Presentation Abstracts

PANEL ONE: The History of Racism & Christianity

Defining Racism:  Religion’s Enduring Legacy

The religious racism which continues to plague America is the legacy of slavery.  Racism was a custom, a cultural tradition, of society against non-British and non-Europeans–namely Native Americans and Africans–that took root in the 17th century and found full expression in the law and religion of slavery in the 18th century based on Christian principles.  This paper will explore the definition of racism by centering it in the American context.  It will describe racism as the use of Black people to achieve the goals of white people without respect to the personhood, humanity and agency of Blacks.  This definition is created by analyzing the social construct of the 17th and 18th centuries which was shaped by the twin institutions of law and religion.  In particular, it will explore the role played by Christianity in creating the concept of race, and later, racism.

“The Problem of Accepting Colored Girls as Postulants”: White Catholic Sisterhoods and the Limits of Racial Charity in Post-World War II Chicago

Prior to World War II, most black women and girls who sought admission into the nation’s historically white Catholic sisterhoods were summarily rejected solely on the basis of race. While some white sisters and priests working in black communities directed these rejected candidates to the nation’s black sisterhoods, which had been established in response to the strident anti-black admissions policies of white orders, the vocations of hundreds of black women and girls fell through cracks. However, the global defeat of Nazism, rising sister shortages, changing racial attitudes, and an ever-increasing number of black applications to white orders forced many white sisterhoods to rethink the utility and morality of their exclusionary admissions practices after 1945. Although most white orders remained staunchly opposed to the integration of their ranks through the 1980s, several opened their doors to black candidates with mixed results.

This paper examines the fight to desegregate white Catholic sisterhoods in the archdiocese of Chicago after World War II. Between 1940 and 1970, Chicago’s black Catholic community experienced dramatic growth as a result of the Great Migration and unprecedented evangelization efforts directed at the city’s rapidly expanding and largely non-Catholic black migrant population. As a result, the numbers of white sisters teaching African-American youth in Chicago increased significantly. So, too, did the number of requests from African-American women and girls seeking to enter white sisterhoods. However, most white congregations remained staunchly opposed to the desegregation of the ranks with many never accepting an African American or having one who remained until death. In the case of the Religious Sisters of Mercy, one of the largest white sisterhoods working in the African-American community in the archdiocese, archival records and oral history indicate that the order never accepted a black candidate from Chicago despite receiving scores of informal and formal requests from white priests and African-American women and girls under their spiritual direction.

Drawing upon previously sealed archival records and oral history, this paper explores the extraordinary lengths taken by white general councils and their memberships to keep black women and girls out of their ranks as well as the diverse strategies employed by white priests and African-American candidates to break down these barriers. In the mid-1960s, Chicago became home to the nation’s second largest black Catholic community, and the largest outside of the South. Yet, this increase never translated into a significant number of black members of white sisterhoods ministering in the prominent archdiocese. This paper helps to explain why. In so doing, it unearths a largely overlooked dimension of the post-World War II African-American freedom struggle and massive white resistance to desegregation. This paper also demands a major reassessment of white sisters’ missionary and educational efforts in the African-American community, which have largely been characterized by scholars as benevolent and used as evidence to demonstrate white sisters’ unique and pioneering commitment to racial justice and reform in the Catholic Church and wider American society.


PANEL TWO: Racialized Representations of African & Caribbean Religions

Religious Race, Racing Religion: African Religious Cultures and Fetish Legacies in the Invention of “Religion”

Maturated within fifteenth- and sixteenth-century cultural encounters and mercantile exchanges between European agents and coastal African communities, the fetish concept—a Portuguese-derived category that coalesced the jurisdictional discourse of witchcraft with the ecclesiastical discourse of idolatry—became a primary index of religious and racial alterity. While in the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, the fetish concept as feitiço and feitiçeiro (“witchcraft” or “magic”) was frequently employed interchangeably with the categories of idolo and idolotre (“idolatry”), by the turn of the seventeenth-century, European interlocutors began to differentiate the fetish concept from idolatry (as explicitly improper religious devotion). In this paper presentation, I will demonstrate that this conceptual disassociation between feitiço and idolo served to establish the ontological inequivalence and supremacy of homo europaeus and, correspondingly, denounced “black” African peoples as not merely improperly religious but as having “no organized religion.” In other words, in furtherance of their colonial agendas, Portuguese agents employed the fetish concept as feitiço and feitiçeiro to classify and catalogue African peoples as lacking any organized world-orientating system. Furthermore, as Calvinist Dutch merchants reframed the Catholic Portuguese discourse of feitiço into the pidgin term fetisso, the fetish concept, as we know it today, developed into a theory of socially and religiously problematic materiality that signified African peoples as not only lacking orientation (i.e., “religion”) but, moreover, as materially and ontologically perverted—that is to say, as improperly engaged with nature and the material world and also as improper beings in and of themselves. By interrogating the colonialist and imperialist politics by which “religion,” “religions,” and the “religious” are invented, in this presentation, I will examine, therefore, how the fetish concept became a pivotal taxon for correlating race to religion and religion to race. Moreover, I will propose that this correspondence between religion and race correlated with a conception of materiality that deemed matter as ontologically inferior. Accordingly, I argue that the fetish concept not only stigmatized Africana peoples as “black” and “negro” (as phenotypical racial others) and African and African diasporic traditions as “magic” and “witchcraft” (namely, as religious others or even as lacking religion), it furthermore signified Africana peoples and their traditions as materially indecent and ontologically improper. Accordingly, while rooted in varied medieval and colonial legacies of correlating race to religion and religion to race, I argue that since at least the fifteenth century, the fetish concept and its semantic cognates have been central taxa for cataloging Africana “peoples” as cosmologically and ontologically other and, correspondingly, classifying Africana “religions” as racially other.

