I initially wrote this essay before the pandemic. “Before” now seems, as many have noted already, a no-longer world that recedes further each day as we travel the portal to a place called after. What I recall of the before essay: it was a piece on race directed at scholars of religion. I argued there is no way to do religion without race, especially in the context of the United States; that scholarship that does so is disingenuous, incomplete, and ultimately, shoddy. To speak of “evangelicals,” “Jewish Americans,” “Islam in the United States,” “American Buddhists,” “US atheists,” et cetera, without analyses of race and racism—not to mention gender, class, and sexuality—reflects ongoing racial projects and possessive investments in whiteness that are the toxic legacies of “the nation’s most segregated hour“: those ontologies of (primarily white Christian) religious being in the United States that render certain theologies fatal enterprises of racial categorization, hierarchical relationships, and ideological rationalization, and thus, widespread catalysts of social death (e.g., the “Curse of Ham,” “Kill the Indian, and Save the Man,” “the heathen Chinee”).
In many ways, while everything has changed, nothing has changed. I still do not believe it is possible to do religion without race, and even more vehemently now. If anything, this moment has amplified even more how race and racism are an intractable presence in every aspect of US American life. As geographer and prison abolitionist Ruth Wilson Gilmore’s indispensable definition of racism teaches us: “Racism, specifically, is the state-sanctioned or extralegal production and exploitation of group-differentiated vulnerability to premature death.” With all the talk of Covid-19 as an “equal opportunity virus,” African Americans make up nearly a third of coronavirus deaths, although they only make up thirteen percent of the US population, while the virus has also taken a disproportionate toll on Native, Latinx, and immigrant communities across the nation. This administration’s insistence on calling coronavirus “the Chinese flu” exacerbates hate crimes against Asian Americans. As Gilmore also tells us, “In a crisis, the old order does not simply blow away, and every struggle is carried out within and against already existing institutions.” In the United States, whiteness is such an institution, a form of property, as Cheryl Harris argues, that is centered around “a right to exclude,” borne from histories of slavery and conquest, and ratified and legitimated in US law.
What I want to add to my pre-pandemic arguments now, what I am increasingly clear about moving forward, is just as we cannot do religion without race, I, personally, can no longer do race without religion. By this, I mean religion as a category of analysis, as well an engagement with spirituality and the sacred as animating forces of racial epistemologies and struggles for racial justice.
I am an interloper to religious studies, arrived from the field of ethnic studies shortly after 9/11 so that I could research US Muslim women and anti-Muslim racism. Ethnic studies is a field borne of the radical struggles of the Third World Strikes of the 1960s and 70s, underwritten by Marxist frameworks of revolutionary struggle, and thus, also with an aversion to religion as the “opiate of the masses.” When I began my studies on race in the United States as an undergraduate in the early 1990s, the “culture wars” loomed large in the classroom and the larger body politic, as conservatives and a handful of white male liberals targeted “multiculturalism” and “identity politics” as the central threats to, for the former, US global dominance, and for the latter, as Robin D. G. Kelley aptly put it, “Marx, Engels, or Thomas Jefferson.” Scholars in ethnic studies and the adjacent field of American studies responded with a vein of robust and praxis-oriented analyses of race and racism in the closing decades of the twentieth century. Critical concepts and frameworks of empire, diaspora, transnationalism, and intersectionality entered scholarly and activist lexicons of race in the United States and marked what some have called the “critical turn” in American studies during that time, when the enterprises of American studies and ethnic studies became more closely aligned. This corpus of work ushered in robust analysis not only of racism’s subjecting effects, but of the new subjectivities produced by antiracist/anti-imperial resistance as enacted and expressed in various spaces and on multiple terrains—what Stuart Hall called “new ethnicities“—while also teaching us to enact, again to cite Hall, “a politics that is open to contingency but still able to act” (italics mine).
It is increasingly clear to me that I study race with religion because I see understanding and reckoning with religion as part of the something-to-do in struggles for justice. I don’t mean I approach religion as inherently liberatory; in the face of the various injustices and atrocities committed in its name, such a proposition would be absurd. Yet, the roles religion, spirituality, and the sacred play in people’s lives, what and how people believe, and how they interpret and carry out these beliefs in public and private life—these all matter eminently in understanding the machinations of social movements and collective change, and how we envision facilitating their paths of emergence. As Dr. King’s words at the start of this essay reveal, religion has always been lived both in and through race and racism in the United States; race produces religion’s forms and animates its presence and practice in people’s lives, which in turn shape the horizons of possibility for social change.
When I speak of doing race, I mean it in the insurgent, praxis-oriented spirit of ethnic studies, as detailed above. When I say religion, however, I propose a far more capacious meaning than has been reflected in that field, where the specter of Marx’s secularism, rooted in the struggles of nineteenth-century Europe, continually conflates—inadvertently or intentionally—“religion” with Christianity—in particular white Protestantism—and its white supremacist and genocidal effects in the Americas. Instead, just as critical race and ethnic studies scholars seek to denaturalize whiteness, highlight racialized mechanisms of power, and center the voices, histories, and experiences of Black and Indigenous peoples, and other people of color, this moment also demands fervent commitments to unsettling the binary between secularism and whiteness-invested Christianity, which we are often asked to stand for and against in struggles for racial justice. Indeed, as I have discovered in my own work, religion and the sacred continually drive struggles for racial justice in the United States, from the Nation of Islam to protestors at Standing Rock, to what Black feminist theologian Traci West calls the “defiant spirituality” of a liberationist and womanist Christian ethos.
To do race with religion, and religion with race, is to illuminate the spaces between precarious life and premature death, to look deeply at the stuff of our visions of life and death, labor and community, love and forgiveness, land and earth. As M. Jacqui Alexander has written, the spirit and the sacred are—like race—social forces: “a type of body praxis.” In a moment when race produces a body’s vulnerability to premature death, I have come to see religion, the spirit, and the sacred as that which mediates and mitigates bodily relationships to death. “Even in death,” Alexander writes, “there are commitments and choices about the when, how, and the kind of provisions with which we return.”