by Richard G. Malloy, S.J., Ph.D.
Racism is sin, but I’ve never heard anyone confess it in the sacrament of reconciliation.
This Lent, we ought to repent of the racism in our history and society, and any racist ways of thinking and feeling harbored in our minds and hearts. Metanoia, the Greek word for repent in the Gospel, means literally to change our ways of thinking. And our ways of thinking, doing and being have to change. Racial bias, especially against black people, is stupid, sinful and sick.
Back in 1998, during a time of great racial tension in Philadelphia, the Catholic Archbishop issued a pastoral letter, “Healing Racism through Faith and Truth.” He taught, “Racism is a sin… Racism and Christian life are incompatible. Racism has been condemned as a sin many times. For the truth to have an impact, for it really to set us free, it must become our truth. It must be operative within us. It must penetrate and ignite our minds and hearts.
Now, most Catholics who actually go to confession would never think of spitting the “N” word at an African American person. Or joining the KKK. At least, I hope that is true. After all, Catholics were hated and persecuted by the Klan during most of the 20th century. See the Otto Preminger 1963 movie, The Cardinal.
We should think about racism as a social sin. We are immersed in racism and racial dynamics whether we want to be or not.
Race is a social construct. It is arbitrary. I once worked with a Catholic sister, the principal of a school of 250 mostly Black and Latino students. She worked hard to know every child’s name. But she kept mixing up a very dark-skinned Puerto Rican boy, Julio, and another much lighter skinned Puerto Rican boy, Juan. She once too often called Julio by the wrong name, and he stamped his foot and said, “I’m Julio. He’s Juan. Can’t you tell the difference?” The good Sister of St. Joseph was mortified. She felt deeply in her Irish Catholic heart that she’d made a horrible mistake, making Julio feel badly for his skin tone. Julio continued, pointing at Juan, “I’m seven, and he’s still six.”
Race, in a sense, isn’t real. We could just as easily distinguish people by height, tall v. short, or those with small or big ears. There is no significant physiological difference between me and Denzel Washington, although most people would call him “Black” and me “White” (and yeah, he’s a movie star, and I’m not….).
But sociologically, what is taken for real is real in its consequences. When Irish and Italians competed in the 1900s, ethnic identity really mattered. It would be hard to see how being one or the other radically helps or hurts someone today. On the other hand, Median Household Income for Blacks is $46,073; for Whites, $76,057.
African American babies are twice as likely to die in childbirth as white babies. White mothers die at 14.7 per 100,000 births; African Americans mothers die at 37.1 per 100,000 births. Almost 30 percent of Black children live in poverty in the USA; less than 10 percent of White children are poor. 75 percent of redlined neighborhoods struggle today and only some 42 percent of Blacks own homes. Well over 75 percent of Whites are homeowners. Median net worth of Whites, $171,000, is ten times that of Blacks, $17,150. Police kill Blacks at a rate of 31 per million; Whites at 13 per million.
Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow reports that the Criminal Justice System went from incarcerating 300,000 in 1980 to 2 million in 2000 by putting mostly dark skinned bodies in prison. For many of those years, I lived in Camden, NJ, and saw the Black or Latino boys selling drugs arrested for being “drug dealers.” They were sent to prison. The White teens from the suburbs buying the drugs “had a drug problem” and were sent to rehab. By 2007, taxpayers were footing the bill for 7 million in prison, jail, or on probation. In the USA, we imprison at a higher rate than anywhere in the world, more than even Russia or China. Germany puts 93 out of 100,000 behind bars; we lock up 750 per 100,000. Are we really eight times more criminal than Germany?
How can we repent of the sin of racism? One way is to learn about racial patterns and dynamics in our lives. During Lent, see the Netflix documentaries 13th and I Am Not Your Negro. Read novels like Colson Whitehead’s The Nickel Boys or the classic Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. Read Toni Morrison’s work. Dr. Kendi’s How To Be An Anti-Racist and Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility are two of dozens of good books easily available today. Go back and watch classic movies: To Kill a Mockingbird, Lilies of the Field. Watch Places in the Heart and Remember the Titans. See newer films: Just Mercy and Harriet. Watch any and all of Spike Lee’s films. Google Fr. Bryan Massingale and read his book and recent articles. Learn about Mother Lange in Baltimore, Sr. Thea Bowman, and Fr. Augustus Tolton, the first Black Catholic priest in the U.S. Read about Jesuits John Lafarge and the Markoe brothers and their efforts in the 20th century to open our eyes to the realities of racism. Young Jesuits at The Jesuit Post have an online, video based, anti-racism retreat. Meditate on Amanda Gorman’s wonderful poem The Hill We Climb.
Most importantly, have a conversation with a black friend about these matters. Talk with family about racial dynamics. Ask God to enlighten us about the sin of racism. This Lent, learn about prejudice, pray, and do what God invites you to do.
Over twenty years ago, Philadelphia’s Bishop challenged Catholics: “A pastoral letter on the issue of racism does not imply that there are not other serious moral issues. This letter does, however address the morally destructive force of the ongoing evil of racism and calls upon Catholics to treat is as such.”
1 Anthony Cardinal Bevilacqua, “Healing Racism through Faith and Truth” (1998) https://www.ncregister.com/news/healing-racism-through-faith-and-truth
4 Linda Villarosa, “Why America’s Black Mothers and Babies are in a Life or Death Crisis,” The New York Times Magazine, April 11, 2018. The New York Times Magazine. “Black infants in America are now more than twice as likely to die as white infants — 11.3 per 1,000 black babies, compared with 4.9 per 1,000 white babies, according to the most recent government data — a racial disparity that is actually wider than in 1850, 15 years before the end of slavery, when most black women were considered chattel. In one year, that racial gap adds up to more than 4,000 lost black babies. Education and income offer little protection. In fact, a black woman with an advanced degree is more likely to lose her baby than a white woman with less than an eighth-grade education.” https://www.nytimes.com/2018/04/11/magazine/black-mothers-babies-death-maternal-mortality.html
5 Sergio Pecanha, “These Numbers Show That Black and White people live in two different Americas.” The Washington Post. June 23, 2020. https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2020/06/22/what-numbers-say-whites-blacks-live-two-different-americas/?arc404=true
6 Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow (New York, NY: The New Press, 2nd ed. 2012), p. 60.
7 Ibid., p. 6.
8 See Peter Eisner, The Pope’s Last Crusade: How an American Jesuit helped Pope Pius IX’s Campaign Against Hitler (2014) and “Fr.Markoe: A Life on the Front Lines for Equality” https://www.creighton.edu/fileadmin/user/creighton-magazine/docs/Fr._Markoe.pdf
9 Know Justice, Know Peace: A Jesuit Antiracism retreat. Feb 2021 re-release.
10 https://thejesuitpost.org/2021/02/re-release-of-know-justice-know-peace-a-jesuit-antiracism-retreat/ Anthony Cardinal Bevilacqua, Healing Racism through Faith and Truth (1998) https://www.ncregister.com/news/healing-racism-through-faith-and-truth