Blacks in the U.S. feel more politically powerless now than they did two decades ago, according to Barna Group research published Jan. 18.
In 1996, 61% of respondents agreed that they felt powerless when it came to U.S. politics. By 2020, that number increased 12 points, with 73% of all Black adults saying they feel powerless.
Barna offered two levels of agreement (strongly and somewhat) in the 2020 survey, while there was only one option (agree) in 1996. Respondents who agreed in the latest poll were evenly divided, with 35% saying they “agree strongly” and 38% that they “agree somewhat.”
Black churchgoers were slightly more likely to feel powerless, with 75% expressing this sentiment (30% agreed strongly and 45% agreed somewhat).
“The increased perception of Black powerlessness explains the efforts of Black churches and parachurch organizations to promote policies and candidates, fight voter suppression and increase voter turnout,” the report said. “The significance of these activities cannot be divorced from events such as the attack on the U.S. Capitol, where rioters openly displayed racist and anti-Semitic symbols. The perseverance of Black faith communities remains juxtaposed with ongoing concerns about the persistence of white supremacy in the U.S.”
Alongside an increased feeling of political powerlessness, however, was an increase in both Black adults and Black churchgoers who see Black churches as “a place where Black people have control over their lives.”
In 1996, 50% of Black adults agreed with this sentiment. By 2020, that number had increased to 65% of all respondents, with 80% of Black churchgoers affirming this sense within Black churches.
The survey was conducted in the spring of 2020, with a margin of error of 2.3% for the data. The full report is available here.
Good Faith Media reached out to several Black faith leaders for their reaction and response:
“We are not more politically powerless. Instead, politicians can no longer use the Black church and pastors for their political ends,” said Emmanuel L. McCall, retired pastor of First Baptist Church in East Point, Georgia. “That power has been disseminated throughout the members of our congregations and communities. The multiple Black politicians recently elected in multiple communities indicate an increased power base in Black communities.”
“Article one, section two of the U.S. Constitution considered persons who were enslaved three-fifths of a person for the purposes of congressional representation. The ‘three-fifths compromise,’ African Americans were not considered fully human and would not be granted full participation in the American democracy experiment without protest,” said Starlette Thomas, minister to empower congregations at the D.C. Baptist Convention and a member of the Good Faith Media strategic advisory board. “Their powerlessness is in America’s founding documents and foundational to its political system. Power is a numbers game. Minoritized, the numbers have never been in their favor.”
“Black Christians want to engage with white Christians about political and social power, but when we begin to express our ideas or concerns, they often become uncomfortable and defensive because they think our ideas and questions are personal attacks against them,” said Terrell Carter, a pastor, author and educator living in St. Louis.
“I have learned that when I ask a white brother or sister to talk about power or influence, political, social or otherwise, the Black point of view is often minimized as not being centered on the gospel or gospel centric. I believe it is because their version of the gospel keeps white feelings and ideas at the center,” he said.
“One example of this is the recent response against Critical Race Theory by Southern Baptist Seminary presidents. They made a public statement about the evils of CRT without even consulting with one African American professor, student or pastor of their denomination.”
“As in all surveys, language matters,” said David Goatley, research professor of theology and Black church studies, director of the office of Black church studies and associate dean for vocational formation and Christian witness at Duke Divinity School in Durham, North Carolina. “The Barna survey asks people to agree or disagree with the statement, ‘When it comes to politics, Black people generally feel powerless.’”
“Barna contends that Black people feel more powerless in 2020 than 1996. I believe that Black people feel more under assault given the Trump presidency,” he said. “I doubt, however, if Black people would use the language powerless in conversation. How would one explain the 2020 presidential election and the Georgia senatorial election if Black people felt politically powerless?”
“Beyond the language issue, I would be interested in the demographics of respondents in the two surveys,” Goatley continued. “The social location of respondents would likely inform answers, and one would want to know how similar or different they were. I am not willing to uncritically accept the Barna survey results without further interrogation.”