Post-Racial America? The Tangle of Race, Religion, and Citizenship

By Judith Weisenfeld | October 24, 2012

Emmanuel Dunand/Getty

The election of Barack Obama to the presidency of the United States brought questions about race in America to the forefront of political and social discourse in novel ways. It also gave rise to the claim that America had entered a post-racial era. What people mean when they invoke post-racial is often unclear, however. And is achieving a post-racial nation even possible or desirable? Most often, media figures have deployed the term to indicate that Obama the candidate and president deemphasizes the divisive history of race in America in favor of universal histories and experiences that unite.

Indeed, in his address at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, then-Senator Obama himself laid the political and emotional groundwork for this version of the post-racial ideal in asserting that, “There’s not a black America and white America and Latino America and Asian America; there’s the United States of America.” During the 2008 Democratic primary, when video clips of sermons by his pastor, Jeremiah Wright, were decontextualized to emphasize black rage and political disloyalty, Obama delivered his landmark speech on race and politics. He condemned Wright’s comments for expressing “a profoundly distorted view of this country—a view that sees white racism as endemic, and that elevates what is wrong with America above all that we know is right with America.” In that speech, titled “A More Perfect Union,” Obama called on Americans to move past the “racial stalemate we’ve been stuck in for years” and “asserted a firm conviction—a conviction rooted in my faith in God and my faith in the American people—that working together we can move beyond some of our old racial wounds.” Even though he made clear that he was not so naïve as to imagine that racial divisions could be overcome quickly or easily, he continued to press Americans to focus on what unites them rather than divides. “Mr. Obama now presides over a White House that constantly projects cross-racial unity,” Jodi Kantor wrote in Sunday’s New York Times. “When discussing in interviews what image the Obamas want to project, aides use one word more than any other: ‘inclusive.’” 

In this view, post-racial means that American social and political life has become race-neutral and that, except for those on the fringes, Americans have rejected the overt practices of racial discrimination and hierarchy that have marked most of the nation’s history. Significantly, of course, this approach to post-racialism also calls on those peoples who have been subjected to such discrimination to themselves become race-neutral, refrain from appealing to the history of racism, and invest their hopes in the possibility of a “colorblind” nation. Indeed, the negative response by many of the president’s critics to his comments on the killing of African American teenager Trayvon Martin earlier this year highlights the complicated position in which the president finds himself with regard to public discourse about race. “If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon,” Obama noted. And although the majority of his remarks focused on Martin’s grieving family and the investigation, political figures like Newt Gingrich and columnists such as Michelle Malkin criticized Obama for invoking race at all, with the former calling his comments “disgraceful” and the latter, “political opportunism.”

Varied commentators in this “age of Obama” have made insistent and powerful arguments that America is not a post-racial society, that the claim is just naïve colorblindness repackaged, and that the long, painful, violent history of racial inequity requires continued attention to how race and racism operate in contemporary life. A banner headline—“Putting ‘Post-Racial’ to Rest”—at the top of the cover page of the Fall 2010 centennial issue of the NAACP’s magazine The Crisis exemplifies the resistance among African Americans in particular to the premises of post-racialism becoming accepted as fact. In the strongly-worded opinion piece to which the banner referred, Rutgers-Newark Law Professor David Dante Trout wrote that, “Ever since Barack Obama became a presidential contender and the term came into use, many of us have looked forward to its demise. Not because it is unworthy.” In fact, Trout noted, American liberals in the Civil Rights Movement had premised their work on hopes similar to those invoked by the term post-racial, but he emphasized that the mythology currently attached to the word obscures the persistence of racial inequity in American society. In a 2011 New York Times blog post, Touré pleaded with Americans to stop using the term. “It’s a term for a concept that doesn’t exist. There’s no there there.” Last month in The Atlantic, Ta-Nehisi Coates reflected on the political consequences and constraints that claims of a post-racial America have placed on the president. “The irony of Barack Obama is this,” Coates wrote, “he has become the most successful black politician in American history by avoiding the radioactive racial issues of yesteryear … and yet his indelible blackness irradiates everything he touches.” Coates charted the challenges that Obama, the child of a white American mother and a black Kenyan father, faces in signifying as black (both inevitably and intentionally) but not so black (read angry) that he makes white Americans feel uncomfortable. Had America truly arrived at the post-racial moment, this sort of balancing act would not be necessary.

