Freedom of Choice

Bex Sussman

Freedom of Choice

April 21, 2023 / 1:30 pm - 3:00 pm / Add to Google

Online via Zoom | Meeting ID: 965 4884 0049

Jolyon Baraka Thomas, Associate Professor and Graduate Chair of the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Pennsylvania

The Religion and Race Working Group invites Dr. Jolyon Baraka Thomas as its guest speaker. Dr. Thomas is presenting a chapter titled “Freedom of Choice: The United States, 1954–1983” from his forthcoming book Difficult Subjects: Religion and the Politics of Public Education in Japan and the United States (under contract with University of Chicago Press).

This chapter is about the changing color of public space. It offers a critical secularism studies angle on the story of desegregation, focusing in particular on how the coding of public space as “white” shifted over time, with profound effects for tax-funded schools. Whereas white supremacy had been legally baked into Jim Crow-era laws and customs as a form of public reason, after Brown v. Board of Education segregationists turned to notions of private choice to preserve their preferred public order, using complicated pupil assignment schemes and “school choice” regimes to maintain segregation. However, legal trends across the three branches of the federal government made it increasingly untenable for tax-funded schools in any jurisdiction to maintain these de facto segregationist admissions policies. With public space now effectively “colored,” white families increasingly decamped to private whites-only “segregation academies.” When these academies came under IRS scrutiny, they increasingly allied with churches, using religious free exercise claims to protect their right to exclude non-white pupils. These machinations prompted a wholesale reconfiguration of the racialized balance between public and private and consequently changed popular perceptions of the relationship between religion and schools, family and state.

Jolyon Baraka Thomas (he/him/his) is Associate Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Pennsylvania, where he teaches courses on religion as it intersects with media, politics, and the law. He received his PhD in religion from Princeton University in 2014. Dr. Thomas’s research focuses primarily on Japan, the United States, and their respective empires from the nineteenth century to the present. Dr. Thomas’s first book, Drawing on Tradition: Manga, Anime, and Religion in Contemporary Japan, appeared with University of Hawai`i Press in 2012. His 2019 University of Chicago Press monograph, Faking Liberties: Religious Freedom in American-Occupied Japan, received an award for excellence in the study of religion from the American Academy of Religion in 2020. His third book, Difficult Subjects: Religion and the Politics of Public Education in Japan and the United States, is under contract with University of Chicago Press. Dr. Thomas also serves on the editorial advisory boards of American Religion, the Japanese Journal of Religious Studies, the Journal of Global Buddhism, and Nova Religio.

Event contact: Derek Wu, Department of Ethnic Studies,

Presented by the Berkeley Center for the Study of Religion and the Graduate Student Working Group.