“Race Tests”: Racial Boundary Maintenance in White
Glenn E. Bracey II, Villanova University
Wendy Leo Moore, Texas A&M University
How and why do nominally open organizations remain racially segregated in the
post-civil rights era? What role do interpersonal interactions play in the perpetuation of
segregation? Using ethnographic data gathered from seven, majority white, evangelical
churches across four states, we ﬁnd that social actors (i.e., clergy and congregants) play
a central role in continuing racial segregation by executing “race tests”on people of
color who attempt to gain entry to these spaces. Race tests are performances by white
individuals and groups, in the presence of incoming people of color. They utilize racial
microaggressions, playing on persistent racist stereotypes and/or histories of racial vio-
lence, to preclude or precondition people of color’s participation in predominantly white
social spaces. White actors in white social spaces initiate utility-based race tests to deter-
mine whether people of color are willing to serve the interests of whites in the space, or
execute exclusionary race tests to coerce people of color into leaving the space. We pro-
vide examples of both types of race tests and discuss the role of such microaggressions
and the racialized emotions at play in the reproduction of segregation in historically
white social spaces like white evangelical churches.
“A man who has friends, must himself be friendly....”Proverbs 18:24 (New King James
“If someone asks him, ‘What are these wounds on your body?’he will answer, ‘The wounds
I was given at the house of my friends.’” Zechariah 13:6 (New International Version)
An uneasy tension exists between two common perceptions of American
society. It is axiomatic that American churches are voluntary associations,
where those with doctrinal afﬁnity are free to participate or not, without any
forms of ofﬁcial coercion (Warner 1993).
Yet, the membership of nearly 90
percent of American congregations is at least 90 percent of the same race
(Emerson and Kim 2003). In other words, although predominantly white
churches are more diverse than twenty years ago, the Church remains extre-
mely racially segregated (Chaves 2011:29–32). This is true despite innumerable
Sociological Inquiry, Vol. 87, No. 2, May 2017, 282–302
©2017 Alpha Kappa Delta: The International Sociology Honor Society
assertions that the United States is now a “post-racial”society (Wingﬁeld and
Feagin 2013). We examine this tension by interrogating how and why nomi-
nally welcoming churches remain racially segregated in the post-civil rights
era. Given that churches are the most prominent voluntary associations in the
United States and that evangelicals explicitly aim to “reach every nation, tribe,
and tongue,”evangelical churches seem an ideal location to explore this ten-
The post-civil rights era has witnessed a trend among prominent evangeli-
cals and scholars claiming signiﬁcant advancement in racial dynamics within
the evangelical community. A rash of organizational commitments to racial rec-
onciliation in the 1990s—led by The Promise Keepers, followed by white and
black evangelical Pentecostals’1994 “Racial Reconciliation Manifesto”(aka
“The Memphis Miracle”) and the Southern Baptists Convention’s condemna-
tion of racism as a “deplorable sin”in 1995 (Gilbreath 2006)—has produced
an assumption of widespread commitment to diversity in the evangelical move-
ment. Bishop Harry Jackson and Family Research Council President Tony Per-
kins (2008) claim racial reconciliation as a “core value”of the religious right.
Evangelical favorites, such as lay historian, David Barton (2004), go so far as
to claim white evangelicalism is the stalwart defender of racial equality against
supposed overtly racist organizations, such as the Democratic Party.
Professionally trained social scientists stop well short of Barton-esque
claims, but generally afﬁrm the same underlying assumption that the white
evangelical church is no longer overtly hostile to people of color. Scholars lar-
gely adopt the view that white evangelicals are “well-intentioned people”
(Emerson and Smith 2000:1) and dismiss out of hand the notion that signiﬁcant
percentages of white evangelicals harbor and act on racially bigoted sentiments
(e.g., Emerson and Smith 2000; :ix; Wilkens and Thorsen 2010). Through a
range of methods and analyses, scholars attribute continued segregation among
evangelicals to sweeping social phenomena—such as historically divergent
praise and worship styles (DeYoung et al. 2003), unintended consequences of
doctrinal differences (Emerson and Smith 2000), the separation of church and
state and subsequent creation of a “religious marketplace”(Finke and Stark
2005; Lee and Sinitiere 2009), residential segregation (Blanchard 2007), “natu-
ral”tendency toward racial segregation in voluntary groups (Blau 1977; Blau
and Schwartz 1984; Wagner 1979), minorities’preference for identity-afﬁrming
spaces they control (Herberg 1960; Lincoln and Mamiya 1990), and the global
dispersion of religious traditions (e.g., concentration of Hindus in India; Emer-
son and Kim 2003:219). Despite the immense range of explanations offered,
they all conclude that contemporary white evangelicals remain racially segre-
gated, despite their best efforts (or at least lack of bigotry), because of forces
far beyond individual whites’control. Although scholars have deeply explored
RACE TESTS 283
the role white actors (i.e., clergy and congregants) play in integration efforts
(Becker 1998; Christerson, Edwards, and Emerson 2005; Emerson and Kim
2003; Marti 2005; Stanczak 2006), the segregation process is assumed to be a
function of impersonal social inertia.
One would conclude from leading schol-
arship that white actors are not major factors in the continuation of evangelical
segregation. One would also conclude that people of color entering white evan-
gelical churches would rather easily ﬁnd church homes there, provided they are
willing to embrace whites’worship traditions and customs.