The widespread contention that Obama was not born in the United States and, therefore, is ineligible to hold the office of president of the United States resonates powerfully as a belief grounded in racism that is impervious to countervailing evidence. Indeed, in invoking the “birther” sensibility in his recent campaign quip that “No one’s ever asked to see my birth certificate,” Mitt Romney gave voice to the suspicions of many. According to a recent poll, 45 percent of Americans are not sure of or reject the authenticity of the official birth certificate Obama released to the public in 2008 in response to relentless questioning of his citizenship. The view that President Obama is not Christian as he professes, but Muslim, has also become commonplace in contemporary American life. In July, a poll from the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life found that 17 percent of respondents incorrectly identified Obama as a Muslim and 65 percent among those are uncomfortable with his “religion.” While this represents a 2 percent decrease since 2008 (but among Republicans, an increase from 16 percent to 30 percent), the persistent suspicion is that the president is, at worst, a radical Madrassa-educated Muslim who hates Christianity and America, and at best a dishonest closeted Muslim. Moreover, many Americans connect and conflate these doubts about the president’s religion and place of birth, as in the case of woman who declared at a Rick Santorum event in January that, “I never refer to Obama as President Obama because legally he is not.” She continued, “He is an avowed Muslim. My question is: Why isn’t something being done to get him out of our government? He has no legal right to be calling himself president.” Concerning conflations of race and religion in evaluations of the president, Coates concluded, “The goal of all this is to delegitimize Obama’s presidency. If Obama is not truly American, then America has still never had a black president.”

The complex tangle of race, religion, and citizenship requires more nuanced analysis than the reductive binary that post-racial or not post-racial provides. Without question, this is a difficult cluster to disentangle—if such a thing is even possible—made so by the fact that race, religion, and national identity have been bound up together in complicated and shifting ways across American history. Religious beliefs have contributed to the production of ideas about race in American history by helping to interpret inconsequential physical differences through a moral lens and, at times, conferring divine authority on racial hierarchy. Similarly, ideas about race have contributed to evaluations of the religious possibilities and faith claims of differently racialized peoples in American history. These intertwined constructions of race and religion have developed in a context in which both contribute to ideas about American national identity and citizenship. Declarations of post-racial achievement obscure the multidimensional operations of racial thinking in American history as well as the rich spectrum of approaches that people of African descent (who most often bear the burden of “race”) have taken to understanding the relationship among race, religion, and Americanness.

Consider the case of Americans’ military service during the Second World War which, for so many, serves as a sign of American military might, moral commitment, and communal sacrifice. Men and women of African descent participated in the war effort in many capacities, ever mindful of the burden of what was called the “Double V” campaign: victory in the war abroad and victory over racial discrimination at home. Service in a segregated military in which black units were most often relegated to menial labor provided a clear reminder of the persistence of racial discrimination. Even the experience of registering for the draft sometimes became a contest between long-standing state-authorized ways of defining race and the resistance of many black Americans to shoe-horning themselves into a limited set of racial categories. In fact, the period during which Americans mobilized for the war effort coincided with a time of religious creativity in black urban America that raised a range of unique, unprecedented, and challenging questions about the relationship among religion, race, and Americanness. Fostered by African American migration from the South to northern cities and the influx of immigrants from the Caribbean to these same cities in the years between the world wars, this religious creativity was expressed, in part, in the formation of a number of religious movements that offered alternative religious and racial categories to people of African descent. Rejecting the label of “Negro” and its association with slavery in the Americas, founders and members of these new groups understood their collective histories in ways that lifted them out of the rigid racial hierarchy in force in the United States. Their challenge to the logic of race in America was political in that most were interested in gaining full citizenship rights, but their alternative approaches were inseparable from religious commitment. In seeking to become post-racial—in the sense that they rejected conventional American categories—members of some groups took routes to understanding their place in wartime America that led them embrace a different set of racial categories and others rejected race entirely in favor of a religious sense of self.

