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Michael O. Emerson is the Tsanoff Professor of Public Affairs and Sociology at Rice University, the author of numerous articles on race relations and religion, and the co-author of United by Faith. He lives in Houston, Texas. Christian Smith is the Chapin Distinguished Professor of Sociology at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and the author of American Evangelicalism and Christian America? What Evangelicals Really Want. He lives in Durham, North Carolina.
Table of Contents
While I was sitting at a stoplight a few blocks from my [Emerson's] home in Minneapolis, reflecting on the recent rash of drive-by shootings in the area, three African-American teens clad in the urban uniform of the day—baggy pants and shirts, jewelry, and Fila basketball shoes—crossed the street in front of me. I was the only white in the area and on seeing me these young men abruptly stopped, turned, and faced me. The middle one drew up his hands, positioned as if holding a pistol, to mock-shoot me. After taking aim and pulling the imaginary trigger, complete with a kickback motion from the force of the weapon, he blew the imaginary smoke off his finger. Confidently smiling, as if to say it would be that easy, they turned and walked away. I sat there, frozen.
My highly educated colleague James, an African American who recently moved to a new state, was driving from work, which is in a nearly all-white, well-to-do suburb, to his home in another nearly all-white, well-to-do suburb. About a mile after he left work, a police car began to follow him. It followed him all the way to his suburb. "Why are they following me?" James thought, and as they continued to trail him, "Why don't they pull me over?" The police continued to follow him to his street, and even to his home. When James had pulled into his driveway, the police blocked the driveway entrance to the street, turned on the police car lights, and ordered him, over the loudspeaker, to get out of his car with his hands away from his body. Neighbors peered out their windows, and those outside stopped their activities to observe their new neighbor and the unfolding scene. Although frustrated, angry, and very embarrassed, he did as he was told. The white police officers got out to search and question him. After a few minutes they told him they were sorry for the inconvenience and he was free to go. It turned out it was merely a case of mistaken identity; they thought he was someone else wanted for a serious crime. James asked why they had to follow him all the way to his home, resulting in embarrassing him in front of his neighbors and likely reinforcing stereotypes about black men. He never did get a clear answer.
Since that incident, which took place about a year ago, the police stopped James twice more. In both instances, it turned out to be a case of mistaken identity. The same thing, he told me, has happened all his life, no matter where he has lived. Curiosity raised, I asked other African Americans if they had ever experienced anything similar. Nearly everyone I asked had. My colleague and neighbor Walanda told me she had been pulled over by the police in a posh suburb, home to upscale shopping, four times, and no longer goes there.
Why do these incidents happen? Why do we think it worthwhile to mention the race of those involved? Although interpretations of these events may vary, few readers familiar with the United States will have trouble answering these questions. For race is intimately tied to the American experience. It is what Swedish researcher Gunnar Myrdal called "an American dilemma." Others have gone further, describing it as indivisible from American life. Few subjects are as persistent, as potentially emotionally explosive, or as troublesome as race in America.
But the impact of race is not captured only by incidents such as those just described. It takes more benign forms as well. The race problem is not confined to prejudice or unfair treatment by some individuals. To focus solely on these when considering American race relations is to miss the broader picture.
For example, prejudice does not account for an experience I [Emerson] had while doing research for this book. I called to interview Chauntel Adams, an African-American woman. After two rings, a man, likely her husband, answered.
"Hello," I said, "this is Dr. Michael Emerson. Is Chauntel there?"
"Just a minute."
He cupped his hand over the phone receiver to keep me from hearing his next words, but, as is often the case, I heard anyway.
"Chauntel, the phone."
"Who is it?" came her reply, obviously from another room.
"I don't know," he responded, "some white guy."
Beyond this man's ability to accurately identify my race from just two short sentences uttered over a phone is the fact that my race had meaning. What meaning it had was not entirely clear, but the fact that it mattered was obvious. Yet, despite its meaning, it did not necessarily entail prejudice.
So how do we capture the meaning of race in America? In this book, we use the term "racialized society." Not only, we argue, is it a more useful term than prejudice or racism, but it provides a framework by which to guide our inquiry. In the post-Civil Rights United States, the racialized society is one in which intermarriage rates are low, residential separation and socioeconomic inequality are the norm, our definitions of personal identity and our choices of intimate associations reveal racial distinctiveness, and where "we are never unaware of the race of a person with whom we interact." In short, and this is its unchanging essence, a racialized society is a society wherein race matters profoundly for differences in life experiences, life opportunities, and social relationships. A racialized society can also be said to be "a society that allocates differential economic, political, social, and even psychological rewards to groups along racial lines; lines that are socially constructed."