Our data suggest current explanations of segregation in the church are
incomplete. We argue that social actors in white evangelical churches play a
central role in continuing racial segregation by executing what we term “race
tests”on incoming people of color. Race tests are performances by white indi-
viduals and groups, in the presence of incoming people of color; they are pat-
terned racial microaggressions that deploy persistent racist stereotypes and/or
histories of racial violence to preclude or precondition people of color’s partici-
pation in predominantly white social spaces, such as evangelical churches.
While we acknowledge the role macrosociological forces play in maintaining
segregation, we contend that structural relations require institutional dynamics
and human actors. Just as residential segregation results from discriminatory
institutional policies carried out by individual realtors and lending agents, so
persistent segregation in evangelical churches involves the white privileging of
institutional policies (e.g., tailoring services to attract white congregants) in
concert with actions by individual white congregants to exclude people of color
or precondition their participation.
Churches as White Institutional Space
The descriptor “white”in our phrase “white evangelical church”is more
than a demographic marker. It implies a religious social space in which the
demographics and religio-cultural norms of operation privilege whites. “That
is, the style of preaching, music, length of services, structure of services,
dress codes, political and community activities, missionary interests, and theo-
logical emphases”(Edwards 2008:8) are consistent with white religious tradi-
tions or tailored to reach “unchurched”whites (Edwards 2008; Rah 2009).
Thus, the racial affect in white evangelical churches is totalizing, as whiteness
informs every aspect of these churches’institutional organization, culture, and
In this way, white evangelical churches exemplify what Moore (2008)
calls “white institutional space.”Much more than a mere geographical designa-
tion, the concept “white institutional space”elucidates how institutions, in this
case churches, become normatively white in policy and practice by explicitly
accounting for the intersecting mechanisms—structure, culture, ideology, and
284 GLENN E. BRACEY II AND WENDY LEO MOORE
discourse—that justify and reproduce white privilege, power, and accumulation
of resources in these institutions (Moore 2008).
Simply put, white institutional space is created through a process that
begins with whites excluding people of color, either completely or from institu-
tional positions of power, during a formative period in the history of an organi-
zation. During this period, whites populate all inﬂuential posts within the
institution and create institutional logics—norms of operation, organizational
structures, curricula, criteria for membership and leadership—which imbed
white norms into the fabric of the institution’s structure and culture. Although
the norms are white, they are rarely marked as such. Consequently, racially
biased institutional norms are wrongly deﬁned as race neutral and merely char-
acteristic of the institution itself (e.g., “the appropriate way to act in church”),
masking inherent institutional racism. Upon this tacitly racist foundation, insti-
tutional inertia and actors build a robust culture that privileges whites by vest-
ing power in white leaders’hands, populating the organization with white
membership, orienting activities toward serving and comforting whites, and
negatively sanctioning non-white norms.
The consequences of white institutional space for churches are legion, but a
couple require exposition for the purposes of this discussion. First, white institu-
tional space creates the norms that produce many of the macrosociological fac-
tors (e.g., racialized worship styles) emphasized by previous scholars. Second,
the hegemonic racial worldview common to whites is generally unchecked and
frequently ampliﬁed in homogeneously white spaces (Bonilla-Silva et. al 2006;
Feagin 2013; Picca and Feagin 2007). This worldview, which Feagin calls the
“white racial frame,”is “an organized set of racialized ideas, emotions, and
inclinations as well as recurring or habitual discriminatory actions, that are con-
sciously or unconsciously expressed [by individuals and] ...institutions [in]
U.S. society”(2006:23). The white racial frame includes positive attitudes about
whites and negative views of people of color, discursive techniques for justify-
ing racial inequality, and priorities that favor whites’material and emotional
interests, among other organizing principles (Bracey et al. forthcoming).
While the attitudinal (cognitive) aspects of the white racial frame—that is,
prejudice and bigotry—garner the most attention, the emotional component of
the white racial frame is critical to the operation of white space. Fear of the
“Other”—a foundational feature of the white racial frame—is fundamental to
whiteness (Feagin 2013; Takaki 2000). Indeed, whites evince discomfort when
merely discussing race (Bonilla-Silva 2010), not to mention in the physical
presence of people of color (Becker 1999:238; Massey and Denton 1993). In
multiple studies, whites claim segregation is “natural”due to “everyone’s com-
fort with their own group”(Bonilla-Silva 2010), an obvious projection of
whites’own feelings. Clearly, racial homogeneity, like that in the great
RACE TESTS 285
majority of white evangelical churches, is a valued commodity among whites
generally (Massey and Denton 1993; Oliver and Shapiro 2006), largely for
In this way, white institutional spaces, such as churches, meet a great
many of whites’needs. The historical and ideological foundations ensure that
white interests are paramount to institutions. Organizational structure guarantees
whites make important decisions, arbitrate disagreements, have the power to
sanction “inappropriate”behaviors, and accumulate the resources of these insti-
tutions. Moreover, demographics and institutional inertia, or the tendency of
white racial institutional arrangements to remain constant without intentional
action on the part of institutional actors, make white space emotionally com-
fortable for whites. Ultimately, white space provides both the institutional
infrastructure for whites to mobilize and a powerful emotional incentive for
white actors to “protect”white space from perceived threats.