Unfree to Worship: Representations of Voodoo and Santería in the American and Spanish Caribbean Press Since Late Nineteenth Century

In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, government officials sought to criminalize the practice of Afro-Caribbean religions, and public rhetoric advanced discriminatory practices. Recent scholarship has shown that religious and racist ideas were prominent among those that informed state interventions in post emancipation societies across the Americas (Ayorinde, 2004; Fandrich, 2005; Hucks, 2012; Handler and Bilby, 2012; Ramsey, 2014; Boaz, 2017; etc.). These studies have highlighted legal regimes and learned discourses surrounding the practice of Afro-Caribbean religions, yet the role of the press in creating and disseminating the notions that justified discrimination and, in some instances, criminalization remains an understudied topic despite efforts from scholars like Román (2007). This void is surprising, considering that the representations circulated in newspapers and media outlets have long permeated into public consciousness and framed the efforts of generations of scholars of practitioners who have sought to counteract them since the days of Zora Neale Hurston, if not before. This paper explores the ways in which the American and Caribbean print press constructed meanings of “voodoo”, a term that conflated a variety of belief systems and practices beyond those that originated in Saint Domingue, and Santería, a religion that is now practiced in Cuba as well as other Caribbean and Latin American countries and the United States. The examination of digital libraries and major American papers, such as The New York Times, and newspapers published in the American South and Spanish Caribbean has revealed how printed representations have evolved. What began as explicit associations between the ignorance and criminal tendencies of former slaves have progressed into characterizations that, despite acknowledgement of these practices as true religious belief systems, still evoke negative emotions from the reader by bracketing these religions as principal protagonists in illicit activities, abuses, and criminal cases. From nineteenth century ideas that justified the criminalization of traveling “voodoo doctors” in the American South to the more recent association of Santería with illegal activities such as drug trafficking in the Caribbean, this study aims at advancing a conversation about how the press, knowingly or not, has fueled religious discrimination and perpetuated racist images that have sometimes resulted in restrictive legislation.


PANEL THREE: Race, Religion & “Radicalization”

Islamophobia and the prevention of “radicalization” in France

The fight against “radicalization” that followed the attacks which repetitively struck France during the last few years have put forward the question of the prevention of “radicalization”, in public, political and academic spheres. In those discussions, the aim was often to try and distinguish signs of potential “radicalization” (very often signs of mainstream Muslim practices such as clothing or religious habits) that could be detected in order to prevent any violent attack to reoccur. Thus, the fight on “radicalization” is a mechanism for re-establishing symbolic borders and to define the “enemy within” (Foucault 1976), allowing the French State to reaffirm its sovereignty.

Yet, these discussions were also accompanied by a discourse that urges civil society to take part in the fight against radicalization by reporting any behavior that they deem worrying. Hence, the incitement to report has greatly impacted several professional spheres: schools, prisons, as well as social structures were indeed the privileged spaces were reporting was the most expected by public authorities. The role of social workers in particular has been significantly emphasized as they are the ones who are working the closest to the people who are specifically targeted by the public policy of the fight against radicalization. Indeed, specific spaces are predominantly invested by the implementation of policies pertaining to the prevention of “radicalization” in France: the quartiers populaires, the working-class neighborhoods where poor Muslim immigrants and children of immigrants are a majority.

