Posts Tagged ‘Racism’

Calling Out the Real Evil

Monday, August 14th, 2017

The violence in Charlottesville has brought the reality and danger of racism once again to the front of America’s attention. Sane voices across our nation are denouncing the ugly white supremacists and neo-Nazis who precipitated the violence. Leaders of our Church have been unequivocal in deploring the hate that permeated the event. Such statements are important to show solidarity with our brothers and sisters who are suffering from racism. A good example is the statement issued by our local Commission of Religious Leaders.  It is altogether right that all people of good will should say these things.

But, in a way, it’s easy to denounce racism as a grave sin, a blight on the history of our nation, a malign force that denigrates and devalues people every day that has led to countless deaths and injuries. Nobody who isn’t infected by the sin would disagree.

I’m going to annoy peoply by saying it, but a commonplace bare denunciation of racism as evil doesn’t really say enough — it’s a tautology, a circular statement that is equivalent to saying “a bad thing is bad”. And to make things worse, the news media wastes too much time comparing the strength of various statements against racism, which just gives people a chance to compete with each other in “virtue signaling”.

This issue is too serious. We have to call out the evil reality of what produces racism. The real enemy is not just racism, or any other -ism — it’s the ideology of identity. And we won’t be able to make any headway against racism until we pull this evil out in the open, discuss it plainly, and expose if for the diabolic lie that it is.

It’s natural for people to emphasize certain of their characteristics as they express their personality and values. That can be a good thing, especially if it fosters a sense of community and belonging and solidarity.

But the ideology of identity is the weaponization of the wrong-headed and reductive idea that a person is defined by one of their characteristics (like race, or sex, or sexual desire). It focuses people exclusively and excessively on their own desires and choices and self-image, and demands that others accept their personal identity definition at all costs regardless of its relationship with the truth. It impairs our ability to truly understand ourselves in all our complexity, and to seek out the common elements that unite us with others. It says to outsiders that we cannot conceivably understand each other, and labels anyone who dares to doubt or disagree or question as a “hater”.

As a result, it splinters society into a myriad of mutually exclusive and incomprehensible fragments that are in perpetual conflict of all against all. It leads to the ugly identity politics that we are mired in right now, where the population is broken into factions and sects.

This dangerous attitude is fundamentally an anthropological error — a misconception of the nature of the human person. It denies the importance — and even the reality — of our common humanity.

Let’s go back to the seminal document of the Second Vatican Council, Nostra Aetate, for the essential truths:

5. We cannot truly call on God, the Father of all, if we refuse to treat in a brotherly way any man, created as he is in the image of God. Man’s relation to God the Father and his relation to men his brothers are so linked together that Scripture says: “He who does not love does not know God” (1 John 4:8).

No foundation therefore remains for any theory or practice that leads to discrimination between man and man or people and people, so far as their human dignity and the rights flowing from it are concerned.

The Church reproves, as foreign to the mind of Christ, any discrimination against men or harassment of them because of their race, color, condition of life, or religion. On the contrary, following in the footsteps of the holy Apostles Peter and Paul, this sacred synod ardently implores the Christian faithful to “maintain good fellowship among the nations” (1 Peter 2:12), and, if possible, to live for their part in peace with all men, so that they may truly be sons of the Father who is in heaven.

That is the fundamental truth that we have to keep talking about, because we obviously can’t take it for granted that everyone understands or agrees. We need to make the argument very plainly that every person is a member of one family and is a child of God. We have to hold to the truth that people aren’t defined by particular characteristics, but that their real identity and dignity transcend any one factor.

By making that key point, we will be able to argue very clearly that racism isn’t bad just because we don’t like it and it’s socially unacceptable. It’s bad because it’s irrational and idiotic and a lie to consider a person to be inferior based on their skin color or their nation of origin or ancestry. And, just like all other kinds of identity ideology, it is reductive and dehumanizing to look at people as a mere exemplar of a particular characteristic.

