When the bishops of the United States issued their first pastoral letter on racism in forty years, titled “Open Wide Our Hearts,” in November of 2018, it was not front-page news. At the time, the Church in the United States was reeling from the McCarrick scandal, the Pennsylvania grand jury report, and the Viganò testimony. The big story from that week’s meeting in Baltimore was that the bishops’ plans to vote on accountability measures for episcopal malfeasance had been forestalled at the request of Rome.
As sadly prescient as it may seem today, the pastoral letter may not have made much of a splash even if it had not been drowned out by other headlines. Americans do not particularly like thinking about racism – and here I will venture to say that this is especially true of the large majority of Americans who happen to be white. For one, racism is ugly. More than that, Americans are exceptionally bad at talking about it.
We are bad at talking about race, in part, because we do not trust each other – a fact that for some reason we are not supposed to admit. Racial differences, inextricably intertwined with cultural and class differences, make some Americans visually and unmistakably distinct from other Americans.
I do not need to point out to any African-American that he is part of a racial minority. Nor do I need to point out to him that I am not. Nor do I need to explain that the minority to which he belongs has suffered terribly in this country, in myriad ways, for centuries, mostly at the hands of people who look like more like me than like him. I don’t assume when I meet a black person that he distrusts me. But neither would I be surprised nor upset to find that his trust is less easily won on account of our differences.
Nor do I think he would be the least bit surprised to learn that, for a great many white Americans, the feeling is mutual.
Such a lack of trust is not racism – though it can be a breeding ground for it – but it is a barrier to honesty. And it is hard to have meaningful conversations without that. Not wanting to admit a trust deficit between Americans of different races (and it’s mostly white people who don’t want to admit it, for fear of sounding racist) doesn’t make things any easier.
A second reason we Americans are terrible at talking about race is related to the first. We have become confused about how to speak sensibly and truthfully to one another as members of communities. We lack a clear sense of just what it is we belong to and, thus, lack a clear sense of what and to whom we owe in justice. (Identity politics has made this problem worse, I believe, but it has not caused it. Identity politics can be understood as a misguided attempt to resolve it.)
There is a natural tendency to seek solidarity with others in a moment of crisis. The masses of Americans marching in protest of the killing of George Floyd show this impulse to solidarity. Then again, so do the police unions. Solidarity joins people together, but it also, in practice, always divides as well. A lot depends on who one sees as “one’s own.”
It is natural to seek refuge in solidarity. We take pride in the triumphs of the communities to which we belong. We also share responsibility. This idea – that we are somehow both responsible to and responsible for the communities to which we belong – has largely been choked out by an ethos of individualism. The idea of collective guilt offends our American sensibilities. (Collective triumph, we’re OK with: USA! USA! USA!)
But the notion of collective responsibility – of “social sin,” to use a much-maligned phrase – ought not to be foreign to anyone familiar with Scripture. God judges us as individuals, yes, but also as members of peoples, assigning guilt and judging grievance both personally and corporately.
The price of the sin of Adam and Eve is paid by all their descendants. The sin of Cain, likewise. The repentance of Nineveh, the plagues against Egypt, Israel wandering the wilderness of Sinai, the Babylonian Exile – the Scriptures are filled with examples of people being made to share in punishment for sins on behalf of the peoples of which they are part.
There is another side to this as well. As Abraham asked, as he pleaded with the Lord to spare the city of Sodom for the sake of ten good men, “Will you really sweep away the righteous with the wicked?”
Above all, there is the example of Christ himself, offering himself as one sacrifice for the sins of all.
The point here is this: perhaps one problem with our conversations about race is that we want to have things both ways – to heal as one without accepting any responsibility for a whole. We want to proclaim ourselves one people, but without taking responsibility for the parts to which we do not wish to belong. We treat the healing of one people as a meeting of many nations. We don’t belong to one another.
As a descendant of Irish Catholics, I’d rather not take responsibility for the sins of English Protestants who owned slaves. As a resident of Virginia, I’d rather not be blamed for the sins of that cop in Minnesota who murdered George Floyd. As an American, though? Are these not my people? The slave owner and the slave . . . the white police officer and Mr. George Floyd?
What makes us think we get to pick and choose?
That is not just a rhetorical question. I think it is a hard question and one with serious implications. How we answer it will determine a lot about how our national conversation about race plays out this time.
© 2020 The Catholic Thing.
Stephen P. White is executive director of The Catholic Project at The Catholic University of America and a fellow in Catholic Studies at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.