To say that racial categories are socially constructed is, for many, a new way to think about race. After all, usually Americans can clearly identify people according to their race, and do so based on physical rather than social characteristics. But to say that race is socially constructed does not mean physical differences are not readily apparent. Rather, we say that race is socially constructed for at least two different reasons. First, only certain physical characteristics are used to classify people. Foot size and ear shape are not used by Americans to classify people by race, even though people vary on these physical characteristics. Second, race is socially constructed insofar as selected physical characteristics have social meaning. On meeting someone for the first time, Americans often assume that a white person is middle class or higher. They also often assume that a black person or an American Indian is lower class. They may or may not be correct in their assumption, but race is socially constructed at these points because selected physical characteristics are associated with selected social characteristics. The social construction of race is highlighted by the fact that the way groups of people are defined changes. In the United States, Irish and Italian Americans were once viewed as distinct, and inferior, racial groups. Today, they are classified as white Americans of Irish or Italian ethnicity.
To understand that race in the United States is socially constructed is necessary for understanding the racialization perspective. Although it may seem odd to many Americans, who are socialized into the reality of race from an early age, "race" as a social construct arose in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries to justify the overtaking and enslaving of whole people groups. It continues to exist only insofar as it is recreated. That is, races exist because a society is racialized. As we will explore, who people marry, where people live, political struggles, objective interests, and identities, among others, are all part of the racialized character of society, and the "structure" of racial formation. Furthermore, due to the origins of the idea of race, the placement of people in racial groups always means some form of hierarchy. This is why we may define a racialized society, in part, as one that allocates differential rewards by race.
This is not to deny the importance of other divisions within racial groups, such as class or gender. Rather, this says race is an independent, fundamental cleavage within the United States. For example, Brooks and Manza examined the social cleavages—which they define as differences in political alignment among groups—of class, sex, religion, and race from 1960 to 1990. For all years examined, they found that race was easily the largest social cleavage (followed by religion), and that the race cleavage had actually grown in magnitude since 1960.
But, in societies where race matters, we must be clear that the form of racial hierarchy and division varies. The form varies both between societies and over time within societies, as their economic system and other institutions change. In the United States, roughly speaking, the form has changed from slavery, to "Jim Crow" segregation, to the post-Civil Rights-era division.
A major problem in understanding race relations in the United States is that we tend to understand race, racism, and the form of racialization as constants rather than as variables. This view has grave implications. Racism, for instance, is often captured best in people's minds by the ideology and actions of the Ku Klux Klan: an overt doctrine of racial superiority—usually labeled prejudice—that leads to discrimination. Based on this unchanging standard, racism is viewed as an irrational psychological phenomenon that is the product of individuals, and is evidenced in overt, usually hostile behavior. It is the driving force behind anything negative about race relations. Using this perspective, social scientists devise survey questions meant to measure the level of racism in a society, such as "Whites have a right to keep blacks out of their neighborhood," or "How strongly would you object if a member of your family brought a black friend home for dinner?" Based on this approach, they conclude that racism is declining, since a smaller percentage of people over time respond in a prejudiced fashion. The interpretation? Because racism is seen as driving racial problems, race matters less for shaping social life and life opportunities.
But things look different when we see that the form of racialization changes. Suppose we were still using a standard that was set in relation to slavery. Making the same assumption about racism that we do today, we would assume that slavery is the result of racism (even though, as noted above, racism was an ideology created to justify slavery, not vice versa). If we were designing ways to measure racism in the antebellum era, we might measure racism as the level of agreement with statements like, "Darkies are happier being slaves," "Colored people are more like children than adults," "Africans are not fully human," and "It is God's will that Anglos be masters, and Africans be slaves." If we used this unchanging standard, we would find that the farther removed from 1865, the smaller the percentage of people agreeing with such statements. Again, using present-day logic, we would conclude that racism and the race problem were declining, and indeed, say by 1955, we would conclude it had nearly disappeared.
