The Promise and Peril of Christian Solidarity: Lynching in the Christian South

In between teaching and professional conferences, I have recently embarked on a few trips to interview African American Christians in a large city for an ongoing study of how religion matters (or doesn’t) for everyday workers and entrepreneurs. In the process of meeting a wide array of churchgoers, I listened at length to the personal histories that informed their views on work and faith.

What struck me in some cases was the agrarian memories that quite a few folks recalled. They recounted stories of growing up on a farm in the rural South or visiting relatives regularly in those environments. Their parents were some of the first generation to enter into the big city. When I think back to the stories in my family, they resemble these same trajectories except that they took place in South Korea rather than the US. I think my father’s family still lived in one of the rural areas but he and most of his siblings had moved into Seoul or another large city. In the case of my father, he left the country entirely. He met my mother (who had left Korea as a single woman) in New York City and they moved together to Jersey City, NJ. These similarities suggest to me that many Americans and immigrants can likely relate to one another in the patterns observed in their family histories.

But even having similar rural origins doesn’t do justice to some of the profound differences that blacks faced in the South during the late 19th to earlier 20th centuries compared to whites and Asian immigrants. Southern rural blacks were not on equal footing with rural whites on access to a number of important institutional supports: adequate healthcare, reasonable housing, proper educational facilities and instruction. Many may have worked as hard (if not harder) than their white peers but the returns on that work were not always the same nor was their much legal recourse in the event of an injustice. The book, Slavery by Another Name by Douglas Blackmon, and the subsequent documentary, chronicles the kind of world that many of the grandparents of the men and women I interviewed lived through. It was the world of the Jim Crow South with formal and informal rules that circumscribed social life for African Americans after emancipation. Rural southern blacks (particularly men) would be arrested on trumped up charges in what is described as a “convict lease system” which effectively re-enslaved them for the benefit of white American society.

Under such conditions, it is not surprising that if there was an institution in which southern blacks had leadership, a sense of control, and community with fellow blacks, such an institution would hold a great deal of support and encouragement for a besieged people. Such is the institution of the black church. Indeed in the stories I heard, it was clear that the church had a significant role in the lives of the grandparents of the people I interviewed. The tie of the local black church in the midst of informal slavery, unequal treatment, and barriers to accessing basic institutional supports was critical for many. To borrow co-blogger Margarita Mooney’s book title, faith helped make them live.

It’s a rare thing to see research on religion in the most prestigious journals of sociology, much less one that focuses on religion and race. A sociological study that covers religion and race using Census data from over 50 years back is perhaps one of the rarest finds around. Such was Amy Kate Bailey and Karen A. Snedker’s examination of lynching patterns and religion in the South during the beginning of the 20th century and since it appeared in the venerable American Journal of Sociology, it also appeared in my “Top 11 of ’11” post.

Lynching is one of those practices that many of us as Americans haven’t reckoned with, and its impact in the memories of many African Americans persists to this day. Perhaps you didn’t know this, but one of Billie Holiday’s most famous songs (written by Abel Meerpool) “Strange Fruit” details this practice; listen to it and check out the lyrics.

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According to Bailey and Snedker, at least 2,500 blacks were lynched in the South in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, roughly one per week for 50 years. One per week. Imagine being a part of a visible minority community and hearing of someone killed by a mob made up of the dominant group nearly every single week. It’s important to remember that lynching was and is a means of social control. It was a demonstration of power. By killing one person in a bloody spectacle, the group in power conveys a message to others (particularly to blacks) that they are in control, and they will exercise that control through random yet coordinated acts of violence. Some describe this as domestic terrorism. Strikingly a fair number of lynchings were actually photographed and reproduced on postcards to be traded with other lynch fans around the country. One of these is pictured here from Waco, TX, the main city of my institution.

