Archive for religion
With the fast approaching 2012 elections on the horizon, there is one question left unanswered. As a widely circulated Associated Press article asked, “Will Obama’s Blackness Prevail Over Romney’s Mormonism in 2012?,” it went on to point out the unique and historical pairing of President Barack Obama, an African American, and Mitt Romney, a Mormon, who represent two oppressed groups in American society on opposite ends of the political divide as the two run for the highest office in the land. The article, however, went one step further and posed a second, equally challenging supposition—how much progress has been made against race-based discrimination? With two weeks to go before the presidential election, neither President Obama nor Governor Romney have used much personal fodder to attack the other, which is astounding given our inclination in American politics to severely trash the other candidate’s more exploitable areas. In this case, one would have guessed that the Obama camp would have by now unleashed on Mitt’s Mormonism and its racist past just as Reverend O’Neal Dozier told the Palm Beach Post, “If Romney is the nominee, President Obama’s surrogates will bring out [the] racist views in the Mormon Church.” In fact, to his credit, President Obama has steered clear of the topic all together, leaving it to others to examine. And yet, the American press has been hushed on the topic.
Interestingly, despite the constitution stating that there shall be no religious test to hold public office (United States Constitution, Article VI, paragraph 3), President Obama was subjected to months of religious attacks prior to the 2008 election; accusations that still go on presently. But the national media has neglected to discuss Mitt Romney’s Mormon ties coupled with LDS racial folklore. Although I respect the regard given to our First Amendment and the separation of church and state, it leaves me wondering—is this a form of white privilege manifesting through our national elections or are republicans simply cherry-picking topics, peculiarly when this issue was addressed in republican primaries and has since been quietly shelved? (I would argue that they are one in the same.) But the American people have a right to know the totality of the character of the American president.
The Church’s racial past and present is a prime target for political attacks. On the verge of potentially winning the election, negative attention around the contentious subject of American racism would likely bring unwanted scrutiny to Romney’s political ambitions, particularly when, if successful, he will become the first white man to unseat the nation’s first black president. In January 2012, African-American analyst, Obery M. Hendricks, Jr. wrote an online paper titled “Mitt Romney and the Curse of Blackness” in which he gave his own interpretations to the Book of Mormon. Pointing to the candidate’s LDS beliefs, he found it “deeply troubling” that the Book of Mormon “says…explicitly and in numerous passages [that] black people are cursed by God and our dark skin is the evidence of our accursedness” (pointing in particular to 2 Nephi 5:21; 1 Nephi 12:23; Jacob 3:8; and Alma 3:6). Hendricks is pointing out historical racial metaphors of white=good and black=evil, which symbolism is evidenced in the visceral hatred that many white Americans have at the presence of a black man in White House. Is this perhaps the reason why the history of Mormonism’s experience with Blacks has been convincingly ignored by mainstream American media? Hendricks further remarked, “What makes this all the more problematic …is that at no time has Mitt Romney ever publically indicated that he seriously questioned the divine inspiration of the Book of Mormon’s teachings about race, much less that he has repudiated them.”
Despite LDS claims as the “one true” church with a universalizing message, these are serious charges in which Romney has remained remarkably silent—not breaking free from his religious convictions, yet not offering any consolation with regards to the teachings of his faith that could provide a glimpse into his own racial beliefs, expressly his thoughts about black people. Virtually nothing has been said about his record on civil and social justice, including during his tenure as Governor of Massachusetts. Instead, what we often hear from the mouth of Mitt Romney on matters of race is a reference to what his father accomplished as the great social liberal that he appeared to be. Former Governor George Romney was something special—a white Mormon man with an outward public passion for social justice; something you don’t see everyday, particularly in the 1960’s. George Romney was a social liberal that fought for civil rights, often at odds with racist church leaders determined to alter his course . In 1967, as the elder Romney prepared for his own presidential bid, Jet Magazine picked up on a story where Romney stated, “he would leave the church if it ever tried to prevent him from working for the elimination of social injustices and racial discrimination.” Whether he would ever really have left the Church or not since, by all accounts, he was deeply devoted to the Church and its leadership, Romney took the time to seek the council of high-ranking church leaders on matters of race prior to his run for Governor of Michigan.
