For white Christians, non-racism is not enough

Rescue personnel help an injured woman after a car ran into a large group of protesters after an white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Va., on Aug. 12. (AP Photo/Steve Helber) Rescue personnel help an injured woman after a car ran into a large group of protesters after an white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Va., on Aug. 12. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

Like many of you, I am struggling to process the events of the last week. I cannot shake the image of young, white Americans in Charlottesville carrying Tiki torches and angrily chanting racist and Nazi slogans. Equally powerful, however, is the image of University of Virginia students, surrounded by the white supremacist mob, standing arm in arm and holding a banner saying UVA STUDENTS AGAINST WHITE SUPREMACY. To be racist or anti-racist, that is the question.

We live in a culture that idolizes personal choice. This has obstructed our ability to recognize, confront and dismantle racism. Our narrow focus on the individual has deluded us into thinking that as long as we do not personally malign, attack or discriminate against persons of color, we can claim to be non-racist. Non-racism is a supposed third option, beyond racism and anti-racism, where politeness and civility are paramount. It recognizes the evil of white supremacy but, like Pontius Pilate, washes its hands of responsibility. As such, it is a rejection of racism that is also a passive acceptance of white supremacy. It allows white Christians to acknowledge racism is a sin while continuing to reap the benefits of white supremacy.

Advertisement

Non-racism allows white Christians to acknowledge racism is a sin while continuing to reap the benefits of white supremacy.

The racism of many personal interactions and microaggressions is real. Racism, however, is not primarily a personal matter but a social one. It is cultural and therefore intimately woven into our communities, our symbols and our formation of identity—even in places like Brooklyn, where a plaque honoring Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee (on a tree he planted) was swiftly removed this week. American culture has never fully dismantled or disrupted white supremacy, and the debate over the statues of Confederate leaders is evidence of that. Statues of Gen. Lee were specifically erected in opposition to moves toward civil rights for African-Americans; they were intended as monuments to white supremacy. In Tuesday’s press conference, President Trump issued a revealing accusation to his critics: “You’re changing history. You’re changing culture.” But the only culture under threat is that of white supremacy.

Racism is the United States’ original sin. I understand that the history of slavery and the Civil War is painful to confront. I am not a Southerner, but I am a descendent of Lt. Col. Robert V. Boykin, who served under Robert E. Lee. My ancestors fought on both sides of the Civil War, and they include slave owners in Maryland and Virginia. When asked about her family’s participation in slavery, my great-grandmother, whom I adored, said her family did not treat their slaves like those people did. In order to protect white Americans’ place in history, even slave owners get romanticized as non-racist.

But as Christians, we must recognize that there is no such thing as a non-racist. There is no third option. Non-racism is a passive rejection of racism, but it is also a rejection of human dignity, solidarity and the common good. It is a category created to allow one to feel comfortable in one’s own moral rejection of racism while tolerating it in society.

A structure of sin, racism is identified as intrinsically evil by Catholic teaching. In 1979, the U.S. bishops noted that “racism is more than a disregard for the words of Jesus; it is a denial of the truth of the dignity of each human being revealed by the mystery of the Incarnation.” Any silent, passive acceptance of racism is morally unacceptable. Faced with overwhelming evidence of racial injustice in our criminal justice system, do you hold your elected officials accountable—or shake your head, saying, “That’s awful but not my issue”? Do you speak up when your family member or friend makes a racist joke or comment? Do you prioritize a calm Sunday dinner over being anti-racist? We must speak up, and we must stand up. It is a moral imperative that we respond not only with words but actions. We are called to emulate the courage and actions of the U.V.A. students and Heather Heyer, the woman killed in Charlottesville.

Solidarity is the recognition that we are all one human family and we all have equal human dignity. In realizing that my human dignity is bound up in yours, I come to understand that any violation of your dignity violates my own as well. Solidarity reframes our understanding of moral responsibility and recognizes that we have a moral duty to promote justice and the common good. More than just a negative duty not to harm, we have a positive duty to promote the dignity of others. We have a duty to confront and dismantle racism and white supremacy. As Christians, we have a moral duty to be anti-racist.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
J Cosgrove
2 months 1 week ago

I would suggest that Ms. Clark investigate the problems within the Black community and their root causes and how they have changed over the years. She should try to identify why certain things happened and what caused them. If it is racism then the racism of whom. Trying to paint a blanket accusation at all white America is at best a red herring but in reality an excuse not to find the real causes.

