A blog by the magazine's editors and contributors


The Sin of Racism and the Supreme Court's Catholic Majority

While still waiting to find out what provision of the Constitution section four of the Voting Rights Act violated (Justice Roberts' majority decision doesn't appear to ever get around to providing that little detail), it occurs to me that Shelby County v. Holder reflects, among other things, the ongoing failure of white American Catholicism to fully come to grips with the depths of the sin of racism in this country.

Daniel O'Connell, the great Liberator of 19th century Ireland, couldn't understand why Irish-Americans weren't at the forefront of the abolitionist movement.  Both O'Connell and his friend and ally, Frederick Douglass saw the two struggles as linked.

But Irish immigrants to the US ended up seeing it differently.  They saw a society much like the old one they'd left behind---where general prosperity and political freedom relied on the maintenance of a segregated and oppressed "other".  In the Old World the "other" was Irish Catholics.  In the New World, it was Blacks---and the newly American Irish fought bitterly to avoid getting caught on the wrong side of that dividing line.  Thomas Nast's racist, nativist and wildly popular political cartoons (example above) give a hint of how fluid and up for grabs the "race" line was in mid-19th century America.

The Irish provided the template by which later European Catholic immigrants could prove their "whiteness" and thus dramatically improve their chances of achieving "the American Dream".  And part of that template required ignoring and minimizing the history of racism in the United States and the ways in which "white" Catholics increasingly benefted from it.  (Noel Ignatiev's How The Irish Became White is one of a growing number of fine books and articles exploring and documenting this history.)

It's not ancient history either.  Thomas Sugrue's brilliant histories of race and civil rights in mid-20th century Northern cities, The Origins of the Urban Crisis and Sweet Land of Liberty, vividly document the myiad ways in which the sin of racism is not just a "Southern problem".  Ira Katznelson's Fear Itself shows how the New Deal, in a multitude of ways, reinforced and institutionalized racial discrimination and oppression across the country. 

The world they describe is the world in which Justices Roberts, Scalia, Kennedy and Alito grew up---one in which any prejudice they and their families experienced (as Catholics, as Irish, as Italians) was but a pale and faded reflection of the racist oppression that is inextricably intertwined with the democratic and capitalist roots of what became the United States of America.  What's more, the ways in which they benefited (in most cases, unconsciously, I imagine) from institutionalized racism far outweighed any "costs" they experienced of not being part of the WASP majority. 

Chief Justice Taney, in his Dred Scott opinion, at least had the excuse (justification? reason?) that his decision was based on the plainly racist character of the relevant sections of the Constitution.  Roberts and his colleagues have taken the plainly anti-racist intent (and utterly clear language) of the 15th amendment and twisted it beyond recognition.

Uprooting and repenting of the sin of racism remains one of the great, unfinished challenges white American Catholics face.  Shelby County v. Holder not only doesn't help us along that journey; it's a marker of how very far we have to go.

About the Author

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



Commenting Guidelines

  • All

Good front-page article in the NYT this morning about Roberts's "Long Game."

Roberts is "patient and methodical." 

Just like Escriva:

I wonder if this ruling might be helpful in at least one sense. For too long race and class have been conflated. It seems to me that the real issue with respect to systemic discrimination pertains to class. Lower classes, who frequently, in North America, correlated strongly with minorities. People of colour lacked the social and cultural capital to access levers of power. However, once a minority becomes part of the dominant class, or at least a large proportion of minorities become higher class, then the connotation of that race as belonging to a lower class diminishes in the mind of the public.

Simply put the issue is class and "whiteness" is less about colour than it is class. Affirmative action assist minorities in becoming "white" metaphorically at least. Of course, that is part of the challenges with minorities who resist such mobility referring to that process as being co-opted by the man, etc.

Still, the issue is economic, cultural and social marginalization and even in more democratic and egalitarian Western countries (at least rhetorically and mythically), class remains the most pernicious of all categories. Race is the veneer that is associated with it but class is the issue.

@George D (6/28, 10:18 am)  Thanks for your comment---and for your desire to find a silver lining!

However, I don't see how one can look at American history and conclude that "(r)ace is the veneer...but class is the issue."  Africans were brought to Jamestown in August 1619 in chains.  Virginia law codes adopted in the 1660s---over a century before the founding of the nation---had as their chief concern race, not class.  One price of a "united States" in the 1780s was enshrining the "Slave Power" in the constitution via the 3/5 clause.  Slavery---not class, not states' rights---was the cause of this nation's bloodiest war.  To this day, farm workers and domestic workers are excluded from coverage by the National Labor Relations Act.  Why?  Because in the 1930s the vast majority of agricultural and domestic workers were Negroes in the south, and white southern Democrats insisted on their exclusion.