On April 25, 1942, for example, the religious leader Father Divine joined an estimated thirteen million other men in the United States between the ages of 45 and 64 who were called that same weekend in the fourth round of draft registration for the Second World War. Divine was the founder of the racially-integrated Peace Mission Movement in which followers believed that he was God in a body but, as an embodied being, he complied with the requirement that he appear before his local draft board in Harlem. He registered under the name “Reverend Major J. Divine,” the one he used most frequently in public, and listed his occupation as clergyman. Although he was most probably born George Baker in Rockville, Maryland, he gave his birthplace as Providence, Rhode Island, perhaps a whimsical gesture to his sense of his own providential power. The remainder of the form consisted of a “registrar’s report,” including a physical description of the registrant in terms of height, weight, eye color, hair color, complexion and race. Except for height and weight, the registrar needed only to place a check mark next to the appropriate descriptor on lists already printed on the form. When, however, it came to representing Divine’s race, he and the registrar came into conflict. She placed a check mark next to “Negro,” but his rejection of all racial categories as the product of the devil (“the other fellow,” as Divine often said) moved him to insist upon an amendment to the form. The registrar complied with Divine’s request, writing in the alternative in capital letters so that it spanned the entire list of pre-printed racial designators. In the end, Father Divine’s draft card listed his race as “AMERICAN.”

Father Divine was not the only man registering for the draft that April weekend who normally would have been classified as Negro but who on religious grounds rejected commonplace American racial categorizations. The records of the so-called “old man’s draft” contain rich evidence of unconventional religiously-grounded approaches to racial identity. Members of various congregations of black Hebrews, many of them immigrants from the British West Indies, rejected Negro in favor of Ethiopian Hebrew, an identity that represented their sense of an ancient connection to the biblical Hebrews. Members of the Moorish Science Temple who understood themselves to be literal descendants of Moroccans and, therefore, “Asiatic” Muslims, most often characterized their race as “Moorish American.” Father Divine’s followers embraced his theology that denied all racial categories and declared themselves to be simply human which, when they acquiesced to the man’s request, draft registrars usually added next to Negro on the form. But registrars themselves often resisted these attempts by men of African descent to define their identities in ways that did not conform to current American ideas of race. When Faithful Solomon who, like other followers of Father Divine had changed his name to reflect his new spiritual identity, insisted that the racial categories printed on the form did not apply to him, the registrar noted, “says he is of the human race, but is obviously Negro,” as if the two were mutually exclusive.

The image of these men asserting their sense of divinely-given identity in a rebuke of the American system of racial categorization even as they affirmed their Americanness is powerful. This group of registrants grew up in the last decades of the nineteenth century as America was producing the system of Jim Crow segregation that would mark the first half of the twentieth century. In 1942 they were required to register for possible service in a racially-segregated military, an experience that tainted an expression of national service and belonging with hierarchy and exclusion. This small group of men in the “old man’s draft” represented the positions of many more women and men of African descent who did not find themselves before a draft board in April of 1942 but who also understood themselves, their communal past, and future destiny in terms that broke radically with commonplace notions of race in America. This period was unique in American history: new religious movements flourished in black communities of the urban North and wartime mobilization called for a united citizenry, all while practices of racial segregation and discrimination continued. When these men intervened into the system of racial classification during the draft, they threw a spotlight on the contradictory reality of being called to fight for democracy abroad and being denied access at home on the basis of race.

What we learn from recognizing a longer history of debate among people of African descent in the United States about how religion and race shape what it means to be an American is that the “racial” of “post-racial” has no fixed or obvious meaning. Members of the black new religious movements of the early twentieth century wrestled with the religious implications of American racial categories and the racial meaning of religious commitment in complex ways and reached conclusions that have been embraced by some and reviled by others. However, when we bring their perspectives into view, we cannot help but see the limitations of the stark binary that underlies current discussions of post-racial America. Moreover, taking time to understand why and how religion and race were so intimately intertwined for members of these groups helps to shed light on the diverse ways contemporary Americans draw explicit and implicit connections between these categories. In the current election cycle, as in the previous one, President Obama continues to be cast as unfit for office through “birther” conspiracy claims, a persistent suspicion that he is a closeted Muslim and, therefore, anti-American, and the promotion of an image of him as pandering to angry black Christians (as Tucker Carlson attempted one day before the first presidential debate). Unfortunately, the stark terms of post-racial America or not post-racial America do not provide the tools for interpreting the history of these tangled threads of race, religion, and Americanness in subtle ways. This is not surprising given the starkness of racial hierarchy and the practices of racism in American history. However, acknowledging past perspectives that represent alternative visions may help us resist the present temptation to simply embrace or reject post-racial status and think more carefully and expansively about race, religion, and American life.

Judith Weisenfeld is Professor of Religion and Associate Faculty in the Center for African American Studies at Princeton University. She is the author of Hollywood Be Thy Name: African American Religion in American Film, 1929-1949.

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