Two Letters on Racial Justice

By: Joe Pettit

One of the most inspired and inspiring pieces of political writing from the twentieth century is Martin Luther King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.”  The letter was prompted by King reading a letter in the newspaper, while he was in a Birmingham jail, from eight clergyman who, while sympathetic to King’s desire for racial equality, nonetheless thought his protest tactics to be “unwise and untimely.”

In many ways, King’s letter could have been written to most white people today.  Most white people today can easily be described in the terms King uses to characterize the white moderates of his own day.  King writes:

I must confess that over the last few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizens Councillor or the Ku Klux Klanner but the white moderate who is more devoted to order than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says, “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can’t agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically feels that he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by the myth of time; and who constantly advises the Negro to wait until a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.

Many whites who would today express solidarity with something like the Black Lives Matter Movement, or at least support for racial justice, would also be hard pressed to indicate what more they have done other than think positive thoughts about racial justice.  To be fair, many black people would likely fit this description as well.  Perhaps the best reason most white people and many black people do not become more active in the cause of racial justice is that they have no idea what they could do.  This is in some measure the product of a lack of exploration, but also a genuine lack of guidance.  Most people have a clearer understanding of how to keep their yards tidy than they do about the pursuit of justice.

Recognizing the need for leadership in this area, I was excited to read that Baltimore Archbishop William E. Lori just released a pastoral letter entitled “The Journey to Racial Justice.”  The letter does acknowledge that Catholic Church’s participation in racial injustice in the past, noting that the first four archbishops of Baltimore were slave owners, and that Catholic schools and hospitals participated in segregation.  The letter also calls for action on behalf of racial justice.  However, in both its review of the past and its calls for action, I find the letter falls quite short.

First, the letter makes no mention of the most significant way that the Catholic Church, and other religious institutions, perpetuated racial injustice for decades in the twentieth century; namely, the willingness of the churches to pursue “business as usual” in whites-only suburbia.

As the suburbs boomed in the 40’s, 50’s, and 60’s, new churches were needed.  These churches were far more than “silent” regarding the explicitly racist housing restrictions that defined the new communities.  While a few congregations did explicitly support efforts to keep minorities out, the far greater sin was simply the willingness to minister to residents as if nothing was amiss.  No mention was made of the great evil that was taking place.  Instead, worship services were held and sacraments were performed.  The residents of these communities were never given any reason to believe their actions were immoral and the exclusionary policies unjust.

Not only did the churches actively participate in whites-only suburbia, they gave an implicit blessing to one of the most evil practices in U.S. history.  The decades of racial exclusion in the suburbs are the common denominator in many forms of racial inequality today such as the wealth gap, the achievement gap in schools, or disparities in unemployment and crime.  If the churches and other religious institutions had taken a stand and refused to locate in the suburbs until all racist restrictions on homeownership were removed, racial disparities today would be far less severe.

One can make the case that there has never been a greater wealth generating form of social organization that the suburbs.  The wealth and opportunity created for white families has been massive, and the wealth and opportunity denied to black families has been equally massive.  If ever there has been an obvious rationale for sustained racial reparations, this is it.

Second, the letter does not confront the normalization of massive racial inequality.  In its description of actions to be taken on behalf of racial justice, the letter largely limits itself to actions related to institutions within the Archdiocese.  While attention to the life of the Archdiocese is obviously appropriate, there is no call for political action focused on reducing and finally eliminating racial inequality in the wider society.

Just like the participation of churches in racially exclusive suburbia, the failure to confront the normalization of racial inequality is far worse than silence or an oversight.  Either one believes that massive racial inequality is a national emergency requiring equally massive and sustained governmental response, or one thinks that such inequality is largely a matter of personal responsibility, with whites being responsible for their successes as a group, and blacks being responsible for their failures as a group.  To date, most in the United States have clearly chosen the latter explanation.

Every time institutions with moral and religious authority fail to condemn this conclusion, especially in the context of a pastoral letter on racial justice, they give credibility to the conclusion that racial inequality is a normal state of affairs resulting from the superiority of one racial group and the inferiority of another.  In other words, they give aid and comfort to white supremacy, an outcome clearly at odds with a call for racial justice.

In many ways, racial justice is racial equality.  The former will not be achieved until the latter is.  Too often, racial justice is defined in terms of color-blind institutions, inclusivity, and well-intentioned hearts.  That is, racial justice is defined as racial neutrality rather than racial equality.  Once again, though, neutrality in the context of massive inequality only allows the inequality to thrive.  The good intentions of a few more people of faith merely leaves many others confirmed in their conclusion that whites and blacks are getting what they deserve.  With the inequality left in place, its consequences then continue to create vicious cycles that guarantee many more decades of suffocated lives.

If people of faith genuinely care about those who suffer the consequences of racial injustice, then they must confront the racial stigma that is created by massive racial inequality.  In the United States today, black people are assumed to be broken until proven otherwise and white people are assumed to be successful until proven otherwise.  This is a devastating state of affairs that clearly contradicts any religious or political affirmation of the equality of all human beings.

The only way to confront racial stigma is to insist that racial inequality is caused exclusively by forces such as decades of housing exclusion that have denied opportunities to black people and provided massive opportunities to white people.  Yes, both black people and white people make bad choices that can have significant consequences in their lives.  The demand for racial equality is entirely consistent with a commitment to personal responsibility.  But responsibility for individual choices is not the same thing as responsibility for racial inequality.  “We the People,” whether of our country or our congregations must do much, much more to lift up the dignity of all people and demand something that has never existed in our country – racial justice.

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