When my wife and I moved from Cincinnati in 1978, we intentionally chose to relocate to the most diverse (formerly described as “integrated”) municipality in Ohio; namely, Cleveland Heights. We were about to begin having a family, and we did not want our kids to be racist, so, as our family grew, our kids played with and developed friendships with children of color.
My wife and I were both raised by parents who taught us to respect everyone, and we had been actively fighting racism in our own ways since college. We both did community service in the black community. She even worked on the campaign of George McGovern (who was not revolutionary enough for me at the time). My own commitment to racial equality in 1972 alienated me from a powerful network of influence that could have financially helped me.
As we are all well aware, racism continues to be an issue in American society. We frequently hear the terms racist and racism, but Catholics recognize that these terms were coined outside of Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition (the two primary ways God has revealed Himself and His Will since the death of the last apostle).
I believe that Catholics must “baptize” or at least understand the terms racist and racism in the light of Catholic doctrine if they are going to use these terms in an authentically Catholic way. To set this discussion in its proper perspective, we will try to apply the principles for evangelization and enculturation given to us by the Magisterium in such documents as Evangelii Nuntiandi, 19-20, and Gaudium et Spes, 58.
To be sure, the Catechism of the Catholic Church does not use the terms racist and racism. On November 15, 2018, a definition of racism was offered by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops in Open Wide Our Hearts: The Enduring Call to Love – A Pastoral Letter against Racism: “Racism arises when—either consciously or unconsciously—a person holds that his or her own race or ethnicity is superior, and therefore judges persons of other races or ethnicities as inferior and unworthy of equal regard.”
So the Bishops seem to be telling us that racism means being negative about an individual or a group for no other reason than that they belong to a different race or ethnicity. No good Catholic can disagree with this position. In the next sentence of the same document, the Bishops go on to say: “When this conviction or attitude leads individuals or groups to exclude, ridicule, mistreat, or unjustly discriminate against persons on the basis of their race or ethnicity, it is sinful. Racist acts are sinful because they violate justice.”
Again, it is a perfectly Catholic attitude to admit that excluding, ridiculing, mistreating, or unjustly discriminating against persons on the basis of their race or ethnicity is a sin. One does not have to be Catholic in order to be free of racism, but it is the orthodox Catholic faith that sheds the greatest light on the nature of racism.
How Many Races Are There?
One way to avoid having racist attitudes is to acknowledge that “race” is something of a fiction, or at best a clumsy, shorthand, arbitrary way of describing humanity. Yes, we human beings have different physical characteristics, such as skin color. On the other hand, there is no scientific, objectively accurate way of subdividing humanity into different races. The same can be said for ethnicity. Race and ethnicity should be put in quotation marks every time they are used (“race”, “ethnicity”), but that would be too awkward in public discourse.
A politically correct person, who makes race the basis of personal identity, ironically, has the same practical problem that a white supremacist has: trying to figure out who belongs to which race. To be a member of a race, do you need two parents of that race? One grandparent? One ancestor, no matter how long ago? Do you need to look like that race? Can you be “trans-racial”?
On this issue, as in every other issue, faith completes, and does not contradict, what reason tells us. The Magisterium teaches very clearly that we, as human beings, are all members of one human race. We are all children of the one true God. “Because of its common origin the human race forms a unity, for from one ancestor [God] made all nations to inhabit the whole earth. . . . [A]ll men are truly brethren” (Catechism, 360, 361).
One hopeful development of recent times is that interracial marriage in America has doubled in every decade from 1970 to 2000 – there were twice as many interracial marriages in 1980 as in 1970, twice as many in 1990 as in 1980, and twice as many in 2000 as in 1990. “The proportion of interracial marriages as a proportion of all marriages has been increasing since , such that 15.1% of all new marriages in the United States were interracial marriages by 2010 compared to a low single-digit percentage in the mid-20th century. Public approval of interracial marriage rose from around 5% in the 1950s to around 80% in the 2000s,” according to Wikipedia.
Two Ways to Look at People
Looking at people the right way is the foundation of not being racist.
One way to look at people is to see them, first and foremost, as members of their races. This view holds that what most defines every white person is that he is white, what most defines every black person is that she is black, etc. This is the racist way that both the Radical Left (the politically correct or so-called progressives) and the Reactionary Right (white supremacists, neo-Nazis, the alt-right crowd) look at people. This approach denies both our common human nature and our individuality. It turns people into cogs in a racial machine.