Historically, whites have protected white institutional spaces by formally
excluding people of color. In the post-civil rights (i.e., “colorblind”) era, how-
ever, formally excluding people of color is problematic because it exposes
whites to accusations of racism and public ridicule. Even in the absence of an
ofﬁcial policy of exclusion, an all-white congregation can give the impression
of Jim Crow racism and blatant hypocrisy, especially in evangelical churches
nominally committed to “reaching the world for Christ.”Consequently, white
evangelical churches are incentivized to demonstrate at least token integration,
if only to ensure social acceptability.
In a so-called colorblind era, whites must
negotiate a delicate balance between protecting the continuation of white spaces
and having enough visible minorities to defend against charges of racism. We
argue that evangelical whites achieve that balance through race tests—a particu-
lar type of racial microaggressive activity that protects and enforces the bound-
aries of white space by working to admit only those people of color who will
acquiesce to the norms of white institutional space and work to accomplish
white goals, and exclude those people of color who challenge the dynamics of
white space and white institutional goals.
Returning, then, to our critique of extant literature on racial segregation
among evangelicals, the lack of emphasis on the role of white actors in main-
taining segregation in the church is a bit surprising. The features of white evan-
gelical churches we discuss above—churches’status as white institutional
space in which the white racial frame is largely unquestioned; evangelicals’
emotional ties to whiteness, fellowship groups, and Christian identity; and
white evangelicals’admitted segregationist history—suggest white evangelicals
are highly likely to deploy racial microaggressions, especially when a person of
color threatens their religious white space. Given the divergence between
proclamations of racial progress in evangelical churches and research linking
286 GLENN E. BRACEY II AND WENDY LEO MOORE
prejudice and conservative Protestantism (Johnson, Rowatt, and LaBouff 2010),
an investigation of segregation processes in white evangelical churches is over-
Our analysis is based on ethnographic data collected by the ﬁrst author, a
man of color, in the course of attempting to gain access to seven white evan-
gelical churches between 2008 and 2010. All of the churches were more than
80 percent white,
had worship styles consistent with white traditions (see
Edwards 2008:161–176), publicized statements afﬁrming conservative Protes-
and encouraged collective and individual evangelism. Four of
the churches were entered with the understanding that they would serve as
“church homes”for personal worship and fellowship. The remaining churches
were included because they had well-established local or national reputations as
leaders in the evangelical movement. To avoid regional biases, four of the
churches were in the South and three were in the Midwest. The investigation
spanned four states, two in the South (Florida and Texas) and two in the Mid-
west (Illinois and Indiana).
Three of the churches were in major metropolitan
areas and four were in cities with less than 100,000 residents. Congregation
sizes ranged from approximately 100 to more than 10,000 regular attendees.
In all of the churches, with the exception of “Confederacy Church,”the
ﬁrst author engaged in participant-observation of worship services, Bible stud-
ies, administrative meetings, evangelism, and fellowship activities from one to
eighteen months. Because churches are increasingly adopting a “small group”
model, which steers newcomers to home Bible studies rather than traditional
Sunday service as an entry point for membership (Dougherty 2003), much of
the data were collected in small group fellowships ranging from ﬁve to twenty-
ﬁve people. Small groups are particularly important contexts because of their
popularity, dependence on social intimacy, and reputation for increasing diver-
sity in majority white churches (Dougherty 2003; Dougherty and Huyser
In the course of this research, the ﬁrst author (Bracey), an African
American man in his late twenties at the time of the study and a devout Chris-
tian with extensive history in evangelical and conservative Protestant churches,
entered the churches as a potential congregant. In many ways, he was the pro-
totypical “outsider within”(Collins 1986)—his racial identity as an African
American man precluded him being a “total insider”in the social space of
white churches, but his biography provided him with intimate access to and
familiarity with the quotidian activities of that space. Like evangelicals of color
before (Gilbreath 2006; Perkins 1976; Rah 2009; Skinner 1970), his “outsider
within”vantage point enabled him to see “the contradictions between the
RACE TESTS 287
dominant group’s actions and ideologies”(Collins 1990:12) and expose how
white evangelicals create racial boundaries at the microsociological level.
Through the coding and evaluation of the data, and in the authors’collabora-
tive discussion of the data, we ultimately uncovered patterned behavior by
whites in all of the church and home Bible study sites whereby white congre-
gants enforced the racial boundaries of the space by deploying racial microag-
gressions; the nature of these microaggressions were of two substantive types
—one we perceived as utility-based, which function to pressure persons of
color in the space to accept the dominant white norms of the space, defer to
white power, and not introduce race as a problematic issue in the space; the
other we perceived as exclusionary, which are directly hostile and function to
coerce people of color to leave the space.
Our ﬁndings are consistent with recent literature on racial integration in
majority white churches. For example, Barron’s (2016) qualitative study reveals
white Christians’explicit efforts to “manage diversity”in ways that do not dis-
rupt white norms. Additionally, Cobb et al. ﬁnd quantitative support for white
evangelicals’successful efforts to maintain churches as white institutional
space, even when the churches are technically multiracial: “our ﬁndings suggest
that multiracial congregations (1) leave dominant White [sic] racial frames
unchallenged...and/or (2) attract racial minorities who are more likely to
embrace those frames in the ﬁrst place”(2015:177). Our discussion of racial
microaggressions and white institutional space helps explain the mechanisms
by which white evangelicals maintain the racialized demographic and ideologi-
cal segregation that persists in most churches.