But our hindsight is clear. By 1955, the problems of race and the racial hierarchy had not disappeared at all. The forms had changed to be sure, but so ever-present were the problems that major social movements and upheavals resulted. These upheavals ushered in a new era of race relations in the United States—the post-Civil Rights era. Our understandings of race relations, however, remain stuck in the Jim Crow era, leading us to mistaken conclusions—racism is on the wane, and racial division and the racial hierarchy are but historical artifacts. Rather than incorrectly examine race in the United States using an old standard, we must adapt our understanding and analysis to the new, post-Civil Rights era.
The framework we here use—racialization—reflects that adaptation. It understands that racial practices that reproduce racial division in the contemporary United States "(1) are increasingly covert, (2) are embedded in normal operations of institutions, (3) avoid direct racial terminology, and (4) are invisible to most Whites." It understands that racism is not mere individual, overt prejudice or the free-floating irrational driver of race problems, but the collective misuse of power that results in diminished life opportunities for some racial groups. Racism is a changing ideology with the constant and rational purpose of perpetuating and justifying a social system that is racialized. The justification may include individual, overt prejudice and discrimination, but these are not necessary. Because racialization is embedded within the normal, everyday operation of institutions, this framework understands that people need not intend their actions to contribute to racial division and inequality for their actions to do so.
Saying that we need not intend our actions to be discriminatory for racialization to occur does not sit well with most of us. Yet, throughout American history, the racialized character of the United States has relied as much on its institutionalization as on people being individually prejudiced. Many slave owners were quite fond of their slaves and formed deep bonds, while the institution of slavery did the racializing. During the late 1930s and early 1940s, Swedish scholar Gunnar Myrdal traveled America in preparation for his monumental work on American race relations. In interviewing, he found many honest, good-natured people who told him that though the United States once had a race problem back during slavery times, it no longer did. Relations between the races were good and improving all the time, people were content, and society was functioning smoothly. Yes, a few racists were out there, and some of the things they did were dreadful, but those racists in no way represented the majority of people. Myrdal then pushed them a bit, asking about the gross inequalities and the segregation between races, and suggested that perhaps they themselves contributed to the problem simply by living according to socially defined ways, such as segregation. People were rather taken aback by this, and though they had not really thought about this before, they were sure this was not the problem. They then proceeded to offer a justification for the system.
Something similar, we argue, is what occurs today. Institutions and some of America's nonrace-based values reproduce racialization without any need for people to be prejudiced, as defined in the Jim Crow era. In fact, often the leaders in reproducing racialization in the post-Civil Rights era are those who are least prejudiced, as traditionally measured.
For example, as we show elsewhere, highly educated whites, compared to less well-educated whites, are much less likely to say they are uncomfortable with black neighbors, less likely to say that they would move if African Americans moved to their neighborhood, and more likely to say that they would consider moving to neighborhoods where African Americans live. The implication is clear. Based on what the well educated say, they should be less segregated from blacks than are other white Americans. But when we looked at where whites actually lived by educational level, even after controlling for many other factors, such as income, college-educated whites are actually more segregated from black Americans then are whites with less education. We also uncovered the exact same pattern for taking children out of public schools. Although highly educated whites express significantly more openness to their children attending racially integrated schools, when we look at their actual practices, they are significantly more likely to take their children out of public schools as the percentage of African Americans increases, again even after controlling for other differences. Their children are thus actually more likely to attend racially homogenous schools.
Why this pattern? It is not because well-educated whites are more prejudiced in the traditional sense. Rather, it is because they are better able to follow core American ideals—in this instance, a nice home in a quiet neighborhood with parks and good schools. In the racialized United States, this means ending up in "whiter" neighborhoods and schools. To reproduce racialization does not require "racism" or "prejudice" as they are typically defined.
In fact, the racialized society is reproduced in everyday actions and decisions. These are seen, as in past eras, as normal and acceptable, at least by white Americans. As one example, although many Americans believe residential segregation by force of law is wrong (the Jim Crow method), they accept residential segregation by choice (the post-Civil Rights method). The methods differ, but the results—reproducing racialization—are the same. Choice and freedom are two of the dominant American values that today maintain the racialized society. Contemporaries may view these values as the realization of America's destiny, but these values are at the same time now essential tools in dividing people along socially constructed racial lines.
Is the United States Really Racialized?