Mitt Romney’s efforts at instituting something similar to “Obamacare” in his state is, likewise, commendable; however, he cannot continue to avoid the difficult question that many Americans have a right to know, especially if Romney holds similar views as past Mormon leaders who believe Blacks are a cursed race. Mitt Romney and other Mormons today, just like his father did in the 60’s, continue to hear and receive negative messages about the character and disposition of people of African descent, despite the Church changing its official stance on race in 1978. Yet, I do not believe that Mitt Romney is a closet racist. I do believe, however, that he has deep-seated ideas in his head about black folk like most white Americans, particularly those who attend racially segregated churches like the Mormon Church. How could this not be? For most of our history—246 years of slavery followed by 90 years of Jim Crow, about 85 percent of our existence as a nation—we have struggled to truly come to grips with the meaning of freedom and equality, although we use these terms loosely and romantically. Racist images, ideas, notions and inclinations to discriminate (white racial frames) have spanned 20 generations of American life, and white Christianity has been a central fulcrum to justify unjust white enrichment remaining an anathema for black folks. In order to unlearn racism, one has to do serious work, taking a hard look at oneself and the benefits received from unjust enrichment. It has only been 34 years since church headquarters lifted the Mormon priesthood ban that barred black men from holding the priesthood and denied black women temple marriages, hardly enough time to unlearn an entire generation of white racist thinking and understanding about black people, especially given church headquarters has yet to offer up any rational explanation why such a ban existed in the first place. Instead, what is typically articulated from white Mormons and “bright” Mormons (socially-white people of color) for that matter when questions of race arise in the public domain is, “only the Lord knows why Blacks could not hold the priesthood.” Thus, we have an idea where the Church stands today. And further, we know where George Romney stood. But what we all want to know is, what is your position, Mitt?
The Christian Right has come up with a new set of imagery that conflates religious racism with politics, indicative of how leadership from Blacks and American Indians become associated with the “hostile” and the “devil” that continue old paradigms. Here is a recent Facebook message making the rounds after the last debate.
The caption reads: “PRINCE OF DARKNESS HAS BESTOWED UPON AMERICA THE KING OF LIES”
(From the Facebook Group “Christians Against Obama’s Re-Election” )
At the time of this post, the image above has 3,602 “Likes” and 4,510 “shares” on Facebook, so there are more than a few people for whom this kind of imagery resonates. (In another, related image on the same group’s page, Michelle Obama appears in – photoshopped – prison garb.) The “Prince of Darkness” label is associated with Obama as the “King of Lies” when it is the Whitened version of U.S. history that relies on distortion and untruth, similar to how Whites coming into contact with Native spirituality, as MneWakan (spiritual waters) called it the Devil (Devil’s Lake, Devil’s Tower, etc.), as dominant icons associated with religion and being Christian, are used to depict leaders that oppose racial domination, as being evil, or the Devil (Prince of Darkness).
Within this frame, God is seen as being white or at least European, (Rev. Wright is seen as beguiling). That is why the “Prince of Darkness” imagery seems to resonate with the predominantly white readers that Romney must get to 60 percent, but without explicitly mentioning race. This is why Haiti is so instructive. I dealt with this in a photo taken in a Port-au-Prince church where Jesus is depicted as a black (thought light skinned) and John the Baptist as a darker skinned black man, on New Year’s Day, 1981, independence day there, as an example of communication discourse not only to show how God is thought to be white, but that it is sacrilegious to say otherwise. This leads to dichotomous or binary thinking in communication, showing why Black is Beautiful was contentious (it is a simple positive declarative phrase) because most whites were hearing that White is Not, or why Vine Deloria’s famous work God is Red, thrown into binary opposites, is unacceptable.
In Haiti, the notion of the racialized Other emerges along with the Papal Bull of 1493 which connects the non-Christian or heathen “Indian” as a racialized “savage” needing to be tamed, domesticated, and subordinated. The rationalization works well, extending to post-genocidal slave plantations’ “Black” of African descent, fully developed by mid-sixteenth century, as the greatest of race-based colonies, with Spanish and Portuguese (Brazil) followed by Virginia and Louisiana by the English, institutionalizing the whole racial morass into the system we know today. The underpinning is precisely the confusion about White, Christian or English (later Anglo-Saxon) which sees the lower order races, by skin-tone, associated with the Devil and anti-Christian (Muslim, Jew, etc.) peoples, which the newly formed “white elite” employ to maintain dominance (Joe Feagin, The White Racial Frame).