Race Tests and Semipermeable Racial Boundaries
In the current racial paradigm, often referred to as “colorblind,”white
evangelicals are incentivized to create a semipermeable racial boundary around
their churches. Extending the medical deﬁnition of semipermeable, meaning an
entity “allow[s] passage of certain, especially small, molecules or ions but
act[s] as a barrier to others”(Stedman’s Medical Dictionary 2002), we use
“semipermeable racial boundary”to imply that white evangelicals create social
boundaries that only admit people of color on the condition that newcomers are
small in number and small in effect. In other words, white evangelicals work to
be sure only a few people of color enter their churches and that those few are
the “right kind of people,”speciﬁcally those who will not challenge the racial
organization of the space so that white churchgoers can continue to enjoy the
white institutional space that is the evangelical church.
To that end, we suggest that white evangelicals deploy a range of what we
term race tests, to police the boundaries of white institutional and organiza-
tional space. Race tests are a speciﬁc form of racial microaggressions—racial
288 GLENN E. BRACEY II AND WENDY LEO MOORE
microaggressions being the inﬂiction of racial insults and indignities either
explicit or subtle indicators of the inferiority of people of color. These microag-
gressions often take place in white spaces and thereby function to re-instantiate
white power and domination in the space (see, e.g., Smith, Allen, and Danley
2007; Smith, Hung, and Franklin 2011; Solorzano, Ceja, and Yosso 2000; Sue
et al. 2009). In enforcing racial meanings which, sometimes tacitly quite explic-
itly construct people of color as inferior and whites as powerful and privileged
and the white organization of the space as normative and unproblematic, race
tests operate to control people of color so that only those people of color who
will not challenge the white racial organization of the space will remain in the
space. These particular forms of racial microaggression serve as a powerful
force in the reproduction of white institutional space, in both the force they
have in coercing individuals of color to choose to leave the spaces, and in the
inﬂiction of emotional distress they create within those spaces which becomes
a general deterrent for people of color to voluntarily enter white institutional
space like evangelical churches.
Utility-based Race Tests
White evangelicals maintain a semipermeable racial boundary that pro-
motes whites’racial interests in religious white space. Whether because estab-
lished members perceive a need to diversify white institutional spaces, or
because whites who are unconcerned with diversifying are less troubled by
people of color who buy into white norms and do not challenge white power,
whites in some of the churches studied executed what we term utility-based
race tests to determine whether and how to integrate newcomers of color.
These race tests employed microaggressions; however, they were not explicitly
hostile or threatening performances; instead, these forms of race tests appeared
in the form of an exaggerated welcome for potential congregants of color. The
catch, however, was that the welcome was based on newcomers’racial status
and their willingness to use that status to serve the church’s perceived racial
needs while not challenging the normative boundaries of white privilege and
power within the space. For example, at the church we call Mega-Church, one
interaction exempliﬁed the relationship between white members’racial interests
and the reception of Christians of color.
Mega-Church. From ﬁeldnotes (all data from ﬁeldnotes hereafter will be
denoted by italics):
After a week of email communication, I
met Martha, a middle-aged white woman who is
director of guest ministries for a mega-church in the Midwest. It was a very crowded Sunday
morning, so I waited until after service to connect with her at the welcome desk. After brief
small talk and a warm welcome, she introduced me to several assistant pastors and other
RACE TESTS 289
ministers. As I thanked her and made my way toward the exit, Martha redirected me, “Now
there’s someone else I really want you to meet. I’ve been praying that God would send a bla
—a man, that could step in and be a father ﬁgure to this child.”As she walked me to the
other side of the foyer, Martha explained that a young boy’s father had abandoned him and
his mother. She then marched up to a biracial toddler and introduced the two of us. The
understandably frightened child ran and stood behind a black woman in her late twenties,
whom I took to be his mother. With a face that said, “Who are you, and why are you talking
to my child?”the mother stared as Martha introduced me—without explaining why she was
introducing this stranger to her or her son.
This awkward encounter illustrates the central features of utility-based race
tests. Martha appeared to go above and beyond to make a new African American
congregant feel welcome, even introducing him to major leaders in the mega-
church. But her excitement was generated by her hope that he could meet her per-
ceived need for a black man to replace an absent father. The irony, of course, is
that the biracial child’s father is probably white, unlikely black (based upon the
mother’s racial identity). But working from the white racial frame, Martha could
not picture recreating a multiracial family. Instead, she prayed for a “bla—a
man”to complete her image of an appropriate partner for this black woman and
her son. The warm welcome was contingent upon Martha’s belief that the church
needed a new racial “other”for a speciﬁc racialized purpose in the church.
Not all white evangelical churches’racial needs are as idiosyncratic as the
one at Mega-Church. Most of the utility-based race tests observed in the data
derived from more universal interests among evangelical churches, namely a
desire to appear socially current and increase membership.
The colorblind paradigm creates a structural incentive for all white evan-
gelical churches to maintain at least a token level of visible minorities, but race
test microaggressions lead to people of color being asked to participate in ways
that represent stereotypical roles, which situates people of color as in the space
to work for and/or entertain white people. Indeed, white evangelical ministers
often attempt to increase membership by placing people of color in highly visi-
ble positions as worship leaders, to predictably mixed results when used as a
“quick ﬁx”(Marti 2012). Given the diversity-through-musicians trend, the util-
ity-based race test at Singing Church likely repeats in white evangelical
churches across the United States.
Singing Church. The smallest church in this study is “Singing Church.”
