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Race, racism and the segregation of American religion

Andrew Boston grew up in a small town in the Mississippi Delta just after the Second World War, a place where the Ku Klux Klan rode at night and he knew of only one black family that owned land.

When he awoke in the morning, Boston could see the sun shining through the roof in a four-room shack he shared with 11 others. He had to leave school in the sixth grade to help support his family chopping cotton.

The one book in the house was a Bible. And the family would go on Sunday to Mt. Carmel Baptist Church.

“The singing, the praying, the preaching. I really enjoyed going to church,” recalled Boston, relaxing in a white T-shirt in the dining room of his modest apartment in suburban Cleveland after a late-night shift at work. “There’s a brighter day. There’s going to be a better way. Living by hope. That’s what we lived by.”

Five decades later, he still goes to a black church, this time Emmanuel Baptist in a struggling neighborhood in Cleveland. He is not alone in worshipping among his own race. For all the conversation about the election of a black president being an historic moment in America’s racial history, it is still a nation divided on Sunday morning, research shows.

What progress that has been made has come largely from black churchgoers willing to worship in predominantly white churches, particularly in white megachurches that offer attractive programming close to where they live in an age of greater black geographic and economic mobility.

White churchgoers are still largely unwilling to worship in predominantly black churches, or to attend churches with black senior pastors.

This continuing segregation of the nation’s churches is a striking example of the long road still to be traveled toward racial equality and acceptance, say many researchers and leaders of black churches.

“The black church does not exist because black people wanted to worship by themselves,” said the Rev. C. Jay Matthews, president of United Pastors in Mission, a black clergy group in Cleveland. “As much as it wants not to acknowledge it, America can’t transcend race.”

View How Many Congregations Say They Are Trying to Increase Diversity Based on Data in the ARDA’s Archive

Segregation persists

One of the controversies in the 2008 presidential campaign was whether Barack Obama’s former church, Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, was “racist” because it proclaimed itself “unashamedly black.”

Lost in the political sewage of many blogs and commentaries on the issue was the reality that the great majority of religious institutions attended by whites are “unashamedly white,” even if they do not proclaim it on their Web sites.

Just 2 percent of members of historically black Protestant churches are white, the same percentage of members of mainline Protestant churches who are black, according to the 2007 U.S. Religious Landscape Survey by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.

What movement there has been toward interracial worship comes from blacks attending white churches, not the other way around.

The National Congregations Study directed by Duke University sociologist Mark Chaves found that between the two waves of the survey in 1998 and 2006-2007 predominantly white congregations became slightly more diverse. In that period, the percent of attendees in predominantly white congregations with some black attendees increased from 60 percent to 66 percent.

“Interestingly,” however, the report on “American Congregations at the Beginning of the 21st Century” said, “the same cannot be said for predominantly African American congregations, which saw no change in non-black participation.”

Some of that trend is understandable, says researcher Warren Bird of Dallas-based Leadership Network.

Many members of minority groups are more comfortable assimilating to “the whole,” while members of the majority group are less likely to assimilate into a particular ethnic group, particular one that is solidly ethnic, he said. In addition, the decline of religious brand loyalty also makes megachurches with their multiple, personalized offerings more attractive.

Other observers say race and racism also are strong factors in the relative unwillingness of whites to join predominantly black churches or submit themselves to black pastors.

“Until white folk change,” says the Rev. Marvin McMickle, author of “An Encyclopedia of African American Christian Heritage,” “the black church will go on.”

White churchgoers are from Mars …

In his defining speech on race during the presidential campaign, Obama spoke about the need for honest dialogue.

Research supports the idea that, when it comes to some basic assumptions, black and white churchgoers are far apart. For example, General Social Survey data available on ARDA shows that in 2006 nearly six in 10 black respondents said it was mainly due to discrimination that on average blacks have worse jobs, income and housing than white people. Only 30 percent of white respondents said discrimination was the major factor for the disparities.

Sociologist Ralph Pyle of Michigan State University measured nearly 3,000 responses from General Social Survey data from 1998-2004 on several issues such as openness to racial intermarriage and racially mixed neighborhoods and ranked religious groups on a scale of anti-black and anti-immigrant attitudes.

He found that moderate Protestants held the strongest anti-black attitudes. The next most prejudiced group? Liberal Protestants.

There may be a black man in the White House, but from corporate offices to factory floors, black people in America still face different realities than white people, and the black church offers needed spiritual, cultural and emotional affirmation, say many black leaders.

“While one person may become president, the rest of the community suffers from racism,” says Lawrence Mamiya, a religion professor at Vassar College. “The black church will continue to provide that role of sustenance and nurture and hope.”

Theologian Dwight Hopkins of the University of Chicago says he thinks the overwhelming number of black churches will remain black.

“The black church is the only place where an African-American man can cry in public,” he says.

On Sunday morning, Boston will be up early, getting his suit ready and polishing his shoes. He makes sure his wife is ready in time for early morning prayer at 8:30 on a day at Emmanuel Baptist that with Sunday school and worship will not wind down until 1 p.m. “I don’t want to be late going to church,” he says.

Boston left Mississippi in his early 20s, moving up north for factory work. Part of that time he left the church, enjoying the bars and music on Saturday nights. Now in his 60s, he is again active in the black church, committed to lifting up the current generation of urban youth as the people of Mt. Carmel Baptist were committed to him.

“I figured when I was running around, I gave the devil a lot of time. Now, I’m going to give God some,” Boston says with a little smile. “You got to be putting something back in, You just can’t take something away. … I feel like I’m giving something back.”

A lot of that something the black church has provided generations worshippers is hope.

“There’s always a brighter day, I think,“ Boston says. “Emmanuel’s about that. It’s going to get better.”

Search for Questions on Race and Ethnicity in the ARDA’s Data Archive


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