Review of Religion, Race, and Covid-19, by Oyinade Adekunle

Oyinade Adekunle reviews Religion, Race, and Covid-19: Confronting White Supremacy in the Pandemic edited by Stacey M. Floyd-Thomas.

Stacey M. Floyd-Thomas, ed., Religion, Race, and Covid-19: Confronting White Supremacy in the Pandemic. New York: New York University Press, 2022. Pp. 312, Paperback $37.72, Hardcover $75.80.

Religion, Race, and Covid-19: Confronting White Supremacy in the Pandemic, edited by Stacey M. Floyd-Thomas, is a collection of eleven essays on the interconnectedness of race, politics, and religion in the United States of America. Featuring the work of anthropologists, ethicists, historians, legal experts, rhetoricians, sociologists, and theologians, this book offers much to students and general readers interested in the ways the pandemic has affected religion and race in the US.

Religion, Race, and Covid-19 focuses on the structural violence inherent in the Covid-19 pandemic, particularly regarding unequal access to health care and other racial disparities. Its contributors, many of them experts in theology, religious studies, Christian ethics, and criminal law, present us with high-quality analyses, the best of which of them reveal the strengths of intersectionality, which allows us to transcend the usual approaches (focused on police brutality and public health) that have flooded academia. The result is a collection that sheds an important new light on the difficulties experienced by the BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Colour). 

Floyd-Thomas, an eminent scholar in theology and ethics, provides a thought-provoking introduction and first chapter that distills the violence, race, religion, and politics analyzed in-depth by the other contributors. She sets the tone by describing both the background and the consequences of Covid-19, particularly in 2020, and underscores the structural challenges her contributors have uncovered. She alerts readers to thegravity of racial inequity manifesting itself through the inequality of economics, politics, and health care – all under the auspices of a global health pandemic” (220). If Covid-19 provides the context, the collection also introduces us to “Covid-45” (named after the chaotic Donald Trump) and “Covid-1619,” which offers a historical trajectory to the racial bias and violence experienced by Africans since 1619. 

This collection engages extensively with religion and documents conflicting patterns and problems. For instance, due to the cancellation on in-person services, many feared closed churches would lead to moral backsliding. Also, ministers and priests worried they would not be able to discharge their obligations. Some saw the virus as a “punishment” for decadence. Others saw the pandemic as a test of faith, to be met with a new zeal for established religious practices.

In their contributions, Floyd-Thomas and Anthony Pinn argue that the sense of community provided by the Black church reassured Black people that they were not alone and provided a ray of hope in surmounting societal challenges. A blend of chronological and thematic approaches means this collection often effectively demonstrates the significance of the Black church as a sanctuary movement – a place of solace and comfort for African Americans who faced varying degrees of structural violence such as classism, racism, ageism, sexism, gender bias, and discrimination.

Such a sanctuary was more necessary, given the context of structural violence and white supremacy confronting Black people. Tink Tinker’s, Blanche Bong Cook’s, and Miguel A. De La Torre’s chapters bolster the elements of structural violence evident on political, economic, constitutional, religious, and social levels. These include hate crimes, strict immigration laws, and police stereotyping/profiling.

Some look at the underdogs – the working poor, women, people of color, immigrants, and the elderly – themselves. Melanie C. Jones’s chapter details the rise of Black Millennials who were key to pushing for on-line services.  Marla F. Frederick’s chapter, “I Know Why the Culture War Stings: Racial Realities and Political Realignment in the Religious Freedom Debate,” examines the unequivocal role of racialized groups as essential workers during the Covid-19 pandemic. Their blue-collar jobs, mainly unnoticed before Covid-19, became much more visible during it. And Floyd-Thomas’s “First Natural, Then Spiritual: The Context and Contours of Black Faith in the COVID-19 Era,” interrogates the rise and visibility of Black women in spreading the gospel by maximizing their positions in digital space and attaining religious leadership positions inaccessible to them pre-pandemic.  Thus Covid-19 reconfigured and reshaped the church in diverse ways. Female voices attained a new prominence; millennials brought it more fully into the age of digital media.

The authors agree that the unfavorable treatment of racialized people during the pandemic has been exacerbated by the consequences of centuries of institutionalized violence caused by racism and ethnic discrimination in the US. The colonization and suppression of Indigenous peoples; the coming of neoliberalism, nihilism, and necropolitics; the use of humour as a coping mechanism; the defiance of white fundamentalists and evangelicals; the politicization of the pandemic by pastors and politicians in the Trumpist era: all come in for sustained and stimulating treatments.

White defiance is the unifying theme of the last six chapters in this collection. In “Live and Let Die: Spirits of White Christian Male Defiance in the Age of COVID-19,” Christopher M. Driscoll explores the defiance of white Christian men who organized in-person services, in defiance of both government and medical authorities. In such cases, delinquent white individuals often got off with a slap on the wrist while racialized groups were rarely afforded that treatment. Many racialized people were victimized by a two-tiered health care system, one offering health to the wealthy, suffering and death to the poor. Often “essential” workers were drawn from racialized minorities and suffered disproportionately. 

It is difficult to render a current and ongoing experience in historical terms because the pandemic is still with us, and its racial and religious consequences are still unfolding. Although the collection sometimes becomes repetitive, perhaps an unavoidable consequence of its multiple contributors, and some authors drifted away from its core themes. However, the case studies it contains, often based on detailed historical research, are commendable.

It is a useful collection. Sometimes, as in the fourth chapter, which indulges in the practice of rendering “god,” “his own,” and even “jesus” in the lower case, it erects an unnecessary barrier to Christian believers. Despite that, it offers us a nuanced exploration of the contested, complicated relationships of citizens, governments, and black and white religious groups. Overall, it makes a substantial contribution to our understanding of the pandemic’s racialized dynamics in the United States of America.