Most Sundays, this Midwestern congregation hovered around 100 people. The
membership is a bit older than most churches, ranging from teenagers to a
majority of middle-aged people and seniors. Nevertheless, the sanctuary
featured traditional pews, a slightly raised pulpit, and a sound system that
could clearly produce more decibels than the room could handle.
290 GLENN E. BRACEY II AND WENDY LEO MOORE
I arrived about 15 min before service. When I entered the foyer that ran along the outside of
the sanctuary, a middle-aged white man and woman instantly greeted me and told me about
the church. In short time, the pastor, Kenan, made his way over and introduced himself.
Kenan asked what I did for a living and whether I had grown up in church. I answered that I
had grown up in church and been very involved. When Kenan asked about my past involve-
ment, I told him I had led Bible studies, preached, and organized evangelism teams. Nodding,
Kenan waited for me to ﬁnish and asked, “But do you sing? We just need someone who can
get on stage and sing out.”
Preconditioned Entry. The welcomes Bracey received at Mega-Church
and Singing Church were by far the warmest experienced during this study.
Those greetings, however, came with a catch. In each case, the warm welcome
was preconditioned by white evangelicals’perceived need for a new person of
color to play a particular racialized role in the white space. At Singing Church,
Pastor Kenan viewed Bracey as a potential new singer for the church.
Like all race tests, Pastor Kenan’s test built on a long history of racial
objectiﬁcation through the stereotyping of African Americans as entertainment;
the notion that all black people can (and like to) sing is historically connected
to the “happy slave”narrative that whites used to justify slavery (Collins
2008). Pastor Kenan’s question, “but do you sing?”simultaneously dismissed
Bracey’s individuality and recast him as just another black person. Kenan
revealed that he was uninterested in the potential unique talents of a person of
color for the church or ways the church might beneﬁt Bracey. Instead, Pastor
Kenan saw a faceless black person and employed a dismissive racial microag-
gression which evoked the stereotypical role of blacks as entertainers of whites,
as a race test so that the pastor could ascertained whether this potential new
African American congregant would meet the church’s racialized needs as well
as his willingness to do so without disturbing the church as white institutional
A third utility-based race test further illustrates the point. Bracey’s initial
visit to one of the southern churches happened to coincide with the church
hosting a black guest speaker who worked for the denomination to which the
church belonged. After his talk, Bracey approached the senior pastor and visit-
ing speaker to introduce himself and his research. During a subsequent inter-
view, Bracey asked the speaker whether racial differences affected his
involvement in his predominantly white denomination. The speaker explained
that although he was a formally trained pastor, the denomination employs him
to do visible diversity work, “They see a black man who’s smart, who can
preach a little bit, and they send me all over speaking like this. It’s not what I
trained to do, but that’s what they want.”
Like Bracey’s experience at Singing Church, the leadership of an interna-
tional white evangelical denomination ignored a black Christian’s talent and
RACE TESTS 291
training. Instead, they read him through stereotypes and conditioned his partici-
pation on his willingness to perform race work without disrupting white space.
Sharon Collins (1997) documents this kind of pigeonholing as common in
white corporations. Together, these ﬁndings suggest utility-based race tests are
common aspects of white institutional spaces, including white evangelical
churches. Yet while utility-based race tests served to control African Americans
and maintain the white normativity of the space while retaining token member-
ship from people of color in the space, the more frequent race tests revealed in
the data were what we term exclusionary race tests—those microaggressions
that carried implicit (or sometimes quite explicit) threats of hostility or even
Exclusionary Race Tests
When people of color were unwanted and/or potentially threatened the
boundaries of white institutional space (through their presence or their racial
perspectives), white insiders in the churches employed exclusionary race tests
to identify and repel people of color whose racial status, non-white customs,
and/or racial politics disrupt the norms of white space. Drawing on the vio-
lent history of white domination and the subjugation of people of color,
whites execute exclusionary tests by performing microaggressive racists
behaviors, without naming them as such, that rely on histories of overt racial
exclusion and white violence to evoke negative emotions in people of color.
Exclusionary tests are strong enough to cause most people of color to
“choose”not to join the church, ensuring white members that the few people
of color who persist will not disrupt religious white space by raising issues
of racial conﬂict.
Of the seven churches investigated for this study, all performed some sort
of race test, and the majority (4 out of 7) performed exclusionary tests.
Although the incidents we now identify as exclusionary race tests were origi-
nally coded as random acts of bigotry, upon closer examination of the patterned
and systematic examples of these incidents in the data, as well as the effects of
the incidents on Bracey as the researcher, as well as other people of color
observed in these spaces, we concluded that these were in fact an exclusionary
practice deployed to maintain the boundaries of white institutional space. An
early example, recorded in Bracey ﬁeldnotes, occurred at a large, wealthy evan-
gelical church’s Bible study.
China Gun. After making my way up to a working class part of town, I
arrived at the house where Bible study was held. The house was in a majority
white, working class neighborhood, complete with small yards and old shade
trees. Several cars and trucks lined the street.
292 GLENN E. BRACEY II AND WENDY LEO MOORE
As I waited about 15 min for the study to start, a couple of white women introduced them-
selves, and I settled quietly into a chair on the back wall of the living room—a good place to
observe the room and ﬁgure out “who’s who”as the usual participants arrived. Soon the
room became a bit crowded as some 20 regulars piled in. Michael
and Krystal, the church-
appointed group leaders, decided to send the eight men in attendance outside to facilitate bet-
ter discussion as we “shared and got to know one another.”
