Religious Racism: Study Ties Organized Religion to Racist Attitudes

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.

June 5/10: Casselman Church
(Creative Commons License photo credit: susanvg)

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.

“Christian Racism”: These Wounds I Suffer in the House of My Friends

(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.

Racism in International Context: Ethnicity, Ethnocentrism & Nationalism in Africa

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 (credit eric). 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.

“Muslims” versus “Americans”?

I just ran across a book put out by the Gallup press last year, titled Who Speaks for Islam? What a Billion Muslims Really Think, by researchers John Esposito and Dalia Mogahed. Gallup did tens of thousands of interviews with people in 35 predominantly or significantly Muslim countries, asking them an array of questions about their views of the West and Islam. Here is a bit of the Gallup summary of their findings:

Muslims around the world do not see the West as monolithic. They criticize or celebrate countries based on their politics, not based on their culture or religion.

All their points in the Gallup summary are presented as “counterintuitive discoveries.” And rather uncritically too. The Western bias even in this “liberal” analysis is obvious. It does not take much familiarity with the non-Western media online to know this in advance. Mainly for Westerners would this “duh” conclusion be “counterintuitive.”

In addition, the U.S./Western bias leaps out at the reader in the major part of the summary that accents Western “concerns” about Islam:

When asked to describe their dreams for the future, Muslims don’t mention fighting in a jihad, but rather getting a better job. . . . Muslims and Americans are equally likely to reject attacks on civilians as morally unjustified. . . . Those who condone acts of terrorism are a minority and are no more likely to be religious than the rest of the population. . . .

Again, this is not really counterintuitive for people living in these countries, or indeed I suspect in most of the non-Western world. Featuring this Western obsession over “jihad” in a major survey tells us much more about Western stereotyping of non-Western Muslims than it does about the latter (billion) citizens of planet Earth.

The summary adds this:

What Muslims around the world say they most admire about the West is its technology and its democracy — the same two top responses given by Americans when asked the same question.. . . . What Muslims around the world say they least admire about the West is its perceived moral decay and breakdown of traditional values — the same responses given by Americans when posed the same question.

The strong and ethnocentric dichotomy throughout the summary is very revealing. There is the odd phrasing the Gallup folks use a couple of times: “Muslims and Americans.” And they carry out this dichotomy in describing (unmodified) “Muslims” and “Americans” as having similar values and views, but again without making it clear that millions of Muslims are indeed Americans. Apparently it does not occur to them that one can be both Muslim and American, all across the U.S.

The ethnocentrism and ignorance about Muslims, including U.S. Muslims, in the U.S. is indeed staggering. Maybe the naïve survey does move in the direction of seeing Muslims everywhere as human beings? As the summary notes:

Muslims around the world say that the one thing the West can do to improve relations with their societies is to moderate their views toward Muslims and respect Islam.

Indeed. And do a little research and reading.

Religious Racism: A Milestone Overlooked

During the November 2008 celebrations over Senator Obama’s election, another important event regarding the country’s racist past was generally overlooked. In that month the president and great-grandson of the founder of arch-conservative
Bob Jones University Bob Jones University
Creative Commons License photo credit: japedi
apologized for its long hyper-racist tradition:

For almost two centuries American Christianity, including BJU in its early stages, was characterized by the segregationist ethos of American culture. Consequently, for far too long, we allowed institutional policies regarding race to be shaped more directly by that ethos than by the principles and precepts of the Scriptures. . . . For these failures we are profoundly sorry. Though no known antagonism toward minorities or expressions of racism on a personal level have ever been tolerated on our campus, we allowed institutional policies to remain in place that were racially hurtful.

An odd apology, given that institutional racism never exists without personal discriminatory acts stemming from the old white racial frame. He apparently limits personal “racism” to just certain outrageous actions like cross-burnings, I suppose. Racist actions somehow do not include all the racial segregation barriers long implemented on campus by campus officials.

The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education continues with an interesting of this very segregated university. Its founder, Bob Jones, was a very fundamentalist and segregationist Christian evangelist. After several college moves and recurring financial troubles, it finally located in Greenville, S.C. (Interestingly, Billy Graham attended the college—at its earlier Tennessee location–in the 1930s but found it too conservative even for his tastes in reactionary religion.) Jones was extraordinarily hostile to Catholics and viewed the pope as the anti-Christ, as well as Blacks as naturally segregated and unfit for his college:

Jones Sr. was of the view that twentieth-century blacks should be grateful to whites for bringing their ancestors to this country as slaves. If this had not happened, Jones wrote in 1960, “they might still be over there in the jungles of Africa, unconverted.” Integrationists, according to Jones, were wrongfully trying to eradicate natural boundaries that God himself had established.

