Moving Beyond Diversity
The U.S. Census Bureau recently released its first update on the population growth and racial make-up of Americans from its 2020 survey. Not unexpectedly, the data reveal a substantial increase in racial diversity over the course of a decade. For the first time in history, the white population in America declined in absolute numbers as well as proportion, with a little over half (58%) now identifying as white, compared to 69 percent just twenty years ago. People of Hispanic and Asian descent comprised the largest population growth, increasing by one quarter and one third of their former numbers, respectively. Additionally, the number of Americans identifying as more than one racial group doubled: from 6 million to 13.5 million (due in part to the way the survey asked about race and ethnicity).
If this is the picture of our country today, how should our companies, organizations and institutions look? Do they reflect this diverse portrait, and if not, why not? Many leaders feel a growing sense of urgency to steward an organization that reflects our population. Much more so, as Christians, we value the diversity of God’s creation and long for that picture of “every tribe and every tongue” praising our Father in heaven.
How can a Christian leader faithfully cultivate a healthy diverse culture in their organization or institution?
However, this longing can be elusive in the reality of legacies we have inherited, various forms of bias, and increasingly polarized perspectives on race, diversity and justice. How can a Christian leader faithfully cultivate a healthy diverse culture in their organization or institution? First, let’s look at the cultural status quo.
A Moment of Awakening
The year 2020 was a moment of “awakening” for many Americans, stirring them from passive concern to active response around issues of racial justice. Institutions and companies ramped up their diversity, equity and inclusion efforts; advertisers and media transformed their representation; athletes banded together to speak out. For all the action, have we made progress?
Unfortunately, the answer isn’t a resounding yes, according to extensive research conducted by our team at Barna Group over the past two years. Yes, there are signs that 2020 clarified how Americans think about racial justice, but that doesn’t mean they see the issue, or their role within it, with greater urgency.
A little background on the research, Beyond Diversity: Barna partnered with Dr. Michael Emerson, co-author of the seminal book on race and religion, Divided by Faith (Oxford University Press, 2000), and Dr. Glenn Bracey, both accomplished sociologists as well as deeply devoted Christians and astute theologians. Together with a host of researchers, we undertook the largest study of racial dynamics in U.S. Christianity to date, including focus groups with Christians, interviews of leaders, and two large-scale surveys on perceptions around diversity (one in 2019 and a follow-up in 2020).
In this case, size matters, because as researchers, we have learned that simply looking at an average does not tell the full story. Where there are divergent views among a minority of the population, these opinions become “watered down” by the majority group data and nuances are lost. For this study, it was essential to be able to listen carefully to each racial group as well as age cohort individually, and explore their experiences uniquely, to develop a fuller understanding. Not a trivial detail, this research methodology reflects an approach we believe all leaders should follow as a first step toward a healthy culture of diversity, equity and inclusion.
Our findings from the summer of 2019 showed an unexpected shift in answers to the question, “How motivated are you to address racial injustice in our society?” In 2019, one in five U.S. adults lacked motivation; in the summer of 2020, that group increased from 20 to 28 percent. Meanwhile, the number of those “somewhat motivated” shrank and those who are more motivated held steady, indicating that some of those who might have previously been on the fence about addressing racial injustice became more firmly opposed. That unmotivated segment also grew among both practicing and self-identified Christians. All of this following the most widespread public outcries against racialized violence seen in this country in decades.
Of course, the numbers look quite different when you separate responses by racial group. Most minority groups are, naturally, highly motivated to address the racial injustices that may affect them. Among self-identified Christians, Black adults in particular (46% “very motivated”), followed by Hispanic adults (23% “very motivated”), are primed to be involved—something few white Christians express (10% “very motivated”).
Young adults, more diverse and more justice-oriented than their elders, are eager. Three in 10 among both Millennial and Gen Z Christians (28% and 31%) are “very motivated.” Older generations lean toward the less motivated end of the spectrum; one in four Baby Boomer Christians (26%) is “not at all” motivated to address racial injustice.