I could go on, but you get my point.  Race has been a (somewhat) fluid and hotly contested social construct throughout our history, but there's no way to understand that history without taking account of it.  An analysis based on class just doesn't hold up.

Let me add a novel to the Sugrue histories above -- Poor Banished Children of Eve by Peter Quinn, publlished in 1994 and reissued in paperback in 2008. It's on point and a good book that I didn't think got the attention it deserved.

Luke, thanks for the reassurance that I can't find the consitutional basis for Roberts's decision because it isn't there. I had just about given up on that and was looking for the part where section 2 of the 15th Amendment, giving Congress the power to enforce voting rights, required the advice and consent of the Supreme Court. Strict interpretatation, judicial restraint, stare decisis, indeed.



That "little detail" is actually mentioned pervasively by Justice Roberts: the 10th Amendment and the entire structure of the Constitution, under which the federal government has no general power to pre-approve what laws a state decides to pass. 

WASHINGTON (The Borowitz Report)—In a shocking end to an illustrious legal career, police arrested Justice Antonin Scalia today as he attempted to set the Supreme Court building ablaze.

Justice Scalia, who had seemed calm and composed during the announcement of two major rulings this morning, was spotted by police minutes later outside the building, carrying a book of matches and a gallon of kerosene.

After police nabbed Justice Scalia and placed him in handcuffs, the Juror appeared “at peace and resigned to his fate,” a police spokesman said.

“He went quietly,” the spokesman said. “He just muttered something like, ‘I don’t want to live in a world like this.’ ”

Back at the Supreme Court, Justice Scalia’s colleagues said they hoped he would get the help he needed, except for Justice Clarence Thomas, who said nothing.

Read more:

ISTM that it is wrong to presuppose that there is one main sociological cause of prejudice of any sort.  Looking back to European history we see that there were  battles in the Dark Ages which pitted not people of just one class or color class, but between whole clans, with the aristocrats leading their own serfs, etc., in battle against neighboring aristocrats and their own people.  (Those were clans in the old sense of the word.)

What seems most basic to me is our "clan instinct" (in the metaphorical sense of "clan").  It is our extremely strong and thoroughly *general* human tendency to classify ourselves into "us" and "them", and it doesn't make too much difference what the basis for the divisions are except that like loves like, though the original clans seem to have been formed on the basis of family membership.  See the loyalty of fans of football and basketball and baseball teams -- yes, we usually root for our own, local teams, but look at what happens in cities where there are no home teams -- people (especially men) choose sides and become fans of a team from somewhere else.

Skin color, financial means, land ownerhip, ethnic origin, political party, church, sports organization -- they all function as mix and match bases for establishing our own clans, for dividing us up.  Ask any mother encouraging her daughter to look for a mate. 

In 1963, we sold our family home in a small town in Lake County, IL.   He was a psychiatrist (M.D. – Ph.D.), his wife a psychiatric social worker at a VA hospital; they had two small children.  After the sale closed, we were at Mass – St. Patrick’s, our home parish.  On the steps of the church, as we waited to greet the pastor, Msgr. M, after mass,  a fellow parishioner and neighbor pushed through the line to my father, called him a “F—ing n—r lover” at the top of his lungs, and spit in his face, directly in front of the pastor.  And also of his own wife and children, not to mention us.  Msgr. M said nothing, then or later.  Neither did a single member of that congregation.  Dad, who was a man slow to anger, wiped his face with his handkerchief and said nothing, then went ahead and shook hands with Msgr. M, as did we all after him.

I was 15.  We went to mass as a family the next two weeks at St.Patrick’s, thinking (I suppose) that there would be some comment, if not comfort.  Then the rest of that summer at the parish in the next town.   But in the Fall, when I returned to the boarding school where I was a student, I stopped going to mass and confession.  Except for the Baptism of the infants of some friends and the installation of one friend as a Deacon, I have not entered a Catholic Church in 49 years.

I took up with the Congregationalist, and have had no cause to think I chose poorly.   But I do subscribe to Commonweal.


@Wasting Time (6/28, 11:28 am)  Thanks for your comment. 

The 10th amendment in its entirety reads:  "The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people."