Lynch advocates were quite often religious, specifically Christian. Their brand of faith placed whites at the top of a racial hierarchy with blacks at the bottom. Chillingly, the practice of lynching, according to Bailey and Snedker, was a “fully ritualized, solidarity-enhancing event” (p.850). In other words, killing a human being through lynching helped bond the group together, often to reinforce their beliefs in racial superiority, justified through religious language. This happens in part because of the tacit cooperation of churches that legitimize such acts of violence in their practices of creating community.

The authors proposed 3 hypotheses concerning the role of religion and lynching. They predicted that when there is religious diversity (or pluralism), lynching will increase since the diversity of religions poses a threat to some communities that have strong boundaries. Second they proposed that the greater presence of African American churches will also be linked to a higher incidence of lynching. Finally, in counties with a large mixed-race church population will exhibit lower lynching rates.

Using data from the only 3 years in which the US Census recorded religion (1906, 1916, 1926), along with over 2800 documented lynching cases in that same time frame, they found support for these three hypotheses. Greater religious diversity (i.e. Christian denominational diversity) and the greater presence of African American denominations in a given southern county was linked to greater incidence of lynching in every decade in the former, and 2 out of 4 decades in the latter. The larger presence of mixed-race denominations lowered lynching in all four decades (see p.862-863). Subsequent analyses suggest that the strongest of these three characteristics is religious diversity. It’s curious to think about what this might have looked like in real life. Imagine a county that was predominantly white Baptist. White Methodists, Anglicans, and Catholics along with Missionary Baptists start new churches in that same county. As this diversity picks up, so do the lynchings. As a means of setting themselves apart, and to symbolize their power in the area to these newcomers, the lynchers (who are mostly white Baptist in this example) wind up killing blacks in this bloody ritual. Interestingly, where interracial church groups appear, lynching levels drop.

These findings leave a lot for reflection on the impact of church participation. For some the church was a space for some in the dominant group to justify the brutal and unequal treatment of racial minorities. For others, the church was the strongest institution that advocated for those racial minorities. And in a few rare instances, the church was a community of believers of both the dominant and minority groups.

The experience of lynching is not only the subject of historical sociology. Lynching has recently been argued as having theological significance. Theologian James Cone recently published a work that surveys the significance of lynching in African American culture and its overlay with the significance of the Christian symbol of the cross. In both instances a man treated unjustly is hung from a tree or the main product of trees. What powerful imagery in comparing these practices. In doing so Cone reappropriates the significance of lynching as a symbol not only of white supremacist terrorism but also as a reflection of a Christian South that subconsciously replicates the Passion by re-enacting the ritual of human sacrifice to atone for the sins of the people. It suggests empowerment of marginalized African American Christians, particularly those whose ultimate end mirrored that of Jesus. Putting these parts together, the stories of faith, family life in rural America, and racism have helped me better understand the role of the black church to many African American Christians.

Panda Express(ions): Commodifying and Constructing Pan-Asian-ness

With the start of the new semester comes the renewed search for interesting examples to provoke good conversation in the classroom on race, class, and gender. One of the persistent themes in contemporary sociology of race research is the manifold meanings of the term “Asian.” What is “Asian” anyway? And by extension what is “Asian American?” I published a paper a few years ago where I explored this very question with undergraduates I met at several universities. They explained to me that “Asian American” has a multitude of meanings but they seem to hinge on whether one plays up the internal diversity in that word, or the externalized same-ness imposed through that word. As I have shared in other posts, Asian Americans are highly diverse ethnically and religiously, and yet there remains in our society an insistence that they share something in common that gets summarized in the term “Asian.”