The son, Bob Jones Jr., was at least as extreme a segregationist and gave honorary degrees to leading segregationists like George Wallace, Strom Thurmond, and Lester Maddox. The next Bob Jones, the third, became president in 1971. The college, with lots of federal pressure, finally admitted unmarried black students, but strictly barred interracial dating. This led in 1976 to the IRS (belatedly) revoking its tax-exempt status and demanding back taxes. The resulting court case went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which also (belatedly) voted 8 to 1 for the IRS decision. (Only former segregation supporter Chief Justice Rehnquist voted against.) Still the college continued it racist religious rant:

In 1998 Jonathan Pait, a public relations spokesman for the university, explained the school’s prohibition against interracial dating: “God has separated people for his own purposes. He has erected barriers between the nations, not only land and sea barriers, but also ethnic, cultural, and language barriers. God has made people different from one another and intends those differences to remain. Bob Jones University is opposed to intermarriage of the races because it breaks down the barriers God has established.”

Just two years later, the college backed off on this position on interracial dating, but it took eight more years for the president of the university to make the rather tepid apology noted above. I wonder if President Obama’s election played a role in that apology

Whites Reveal Obama Reactions

[This reflective post was written by three college student researchers, Amanda, Dave, and Hannah]

Much like Jessie and Adia, this election has been a momentous event for young people, many voting for the first time. The three of us (Amanda, Dave, and Hannah) grew up in white, middle class neighborhoods and were taught a white-washed version of history. Since entering college and realizing the gaping holes in our education, we have taken deliberate steps to learn the complete history of America. This compounds the significance of Obama’s run for President for us.

At the daycare where Hannah works, one of the few black students said to her on the day after the election, “Barack Obama has a haircut like me.” This sentiment coming from a five-year-old boy marks the significance of the election for us. Obama and his family are constant reminders to all Americans that “Joe the Plumber” is not and never was the true face of America. We hope this is the beginning of a time in our country where whites never ignore the true faces of America. We are proud of this America, the one that has elected Barack Obama, and not the white-washed one of our past, that teachers taught to us by glazing over reality. We agree with Michelle Obama, this is the first time we have felt proud of our country.

We decided to talk with white students and community members to see how they viewed this historic election. We found many people were unsure of Obama’s religion and expressed fear at the possibility of electing a Muslim president. Some respondents wanted Obama to openly declare his religion and others were explicitly hostile towards Muslims. The prevailing excuse for this overt prejudice was the 9/11 attack and President Bush’s “War on Terror.” We found that both conservatives and liberals shared this sentiment.

People often hid their racist comments to distance themselves from appearing prejudiced. This is a front stage technique and is not surprising since we interviewed people in coffee houses and other public settings.

We also found people held contradictory views about Obama as both a radical Christian and a potential Islamic terrorist. When confronted with this inconsistency, they were unable to express both views clearly. Some were confused and ended their statement in uncertainty.

As Joe has stated, many felt that Obama’s victory spelled the end of racism in America. But we found the open prejudice towards Muslims contradicts this. In addition, Obama and his family were seen by many as “white” and therefore “an exception to the race.” This statement reveals the prevalence of racism because it implies that African Americans need an exception, and it also plays into the idea that whiteness equals goodness. It attempts to minimize the significance of electing a man of color as president.

As we move forward, we must not overlook the importance of Obama’s presidency. He is our first black president and a symbol of racial progress. The election of Obama is a strong foundation for addressing our racist history but this event does not signal the end of racism or the beginning of a “color-blind” American society.

Smearing Dr. Wright: White Fear and Republican Leaders, Again

Reportedly Senator McCain has said he will not use the Dr. Jeremiah Wright “story” against Senator Obama, but some Republican Party operatives (listed as the Republican Federal Committee of Pennsylvania) in Pennsylvania have ignored that inclination and are now running anti-Obama attack ads highlighting Dr. Wright. CNN has had this weak story up today:

. . . a last-minute television ad that calls attention to Barack Obama’s relationship with the Rev. Jeremiah Wright. “If you think you could ever vote for Barack Obama, consider this: Obama chose as his spiritual leader this man,” the ad’s narrator says before clips of Wright’s controversial statements are shown. “Does that sound like someone who should be president?” the ad asks.

The CNN story meekly continues with this:

Sen. John McCain has repeatedly said he does not believe Obama’s relationship to Wright should be an issue — to the ire of some Republicans who feel it raises questions about the Illinois senator’s judgment.

