Racism Lives On Under the Cover of 'Religious Freedom'

A small portion of the population believes people should have the right not to serve black people—and even more believe the same thing about Jews, atheists, gays, and lesbians.
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The Woolworth's lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina, where black students staged a sit-in on February 1, 1960. (Wikimedia Commons)

In most parts of America, "separate but equal" seems like the vestige of a bygone era. Segregated lunch counters, race-divided bathrooms, signs reading "whites only"—these are anachronisms of the 1960s, half a century into the country's past.

Except where they're not.

In an interesting new survey, the Public Religion Research Institute found that 10 percent of Americans believe business owners should be able to refuse to serve black people if they see that as a violation of their religious beliefs. This was pretty much the same across regions, too; the Northwest and the Midwest had slightly higher percentages than the South and the West. Gen X-ers, not old people, were most likely to agree—13 percent said they support the right to refuse. Men were slightly more likely to agree than women, and Catholics slightly more likely than Protestants. Hispanics were the biggest outlier by far: 18 percent agreed with the right to refuse service to blacks.

Ten percent of the population may not seem like a lot, but it points to how racism and segregation are still potent 50 years after the end of Jim Crow. In the past five decades since the peak of the civil-rights movement, some racial policies have changed—for example, workplace discrimination has been outlawed. That doesn't mean prejudice has disappeared; quite the opposite, actually. But this particular attitude, that outward racial discrimination is permissible because of a "religious belief," seems extreme and dated; these days, socially acceptable racism is a lot more subtle

It's also telling that racial discrimination is being paraded as "religious freedom." A similar explanation was argued in the recent controversy over an Arizona photographer's refusal to take pictures at a gay wedding, and in this poll, a portion of respondents said it's okay to refuse services to gays and lesbians. Sixteen percent agreed that this is acceptable, including 19 percent of men, 21 percent of Republicans, and 26 percent of white evangelicals. Gay marriage and culture are gaining acceptance in the United States, but it's nowhere near "normal"—in a 2013 Pew poll, only 54 percent of respondents said they have a "favorable opinion" of gay men. 

And on other issues of belief and lifestyle, Americans are also more willing to accept discrimination. Fifteen percent of PRRI's respondents, including 19 percent of Republicans and 21 percent of white evangelicals, said it's okay to deny services to atheists. And 12 percent said the same about Jews, including 16 percent of Midwesterners and 14 percent of Gen X-ers, who were consistently most likely to agree with the right to discriminate throughout the survey. 

This way of thinking is the logical extreme of increasingly loud rhetoric about "the war on religion": Any belief, no matter how arbitrary, can justify economic segregation. It's the opposite of pluralism, a version of "religious liberty" that's both freedom to practice faith and freedom from others who don't. Buying and selling stuff is one of the most basic ways Americans interact with each other—if people can't tolerate difference in the economic sphere, they probably can't tolerate it anywhere. 

Ironically, this kind of thinking also shows up in an inverted form, like in calls to protest Chick-fil-A because the company donated to anti-gay-marriage campaigns. Although protests are different than outright refusals to serve gays and lesbians or racial and religious minorities, the attitude toward pluralism is the same: Don't trade with people who are different from you, or who believe different things. In this poll, the best explanation for the minority view is probably straightforward racism, homophobia, and anti-Semitism. But hovering beneath that is an important claim: Economic life is an acceptable realm for segregation.

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Emma Green is an associate editor at The Atlantic, where she oversees the National Channel, manages TheAtlantic.com’s homepage, and writes about religion and culture.

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