Catholics and Racial Justice: Published in 'America' on Sept. 21, 1940
The Catholic Church in the United States owns a long and complicated history in the realm of race relations, filled with praiseworthy and prophetic moments, but also marked by a long record of discrimination. When the church finally confronted this painful legacy in the 20th century, no name was more closely associated with Catholic efforts for justice for the oppressed than that of John LaFarge, S.J., the fifth editor in chief of America.
Not all of LaFarge's peers and later biographers found his efforts and attitudes to be without blemish, however. Recent historians have argued that for all his progressive ideas on race, LaFarge (like other white pioneers for racial justice) was often unaware of his own paternalistic attitudes, particularly when it came to including African-Americans in structures of authority. Here we reprint one of the many essays that LaFarge wrote for America on interracial justice.
Labor Day brought a close to the National Negro Exposition in Chicago. The Catholic part of the exhibit aroused such enthusiasm among the people of Chicago, all beliefs and races, that it practically pulled the Exposition out of the "red." It witnessed, too, to the wonderful increase of interest in the spiritual welfare of the Negro shown by the Catholic Church in this country during the last few years.
Recent words of the Holy Father, in his Encyclical to the American Bishops exhortations from many individual Bishops themselves and much useful publicity on this matter have all contributed to this increase of interest. The Catholic interracial movement has taken fire through the country. It has advertised this great apostolate and made it familiar to the readers of the Catholic press.
The more the Church undertakes on behalf of the Negro, the more evidently this work is attended by certain difficulties all of its own. These difficulties affect every phase of the Negro apostolate.
When the Negro is brought into the Catholic Church, he is not thereby exempted from the problems that afflict the rest of mankind and the Negro in particular. He has to go to Church with other people he has to support his family, if a married man he has to provide a home for his family which will ensure for it the environment required by ordinary decencies of living.
No amount of piety or religious enthusiasm will alter his case. It may enable him to meet certain temptations with greater strength, but it will not remove temptations or modify the problems to be contended with daily.
The same applies to Negro education, whether under Catholic or under non-Catholic auspices. The young colored man or woman who has been sedulously trained to a vocation which fully corresponds to his or her native talents&ampampmdasha vocation to which the pupil has a natural right to aspire&ampampmdashfinds the door of opportunity slammed shut which under the same conditions would be open to the young white man or woman of equal ability, character and degree of training.
In all these instances, which are of great variety, a uniform obstacle is met with: "the more it changes the more it remains the same thing." It is a widespread mental attitude on the part of those persons who control employment or influence the condition under which the Negro must live, work and serve God that the Negro is necessarily entitled to a certain type of treatment from society because he is necessarily an inferior order of being.
The attitude may not be always so clearly formulated it is often a mere assumption, gathered from no one knows where but the assumption remains and just so long as it remains, stands squarely between the Negro (individual or family) and social justice.
Further examination reveals that the same attitude or assumption is a permanent obstacle to the efforts made by the Negro and by those who are friends of the Negro to liberate him from a great number of serious disabilities, such as lack of personal security in certain parts of the country, virtual wage peonage and deprivation of different types of civil rights.
It should be sedulously noted that the error in this matter does not consist in judging that Negroes are inferior, that is to say, that large num&notbers of Negroes in point of fact are ignorant and backward, that the Negro group as a whole carries with it a terrific heritage from centuries of isolation in Africa and generations of slavery in the United States. It is not a question of foolishly ignoring a de facto state of inferiority on the part of a large number of people.
The error lies in judging the Negro to be necessarily inferior, simply because he is a member of a given racial group. This notion imposes upon all members of the group, without regard for individual ability or character, the same iron law of universal inferiority, merely and solely because of a partly real, partly fictitious biological inheritance. In other words, it accepts unconditionally the false postulates of Racism.
As long as this root evil in the Negro's situation persists, insoluble social and religious problems persistently recur. This is particularly seen in the employment field, where the doors of legitimate and reasonable opportunity are closed to qualified and deserving persons for reasons that are not based upon any real unfitness but solely upon the grounds of racial assumptions.
On the other hand, when this root misconception is absent, or where it has been eliminated, the vari&notous social or religious problems that confront the Negro can be solved by the same machinery that is used for any other kind of person. While there is great advantage in being familiar with peculiar conditions and with certain psychological traits which have become common among the Negroes as a result of their unique circumstances, their difficulties can be overcome by the usual methods of social and religious welfare once this most characteristic circumstance has been dealt with.
How, then, may it be dealt with? How can the true concept of the Negro, as a human being, as a citizen, as a member of Christ's Church, be built up in place of the erroneous ideas which not infrequently prevail?
The answer to this question is simple and obvious and contains no special magic or expert formula. False ideas are best met by true ideas, and the true idea of our fellow man is most effectively produced by the same methods with which the true idea of Christ Himself is implanted in the minds of men: through teaching and personal example.
The personal example of the Negroes themselves is, of course, an indispensable factor in creating a correct picture of the Negro's capacity for citizenship. In proportion as large numbers of Negroes respond to the efforts that are made for their education, for their spiritual welfare, for their social betterment, in the same proportion will certain misconceptions be cleared up in the minds of the white group, and this clearing up will, in turn, react favorably upon the Negro. Intelligent and sympa&notthetic white men, such as are found in every part of the United States without exception, will draw hopeful conclusions from what they have seen of the race's progress and from individual Negroes with whom they have conversed.
But to trust to the race's progress solely and automatically to remove the fatal misconceptions that often prevent and continually hamper and jeopardize that progress itself is a woefully short-sighted procedure. Bitter experience of educators and other friends of the Negro has demonstrated how shortsighted it is the same experience has taught-what common sense would show from the beginning-that no matter how much is done to better and aid the Negro, no matter how good an "exhibit" he may make of himself, it is absolutely necessary also to do a vast amount of direct and positive teaching in this matter. In other words, the race situation in the United States imposes a distinct educational task upon Catholic Action: the education of the public, particularly the Catholic public, in the true idea of man and the true idea of the Negro, to counteract the false ideas of man and the false ideas of the Negro which are at the root of the Negro's principal disabilities.
The public needs to be "shown" in this matter. There is a healthy skepticism quite as much as an unhealthy one. But the skepticism should inspire better organization and more concerted effort it should not lead to timidity and defeatism.
This educational task is the specific work of the Catholic program for interracial justice. It is not a mere negative procedure not the mere refutation of falsehoods or condemnations of injustice. It is a positive, constructive work, which encourages all that is good, all that is being done for the Negro's good in any line in any part of the nation, by any agency or institution.
This work cannot be undertaken by the white man alone nor by the Negro alone. It can be carried out effectively only by cooperation of the most intelligent and spiritual minded in both races. If all the talking on behalf of the Negro is left to the white man, the question naturally arises, why cannot the Negro speak for himself, since he can best describe his own condition and his own state of mind. On the other hand, the Negro left entirely to himself fails to get an audience, no matter how convincingly and eloquently he has prepared his case. He finds. himself talking only to other Negroes or to a few white sympathizers. The only logical course is for the two groups to collaborate in an intelligent and well articulated method of demonstrating to the public those truths which are not the Negro's concern alone, but the common interest of all. The task is long and laborious, but bears manifold fruits as it is carried out. In a later article I hope to show some of these fruits.