The other way to look at people is to see them as individual persons who share a common human nature but who, as individuals, belong to various socio-economic groups at the same time. What defines everyone is the wide variety of dimensions of existence—not only race/ethnicity, but also economic class, gender, sexuality, as well as personality, physical attributes, talents, culture, and above all, moral character and religion or philosophy. What most defines each person is his relationship with God—how he uses his intellect and free will to choose or not choose to do the objective will of God, consciously or unconsciously.
This second way of looking at people is the correct way and the Catholic way, which will seem reactionary to a radical and radical to a reactionary. But it is also the way of reason.
Insights about Race
The following observations are social analyses and prudential judgments, not doctrines. I suggest that acceptance of these insights would greatly help bring our country together and decrease the hostility, paranoia, and hysteria that are too common when it comes to racial issues. Acceptance would also help identify the racists on both the Left and the Right.
What I call racist below is often believed or acted on by well-intentioned people. It should go without saying that good intentions do not necessarily cause good results. Some consequences of the right mindset toward race are the following:
- Racism cannot only be committed by white people. Anyone can be racist. Blacks can be racist toward Asians; Hispanics can be racist toward whites; Irish can be racist toward Poles; Japanese can be racist toward Koreans; Turks can racist toward Armenians, etc.
- As it is racist to vote for a candidate just because that candidate is white, it is racist to vote for a candidate just because that candidate is a member of some other race.
- To have a negative opinion about what someone of another race thinks or does is not in itself racist.
- It is racist to think that all members of the same race should have the same culture and the same politics.
- We should look at people in the second way described above even when they look at themselves the first way. This means that we actually know them better than they know themselves.
- If it is racist to be negative about members of a race just because they belong to that race, then it is also racist is to be positive about members of a race just because they belong to that race. No racial group has a monopoly on either virtue or vice.
- It is racist to think that everyone is incapable of acting according to the same moral standards. It is racist to not hold everyone to the same moral standards.
- Diversity for the sake of diversity can also be a racist attitude. But that is a statement that needs a section of its own.
A Question of Fair Diversity
Whether in questions of race or any other matter, diversity or inclusion is not always good, and discrimination or exclusion is not always wrong.
A diverse group of people can make immoral or erroneous decisions just as a homogenous group of people (of whatever race or ethnicity) can.
Exclusion or discrimination can be necessary at times. For example, there are many institutions, i.e., medical schools, sports teams, etc., that cannot accommodate all who apply. Whenever membership is limited, the inclusion of some always means the exclusion of others.
Exclusion or discrimination is fair when fair criteria or standards are used. It is unfair when unfair criteria or standards are used. Competence is a fair criterion for excluding someone from a profession. Who in his right mind would say before surgery, “I do not want the most competent surgical team possible, I want the most diverse surgical team possible (or the most homogeneous team)”? A criterion of unfair exclusion or discrimination is, as our bishops have said, to base it on race alone.
A thorough list of fair criteria for inclusion or exclusion is based on Natural Law and Catholic doctrine.
Diversity or inclusion is wrong when it is another name for relativism or subjectivism. To recognize that ancient Israel discovered Faith and ancient Greece discovered Reason, unlike any other ancient peoples, is not racist. Nor is it racist to claim that Faith and Reason are best synthesized in knowing Jesus Christ in the orthodox Catholic intellectual tradition. (It is not racist to be a Thomist!)
Political correctness and the Radical Left are a far greater threat to the common good than the so-called Reactionary Right. It is the Radical Left that has taken over most of the news media, entertainment industry, and schools.
Diversity or inclusion is wrong when it really means tolerating or including only those who have leftist politics. The Radical Left is increasingly showing its totalitarian colors. An intelligent discussion about racism cannot take place without considering the views of persons of color who, to one extent or another, criticize the Radical Left—such as Thomas Sowell, Ramesh Ponnuru, John McWhorter, Shelby Steele, Kay Coles James, Clarence Thomas, Star Parker, Walter Williams, Peter Kirsanow, Candace Owens, and Larry Elder, among others.
Neither Reactionary nor Radical
One of the reasons my wife and I stopped considering ourselves liberals or leftists is that we found the Left was becoming increasingly racist. In some ways, we remain “old-fashioned (pre-1970s) liberals,” which has become too reactionary for so-called progressives. We believe identity politics, whether practiced by reactionaries or radicals, is not what Our Lord wants.
We are grateful for the many good relationships we have had with people of color, relationships in which we related to each other as fellow human beings and as unique persons.