Outside, we circled up and Michael encouraged everyone to “Introduce yourself. Just say
your name and something interesting about you.”One regular participant, a white college
graduate in his late 20s hesitantly started, “Well, my name is Tony. Um...I guess, I don’t
know. I guess I’ll just say what my favorite gun is. It’s a Winchester hunting riﬂe. I just went
hunting last week.”As they made their way around the circle, each of the regulars—all col-
lege-educated, 27–44 year old white men—followed Tony’s impromptu precedent. As they
worked their way around and it became clear that each of the white members not only had a
favorite gun, but had shot it within the last 6 months, I wondered, “What do guns have to do
with Jesus? Why did guns come to mind as the interesting thing about you? And what is the
polite way to say, ‘I don’t know why you assume everyone here has a positive association
with guns, but I certainly don’t....”
My nascent thought was abruptly interrupted when the owner of the Bible study house inter-
jected, “My name is Andrew, and I don’t know what the real name of my favorite gun
is...”—Andrew cocked an imaginary gun and pointed it at me and the Latino ﬁrst-timer next
to me—”I call it my ‘China Gun’because when I shoot it, it just goes ‘Chink!Chink!Chink!
Chink!’” With each “Chink,”Andrew drew back with mock recoil and aimed at us again.
Amid the others’laughter, Emanuel (the Latino visitor) and I sat quietly. The already fright-
ening mental image of all the strangers surrounding me holding their favorite guns was more
than ampliﬁed by our host ﬁguratively shooting the only two people of color in the group
while overtly using a racist slur. Images of historical racial violence instantly ﬂooded my
We cannot be sure what went through Emanuel’s mind at that moment,
but we note that Emanuel never returned to Bible study. He later told Michael
he did not think the group was really “his thing”(Interview with Michael). The
whites’laughter clearly demonstrated that they did not perceive how traumatic
being a person of color ﬁguratively shot by a strange white man yelling racist
epithets might be for the two people of color in the circle. And, if Bracey or
Emanuel had verbally/outwardly expressed horror at this action, how exactly
would they follow up a fearful reaction to the ﬁgurative murder? Could Bible
study become a space in which a discussion concerning the history of white
violence against Chinese, Mexican, and African Americans was appropriate?
The power of this microaggression, however, was that it precluded such a con-
versation because discomfort, fear, surprise, or a combination of all three
resulted in neither of the two people of color in the gathering saying anything
about the event. However, this race test did result in one of the two leaving the
RACE TESTS 293
space—and Bracey noted in his ﬁeldnotes that he, too, would have left if his
presence were not connected to research.
The Centrality of Emotions. Ironically, the “China Gun”introduction was
nominally organized for Emanuel’s and Bracey’sbeneﬁt. The expressed purpose
was to help Emanuel and Bracey “share and get to know”the already-
established white members. However, the white members’hostile racialized
emotions, stereotypes, and deep interest in maintaining comfortable white space
motivated them to perform an exclusionary race test by conjuring up violent
images and performances that established the prayer group as white space in
which the use of a racial slur to describe a gun, which was ﬁguratively shooting
the only two people of color in the room, was non-problematic.
While this incident makes clear the emotional consequences for people of
color, who are the object of threat, in racist incidents such as these, a more
subtle but an important point is the role of white emotion in the deployment of
race tests as a form of microaggression. White evangelicals’race tests derived
from their emotional reactions to having people of color in what they perceive
as (and is in empirical fact) “their”space (for discussion of how conscious and
subconscious stereotypes generate racist actions, see Steele 2010). These emo-
tions give birth to racialized performances that cause emotional crises for peo-
ple of color. People of color react to whites’hostile performances with fear,
anger, confusion, disappointment, and a host of other negative emotions that
discourage them from remaining in evangelicals’white space. Ultimately, race
tests serve to resolve whites’emotional discomfort either by leading to the
exclusion of people of color or by solidifying the superiority and domination of
white people within that space. They communicate to people of color that they
may participate in those spaces only if they recognize their role as inferior, and
as such let people of color know that their continued participation in the space
is at their emotional, psychic, and spiritual peril.
Eventually, out of concern for his physical and mental health Bracey could
not continue as a member of the study; thus, ultimately both Emanuel and
Bracey were effectively excluded from the group. The white members were
free to continue with their white space intact and without intrusion upon the
logic that organized the space. This pattern of racist performance, visitor exclu-
sion, and white space restoration was similarly repeated in what we term Con-
Confederacy Church. In another example of an exclusionary race test:
I was invited to a “home church”Bible study just outside a southern, college town. The
members and I had never met. They received my name from an information card I submitted
294 GLENN E. BRACEY II AND WENDY LEO MOORE
at church that week and dutifully called with a warm invitation. Being terrible with directions,
I asked the caller, Dianne, how to get to her home. She said, “Be sure you get all of this
because we live in the woods and your cell phone probably won’t work out here. If you have
questions, go back to the highway and try to call because you won’t be able to get through
otherwise.”Needless to say, I got lost and ended up going back and calling again from the
highway, which was <10 min from the house. Clearly expecting my call, Dianne repeated her
directions, and I arrived about 5 min before the study was to begin.
The study was relatively small, only nine people—all white, partnered, 35–50 years old. Dia-
nne met me at the door, “Who are you?”“I’m Bracey, the guy you were just talking to on
the phone. I’m pretty sure you gave me directions.”Dianne’s face squinted with confusion.
