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Abstract

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. The Role of Whiteness
  4. Different Perspectives
  5. Conclusion
  6. References

In recent decades we have witnessed increased interest in racially diverse religious organizations. Similar trends are occuring in other institutions, like education and business. In this article I discuss the importance of understanding the role that race, as a system that advantages whites, plays in the congregational life of racially integrated churches. Drawing upon the critical race literature, I propose that because race is central to how our society is organized, interracial chruches will need to placate white members' and affirm their religiocultural preferences and interests in order to sustain a racially diverse congregation. I offer some evidence supporting this claim. I also discuss the strengths and limitations of other perspectives used to explain racially diverse religious organizations.

My intellectual interest in racially diverse religious organizations was born out of personal experience. I attended predominately African-American churches for most of my life. But, after graduating from college I relocated to a predominately white suburb to live near work. Mainly out of convenience I decided to attend a rather large, predominately white church in the same area. Attending a church like this was new for me, but not alien given that I am often in predominately white settings. And I enjoyed the services well enough to attend for nearly three years. During my time there, the pastors periodically encouraged people to avoid racial prejudice and be inclusive of others in their day-to-day life. Yet, despite their references to racial inclusion in sermons from time to time, I rarely saw racial or ethnic minorities participate in the worship services. Nor were any of the pastors, church elders, or staff racial or ethnic minorities. I began to contemplate how racial inequality and segregation could be reproduced in an institution that claims to be opposed to such processes. I approached this question by first aiming to understand where and how religious racial diversity actually worked.

As I embarked on this research, I made it a habit to visit interracial churches when I could. I must admit that I wanted these organizations to reveal how racial equality and diversity could be successfully achieved. But, as I continued to visit these organizations, I observed a pattern. Interracial churches where whites were a substantial portion of the attendance did not tend to reflect a racially and ethnically egalitarian community. Rather, these churches more closely emulated the worship practices, organizational structure, and cultural style of the white churches that I attended or observed. There were symbolic elements representing African-American, Latino, or Asian culture during the worship services or in the physical space—a sermon translated into Spanish, flags from different countries hung around the sanctuary, discussion of mission trips to Africa or South America, gospel choir singing a selection, photos of nonwhites in the church literature—but the more core congregational characteristics, such as the theological orientation, worship service structure, sermonic presentation, and leadership structure, did not reflect the cultures of racial or ethnic minorities.

My observations of interracial churches ultimatelly led me to the following proposition: interracial churches with a substantial white attendance will work (by this I mean sustain a racially or ethnically diverse attendance) to the extent that they are first comfortable places for whites to attend. I propose that this is because religious organizations are not immune to the power of race in this country. Race is a central organizing force in the United States (Omi and Winant 1994) and religion is no exception. Indeed, religion, particularly Christianity, is arguably the most racially segregated institution in the United States. Until relatively recently, Christians and Christian organizations have been overtly complicit in reinforcing the racial hierarchy that advantages whites (Emerson and Smith 2000). Because whites are culturally and structurally privileged in this society, and this privilege is normalized such that whites are both accustomed and blind to it, racially diverse organizations will need to accommodate whites in order to retain them. Researchers then must take account of race, specifically whiteness when studying racially diverse religious organizations.

The Role of Whiteness

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. The Role of Whiteness
  4. Different Perspectives
  5. Conclusion
  6. References

Race theorists argue that white hegemony is the rule in the United States (Bonilla-Silva 2001; Mills 2003; Omi and Winant 1994; Wellman 1993). Institutions within white hegemonies sustain a culture and structure that distributes and redistributes power and wealth to whites (Mills 2003), but that also sufficiently incorporates the consent of nonwhites by promoting an appealing ideological and cultural system (Omi and Winant 1994). Critical race theorists propose that central to the reproduction of white hegemonies is white racial identity or whiteness. They have begun to problematize “whiteness” to deconstruct the underpinnings of white hegemony.

