Being White in the (White) Faith and Work Movement, Part 2

A few weeks ago I wrote about being a white guy in the faith and work movement, which is also predominantly white. After reviewing the many layers of white leaders, participants, authors, directors, and founders in the movement, I suggested that the faith and work message is in dire need of some more input.

Because our movement is demographically narrow, our intuitions about work naturally represent a narrow range of working experiences – to be specific, upper middle class and upper class white experiences of work in the United States, largely from a male perspective. Globally and historically speaking, this limited experience of work is an outlier, which leaves us at risk of creating a theology of work and economics that is limited in its relevance, or at least in its apparent relevance.

So I’ll repeat what I wrote before: the faith and work community should seek out the insights of a larger world of working experiences.


Although I’m a contributing member of the faith and work community, I also feel uncomfortable, discontent, even disappointed with our blindness to (or perhaps our lack of pointed interest in) justice issues that relate to work and economics.

We seem to make passing obesiance to ideals of racial justice, gender equality, etc., but I hear no strong voice calling us to give serious attention to these challenges from within the movement. Where are the prophets pointing out the injustice in today’s workplace? In tracing the borders of the movement, all of the prophets have been left outside the city wall. We don’t hear from them at our conferences. We don’t read their books. Shouldn’t this be a surprising oversight if we really do aspire to apply Christian orthodoxy to work, the workplace, and the economy?

I’m going to illustrate my point by first describing a particular example of social injustice that relates directly to work in the U.S. A few years ago, I read a study about patterns of racial inequity in hiring in the United States. Before I describe the details, I’ll give you a sneak peek at the conclusion: African Americans suffer from racial discrimination when looking for jobs, discrimination that cannot be attributed to differences in merit or achievement.

The scholars who ran the study generated artificial resumes and used them to apply to more than 1300 jobs from 2001-2002. For each job, they randomly selected two “high achievement” resumes and two “lower achievement” resumes. Stereotypically black names (Jamal or Lakesha) were assigned to one of the high achievement resumes and to one of the lower achievement resumes. Likewise, stereotypically white names (Greg and Emily) where assigned to the remaining two resumes.

Then the scholars measured the call back rates each resume generated from hiring managers. Want to guess at the results? You got it – resumes with the names Greg and Emily received substantially more calls from hiring managers than did resumes with the names Jamal and Lakisha.150% as many, in fact. And there’s no sense in chalking that disparity up to differences in achievement; the resumes were randomly selected and the pattern emerged over the course of 1300 job applications.

Furthermore, they also discovered that whites with resumes reflecting high achievement received 30% more call backs than whites with lower achievement resumes, meaning that the labor market rewarded them for hard work. On the other hand, “Jamal” and “Lakisha” received a much smaller “bump” for the heftier resume. It would seem that the labor market cared less about black achievement than it did about white achievement.

While there are limits to this study, the bottom line reasonable conclusion is that discrimination created real advantages for Emily and Greg and real disadvantages for Jamal and Lakisha. And this study is not the only one of its kind; there’s a whole genre of social studies on hiring. I’ll mention another: Marked: Race, Crime, and Finding Work in an Era of Mass Incarceration, by Devah Pager. In this experiment, actual actors were hired to pose as job candidates in person. Again, strong white and black disparities emerged (34% vs. 14% call-back rates). In fact, white candidates with a criminal record received slightly more calls than did black candidates with no criminal record. The picture that emerges across these and many other studies is one of clear racial discrimination in hiring. I’ll also remind us that while these studies focus on black and white, there are a wide array of other racial experiences of work in the United States as well.

And while these studies focus on hiring, what might we find if we start digging in to other aspects of employment such as compensation, performance evaluation, promotion, and termination? Will we find discrimination there too?

Now, don’t assume the study says what it doesn’t say. It doesn’t say anything about why this discrimination exists. It doesn’t claim that hiring managers are intentional racists, for example. But it does leave the naked fact of racial discrimination lying on the table for all to see.

And now the main problem: I didn’t learn about these racial discrimination statistics at a faith and work conference or in any of our publications. If I want to reflect on these challenges, I have to read outside of the movement. Why is that? Don’t we aspire to expertise on work and economics from a Christian perspective? If so, isn’t the existence of racial discrimination at work a huge problem for us?

We should be talking about this and other forms of workplace inequity at our conferences and in our materials, with each other and with others, from the rooftops and from the street corners. This should really concern us. How about a serious conversation at the next Faith @ Work Summit this coming October in Chicago?


  One thought on “Being White in the (White) Faith and Work Movement, Part 2

  1. March 14, 2018 at 3:54 pm

    The study is disturbing. Perhaps a study should be completed regarding age discrimination. If you are over 40 companies will not even offer any consideration unless you are applying for senior level management.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Chris Robertson
    March 16, 2018 at 11:00 am

    Amen, Ben. Thanks for your good work and research on this topic. Hoping there is a way to discuss this at the Summit this Fall along with other upcoming gatherings.


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