Because of my diction, people occasionally assume I am white on the telephone; Dianne’s
face instantly told me this was one of those times. Given my phone voice and the church’s
demographics, Dianne clearly expected a white man in her doorway, not the 20-something
Black man before her. Dianne’s eyes still clearly saying, “We weren’t expecting you,”she
eked out, “Oh. Okay.”Dianne then turned and introduced me to her husband, David.
Although I was the only newcomer, Dianne and David decided to delay the Bible study and
give everyone a tour of their home. Dianne led everyone straight to the master bedroom,
where an entire wall was covered in old, faded pictures and memorabilia. Puzzled, I
approached the wall to get a closer look. I assumed these were long-yellowed pictures of
passed relatives and maybe relics from their children’s childhoods. I drifted a bit closer to the
wall, thinking this would be a good way to learn more about my hosts. As I surveyed the
wall, it slowly dawned on me that each picture depicted a war theme; most were images of
19th century soldiers.
By this time, David had made his way from the back of the group to stand over my shoulder.
Nervously, I asked, “Are these from the Civil War?”David answered with a quiet pride,
“Yes. Yes, they are.”Looking at Civil War images is never a comfortable thing for an Afri-
can American. ...In my mind any mention of the war immediately conjures up images and
narratives of whites’vicious enslavement of Africans and African Americans—tattered
clothes, sweaty bodies, scars on freshly beaten backs. Viewing pictures from that time is hard
enough at any time, as the lone black man, surrounded by white strangers in a house I’d
never been in, it caused extreme anxiety—particularly because I’d already been told my cellu-
lar phone would not work in this space.
Hoping desperately to salvage the situation and assuage my growing fears, I proffered a fol-
low-up question, “Are these Union or Confederate soldiers?”David took a fresh glance at the
wall. His split-second hesitation, tinged with resentment in his voice when he answered, told
me all salvaging efforts had failed. I had hoped he sensed my apprehension and was eagerly
awaiting an opportunity to assure me that these were Union soldiers, and his sympathies were
ﬁrmly on the antiracist side of history. Instead, David calmly countered, “No. We have some
Union stuff because we had people on both sides, but we only put up the Confederate stuff.”
There was no mistaking the hostility in David’s response. They were clearly Confederate
sympathizers, and they wanted me to know it. Evangelical Christian or not, I was not wel-
come in this home.
RACE TESTS 295
After answering my question, David told a story about the heroism and hardships of his Con-
federate ancestors. When he ﬁnished I faked an emergency phone call (in spite of the fact that
my phone was not working, which no one mentioned) and ﬂed the house. Like many people
of color who have tried unsuccessfully to worship in white congregations, I decided this was
not a battle worth ﬁghting. The physical risks, not to mention the emotional and spiritual
ones, were far too great.
White Institutional Space as a Necessary Condition. David and
Dianne’s actions constituted an exclusionary race test designed to prevent
Bracey, or any other racially conscious African American, from participating in
their “home church.”Their performance had all the hallmarks of exclusionary
race tests—it established the space as a white space, it alluded to the history of
white racial violence, and it evoked disturbing images of racial oppression.
Confronted with this, an African American person wanting to participate in this
home church had only two choices—to stay and accept the performance of
white domination, and therefore her/his role as subservient in the space, or to
leave. Either of these options functionally protects the normative power
dynamics of white institutional space and protects the racial identities of whites
within that space.
The performance also illustrates another critical feature of race tests—one
that sheds much light on how whiteness functions in evangelical churches and
other white spaces. In these and other examples from our ﬁeldwork, white
evangelicals never showed obvious signs of anger or frustration with our pres-
ence. Given the deep emotional investments evangelicals have in whiteness and
their religious institutions, one might expect more exaggerated outbursts when
religious white space is threatened. Instead, Andrew and the men’s study
laughed their way through the “China Gun”episode. Dianne emoted only con-
fusion when she was met with a potential African American church member in
her home, and her husband David was calm and matter-of-fact when showing
his Confederate memorabilia. Nevertheless, each exclusionary race test was
devastatingly effective because the perpetrators’situatedness as white actors in
white institutional space granted them power vis-
a-vis people of color. Their
performances alluded to historical moments of racial exclusion, thus reinforcing
whites’ownership of the space and reminding non-whites of their marginal sta-
tus. Because whites perform exclusionary race tests in white institutional space,
they can ensure that other white congregants share their negative emotions con-
cerning people of color (either explicitly through agreement with the racialized
incidents, or tacitly through a failure to challenge such acts of white domina-
If other whites do sanction performers, the larger group and church lead-
ership will enforce white institutional norms of maintaining colorblind rhetoric
and avoiding explicit racial confrontations (Moore 2008; Perry 2012).
296 GLENN E. BRACEY II AND WENDY LEO MOORE
Conversely, people of color lack the demographic, organizational, and emo-
tional support necessary to effectively challenge exclusionary race tests. In
short, white space provides both the incentives for exclusionary race tests and
necessary protections for executors of those tests.
It is this combination of features—demographics, histories of racial exclu-
sion, and institutional structures that reinforce white norms—that enables obvi-
ous exclusionary race tests like those above and the subtler tests we observed
in other locations. A brief summary of subtler tests from Bracey ﬁeldnotes
illustrates similarities between subtle and more obvious examples. For instance,
in a smaller southern church, a coed group of white evangelicals in their 20s
concluded Bracey’sﬁrst Bible study by laying out their plans for evangelism.
