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America, Catholics & Elegant Racism

As deftly summarized in this article by Adam Serwer, there is a through line connecting last year's evisceration of the Voting Rights Act by the Supreme Court's five man Catholic majority in Shelby County v. Holder to the infamous1857 Dred Scott decision written by the Court's first Catholic justice, Roger Taney. 

That fact alone is reason enough to give white Catholics in the United States pause this Independence Day regarding the enduring sin of racism, a sin inextricably interwoven with American history for at least 395 years.

The new issue of America, "Black and Catholic", offers a wealth of ways to enter into the topic---from a profile of Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Eugene Robinson, to a reflection on the life of Sr. Thea Bowman, to Vincent Rogeau's assessment of the 1964 Civil Rights Act's impact, to book recommendations from a distinguished collection of black Catholic intellectuals, to a republication of the editors' reaction to passage of the Civil Rights Act 50 years ago.

My own favorite (a word which when used as here means something like "deeply discomforting because it rings so true") contribution to this collection comes from Boston College professor of systematic theology M. Shawn Copeland.  In "Revisiting Racism: Black Theology and a Legacy of Opporession", Copeland deftly summarizes the emergence of Black Theology from the "time of turmoil" (1954-68) and its enduring revelance in our current age of “elegant racism” which is “invisible, supple, enduring.” 

Many thanks to all the editors and contributors to this issue of America for a lovely and timely Independence Day offering to the rest of us.

About the Author

Luke Hill is a writer and community organizer in Boston. He blogs at dotCommonweal and MassCommons. 



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Luke Hill says,

That fact alone is reason enough to give white Catholics in the United States pause this Independence Day regarding the enduring sin of racism, a sin inextricably interwoven with American history for at least 395 years.

Actually, I'm a white Catholic and do not practice racism, so there is no "enduring sin of racism" being committed by myself.  This sounds like the standard practice by liberals to induce white Americans (and especially white Catholics) to feel guilty about things they have never done or thought.  These are the attempts to construct phsychological "cages" in the minds of those in the target group so as to insure that they don't question liberal orthodoxy, on any subject.  It has been very effective in the past, but folks are increasingly shucking it off for the psywar propoganda it is.

Are you saying that you do not accept the argument that all our inherited systems were constructed by and for white people and that they still privilege white people?  I think that is the charge of "racism" in reference to our systems--educational, justice, economic, etc.   If that argument is valid, then the further argument would be that we all have a responsibility to remodel the systems to ensure equality.  It isn't about individuals feeling guilty.  It is about everyone recognizing the problem, seeing the harm it causes, and working for a more just society. Do you reject these arguments?


My questions above are for Bob Schwartz.  Sorry, I couldn't get them into the "reply" box.

The concept of "whiteness" and actually being white are two different things.  Race is complicated. As Tim Wise explains, in the sevetneenth century there was no white race. Scottish people fought highlandes and lowlanders.

The issue was economics, elitism, and the building of priviledge. The economic elite gave carrots to certain other Europeans. They (the lower European economic class) entered into the social compact with elite landowners and the structure of slavery emerged. The elite were able to break apart coalitions of people of both races who had similar economic and political interests.

This problem still exists but it is more an issue of economic class.  So it is strange that you have two communities (white and black) who have similar socio-economic class but the white people will blame the blacks in the next district who have the identical social and economic condition as them.

Here is Tim Wise explaining the issue well:


There was at least some element of race in racism and the Catholic church.  I'm thinking of the Valladolid debate  that asked if the natives of the Americas were "people"  .... ... and the guy who gets all the credit for arguing that theywere was instead a supporter of the transatlantic slave trade of natives from Africa ...

