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Religious Racism in Education

Having been raised as an African-American girl to college educated, activist parents in MI; there were two certainties in life – church and school. Like clockwork, active participation in these two institutions helped to inform my reality and shaped my unique view of the world around me. However, it never occurred to me that my seemingly idyllic religious and academic experiences were an anomaly and really not a universal component of other people’s lives. Who knew that while I was being taught love, tolerance, the Be Attitudes and the values of respect and kindness, others were being politicized as racists who regard White supremacy as their religious right? Sadly, I was completely uninformed of the dangerous and even unholy intersection between God and education which existed in much of society. In retrospect – I was soon to learn (the hard way), of the many evils lurking in a country boasting of religious principles, but founded on a long, sordid history of hatred, occupation by violence, war, mass annihilation, enslavement and oppression.

As a sixth-generation Christian with a maternal family history aligned with membership in the historic African Methodist Episcopal (A.M.E.) Church, I was a “born again” young person active in church as an acolyte, a junior missionary, youth choir member and served on the youth usher board. As a result of this active engagement, I developed an early, abiding love of God, church and of the Black religious experience. I was such a willing convert and Black church participant, that I can remember being anointed as “special” at a young age by church elders. This deference was likely bestowed for my unashamedly spirited solos in the children’s (and later), the young adult choir in which I sang loudly with a powerful, deep contralto voice. But my anointment may have also been bestowed for my fearless public speaking acumen-honed in the time honored, Black church tradition of reciting Easter and Christmas poems and being featured in various performances/theatrical shows. Whatever the impetus, my siblings and I and literally all the Black youth in our midst, thrived under the strict but affirming Black church culture of: discipline, love of one another, respecting one’s elders and honing our innate leadership skills and abilities. In fact, by the time I was in my late teens/early 20s, I had already been invited to (and excitedly agreed to), deliver a “trial” sermon in my home church of Greater Quinn AME in Detroit, MI. Though my future would later prove to be in teaching rather than preaching, these are fond memories for which I am eternally grateful. Yes indeed, life was good, God was real, and all was promising through my rose-colored, myopia impaired shades. Soon, my lack of knowledge of other people’s ultra conservative interpretations of religion was made painfully apparent.

You see in spite of this detailed and my seemingly idyllic religious upbringing in the Black church, the acknowledgment of my own religious ignorance of all the evils that the world had in store (from other Christians no less), had not yet begun to rear its ugly head. But after fast-forwarding to my early educational years – I soon learned the curious pattern that my most mean-spirited, unforgiving and overtly racist teachers were also the most outspoken and seemingly religious. As a child, it was admittedly confusing to reconcile the two extremes of God and hatred being portrayed in a unified portrait, but alas I was a long way from the “God is love” ideology of the Black church. Then later, in my undergraduate college years, I began to recognize the obvious chinks in the armor of my Black Christian ideology after reading voraciously and being exposed to the abject racism and evils committed all through history under the guise of religion. It was not lost on me or any of my peers that slave ships would be named Jesus and that essentially, the mass genocide orchestrated against my African ancestors were committed in the name of religion.

In terms of my spiritual maturity, after being on the intimate, Black college campus of Lincoln University, PA for just a few months and attending several Sunday services at our non-denominational chapel on campus, I was pleasantly surprised to learn that most of my peers had also been steeped in a somewhat familiar Black church upbringing and tradition. This helped me to feel less guilty when I realized that most of us had chosen to abandon our strict, religious roots and universal behavioral expectations in favor of sleeping in, studying alone or with peers, engaging in liberal amounts of sexual activity or merely recovering from our spirited partying and drinking from the night before. Of course I was no exception, because though I started college trying to attend church regularly, soon there were countless obligations more pressing than chapel attendance and living a righteous life. So while a scant few of my friends had chosen to uphold the tradition of their religious upbringing and one or two had even gone so far as to join a rather openly devoted group of young Christians entitled “militants for Christ”, the bulk of us engaged in our fervent pursuit of personal freedom from the watchful eyes of our parents and sought academic distinction, maintained an optimistic post-graduate career focus and worked towards earning the lifetime accomplishment of our degree(s) all while partying every weekend and learning to navigate the world as adults. Ultimately, the marked separation between religion and education seemed cemented, until some returned to their Christian roots as educated, working adults, because such a firm foundation had been set during childhood.