Today, the irony is more pronounced, in the announced passing of Russell Means, an early leader of the American Indian Movement, in many ways its most famous, precisely because he came to represent all things wrong about the United States of America and its treatment of the First Nations people who preceded its colonial forebears on this continent.
(Russell Means, ca. 1987 – from here)
Imagery associated with AIM is the powerful takeover of Alcatraz prison island, (imprisoned American Indian leaders in the past, similar to Mandela on Robbins Island) to the Trail of Broken Treaties in Washington DC, the takeover of the BIA, to the retaking of Wounded Knee, by Lakota elders to resurrect knowledge of genocidal killings of Indian peoples, countering dominant history of this country, with a paradigms of social justice pointing to a deeply racist, dominant group formation benefiting from slave systems for labor and genocidal conquest for land, all the while claiming it is a “democracy” – but for which people?
The white elite needs continued conforming to these racial paradigms to maintain its dominance, especially with an increasingly diverse population as its electorate. Obama represents both a threat and potential solution to this political problem. American Indian leaders are now acknowledged, but also represent a threat to the dominant discourse. Challenging these paradigms, falls to us and many others, since Obama’s removal will mean a temporary victory for white racial forces, continued control over the Supreme Court, and distorted racist rationalizations on historical democracy of the “Founding Fathers” as an obstacle to real progress.
On Tuesday, Randy Bott, a BYU professor of religion, told the Washington Post that the LDS Church’s historic prohibition on black priesthood ordination for men was a “blessing” to blacks because they were not “ready” for priesthood authority.
Just when we thought things had quieted down in Provo after several busy years of open and public displays of what can only be described as pure hatred for African Americans, up pops the Brandon Davies controversy, BYU Blackface video, and now BYU professor of religion Randy Bott’s recent remarks underscoring the enduring Latter day belief in black inferiority. “You couldn’t fall off the top of the ladder. So, in reality the blacks not having the priesthood was the greatest blessing God could give them,” the professor told the Washington Post, highlighting a significant problem for the Mormon faith.
Some years ago, I conceived of plan that had the potential to transform the way Black folk and other progressive thinkers within and outside the Mormon faith understood race. Black members are made to suffer by dealing with the continued belief among many well-intentioned Whites that having black-skin was an unequivocal mark of God’s disfavor. Yet, I believed that if enough like-minded white members could lend their voices and concerns to church authorities regarding this enduring pain and struggle, then we could cajole church authorities to issue a public apology in order to dispel the persistent racial folklore well-known in Mormonism. Unfortunately, the group I was trying to convince (Mormons for Equality and Social Justice) was not on board with my plan.
The folklore explains that the biblical counter-figure, Cain, was allegedly “cursed” with a skin of blackness for slaying his brother Abel. Despite official statements from LDS Church headquarters to the contrary, many active members still believe this to be the case. And this (mis)belief led to the many racial practices of the Church, such as those that denied black males the right to hold the priesthood and black women the blessings of the LDS temple ceremony. And though these practices were never official doctrine, through the many teachings from Brigham Young to Joseph Fielding Smith, these became assumed doctrine or pseudo-doctrine, if you will. In fact, many of these teaching still circulate today in Mormon theological published works. (pdf here).
White members are not the only ones, however, to believe in black Latter-day Saint inferiority. Surprisingly, many Black members of church actually believe the folklore as well, making it difficult to understand why anyone of African descent with a reasonable mind would consider joining the Mormon faith given its history of marks and curses upon black folks. And sadly, there are many other racist concepts found within the LDS Church.
Church authorities stubbornly sidestep charges that the predominately white faith is a racist organization. When racial issues arise such as with Randy Bott, it becomes significant enough to warrant an official statement by church authorities. However perfunctory it may be, it is still not enough. Mormons are not alone. African-Americans historically experienced similar racist encounters in other predominately white churches as well, which led to the creation of the Black Church and later caused Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to declare, “Sunday is the most segregated day of the week.” Regrettably, this fact has not changed much in America. Yet, the continued silence of the LDS Church implies that it is okay for black Mormons to bare the greater burden to defend the Mormon faith; a burden that is often turned inward in the psychological toll imposed on black members by white mythmaking which has an impact on mental wellbeing (White Parents, Black Children). The LDS Church must go further by issuing an official apology to all people of African descent.
