Thursday, January 31, 2008

Being a Faithful Catholic in America: Part III – Racism

[This is part III of a series I began here. Part II is here]

We have briefly considered the universal call to holiness, to which we should all, by virtue of our Baptism, respond with an honest effort to be saints. We have spoken of the consistent life ethic which reminds us of the inherent and irrevocable dignity of every person and serves of the foundation of all moral issues; now we can proceed to consider some of those issues that the US Bishops have spoken of as being problematic.

In its Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship, the USCCB lists racism as intrinsically evil, something that can never be supported. In this reflection I shall follow the lead of our shepherd, Archbishop Hughes, in his recent document, Made in the Image and Likeness of God: a Pastoral Letter on Racial Harmony. Archbishop Hughes indicates that, although the term “racism” generally draws forth wide ranging emotions and is often avoided in conversation, the Church has not hesitated to define it “as both a personal sin and a social disorder rooted in the belief that one race is superior to another.” Furthermore, the Catechism of the Catholic Church explains that "every form of social or cultural discrimination of fundamental personal rights on the grounds of sex, race, color, social conditions, language or religion must be curbed and eradicated as incompatible with God's design."

Based on the Church’s characterization of racism as both a personal and a social problem, Archbishop Hughes adds that when it occurs on the personal level it generally takes the form of slurs, unprovoked fear, unfair stereotypes, etc., while institutional racism takes place in educational systems, judicial systems, and our housing and living situations. I think we are all on some level aware of these problems, even if we are much more comfortable ignoring them and forgetting about our own participation in them than confronting them. However, it is not enough for us to know in our heads that racism is wrong and what it looks like, we must understand why it is wrong and, if we are to take Christ’s call to holiness seriously, we must work to eradicate it from our own lives and to help those who are victims of it. Let us therefore consider in more depth the Church’s teaching on the issue.

The Word of God in Sacred Scripture teaches us that God created all humanity, male and female, equal and “very good.” Due to the sin of our first parents, Adam and Eve, all humanity, white, black, yellow, red, brown, etc., have fallen into a state of separation from God, which we daily live out in our selfishness and sinfulness. But, just as through one man, Adam, all of us inherit Original Sin, so through one man, Jesus Christ, all of us, brown, red, yellow, black, white, etc., have been redeemed and offered the gift of salvation. Christ does not differentiate by color, sex, age, wealth, health, etc. We are created in the image and likeness of God, and therefore we are all very good. As people who are part of the Body of Christ through our Baptism, we are called to be His hands and feet, which means we are called to be color blind, to love all other members of the Body of Christ and the Body of Adam (all humans including non-Christians) equally and without reservation. That is what Jesus would do.

Certainly, no serious political candidate supports racism or overtly racist policies. But I think we need to dig a little beneath the surface, especially given the appalling history of racism in the United States (Archbishop Hughes calls it our nation’s Original Sin!), where up until a few decades ago it was considered the norm for blacks to be treated as inferior. For what was once overt (obvious) in political and social discourse still lurks in the background, but remains covert (hidden), only rearing its ugly head occasionally– think of the Jena 6 scandal. This all begs an important question: if racism is real, but not overt, does this make it any less evil? Does this diminish our responsibility as Christians? I think not.

In fact, I think most (if not all) of us can see undercurrents of racism active at different times and situations in our schools, jobs, and relationships with others. We tend to be more fearful around black men than white men. Why is that? The implication is that we believe that people who are black are more violent than people who are white. This is scientifically and morally false. We tend to assume, again generally speaking, that people who are black are less intelligent than people who are white. Again, this is patently false. It is true, however, that nutrition, family environment, parental expectations, and perceived safety play large roles in academic achievement. Because of the Original Sin of our nation, people who are black also tend to have a lower socio-economic status. Therefore, people who are black tend to come from families who are less able to provide good nutrition (this is especially relevant during pregnancy), stable family situation (parents are more likely to be forced to work long hours to support the family), and safe environment (poor neighborhoods breed desperation which leads to crime).

Many people also claim prison statistics -- based on percentages of the national population, people who are black are more likely to be criminals and to be on death row -- to support their belief that people who are black are more violent, criminal, even more evil than people who are white (although we would never say it this way). However, the statistics are very misleading, and such a belief is again absolutely untrue and offensive to our God who loved each one of us into creation. Regarding the statistics, we first must not reduce the issue to merely an issue of skin color. Human behavior does not change based on skin color, but it does change based on poverty and living conditions.

“Ironically, one of the few areas of racial equality in the United States is drugs. Americans who are black and Americans who are white use them at essentially the same rate. The shocking disparities come in enforcement—from arrests, to charges being filed, to convictions, to length of sentences—where African American males go to prison at far higher rates for the same crimes than everyone else. We know this from systematic studies as well as the many examples of white conservative politicians whose own drug crimes, or those of their kids, result in no prison time, the same crimes that send thousands of young, poor, black males to prison for shockingly long sentences (see the Bishop’s “three Rs” statement on criminal justice for more on systematic injustice in sentencing generally). On the death penalty, even different rates of violent crime don’t explain differences. Just among those who commit murder, African Americans murders are far more likely to get the death sentence than white murders. The even greater disparity, however, is in the race of the victim—murdering a white person is many times more likely to get you the death penalty than murdering a black person. “ (from a comment by David Cochron on the blog Vox-Nova)

The point is twofold: 1) Most of our preconceived notions which denigrate people of races are often false and are misguided by overly simplified views of complex situations. 2) Jesus Christ demands that we move beyond the implied racism of our society. Regardless of race all persons are children of God and, as Christians, we are called to love all persons as ourselves. We are called to stand up for the dignity and rights of those who are subject to discrimination and prejudice. Again, it is what Jesus would do and it is what we, as Christians are called to do as we strive to live as saints.


Veronica said...

One point that I feel is missing from this post is immigration. There is almost no difference between anti-immigration and racism. It is the most acceptable form of racism in our country today. All immigrants are at risk of it weather they came legally or illegally. Can you consider this for us.

AB said...

Veronica, I agree with you.

I'm speaking for Josh here, but I know he plans to do a separate post just on the immigration issue. Stay tuned!

JB said...

Hey V.,

Thanks for reading and commenting! I will plan to be looking into immigration in my next post. I agree it is a major topic and certainly more acceptable than classical racism. (I think that has to do with country's rampant Nationalism in part, but I'll need to do a little more research on that topic.)