McCain deserves some credit for this if it is true, and apparently it is, or was. Governor Palin has ignored it lately, and presumably McCain could stop her:

“[Obama] sat in the pews for 20 years and heard Rev. Wright say some things that most people would find a bit concerning. But again that is John McCain’s call,” Palin told reporters. The state GOP … defended airing it. “We feel that it is necessary that the American people remember that Obama sat in a church and listened to this man preach hate for many, many years,” said a statement on its Web site. “What does that say about his judgment? Do we want the next president of the United States to have spent years listening to hateful rhetoric without having the good judgment to walk out?”

I pointed out the misrepresentations in such nonsense here in early April. Let us look again briefly at Dr. (notice the media and white politicians rarely give him his correct title) Jeremiah Wright’s famous (and old) sermon with the famous statements that ABC News first spread like wildfire. Five years ago, Dr. Wright gave a 40-minute sermon discussing the racist history of our government and what we need to do about it. He ends the sermon thus:

And the United States of America government, when it came to treating her citizens of Indian descent, she failed. She put them on reservations. When it came to putting her citizens of Japanese descent fairly, she failed. She put them in interment prison camps. When it came to putting the citizens of African descent fairly, America failed. She put them in chains. The government put them on slave quarters. Put them on auction blocks. Put them in cotton fields. Put them in inferior schools. Put them in substandard housing. Put them scientific experiments. Put them in the lower paying jobs. Put them outside the equal protection of the law. Kept them out of their racist bastions of higher education, and locked them into positions of hopelessness and helplessness. The government gives them the drugs, builds bigger prisons, passes a three strike law and then wants us to sing God Bless America. Naw, naw, naw. Not God Bless America. God Damn America! That’s in the Bible. For killing innocent people. God Damn America for treating us citizens as less than human. God Damn America as long as she tries to act like she is God and she is Supreme. …. The United States government has failed the vast majority of her citizens of African descent. Tell your neighbor he’s [going to] help us one last time. Turn back, and say forgive him for the “God Damn”–that’s in the Bible though. Blessings and curses is in the Bible. It’s in the Bible. Where government fails, God never fails. When God says it, it’s done. God never fails. When God wills it, you’d better get out the way, cause God never fails.

This sounds like many prophetic sermons I have heard from preachers over numerous decades now. Seen in context at the end of a long sermon, Wright’s prophet-type language of “God Damn America” (he means the American government) does not seem unpatriotic and un-American as widely claimed in the mainstream media. He is saying the U.S. government is not God, has a long history of racism, and must change its racially oppressive ways. He is candidly telling truths about white racism, something rare outside black homes and organizations (sermons like this take place 100s of times a week in African American churches). He is giving us some of the black counter-framing against the white racial frame, and many whites cannot handle that racial truth. Did anyone in the mass media even listen to or read the whole sermon?

Dr. Jeremiah Wright has been greatly slandered. He should sue the media. He is almost always framed by the white media folks as a “dangerous black man.” Yet he is actually an American prophet, indeed a prophetic hero who is not afraid to condemn this country’s racist government actions, past and present. He is not recognized in the mainstream media as a leading minister, yet he has been ranked in the top 15 African American ministers by the leading African American magazine. He is a much-honored minister in a predominantly white mainstream Protestant denomination originally founded by (are you ready for this?) that “radical” white group called the Pilgrims! He has seven honorary doctorates, has published four books, and has numerous articles. His savvy sermons are studied at major US divinity schools by white and black and other seminarians. Before he became a minister, he was a Navy corpsman who graduated at the top of his class and assisted President Johnson in a medical crisis. Why has this great American been slandered as unpatriotic and too radical? Only because he spoke out vigorously against white racism. And now the Republicans slander him once again. They should instead actually listen to his sermons. They might learn something they badly need to know about US racism.

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.

Two-Faced Racism: Pfleger Does Not Equal Limbaugh

Dr. Boyce Watkins on his blog and at offers an excellent commentary on the way in which the traditional white-controlled media distort racial debates and match opponents of racial oppression and their sometimes strong language with the white maintainers and creators of that racial oppression. When Dr. Jeremiah Wright or Father Michael Pfleger get angry and mock the racist system–and make a few inappropriate or debatable comments (in the context of hundreds of accurate comments backed by research)–everybody and his/ her dog in the traditional media jump on them, but when whites like Pat Buchanan or Rush Limbaugh make many statements preserving the 400 year old racist system, the media take them on as pundits and let them make millions off helping keep the old racist system in place.

One key to understanding here is that Wright and Pfleger are operating out of a liberty-and-justice counter frame to the white racial frame that is so dominant in this society that most people, especially most whites, see it as “normal” and appropriate (see here). I have yet to see any significant analysis by the media or political leaders of how the African American population (including a significant sample of church members’) views Wright or Pfleger and what they have said about racial oppression.