When the 15th amendment was ratified 79 years later, did it not remove the relevant power---the right to vote regardless of race, color or previous condition of servitude---from the States and delegate it expressly to the United States?

As for "the entire structure of the Constitution", perhaps some of the legal scholars here could weigh in, but my understanding is that the Supreme Court typically specifies, often in great detail, which particular provision of the constitution a law violates (in those cases when the Court strikes down a law).  Isn't that correct?


There are Irish Americans and Irish Americans, Kennedys and Kennedys.  Historically it's true that Irish Americans backed the pro-union Democratic party that included white slavers in the South while liberal Republicans who hated the unions backed emancipation on principle.  But that was then and this is a looong time later.  I don't see even a hint of the old pro-union Irish coming to the fore among prominent Irish Catholics in today's political rightwing.  Not even a hint.

I believe Ann has expressed very well the source of the seemingly endless complexity behind the remarkable destructivenss of the us against them.   So much of it seems to stem from laziness, for lack of a better or more useful term.  Of all our differences our external appearance is the easiest to recognize.

Thanks to Mark L. for sharing your story.  For myself, born well after the "civl rights era," it's always helpful to hear people's stories.

I would also add that racism is included in the relatively short list of "instrically evil" actions in the USCCB's Faithful Citizenship.



Yes, there are Irish and Irish.  In New Orleans the Irish didn't face the sort of religious prejudice they faced in other parts of the country because Catholics were the founding fathers here.  But there was slavery here, and slaves were extremely expensive.  So when dangerous work had to be done (like digging up the malarial marshes to build our famed covered-over canals) the workmen used were largely immigrants, not slaves, because (this is shocking) immigrants were expendable.  (If an immigrant died, you lost no money.  If a slave did, you lost a lot.)  What resulted is that the poorest immigrants, including many Irish, resented the black folks, while the immigrants who prospered, including many Irish, were not resentful of the black people.  So the amounts of prejudice in the two Irish groups varied greatly.  My half-Irish grandmother and her sisters, for instance, were much less prejudiced against black people than were most southerners.  They even had a lot of sympathy for them.  Not so with some others of Irish descent here.

Complexity, complexity.

I think there is a negative stereotype of white ethnic working people being sonehow more racist than other people.  That has not been my experience at all and I think it is a very hurtful stereotype.

@Irene Baldwin (6/29, 8:55 am)  The Court's ruling in this case would be additional evidence to support your case.  Justices Alito, Kennedy, Roberts and Scalia all grew up in comfortably middle class, upper-middle class and professional families.

@Michael P:


Thanks.  The Catholic Church organizes much of its story of itself around its heroes – the named saints, the Popes, our efforts (in another thread) to find Catholic intellectuals.  Doubtless the Bishops and the catechism today decry racism.   But we learn our faith amongst our families and our parishes, recognizing  the fruit by the taste on the tongue.  Rather as did Jesus, as I read the Gospel.



"@Irene Baldwin (6/29, 8:55 am)  The Court's ruling in this case would be additional evidence to support your case.  Justices Alito, Kennedy, Roberts and Scalia all grew up in comfortably middle class, upper-middle class and professional families."

Luke --

My post was about 19th century experiences and views, including some very particular ones here,  and my point was that there is a great deal of variety in the views of those generations because of different causes operating at different times.  I did not stereotype any old group nor any new one.  I know from my own experience that racial prejudice is not the sole possession of any one group, and even within subgroups there are big differences of opinion.  

There are causes of racial prejudice,however,  and it seems to me it's helpful to try to understand them.  

The Origins of the Urban Crisis and Sweet Land of Liberty, vividly document the myiad ways in which the sin of racism is not just a "Southern problem".  

The provision that the Court overturned seems to have very much seen racism as a "Sourthern problem" - particular sections of the South, plus some other very specific regions.  Either it is a regional problem or it isn't.  



@Irene Baldwin (6/29, 8:55 am)  The Court's ruling in this case would be additional evidence to support your case.  Justices Alito, Kennedy, Roberts and Scalia all grew up in comfortably middle class, upper-middle class and professional families.

Luke, in your opinion, are these four Supreme Court Justices racists?  That seems to be what you're insinuating.



BB ..You are right about 'not a hint'

When Kennedy won in 1960, most of the urban Irish thought they had arrived and led the white flight to the suburbs and registered as GOP so they could join the CC. ,   say hello to O'Reilly and Hannitys parents.  