Meanwhile other youth, like those attending Covington Catholic High School in KY and countless other conservative, religious institutions across this country have been steeped in practicing an entirely different religious tradition and worldview than that of the uniquely tolerant and all-inclusive ideology inculcated in the Black, Christian tradition. White students and even some affluent students of color, often attend religious institutions which blur the lines between right and wrong or God and curriculum. Such schools intentionally produce students like those wearing MAGA hats, the modern-day KKK hoods, who are adept at promoting racism and adorning themselves in blackface, within the protected confines of their own conservative institutions. These students, like Nicholas Sandmann, the young man at the epicenter of the recent standoff at the Lincoln Memorial, vehemently defends their right to disrespect elders and taunt others with their White supremacist ideology. Adding insult to injury is the fact that an entire nation has now come to the defense of a mob of young people (educated in a Christian school), wearing MAGA hats, chanting “build the wall” and antagonizing literally every group of people who crossed their path. Where/how is such hateful behavior exemplified by the young generation you might ask? They were thoroughly indoctrinated and politicized in Christian schools for most, if not all of their lives. Of course people’s homes and truly reprehensible upbringings are also to blame, but history dare not look any further than the churches, secular and religious schools as the primary institutions fostering the growth and development of modern day hatred and oppression. History has proven that Whiteness exerts its toxic influence on schools under the auspices of the Christian religion, no less.

In a recent, viral Twitter hashtag designed to expose Christian schools for the bastions of hatred which they far too often represent – the Evangelical Movement and toxic Catholicism was under public indictment for inculcating hatred, White supremacy, misogynistic beliefs and for the promotion of bullying and gross mis-education, among other criticisms. As proof, hundreds of thousands of testimonies were shared by people who had endured racism, homophobia, toxic masculinity and/or bullied beyond belief because they didn’t conform to a totally subjective, religious ideal. In one case, a man recalled being tortured because he didn’t appear “manly” enough. According to this victim, coaches would merely turn a blind eye to boys being towel-whipped or their heads being flushed down toilets for being thought of as “soft”. In other cases, history was said to be wholly rewritten and the Bible used as a fantasized weapon in order to erase the entire history of a people and to otherwise whitewash evolution. At least 43K people attested that they were taught that science isn’t real. Given this revelation, is it any wonder that the world’s climate crisis is now at hand? Other former Christian school students recounted harrowing stories of being forced to watch graphic videos of abortions and be pressured to engage in victim blaming behavior whenever sexual harassment or rape was reported on their campus. It came as no surprise that Evangelical schools were overwhelmingly exposed as being overtly racist, sexist and homophobic. Finally, my own personal contribution to relevant testimony used to expose Christian schools is that as divulged in my dissertation study of the pervasive mis-education of Black students in America, a Detroit parent revealed having overheard Catholic nuns monitoring (primarily children of color), while playing outside on the playground at recess and one of the nuns said “look at the little heathens”. Needless to say, such horror stories are endless. Clearly, our collective need to #ExposeChristianSchools is as warranted as the need to dismantle these dysfunctional institutions. This is imperative in order to have any meaningful impact upon curbing future generations of conservative extremists, racists, sexists and hate mongers who are thoroughly indoctrinated in so-called “Christian” schools.

Perhaps the most appropriate analogy to describe the potential dangers of the religious education experience is the phrase “religion is to school, what vodka is to driving”. Truer words were never spoken.

3 thoughts on “Religious Racism in Education

  1. When I think of Christ, I think of a person who was inclusive, which is, of course, not what is being taught. I was raised Catholic and I remember the religious bigotry that was present in our small community. I often heard terms such as “yellow-bellied protestant”, and those who were not Catholic were considered pagan. On the other hand there was an equal amount of prejudice displayed by other Christian religions against “dirty Micks”. I shake my head as I remember it all. You’d think this is all just a relic of the past. Sadly, as evidenced by the interchange between these boys and an Indigenous elder, that is far from the case.

    Thank you for your thoughtful and reasonable thoughts.

    1. Thank you for sharing your memories! Your honesty offers meaningful context to show that sadly, the more things change-the more they stay the same. God’s love, grace and mercy has no bounds. So although so much more is required from us, those of us who know better must do better. Peace and love to you always my friend.

      1. Thank you, Nefertari for sharing your wisdom and insights as well. I always love reading your posts – so thought-provoking. Unfortunately history repeats itself again and again until the cycle is broken. I’m afraid we have a long way to go. May you know many, many blessings.

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