A man at the bus station in Durham, North Carolina, May 1940 (Jack Delano/Wikimedia Commons)

In the fall of 1945, shortly after the end of a war against tyranny and totalitarianism abroad, civil- rights advocate George H. Dunne, SJ, called attention to a grave injustice at home.


Describing racial segregation as the natural offspring of “pride of race and blood that belongs  properly to the Nazi, not the Christian, philosophy of life,” Dunne targeted  the insidious notion—still sadly pervasive in parts of the world today—that religion is compatible with injustice. Segregation, Dunne states plainly, is not only an unacceptable breach of justice; it is, in fact, an unforgivable sin. “Even if justice were not violated,” he writes at the end of his essay, “no one would pretend that charity is not grievously wounded. Racial segregation is certainly immoral and not to be tolerated. We can go to hell for sins against charity as easily as for sins against justice, perhaps more easily.” To think otherwise requires equivocation, evasion, and rationalization.


This was not the first time Dunne spoke out against racism. Before publishing his essay in Commonweal, he had publicly criticized the discrimination he witnessed at St. Louis University and had previously written a play called Trial by Fire about the bombing of a Black family in an all-white neighborhood in Los Angeles. Nor was it Commonweal’s first attempt to bring the problem of racism in America to the attention of its readers. Five years before the magazine ran “The Sin of Segregation,” it published Ellen Tarry’s equally powerful essay, “Native Daughter,” in which Tarry rebuked “the silence of kindly intentioned America that is causing Negroes everywhere to demand that those who call themselves our friends take their stand and let the world know about it.”


Both pieces resonated deeply with Commonweal readers and both came to reflect the magazine’s increasing concern with issues of social justice in its third decade of publication. Among the issues the magazine confronted throughout the 1940s were the forcible removal of Japanese-Americans to “relocation centers,” vigilantism and the lynching of Black men throughout the South and other parts of the country, and the systemic abuse of the Fifteenth Amendment in the form of poll taxes and other Jim Crow–era tactics. The magazine’s position on these issues dovetailed with its vocal support for pro-labor movements and anti-poverty efforts, most often articulated by writers like John Cort and Dorothy Day.


Though perhaps less narrowly focused on theological questions than in its first two decades, Commonweal in the 1940s brought the same Catholic outlook as before to its coverage of these and other pressing social issues of the era. Still, a subtle but important difference emerged in the sheer breadth of issues the magazine—now under the direction of Edward Skillin, Philip Burnham, and Henry Binsse—sought to address.


Here, we are pleased to present George H. Dunne’s “The Sin of Segregation.” Still widely considered the first major piece by a prominent Catholic writer to label segregation as a sin (albeit in now-outdated language), the essay remains a hallmark of Commonweal’s publishing history and an unequivocal expression of our longstanding commitment to fostering rigorous and reflective discussions—without subterfuge, evasion, and rationalization—in service of the common good.

The racist mind has contrived an almost limitless number of evasive analogies to justify the unjustifiable. They are evasive because they all ignore the crucial point which makes racial segregation essentially different from other kinds of segregation. It is said that if racial segregation were a violation of justice it would follow that I must admit into the circle of my intimate friends anyone who demands admittance and that I must keep perpetual open house to the whole world. The ancient sophists were more subtle than this.

We choose our friends for a variety of reasons, some good some bad, and according to a variety of tests, some consciously apprehended some known only to the subconscious. We may offend against charity by excluding certain individuals, but no one pretends that every individual has a fundamental right in justice to be accepted as an intimate friend of everyone else. You may not like my looks, you may not like my personality, you may not like my ideas. I may resent this, but I shall not charge you with injustice. I shall probably say: “Everyone to his tastes; and in any case, the feeling is mutual.” But if you like everything about me except the fact that my ancestors were Irish and for this reason alone shut the door in my face, I shall charge you with injustice. In such an event, however, I shall not desire your friendship, because your attitude reveals a shallowness of mind that is distasteful to me. Only the snob is anxious for the friendship of snobs.

