Race as Religion

Forgive me for being academic for a moment ...

I've recently been reading Redeeming Mulatto by Brian Bantum. In the first chapter of the book, he advances a startling proposal:
Race is a phenomenon of racial performance that form disciples. Race is not merely a form of social organization, but more significantly a form of religious expression and identity that shape who a person is. (p. 19)
He fleshes out his argument for "race as religion" in the chapter by showing points of connection between religious and racial systems:

  • legal structuring focused on purity (compare Leviticus to Jim Crow),
  • sacrificial punishment (consider the New Jim Crow, #BlackLivesMatter, and the symbolism around the immigration conversation), and
  • practices of initiation that require belief/faith/commitment (think about the emergence of racial identity in children and "the talk")
This marks my first encounter with the idea of race as religion. What if race as the way we understand it in the United States has emerged as an alternative religion, competing with and syncretizing with Christianity?

As I've reflected on Bantum's proposal, here are a few thoughts:
  • If race is a religion, then we should expect our allegiance with Christ to run us up against the religious powers behind race. We should expect tension, conflict and static when the claims of Christ counter the claims race makes upon us. And we should expect to be tempted to deny Christ once, twice or three times.
  • If race is a religion, then we should expect true conversion to Christianity to have "racial implications." What's more, we should expect the Christian's movement away from participation in racist systems to follow a pattern of conversion and discipleship ... complete with backsliding, spiritual disciplines and a meaningful role for community.
  • If race is a religion, then we should expect its adherents to cling tightly to it, despite shifting cultural mores. In other words, though racism is socially unpopular, we shouldn't expect that unpopularity to stamp out the religion. Folks who were raised in it don't know another way to live. The fish doesn't even notice the water in which is swims every day.
What do you think of this idea of "race as religion"? Have you ever encountered this idea before?

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