@Jim Pauwels (6/30, 11:08 and 11:11 pm)  Thanks for your comments.  First, the VRA is aimed at protecting voting rights, not at remedying "racism" in general.  Second, there's no disagreement (I trust) that the South, as a region, has the most egregious history of racially discriminatory voting laws, regulations and administrative practices.  (Take, for example, Louisiana's literacy test administered to "anyone who cannot prove a fifth grade education".)  Third, as Justice Ginsburg pointed out in her dissent, there were approximately 1,600 discriminatory voting laws---over 60 per year---created by Section 5-covered jurisdictions from 1982 to 2006; so we're not talking about ancient history.  Fourth, the VRA had, and has, provisions that allowed jurisdictions to move from "pre-clearance" to "non-pre-clearance" status, and vice versa, based on their recent history of enforcing voting rights.

As for whether those four justices are racist, I have absolutely no way of knowing if they are, and no interest in making that assertion.  To paraphrase the insightful Jay Smooth, "I don't care what they are; I care about what they did.

I was raided in a somewhat different Irish Catholic tradition just outside Boston.  Our view of  Civil Rights era was shaped by people like Johnny McCormick, the futrue Speaker telling an angry crowd that he always voted for civil rights because he remembered "no Irish need apply" and Cardinal Cushing personally lobbying the state legislature, some say threatening, to pass the State's racial imbalance law, and of course the Kennedys  When I returned to school after the summer of 1963, Sr Mary Dermot had quotations from the Dr. King's I had a Dream Speech posted on the bulletin board of her 7th grade classroom.  My parents had long supported the idea that all people were equal, a message that was passed on to us in many subtle and outright ways, too.  My father, according to family lore at least, told the Presdent of Loyola of New Orleans at a reception for BC alumni in town to attend the 1941 Sugar Bowl, that he should be ashamed as a Catholic to have required segregated seating in the college chapel.  He referred to it later as the only time he was ever embarrassed to be a Catholic.   (I should note that my father, who was quite a modest gentleman,  would never have told this story about himself.  It was repeated by his brother who was also in attendance.)

Given that background, I found it difficult to understand that not every Catholic had been raised with similar views.  It wasn't until I was a good deal older that I understood that racism was a part of the Irish Catholic tradition and even then I often dismissed it as individual rather than "institutional" so to speak. 

From an economic point of view, it is distressing but perhaps not surprising that a historically disadvantaged group like African Americans will be on the receiving end of antipathy from other groups that are nearest them in the economic pecking order.  Poor African Americans historically have competed with poor immigrant groups (as the Irish Americans were at one time) for unskilled labor jobs.  

This economic factor also accounts in large part, in my view, for the antipathy toward undocumented immigrants by some poor whites - an antipathy that the Republican party hasn't figured out yet how to resist exploiting for political purposes.  If not for that antipathy, I believe this round of immigration reform would already have been made law.

I think context was very important to the openness to friendship between blacks and whites when I was in graduate school at Fordham in the late fifties--early sixties. On campus, we had easy, friendly relationships among ourselves, but off campus, I can remember hostile reactions from waiters, acquaintances who were not part of the college community, and even the staff at my apartment house, when they encountered  mixed groups of us, having a good time.

Thank you so much, Mr. Hill, for pointing out the suffocatingly comfortable racism white Catholics have embraced since they are now predominant in American middle, upper middle and upper classes.  I find their tone-deafness to the social sin of racism largely results from the absence of Catholic social teaching in parishes; I did not know just how "lefty," if you will, published Catholic social teaching really is until I completed the JustFaith program on Catholic social justice.  Many Catholics think they have the right to reap the benefits of our unjust political economy, and the envelopes and pledges buy their way to salvation just like Borgia did in the past.  The fact that so-called Catholics on the Supreme Court exhibit such racist lack of compassion and respect for Congressional action with gusto is disgusting.  Neither Roberts, Scalia, Thomas or Kennedy follow Catholic social teaching.  They are ideologues who are attempting to ensure that no person of color will ever be president again.


Perhaps you may wish to see if there is a Catholic Workers community near you.   Based on your note, you might find them living out the Catholic teachings that you find well posed.   The Franciscan Workers of Junipero Serra, in Salinas CA have wonderful ministries aimed at the issues of justice and love in the Salinas Vallety, which issues are many and deep.


Add new comment

You may login with your assigned e-mail address.
The password field is case sensitive.

Or log in with...

Add new comment