Whiteness has three dimensions: white structural advantage, white normativity, and white transparency (Doane 2003; Frankenberg 1993; Lewis 2004). White structural advantage is whites’ disproportionate control or influence over nearly every social institution in this country. This affords whites the ability to structure social life so that it privileges them (Andersen 2003; Doane 2003; Flagg 1993). White normativity is the normalization of whites’ cultural practices, ideologies, and location within the racial hierarchy. How whites do things, their understandings the world, and their dominant social location over other racial groups are accepted as just how things are. White normativity also privileges whites because they, unlike nonwhites, do not need to justify their way of doing or being. Nor are they accustomed to doing so. Instead, the burden of explanation rests upon those who stray from what are deemed normative beliefs and practices. White transparency is a lack of awareness among whites that they are also a “raced” group and that being white has consequences for their lives. They perceive whites as cultureless and other racial and ethnic groups as possessing distinctive cultural or ethnic practices (Waters 1990).

None of this is to suggest that all whites are equally privileged or dominant, or that there are not multiple subcultures among whites (Hartigan 1999; Lewis 2004). But historical and social scientific research shows that whites from different economic strata, ethnic backgrounds, and religious affiliations—among other lines of distinction—have more easily assimilated into the dominant culture (Barkan 1995; Tuan 1998; Waters 1990), constructed and accessed social structures to their benefit (Guglielmo 2003; Jacobson 1999), possess similar overarching values and ideologies (Bonilla-Silva 2001; Lipsitz 1998; Schuman, Steeh, and Bobo 1985), and do not see race as something that affects them (Feagin, Vera, and Bartur 2001; Waters 1990). These qualities connect whites across various white subgroups.

In my research, I draw upon the National Congregations Study (NCS; Chaves 1998; Chaves et al. 1999) and a case study to understand if and how whiteness matters for the congregational life of interracial churches, specifically those largely composed of African Americans and whites. In short, the survey results show that African-American/white interracial churches’ culture and structures differ from that of African-American churches on nearly every measure of worship practice and congregational activity I examined. Yet, they are consistently similar to predominately white churches along these same indicators. Therefore, it does not appear that interracial churches develop a particularly distinct kind of congregational life or one that represents a balance between the religious cultures evident in predominately African-American and predominately white churches. Their worship practices and congregational activities suggest that the congregational life of interracial churches is far more inclined to emulate that of predominately white churches than predominately African-American churches. My case study of an interracial church suggests that this is due to white attendees’ limited interest in addressing race-related issues and accommodating the worship and religious preferences of African-American attendees, as well as their minimal understanding of how being white privileges them. But, the affirmation of whiteness by some African-American attendees also contributes to producing this outcome (Edwards 2008).

Different Perspectives

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. The Role of Whiteness
  4. Different Perspectives
  5. Conclusion
  6. References

Other research has drawn upon a social identity approach or the homophily principle to explain how interracial religious organizations develop and sustain their diversity. While these theoretical approaches provide some currency for understanding diversity, they do not adequately account for the impact of race on American life.

Recategorization, the social identity transformation strategy most evident in interracial churches, involves promoting an identity that encompasses multiple subgroups (Gaertner et al. 1989, 1999). Interracial churches attempt recategorization by emphasizing a social identity that is common among church attendees, generally a religious identity, and deemphasizing racial differences (Becker 1998; Marti 2005; Stanczak 2006). There are challenges to this approach. Race bestows a social status and has a direct impact on people's employment, housing, and other social and economic opportunities. Recategorization does not recognize that an existing racial order is in place that has social and economic implications for attendees of different races. The promotion of a broader, inclusive religious identity submerges the real, everyday consequences of living life in the United States as a racial minority, leaving them with a limited to no mechanism for applying faith to these experiences in a collective context. Furthermore, promoting a social identity that minimizes the role of race in people's lives serves to reinforce whiteness. Whites are not inclined to think about race and its consequences for them. This approach allows them to continue to do so. Additionally, religious identities, particularly in the United States, are racialized. The meanings of these identities have often been constructed in racially exclusive contexts. Emerson and Smith (2000) show that white and black evangelicals, for example, possess very different tools in their religiocultural toolkits. Inevitably these different tools lead whites and blacks to forge distinctly different religious identities, ones that are restricted by the cultural resources available to them. When promoting a religious identity, interracial religious organizations will need to choose a religiocultural toolkit from which to construct this identity. I propose that whiteness will dictate that it be the one that whites are comfortable and familiar with. Racial and ethnic minorities will need to draw upon their proficiency in the dominant culture to bridge a connection with white attendees.