When we speak of the racialized society, we mean primarily the black-white divide (or in some cases, the black-nonblack divide). This is not to suggest that other races and ethnicities in the United States do not matter, only that the gulf between American blacks and whites is generally more vast and the history longer in comparison to others. Noted race relations scholar Thomas Pettigrew argues that the African American-European American divide is unique "not only in the United States but in the world at large." Further, for the Americans we interviewed, the black-white issue was clearly the one race issue at the forefront of their minds. And indeed, if we follow the definition of a racialized society, it is largely a black-white divide (or again, in some cases, black-nonblack). We can see this black-white divide by examining, among others, intermarriage rates, residential patterns, economic inequalities, health, dialects, racial classification, musical expressions, media reactions to controversial music, television viewing habits, and where Americans worship.
Consider, for one, racial divisions in marriage. Although up-to-date intermarriage rates are often difficult to obtain, due to scarce and incomplete records, careful estimates have been calculated. Studies of West Coast communities found that for marriages involving at least one Japanese American, 50 percent involved a non-Japanese American. For Chinese Americans, estimates range from 20 to 45 percent marrying outside their group; and about 30 percent of married Korean Americans are married to non-Korean Americans. Depending on how American Indian ancestry is measured, anywhere from 40 to 78 percent of married American Indians have non-Indian spouses. But for blacks and whites, well over 90 percent of those who marry do so within their own racial group. Despite a doubling of the black-white marriage rate since 1980, only about 1 percent of black women and 3 percent of black men are interracially married. All told, black-white marriages constitute less than one-half of one percent of existing marriages. Clearly, when it comes to marriage, the black-white divide is the largest.
Residential integration and segregation studies continually show that the degree of segregation between blacks and nonblacks is far greater than between any other two racial groups in the United States. Further, outside the South, the greater the percentage of African Americans in an area, the greater the level of segregation. In other words, because limited contact with African Americans is preferred by most other Americans, increasingly higher levels of segregation are needed as the proportion of African Americans increases. What is more, unlike other groups, whose level of segregation declines with increased socioeconomic status, no strong pattern emerges for African Americans. Segregation is not merely separation but, in the contemporary United States, is hierarchical. Residential segregation by race, researchers show us, isolates African Americans, and concentrates poverty and social problems in their neighborhoods. This is more evidence of a black-white racialized society.
Economic inequality between blacks and whites is pervasive. Occupationally, white Americans tend to be concentrated in the prestigious, better-paying jobs, while black Americans tend to be clustered in low-prestige, lower-paying jobs. Black Americans are also much more likely to be unemployed. The current approximate ratio of two unemployed blacks for every one unemployed white has held nearly constant since 1950. In fact, the unemployment disparity is actually larger today than in 1950. Moreover, the method used for calculating unemployment underestimates the disparity, as the unemployed are only those without jobs who have actively sought a job within the last four weeks. Those who have simply dropped out of the workforce, often called discouraged workers, are not counted as unemployed. When we examine the percentages of discouraged workers by race, we again find a higher percentage of blacks than whites.
Average incomes of African Americans have always been less than the average income of white Americans. As of 1994, the median income of blacks was 62 percent that of whites. This was essentially unchanged from nearly thirty years earlier—the median income of blacks in 1967 was 59 percent of that of whites. Lower average incomes likely lead to greater poverty rates, and indeed this is the case. Whereas less than one in eleven non-Hispanic whites fall below the poverty line, nearly one in three blacks do.
Although income is the most common way to compare racial economic inequality, in their award-winning book, Black Wealth/White Wealth, Melvin Oliver and Thomas Shapiro argue that wealth—what people own minus what they owe—is actually the more important measure. It is wealth and not income, they claim, that "is used to create opportunities, secure a desired stature and standard of living, or pass class status along to one's children." Wealth therefore comes "closer in meaning and theoretical significance to our traditional notions of economic well-being and access to life chances." Their research finds stunning disparities in wealth between blacks and whites, disparities that remain vast even when accounting for differences in education, occupation, parent's occupation, income, family type, and other factors.
Using unique data from the Survey of Income and Program Participation, they measure household wealth in two ways: (1) as net worth, which is all assets minus all debts, and (2) net financial assets, which is net worth minus equity accrued in a home or vehicle. What did they find? The median net worth of blacks is just 8 percent of that of whites—3,700 dollars compared to 43,800 dollars—and the median net financial assets, shockingly, is 0 percent of that of whites—zero dollars compared to 7,000 dollars.
