What About the Black Baby Nones?

"You're going to hell and to the devil, because you don't go to church." My daughter's classmates hurled this charge at her recently with the infinite wisdom and snark that second graders are so adept at delivering. Coming from a household of atheists, my seven year-old skeptic critically questions church and god, a position that sets her apart from the vast majority of her African American peers. Of course, teasing and insults about religious beliefs are not new on elementary school campuses. Within the kid universe (taking its cue from adults) anyone who is viewed as different from the prevailing cultural orthodoxies--be it in appearance, race, gender, sexuality, names, uncool dress or "weird" speech--is fair game. My daughter didn't take the girls' "dis" without a challenge. "No," she told them, "The devil isn't 'down there', it's just rocks and dirt," refuting their claim that the "Almighty" created us and heaven awaits the Satan-defying dead.

The Pew Research Center's landmark survey on major shifts in religious belief documented the growth of Millennial Americans in the "nones" or non-religious category (which encompasses a broad spectrum of folk from spiritual to atheist). But the rise in the non-religious also parallels a population shift in which youth of color will outnumber white youth by 2043. So what about the generation after the Millennials, culturally diverse Baby nones like my daughter who are growing up on a diet of social justice, science and skepticism? This generation of youth is coming of age in a social context that is more non-conforming on certain cultural issues. For example, in addition to their lower levels of religious belief, they will be the first generation to grow up with a new language and narrative about gender and sexuality. They will perhaps be the first generation to fully embrace defining themselves as gender queer, gender variant, pansexual and transgender. The binary gender roles and sexual identities of previous generations will be less normative for this generation, influencing their decreased attachment to organized religion.

Yet, the outlook for young African American nones is more ambiguous. Unlike young white nones, black youth who reject organized religion don't have the social and economic benefits of white privilege to blunt their "apostasy". And to date, there is no disaggregated data on the number of black youth who fall into the none category. Even among African American nones, 71% view religion as "very important or somewhat important". African American nones are more likely to be "unattached believers" who question organized religion, still believe in god, and identify generically as "spiritual".

Overall, African American youth (the majority of whom are Christian) are more likely than their non-black peers to attend church and read the bible. According to the Pew's 2007 and 2012 reports on black religious identification, black Millennials between the ages of 18-29 comprise 20% of historically black churches. This number is roughly comparable to that of the Baby Boomer generation. Thus, religious affiliation for young black adults does not show the same dramatic downward trend as that of the non-black population. Naturally, this is informed by the fact that African Americans in general, and African American women in particular, are among the most religious groups in the nation. So even though some black youth may be expressing their dissatisfaction with the orthodoxies and dysfunction of the Black Church, they are not, by and large, abandoning these traditions wholesale. This has a lot to do with the role the Black Church--despite its patriarchy, sexism, homophobia, transphobia and respectability politics--continues to play in segregated African American communities vis-à-vis social welfare, cultural cohesion, political engagement and educational opportunity (i.e., providing scholarships, linking with colleges and universities, establishing safe spaces for studying/tutoring/mentoring, etc.).

High levels of religious affiliation in communities of color are driven in part by institutional racism, economic depression and segregation. African Americans and Latinos continue to be the most residentially segregated in the U.S., with the highest unemployment rates and greatest wealth disparities in the country. Black youth continue to be incarcerated in disproportionate numbers, bearing the brunt of zero tolerance discipline policies that criminalize and push them out of school. In the absence of truly democratic policies that provide equitable access to jobs, housing and education, the social and cultural resources offered by some black churches, both alternative and traditional, represent an antidote to these inequities.

These deepening disparities are also a major factor in the high levels of religiosity among LGBTQ people of color. According to a 2012 Williams Institute study, African American and Latino LGBTQ folk are more religious than their white counterparts. And contrary to mainstream stereotypes that privilege white folks in LGBTQ representations, African Americans are more likely than any other ethnic or racial group to identify as gay and transgender.

The Baby nones will no doubt benefit from greater levels of acceptance of the non-religious. Yet it remains to be seen how this next generation will redress the systemic inequities that confront people of color who can't bank on the wages of whiteness while being religious outsiders.