One of the leaders produced a glossy ﬂyer featuring a very young (about
7 years old), blonde white girl rising from tall grass, intently aiming a riﬂe into
the distance. The leader explained that the group was hoping to evangelize
non-Christian youths with an extended hunting trip. Although the leader invited
Bracey to go with them, the violent imagery and extended isolation made
accepting their invitation very difﬁcult.
In an additional subtle but typical example, Bracey stood at the visitors’
table before and after Sunday service at a large southern church. Approximately
1,000 congregants walked past Bracey twice without greeting him at all. These
white members’collective performance of ignoring an obvious newcomer func-
tionally denied a black visitor meaningful entr
ee to the church and established
the church as white institutional space. Although the exclusionary race tests
recorded here occurred in southern churches, we are not prepared to say they
do not occur in other regions.
The American church has been racially segregated for so long that segre-
gation appears a natural feature of the church. Investigating the processes pro-
ducing segregation seems a historical question rather than a contemporary one
(e.g., Emerson and Yancey 2008). However, the great majority of American
churches remain racially segregated, and that reality deserves sociological
attention. Through ethnographic data from seven white evangelical churches,
we demonstrate that segregation in white churches is due to more than social
inertia. Racial segregation in churches results from a continual process—a pro-
cess that involves institutional norms and white actors working to maintain
semipermeable racial boundaries that serve white evangelicals’racial interests.
The role of white actors is painfully obvious to people of color integrating
white churches, but underplayed in extant literature. As a Christian of color
with a long history in white churches, Bracey was able to inhabit an “outsider
within”social location that exposed the mechanism of race tests as an element
RACE TESTS 297
of maintaining racial segregation and the potential difﬁculties of integrating
white churches. In that way, Collins’(1986) conclusion that marginalized
insiders have a rare opportunity to demonstrate white society’s unacknowl-
edged dependency on and participation in racism was demonstrated through
Despite claims of “post-racialism”and elimination of formal segregation
rules, our data reveal that for people of color, joining a white evangelical
church is not a free choice. Race tests, or the powerful racial microaggressions
utilized to patrol and protect the boundaries of white institutional spaces, create
emotionally problematic and potentially unsafe dynamics in these spaces, which
coerces the exit of people of color—or at a minimum complacency in the
reproduction of white domination within these spaces.
Whites’power to exclude and control the conditions of minorities’partici-
pation has been hidden to some degree by analysts’failure to fully theorize
how whiteness informs white spaces. Whiteness, like other forms of domina-
tion, is characterized by masking power under a veil of normality. Therefore,
in the colorblind era, whites are discouraged from the formal, overt bigotry that
most people recognize as racism. Instead, scholars must anticipate informal
behaviors, such as race tests, that ﬁt the interests of whiteness under the current
racial paradigm (see Tranby and Hartmann 2008). Researchers need to seri-
ously consider how the tacit structural power associated with white institutional
space broadens the range of racist tools available to whites in white institu-
tional spaces. Complicating our assumptions about how racism operates will
illuminate how racial power is reproduced in a multitude of institutions.
*Please direct correspondence to Glenn E. Bracey II; Department of Sociology & Criminol-
ogy, Villanova University, Saint Augustine Center, Room 204 800 Lancaster Avenue, Villanova,
PA 19085, USA, tel.: 610.519.4740; fax: 610.519.6319; e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
The assumption of voluntary association persists despite much evidence that social contexts
inﬂuence public and “private”religious decisions, often making religion a “semi-involuntary institu-
tion.”(see Nelsen, Yokley, and Nelsen 1971; Ellison and Sherkat 1995). Concerning formal mem-
bership, churches may reasonably exclude potential joiners because of doctrine or innumerable
other bases. This article is not about explicit formal membership. Each race test occurred during the
“visiting phase,”during which congregants enforced boundaries broader than technical standards for
formal membership. Our data challenge the assumption that low participation rates of people of
color in white evangelical churches reﬂect people of color’s free choices despite white members’
A few ethnographers highlight the active roles individual whites played in opposing efforts
to diversify their congregations (e.g., Edwards 2008). However, these case studies do not investigate
a pattern of similar behaviors by whites in multiple churches in multiple regions of the United
298 GLENN E. BRACEY II AND WENDY LEO MOORE
Of course, some churches go beyond tokenism and pursue signiﬁcant racial integration for
spiritual and other reasons (Alumkal 2008; Becker 1998; Ecklund 2006; Jackson and Perkins
2008). However, this article is concerned with the 90 percent of white churches, which are racially
stable and not aggressively pursuing integration.
Eighty percent membership composed of one race is the standard for deﬁning a church as
uniracial. See Emerson and Kim (2003) for the justiﬁcation.
These tenets include belief that the Bible is the ultimate authority on all questions; Jesus
Christ’s life, death, and resurrection are the only means for salvation; and that one has a responsi-
bility to introduce and convert others to their faith. The congregations selected were also composed
of leadership and membership consistently self-identiﬁed as evangelical. (For a fuller discussion of
evangelical history and traditions, see Smith et al. 1998: Chapter 1.)
Churches in Illinois were more than 100 miles from churches in Indiana.
Note that in the inclusion of ethnographic details the “I”refers to the ﬁrst author (Bracey)
who conducted the research.
All names of individuals and locations have been changed to ensure subjects’anonymity.
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