Shifting their focus just to middle-class Americans, Oliver and Shapiro demonstrate the very shaky footing of the black middle class. For example, median net financial assets for college-educated whites are nearly 20,000 dollars; for college-educated blacks, just 175 dollars. Without an asset pillar to stand on, the black middle class relies almost exclusively on income and job security. As the authors discovered in interviews with white and black Americans, a downturn in the economy or a change in marital status quickly sends significant numbers of the black middle class into lower classes. Whites, with their far superior assets, are able to survive such disruptions with little overall class-status change. In this case, it is true that when white America gets a cold, black America gets pneumonia.
Table 1-1 summarizes white and black disparities already mentioned. It also contains comparisons for those in executive, managerial, and professional occupations, which we label as upper-white-collar occupations. We show both those who are in such occupations now and a separate category for those household heads who are in upper-white-collar occupations and whose parent household head was also in an upper white-collar occupation. Regardless of the comparison, the conclusion is the same. The inequality is expansive. So expansive in fact that even if all homes and vehicles were taken from white Americans, they would still, on average, have greater net worth than black Americans. To see this, compare black net worth to white net financial assets in Table 1-1.
White and Black Household Median Net Worth and Net Financial Assets by Selected Characteristics (in Dollars)
Net Financial Assets
White Black White Black Overall 43,800 3,700 7,000 0 Upper White-Collar
66,800 12,303 15,150 5 UWC & Parents' UWC 70,850 17,499 16,420 5 College Graduate 74,922 17,437 19,823 175
Net Worth = Assets minus Debts
Net Financial Assets = Net Worth minus Housing and Vehicle Assets
Source: Oliver and Shapiro (1995), Tables 4.4, .5.1, .5.7, and 6.6
Health, life, and even death are racialized. For example, a study conducted by physicians Mark Wenneker and Arnold Epstein examined all circulatory disease and chest pain patients admitted to hospitals in Massachusetts. Examining patients by age, race, and income, the researchers found that whites were 89 percent more likely to be given coronary bypass surgery than blacks. A nationwide study of Medicare patients revealed an even higher disparity. White Americans were three times as likely as black Americans to receive this surgery. Without apparent intention, doctors discriminated against African Americans and in favor of white Americans in recommending surgery. Other areas of health also diverge by race. For instance, African-American babies die at a rate over twice the frequency of white babies, African-American mothers are four times more likely to die in childbirth than white Americans, and young African-American males are six times more likely to be murdered than are young white American males.
Because "race" is socially constructed, it is contested and redefined. A continuous struggle in the United States concerns the classification of new immigrants. Light-skinned immigrants, originally classified as distinct racial groups, came over time and through challenge to be reclassified as white, even while maintaining some ethnic distinctives. Among dark-skinned immigrants from Africa, Latin America, and the Caribbean, the struggle is to avoid being labeled "black." We witness this process on a micro level. An influx of Somalians and other east African immigrants into the city in which I [Emerson] live provides occasion for contact, and I see and hear their struggle to avoid categorization as African American. On one occasion, a Somalian—far darker-skinned than the vast majority of African Americans—requested a ride from my friend, saying three times, "I am not black." The Somalian's assumption—that he would not get a ride if he was defined as black—was learned quickly. In an attempt to heighten his life opportunities, he contests classification as an African American.
Musical expression for much of American history has been race-based, with different genres (pop, blues, classical, jazz, country, hip-hop, contemporary Christian, gospel) often being associated primarily with either black or white Americans. Moreover, the lyrical content of songs often has different foci. Thus, in an analysis of controversial songs from respective teenage languages of rebellion—heavy metal ("white music") and rap ("black music")—sociologist Amy Binder found a stark difference in lyrical content. As an example, for songs with an anti-authoritarian theme, she writes: "While heavy metal music lyrics stake a claim for the autonomy of the young person against school and adult officials, anti-authoritarian rap asserts independence from the authority of the police and white power structures in general."
