Book Review. Against All Odds: The Struggle for Racial Integration in Religious Organizations

Posted on the ISAAC blog on June 21, 2008 [http://isaacblog.wordpress.com/2008/06/21/review-against-all-odds-the-struggle-for-racial-integration-in-religious-organizations/]

Brad Christerson, Korie L. Edwards, and Michael O. Emerson, Against All Odds: The Struggle for Racial Integration in Religious Organizations (New York: New York University Press, 2005) 185 pp. ISBN: 0814722245

Since I started to get my DVD movie rentals by mail, I’ve rarely watched movies in theatres. There are times when I’ve regretted not watching a good action movie in the theatre. Likewise, I’ve regretted missing the “buzz” around the publication of important books when they are first introduced. Against All Odds is such a publication.

I wish I had read this book when it was published three years ago because it provides such valuable insights into how people from different racial backgrounds interact in religious organizations in the United States. The authors conducted sociological studies of six multi-racial evangelical organizations in the Midwest and California (four congregations, a campus ministry, and a Christian college). They make a couple of important assumptions in their research. The first first is that America continues to be divided racially through a historical socio-political process called racialization (which should not be confused with ethnicity or ethnogenesis). Drawing from Howard Winant and Michael Omi’s Racial Formation theory that was first proposed in their now classic Racial Formation in the United States, the authors of Against All Odds believe our public and private realities continue to be structured along racial lines. Racial integration cannot happen by simply changing individual attitudes or trying to be color-blind. The second assumption is that religious organizations are mediating institutions between the private and public spheres. As such, these organizations have the potential to draw people out of their private, racially segrated lives, into a social space where human interactions are more intimate than the public arena. The new interracial relationships that are created in these organizations may become a model for American society in the future. By working with these assumptions, the authors challenge the belief that race and religion are of diminishing significance in 21st Century America.

Against All Odds is not a handbook of “best practices.” Becoming interracial is a struggle for each of the organizations examined since “interracial organizations are inherently unstable” (152) and participating in them is “risky” (157). A visibly diverse organization will not naturally attract new people. Intentionality and favorable external factors and internal dynamics are required to overcome the American racial order. According to the authors, “numerical minority group members bear the highest relational costs of being involved in interracial organizations. The costs are reduced as representation increases.” In other words, most people in these organizations do not have strong friendships with people who are not like themselves. A critical mass of a numerical minority group in an organization and its leadership is necessary for sustaining that group’s presence and growth. Healthy interracial organizations are in reality coalitions of racial groups each of whose needs are being addressed and whose presence is adequately represented. The authors conclude that

“Representation can be in any or all of the following areas: raw numbers, worship styles, leadership, or organizational practices. For instance, incorporating music from the out group’s culture, increasing diversity in the staff, accommodating different attitudes and understandings of time, and instituting children’s programs are all examples of increasing representation, depending on which groups are marginalized. Increasing representation and providing some time for separate space for groups are the means organizations are most able to control.” (158 )

If the book ended on this note, then the solution to creating healthy interracial organizations would be simple. If an organization does not have enough white or Asian people, then create an “affirmation action” policy to recruit whites and Asians. But the authors throw a big “monkey wrench” into this assumption. “The importance of minimizing the costs of being in interracial organizations is greatest for those who are racial minorities in the larger society,” say the authors, “because they pay the costs of both numerical and minority statuses daily in the larger society.” (158 ) In other words, racial minorities in the larger society pay a higher “cultural tax” than racial majorities and therefore have a greater need to avoid paying these taxes in the religious organizations in which they invest their social capital. On the other hand, as the racial majority, white people experience less “cultural taxation” in American society than they do in interracial organizations. This creates a dynamic some have labeled the the problem of “white privilege.” Repeated examples of unconscious white privileging are given in this study. “Whites are accustomed to being in control in social contexts,” claim the authors. “Their norms and values are in most cases accepted without challenge. These characteristics afford whites far greater opportunity, relative to racial minorities, to live in, establish, and reproduce social spaces that accommodate their preferences, culture, and superior status.” (172) Consequently, the authors conclude that:

“Whites are more likely than racial minorities to leave interracial religious organizations if their particular preferences and interests are not being met.” (168 )

“White adults, despite their desire to attend an interracial church and their belief that this membership holds intrinsic benefits for them, are unwilling to sacrifice the potential experiences, privileges and opportunities of their children to do so.” (170)

“Maintaining legitimacy within the dominant group is of greater priority for whites than are the desires and needs of fellow non-white organization members.” (171)

The behavior of whites becomes a major destabilizing factor for interracial churches. They are ‘”not necessarily aware of their privileged status as the dominant racial group, nor are they aware how their own actions perpetuate it.” Quoting George Lipstiz (‘the artificial construction of whiteness almost always comes to possess white people themselves unless they develop antiracist identities’ [1998: vii]), the authors argue that “unless whites are conscious of the status and privileges afforded them through whiteness, and unless they act to dismantle the structure that sustains that privilege, they will by default reproduce the racialized social order.” (172)

If white privilege tends to destabilize an interracial organization, the authors argue that interracial marriages brings stability. But this is further evidence that building friendships and trust across racial lines – even within the same organization – is extraordinarily difficult when racial identities are so clearly shaped in America.

Finally, Against All Odds explores the internal religious dynamics of these organizations. The authors identified “religiously charged ethnocentrism” (i.e., turning cultural practices into theological absolutes) and “color-blind theologies” (i.e., refusal to recognize race as a part of one’s religious identity or practice) as destabilizing forces. On the other hand, regular use of “theological arguments for diversity” and providing “spiritual enrichness” from diverse worship environments are stabilizing forces. This appears to be confirmed by the participants in the study. In the Christian college dominated by the majority white evangelical subculture, the destabilizing dynamics created a dysfunctional organization where racial minority students felt marginalized and shut down. in other organizations, almost everyone interviewed valued being part of an interracial community despite the struggles of the organizations. When interracial organizations emphasize diversity as a positive value, most participants hesitate to return to more homogeneous contexts.

Against All Odds needs to be read carefully by leaders of religious organizations who want to understand the dynamics of multiracial organizations. Many of the observations are applicable to multicultural and multigenerational organizations as well. It is clear that any organization that seeks to sustain healthy diversity must allow sub-groups representation. Unity is not uniformity.

Reading the book with Asian American lens, I was left wondering why Asian American participants in multi-racial religious organizations were so ambivalent about their own identities. I suspect that the power of racialization impacts Asian Americans differently from other racial minorities. In settings that are predominantly white, whenever I bring up Asian American concerns, the conversation usually goes in one of two directions. There is usually a surprised reaction since the prevailing assumption is that Asian Americans are no different from white immigrants. At other times, the conversation shifts to issues and events in Asia. There is virtually no place to stand between invisibility or foreignness for Asian Americans in multiracial settings. If we are to overcome the power of racialization of Asian Americans, if we are to encourage adequate Asian American participation in interracial organizations, we must ensure that engaging Asian American identities and consciousness becomes a priority. Against All Odds provides a helpful frame of reference and starting point.

Timothy Tseng
Castro Valley, CA
June 21, 2008

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