Racial Boundaries in Religion and Economics

Sin in the City navigates the late nineteenth/early twentieth century Protestant Christian revival movements and examines the onslaught of “family ideals,” which infiltrated the economic and political infrastructures of the United States’ conservative right.  These ideals arose out of social norms that were confronted by the growth of the city and all its offerings:  tightly cramped living quarters, the streamlining of labor systems, the draw of women away from the home.  The city clashed with customary, white, middle-class notions of moral foundations and was labeled as sinful.

The late nineteenth century found Chicago to be a place of wealth and opportunity.  Entrepreneurs from the east coast sought out new business opportunities; they were able to move to the area, begin in humble positions and work their way to the top.  This “American Dream” of hard work and reward was a strong draw for immigrants to Chicago.  The early population of non-black and non-foreign/non-white was relatively low, and so the opportunities were much more available to white people, and specifically to white men.  Within a relatively short period of time, these booming businesses established strong basis for capitalism in which those in power (white men) extracted resources (work) from lower-income employees who were oftentimes racial and ethnic minorities, disenfranchised them; they owned none of their own equipment and had nothing to offer except their labor (via a Marxist lens, anyhow).   The family structure in place prior to the growth of the city was middle to upper-middle class and white, and their lifestyle was unsettled by city growth.  As Joiner indicates, this sparked a resistance to “sin in the city” that placed heavy emphasis on family values (which have economic [middle class] and racial [white] implications embedded in them) as a defense against growth and change.

From a 2011 article on family values

The racial boundaries (which are intrinsically linked to class boundaries in our society currently) in this book are what interested me the most.  The values that were formed in the Evangelical movements were formed within a white setting.  During this time, black people were heavily discriminated (*not in any way implying that we live in a post-racist society) against and it was only a short time before that they were still enslaved by white families.  In spite of the tensions between black and white populations and individuals, Christianity was a common spread.  Whether they were forcibly or willingly, the oppressed group adopted the theological traditions of the oppressors.  While this is not entirely surprising in itself, it struck a cord with me nonetheless.

Black people during slavery and afterwards, having the Bible or versions of Biblical stories as narratives for their faith, would necessarily have to have drawn different lessons from Christianity’s offerings than white people would have.  While it is not uncommon for people to internalize self-hatred, Black embracement of Christianity came from messages of hope and survival more often than it would have come from white interpretations of it that served as justification for slavery/discrimination/oppression, etc.

During the 1893 World Fair Campaign, a woman named Fannie Barrier Williams was permitted by leaders of the movement to speak on behalf of the family values that were advertised as the solution to the moral crisis being presented by the city of Chicago.  Williams was a black woman married to a lawyer and was considered “elite” and the board who allowed her to speak was comprised of white men and women.  Williams was therefore not representative of black experience in Chicago in the late 1890’s, but her presence in the campaign was still controversial.  What I did find controversial was the message that she was touting.  The family values the World Fair Campaign promoted were the same values founded by white, middle class families.  Fannie Williams spoke against the myths surrounding black men and women’s promiscuity and against the use of Christianity as a tool to promote slavery and discrimination, but she went on to claim that slavery had ruined what she called “family instincts in the negro race in America.”  Missing the irony, Williams saw the family values as inherent to all humans and saw Evangelical Christianity as a baseline truth and opted instead to understand the issue to be the actions of slaveholders and those who allowed and enabled slavery.

The interpretations of Christianity used to promote family values were largely available to only white families — as discrimination occurred in job markets and in social relations — who were the ones with access to economic growth and geographical relocation to places where single-family homes (not “houses”) were available (in terms of existence and affordability).  Those ‘family values’ were an unreachable goal to many African-Americans at that point in time.  The values arose out of an interpretation of Christianity that evolved from and never reformed the interpretations that justified slavery.  And yet instead of applying Black Christian understandings to the city crisis, Williams adopted the values that were still rooted to slavery ideology.

Those values were what perpetuated the already-present racial boundaries that kept black people in place economically, and what better way to continue that cycle in the sub-consciences of both black and white listeners at the Fair than to have a wealthy, black woman — a statistical outlier — vouch for a system that suggested a solution to black families and yet ultimately provided them with a system that perpetuated their own oppression at the benefit of white people?

One Response to “Racial Boundaries in Religion and Economics”

  1. sshorttflo says:

    I just wanted to say that I always enjoy reading your posts. They are always thoughtful and well organized and insightful. I appreciate reading your thoughts and find myself speculative afterward which is certainly not a negative experience.