to be immune from this kind of decline. I think it’s caused a great deal of anxiety … this real sense of losing a hold on power and influence and being a demographic majority in the country, and I think that’s very unsettling.”

Such anxiety, Jones suggests, could help explain why white evangelicals perceive discrimination in America to be far less prevalent than do other religious groups. Cultural tidal shifts like the Supreme Court’s rulings in favor of marriage equality have sent “shock waves” through white evangelical communities, according to Jones, making many white evangelicals feel that they’re losing their prominence in American culture. That anxiety, he says, has been “largely underestimated,” especially by the left.

Many white evangelicals who do not perceive discrimination against minority groups in fact perceive discrimination against themselves, Jones said, referring to a question in a previous PRRI study about whether discrimination against white people was as serious a cultural problem as that against black people. White evangelicals overwhelmingly said it was. “[White evangelicals are] more likely to see discrimination against themselves than against minority groups, and that is, I think, a reflection of that sense that they really have lost their power, their influence, they’ve lost the cultural center and the demographic dominance they once had — that, oh, no, we’re the ones being persecuted,” he said.

But some of that loss of influence, Jones said, comes from within: Typically, the younger members of the white evangelical community are moving their churches to the left on some issues. The survey found that 59 percent of white evangelicals ages 18 to 30 perceived discrimination against LGBTQ individuals (versus 43 percent of seniors in that category), while a small majority — 51 percent — of young white Protestant evangelicals also favor marriage equality.

Jones suggested — when it comes to LGBTQ issues, at least — that young church members are a driving force in changing perception. For example, this year, not a single religious group profiled had a majority reporting support of religiously based discrimination by businesses against LGBTQ individuals, something Jones attributes primarily to religious groups’ younger members.

When it comes to LGBTQ issues, he said, “I don’t think we’ll see anything going forward except plateaus and upticks.”

LGBTQ advocacy groups are already hailing the study as a welcome indicator of changing attitudes toward gay rights in America. “The PRRI study proves what Americans already know: using religion as a weapon to harm the LGBTQ community is wrong and completely out-of-touch with American values,” said Sarah Kate Ellis, president of GLAAD, in a prepared statement.

But when it comes to the interplay of age, race, and anxieties about roles in a constantly changing cultural conversation, the story of religion — and changing attitudes toward discrimination — in America is a far less straightforward one.

For race, Jones said he’s less confident that attitudes will continue to get more progressive, since PRRI’s reports over the past few years have shown a less straightforward progression. Although faith communities of a variety of traditions are working to take a stand against racism — just last week, the Southern Baptist Convention voted overwhelmingly to condemn the alt-right, and racism more generally — Jones sees increasing partisan polarization along questions of racial injustice. "Most views around race are hardening, particularly as Trump has taken over the face of the party and highlighted these fears and anxieties."