What’s the Significance?
What’s the significance of these perspectives? The reality is you likely work with all of them. These perspectives – across the spectrum – will and do exist in Christian organizations and institutions. Some will be more convinced of the priority of diversity, equity and inclusion and ready to get involved. Others will be reluctant or even dismissive. Depending on the age and racial makeup of your organization, you may face a number of these perspectives and be challenged to navigate between them.
Being “Christian” does not signify alignment on beliefs and concerns about racial diversity.
Being “Christian” does not signify alignment on beliefs and concerns about racial diversity. Not only do Christians have differing opinions about the urgency of racial justice issues, they have divergent perspectives on how to effectively work towards racial unity.
As our co-author Dr. Emerson noted, “There has been an increasingly popular assumption that racial equality and unity are best realized through cultivating racially diverse environments. … Our research suggests diversity is of great importance to increasingly diverse younger generations, and that exposure to, and relationship with, people who are different from you can help change minds and spark empathy.
“But statistical diversity, or mere physical integration, is not a panacea. Simply being in proximity to people of different racial backgrounds does not eliminate racism, nor does it always produce the positive outcomes that may be desired in bringing racial groups together. ... Diversity on its own offers a bit of initial false hope but can actually lead to more harm than good in combatting the problem.”
While our research largely examined environments in churches, the lessons apply to any organization, and they explain Dr. Emerson’s assertion. We documented instances of Christians of color doubting their faith, their God, or their brothers and sisters in Christ because of the way they were treated or overlooked in predominately white spaces. Often, the leaders–mostly white, male, and in their 50s and 60s–lacked cognizance of their experiences, even despite concerns raised by people of color in their midst.
We observed in our interviews and our data how each person brings their own level of race-consciousness into these discussions, affecting the way they see themselves and move through the world. Persons negatively affected by racial dynamics tend to think about race more often. Conversely, those whose race gives them certain advantages or opportunities rarely naturally reflect on these issues.
To Be Changed
This is the opportunity for Christian leaders to have eyes to see, ears to hear, and a heart to respond. The most important first step for anyone desiring diversity in their organization is not just to bring change, but to be changed: to see things you might not have before, to train yourself to listen and learn from other perspectives— which research enables us to do—and to yearn for deep, lasting, Spirit-driven change in yourself and your organization.
This is hard work, and our Barna team has been wrestling with it as well. We were deeply challenged by this project—as researchers, as coworkers and as Christians. As we studied, we also lamented, and we have been changed through the process. Transformed. That process of change is ongoing; we may not fully attain our desires in our lifetimes, but like sanctification, it may be hard, but it is good!
Our calling as leaders is to move Beyond Diversity, to personal and institutional transformation. But it must start with the personal, with a willingness to be changed before pursuing organizational change.
The following questions are essential for leaders to ask themselves:
- What pain around racial issues in my own organization or community have I remained unaware or dismissive of? Asking and listening intentionally may be skills to work on here.
- What attitudes remain unchallenged in my personal life and in my organization that hinder biblical justice and unity? This will take some digging and humble self-reflection!
- How am I stewarding the trust people have placed in me to lead on issues of race? (Do I need better counsel or accountability? Who should I “invite to the table” in discussions of diversity, equity and inclusion? In fact, would someone else be better suited for my seat?)
There are countless other tips and recommendations I could offer leaders based on our research and experiences in this work, but the one that would apply to anyone at any stage of their journey towards diversity, equity and inclusion is be prepared to be changed. Fear and comfort are the greatest deterrents of change. Be prepared to seek God’s strength and courage in the face of inevitable fears. Be prepared to step far out of your comfort zone and to call others to let go of their comforts as well. Be prepared to do the hard, slow work – it will be worth it!
Brooke Hempell is Vice President for Faith, Work & Education at Barna Group. As the former head of Research for all of Barna’s studies, she led research efforts on diversity and now focuses on diversity, equity and inclusion in education and workplaces. Brooke also hosts the podcast Race and Redemption.