And we are racialized not just in the music and lyrics, but even in the arguments used when debating their possible harmfulness. Again comparing heavy metal and rap music, Binder identified large contrasts in the print media's coverage. On the one hand, cognizant of the racial implications, the media were more likely to defend the validity of rap music as an art form containing important messages than they were heavy metal music. Yet, when rap music was criticized, the media used a very different set of arguments. For anti-heavy metal arguments, the corruption of it listeners' values and behavior and the need for parents to protect their children accounted for two-thirds of anti-heavy metal arguments (compared to just 14 percent using these arguments against rap). For rap, two-thirds of the stories cited the danger to society. As Binder develops the contrast:
Because most writers considered rap lyrics to be even more explicit than heavy metal messages, rap lyrics should have been framed as even more harmful to their young audience. Yet, rather than warning the American public that a generation of young black children was endangered by musical messages, the writers argued that the American public at large would suffer at the hands of these listeners as a result of rap music.
She concludes by pointing out that the need for writers to employ racial rhetoric in making their arguments "reflects the degree to which race shapes our understandings of the world."
We can even see the racial separateness of the racialized society in television viewing patterns. This "high frequency" American activity reveals much about our society. Of the twenty most watched shows among black viewers in the 1995-96 season, only two—NFL Monday Night Football and ER—were also among the top twenty with white viewers. ER made it only by the skin of its teeth, however; it was number 1 among whites, number 20 among blacks. The second most watched television show for whites was Seinfeld; for blacks it was 89th. The three most popular shows among African Americans—New York Undercover, Living Single, and The Crew—were barely on the Caucasian map, with New York Undercover ranking 122nd and the other two tied for 124th. Black and white Americans largely watch and identify with separate stars, shows, humor, drama, and more. Further, as the availability of shows primarily starring African Americans has increased, so too has the separation in viewing habits.
Finally, the racialized society is evident in religious affiliation choices. According to religion and race scholars Lincoln and Mamiya:
Seven major black denominations account for more than 80 percent of black religious affiliation in the United States.... Moreover, the remaining 15 to 20 percent of black Christians are scattered among numerous small black sects, the Roman Catholic Church, and the mainline white Protestant denominations. The overwhelming majority of the latter are in predominantly black congregations, despite denominational affiliation with white communions [emphasis added].
Although estimates for whites are harder to find, we can make them confidently, given the simple fact that in the case of groups of unequal size, the larger group must by definition be more separated from the smaller group than vice versa. Because about 90 percent of African Americans attend predominately black congregations, at least 95 percent of white Americans—and probably higher—attend predominately white churches. The list of evidence for racialization could go on and on.
Writing in the 1830s, Alexis de Tocqueville, a French aristocrat and a student of American life, noted that whites and blacks were really two foreign communities. He predicted that if and when the slaves were freed, the black-white divide would only grow more intense. In his words, the danger of conflict between the two groups "perpetually haunts the imagination of Americans, like a painful dream." More than 100 years later, Gunnar Myrdal, in a massive study of American race relations, came to the same conclusion. America was really a divided society, divided primarily by white and black. In 1968, the President's Commission, in studying the urban riots of the mid-to-late 1960s, wrote that we are two separate societies. In 1992, social scientist Andrew Hacker's book Two Nations made the same claim. The book, whose subtitle is "Black and White, Separate, Hostile, Unequal," argues that "America may be seen as two separate nations. Of course, there are places where the races mingle. Yet in most significant respects, the separation is pervasive and penetrating. As a social and human division, it surpasses all others" (p. 3). In 1993, reviewing the state of the unequal racial divide twenty-five years after the Kerner Report, the Eisenhower Foundation Commission concluded that the assessment of the United States as "two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal ... [is] more relevant today" than in 1968. The United States is indeed a racialized society, always was in the past, and in many respects is becoming more so.
Religion and Overcoming the Racialized Society
Because our racialized society often both produces and reflects hostility, disorder, unequal treatment, misunderstanding, conflict, violence, compromised life opportunities, and other social ills, our nation has historically, with varying degrees of intensity, searched for ways to overcome it. Many believe religion is a potential force for overcoming the racialized society. Nearly all religions have spoken out against racial and ethnic division, and Christianity is no exception. In fact, the hundreds of Christians we interviewed echoed this repeatedly. If anyone should be doing something about the racialized society and if anyone has the answers to the race problem, they said it is Christians. Their religion calls for it, and their faith gives them the tools and moral force needed for change. And, as we saw earlier in the chapter and will see in much greater detail in Chapter Three, contemporary evangelicals are indeed engaged in a concerted effort to overcome racial division.