In a racialized society, all minority groups (and the majority as well) get this kind of treatment. Historian David Hollinger argued that in the contemporary US we effectively have a “racial pentagon” which includes “white” “black” “Asian” “Hispanic” “Native American.” So racial same-ness is a key component in our culture, and minorities often struggle with maintaining ethnic particularity (“I am Korean, not Asian”) or giving in to racial generalizations. One of the common examples of this is to dine at a pan-Asian restaurant like “Panda Express” or “Pei Wei.” The menu is usually focused on “Chinese” cuisine – the quotes are intentional because, if you’ve been to a locally-owned Chinese restaurant with a full menu, very little resembles what is served in these mainstream establishments. They have to make the dishes more appealing to largely white customers. But in addition, there are often notable course options that signal a pan-Asian palette by use of phrases that are somewhat recognizable to more cosmopolitan Americans: “Thai,” “Bangkok,” “Korean,” “teriyaki,” “udon.” These too don’t often resemble dishes prepared in restaurants with single-ethnic cuisines. So “Asian” in this example is a combination of both reducing ethnicity to something more palatable to American (read: white) appetites, and to symbolic displays of internal diversity.

Just because a society has a tendency to create a controlling concept like race doesn’t mean that individuals and groups are without a certain degree of freedom. Notably, a lot of Asian Americans proudly call themselves by this term. Most of the people I interviewed said so, but less than a quarter of Asian Americans surveyed by Pew and less than half of those surveyed by political scientists like Janelle Wong, Karthick Ramakrishnan, Taeku Lee, and Jane Junn also identified with the label. If you’ve been on a college campus there is often an “Asian Student Association” or an “Asian American Christian Fellowship.” Sociologist Russell Jeung explored over 30 different pan-Asian Protestant congregations in the US across the west coast and detailed the ways in which these Christian communities understood what this term means. For many, describing oneself as “Asian American” is quite intentional – they believe that Asian Americans, regardless of ethnicity, experience some of the same trappings and dynamics that are particularly unique.

Perhaps not surprisingly, adoption of this term is not limited to the US, and its expression appears most readily in popular culture. A recent evident example I came across recently was a documentary called “Project Lotus: The Search for Blush.” This series chronicled the development of the first pan-Asian girl group called “Blush.” It was on one of those cable channels that you don’t normally run across, and as it turns out, this talent search began way back in 2010 but the story is only now reaching American markets. The series detailed the drama behind the production of the first ever pan-Asian celebrity group. Contestants came from five major nations: China, India, Japan, Korea, and the Philippines. Apart from the absence of Vietnam in this group, these nationalities represent 5 of the 6 largest ethnic groups in the US among Asian Americans. The final group would consist of one performer from each of these nations. This struck me as oddly uncontroversial, but it led me to ask: are there pan-Euro girl groups? What about pan-Latino? Pan-African? I don’t have an answer for that, but I leave it to readers to send me your reflections. This was the first element that got me thinking about the pervasiveness of “Asian-ness” in my own thinking which draws from participating in a popular culture that also commodifies this term.

Like most talent search contests, the judges met with contestants based on location. But unlike most American contests, each location entailed individuals of one specific and visible nationality; and that’s where things start getting tricky. Some contestants for example were ethnically one group but their nationality was of another group. Is a contestant of Korean heritage who grew up in Japan a representative of Japanese or Korean culture? The judges, almost all of whom were white (except the choreographer), struggled a lot over these issues of identity.

As I watched the series I kept looking for ways that internal diversity came out, but instead the focus was largely a conventional talent search: lots of arduous training, physical and emotional strain, performative excellence. Since the aim of this band was to appeal to American and Asian audiences they had to select a language that was universally acceptable across multiple nations: of course that would be English. Dance moves were not reflective of Bollywood or K-Pop or any Asian culture. Instead it seemed like conventional contemporary pop dance from Lady Gaga and the like. Perhaps intentionally, the only characteristic that stood out as particularly ethnic was the difference in their physical appearances.

The effort to create a pan-Asian ethnic girl group that is accessible to American and various Asian audiences seems to follow the same pattern as I mentioned earlier regarding food: there’s symbolic gesturing of diversity with Asia, but its core is aimed at appealing to American sensibilities. Much like mainstream pan-Asian dining in the US, Blush is an example of displaying diversity while essentially conforming to the dominant market. It helps a lot that the nations represented in this band all think highly of America, but the concern here is that conformity for the sake of profit winds up saying “culture doesn’t matter” to audiences that don’t realize how much it actually does.

