Race, Religious Involvement, Social Capital, and Educational Outcomes among Public High School Students in Buffalo, NY.

Brian D. Barrett


While there exists (a) a substantial history of debate and research on the effects of religious schooling on children’s educational outcomes at the macro level; (b) a considerable amount of research examining the relationship between students’ educational outcomes and their race and socioeconomic status; and (c) ample documentation of the role of religion in the lives of African Americans, there exists little research on how individual religious involvement impacts the educational outcomes of African American students. Despite the relative dearth of such studies, a growing body of research serves to point the way towards a conceptualization of how and why religious involvement might be positively related to educational outcomes for these students. This paper draws on this growing body of research, placing students’ religious involvement within a social capital framework to examine the relationship between religious involvement, social capital, and educational outcomes. Based on the quantitative analysis of data obtained from public high school students in Buffalo, New York, it concludes that this relationship might be especially significant for black students, particularly those attending public schools in high poverty, intensely segregated urban districts.

Literature Review

The vital role played by churches as socializing agents in low income urban areas has been recognized before. Churches are often among the last institutions of civil society to leave and first to return to deteriorating neighborhoods and disadvantaged communities. Crucially, the social service efforts of churches “often carry an important part of the burden of providing for the needs of poor communities”.1

Religious involvement has been considered a protective factor in fostering pro-social behavior and development among urban adolescents. For example, the effects of neighborhood disorder on crime and drug use among urban youth have been shown to be mediated by individual religious involvement.2 Likewise, churchgoing by urban youths has been associated with a number of positive behavioral outcomes, including a higher rate of school attendance, and thus with their chances of “escaping” inner-city poverty.3

In terms of education, socialization processes associated with participation in church activities have been shown to reinforce “traditional” pathways to success and relate positively to a range of educational outcomes including heightened educational expectations and increased standardized test scores.4 A meta-analysis conducted by Jeynes5 suggests that individual religious commitment, regardless of school sector, has an independent and positive effect on academic achievement and students’ behavior in school. Most importantly for the purposes of this paper, religious involvement has been demonstrated as being more influential in predicting successful educational outcomes among students living in low income urban neighborhoods than for their wealthier counterparts.6

In terms of race, scholars dating back to W.E.B. DuBois7 have conceptualized the African American church as a key agency of social organization among black Americans.8 In the past, for example, the black church served as an “invisible institution”9 providing “one of the only social vehicles through which slaves could meet and organize”10 at a time when other forms of social organization were forbidden for them and highlighting a historical tendency among black Americans to turn inward, relying on each other for support in the face of racism, discrimination, and limited access to alternative sources of aid.11

Sanders12 highlights the positive effects involvement in African American churches has on black students’ educational achievement. Likewise, religiously committed African American children have been shown to perform better on most academic measures than their less religious counterparts, even when controlling for socioeconomic status, gender and school sector.13

These research findings are particularly important in light of statistics revealing large and lingering (and, recently, widening) gaps in educational achievement along lines of race and socioeconomic status amidst growing differences in access to educational opportunity.14 For example, recent results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress indicate that 75 percent of white fourth-graders read at or above a basic level compared to 40 percent of African American fourth graders. Likewise, 45 percent of children from low income families scored at or above a basic level compared to76 percent of those not eligible for free or reduced-price lunches.15

The Church as Social Capital Resource         

Many of the education-related benefits of religious involvement appear to stem from the church’s role as a socializing agent. In addition to their role in tending to the spiritual needs of their members, then, churches have recently been conceptualized as a potential source of social capital for students.16 Access to social capital, those resources captured in social relations and associated networks and norms which can be invested in and utilized by social agents, involves both constraints and opportunities mediated by social structure.17 However, as a potential source of social capital, religious involvement is less affected by socioeconomic position than almost any other social behavior,18 a fact that may prove especially crucial for residents of high poverty, intensely segregated areas characteristic of Buffalo, the focus of this paper, and many other older industrial cities in the northeastern and midwestern United States. In this respect, despite gross and increasing inequalities in economic capital nationwide, churches may act as equally accessible social capital resources for America’s urban students regardless of their social background.

In this paper, I hypothesize that the equal opportunity to access social capital resources at church may of relatively greater educationally-instrumental value for African American students in high poverty, intensely segregated cities such as Buffalo. Due to the relationship that tends to exist between socioeconomic status and access to social capital,19 these students may otherwise be less likely to have access these resources elsewhere in their immediate social milieu.