If you want an example of how to confront these kinds of virulent falsehoods head-on, read Martin Luther King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail, or Abraham Lincoln’s arguments against slavery or Frederick Douglass’ orations. They go right to the root of the argument, and don’t shy away from arguing first principles. We need to emulate them.

As I said, it’s laudable and important to deplore the evils that happened at Charlottesville. But we are in a desperate fight over the nature of the human person and the inherent dignity of every child of God. We can’t rely on facile denunciations. We must make the argument against the evil of identity ideology, or we will never convince anyone of the wrong of racism.

What’s Going On?

Sunday, November 29th, 2015

I was born at the tail end of the 1950’s, and grew up in a completely white Irish and Italian neighborhood. There were no blacks in my elementary school, or on any of the sports teams I played on. I didn’t personally meet a single African-American until I went to high school. My parents watched the news every night, so I saw the cities burning in the summer riots. But beyond some vague fears of race riots in New York, it really didn’t mean much to me.

My introduction to racial reality came when I went to Cardinal Spellman High School in the Bronx.  I met African-American boys and girls for the first time, but it didn’t really strike me in any way, because I thought they were just like me.  But one day, my freshman religion teacher, Mrs. Mary Doyle, showed us a film of some of the civil rights marches in the South. I was appalled to see the police using fire hoses and setting dogs on the marchers. One of the wise guys in the class made a smart remark, probably something racist.  I was shocked, and can vividly remember to this day, watching Mrs. Doyle become so upset at the boy’s callousness that she started to cry.

That was the first time I realized that something was going on with race in America, but I didn’t really have a clue what it was.

During the rest of my high school and college times, I came to know a number of African-Americans personally. But I never became friends with any of them. I was unknowingly living a segregated life.

In 1981 I went to law school, but I followed at a distance the ugly fight over housing and school desegregation in my home town of Yonkers. I read the news stories, and even saw video of some of the public meetings, and was disgusted by the open racism that was being expressed.  Yet it still did not have a real impact on my life.  I still knew very few African-Americans, I had no idea what life was like in their neighborhoods and families.  I was still living a segregated life.

After law school, I became a prosecutor in Manhattan.  For the first few years, I worked on street crime cases — thefts, assaults, robberies, and the like.  Interacting with the victims, witnesses, and defendants, the majority of whom were all African-American, gave me a new view of life in New York City.  It introduced me to life in the African-American neighborhoods, which were inundated with drugs and crime and poverty and hardship.   But I really still didn’t understand, and I was still living a segregated life.

I tend to be politically conservative, and so are most of my friends and associates.  It is commonplace in conservative circles to dismiss claims of racism, or to minimize the lingering effects of racism.  Conservatives tend to have great faith in personal responsibility and initiative, and at times there is a distinct aroma of judgmentalism directed towards poor people, as if it is all their fault for remaining in poor and disadvantaged areas.  There also tends to be an emphasis on the social pathologies that afflict African-American communities — the breakdown of the family, poor schools, and so on.  All of this may have some truth to it, but is has never satisfied me as a good answer to what’s really going on.

We are now in a time where racial tensions are at the highest that I can recall.  The reality is that there are many, many people in the African-American communities, people of good will, who believe that there is systemic racism in America. It does nobody any good to deny this or to explain it away as a mis-perception, or a politically-motivated stunt.  It is a cliche to say that we need to have a “national conversation” about race, but it is also true.  But this has to begin by having personal conversations, to develop a better understanding of how we really live, so that we can begin to address the problem.

I still live a segregated life.  None of my close friends are African-American.  A handful of my neighbors are African-American, but aside from nodding “hello” to them in the street, I don’t interact with them at all.  With only two exceptions, none of my close co-workers is African-American.

Pope Francis consistently talks about the need to reach out to those on the periphery of society.  But I think I’m the one who is on the periphery when it comes to race in our nation.

Because there’s a serious problem with what’s going on.  And I still don’t understand.