The Tipping Point

In the book, American Apartheid, authors Douglas Massey and Nancy Denton explore the correlation between racially segregated neighborhoods and poor communities. The authors argue that segregation, including segregation by choice, has major economic implications. As they outline this argument using data and research, a very interesting question emerges as the focal point of a survey. Subjects are asked to quantify a diverse neighborhood. Average answers? Black folks responded that a 50/50 split would qualify a neighborhood to be considered diverse. White folks responded that 96/4 (whites/blacks) would constitute a diverse neighborhood. While most respondents- black or white- declared they would like to live in a diverse neighborhood, there was a vast difference in how each defined diversity. This book was written in 1990, but I believe the difference in response has incredible implications for us today. 

Because of this discrepancy in defining what it means to be multiracial, sociologist have  determined that there can only be an 80% racial majority. At least 20% of the church must be a different race or ethnicity from the majority. The theory goes that 20% becomes a tipping point for the congregation. According to Michael Emerson (co-author of Divided By Faith and this recent article in the Annual Review of Sociology) at this point, the 20% are less likely to be perceived as token minorities. They also are more likely to begin exerting their collective influence on the church culture and policies. Additionally, when at least 20% of the congregants are racially diverse, the probability of random cross-racial contact is 99%.

Now, I cannot speak for all people of color everywhere. I can only speak for me and my experience at white churches/schools. Since this is my blog, I'm just going to say it. Having 20% people of color surrounded by 80% of white people doesn't feel very diverse. There are some additional criteria that I would have to add:

1. 20% of the influential leadership of the church is of color 

2. 20% of the teaching staff is of color

3. 20% of the worship elements represented the culture of another race or ethnicity 

4. 20% of the attendance at small groups, classes and events were people of color 

5. 20% of the study resources/materials being used in the church are authored by people of color

And this is how focusing on the numbers of your church rather than the culture of your church can become tricky.  While 20% may be the point at which you can declare your church is multiracial, the health of that multiracial balance could still be in question.  Is the minority group satisfied with being 20% are would they like to see that percentage grow? Is the majority group feeling invigorated or suspicious of the changing demographics? Are the donors and long-time members feeling the need to "take the church back"? As the minority members push for similar goals like the ones I have stated above, is the church feeling excited or burdened?

We call this 80/20 split the tipping point, and I think it really does become one for both the majority and minority groups involved. Are they tipping the same direction- hoping for more change and growth? Or has the tipping point become a source of tension?  Its vital that our churches give language to what's happening when our church demographics change and form a clear vision for the future of the congregation. 

The other interesting notation about the tipping point is this probability of random cross-cultural contact. 99% is incredibly high! I understand why that detail would be an important reason for understanding 20% as a tipping point. However, as a black woman I must ask, what is the quality of that cross-racial interaction? 

Am I being called "colored" in the hallway? 

Are multiracial families being stared at? 

Are latino families being called "illegals"? 

Are Koreans being asked if they speak English? 

It is not enough for churches to wear a multiracial ribbon if the 20% minority is not being cared for, valued, or loved. Otherwise, we may not be individual tokens within the congregation, but we remain your collective token, your badge of relevancy, your trophy of accomplishment. Depending on the size of your church or school, 20% can still feel like an awfully small number of people with whom you share a common background. And the possibility to experience micro aggressions is still pretty high when surrounded by an 80% majority. When your church reaches the 80/20 split please don't assume that the racial minority feels welcome, seen, or valued. Numbers don't offer those feelings. People do. 

One final thought. Just as important as the question regarding cross-racial contact, I would add one more: Is this a church where people of color can bring their racial wounds (whether those wounds occurred inside or outside the church)? 

I wish I could underscore how incredibly important this question is to people of color. There are all kinds of micro-aggressions being faced by people of color every day. Recently my husband was looking at magazines in our local Walgreens as he waited for Pizza Hut to complete our takeout order. As he flipped through a magazine of the natural wonders of the world, a white man walked up to him and started badgering him with questions. "Do you prefer to be called black or African American?" Followed by, "Do you like rap music? Why do all these thugs kill each other and why doesn't your leader, Jesse Jackson, have anything to say about that?" My husband never even acknowledged the man's presence, but his pestering continued, "I have a black friend. He's a lot like Carlton from the Fresh Prince, and he says…" Thoroughly embarrassed by this mans verbal vomit, my husband turned to leave, preferring to sit in the car than entertain the madness. Where does my husband go to be reminded that he is fully human? What church flings open its doors and says, 'We appreciate all that your culture means to you'? Where can he go to share this experience and have a church family bear the pain with him? Where does he find safety, healing, affirmation? This describes a great many homogenous churches where the micro aggressions we face are similar. Is there space in our multiracial churches for this level of love? 

As our churches move closer to (or even surpass) the 80/20 tipping point, I hope that our churches will keep in mind all the people represented by those numbers. May our churches become places where people of all races feel safe, loved and affirmed. That may be the true tipping point of welcoming diversity within our doors.