A highly engaged audience kept a post-lunch panel on “Race, Religion, and Media” going well past the scheduled ending time April 21 at the Associated Church Press convention in St. Louis.
The panel included Leah Gunning Francis, professor at Eden Seminary in St. Louis and author of the book Ferguson and Faith, and Lisa Sharon Harper, Chief Church Engagement Officer for Sojourners. A third panelist, Rev. Starsky Wilson, co-chair of the Ferguson Commission, was unable to attend because of illness.
Panel moderator Jerry Van Marter, former director of Presbyterian News Service, kicked off the conversation with the following introduction:
A recent survey by the Public Religion Research Institute (affiliated with ACP member Religion News Service) has revealed a chilling truth about life in American communities:
• About 80 percent of black Christians believe police-involved killings and other police-on-African-American-citizens-violence is part of a larger systemic pattern of police treatment of African Americans.
• Around 70 percent of white Christians believe the opposite – that such violence is simply isolated incidents. The numbers include 72 percent of white evangelical Protestants, 71 percent of white Catholics, and 73 percent of white mainline Protestants. This is about all white Christians.Take away the moniker of “Christian” and the numbers drop to around 65 percent. White Christians are as a whole less likely to believe the expressed experiences of black Americans than non-Christian whites.
I have been part of the Associated Church Press for almost 30 years. I DON’T believe that these devastating numbers are reflective of the people in this room. But they MUST BE reflective of our constituents, our members. My church—the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)—is more than 90 percent white. We ARE the 73 percent.
Panelists reponded to Van Marter’s introduction with insights about race gained from their own research and personal experience. Francis, a mother of two boys, lamented the news media’s frequent portrayal of young African American men as thugs and gangsters.
“I am deeply concerned about this image and narrative about young black boys,” she said. “The media plays a huge role in shaping that narrative.”
“Perceptions of reality are shaped by the media,” Harper agreed. She cited early narratives about Native Americans scalping and dismembering white settlers. Research has shown many of these to be false, she said, but they were spread and believed by people who regarded Native Americans as less human than white Americans.
Harper challenged religious communicators to use their close relationships with their audiences to change perceptions of people of other races. “Your publications are more highly trusted than TV news,” she said. “You have the power to counter the narratives coming from secular media.”
Asked whether there has been any progress toward racial reconcilation in Ferguson, Frances cited the hiring of a new police chief and the development of new intiatives from the Urban League and other groups. But she said there have been no changes in policing.
“Justice has not come in Ferguson, Missouri,” she said. “The core issues have not been addressed.”
Frances said she finds hope in her students at Eden Theological Seminary, about 60 percent of whom are white. She is glad to see that seminary often “challenges their social and cultural norms of white supremacy” and leads to transformation.
She finds that the younger students, the millennials, are not colorblind but are more aware of the implications of color. “The kind of awareness and theological integrity that they are cultivating is a source of hope.”
One ACP member asked the panelists for advice about how to tell stories that are contrary to most people’s reality—for example stories about people of different races and socio-economic backgrounds.
“What and who are your sources?” Frances asked, stressing the importance of cultivating new voices, especially those not often heard. She said she would like to see black mothers invited to discuss issues related to young black men—and not just when one of their sons has been killed. She regretted not seeing black mothers “at the table as thought leaders, with ideas and perspectives.”
“White Christians must become immersed in communities that are not like them,” Harper added. She also suggested that as a first step toward telling race-related stories, religious journalists should “become more aware of the biases they have.”