Why Place Matters – By James Bielo

James Bielo on Mark Mulder’s Shades of White Flight

Mark T. Mulder, Shades of White Flight: Evangelical Congregations and Urban Departure, Rutgers University Press, 2015, 198pp., $28.95
Mark T. Mulder, Shades of White Flight: Evangelical Congregations and Urban Departure, Rutgers University Press, 2015, 198pp., $28.95
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Racial inequality plagues America. This fact is central to our national story and continues to color contemporary lives and communities. For example, it anchors the moral outcry that is the Black Lives Matter movement. This fact also raises a question for all Americans: why does racial inequality persist? To address this question seriously, we must reach beyond individualist solutions. Racial inequality does not persist merely because individuals continue to harbor and act on prejudicial ideologies. The persistence is structural. In short, racial inequality persists because historically accumulating social, political, economic, and material infrastructures persist. The difficulty of dismantling these infrastructures is partly due to their complexity, partly due to what will be lost when they are dismantled, and partly due to habits of not naming or recognizing them.

One piece of the structural puzzle is residential segregation. Racial inequality persists, in part, because we tend to live in racially segregated blocks, neighborhoods, communities, and cities. (This map project from the Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service is among the most visually compelling representations to illustrate this reality.) A clear and dreary source of residential segregation is the practice of “redlining” in which real estate companies and banks corroborate to keep communities racially homogenous. Still, there are many other sources and a pivotal task is to explore the diversity of reasons why racial residential segregation continues. A new book by Mark Mulder, Shades of White Flight: Evangelical Congregations and Urban Departure, is a boon to this task.

Mark Mulder has crafted a highly readable, tightly argued, and compelling book. His story focuses on thirteen Reformed Church congregations (seven Christian Reformed Church in North America [CRC] and six Reformed Church of America [RCA]) in two south-side Chicago neighborhoods (Englewood and Roseland). The congregations were of Dutch national origin and evangelical in theology. Mulder uses archival material to track these congregations’ internal debates and decision-making about whether or not to relocate to the suburbs over a fifteen-year period from the late 1950s through the early 1970s. Ultimately, most of the congregations did. To contextualize this mass relocation, Mulder traces the history of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Dutch migrants to the United States: their labor history, settlement patterns, and construction of an enclave culture in Chicago. He juxtaposes the social fates of these migrants with those of African Americans who migrated to Chicago largely from the American South beginning around 1910. Mulder’s central argument is that “the nature of religion and faith has played a critical role in American urban residential patterns” (107). More precisely, he demonstrates that as these congregations relocated from urban to suburban locales they accelerated racial residential segregation on Chicago’s south side. As the chapters unfold, we learn which conditions and factors contributed to these dynamics of religious and social mobility.

First Reformed Church, Rosalind, IL. Image via Wikimedia Commons.
First Reformed Church, Rosalind, IL. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Shades of White Flight adds nuance and clarity to our understanding of a broad pattern of demographic change in the United States: evangelical suburbanization. Scholars like the anthropologist Omri Elisha and the historian Eileen Luhr provide excellent portraits of this cultural pairing, explaining a great deal about why American evangelicals favored the suburbs during the last quarter of the twentieth century. We are left, however, with many questions about how evangelicals arrived en masse in suburbia in the first place — prior to the explosion of megachurches, gated communities, and parachurch ministries. Mulder wagers that much can be gained by tracing out the local details and histories of why particular congregations left particular places. He wins this bet. Digging through congregational archives and recreating the decision-making processes to leave the urban neighborhood, he shows us how and why suburbia came to be the evangelical Promised Land.

Shades of White Flight also reveals some of the complexities that are surrendered when we rely only on headline-friendly phrases like “white flight.” Other scholars, such as the anthropologist John Hartigan, have critiqued this term, noting how poor whites are erased when “white flight” is used as a blanket characterization of racialized urban departure. Mulder bolsters this critique by showing how the process of suburbanization happened neither seamlessly nor in unison for Chicago’s CRC congregations. These congregations left their urban neighborhoods at different moments for different reasons and with differing levels of commitment to the move.

For my money, Shades of White Flight pays the biggest dividends by elaborating two observations about why urban departure unfolded the way it did in this Chicago case. Both are simple enough, yet have profound implications.

First, Mulder argues that church polity was a major predictor for whether and with what ease congregations could leave the city. Why would the model of church organization and governance figure so prominently? This variable matters because it directly structures how easily a single congregation can decide to move from one location to another. The CRC and RCA denominations were overall very similar, but they differed on the variable of polity. The CRC followed a congregational polity, meaning decision-making occurred entirely at the local level, allowing individual churches to follow the preferences of their members. The RCA followed a more hierarchical model, in which individual congregations required approval from several levels of church authority. Mulder demonstrates how this one variable of difference explains why CRC congregations left the city in larger numbers and more rapidly than RCA congregations. In doing so, he makes a compelling case for how much is at stake in understanding processes of congregational decision-making.

The second major observation concerns how an affective relationship with place, or the absence of such a relationship, helps structure urban departure. White Dutch evangelical Calvinists in Chicago formed a tight enclave, much like other immigrant groups. For example, we learn that “by 1940, the seventeen area churches had 89 percent of their children enrolled in Christian schools.” Mulder explains how this enclave culture solidified CRC congregations’ separatism from the surrounding community. Because these congregations focused on forming and fostering their own institutions, they never developed a meaningful attachment to their urban place. This non-sense of place made the decision to leave all the easier. As Mulder writes: “Detachment remains less problematic when few bridging ties exist and the places of the community constitute two buildings (church and school) that can be sold.” The power of place informs dynamics of race and economy in structuring racial segregation.

Shades of White Flight shows us again how much can be learned from a detailed account of a particular place. Beyond the example of Chicago, what lessons might this case have for others working in and thinking about different urban locales?

Considering this question, I am thrust back to ethnographic fieldwork I conducted with a different group of evangelicals. These evangelicals did not relocate their congregations from the city to the suburbs. Instead, they worked directly against the grain of this pattern through deep investment in urban locales in cities like Lansing, Michigan, Cincinnati and Columbus, Ohio, and Louisville, Kentucky. In the course of this research, I heard stories and learned about lives that were dedicated to making urban emplacement central to congregational life and spiritual formation. It is fascinating to reconsider these lives and stories in light of Mulder’s depiction of Chicago’s Reformed churches, where religion helped reproduce racial segregation. The question I return to is this: can it be otherwise? Can churches contribute positively to racial integration?

The re-urbanizing evangelicals I worked with and organizations like the Christian Community Development Association proclaim a resounding YES. The question they wrestle with on a daily basis is: how? How can a local congregation foster urban neighborhoods where people develop substantial relationships across social divisions of race, class, status, and lifestyle? One strategy is to counter the pattern set by CRC churches in Chicago by consciously investing in the places where congregants dwell. This imperative can be instrumentalized in numerous ways, from sending children to public schools and volunteering on school committees to planting and maintaining community gardens, creating partnerships with other local congregations (particularly congregations whose memberships are demographically dissimilar), and serving on neighborhood boards and councils. Whatever the particular bundle of strategies, the aim remains the same: to reject the destructive tendency of living disconnected from place. As Shades of White Flight reminds us, not rejecting this pattern will only reproduce the racial segregation that continues to plague America. There is too much precedent to believe otherwise.