Randy Bott’s comments made in this day and age in the 21st century are not unlike those of the white slave master who felt that slavery was ultimately good for blacks. Given his recent remarks, it would serve LDS Church authorities well to straightforwardly and unequivocally denounce all racist folklore ever uttered by any church authority on the matter. But to denounce these comments would be to openly admit that the Brethren made mistakes in their teachings and interpretations. Thus far, we have not seen anyone of authority in the church willing to take that stand.
This is Mitt Romney’s headache: to inherit and answer the definitive question (if he indeed gets the GOP nomination) of whether or not the LDS Church is or was ever racist. The truth is, the constitution states that there shall be “no religious test” to hold office. But Romney, must be prepared for a flurry of questions from media representatives and other political pundits as to how, if elected to the highest office in the land, can he actually be a president for all the people given his connection to the Mormon faith and its racial history. Though Romney is not a church official and, therefore, should not be made to represent the church, he will be deemed a de facto spokesperson by the media and nation. Romney has thus far avoided bringing his faith into the political arena, but he may not be able to avoid these questions for much longer. All issues are fair game. The American people deserve to know the particular social, cultural and religious experiences that shape the character and ideology of their leader. The American people want to know does Romney feel the same as Professor Bott?
It has been nearly a year since Brigham Young University was heralding as “America’s University” for its unapologetic devotion to the honor code when it suspended Brandon Davies, an African American basketball player, on the eve of the 2011 NCAA Basketball tournament. Davies reportedly confessed to having premarital sex with his girlfriend, which is prohibited by the honor code office. The controversy arose when the numbers broke of purportedly much higher rates of black student athletes suspended compared to white student athletes. It appears they are at it again; the institution and the students at BYU, the flagship school of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter day Saints, are highlighted in a new and provocative video on YouTube that attempts to show how little white students actually know about Black History month.
This previously posted video underscores a major concern in the profound lack of understanding about race in America. It appears as though many of the students that comedian David Ackerman interviews know very little about the significance of the month of February, and furthermore, very little about the black experience in general.
References in Ackerman’s video by the students regarding black Americans having an affinity for fried chicken or Jay-Z as an acceptable way to celebrate Black history month is a symptom of something more sinister. These notions are deep-seated stereotypes about the black experience, controlling metaphors regarding the nature and character of people of African descent. People have died over these words in our nation’s past, and the re-enforcement in a highly racialized society like ours today allows these images and words to continue to wound the soul. The evidence is everywhere-just look at any major social indicator from health care to education and analyze how mobile Black Americans have been in 50 plus years after the civil rights movement. The vast majority of Black Americans aren’t doing so hot, despite the “success” of a few.
The “humor” in the video demonstrates, perhaps, the profound ignorance of the students not knowing how racist they’re actually being. However, I cannot help but find it disheartening that Americans still struggle with the vestiges of race, racism and discrimination even amongst our most promising: young folk who weren’t even around during the horrors of the civil rights movement, and students at a major university in America where you would imagine they are being challenged to think critically about human differences.
I presume the young people interviewed in the clip are very nice people, and they likely have no idea the harm they’re doing and just how offensive and embarrassing their remarks are to themselves, BYU and the LDS faith. Yet, their comments in the video demonstrate how enduring racism is from generation to generation.
What is equally disturbing is Ackerman’s use of the black face character. Although he is tempting to show just how little interaction whites on this campus have with blacks by failing to even recognize that he himself is not black, he does so by bringing in the sordid history of the black face. Mr. Ackerman is attempting to raise the level of consciousness about race to unsuspecting BYU students. However, I am not sure if he understands and is sensitive of the highly offensive history of black face, otherwise known as minsterely.