Viewed sociologically, religion is a set of beliefs and practices focused on the sacred or supernatural, through which life experiences of groups and individuals are given meaning and direction. By helping to explain and give meaning to life as experienced in the here and now, religion's initial and primary thrust is conservative. Put another way, by providing significance and purpose to life as it is, religion provides legitimization for the world as it is. Why do we have earthquakes? The gods are angry. Why do we live in different castes? Our earthly position is determined by the character content of our prior lives. Why did I survive this crash but others did not? It was God's will. Why am I a poor factory worker? Your reward is yet to come; question not the ways of Providence. For these reasons, some view religion as merely a supporter of the status quo. Karl Marx's description of religion as an "opiate of the people" is perhaps the best-known example of this perspective.
But this view of religion is incomplete. Within the very forces able to render religion a legitimator of the world are revolutionary impulses able to change the world. Because religion is oriented not toward the mundane but toward the sacred or supernatural, it establishes a perceived objective reality above and beyond space and time. This reality acquires an independent and privileged position to act, through its believers, back on the mundane world. The seeds of change are planted in the faith. As Smith writes, "In this way, the ultimate legitimator of the status quo can easily become its ultimate judge. This dual potential lies precisely in the ultimacy and distance that characterizes sacred transcendence itself." In this light, the answer to "Why am I a poor factory worker?" may come to be, "You should not be a poor factory worker, and we must work to change your condition, for our faith demands it." This change might range from increasing the training of the worker to a radical critique of the entire economic system. Emboldened by the sacred, religion can be a powerful source for change. And indeed, as part of what we examine in Chapter Two, religion has been a source for change in American race relations, from abolition to the Civil Rights movement. Thus, religion can provide the moral force for people to determine that something about their world so excessively violates their moral standards that they must act to correct it. It also can provide the moral force necessary for sustained, focused, collective action to achieve the desired goal.
Nevertheless, we argue that religion, as structured in America, is unable to make a great impact on the racialized society. In fact, far from knocking down racial barriers, religion generally serves to maintain these historical divides, and helps to develop new ones. Although this may seem to contradict the preceding paragraph, it does not. The structure of religion in America is conducive to freeing groups from the direct control of other groups, but not to addressing the fundamental divisions that exist in our current racialized society. In short, religion in the United States can serve as a moral force in freeing people, but not in bringing them together as equals across racial lines. American religion is thus one embodiment of larger American contradictions. The following chapters develop this argument.
We rely on a variety of data sources in writing this book, including much primary data we collected ourselves. We conducted a national telephone survey of more than 2,500 Americans, using random sampling methods. This provided us with quantitative data for tables and comparison purposes. But we wanted to go further. We wanted to go to the homes of evangelicals to meet them, interview them, and learn more about their lives. To accomplish this, we traveled to twenty-three states, interviewing nearly 200 (mostly white) evangelicals. This provided us with a mass of rich, qualitative, contextualized, nationally representative data. In addition to these data sources we draw on the General Social Survey, an annually conducted national sample of Americans with a wealth of race questions. We also draw on a variety of other sources that inform the issue at hand.
Where We Go From Here
Before examining contemporary evangelicals' views on race, we set the scene in Chapter Two by looking at how Christians, particularly evangelicals, have thought of race in the past, and what sorts of actions they have taken to address racial issues. Chapter Three describes the activities of post-Civil Rights-era evangelicals. We then look in detail at contemporary evangelical racial views. We listen to their voices, and put their words into a theoretical context. We ask evangelicals about the race problem, about racial inequality, and about solutions. We analyze their responses in light of the racialization framework explained above. We will see that the cultural tools evangelicals use, and their degree of isolation from other racial groups, shape how they explain and negotiate race relations in the United States.
Drawing on what we learn from Chapters Two through Six, Chapters Seven and Eight examine the role of religion more broadly, and, due to the nature of our task, in a more theoretical and abstract manner than previous chapters. We first show, in Chapter Seven, how the organization of American religion leads to racially segregated congregations. In Chapter Eight, we argue that the very processes that make religion strong in the United States simultaneously contribute to racialization. No "racism" in the traditional sense is needed or intended. In understanding this, and the findings from the previous chapters, we come to learn more about the contradiction that is America.