AFRICAN AMERICAN HOMESCHOOLERS: Religion and Race as Motivators

Record: Ama Mazama and Garvey Lundy, “African American Homeschoolers: The Force of Faith and the Reality of Race in the Homeschooling Experience” in Religion and Education 41, no. 3 (October 2014): 256-272.  [abstract here]

Summary: In previous articles Mazama (of Temple University) and Lundy (of Montgomery County Community College) have drawn on what is to date the largest and most geographically diverse sample of African American homeschoolers ever collected to probe parental motivation.  In a 2012 article they first articulated what has become a standard theme of their work, the idea that African American homeschoolers are motivated largely by what they call “racial protectionism,” a desire to protect their children from the racism they often face in conventional schools.  In a 2013 piece they refined their concept, calling it “educational protectionism,” and giving it both a curricular and a pedagogical dimension.

In this article they draw on this same data to add yet another dimension to their account of parental motivation.  Here they focus particularly on religion.  Mazama and Lundy begin by noting what many sociologists have long recognized, that African Americans are by far the most religious demographic in the United States.  They briefly remind readers of the conflicted relationship between Americans of African descent and Christianity, which has long been used by many to justify slavery and oppression and by many others as a prophetic voice for abolition and equality.  Martin Luther King, Jr. famously called 11:00 on Sunday morning “the most segregated hour of America,” and recent sociological studies have found that on the whole American Protestant Christianity remains profoundly segregated by race.

Having established this, Mazama and Lundy were somewhat surprised to discover in their interviews that there was a significant minority of African American homeschoolers who did not identify with the dominant spirit of African American Christianity, which has long been characterized by profound racial consciousness and socio-political engagement.  This small group, about 15% of the total sample, identified not with historically black congregations but with a Protestant fundamentalism that the authors found very similar to that espoused by many white homeschooling families.  This 15% fundamentalist subset, in stark contrast to other African American homeschoolers, did not emphasize race in their explanations for what motivated them nor in their homeschooling instruction of their children.  For this group, racial identity either takes a back seat or is not acknowledged as significant at all.  As one homeschooling mother put it, “We teach him that his purpose and identity come from God.  He identifies first and foremost as a Christian.”  As another put it, “Heritage is not a priority with us.  Our heritage is in Christ.” (p. 14)

Mazama and Lundy are quick to note that almost all of their sample is profoundly religious (and mostly Protestant).  It’s just that this small group of fundamentalist African Americans stress religion to the exclusion of other variables, while other African American Christian homeschoolers integrate race into their religious identities.  The fundamentalists seem not to be as sensitive to racial prejudice and oppression.  They tend to deny or at least downplay a race-based critique of public education, instead condemning the same things most white fundamentalists decry: the exclusion of Christianity from classroom and textbook, the teaching of evolution, sex education.

Consistent with their earlier work, Mazama and Lundy give the name “Christian protectionism” to this motivation.  Again, almost all black homeschoolers are motivated by Christian protectionism, but the point is that for the great majority of the sample this Christian protectionism has a racial component consistent with the historic vision and experience of the black church.  But for the 15% of the sample that identifies with fundamentalism, the Afrocentric and race-based motives and pedagogies Mazama and Lundy have articulated in previous articles does not apply.


To me this is a tremendously enlightening finding.  Observers of the American political scene will be familiar with names like Alan Keyes, Herman Cain, Allen West, and, most recently Ben Carson.  These are only some of the better known examples of the small but vibrant tradition of black conservativism in American politics.  Though it is dangerous to generalize, I think it may be fairly claimed that what Mazama and Lundy have found of this group of fundamentalist African American homeschoolers also typifies that small segment of the African American population that identifies with the Republican party.  In the 2012 Presidential election Barak Obama got 93% of the black vote and Mitt Romney got 6%.  While that 6% is miniscule, that does mean that there are at least some African Americans who voted for the Republican candidate.

It seems possible to me that these fundamentalist homeschooling families Mazama and Lundy have uncovered could be the kind of African American who would buck an overwhelming social trend like this.  Mazama and Lundy describe a group that is worried about the decline of the nuclear family, the secularization and sexualization of American culture, evolution and sex ed in the schools, and other subjects that are typical Republican talking points.  The spirit of individualism and counter-culturalism that might lead an African American to embrace homeschooling seems very similar to the spirit it would take to be a Black Republican in the age of Obama.  Mazama and Lundy have attributed the colorblindness of a small subset of African American homeschoolers to their fundamentalist religion.  I wonder to what degree fundamentalist religion might explain black conservativism as well?  I would love it if Mazama and Lundy could probe the political orientations of their fundamentalist sample to see if my speculation here is correct.

Milton Gaither, Messiah College, author of Homeschool: An American History.

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