Minstrel shows are pure Americana, a racialized form of entertainment consisting of comic spoofs performed by white people in black face make-up, especially popular after the Civil War. White actors would use minstrel shows to satirize black Americans and grossly distort the black image as particularly, lazy, shiftless, uncouth and overly sexed, for example, and these caricatures were extraordinarily popular. Minstrel shows were a controlling discourse, a way to dehumanize (or make less human) black Americans in order to justify brutal white racial oppression.
Since then, racist ideas about black Americans have withstood the test of time, evolving into what we now know and recognize as modern forms of racial stereotyping that take on a life of there own such as the famous notion that intimates black Americans prefer welfare compared to white Americans as highlighted in recent GOP utterances by Rick Santorum that he does not “want to make black people lives better by giving them somebody else’s money.” In his attempt to bring about a socially conscious video, Ackerman in turn undermines his very goal by the lack of awareness in the use of the black face. Ackerman’s video, although well-intentioned, stifles its own progress because he is not well-versed on the history of racism in America.
In fact, I can’t help but wonder just how many white students recognized him as a white man dressing in black face and found it funny as an acceptable form of comedy.
Outsiders often look at the Mormon faith as a faith drowning in racial demagogy. For example, presidential hopeful Mitt Romney’s recent gaffe that he isn’t “concerned about the very poor” since he feels we “have a safety net there”. Of course, his alma mater is none other than BYU, the site of this video. But the reality is these statements made by members of the LDS church are reflective of it being a predominately white faith rather than its Mormon beliefs.
We must recognize that this could easily be any major university in the U.S., as the majority of them are predominately white institutions. Equally important to the low representation on campus is the lack of education on our history and the people of this nation. Just how do we expect to educate our youth when the majority of these schools a have a weak or absent commitment to ethnic studies programs? This video demonstrates how persistent racism is and how it continues throughout each generation of White Americans. How can we combat these stereotypes and negative images when they are being handed to the next (previously innocent) generation, and all the while, continuing to create self-doubt amongst people of color?
~ Darron T. Smith is assistant professor at Wichita State University and co-author White Parents, Black Children Experiencing Transracial Adoption and Black and Mormon. Contact: www.darronsmith.com
Blackvoicenews has an excellent take on the anti-Muslim furor that our mostly white “leaders” in the political and media spheres have created–and mostly out of their white racial framing of Middle Eastern Muslim Americans. It is significant that a group that was generally ignored outside of a few urban areas before 9/11 is now the new target or scapegoat for certain U.S. ills.
As one African American Muslim leader noted this is not only about religious intolerance, but also about (white) racism:
“We have to be able to decode what’s happening and realize that this is religious intolerance on one hand, and it’s [also] good ol’ red-blooded American racial and ethnic bias on the other hand,” said Imam Al-Hajj Talib Abdur-Rashid, sitting in his office at the Mosque of Islamic Brotherhood Inc. in Harlem.
National polls indicate only a quarter of Americans support of the right of some Americans to construct a Muslim center near the 9/11 site–and presumably, by implication, the first amendment’s promise (extended by the 14th amendment) of (government) noninterference in the “free exercise” of religion in the U.S. There is much ignorance in the general population about the Middle East, Muslims, and the issues around the Muslim center in New York City, for example:
Many in the mainstream media have failed to acknowledge that the proposed building will not simply serve as a mosque but as a fully equipped community center with a swimming pool, culinary school, art studios and other features. Furthermore, another mosque, the Manhattan Mosque, stands only five blocks northeast from the site of Ground Zero; Muslims have been worshiping at this location since a year prior to the World Trade Center’s construction.
So, Muslims have been worshiping there, already, for four decades. I suppose they will have to move with this new wave of US anti-Muslim hysteria? There is yet another ignorance and slighting, as Abdur-Rashid points out, in the local and national discussion—the absence of Black Muslims:
“The first thing we need to do is decode some of the language,” said Abdur-Rashid. “The first language that has to be decoded is “Americans.” That really means “white Americans.” That’s who’s uptight about this. It’s opposition that’s occurring in different parts of the country in reaction to the construction of mosques. It’s not just Park 51 in Lower Manhattan. … It’s in different parts of the country.”
