“Divided by Faith” by Emerson and Smith

It turns out that there is more than just one kind of racism in the world. Just a few variants of racism are overt prejudiced racism (the thing that virtually every reasonable person disavows), there is also unconscious bias (something everyone has to some degree or another, regardless of how their principles and desires may affect them), and there is the more insidious and harder for privileged people to see institutional and historical racialization, which when perpetuated amounts to institutional racism and inequality. Unfortunately, no matter how much effort we put into removing our unconscious biases and fighting overt racism, as long as the systems of power and the social fabric of America remain racialized, our “race problem,” as it is called, will continue to linger and worsen.

Divded by Faith
Divided by Faith, by Michael Emerson and Christian Smith

I was recommended to read Michael O. Emerson and Christian Smith’s landmark sociology study, “Divided by Faith” by several people, most notably the wonderful Pass The Mic podcast hosted by the Reformed African American Network (RAAN). Their wonderful sociology and religion study goes into great detail of the history of race relations in America, starting with the country’s founding on the backs of African chattel slaves and working its way through the various stages of religious justifications for the continuation of and the abolition of slavery and the various forms of institutionalized racism that came after it. The study takes advantage of large amounts of Pew research polling data, among others, as well as their own exhaustive interviews with hundreds of self-proclaimed evangelical Christians  (and others).

Through the course of the chapters it becomes abundantly clear that black and white people in America, particularly in conservative evangelical Christian circles, have grown increasingly far away from each other geographical, culturally, and in terms of their perceptions of race related problems as well as the proposed explanations for them and possible solutions. I don’t want to go into to much detail, but suffice it to say that white Anglo-Saxon protestant (WASP) culture (see “Waking Up White”) prepares its constituents to see the world as a uniquely individualistic and self-determined place, leaving no room for institution or community level factors to play a large role in personal actions and success. Tied up with the WASP ideal of personal relationships in their understanding of salvation also comes an unhealthy over-reliance on relationships as a means for solving race relation problems. Admittedly, there are great strides to be made by fostering cross-racial relationships, but that does not change the fact that the most segregated hour in America remains 11AM on Sundays.

There are tons of valid justifications, historical and contemporaneous, as to why this (largely) voluntary self-segregation exists and remains today, ranging from the simple matter of different cultures and worship styles all the way up to the market-driven pluralistic mechanism of modern evangelical church planting and growth. Sociologically speaking, it is simply more difficult to cater a church’s environment and appeal to fit a broader audience, and when the balance of subcultures in a church is upset it is difficult to correct, often leading to unintentionally mono-cultural and mono-racial congregations.

I am not necessarily decrying the inevitable segregation of such churches, or the disproportionate success of mono-racial churches, but I am disturbed by what Emerson and Smith reveal, confirming and expanding upon my only recent, nascent understanding of the sociology of racialization and church communities. They describe that when church involvement is the cornerstone of a local community and that congregation is segregated, opportunities and network building between racial groups will become maximally limited. When there is an additional aspect to this community segregation that includes an imbalance of power, then life in that community becomes racialized. Emerson and Smith define a racializated society as “a society wherein race matters profoundly for life experiences, life chances, and social relationships. The racialized society of the United States … is characterized by low intermarriage rates, de facto segregation, socioeconomic inequality, and personal identities and social networks that are racially distinctive.” Unfortunately, they go on to show, racially segregated evangelical churches are one of the most potent drivers of continuing and worsening racialization.

This perpetuation of racialized society by well-meaning, non racist or colorblind or even racial justice activist, but nonetheless segregated evangelical congregations is so critical that I will just quote some of what the authors have to say on the matter:

At its core, contemporary racialization is characterized by separate networks and differential access to valued resources, such as health, wealth, and status. The mere existence of racially homogeneous religious groups contributes to racially separate networks. Racially homogeneous religious groups, especially strong religious groups, also contribute to differential access to resources, given the preexisting context of inequality by race.

And:

The basic workings of American religion promote more ingroup friends, marriages, and acquaintances. Thus, religion – especially “strong” religion – both helps to create racially distinctive networks and, in using them as the basis for congregational and denominational growth, helps maintain and justify them …

Because the organization of religion in the United States does heighten the salience of racial boundaries and reduce interracial ties, it necessarily reproduces racial inequality.

I hope these excerpts make clear the gravity of the analysis and conclusions they have made in their book.

All hope is not lost, as long as some Christians somewhere are willing to make some changes in worldview and comfort. Emerson and Smith close out their illuminating and somewhat pessimistic book with a brief look to what may be held in the future:

As we show elsewhere, addressing racialization must involve replacing structural barriers – such as segregation, inequality, and group competition – with structural supports – such as equality and cooperation and mutual interdependence. Trying to overcome racial divisions in America has been very difficult in the past, and we should not expect things to get much easier in the very near future … Good intentions are not enough. But educated, sacrificial, realistic efforts made in faith across racial lines can help us together move toward a more just, equitable, and peaceful society. And that is a purpose well worth striving toward.

With all of this in mind (and consider that I skipped most of their argument’s build up and support) it is clear that Christian or not, evangelical or not, racially segregated or not, it is up to all of us to examine ourselves and recognize that the racialization of America today is largely due to structural problems and that therefore structural solutions are required to resolve them. Working to end the racial divisions in churches will obviously have a great effect on this, as Emerson and Smith have shown that it is churches themselves that contribute so much to the perpetuation of racialization. However, it is also important to end the fundamental racial inequality that our racialized society, through further de facto (and often voluntary) segregation, is built upon – even if that means rising above WASP-favored interpersonal solutions and perspectives and making sweeping changes and sacrifices.

Please join me in this self-examination and cultural introspection (I started with a fantastic book about my unexamined white mentality and culture, see my post on “Waking up White“). It does not hurt to think about change – and before any real change can be effected, the theoretical framework must be examined. The road to Hell is paved with good intentions. It is of the utmost importance that we (those in the mainstream culture) learn as much as we can, throw off our cultural assumptions and narrow perspectives, and strive forward to end the abhorrent inequality that continues to plague our world.


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