Josiah Davis

Michael O. Emerson and Christian Smith on Racialization

Michael O. Emerson and Christian Smith published Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America in 2000. I found it incredibly helpful and I highly recommend. This is a summary of their first and fourth chapters which focus on the idea of Racialization and differing explanations for it among evangelicals.


Many white evangelicals take a “benign view” of the Race Issue. However, a lack of awareness is a luxury only White Americans can enjoy. America is a nation in which “race matters profoundly for differences in life experiences, life opportunities and social relationships.” White Americans tend to attribute this difference to individual factors such as lack of motivation or responsibility on the part of the individual whereas black Americans tend to attribute the difference due to structural factors such as lack of access to quality education and systematic discrimination. White and Black evangelicals are more divided in their answers than Black and White Americans in general, thus we are “Divided by Faith”. The rest of the book provides a theory for why this is the case complete with extensive historical and sociological analysis.


Many white evangelicals think that the Race Issue is really just mislabeled conflict, or that it is created by talking about it.

Debbie and Mary are two prototypical White Evangelicals in this regard:

Mislabeled Conflict, Rare

From Debbie’s perspective, much of what gets labeled “The race problem” merely represents inevitable disagreements between fallen human beings. Aside from this case of mistaken labeling, the true race problem, and it is relatively rare, is caused be individuals who view themselves as superior to others. Because Christians supposedly know that no one person is superior to any other person, the race problem exists mostly outside of the church.

Created By Talking About It, Selfish Gain

From Mary’s perspective, the race problem would disappear if it were not for separatists dividing the nation. Although we will always have a few prejudiced people, the race problem and racism are essentially dead, living on only because of the activities of separatists and others who stand to gain from the existence of a race problem.

However, a lack of awareness of the Race Issue is a luxury that only White Americans can enjoy.

Americans live in a racialized society, one in which our concept of “race matters profoundly for differences in life experiences, life opportunities, and social relationships.” This does not assume, however, that most Americans are self-consciously racist.

because radicalization is embedded within the normal everyday operation of institutions, this framework understands that people need not intend their actions to contribute to racial division and inequality for their actions to do so.

Racialization can be observed across nearly every aspect of society including marriage, health, income, wealth, education, criminal justice, jobs, neighborhoods, housing, and church. Take the following brief examples:


African-American babies die at a rate over twice the frequency of white babies, African-American mothers are four times more likely to die in childbirth than white Americans.


For blacks and whites, well over 90 percent of those who marry do so within their own racial group (e.g., only 1% of black married women are interracially married).


The current approximate ratio of two un-employed blacks for every one unemployed white has held nearly constant since 1950.


As of 1994, the median income of blacks was 62 percent of that of whites. This was essentially unchanged from nearly thirty years earlier (1967).

Why do these disparities exist? Explanations are Divided by Faith.

The authors surveyed and interviewed thousands of individuals to get a pulse on how, when confronted with the facts, people explain these racial disparities. The responses ranged along a spectrum of individual (e.g., not taking responsibility or lack of motivation) to structural (e.g., from lack of opportunity to quality education to discrimination).

In aggregate, Smith and Emerson found that White Americans tend to emphasize individual factors, such as lack of motivation and taking individual responsibility while African American respondents tended to emphasize structural factors, such as discrimination and lack of educational opportunity.

However, when it comes to Evangelicals, White Evangelical respondents emphasized individual factors even more than than white respondents in general and Black evangelical respondents emphasized structural factors such as discrimination even more than black respondents in general. Thus, Evangelicals are more divided on the issue of race than even the general American public is.

Using a combination of historical analysis, analysis of Christian Publications over time, surveys and one-on-one interviews, the rest this book explores the history and provides a theory of why this division has and continues to exist in American Evangelicalism.