African Americans were for decades the largest Muslim group (think about Malcolm X, Muhammad Ali, Kareem-Abdul Jabbar) in the United States, and they are now the second largest group. Why aren’t they brought in as experts and commentators in the mainstream media dealing with these Muslim issues? It seems just white racist thinking and framing that results in the white-controlled media not bringing themselves to have experienced African American Muslims discussing these current anti-Muslim issues, most especially in New York City, long the home of large Black Muslim groups. (For solid and readable research on Muslim Americans, see here and here.)
Russell Simmons, a hip-hop entrepreneur who chairs the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding is quoted in the article:
“I’m disappointed in everyone, Harry Reid and the rest of the Democrats,” said Simmons. “I’m shocked at the media. There’s ignorance on all sides. Twenty-three percent of this world’s population is Muslim. They’re a peace-loving people. What we’re doing is creating more tension.”
As he points out, “The Muslims” did not attack the US, and this often vicious, highly politicized anti-Mosque “crusade” (indeed, it is like a “crusade”) will only alienate yet again much of the world’s population. Not to mention, it violates the letter or spirit of our own Bill of Rights traditions. Can we afford that as a nation?
Each Sunday morning in the U.S., an estimated 40% of Americans (118 million) attend a weekly religious service. We like to think that going to church makes us better – less racist – people, but does it? A new study suggests just the opposite.
The new study offers evidence for a link between involvement in organized religion and racism. The study, “Why Don’t We Practice What We Preach? A Meta-Analytic Review of Religious Racism,” was conducted by Deborah Hall (Duke University), David C. Matz (Augsburg College), and Wendy Wood (University of Southern California), and appears in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Review. The authors analyzed data from 55 studies on religion and racism in America dating to the civil rights era. Combined, the studies include more than 22,000 participants, mostly white and Protestant. The researchers looked not only at things like religious affiliation, church attendance and other participation but also at the motives behind their involvement to avoid clumping all religious adherents into a single category. Racial prejudice was measured principally as self-reported attitudes and behaviors, such as preferred levels of social distance toward blacks and other minority groups.
As expected, the authors found a positive correlation between religious affiliation and racism. Religious fundamentalism — the unwavering certainty in basic religious truths — correlated even more strongly with racist attitudes. And, the authors looked exclusively at Christianity and did not consider other religious traditions. The link among people who expressed purely spiritual pursuits as the motivating influence of religion was less clear.
The research highlights what researchers called “religion-racism paradox,” because – they speculate – deeply embedded in organized religion is the notion that one fundamental belief system is superior to all others. That kind of value judgment creates a kind of us-versus-them conflict, in which members of a religious group develop ethnocentric, even racist, attitudes toward anyone perceived as different.
Is part of the problem who we’re going to church with? Perhaps if churches were more racially integrated then they wouldn’t foster racist attitudes. The evidence suggests that, as Dr. Martin Luther King observed decades ago, Sunday morning is still the “most segregated hour” of the week. A study by sociologist Michael Emerson showed that churches where 20 percent of members were of a racial minority comprised only 7 percent of U.S. congregations. Overall, 5 percent of Protestant churches and 15 percent of Roman Catholic churches were multi-racial.
However, sociologist Scott Thumma found that megachurches, in the 2005 “Megachurches Today” study, may be shifting the racial composition of some Christian churches. In his study, 35% of megachurches claimed to have congregations composed of 20% or more folks of color. And, 56% of megachurches said they were making an intentional effort to become multi-racial.
Still, integrating churches by calling on people of color to step inside predominantly-white churches is perhaps not the best solution. As an anonymous contributor to this blog noted recently, “People of color who have taken the leap of faith to join white churches usually find those churches to be houses of racialized pain, and suffer many wounds as a result.”
In the U.S., Christianity and white racism are cultural institutions that reinforce one another. If people in those churches want to be part of the solution, rather than part of the problem, when it comes to racism, it seems that we need to reflect on how to change the practices of Sunday mornings as a first step to changing the larger society.
(Note: I am posting this for a colleague of color who wishes to remain anonymous.)