Moreover, the particular way racism is treated in counter-discourse rhetoric sheds further light on the logics at stake in the discourses of the fight against “radicalization”: the feeling of being discriminated against is often mentioned as a possible sign of “radicalization”, because the person would be developing a “sense of victimization” that could lead to a violent attitude towards society. In that sense, racism is seen as a subjective feeling that could be threatening, rather than an objective reality that would need to be addressed as such. Those two dimensions of the fight against radicalization (the territorial dimension of it and the way it addresses the issue of discrimination) sheds light on the racial dimension that lies at the heart of security matters in France.

This communication would aim to demonstrate how the fight against radicalization gives legitimacy and leverage to the already-existing islamophobia in France, by giving it a security dimension that exacerbates a climate of scrutiny and surveillance towards Muslims.  To do so, it will combine an analysis of the official literature on the fight against radicalization and of the counter-discourse that has been produce to respond to the supposed rise of a jihadist propaganda, with the results of a long-term fieldwork conducted in France with diverse actors involved in de-radicalization policies in the name of institutions (social workers, government officials), and private groups (anti-radicalization organizations, mosques).

Devils, Dreads and Disruptions: Minority Religions and the Right to Education

Throughout the globe, Muslims, Rastafarians and adherents of other minority faiths contend with restrictions on their right to religious expression in private and public schools. Although not often discussed in connection with one another, these cases share some significant similarities. First and foremost, these cases revolve around the idea that adherents of minority religions can “contaminate” or influence other students—pressuring them to convert, encouraging illicit drug use, supporting “devil worship,” or promoting gang violence. Furthermore, these cases dredge up long-standing concerns about anti-colonial or Afrocentric religions being present in public spaces. Finally, at their core, many of these cases center on gender norms—whether female children are “oppressed” by headscarves and whether male children are undisciplined if they wear long hair. This paper explores these controversies, emphasizing that a shocking number of schools have upheld restrictions on minority religious teachings or symbols, forcing devotees to choose between their faith and their education.



PANEL FOUR: White Supremacy, Segregation & American Protestantism

These Doors are Closed: Theology and White Supremacy in Georgia

In our current political era, overt, and even violent, expressions of white supremacy have become increasingly public. Meanwhile, white religious conservatives have remained mostly silent or murmured weak statements intended to distance their traditions and parishioners. And yet, expressions of white supremacy have long gone unchecked, or even theologically defended, by white churches and denominations. By uncovering the roots of religious defenses of segregation in sacred spaces in the mid-twentieth century, historians can gain insight into the complex relationship between white Protestantism and white supremacy.

While segregation had long been the established practice in ecclesiastical spaces in the American South, in the 1960s many white churches adopted official “closed door” policies, even in defiance of their denominational precepts or confessions. These came largely in response to a push from black freedom activists to challenge the segregation of churches by requesting entry. If they were denied, they would kneel and pray, giving this form of direct action its name: kneel-ins. Many white Southern congregations became terrified of the kneel-in movement, and, in an effort to preempt it, drafted policies barring integrated worshippers. In order to do so, they crafted theological arguments justifying segregation of churches. This pattern becomes explicit in Georgia, where Atlanta activists challenged segregation in churches and churches throughout the state, from Atlanta to Americus to Plains, responded. This produced a profound theological crisis, but one that has largely been forgotten, with devastating effects.

While most religious Southerners today repudiate explicit arguments for racial segregation, those broad theological notions –about the autonomy of ecclesiastical space (religious liberty), about purity (spirituality of the church), about sincerity (no outside agitators) continue to animate much of the church’s resistance to racial justice today. While less overt than neo-Nazi rallies, planned violence or hateful language, these subtle theological arguments are just as insidious, perhaps more so, and crucial to understanding the religious roots of racism.

“Sacred Racism”: American Presbyterianism and the Rituals of Race Discrimination

Racism in America cannot be divorced from the Christian contexts by which it has emerged and flourished in the United States. Christianity, despite its claims of the “priesthood of all believers,” has often been used as the foundation and rationalization of race discrimination in America. Nowhere is this fact more evident than in the history of American Protestantism with its historic segregated Sunday mornings. This paper explores the complex intersections of racism and Christianity within American Protestantism through the lens of the Presbyterian Church. American Presbyterianism has long been a vibrant and influential force shaping American cultural consciousness and ideas of democracy. Using case-study analyses of Presbyterian churches in the South, this work will address the ways in which religious-based racism and anti-black terrorism became ritualized in American culture.


