ANTIBLACKNESS AS RELIGION: BLACK LIVING, BLACK DYING, AND COVID-19
by Matthew J. Smith
February 4, 2021
For late historian of (Black) religion Charles H. Long, “America” was an antiblack religion. Reflecting on the assassinations of Medgar Evers and Martin Luther King, Jr., Long mourned the cycles of (anti)black murders in the 1960s as “a perennial trait of the American experience,” a cycle of rituals that functioned, as Long wrote, as a “kind of eternal return.” A half century later, another outbreak of police killings—from George Floyd to Breonna Taylor to Walter Wallace, Jr. in West Philadelphia—confirm to us the pervasiveness of this American ritual that was first inaugurated by the Middle Passage and continued through slavery’s cyclical afterlives. Long was critical of those American symbols that celebrated its “mighty saga of outward acts,” its acts of colonial and antiblack violence that were so critical to what he described as the “transparent religion of white Americans.” And for Long, these American rituals were not merely an example of American civil religion, but also caught up in the history of Christian conquest, whose Doctrine of Discovery laid the epistemic and material foundations of America’s “hermeneutical situation.” From the perspective of nonwhites, Long wrote, “the distinction between civil religion and church religion is not one that looms large.” For Long, this “American myth” that “dehumanized the black person’s being” existed in institutions of white power: the entanglement of church and state.
As Robin D. G. Kelley has noted, the ritualized spectacle of Black death—lynched and asphyxiated Black bodies—can at times pornotropically fill the media coverage of antiblackness. Beyond these spectacles, however, one can also identify the everyday infrastructural violence of antiblack religion. In considering the wreckage of Hurricane Katrina and the poisoning of water in Flint, Michigan, for example, Cristina Sharpe describes antiblackness to be as “pervasive as the climate.” Today, Covid-19 has once again exacerbated the already disproportionate vulnerability of premature death for Black, Brown, and Indigenous people. The 2020 confluence of Black Lives Matter and the coronavirus can be explained by what abolitionist Ruthie Gilmore calls the “organized abandonment” of Black life. Rather than provide infrastructural support for the flourishing of Black life, “America” has continually blamed Black communities for their own vulnerability and organized systems of policing and punishment in its place. Indeed, we can point to the neoliberal economic policies of the 1970s and 80s as directly imbricated in the massive growth of the US carceral state—and with it, rising investments in policing—as one example of this organized eternal return.
In my latest research on the racial science of Protestant Missions in the early twentieth century, I have been confounded by the similarities between how white Christian reformers understood blackness and how those same assumptions are still used by the state to police Black life today. Below, I want to briefly explore one site in the history of Christian race science that is duplicated today in the policing strategy known as “broken windows.” Thinking with Long about state violence as an antiblack American ritual, and with Cristina Sharpe’s understanding of the “climate of antiblackness,” I want to consider how we might articulate the everyday ecology of antiblack American religion, organized not merely by rituals of Black death, but also the abandonment and subsequent everyday policing of Black life. If religion is about the way we are organized by the world and simultaneously organize our worlds, how has antiblackness been organized by American church and state institutions? How has the present day police state been organized in the afterlives of white Christian reform? And how have Black collectives (“religious” or non) organized otherwise possibilities for Black life?
In Policing the Planet, the contemporary policing crisis is described to be the result of a strategy known as “broken windows policing.” First elaborated in a 1982 essay by George L. Kelling and James Q. Wilson and later popularized by William J. Bratton, its basic tenant is that the presence of urban decay (and hence, “broken windows”) is a predictive sign of criminal behavior. As such, police must regulate small signs of “disorder” like graffiti, litter, panhandling, and so on, to prevent major violent crimes from occurring. From LA’s Safer Cities Initiative to NYC’s Stop-and-Frisk to urban gentrification, police departments have employed “broken windows” not to stop actual violent crimes, but as a way of regulating everyday Black life in places earmarked for capital investment. This increased police capacity, in other words, rests on the symbolic association of blackness with criminality. As such, it blames Black families—and Black women in particular—for not properly managing their homes and neighborhoods, rather than acknowledging urban decay as a product of organized abandonment.
Before the pathologizing of Black neighborhoods under broken windows—or the “Negro family” as Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s 1965 report so notoriously intimated—was the “Black home” of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Indeed, interpreting the Black family or home as pathological has been one of the most resilient symbols of antiblack religion, especially against the backdrop of the ideal white Christian home. For early twentieth-century Protestant Home Missions, the “home” was the central organizing structure of the nation (and the race). More than merely the family unit, the home was understood as the environment where national and racial futures could be nurtured under the articulate care of Christian women.
