Racism and the Liturgy: Q&A with a Sociologist

Dr. Tia Noelle Pratt is a sociologist of religion whose research foci include identity issues among African-American Catholics, systemic racism in U.S. Catholic Church, and pro-life issues and Millennials. She is currently the scholar-in-residence at the Aquinas Center in Philadelphia, PA and President and Director of Research at TNPratt & Associates, LLC. Her latest project examines the Catholic Church, especially the liturgy as a form of identity work and African-American Catholics’ use of liturgy as an act of resistance to systemic racism.  She recently presented some of her findings at the Annual Meeting of the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion (SSSR) in Las Vegas, many of which would concern liturgists. For National Black Catholic History month, I’ve invited her to share some of her insights with us at PrayTell in a Q&A.

Please tell us a little about your current book project. What are your motivations, research methods and goals for the book?

My current book project, tentatively called Black and Catholic, Catholic and Black:  Structure, Racism, and Identity in the African-American Catholic Experience, incorporates ethnographic fieldwork and in-depth interviews to analyze how systemic racism in the Catholic Church has resulted in the relatively small number of African-American Catholics and how such racism continues to impact African-American Catholics’ experience through church closings and parish reorganizations.  Despite the small number of African-American Catholics and the long arc of systemic racism in the Church, African-American Catholics have deftly combined the dual heritages of Roman Catholicism and African-American religious traditions such as music, preaching, and commitment to social justice to form a singular identity – as Catholics and African-Americans – that is both an act of resistance to the Church’s systemic racism while simultaneously enhancing the vibrancy of contemporary Catholicism.

If I do this project right (and I’m working very hard to do it right), any marginalized group will be able to relate to the experience and consequences of marginalization and the tools that are used to resist it.

You mentioned the concept of an “ultra-white space” at SSSR. Could you elaborate on the idea for non-sociologists, particularly with how this pertains to the liturgy?

It’s a theoretical idea that I’m still working on, so I don’t want to say too much at this time.  Basically, I’m looking at sociologist, Dr. Elijah Anderson’s, concepts of “The White Space” and “The Cosmopolitan Canopy”.  In the analysis, I am examining how the dynamics of race and racism within the Church can exemplify, or purports to exemplify, these concepts.  In the case of The White Space, the Church can even heighten them as a result of systemic racism thus making it an ultra-white space.

I understand that your research is still on-going, but based on the data you have already collected, how has liturgy showed up as being central to the experience of systemic racism in the Church?

As readers of “Pray Tell” well know, liturgy is the central communal gathering in the Church.  So, any marginalization and discrimination present in the Church would be seen in liturgy – these things don’t happen in a vacuum.  In the case of my research, a key way we see liturgy reflect systemic racism is the woefully low numbers of African-American priests.  With African-Americans expressly forbidden from entering seminaries in the U.S. for many years among other forms of racism, a tradition of Black priests did not develop.  For people to feel included in an institution, they need to see themselves reflected in the institution’s leadership.  African-Americans don’t have that.  This absence impacts the whole church because diverse and inclusive leadership benefits everyone.

Until the middle of the 20th century, segregated communion lines were seen in Churches.  Segregated seating is part of the American Church’s history as well.  This has a profound impact on liturgy when it is supposed to be a community gathering while its structure conveys very specific power dynamics rooted in racism.  While those things no longer happen, the trauma they generated lingers.  Currently, we see church closings and parish reorganizations taking place in numerous cities which disproportionately impacts racial minorities.  There is a profound impact on the experience of liturgy when a parish community scatters as a result of their church closing.  Those who have lost their church have wounds that need to heal, and that will take time.  Those whose church has remained open will have a new experience of liturgy while also being called to create a sense of welcome and community at liturgy for new parishioners.

Many liturgists and liturgical musicians struggle with cultural appropriation. They see an opportunity to expose a predominantly white congregation to Black spirituality and their struggles when they choose to have the congregation sing music from the African American tradition, be it psalm settings from the hymnal, Lead me Guide me, or in having their White suburban choir sing an African American spiritual. What advice would you have for them?

Don’t.  Just don’t do that.  While the intention is admirable and worthy, white liturgists and musicians who incorporate music from the African-American tradition with all or nearly all-white choirs and parishioners are invoking a struggle they couldn’t possibly understand.  If liturgists and musicians want to introduce parishioners to Black spirituality and the African-American experience, I would suggest inviting a Black priest to preside at Mass, a Black deacon to preach, or a choir from a predominantly Black parish to sing, or a Black scholar to give a talk that will generate discussion around these issues.  Most of all, I would suggest asking local African-American Catholics what can be done and not presuming to already have all the answers.

In the past, and perhaps still today, some believe that the liturgy is immune to racism or any other kind of injustices. Your research clearly demonstrates that this is untrue. How can liturgists learn to think more critically about the relationship between the social and theological levels of liturgical performance and participation with regards to racism and be allies to the Black community regardless of the make-up of their local congregations? 

Know your history.  Know the history of your parish, your diocese, and the religious communities that serve in your parish and diocese.  Ask scholars to come and talk about these things.  Ask members of the local Black community about their experiences – again, don’t presume to have all the answers.  Ask members of the local Black community what their needs are and what support you can offer.  Ask what saints are invoked when the Litany is sung.  Is it the same group of saints all the time?  Mix it up!  St. Josephine Bakhita, St. Martin de Porres, and Sts. Perpetua and Felicity  are canonized saints of the Church just like St. Patrick, St. Thomas More, and St. Teresa of Avila.

Speaking of Saints, I see that the NBCC provides updates on Black Catholic Saints-to-be on their website!

This has been very enlightening, challenging, and I trust, helpful for liturgists. Thank you for your time.

FN: PrayTell readers may also be interested in the prayer and liturgy resources including the 1987 document In Spirit and Truth: Black Catholic Reflections on the Order of Mass available online from the USCCB Subcommittee on African-American Affairs. See also the pastoral letter against racism: Open Wide our Hearts.


  1. As a liturgical musician, I do struggle with the “Don’t. Just don’t do that.” response to using music from ethnic groups/traditions that are not my own. It seems to me that the broad application of that principle will inevitably lead us all to inhabit our own isolated cultural silos. I’m aware of the dangers of tokenism, and not being able to grasp the struggle from which many of the slave spirituals emerged. I think it may have been Dr. Melva Costen at a Hymn Society conference session in Charleston who said that, their own contemporary struggles notwithstanding, many urban African-Americans in the U.S. really don’t have a grasp of the ethos from which the slave spirituals came (if it wasn’t Dr. Costen, my apologies for mis-quoting). And it is unclear to me if, in addition to the slave spirituals, I need to remove “Siyahamba” from my repertoire as well, or a spiritual like “It’s-a-Me, O Lord” which doesn’t connect directly to the slave experience.
    In August of 2017 the New Yorker carried an article: “Three Cheers for Cultural Appropriation” (Bari Weiss); I thought some of the points therein might have some application to liturgy and its music as well. It’s a complex topic, admittedly. Hopefully individuals like Dr. Pratt will continue to guide our conversation.

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