Ideals and Realities of Religious Tolerance

The recent event involving the killing of Sikh Americans in their house of worship (gurdwara) struck a deep chord for many. Shortly after, some news outlets reported on the burning of a mosque in Joplin, MO. And about a week later the Asian Pacific American Legal Center (APALC) released this brief detailing that these events were only 2 of 9 between the beginning of August and the 15th. I include a snapshot of these events for readers who don’t have time to read the full brief (it’s only 2 pages if you click on these links).

APALC news brief screenshot.

What has happened to our ideals of religious freedom and assembly?

As a second generation Korean American Christian, understanding American ideals was (and remains) an important part of my identity and continues to inform much of my research interests and teaching. One of these ideals is the freedom of religious assembly. It was clear that religious freedom and tolerance were a high priority for many who helped construct the legal and political foundations of this country. While scholars argue over whether this foundation imagined only Christian pluralism or all manner of religious pluralism, it is clear at the grassroots level for many immigrants today that they believe it means the latter.

A few years ago I had the opportunity to visit a Sikh temple for the first time. I was with the Asian Pacific American Religious Research Initiative’s annual conference which included a visit to a Sikh temple in the Chicago area where the meeting was held. It was an amazing experience to be sure. Friendly leaders of the community helped us understand some of the basic beliefs and practices of the faith and the expectations of how to conduct oneself in the building as well as the communal religious service (this is the closest Christian equivalent term for the experience of being in the sacred space of the gurdwara). I noticed that the social experience of Skihism in America is not unlike the experience of many American Protestants, and in some instances I noticed even more similarities with Asian American immigrant Protestantism.

Some of the similarities included having communal religious practice such as music, ritual practice-all analogous (from my vantage point) to Protestant and Catholic worship. Moreover, the gurdwara was clearly a place for the communication of social services as well as community activities much like one would see outside the sanctuary of a typical Christian place of worship. Local events for the Sikh community, access to healthcare and legal services-none of this surprised me as someone who grew up seeing the same social practices at work in immigrant Korean American Protestant churches. For these newer Americans adapting to a new society, the comfort of co-ethnics is invaluable in gaining access to the basic institutions we all rely on. Since churches are regular meeting spaces, this is a primary location for informing community members how to gain help where needed. Many minority religious groups including Sikhs, Muslims and Buddhists all adapt to this pattern even if their religion did not traditionally include regular communal activity. This is sometimes described as religious adaptation or de facto congregationalism (sociologists are wordsmiths).

Where the Sikh religious community differed was in the content of their religious practices. This appeared not only in worship differences, but also in the ceremonial garb (bana), and the headpiece or turban worn by the men.

That was essentially it. In basic sociological functions, the Sikh American religious community is similar to mainstream Christianity (and since much of the religious practice is not in English, it is more analogous to immigrant Christian community). They are set apart by the content of practices, language and appearance from the rest of American society which today remains largely Christian. Our Sikh teachers often tried to draw analogies between their faith and practice to make it relatable to our largely Christian sensibilities-this struck me as a powerful example of extending a community’s culture with outsiders in an instructive and non-threatening manner. There was no mention of the superiority of their faith and the inferiority of others. If anything, the Sikh Americans I met want nothing more than to participate in the American experience while retaining their faith tradition as best they can with their available resources.

The violence that occurred in recent weeks shatters the trust bond between local communities of faith and the larger nation-state that supposedly protects the right to assemble and worship freely without fear of persecution. Moreover the violence was not only directed against the Sikh community out of xenophobia but also out of anti-Muslim sentiment, thus revealing more of our collective ignorance and tendency toward stereotyping. As the news brief shows, most of the violence was anti-Muslim. Some of this I discussed previously.