When we look honestly at this question we see that it is the advocate, not the antagonist, of racial segregation who impugns our right to choose our friends. The pattern of racial segregation and the prejudices which are a part of it say to me who am white: “We deny your right to include among your friends or to open your home to anyone who is of Negro ancestry. If you violate this taboo we shall cast you out of society.” The social ostracism imposed upon me by a racist society is clearly an effort to interfere with my freedom to choose my own friends.

It is said that the elimination of racial segregation will mean miscegenation on a grand scale. This is the grand-daddy of all red herrings. Apart from the fact that its roots lie in a pride of race and blood that belongs properly to the nazi, not to the Christian, philosophy of life, this sophism assumes that with the elimination of segregation there will be an end to freedom of choice in the matter of marriage. It conjures up in the minds of frightened mothers the fantastic image of thousands of screaming girls being carried off triumphantly to undesired marriage beds. Or if this be denied, then it must be admitted that it conjures up the image of thousands of delighted girls rushing happily into marriage with Negro boys. If the former image is fantastic, the latter image is hardly flattering to white boys; or, for that matter, to Negro girls.

The fact is, of course, that it takes two to make a marriage and that we have the right to marry whom we choose. Again, it is not the opponent of segregation, but its advocate, who questions this right. The racial pattern says to me: “I deny your right to marry anyone of Negro ancestry. If you violate this taboo, society will mobilize the full force of social ostracism to punish you for your transgression.”

Those who are fond of raising the spectre of miscegenation will say that I have unfairly represented their position. They will say that all they mean to affirm is that if the racial bars which now separate them are let down, whites and Negroes, as a result of familiar association, will lose their color consciousness and cases of intermarriage will multiply.

Nothing could better expose the artificial foundation of their entire position. It is they, not their opponents, who affirm that with the elimination of segregation inter-marriage will become common. What is this but an explicit confession that race prejudice can only be kept alive by setting up artificial barriers which prevent white people from really knowing colored people? It is an admission that once the former are permitted really to know the latter they will immediately perceive the fallacy of racism. It is a frank avowal that the grand illusion of our racial superiority can only be maintained by manufactured social contrivances. It is to admit that prejudice inevitably dies once knowledge supplants ignorance. It is to recognize that segregation is not the necessary consequence of any real inferiority, but the artificial device whose function is to create the illusion of inferiority.

Segregation is not the necessary consequence of any real inferiority, but the artificial device whose function is to create the illusion of inferiority.

It is said that people have the right to protect the value and desirability of their homes by preventing undesirable characters from invading the neighborhood. The tattered shreds of this well-worn argument ill conceal the naked sophistry underneath. Like all the other analogies, it ignores the essential difference between racial segregation and other kinds of segregation. Granting, for the sake of argument, the right to keep moral delinquents or slovenly housekeepers out of the neighborhood, the question is: upon what ground do you refuse admittance to one who is neither a moral delinquent nor a slovenly housekeeper and whose only “offense” is that he has Negro ancestors? And the answer is: it is because you falsely and unjustly assume that the fact of Negro ancestry is itself a form of uncleanness. Establish your residential restrictions upon whatever other basis you choose—moral conduct, social grace, physical cleanliness, domestic propriety. (Whether or not the civil law will support them has nothing to do with the question at issue.) None of these restrictions implies the existence of a people whose nature is itself unclean.

The sophistry and hypocrisy of those who defend residential segregation by appealing to their right to maintain a proper standard of morals, of cleanliness, of beauty surrounding their homes is made manifest by the undoubted fact that these same people, for the most part, would prefer a white neighbor who violated all of their standards to a Negro neighbor who more than measured up to their most stringent demands. A white debauchee will be admitted when a Negro saint would never be tolerated.