Stuart Meisenzahl
2 months 1 week ago

Meghan
I do not disagree with your analysis, or your call to action.
I suggest however that you also republish this exact article but substitute the word "abortion" for the term "racism". Let's see what that call to action brings. To paraphrase your article:
".....Any silent , passive acceptance of [Abortion] is morally unacceptable."
"....As Christians, we have a moral duty to be anti[Abortion]"
".....It is a moral imperative that we respond not only with words but actions"
"....a duty to confront and dismantle [abortion]"

Can a Catholic Union Member remain a member of a union which supports Pro Choice candidates, or contributes to Planned Parenthood?
Can aCatholic remain a member of any organization which supports or is silent on the issues of abortion?

What does your call "to action" based on a moral imperative require in the context of racism and/or abortion? The construction of moral imperatives is not a just another pronouncement of anathemas. The necessity of making judgements in furtherance of a moral imperative is fraught with all important details and context on which people of good moral faith can differ.

William Bannon
2 months 1 week ago

Meghan,
I when single and young like you tutored a black parentless girl for three years virtually every night and paid for her Catholic school tuition, dress, for her grandma's washing machine. It was a very lethal area and they would watch me at night's end to make sure I got in my car without being mugged.
Her grandma fed me supper of soul food every night which was delish.
It was thoroughly intense and I took her and her two cousins to Mass each Sunday and took them and three other ghetto children on trips to places they'd never seen...like a beach at the ocean...totally unknown to many black children....including children whose dads had cars. Think of those last six words I just typed. Can you face the truth that there are good dads there and there are totally negligent dads in the ghetto who drive off with their friends even though their daughters run to their car and whine..." where are you going now?" Blue Magic is a black group from decades ago who had a song "Side Show". Find it...listen to it....and feel the pain of it and you will be inside those little girls who run after their dad and come back crestfallen...or the 12 year old who told me..." Mr. Bannon, my mom put me with my grandma and she tell me she'll call...but she don't ever call." Do a stint in the ghetto that close to pain.... and it will take you decades to recover. I would tell people...do what you can that is commensurate with your whole gestalt...are you single,married, very busy on another project. Avoid manipulating people, Meghan to over commit when they already have committments God wants them to prioritize. The slowness of progress on race is not...not all the fault of non ghetto dwellers. There is a substantial number of ghetto people who are choosing fun rather than their children and no one and no amount of money can stop that choice. Jean Paul Sartre said to readers in regard to the active criminal/ playright Jean Genet....." you will make excuses for him out of his suffering in order to hide yourself from his will to do evil."
Very relevant as to some not all...in the ghetto....and very debunking of liberal generalizations as one finds in the NY Times op eds.

Raymond Marey
2 months ago

Excellent response. Free will is a gift from Godand one's choices have a far-reaching ripple effect. Choose good. Ask God what to do, what to say, what to give to others. Only God knows what's best in any situation.

Lisa Weber
2 months ago

Thank you to Ms. Clark for clearly pointing out that "non-racist" is not an option. Those who support the current administration in the White House need to consider the clearly racist speech of the president and his closest advisors. Failing to speak out against Trump is a sin of omission.

Paula Lorraine Pavanis
2 months ago

I notice ofttimes the either/or thinking in these arguments about race. Being the age that I am, I can tell you that the notion that if one is white they are automatically racist is fairly new in the long-term dialog. While I whole heartedly agree with your ending premise that being anti-racist is the best possible outcome for a person calling themselves Christian, I remain troubled by the notion that white=racist.

I for instance appear 100% white. But even my very active Black Lives Matter associates can never even begin to see my own familial history of Native American slavery and holocaust: even when they are reminded a dozen times over several years. They continually forget while hollering publicly to my face that my white self needs to do something.

I have noticed in the last few years that acquiesce to the notion that being white=privilege and racism primarily occurs amongst those well educated whites firmly on the success ladder. I personally am surrounded by well educated clergy who by nature and training attempt live out the "Do Justice Love Mercy, Walk Humbly" of Micah 6:8. , The white=racist/privilege is also popular there.

