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"Several Nations Under God": 
Urban Space, Race, and Religion


A paper presented by Tyrone R. Simpson II of the Carter G. Woodson Institute for African and African American Studies,
University of Virginia, at the 2002 Annual Conference for Society for the Scientific Study of Religion, Salt Lake City, Utah, November 2, 2002

In their exploration of white American evangelicalism and its ability to improve contemporary race relations, Michael Emerson and Christian Smith conclude that the faith tradition's focus on spiritual individualism hamstring evangelicals from addressing the irrefragable structures of racial inequality.  Moreover, Emerson and Smith explain that these very structures render the modest contribution that individualist-oriented white evangelicals can make toward racial reconciliation--meaningful interpersonal friendships with African Americans--impossible.  In Divided by Faith, Emerson and Smith posit " the massive extent of residential, congregational, and other forms of segregation and racial inequality (all of which are structurally maintained) continually mitigates against the successful formation of friendships and precludes the opportunity of enough people ever forming enough friendships to make a difference". At the risk of placing a pall of pessimism over this discussion, my contribution to this meditation on race and religious congregations elaborates on how the structure of American society vitiates substantive interracial contact in any social arena, particularly religion.  Drawing upon the recent critical discourse about the spatialization of race in Western cities, I argue that the contemporary racialized ghetto functions as an internal colony to the neighboring metropolises that it abuts and that this socio-spatial relationship insures that the encounter between whites and non-whites in the American city will be a colonial one.  That is, whites will meet the “colored Other” only when they decide to.  And, if they do opt for such contact, they will often find the “colored Other” servicing them in some way (dispensing fast food, operating mass transportation vehicles, and cleaning offices). In short, the neo-colonial spatial arrangement of the ghetto does little to cultivate opportunities for the interracial sharing of religious experience.

My argument about the American ghetto as an internal colony relies upon my observation that this type of residential space suffers from an intense, unrelenting regime of externalization, in which US cities extract various forms of human capital from these sites in an exploitative fashion. In the interest of satisfying the time constraints of this panel presentation, I present five of the eight dynamics of externalization that have shaped American ghettoes in the latter third of the twentieth century. The first factor is the loss of industrial job opportunities from the most distinguished US cities. Second, is that the ghetto serves as a reservoir of surplus labor for the remaining industries in the metropolis. This makes laborers who reside in the ghetto financially vulnerable and incapable of sustaining a local economy in the neighborhoods in which they reside. The third factor is how differently ghettoes function in American global capitalism.  These spaces often host the sex and drug industries--illegal institutions that constitute much of the economic activity of these neighborhoods.

The fourth factor has to do with issues of governance. The ghetto's socio-political affairs are often (mis)managed by leadership that live outside the neighborhood.  Ghetto residents seldom have say in the geopolitical fate of their own space. The visual absence or expulsion from the metropolitan landscape maybe the most decisive factor that creates the sensation that the ghetto is the “eternal elsewhere” of the American city. As sociologist Mark Gottdiener notes in his work, urban life and its material features have become portable. Thus suburban dwellers can experience urbanity without travelling deep into "uncharted" urban regions.  Mass transportation systems allow suburbanites to visit the city for their own discreet purposes, preventing them from gaining more than a glimpse of abject urban neighborhoods. As well, the increasing privatization of the public realm, that is, the strip-malling of public space, enables suburban adventurers to participate in metropolitan consumption activities with little risk of any unsettling encounters with the "undesirable" portions of the urban population.  It is very easy for suburbanites to assume that what they can't see or touch does not exist; at least not here in America. 

In short, the spatialization of race and labor in contemporary American cities creates travel itineraries that preclude interracial assembly in a house of worship. 11am on a Sunday morning commands the dubious reputation of being the most racially segregated hour in American life and culture. Real estate developers, municipal leaders, and urban boosters have worked hard to see that it remains that way.   

Research and articles on the same subject:

Michael Emersons' research on multiracial congregations in our section on congregational research.

"Hues in the Pews", by John Dart, news editor for The Christian Century

Multiracial congregations in America: Looking for “a more realistic picture of what the world looks like”
An article by Elfriede Wedam, Univ. of Illinois at Chicago 




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