Recently, I co-facilitated a gathering focused on systemic racial barriers to social progress, and a gentleman asked “Why don’t some black people want help from white churches?” I’m paraphrasing but this was the gist of the question. The inquiry wasn’t surprising, because if there is one attribute on which Charlotte prides itself, it’s generosity.
My short answer: It’s because white churches have to give more than money; they have to give attention. They have to pay attention to the circumstances that created the need for the assistance.
My longer answer, after some thought: Racism is embedded in all our institutions and social structures – even churches. No matter how good we are or intend to be, racism is the problem with which we all live. Sometimes it looks like the discriminatory, exclusionary ugliness we know. Sometimes it’s something more benign and harder to recognize.
Economic opportunity is the current ill capturing our attention. In addressing the issue we must acknowledge that black people experience poverty at overwhelmingly higher rates because of racialized systems that have marginalized and disenfranchised blacks for decades. If white churches want to help address poverty, for instance, they have to acknowledge the systems that got us here.
Take Social Security. When Congress created Social Security in 1935, the act’s provisions excluded agricultural workers and domestic servants, who were predominantly black, Mexican and Asian. They had the least opportunity to save, were least likely to have pensions, and were most vulnerable to economic recession, yet they were systematically excluded from the protection and benefits granted to other Americans.
Take the Fair Housing Administration. Of the $120 billion of new housing subsidized by the government between 1934 and 1962, less than 2 percent went to non-white families. Non-whites were locked out of home ownership just as most white Americans were finally getting in.
When white churches choose to ignore the systems that continue to hurt black people – systems black people cannot ignore – they are operating in their privilege. When white churches give money for programs but don’t advocate for equitable policies, it suggests a belief that the problem rests solely with the individual. If a church helps blacks because they really believe blacks can’t quite measure up, that’s a racist act, regardless of how well-intended it might be.
White churches have to recognize that it’s in their interest to do more. Yes, help support the summer reading program, but also stand up and advocate for equitable education. Otherwise, help can feel like tokenism, like a way for white churches to assuage guilt, like white churches running to the rescue, like an opportunity for white churches to proclaim, “See, we’re good. We help black people. We have black people for friends.” Receiving a check in this instance isn’t an act of solidarity; it feels like an act to silence at best, benevolent paternalism at worst.
If white churches want black people to be receptive to help, the people in those churches should develop a deep understanding of their motivations and of the experiences of the people they’re trying to assist. White churches should ask “What can I do to help?” Then, wait for and be comfortable with the response.
Sometimes helping means leveraging your social capital, breaking allegiances, interrupting narratives. It might mean accepting when black people say “No, thank you.”
White churches have to decide if they’re practicing social charity or promoting social change. When it comes to help, black people want white churches to care. We also want them to be conscious.
Tiffany Capers leads Black Lives Matter Charlotte, which is not affiliated with the national Black Lives Matter organization. Capers serves on several nonprofit boards and committees and mentors students at West Charlotte. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.