Paula:  Your question,

 It isn't about individuals feeling guilty.  It is about everyone recognizing the problem, seeing the harm it causes, and working for a more just society. Do you reject these arguments?

presupposes that there is a "problem" you have defined as having the quality of "privileging white people".  I don't think that's true.  Therefore I don't propose to spend any time working to fix a nonexistent problem.  One of the greatest mechanisms holding people of color back is the out-of-control birth rate of single women, and the fact that a huge percentage of black kids virtually have no fathers.  But not to worry, the same problem is overtaking the white and hispanic population, thanks to the overall disintegration of Western (judeo-christian) civilizational behavioral norms.  In fact, from where I sit, we are in the final stages of collapse.   Now that's equality!

One of the greatest mechanisms holding people of color back is the out-of-control birth rate of single women

Bob, why do you think single women of color behave differently from others? Is it because they're black, and then isn't that a racist opinion? Or is it due to the social context, and then how did that situation develop to create such conditions for black women specifically?

George D,

The problem can't be reduced to economics. Even ignoring the ongoing presence of discrimination and bias, the experience of a black person of a given income or with parents with a given income isn't the same. Both housing covenants and mob violence prevented black families from being able to live anywhere they could afford, and discrimination by the Federal Housing Administration meant that the only financing available was exotic mortgages that were designed to extract a family's entire wealth before foreclosing. The result of these is that a black family of a given income is going to live in a neighborhood with more poverty that a white family with the same income, and the black family is going to have less wealth built up than a similar white family.


The problem is the subculture, not race.  Why is the current subculture so toxic?  I have my own ideas about that, ideas that I cannot absolutely verify, but they make sense to me.  Again, it gets back to behaviorlal norms.

Bob: When you heard about the shooting of Trayvon Martin, did you assume he was a thug who was "asking for it"?  Or did you assume that George Zimmerman is a bigot, or a Barney Fife wannabe, who got away with murder?

I was living in Florida at the time, and I never doubted that it was Zimmerman who escalated the confrontation with Martin, and that Martin's murder was totally unjustified.  I'm white, and I was astounded and discouraged by how many other whites immediately assumed the worst about Martin.  


There are many reasons for stratification. Race is a factor only to the extent that a race is identified with a particular class.

This is not possible to prove one way or the other but it does suggest the need to look for the cause of inequity beyond just race. Colonization in the context of American Indians is also a factor. Manifest destiny is one of the most vile doctrines to emerge out of the United States and amounts to an immoral and illegal occupation and theft of Indian land.

But you will hear American politician prattle on endlessly on American exceptionalism, a cover for a multitude of imperialistic sins.


Papal teaching around the status of indigenous people in the new world was actually quite good. That does not mean it was always followed in particular instances. But, on balance, the teaching was good from the indigenous justice point of view. The Canadian Jesuit Michael Stogre has a good book on that entitled,

"That the World May Believe: The Development of Papal Thought on Aboriginal Peoples."

I have a copy of the painting by Blake Dabassige that is on the cover.


The first reports I heard were encapsulated within what a little later was revealed to be a doctored audio tape that indicated Zimmerman volunteered the information, without being asked, that Trayvon was black.  Zimmerman was talking on the phone with the police; he had called them to report a suspicious person in the neighborhood for which he was a (the?) designated Neighborhood Watch person.  The undoctored tape indicated that the police asked Z to describe the suspicious person. 

In addition, the much publicised photo of Tryavon was of what appeared to be a 12-year old kid.  And finally, an again much publicised picture of Zimmerman's head appeared to show only a minor small abrasion.

As it turned out, Travon was, what, seventeen at the time?  And rather more physically robust than that picture.  And a later photo of Zimmerman's head showed a kind of bloody mess.  We later learned that there had been an upsurge in break-ins & burgluries in the area and that Trayvon had a couple "typical" burglury tool in his knapsack (screwdriver, etc.).  From all of the above shenanigans perpetrated by the media, I leaned towared Zimmerman's side of the story.  And, by the way, first Z was described as "white", then later as "white hispanic".  From the above it was easy for me to see that the media were desprerate to cast Z as the villain.