It occurred to me that it makes sense that organizations that advocate for Asian American issues would be most aware of these events. For one, Sikhism originates in south Asia, and the overwhelming majority of Sikhs in America are therefore Asian American. Scholars like those in APARRI have unique access to this faith community as we are all keenly aware of our shared racial status in American society. Similarly, it makes sense that APALC posted these recent anti-Sikh and anti-Muslim events as they help raise awareness of all injustices against Asian Americans regardless of faith. But what is troubling is that more Americans, particularly those who convey news media, do not pick up on these events and raise awareness.

If non-Asian Americans have difficulty relating to these faith communities, consider this from a religious lens. Historical evidence of anti-Catholicism and anti-Semitism abound, and in the case of the latter we see continued annual reports by the FBI numbering in triple digits. Mormon history for that matter has similarly witnessed collective antipathy. What does our history tell us about the mismatch between our ideals and our behavior? What message does this convey to those who adhere to faiths that are not in the Christian mainstream?

As a speculative illustration, I think of Governor Nikki Haley. Her biography says that she was raised in a Sikh household, I think in South Carolina. I wonder what her experience and that of her family has been like as Sikhs in the Christian South? Did she witness xenophobia, and how did she respond to it? Is her conversion to Christianity in some way tied to her experiences growing up (as opposed to a complete abstract comparative analysis of these two faiths)?

What are the roots of these acts of intolerance? What should minority faith communities do in view of these actions? What ideals does this nation-state want to convey to the world?

Most Mainline or Most Evangelical? Miscounts and Religious County Membership

In the race to produce relevant researched stories it’s important to know that error sometimes occurs that can radically alter what we know. A few months ago when I saw an announcement that the Association of Religion Data Archives had county-level information on religion, I of course wanted to know the spread for the area I live: McLennan County, TX. What I wanted to figure out was how evangelical was this city, as it seems that most everyone I run into seems to have faith of some sort.  Is this place the most evangelical in the US?

So when I saw this chart, I was really floored. The largest religious tradition in McLennan County was mainline Protestantism- really?

Screenshot from 07/17/12 at ARDA

So since my sociologist’s intuition signaled something might be amiss, I called the Association of Statisticians of American Religious Bodies and had a good conversation with Rich Houseal of the Religious Congregations and Membership Study, the folks who have given us the 2010 US Religion Census. These are the folks that help us to see the general spread of religious adherence through maps and extensive tables. They work very hard at getting the most accurate count of religious groups around the country. In order to do this they essentially reach out to actual religious leaders and ask them for help by volunteering any records they may have of the number of attenders on a typical week or service. Many leaders and organizations share their figures, and some don’t.

As it turns out I was mostly right that there was indeed a weird miscount of the mainline denominations in McLennan County. In the edited changes that are reported in this document nine counties had the wrong figures, and two were in Texas. McLennan County seems to have the largest range of denominations that fit the 236 religious bodies that reported numbers to ASARB. But the miscount affected one religious tradition, and sure enough, it was Mainline Protestantism, specifically the United Methodist Church. If the original report was 109,901 in the Mainline and the figure drops to 22,333, and the only figure that changes is the United Methodists, there was a miscount of 87,568 of Mainliners or United Methodists in this county. So all of a sudden it becomes clear that the Mainline is way smaller than their Evangelical counterparts, as you can see in this screenshot below.

Screenshot taken 8/3/12 from ARDA

However, the Evangelical Protestant number doesn’t change. Where did these 87,000 adherents go? They fall into a category called “unclaimed.” Unclaimed refers to adherents that did not belong to the 236 religious bodies that are recorded by ASARB in a given county.  This could mean for example that there are a lot of independent churches in Waco that have no major denomination and are reasonably small that they don’t bother keeping count nor are all that helpful to those that want to know. In the specific case of the largest historically African-American denominations, they have also not divulged their numbers. So “unclaimed’ could refer to this combination of groups that didn’t respond to ASARB.

So does this mean McLennan County is the most evangelical county? Can’t quite tell, but it’s certainly not the most Mainline.