It is said that a school commits no injustice in refusing to admit those who cannot meet its intellectual or financial requirements. It is said that a school commits no injustice which says that it will not admit students who live west of Thirty-Second Street. A pari, so the argument runs, a school commits no injustice which says that it will admit only students not of Negro ancestry.

As in all the other analogies, the evasiveness is cheap, the sophistry transparent. Establish your intellectual, financial or geographical tests. It is the Negro who can pass every one of these tests except the racial test whose case exposes the essential difference and the essential injustice of racial segregation.


Do you or do you not believe that this is a race tainted and inferior in nature, so much so that any individual belonging to this race, whatever his personal qualifications, is by the fact of race alone rendered unfit to associate with those of other races? If you do not, then upon what ground do you exclude this Negro who can pass all your course examinations, who can pay his tuition, and who lives east of Thirty-Second Street? If you do, then you profess a doctrine which is branded as false by science, forbidden by the inspired word of God, condemned by the Vicar of Christ, and which, by denying that the Negro as a human person is fully equal to every other human person, violates a fundamental principle of justice.

Denying that the Negro as a human person is fully equal to every other human person violates a fundamental principle of justice.

There is another aspect of this which reveals unmistakably that segregation is not based, as the racist pretends, upon concern for purity of morals or physical cleanliness but upon the refusal to admit the equality of Negroes as human persons. The same person who will fight tooth and nail to prevent a Negro from living in his neighborhood will not hesitate to employ a Negro maid or a Negro cook. If he believes that Negroes are lacking in moral integrity, why does he permit a Negro maid to take care of his children? If he believes that Negroes are physically unclean, why does he permit the Negro cook to handle his food? The answer is obvious; he does not really believe either of these things; but he does believe that no one of Negro ancestry is his equal as a human person. To allow a Negro maid to bathe the baby or a Negro cook to handle the food implies no recognition of the equality of the Negro as a human person. But to allow a Negro to establish his home in the same neighborhood does imply a recognition of that equality and is therefore not to be tolerated.

It is for this same reason that many women who as babes were suckled by Negro mammies, who as children often took their meals in the kitchen at the same time with Negro mammies, as adults are outraged at the suggestion that any Negro should be permitted to dine, not at the same table, but in the same restaurant with them. The former experience implied no recognition of the equality of Negroes as human persons. The latter experience does.

It is difficult for the mind to emancipate itself from widely accepted social patterns. The history of the polemics about slavery provides a striking example of this. Today the Christian conscience instinctively repudiates slavery and without the necessity of recourse to involved casuistry recognizes it as incompatible with the dignity of man. Yet less than one hundred years ago the pattern of slavery was so woven into the social fabric that its protagonists found no trouble enlisting in its defense the support of many reputable moralists. The treatises they wrote make interesting reading today. One does not know whether to admire their ingenuity or pity their ingenuousness.

It is probable—at least we must think so if we are not to despair—that one hundred years from now the Christian conscience will repudiate with equal decisiveness the whole pattern of racial segregation. In that happy event the lucubrations of mid-twenties century apologists for Jim Crow will make interesting, if sad, reading.

Meanwhile the mind, faced with a conflict between Christian principles and sound Christian instincts on the one hand and deeply rooted social prejudices on the other, ingeniously tailors the former to fit the latter. It is not always a conscious betrayal, although sometimes it is. The mind subconsciously—sometimes consciously—sows with rationalizations and evasions all approaches through which the imperative voice of principle might reach the center of conscience. After all, it really is easier to obey man rather than God. That is why most men are conformists.

The casuistical resources of the mind determined to conform to social patterns rather than to obey God are well-nigh inexhaustible. If nothing else will do the trick, the mind will simply affirm that black is white. There was the individual who was at no loss for an answer when, in condemnation of Jim Crow churches and Jim Crow schools, I quoted to him the categorical affirmation of the Pope that “Negroes have equal rights in the Church and must know that they have equal rights.” With perfect aplomb he answered: “But what do you mean by equal rights?” I had no answer to that, just as I had no answer some years ago to the Buddhist monk whom I was attempting to persuade of the existence of a First Cause and who left me speechless and weaponless by blandly denying the principle of contradiction. There is no answer to a man who has at his command casuistical techniques which enable him to convince himself that by equal rights one means unequal rights. How is one to argue with a man who can prove that black is white, if not simpliciter at least secundum quid?


