A week has passed since we, as a nation, celebrated the prophetic voice and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Part of facing that prophetic voice is to face the many ways in which racism continues to plague and cloud our judgment and community. While it is tempting to focus on the accomplishments we have made since King’s assassination in 1968, honoring his prophetic voice requires that instead, we face all the ways we have not. Racism continues to be a major sin in American society and is dangerously hidden from plain sight. That racism is in fact a social sin should be obvious. In their pastoral letterBrothers and Sisters to Us, the USCCB wrote:
Racism is a sin: a sin that divides the human family, blots out the image of God among specific members of that family, and violates the fundamental human dignity of those called to be children of the same Father. Racism is the sin that says some human beings are inherently superior and others essentially inferior because of race. It is the sin that makes racial characteristics the determining factor for the exercise of human rights.
Today in our country men, women, and children are being denied opportunities for full participation and advancement in our society because of their race. The educational, legal, and financial systems, along with other structures and sectors of our society, impede people’s progress and narrow their access because they are black, Hispanic, Native American or Asian.
The structures of our society are subtly racist, for these structures reflect the values which society upholds. They are geared to the success of the majority and the failure of the minority. Members of both groups give unwitting approval by accepting things as they are. Perhaps no single individual is to blame. The sinfulness is often anonymous but nonetheless real. The sin is social in nature in that each of us, in varying degrees, is responsible. All of us in some measure are accomplices. As our recent pastoral letter on moral values states: “The absence of personal fault for an evil does not absolve one of all responsibility. We must seek to resist and undo injustices we have not ceased, least we become bystanders who tacitly endorse evil and so share in guilt in it.”(8)
This was written in 1979, and again, while we have made significant progress (and yes, the election of President Barack Obama does speak to that progress), much of this still rings true today in 2012. I would like to highlight two examples from this week.
First, Saturday’s NY Times highlights the racial bias faced in the bankruptcy process – racial bias largely on behalf of bankruptcy lawyers.
Blacks are about twice as likely as whites to wind up in the more onerous and costly form of consumer bankruptcy as they try to dig out from their debts, a new study has found.
The disparity persisted even when the researchers adjusted for income, homeownership, assets and education. The evidence suggested that lawyers were disproportionately steering blacks into a process that was not as good for them financially, in part because of biases, whether conscious or unconscious.
The vast majority of debtors file under Chapter 7 of the bankruptcy code, which typically allows them to erase most debts in a matter of months. It tends to have a higher success rate and is less expensive than the alternative, Chapter 13, which requires debtors to dedicate their disposable income to paying back their debts for several years.
Depending on the bankruptcy case, Chapter 13 may be more appropriate and have its advantages. The article and case are not saying that all cases should opt for Chapter 7 bankruptcy however, a clear racial bias emerged in the study.
A survey conducted as part of their research found that bankruptcy lawyers were much more likely to steer black debtors into a Chapter 13 than white filers even when they had identical financial situations. The lawyers, the survey found, were also more likely to view blacks as having “good values” when they expressed a preference for Chapter 13.
“Unfortunately I’m not surprised with these results,” said Neil Ellington, executive vice president of Consumer Education Services, a credit counseling agency in Raleigh, N.C. “The same underlying issues that created the problem in mortgage lending, with minorities paying higher interest rates than their white counterparts having the same loan qualifications, are present in all financial fields.”
The findings, which will be published in The Journal of Empirical Legal Studies later this year, did not suggest that there was any obvious evidence of discrimination in the bankruptcy process.
Results from the second part of the study, which illustrated the lawyer’s influence in determining which bankruptcy chapter to choose, came from a survey sent to lawyers asking them questions based on fictitious couples who were seeking bankruptcy protection. When the couple was named “Reggie and Latisha,” who attended an African Methodist Episcopal Church — as opposed to a white couple, “Todd and Allison,” who were members of a United Methodist Church — the lawyers were more likely to recommend a Chapter 13, even though the two couples’ financial circumstances were identical.
This is the heart of social sin – it is difficult to identify and it is subtle. In this case, the study did not find a bias within the bankruptcy process; but in the ways people are steered. This is evidence of unjust racial bias – the kind that is insidious and exceptionally dangerous, particularly because it is hidden from sight. Without a study looking at the data, this particular instance would still be hidden.
Second, I would like to draw our readers attention to an open letter from forty Catholic leaders and theologians regarding racialized language being used in the current Republican primary. Perhaps the most famous example of racialized imagery is Newt Gingrich’s repeated labeling of President Obama as the “Food Stamp President. The brief letter states:
As Catholic leaders who recognize that the moral scandals of racism and poverty remain a blemish on the American soul, we challenge our fellow Catholics Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum to stop perpetuating ugly racial stereotypes on the campaign trail. Mr. Gingrich has frequently attacked President Obama as a “food stamp president” and claimed that African Americans are content to collect welfare benefits rather than pursue employment. Campaigning in Iowa, Mr. Santorum remarked: “I don’t want to make black people’s lives better by giving them somebody else’s money.” Labeling our nation’s first African-American president with a title that evokes the past myth of “welfare queens” and inflaming other racist caricatures is irresponsible, immoral and unworthy of political leaders.
Some presidential candidates now courting “values voters” seem to have forgotten that defending human life and dignity does not stop with protecting the unborn. We remind Mr. Gingrich and Mr. Santorum that Catholic bishops describe racism as an “intrinsic evil” and consistently defend vital government programs such as food stamps and unemployment benefits that help struggling Americans. At a time when nearly 1 in 6 Americans live in poverty, charities and the free market alone can’t address the urgent needs of our most vulnerable neighbors. And while jobseekers outnumber job openings 4-to-1, suggesting that the unemployed would rather collect benefits than work is misleading and insulting.
As the South Carolina primary approaches, we urge Mr. Gingrich, Mr. Santorum and all presidential candidates to reject the politics of racial division, refrain from offensive rhetoric and unite behind an agenda that promotes racial and economic justice.
This letter is signed by priests, nuns, presidents of catholic political organizations and academics from around the country. As the bankruptcy case also indicates, it is not a matter of people being expressly racist and intending to use racist language. These images are offensive and unjust. They have a history and operate on our society and subconscious in ways that are detrimental and perpetuate social sin. We need to perpetually unmask social sin like racism and, as Ignacio Ellacuria noted, pull it up by its roots in history. This means facing the subtle and hidden ways in which racism is alive and well in American society, calling it out and dismantling it.