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.
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.