Dr. Watkins makes some important points point about the debates over Dr. Wright and Father Pfleger, one of very few white leaders, including clergy, willing to give their lives to end 400 years of white oppression of Americans of color:

Those who claim that Pfleger preaches hate don’t know a damn thing about what hate really is. If they want to see hate, they only need to look at what their parents, grandparents and great grandparents have done to African Americans since our country was founded. The idea that fighting historical oppression is equivalent to maintaining oppression (i.e. Sean Hannity is the same as Jeremiah Wright) is not only silly, but it is quite revealing of how little racial education an individual has. A daughter who files a lawsuit against the family of the man who raped her mother and stole her belongings is not a thief and rapist herself. As Father Pfleger points out clearly, this government has benefitted from stealing from our ancestors, that is why black people have nothing: we don’t own media, we don’t own corporations, we don’t own universities. That didn’t happen overnight. It happened because of racism, and we are forced to deal with these effects every single day.

Yet the parrots in the mass media all in one chorus chant that clergy like Wright and Pfleger are evil, wild, hateful, or irrational. Yet somehow they do not chant that chorus about the 400-year-old racist system that has destroyed, and is still destroying, tens of millions of African American lives with the ugly white-controlled racist barriers of slavery (246 years and still no apology or reparations), legal segregation (90 years and still no apology or reparations), and decades of informal racial discrimination (39 years and still no apology or reparations). Why do you suppose that is?

“Prosperity” Preachers Ignoring Racism: The Potter’s Patch

Earlier this month, Bishop T.D. Jakes, leader of one of the largest congregations in America (“Potter’s House” in Dallas Texas), responded to CNN’s claim that he and other “prosperity” preachers are ignoring the largely egalitarian messages of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King(photo: directionstoorthodoxy). Prior to publishing his article, Jakes stated that “personal responsibility, motivating and equipping people to live the best lives that they can” are more pressing than the pursuit of social/racial equality.
In response to the attention given to the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Jakes defined the mission of Christian congregations and their function in larger struggles for racial justice and social equality. In an editorial Jakes wrote for CNN, he claims that a Christian congregation should not segregate itself on the basis of race or politics. Rather, “its relevance and vision must go beyond its community and reach the world for which Christ died.” This, for Jakes means that congregations (and presumably the congregants that fill them) should fill a “broader role in politics, business, media and impacting societal ills.”

In order to address societal ills, and more broadly, bring about social and racial equality in America, Jakes suggests the following: Americans dissolve their membership in monoracial churches and join multiracial congregations; and Americans unite across lines of race, class, and gender to provide resources to at risk groups.

Though sociologists such as Korie Edwards, Michael O. Emerson, and George Yancey continue to examine the role of multiracial churches in the quest for racial equality, the primacy Jakes gives to “social capital” is disturbing. Social capital refers to a community’s “trust, norms, and networks” (Robert Putnam). When used effectively, and by that I mean when communities form relationships with each other, resources can be distributed from the proverbial haves to the have-not’s. Sociologists Eduardo Bonilla-Silva and Gianpaolo Baiocchi (2007) argue that this social capital approach involves a weak understanding of racism. This understanding ignores that: Social networks and norms of social behavior are often mobilized to defend racial exclusion in a racialized society; individuals in a racialized society do not have equal access to networks, and networks themselves are racialized. And the assumption that social capital leads to certain virtuous norms of behavior is both untenable and confusing of causes and effects. For Bonilla-Silva and Baiocchi (2007), proponents of this social capital perspective fail to acknowledge that America is a nation built and sustained on white domination of Blacks, Hispanics, and the white underclass.

Scholars such as Melissa Harris-Lacewell, Shayne Lee, and Jonathan Walton claim that the leader of the Potters House, one of the largest and most diverse congregations, possesses a thin framework for understanding contemporary problems of race, class, and gender. These scholars argue that Jakes provides weak solutions to social problems. Jakes’ editorial did little to address those critiques.

Instead, in this and other works, Jakes dismissed Wright as angry and irrational while claiming to advocate for the Black community–a community that as Michael Dawson shows, shares the same views regarding racism as Wright. Sadly, like Booker T. Washington before him, Jakes’s weaving together of (a) American individualism and with that, a weak understanding of racism, with (b) an alleged concern for the Black community, not only separates Jakes from the thoughts and opinions of most mainstream Blacks regarding racism, but more importantly, any realistic hope of changing the racialized social system that hinders the advancement of Blacks and the white poor.


~ Ryon Cobb
Ford Foundation Fellow
Doctoral Student, Florida State University