In Academia I Face More Discrimination as a Christian Than as an African-American

By George Yancey Published on May 29, 2016

One of the money lines in a New York Times editorial I was interviewed for recently was that I have faced more discrimination as a Christian than as a black in academia. The nature of the editorial did not allow me to elaborate on that statement. Now I take this opportunity to do so.

Before I do let me be clear that I wasn’t saying I have not seen racism. Rather, it is only in academia where I have experienced my faith being more costly than my race. Elsewhere I have heard car doors lock driving by me, I’ve seen women crossing the street to avoid me, and a situation that suspiciously looked like being pulled over for “driving while black.” I lost my first love because her mother could not stand the idea of her daughter being with a black man. I’ve faced many racial stereotypes and I’ve heard the “n” word more times than anyone should. I have felt the humiliation of people disregarding me simply because of my race. We live in a racialized society that still impacts people of color.

Academia has been different. I do suspect that some students have questioned my competency due to some racial stereotypes of blacks, but they are few and far between. On the other hand, academia has afforded me the opportunity to often read literature sympathetic to the plight of African-Americans, and it’s been valuable in helping me to advocate for people of color. I do not agree with all of the literature I have read, but I do feel that there is an attempt to understand my plight as an African-American.

To find that kind of sympathetic literature, or experience the same kind of support regarding my faith, on the other hand, has been a struggle to say the least. Indeed when I read academic literature about my faith it is like I am reading about some alien I cannot recognize. Its description of conservative Christians is often some bizarre caricature of the worst of my faith.

Personal experience confirms the stigma attached to being a Christian in academia. When I was an adjunct professor, I had a semester when I taught sociology of religion and sociology of race/ethnicity. Some of the professors questioned my competency for the course, since my Christianity might “bias” me. Nothing like that would ever have happened when I was teaching race/ethnicity classes; I was never questioned for bias due to my race. In my race class I had complete freedom to do whatever I wanted; in my religion class I had the impression I had better be careful.

When I was in grad school a professor made derogatory comments about Christians, calling them “Bible-Thumpers.” It wasn’t my first exposure to simplistic stereotyping and dehumanizing comments about Christians from academics, but even so I was mildly surprised to hear a professor in class make such an insensitive remark.

She didn’t know I was a Christian. Some of the students in the class did; but none of them seemed bothered by the comment. That is another strange thing about being a Christian in academia. Often when you are with other academics, they’ll make ugly anti-Christian comments, never considering the possibility they might be insulting people in the group. They just assume there are no Christians there, and that everyone present will appreciate their anti-Christian remarks just as much as they do. Needless to say this is not an issue as it concerns my race.

The problem is more systematic than my personal experiences. I have no evidence that my race helped my employment opportunities but I do not think that it hurt. My research indicates, however, that roughly half of all academics would be less willing to hire someone they find out was a conservative Protestant. There was no need to asking the same academics if they would be less willing to hire someone who was black. The question is so implausible for most academics, some of them might have been offended if I asked it.

I’ve also seen considerable difference in the way academics treat research tied to my race compared to my faith. In the first half of my career I concentrated on writing about racial issues. Sometimes my research was accepted in journals, sometimes it was rejected. I did not always agree with the reasons why it was rejected. But, those reasons generally centered on acceptable justifications for rejecting a peer review article.

But the past few years my work has concentrated on anti-Christian attitudes and bigotry. I have a harder time getting that work accepted. What’s really disturbing about that is the reasons reviewers give. I have had some reviewers question my integrity and motives in ways they would never dream of doing when I was publishing articles dealing with race and ethnicity. I’ve had to toughen my skin to take the additional abuse I receive for daring to write about anti-Christian bias.

As with my work on race/ethnicity, I do not write with any prior agenda, but try to go where the evidence takes me. I am certain that there are some race scholars — though by no means all — who have an agenda beyond gaining scientific knowledge. Such individuals are free of the recriminations I’ve experienced for writing about anti-Christian bias. Work supporting my position as a black man would never be challenged the way work supporting my position as a Christian has been.

None of this is meant to generate any special sympathy for my Christian life. I am proud, happy and satisfied to be a Christian. But if we want a nation where people in all groups are treated with respect, then this is a critical blind spot within academia. Academics need to see that merely being racially tolerant does not mean they are free of other forms of bigotry. I have often thought that real diversity training should focus on helping individuals treat any out-group member fairly, rather than protecting only certain groups — and it’s undeniable that in academia, Christians are an out-group.

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