But I have yet to hear a poor white adult person, who never found a way to rise above humble beginnings, speak of whiteness being equal to privilege and racism. It makes me wonder if that language is more rhetorical than accurate and perhaps primarily fueled by guilt in the privilege that does allow for the excellent educations and job opportunities for wealthier whites; many who have been groomed since before birth for the white person's version of 'success?' I am not one of those privileged whites so why must I automatically and unquestioningly accept the moniker 'racist.'

While popular, this white=racist argument leaves no room for the many shades that lay in between, So while I believe I have resided firmly within what you are calling the anti-racist camp since I was a brokenhearted child of 12 when MLK was shot, I nevertheless stood my ground against the bigotry and hatred in family of origin. I remain stalwartly devoted to anti-racism despite the unhappy distance it places between us.

But given the parameters of your argument, I remain:

A. White skinned by birth and so immediately part of the dominant culture

and thus

B. A racist by default since I am not a person of color and never can be.

Michael Basile
2 months ago

Meghan Clark's admonition about the depth of racism embedded in our country's history brings me back to over a generation ago when I returned from Peace Corps service in Turkey to the Washington, DC metropolitan area. It was 1967 and the Poor Peoples Campaign was being organized. SCLC (Southern Christian Leadership Conference) representatives asked for volunteers to inform suburbanites about the Campaign and to hopefully engage them not in bringing sandwiches to Resurrection City on the Mall, but to address institutional racism in their own neighborhoods. To facilitate this, a Methodist minister from DC's northeast quadrant another Peace Corps staff member, and I conducted training sessions for other returned volunteers to prepare them for this task. The most poignant (and surprising) part of that training was the resistance encountered to the recognition of racism held deep within all of us. The resistance from liberal types like me was mighty, as we assumed ourselves, by virtue of previous experience abroad, to be "above it all."
To those tempted to make the leap to point to progress today by saying "that was then; now is different," it would be mistaken to rest on their liberal laurels by denying what's left inside and still all around us. It's not enough to call the right wing racist without, as Clark counsels, taking another look at the mote in our own eyes.

Raymond Marey
2 months ago

Racism is bullying. You make a good point in standing up to family members who are racists. Just prepare those that follow your advice, as I have, that you can expect to be told you cant take a joke, and to be ostracized by some in the family. Bullies always hide in plain sight. Focus on bullying espescially in institutions you can affect.
Best Wishes to you, Meghan

Henry George
2 months ago

Dear Ms. Clark,

As others have shown, your essay is highly flawed.

If you are against racism, then please don't use categorical

descriptions such as "White".

There is a large percentage of the population of the United States

that have no relatives who lived in America before the Civil War.

They had nothing to do with slavery and did not prosper from it.

There are those who say:

If "White" then Racist, but that is simply not true.

As for "White Supremacy" the largest group of people who

are living in Poverty in America, are, as you would put it,

"White" Americans. They are hardly living the good life

or oppressing anyone to get where they are today.

If you essay had concentrated how the poor in America

are treated, then it would have something true to say,

instead it repeats un-validated charges and stirs up

what has long ago been settled, for what purpose of yours

I do not understand.

Advertisement

Don't miss the best from America

Sign up for our Newsletter to get the Jesuit perspective on news, faith and culture.

The latest from america

Pope Francis issues public correction to Cardinal Robert Sarah on who has final say over liturgical translations.
Gerard O'ConnellOctober 22, 2017
It is astonishing to think that God would choose to enter the world this way: as a fragile newborn who could not even hold up his own head without help.
Ginny Kubitz MoyerOctober 20, 2017
Protestors rally to support Temporary Protected Status near the U.S. Capitol in Washington on Sept. 26. (CNS photo/Tyler Orsburn)
Around 200,000 Salvadorans and 57,000 Hondurans have been residing in the United States for more than 15 years under Temporary Protected Status. But that status is set to expire in early 2018.
J.D. Long-GarcíaOctober 20, 2017
At the heart of Anne Frank’s life and witness is a hopeful faith in humanity.
Leo J. O'Donovan, S.J.October 20, 2017