The Unkindest Cuts

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.”

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7 years ago
How do we Northerners explain the racially segregated cities we inhabit like Chicago or Detroit? Or Cleveland. Or Brooklyn.

Which white tribe, political ideology, socio-cultural milieu is the majority group in these cities pray tell? And what government policy preferences have these whites made over the last 50 years on behalf of the african-american minority (which became the local majorities) in these same areas?

In other words.... if ever increasing wealth transfers from white tax payers to black tax-receivers over 2 or 3 generations have not led to a vibrant, self-sufficient black midddle class which is capable of surviving without further wealth transfers....whose moral fault is it?

Government welfare for the suddenly homeless or destitute is one thing. But permanent underclass status, permanent, institutionalized poor whose only social repayment is considered their voting Democrat every 2 years cannot be considered a moral success.

Budget cuts while painful are just like open persecution of the Church: no one wants them to come, but when they do, they will liberate captives. Captives who don't realize that they have become slaves to the status quo - slaves who can't imagine life without bureaucracy (or that big cathedral and the perks of ancient prestige).

So by all means l?et's ask the right questions -? ?s?t?a?r?t?i?n?g? ?w?i?t?h? ?w?h?y? ?w?e? ?a?s?s?u?m?e? ?t?h?e? ?s?t?a?t?u?s? ?q?u?o? ?i?s? ?m?o?r?a?l? ?a?n?d? ?h?e?n?c?e? ?a?n?y? ?r?e?d?u?c?t?i?o?n? ?o?f? ??w?e?a?l?t?h? ?t?r?a?n?s?f?e?r?s? ?m?u?s?t? ?b?e? ?e?v?i?l?.?????

Mike Evans
7 years ago
The long term racial underclass in most of our larger cities is due to lack of decent jobs at decent wages. The collapse of unions and major basic industries has left people of color especially behind. Now the housing meltdown is doing the same to all those who put their lot with the construction industry and the losses in value, the new difficulties in maintaining home ownership in an era of harsh credit and no job security has further diminished their lives and opportunities. Until and unless there is a major reinvestment in America this now permanent underclass will continue to be left out. And until we can equalize health care coverage, pension opportunities, access to high education and decent local schools, we will exacerbate the issues. Unfortunately, our church and its leaders remain largely silent about and even supportive of some of the cut, cut and cut somemore mentality now going on world-wide. God must be shaking his head in dismay.
James Collins
7 years ago
I am so tired of Catholic social activists who just don't get it! They keep arguing about how to portion out an ever shrinking national economic pie. WE ARE GOING IN DEBT AT A RATE IN EXCESS OF ONE TRILLION DOLLARS PER YEAR! Each year we need to take precious resources to pay the interest on that debt. Are you not as horrified as others of us about how inefficient and corrupt is the way we spend what federal dollars we have to spend. 525 million to political friends in an alternate energy failure that the previous administration thought too risky. And right in the face of all these problems we have the most spendthrift first lady in the history of the republic. Millions of dollars to take 400 of her closet friends to  a spa in Spain. Top that off with the most golf playing president ever.

The American free enterprise system is the biggest wealth creating machine in history. It is like the old fairy tale, it is a goose that lays golden eggs. But the greedy socialists are forever condemning those who want to feed that goose. They denigrate it and want to quit feeding it, engaging in class warfare for political gain. Besides they want to tie it all up with regulations that serve their special interests and damn the cost of those regulations. And the final coup de grace they want to take away the deduction for charital giving which is where much of the money of these wealthy "evil" people goes.

I don't get your reasoning. Let's turn this economic engine loose and start building a bigger economic pie from which we can serve some of these humanitarian ends. And for God's sake let's start raising hell about about how inefficiently and corrupting the federal government is spendin gour hard earned tax dollars.
7 years ago

You nail what happened in our major industrial cities. But the issue of the article is about what we ought to do. So we both need to focus on WHY these once prosperous cities full of high paying middle class jobs have collapsed to their present state?

How -despite being run by the Democratic party and having sizable numbers of Catholic universities, orders, and missions, have these cities lost their manufacturing and other middle class industries?

How - despite having strong unions, "smart" politicians whose machines have been virtual monopoly locks on the urban voting districts for 50+ years which guaranteed ever bigger Federal, state, and local tax revenues and 'wealth transfers' to hand out to their citizens.... have these cities lost manufacturing and other middle-class industries?

After all, the prescription for a solution being offered on America (and Commonweal, and National Catholic reporter, and Time, Newsweek, etc.) all invariably points to more Democrats, in stronger positions, with more government agencies, spending more money than ever before.

And yet it is in precisely these cities, run by the same people for so long, that the poverty and social decay is most evident.

How is that possible....unless the political party and its policy preferences and theories of social renewal via government spending are part of the cause?

If liberals and Democrats are so intellectually and morally superior to all other people, why do public schools under their watch fall apart? If per capita spending by Democrats is the solution to poverty....why does the underclass in their areas only expands, rather than contracts? If Unionization is the way to protect American jobs....coupled with high taxes and regulations on private enterprise.... why no evidence of this actually "working"?
Bill Freeman
7 years ago

@ John Lyons - Personally, I am very tired of your harangues on anything that is open, progressive and to your thinking "liberal."  Usually, I don't comment, just read your comments, laugh, and more on.  But your bashing major cities and somehow connecting their challenges to a failure by the Democratic Party is just foolishness. Give me a list of large cities facing comparable issues run by Republicans - that are successful and then I'll listen.  Better yet, run a soup kitchen for the poor or become a tutor/mentor for unban school kids – that’s live Matthew 25 and I’ll doubly listen.

C Walter Mattingly
7 years ago
@ Bill,
Of course you are free to laugh at and dismiss John Lyons' comments as you see fit, just as you are free to be open-minded and encounter his comments as posing questions for the real-world validity of truisms that may shape your thinking.
One example here is your call to John to volunteer his services to the poor rather than state a viewpoint you don't like. This comment is more than a touch ironic for two reasons. First, were he to go to such a kitchen, he would likely find it staffed primarily by those who identify themselves as conservatives rather than liberals. The supporting studies can be found in an article by a genuine liberal humanitarian, Nicholas Kristof of the NYTimes, in his article, "Bleeding Heart Tightwads," NYTimes, 12/08. It will correct important liberal  misconceptions, pointing out that conservatives are 60% more likely to not only donate money to charitable causes, but also to give blood, provide labor at food banks, etc. In other words, to put their money, and their time, where their mouth is.
Secondly, your comment is ironic because in response to John Martens fine essay of early October on Respect Life Sunday in the America blog concerning a mother who chose to bear her child and a parochial school's generous response to her needs, John Lyons suggested that perhaps we should all put aside our varying viewpoints for a moment and make a genuine contribution of time or material support for our nearest Catholic pregnancy crisis center. I believe he called it a diaper movement or something to that effect. Perhaps you missed that, or, I'd rather not think, passed over or laughed at the suggestion. In any case, only one conservative commentator, and no liberal ones, responded to his call for action.


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