I now think that Z is somewhat of a screwball, but that is what I got from the media. 


The story of how Roberts may or may not have grifted the Court's liberal block is quite a tale (told more succinctly here).  If I were liberal, I'd be worried about what undetectable explosive devices Roberts might have sewn into his Obamacare decision.

Liberals questioning the Court's construction, out of very little, of a doctrine of "Equal Sovereignty" reminds me of social conservatives questioning the construction, out of similarly meager materials, of a doctrine of privacy.  I guess both sides take turns wearing the originalist hat.

At the risk of being a calming influence, I'd note the following:

* Except for the one part struck down by the Roberts Court, the Voting Rights Act remains in force, including at least one part that specifically outlaws racial discrimination in voting.  I've read recently that Attorney General Holder's Justice Department is making use of those other sections to protect voting rights.

* Congress still has the ability, if it chooses, to repair the unconstitutional sections of the Voting Rights Act.  It strikes me as a good sign that a Republican is introducing legislation in the House to do so.

* Some commentators have noted that the recent GOP primary run-off election in Mississippi, in which the incumbent Senator Thad Cochran staved off a challenge from his right, illustrates that the struck-down section of the Voting Rights act may no longer be an indispensable tool to ensure voting rights.  Cochran prevailed by inducing black voters to cross over.  He campaigned hard to get their vote, got it, and won.  It's worth noting that Mississippi has a voter ID law.  American democracy worked in Mississippi in 2014.




Am I misreading you badly, or are you suggesting that racism is now a "non-existent problem"?  Even if one believes that racial attitudes are much more enlightened now than they were one hundred or fifty years ago (and I suspect that is not uniformly the case for Americans), the results of 200+ years of slavery and an additional 100+ of institutionalized racism (Jim Crow laws, denial of voting rights, de jure and now de facto segregation in housing and schooling that continues today) might be expected to have an impact on African Americans.  I find it impossible to believe simply saying "We're not racists" eliminates the destructive effects that racism has had on African American wealth, educational opportunities, and family life.

I try very hard not to have any racial prejudice, but I have to wonder if the priviliges I still enjoy as a white person are a bit like living on stolen property.  I think we need to do much more for racial and economic justice in this country.  We have little reason for self-satisfaction.

I think that if you're reading Bob at all, then you're reading him badly.

Bob, I've always suspected that the injuries to Zimmerman's head could have been self-inflicted. Given that he already had been accused of domestic violence by an ex-girlfriend, once he shot Trayvon, Zimmerman might have immediately realized he was in deep trouble unless he could convince the police that he'd been attacked and had shot in self-defense.

I carry a nail file in my purse.  If I were a black woman, would a white racist jump to the conclusion that I use it to pick locks instead of filing my nails?  I've also read that Trayvon was acting "suspiciously" because he was peering into windows in the apartment complex.  When one remembers that it was dark, Trayvon didn't live there, and was trying to find his way back to the apartment where his father's girlfriend lived, it seems more logical than suspicious. 

As someone said about O.J. Simpson: I'd like to know the last thing Zimmerman thinks about at night and the first thing he thinks about in the morning.

Abe:  Haha!  I don't agree with very much of whart you say (and, I must confess, I don't really like you very much) but I do appreciate your zingers.  I see you as an aging misanthrope with a somwhat Don Rickles sense of humor.  And that's a compliment in my book.

Kevin:  Sorry, but I don't subscribe to your reading of the U.S.A.  Although I detest Obama, I'm damn proud of Americans putting aside their "racism" and electing him twice.  And the only "privileging" I admit to are the undeservrd blessings I personally have received from our Lord.  Seriously, after some the things I have done, I would have assumed Jesus would have said "Oye" and been done with me.  But I guess that's not how He works.

Angela: Whatever.  By the way, I have a daughter named Angela of whom I'm very fond.  She's the best.

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