In chapter 23 of Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus directs a series of “woes” at the scribes and Pharisees. The list of damning charges includes the hypocrisy by which they pay lip service to the prophets of old, even erecting tombs in honor of the social critics of earlier times, but by their present complicity with injustices prove themselves to be “the sons of the prophets’ murderers.” These are harsh accusations, hardly an easy springboard for a pleasant sermon on a sleepy Sunday morning.
But, as with all scriptural warnings, we are wise to keep this one in mind and to be vigilant against the possibility of falling into the very errors we decry. As we ponder our national policies and our collective responsibility for them, we have to ask: Is American society guilty of tolerating a large gap between the values we profess to champion, on one hand, and deplorable policy outcomes we allow to persist, on the other hand?
At stake is racial fairness, specifically the economic prospects of people of color. There has been a spate of attention to racial progress these past few months, occasioned by Civil War anniversaries and a new memorial to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Millions viewed “The Help,” a film that revisits the struggles of African-American domestic workers in the deep South half a century ago (Am. 9/12/11). Reviews note the film’s subtle psychological lure: how we today still derive satisfaction from feeling superior to the white Southerners who so cruelly demeaned the desperately poor and underpaid domestics who heroically raised their children and cleaned their houses.
But how far have we really come as a society? Are there any ways in which we still collectively exhibit the hypocrisy that Jesus decried? It is true that overt racism is not socially acceptable today. But sociologists like William Julius Wilson of Harvard University have documented how no direct present-day discrimination is required in order to perpetuate the disproportionate burdens that have historically fallen upon African-Americans and other minority groups. If public policies today do not address established patterns of residential segregation and blocked educational and employment opportunities, then those policies are part of the problem. It requires no ill will, but merely inattention, for those policies to cast ethical shadows upon us, the citizens who are ultimately responsible for collective social actions.
If you seek evidence of disproportionate burdens falling on segments of our population, the best place to look is in aggregate statistics. New Census Bureau findings document the wide and growing gap between whites and the rest of Americans in social indicators such as unemployment, childhood poverty and inadequate health insurance. The current unemployment rate for blacks is 16.7 percent, nearly double the rate for white non-Hispanic Americans. To oppose measures addressing the jobs crisis is tantamount to turning one’s back on the serious struggles of the black community, even if such a stance is not explicitly motivated by racial bias.
Other studies reveal that the most serious losers in the recent economic turmoil have been those with the fewest resources, the most modest savings and the highest personal debt. These are disproportionately members of racial minorities, whose annual incomes and stocks of wealth lag behind those of others. The deeper and longer the mortgage and credit crises run, the more these groups bear the lion’s share of financial harm, as they fall further and further behind in the struggle to save for college and retirement. Budget deals that favor spending cuts (especially on programs that serve low-income Americans) over raising revenues (most taxes come from the upper brackets) certainly add to the problem.
Attending to deep structural economic issues like these always raises profound questions about culpability and complicity in the racially skewed consequences of national policies. It is notoriously hard to establish clear lines of economic causality, much less to clarify conscious or unconscious motivations behind public policies. The ethical challenge is not so much to point the finger of blame in the right direction, but rather to keep the proper questions and priorities ever before our eyes. After all, none of us relishes being identified as “sons of the prophets’ murderers.”