Then there is the moralist who, in discussing racial segregation, includes in his enumeration of the specific rights in justice which belong to all men whether “white…black, yellow or red” the “right to the pursuit of happiness, that is to say, to such equal opportunities as are required for the pursuit of happiness.” And a few pages further on he blandly denies, without giving any supporting argument, that the exclusion of a Catholic Negro boy from a Catholic school is a violation of justice, provided that there is another Catholic school which will admit him.

How is this trick performed? It is easy: one forgets the principle of justice one has already admitted, looks the other way when the spectre of racial segregation (the really pertinent point) looms up, and pretends that the only question at issue is the right to an education.

Yet none but the obtuse and insensitive can pretend for a moment that a people subject to a pattern of racial segregation enjoy equal opportunities with others for the pursuit of happiness. This pattern is a dark cloud over the happiness of every Negro who has not already been brutalized by subjection to the pattern. And the more sensitive the Negro, that is to say, the more he has succeeded in perfecting his personality (another fundamental right recognized by the moralists), the darker becomes that cloud. It is impossible to know Negroes without knowing this. It is impossible to look into the South without knowing this. It is impossible to put oneself imaginatively in the Negro’s place without knowing this. And if nothing else will do, it should be enough to read Richard Wright’s autobiography to realize this.

One of the most naïve sophisms which the unavowed Catholic racist invokes to defend Jim Crow is the assertion that Catholic schools, since they are institutions, have the right to admit or exclude whomsoever they choose. It is a proof of the allure or sophistry that sincere men, themselves no friends of racism, have sometimes been beguiled by this far from subtle play on words.

Casuistry, properly understood and practiced, is a respectable and useful form of dialectics. It is the most widely accepted method of teaching the law. Its object is to develop facility in applying legal or moral principles to concrete cases. But it is precisely the kind of equivocation here manifested and whose purpose is to rationalize violations of principle that has brought casuistry into disrepute and given it its bad name.

In what sense is a Catholic institution a “private institution”? In the sense that it is not a state supported or controlled institution. Therefore, should the state attempt to enforce a practice which violated Christian principles—as, for example, the practice of racial segregation—the Catholic institution is not obliged to submit; is obliged, on the contrary, to resist. In no sense is the Catholic institution a “private institution” as against the Church, regardless of what order or congregation or ecclesiastic authority directs it. Because it is a private institution, may it teach sexual promiscuity or birth control or hatred for one’s neighbors? It is a Catholic institution and therefore under strict obligation to conform to Catholic principles. Among those principles is the uncompromising repudiation of racism in all its forms: “The only road to salvation is definitely to repudiate all pride of race and blood.” (The words are those of Pope Pius XII; the italics are added.) If Jim Crow is not the natural off-spring of pride of race and blood, whose off-spring is it?


A lawyer friend of mine has pointed out that a logical extension of the argument from the "private" character of Catholic schools would be the contention that the prohibition by a state of Jim Crowism in public or private schools was an unconstitutional invasion of religious liberty. This would give us the bewildering paradox of a Catholic school defending, in the name of religious liberty, the right to defy the doctrines of the Church.

It is Christ who is turned out of your school, out of your church, out of your hospital. It is Christ who is ordered out of your restaurant, out of your neighborhood, out of your car. It is Christ who is insulted, humiliated.

There are other distressing features to be found in the discussions of this question which one hears among some Catholics. One would suppose that they were pagan Greek philosophers instead of Christian moralists. The argument nearly always proceeds in terms of natural ethics.