PANEL FIVE: Conceptualizing Race & Religion

Teaching the Intersections of Race and Religion in Women’s and Gender Studies

This joint presentation explores the pedagogical possibilities of teaching about the intersections of religion and race, ethnicity, and nationality in the field of women’s and gender studies (WGS). Although WGS most often begins with gender as a category of analysis, scholars and activists within the field have called for greater attention to other aspects of identity, including race, class, religion, sexuality, and disability. Following these calls for change, intersectionality, the theoretical framework that examines systems of oppression in relation to each other, has become one of the core approaches to research and teaching in WGS. Drawing on literature about intersectionality, including scholars such as Kimberlé Crenshaw, Vivian May, and Patricia Hill Collins, we see race and religion as mutually co-constitutive axes of identity and oppression. Although WGS as a field has embraced intersectionality as a methodology, we believe that the specific intersection of race and religion is often overlooked within our field.

This paper presents pedagogical and theoretical reflections on teaching about religion and race in the field of WGS. First, Dr. Sahlin will examine reluctance within the field of WGS to teaching about religion, including the observation that within the field of WGS, some of the more in-depth engagement with religion and spirituality has come from women of color (Crowley 254; Braidotti 7). Dr. Sahlin will also present helpful presuppositions about the academic study of religion for social-justice researchers and teachers.

Second, Ms. Clinard will analyze how WGS introductory textbooks frame the concept of religion and reflect on the implications of this framing for the intersection of religion with race, ethnicity, and nationality. This preliminary textbook analysis draws on a larger research study about how WGS introductory classes teach about race and religion in relation to each other. By examining how we teach (or don’t teach) about religion in our introductory classes and making teaching suggestions, I hope to empower WGS to more effectively confront forms of racism and nationalism, including Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, Christian white-nationalism, and Zionism, that also have a religious component.

Finally, both presenters will provide pedagogical reflections on using course sequencing, experiential assignments, and global current events in the WGS classroom to teach about the intersections of race and religion. As teachers, both presenters have taught about Jewish, Christian, and Islamic fundamentalism in relation to each other in order to resist essentializing and racist conceptions of Islam, and both have required students to observe unfamiliar religious ceremonies in order to destabilize students’ perceptions of their own religious tradition and its ethnic and cultural assumptions as normative. Both of us have taken advantage of global current events in order to encourage students to question how religion and race, ethnicity, and nationality influence each other, such as in the 2015 Paris attacks and subsequent calls for a “Muslim ban,” in the experiences of oppressed racial and religious minorities in the US, China, Myanmar, and beyond, and in the more recent confrontation between Covington High School students with Black Hebrew Israelites and Native elder Nathan Phillips.

Can “religion” and “race” be disentangled?

The set of categories that sorts people into races (Caucasian, African, Asian, etc.) and the set of categories that sorts people into religions (Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, etc.) have long been conceptually entangled.  Moreover, both sets of categories have been used by white supremacists to justify the oppression of others.  As a consequence, Thomas Lynch, Malory Nye, and others have separately argued that the two terms should be understood and critiqued similarly, since in both cases there is no reality to which the concept allegedly refers.

The concept of “religion” is definitely problematic.  A significant and influential group of scholars has made the case that the relatively modern concept of “religion” imposes a European Christian term onto non-European non-Christians.  Equivalent words are not found in the languages of, for instance, Nigeria, Japan, or Ecuador.  Moreover, the concept was weaponized in the colonial age as some Europeans claimed that other groups of people are so simple that they have no religion; or that they have a religion, but it is a “primitive” one; or that they have a religion, but it is an indigenous one and not a “world religion.” If “religion” is not just a social construction, but also the product of a colonialist or even racist imagination, should we not treat it as we treat the categories of race, and work gradually to abolish it?

In this paper, I argue against that proposal.  I argue that the two categories should be treated differently.  Though both are invented categories for sorting people and neither reflects some natural feature of the world, the two are different in one important sense, and therefore scholars should retain the category of religion.

It is true that, biologically speaking, there is only one human race.  Racial categories cannot be justified with any study of human genetics, immune systems, cranial variations, or blood types.  Race is instead a social construction, and the term can only be retained to refer to social structures that shape people’s privileges, experiences, opportunities, and roles.  The category of religion, however, was never allegedly biological, but was always used to refer to social structures.  When one describes a social structure as a religion, one takes a set of practices, experiences, social roles, and institutions based on a belief in supernatural beings in one culture and categorizes them with forms of life in other cultures as if they make a coherent set.  The label does not refer to something hidden that might be grasped by biology or any other natural science.  Granted, there can be a people without religion, and so the re-description of some culture as religious can be false.  But if there are cultures outside modern Christian Europe that practice a form of life based on a belief in supernatural beings, then it is a legitimate scholarly practice for scholars to impose that word on those cultures. In fact, inventing concepts that re-describe social patterns in way that the participants in those cultures have not used is their proper task.  This is the difference between them and why one might retain “religion” even if one thinks both that the concept has been entangled with that of race, and that neither concept refers to something outside human practices.