According to the homophily principle, people prefer to spend time with others who are like them (Blau 1977, 1984). Organizations tend to be homogeneous because potential members of organizations are recruited through homogeneous social networks (McPherson and Smith-Lovin 1987; McPherson et al. 1992; Popielarz and McPherson 1995) but also because “atypical” organizational members—members who are in the numerical minority group in the organization—are less likely to stay in a voluntary organization (Popielarz and McPherson 1995). Members who are in demand by other organizations are also less likely to remain in voluntary organizations. Therefore, members who are both atypical of an organization and in high demand by other organizations are especially inclined to leave (McPherson et al. 1992; Popielarz and McPherson 1995). This is evident in interracial churches. People who are members of the numerical minority group in racially diverse churches are less satisfied with their church experience and feel disconnected from the church. They leave the church for these reasons (Christerson, Edwards, and Emerson 2005).

The homophily principle is applicable to our understanding of interracial churches, and interracial voluntary organizations generally. However, the concept of the atypical member— which is strictly based upon relative size of members’ reference group in the organization— needs revisiting. For interracial space, race is as much or more a factor in membership characteristics. In my own research, whites disproportionately left the church in noticeable numbers even when their group was in the numerical majority. These departures coincided with changes in the church that were potentially threatening to their influence within the organization. Therefore, when applying the homophily principle to interracial religious organizations, both the numerical and social statuses of organizational members should be included in our understanding of typical and atypical members and how that affects membership patterns.

Conclusion

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. The Role of Whiteness
  4. Different Perspectives
  5. Conclusion
  6. References

Race is structured into the very foundation of the United States (Bonilla-Silva 2001; Lopez 1996; Omi and Winant 1994). People in this country live life along lines of race, living in different neighborhoods, attending different schools, working in different jobs. Because race is a hierarchical system where people from superordinate groups are considered more worthy, relevant, and important than people from subordinate groups (Cornell and Hartman 1988), certain groups can more easily access more desirable places to live, work, and educate their children. Those who attend interracial churches cannot escape the meaning that such an existence has for their religious lives. If in our attempts to understand racially diverse religious settings we do not acknowledge this ever-present reality for the organizations and people we study, we will limit our ability to elucidate the real meaning of being an interracial religious community.

Additionally, the impact of whiteness on interracial churches is not necessarily a “white versus black” (or red or brown) issue. It is appealing to reduce racial issues to such a scenario, but such a perspective does not acknowledge the complexity of human relations, or the diversity of preferences, ideas, and experiences within racial groups. Sustaining a structure and culture in interracial churches that affirms the particular religiocultural tools and predilections of whites in a given context will be dependent upon their structural advantage, cultural normativity, and racial transparency, but also on nonwhite persons’ submitting to the expectation of white attendees, out of their own submergence in dominant culture or desire to attract and retain white attendees.

Finally, I have emphasized the experiences of primarily African-American/white interracial congregations in my discussion. However, I suspect that similar racial dynamics will be evident in Christian interracial religious organizations of other racial compositions. The outcome of whiteness, white hegemony, will persist despite which racial minority group is subjected to it (Lipsitz 1998). Similar issues over control of structure and culture in the congregation will arise. I propose that it is only the particular ways in which whiteness manifests itself that will differ in interracial churches where Native Americans, Latinos, or Asians are the primary racial/ethnic minority group in the organization.

References

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. The Role of Whiteness
  4. Different Perspectives
  5. Conclusion
  6. References
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