The mind which is bent upon defending racial segregation is inevitably forced to take refuge in equivocation, subterfuge, evasion and rationalization. The passages through which this leads are tortuous and labyrinthine and warp the logical processes of the mind. No conclusion which it reaches, however absurd, should be surprising.

There are certain questions which these people need to be asked. Is the morality of human actions in no way affected by the fact of the Incarnation? Is every action which would have been permissible to a Greek permissible to a Christian? Does the supernatural have no bearing upon our moral actions? Does the Christian, by reason of the supernatural order and specifically because of the reality of the Mystical Body of Christ, have no obligations binding under pain of sin which he would not have in a natural order or in an order presumed to be natural? Is it proper for a Christian moralist to formulate his discussions in terms proper to Greek philosophy only?

It is curious that it does not seem to occur to such people that Christ’s identification of Himself with every victim of injustice and uncharitableness has anything to do with the matter “Whatsoever you do unto one of these my least brethren you do unto Me.” For the Christian who is not wholly dead to the real meaning and nature of Christianity these words give the complete and final answer to the race question. There is no need for statistics, no need for distinction and sub-distinction. It is Christ Who is turned out of your school, out of your church, out of your hospital. It is Christ Who is ordered out of your restaurant, out of your neighborhood, out of your Pullman car. It is Christ Who is insulted, humiliated. Yet often it has been my experience in discussing the question with certain Christians that reference to these words of Christ is met with blank looks all around. There is an embarrassed pause such as would ensue were I to dunk my cake at a musical tea. I have evidently committed a dialectical faux pas. In the silence of the pause one can almost hear the minds behind the blank faces working. And they are all busy with the same thought: “Now whatever possessed him to introduce that irrelevant note into the discussion?” Then someone will clear his throat and quickly act to bring the discussion back to the solid ground of good sense: “Now whether you look at it from the point of view of commutative justice or distributive justice . . .” At that point for some curious reason I always think of Dostoievsky’s Grand Inquisitor.

“Whatsoever you do unto one of these my least brethren you do unto Me.” Has this fact no impact upon the morality of Christian actions? Perhaps it could not affect the moral discussions of the Greeks, but surely the moral discussions of Christians cannot prescind from it.

The penalty exacted of those who do these things to Christ’s “least brethren” was hell. It must seem rather pointless to them whether or not the Greeks could prove their actions no violations of strict justice in terms of natural ethics.

Perhaps most curious of all, however, is the common assumption that only justice imposes strict obligations upon the Christian conscience. So long as it is thought possible to prove that strict justice is not violated, it is assumed that any action is permitted to a Christian. Charity can recommend, but apparently it cannot oblige. It can recommend that the authorities of the Catholic school admit the Negro applicant. It cannot oblige.

Our capitalistic society has substituted mere caricatures for the fullness of the Christian virtues

This is a remarkable evacuation of the essential content of Christian morality. Sins against charity are sins and therefore immoral no less than are sins against justice. Christian morality does not recommend that we not offend against charity. It obliges us under pain of sin not to offend against-charity. Many seem to suppose that charity is a work of supererogation, something that is nice to observe if we find it not inconvenient, but which we can ignore or directly wound with impunity if we choose to do so.

This fallacy is but one of the many consequences of the influence of the dehydrated moral notions of a capitalistic society which has substituted mere caricatures for the fullness of the Christian virtues. Instead of charity we have philanthropy: the rich man who with a lordly wave of the hand and an inner warmth of self-satisfaction bestows a generous alms upon the beggar. A nice gesture if he is capable of it, no sin if he is incapable of it.

It has been sufficiently proved that racial segregation violates strict justice. But the point here being made is that, even if justice were not violated, no one would pretend that charity is not grievously wounded. Racial segregation is certainly a sin against charity and, in the Christian dispensation, is certainly immoral and not to be tolerated. We can go to hell for sins against charity as easily as for sins against justice, perhaps more easily.

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Published in the February 2024 issue: View Contents
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