According to white Christian reformer Alice Guernsey, the “uplift of the home” was the greatest concern for women in Home Missions, especially Black people. In her 1903 sociological study of American homes, Under Our Flag, Guernsey described “the characteristic basis of life among the Negro” as “the alley,” a description that flashes up, we might say, as a genealogical trace in the history of broken windows policing: “A tumbling shanty, with loose floor boards . . . no window save a square hole in the wall,” Guernsey wrote. The yards of homes were “set off by ricket fences” and “filled with weeds.” Crowded together, their water source was “easily contaminated by sewage.” In Guernsey’s mind, these Black habitations “can hardly be called a home.”
This preoccupation with “the home” was also characteristic of late nineteenth-century Lamarckian environmental race science. Under this paradigm, one eagerly taken up by liberal Christian reformers, the home was considered the primary environmental unit that impressed inheritable qualities into a racial population during their plastic age of youth. Guernsey’s preoccupation with the environment of the Black home, including its alleyways and contaminated water sources, was due to its perceived “effect on the mental and moral possibilities” of Black youth. These environmental effects, as Guernsey understood them, would then be inherited to future generations, leaving lasting physiological impressions on the future of the Black race.
But rather than see poor environmental conditions as structurally organized by a persistently antiblack empire, Guernsey saw it as a natural condition of blackness, on par with “the wigwam of the Indian and the topek of the Eskimo.” Placing the Black home at the bottom of an evolutionary hierarchy was especially notable for a Black race understood to be in its formative years only recently removed from slavery. In this sense, Black populations were plastic—a youth race whose racial destiny would be determined by the impact of its home environment. It thus became the crucial task, according to Guernsey, that Black men and women were trained by white home missionaries to become good Christian homemakers as a way of securing their future place in, as Guernsey described it, this “nation of homes.”
Black feminist Anna Julia Cooper was not far off from Guernsey’s assessment, except rather than blame Black women for the environmental conditions of Black homes, she pointed elsewhere. “We are the heirs of a past which was not our fathers’ moulding,” Cooper wrote. “It is no fault of [the American Negro] that he finds himself to-day the inheritor of a manhood and womanhood impoverished and debased by two centuries and more of compression and degradation.” For Cooper, it was American slavery that constituted the debased condition of the Black home. And likewise, Black women were the “fundamental agency under God in the regeneration. . . of the race.” In her 1892 volume, A Voice from the South by a Black Woman of the South, Cooper lobbied the Protestant Episcopal Church to devote more resources to Black women because it was them, she argued, whom in the few decades after slavery, the Church had most centrally abandoned.
As historian Vivian M. May details, in addition to being a high school educator and principal, Anna Julia Cooper was also involved in many Black women’s clubs and organizations, including being one founding members of Washington DC’s Alley Improvement Association (AIA). Working in coalition with Black minister Francis Grimké, the AIA were outspoken political agitators. Rather than seeing alleyway conditions as a condition of blackness, the AIA argued it was the result of urban poverty, housing discrimination, and racist employment practices. Cooper worked tirelessly to form structures of care and support for Black life throughout DC, including cofounding the Colored Settlement House, the first social service agency for the city’s Black homeless population. While many Black collectives organized their own forms of sociality, perhaps seen as wayward by the standards of white Victorian reformism, Cooper’s organizing within and at the margins of church and state institutions reveals the depths many went to orient their lives otherwise. Many additionally joined new religious movements like Father Divine’s Peace Mission that organized systems of support for Black life beyond “America,” within a growing international Black diaspora, or even through migration to Black settler colonies like Novia Scotia, Liberia, or Kansas.
Looking at the history of Christian reform, missions, and uplift reveals that antiblack religion has not only been secured through an eternal return to Black death, but also through organized abandonment and the subsequent everyday policing of Black life—what I have described here as the everyday ecology of antiblack religion. In the late nineteenth century, this rested on the logic that the Black “alley”—the supposed natural environment of the Black home—would produce a degraded morality. Still today, the policing strategy of “broken windows” assumes that decaying environments produce moral decay, inviting an expanded police presence that continues to criminalize Black people. All the while, antiblack religion also continues to rely on a “hermeneutics of suppression,” as Charles Long put it, that “conceals the. . . archaic dimensions” of the religion of white Americans.
White Americans, like myself, must continue to probe the antiblack symbols, rituals, and practices that have organized and continue to organize our church and state institutions of white power. More than condemning the excessive force by the hands of police, any otherwise possibilities will also require a radical divestment from White Being. As Saidiya Hartman suggests, what is required is the abolition of the American (religious) order, and nothing short of that is going to make a difference.
Matthew J. Smith
Matthew J. Smith is a doctoral candidate in American religions at Northwestern University studying race, religion, and empire in the hemispheric Americas. His dissertation project, “The Age of Plastic(s): Race, Religon, Ecology and the Biopolitics of Conversion” investigates the grammar of “plasticity” in the racial science of global late nineteenth and early twentieth century Protestant Missions, including in the “Muslim World,” under US settler colonization, and in the aftermath of racial slavery in the Black Atlantic. The project theorizes a Christian biopolitics of life that was directly imbricated in the environmental infrastructures of imperialism.