The Most Segregated Hour of the Week — Still

The ABC News website has an interesting article, “Two Nations Under God: Segregated Churches the Norm,” by Imaeyen Ibanga. The article cites a new study by the Pew Center that shows the huge racial divide in churches in the United States. The journalist summarizes thus:

Every Sunday parishioners head to their respective churches, the vast majority of which are filled with worshippers predominately of one race. Only 7 percent of American churches are racially integrated, according to the Pew Center.

These data show just how racially segregated the United States is now well into the third millennium–and also accent how unusual it is to have an African American with a serious chance to become president right now. One white churchgoer is quoted as explaining the church segregation this way:

You go into a society that’s all white, you’re gonna typically have an all-white church, and vice-versa with other ethnicities as well.

One Ohio minister, Cliff Biggers, is trying to break down the racial segregation by (photo: Obama site) taking his

black congregation out of its comfort zone to a white church every fifth Sunday. Often times Biggers and his congregants are given a warm welcome, inviting visitors to meals and fellowship. But sometimes the response can be less than enthusiastic. “I think people are a little put back, sure. You have people walking in that, number one, you don’t know them; number two, they look different than you.”

A little put back, indeed. As I was reading this article, I have also been thinking about a revealing new book by social scientist Korie Edwards that I have started reading. Called The Elusive Dream, it examines the impact of institutional racism (and thus white racial framing) in churches that are consciously interracial. The book description puts her findings this way, starting with one interracial church service:

A black pastor and white head elder stand before the sanctuary as lay leaders pass out the host. An African-American woman sings a gospel song as a woman of Asian descent plays the piano. Then a black woman in the congregation throws her hands up and yells, over and over, “Thank you [Lord]!” A few other African-Americans in the pews say “Amen,” while white parishioners sit stone-faced…..Even in this proudly interracial church, America’s racial divide is a constant presence. . . . . [I]nterracial churches … help perpetuate the very racial inequality they aim to abolish. . . . [M]ixed-race churches adhere strongly to white norms. African Americans in multiracial settings adapt their behavior to make white congregants comfortable.

The black members are thus forced to conform to white norms and racial framing of the church situations. The very long history of white-imposed segregation and white norms and framing helps to explain these disturbing findings. The ABC news article notes the centuries-old historical reality in regard to racial segregation in religion for African Americans:

The first black churches were built by freed slaves and many of them where open to whites on principle, but Jim Crow laws brought fresh division and wounds. “They had to sit in that last pew and if a white would come and families would come, even though they were in that pew they had to get up and give them their pew,” said Sister Eva Regina Martin, mother superior at Holy Family Sisters in New Orleans. . . . “It’ll take many years but I think as the years go by people will allow people just to be…,” said Martin, who is the head of just one of three black orders of nuns.

Many years, indeed.


  1. mgs

    For an academic blog it is strange how infrequently competing hypotheses are put forward. There is only one possible explanation: racism, as in unidirectional systemic bias of whites against blacks.
    It is not even presented as a possibility that blacks might prefer the company of other blacks to the same extent that whites prefer the company of other whites.

  2. adia

    MGS, in her book “Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria,” psychologist Beverly Daniel Tatum takes up your question of why blacks prefer the company of other blacks. However, she argues that a major reason for this phenomenon is that it provides a respite and haven from expressions of white racism. In contrast, much research on whites suggests that they prefer the company of other whites because of deep-seated ideas about Blacks’ innate inferiority (see research by Charles Gallagher, Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, Thomas Shapiro, and Andrew Hacker, in addition to the authors on this blog). But if I am reading your brief comment correctly, you seem to feel either that perhaps racism works in multiple directions (not just from whites to blacks, but perhaps the other way around as well?), or that it is not an explanatory factor in much social interaction.

    Perhaps the reason why so many of the hypotheses presented on this blog are so similar is because the bulk of empirical research supports the assertion that racism (in one direction) does explain a great deal of social interaction. Secondly, if you take exception to the argument (also supported by a plethora of social science research) that racism works in one direction, from whites to blacks, consider what it would take for racism to work in the other direction: blacks (as a group) would have to have had control of all social, economic, political, and educational institutions in this country for centuries. On top of that, blacks would have spent much of this time using this control to deny opportunities to whites (as a group). Whites would lag behind blacks in educational attainment, economic stability, and health, and whites would also be represented in the mass media (which would also be controlled by blacks) through overwhelmingly negative stereotypes–perhaps as lazy, unintelligent, immoral, and prone to crime. Whites would be overrepresented in the criminal justice system, in low wage, low-prestige occupations, and blacks would conversely be overrepresented in the highest levels of Congress, the military, in Fortune 500 companies, and all other sectors of power. Since racism is not just about personal prejudice but also about power and the ability to exercise control, this is what racism would look like if it worked in the other direction. Is this the America that you see?


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