This week researchers at Baylor University published a study finding that people who were primed with Christian words (Jesus, Bible, faith, Christ, etc) demonstrated more covert and overt racism against African Americans than people who were not primed with Christian words. In other words, people who are thinking about American Christianity (or thinking through a Christian frame, the study speculates) feel and express more anti-Black racism than people who are not thinking about Christianity. The ABP news service, with a quotation by one of the study’s authors, sums up the point nicely:
The study [pdf here], published in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science, found that people subliminally “primed” with Christian words reported more negative attitudes about African-Americans than those primed with neutral words. “What’s interesting about this study is that it shows some component of religion does lead to some negative evaluations of people based on race,” said Wade Rowatt , associate professor of psychology and neuroscience at Baylor, who led the study.
According to Rowatt, there is something about American Christianity that leads to whites’ anti-black racism. Rather than preventing white on black racism, white Christianity actually leads to (i.e. activates, maybe even produces) racism.
The study only subliminally primed people with Christian words and measured the effect of that incredibly minuscule stimulus. That they found any effect at all is remarkable! In reality, people are not subliminally primed with singular Christian words; they are overwhelmed with Christian words and symbols. Extrapolating from the study, each Christian stimulus primes people for anti-Black sentiment. If people in short laboratory studies in which they “heard” only one Christian word exhibit increased anti-Black racism, how much greater is the effect when people have been in church!!! Given the flood of Christian symbols around us–crosses, t-shirts with verses, people praying over their food, “blessings” when we sneeze–it is no wonder people of color face white racism everywhere, all the time.
Of course, the Church is not the only central purveyor of white racism. But the study is important because it indicates two critical things: 1) in the United States, Christianity and white racism reinforce one another; and 2) churches are sites where whites do racial harm and amplify racism. White churches are not sites of racial harmony; they are places where people of color are wounded in the houses of their white friends (see Zechariah 13:6, from which I drew this post’s title).
I have many thoughts on this subject, but I will save most of them for another time. Suffice it to say here, the white Church has a lot of work to do if it hopes to succeed at the “racial reconciliation” project many churches have taken up over the last half century. Having worshiped and served in predominantly white churches, I can give innumerable first hand accounts of the covert and overt racism the researchers found. In one instance, a white evangelical with whom I was living actually said to me “if you were my slave, it would be fine.” My experiences are not unique. People of color who have taken the leap of faith to join white churches usually find those churches to be houses of racialized pain, and suffer many wounds as a result. The book, Reconciliation Blues, has many accounts documenting that fact.
There is an engaging story about a 17-year old monarch of the Tooro Kingdom in Uganda who has been King since he was a toddler. The story is particularly interesting because the reporter waded into issues of ethnicity and nationalism that have dogged African nation-states since independence. A CNN reporter writes that:
“Many Africans, like the people in King Oyo’s realm, identify themselves as a member of a tribe or ethnic group first and as citizen of a nation second.” Tension between ethnic groups within the same country often has flared into violence around the continent. In Uganda, the central government outlawed kingdoms in 1967, but the president reinstated four of them in the ’90s on the condition that their leaders focus more on culture and less on national politics.”
This reporter was relying on conversations with a history professor at Makerere University in Uganda to inform the account; according to the professor:
“The monarchies are based on ethnicities, sparking concerns of a setback in national integration efforts… Ugandans identify themselves first with their tribes and kingdoms, then as citizens…This works in most African cultures because people have lost faith in the government, and tribes and kingdoms provide a nucleus around which an identity can be forged.”
I have written on the intersection between ethnicity and nationalism here before and I have relied on representative (probabilistic) surveys that gauge the national mood regarding identity in Africa. What we know from current data is that the issues of ethnicity and nationalism are more nuanced than reported in the CNN article. This paper is not a rebuttal of that article that appeared a few days ago; I want to render a contemporaneous account of what we now know about ethnicity and nationalism in Africa.
Our scholarship has long established that tribal associations or tribal unions based strictly on ethnicity posed a threat to emergent post-colonial nationalism; ethnic patronage did not have a place in the new nationalism and the newly independent countries fostered the progressive ideal of a community of diverse ethnic groups. But, our scholarship has also documented the social realities of ethnic patronage that have strained the progressive ideal; an authoritative study, among several others, is Crawford Young’s (1994) paper titled: Evolving Modes of Consciousness and Ideology: Nationalism and Ethnicity. Whether the ethnic tensions were stoked by former colonial powers or not, our taken-for-granted reality has been that ethnic allegiance continues to undermine communal development – take for instance what is happening in Jos, Nigeria, where the cycle of murders and revenge murders is unrelenting. Some analysts have argued that these tensions are also religious and socioeconomic in root, and that there’s an intersection between economic inequality and ethnic conflict.
As social scientists, it is difficult (sometimes near impossible) to conduct true experiments (with pre- and post- moments) to ascertain causality – for instance, we cannot conduct a true experiment to identify how ethnic identity singularly causes these violent tensions. At best, what we have are correlational models to identify the likelihood of outcomes based on certain conditions. So we must not discount the fact that economic inequalities may have something to do with these conflicts as well. But even with these methodological limitations, we can say with some confidence that the one important correlate we have in all of these violent conflicts is that of ethnicity or tribal group; in Jos, it happens that the groups killing each other also largely practice two different faiths.
Recent events in Nigeria reinforce the taken-for-granted reality of the role of ethnocentrism in communal conflict. Among all the countries I examined using data from Afrobarometer surveys from round 1 (1999-2001) and round 2 (2004) more Nigerian respondents identified ethnically than respondents in other African countries (in round 2, about the same proportion of Batswana identified as such). (In Kenya and Zimbabwe most respondents did not identify first with their tribal or ethnic group). In round 4 (2008) of the Afrobarometer surveys, the majority of respondents (≥70%) in all surveyed countries including Nigeria (but except Malawi) relied on their nationality as an identity descriptor or identified equally with their nation and their ethnic group.
A review of the pattern of response in these surveys uncovers substantive issues related to data collection that have to be taken into account in interpreting the results: (1) In-person surveys are susceptible to social desirability bias. I wondered whether the tendency to choose national identity in rounds 1 and 2 in all the surveyed countries (except Nigeria) was due to respondents providing answers that they felt was the most favorable based on the public mood – after all, the nationalistic identity descriptor is the progressive ideal. If so, we should expect respondents in Nigeria to be susceptible to the social desirability bias as well. (2) The question: “I feel equally national and ethnic” was a new item in round 4, and so it is impossible to examine change from previous rounds. I wondered whether the introduction of this item has diluted the ethnic identity and ethnic attachment social reality. Without this item, I wondered whether more respondents would have chosen ethnicity as their primary identity. (3) Data on ethnic identity from round 4 may indeed indicate, auspiciously, a maturation of civil society in these countries. Over time, we may expect more citizens to embrace the nationalistic vision when compared to earlier periods as the nation-state becomes more stable. This is the hope – even as we witness conflicts, many of which arguably involve some elements of ethnocentrism in every region of the continent. We should expect subsequent rounds of these surveys to show more respondents reporting a national identity due to the maturation effect.
Nonetheless, the intersection of ethnicity and nationalism yields peculiar ground truths: consider that in Ghana, the newly elected national chairman of the opposition party paid homage to the King of the ethnic group to which he belongs. The national chairman used the occasion to urge the youth of his ethnic group to take up leadership roles. I wondered; why would the national chairman of a national political party address only the youth of his ethnic group? Shouldn’t he be addressing the youth of the country regardless of their tribal identity? By the way, this particular national chairman doesn’t even speak his native ethnic language! Also, consider President Zuma of South Africa who has just married his third wife as allowed by his Zulu traditions, even as he admitted recently fathering a child out of wedlock! What a contrast between President Mandela and the current South African president! But whether his traditions allow for multiple wives or not, what image does a democratically elected president project when he fathers a child out of wedlock even with a surfeit of spouses? Is this possible only in Africa?
To return to the case of Nigeria and the cycle of killings of Jos; we must take into account the sinuous power struggle unfolding in the country. The frail and un-well President has not been seen in public for 4 months or more; the acting President has dissolved the cabinet to purge it of loyalists to the President. And the security forces in the State of Jos seem powerless to stem the cycle of hate and killings. One African autocratic leader has the temerity to call for dividing Nigeria into a Moslem North and a Christian South. With a history of ethno-religious tensions and a civil war that claimed over one million lives, and ongoing violent unrests in the Niger Delta region of the country, the recent killings in Jos are just a manifestation of the uniqueness of the Nigerian situation.
~ Yoku Shaw-Taylor, PhD is a Research Scientist in Washington, DC.