The Roots of Racism

"The roots of racism lie deep in man’s nature, wounded and bruised by original sin. The secret sources of racism, to quote that eminent teacher and philosopher, Yves Simon, lie deep in man’s greed for a cheap labor supply. Deep in man’s insecurity about his own means of livelihood, deep in man’s desire for aristocratic distinction, his desire to feel that he is a member of a distinguished people, an elite better than other human beings; deep in his anxiety to be somebody, to belong to a group which does not include everyone, to be free of his fear of sinking into the great, struggling, undifferentiated mass of humanity."
Chicago, IL • August 29, 1958

On August 29, 1958, Sargent Shriver inaugurated the First National Catholic Conference for Interracial Justice. As Conference Chairman, he participated in the drafting of the resolutions, which called for action against de facto housing segregation in the North and for effective school integration. This was his keynote address.

Most of my life I have had a great hero, St. Paul. I suspect my father’s enthusiasm for St. Paul is largely responsible for mine. Or, perhaps, my friendship for and association with that wonderful order of American priests, The Paulists, is the cause of my admiration for the resolute, uncompromising, direct, plain-speaking Apostle of the Gentiles.

Whatever the cause, my mind has repeatedly turned to St. Paul as I tried to prepare a welcoming message for the zealous and learned delegates to this, our First National Conference of Catholics for Interracial Justice.

Frequently I have thought: What would St. Paul have said if he were to speak his mind on this occasion? What would the author of so many hard, yet truthful, sayings have to tell this audience today?

I remembered his words: That in the Church, “There is neither Gentile nor Jew, circumcised nor uncircumcised, Barbarian nor Scythian, bond nor free. But Christ is all and in all.” I recalled his admonition that, “In Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free, neither male nor female; for ye are all one person in Christ Jesus.” Our late, illustrious Cardinal Stritch used to quote these words often to illustrate the universality of the Christian message.

Our present Pope, Pius XII, in his encyclical on “The Unity of Human Society,” has relied on St. Paul, too, to explain how far above racism, how far above Nationalism, how far above class consciousness soars the true message of Christianity.

Yet, I thought, St. Paul might not use these particular quotations in addressing this meeting, nor rest his case, so to speak, on them. Instead, I thought, he might prefer to start with his own words in the Epistle for Mass last Sunday — the very first words in the very first sentence of that Epistle, which as follows: “You are the Body of Christ.”
St. Paul was writing to the Corinthians — to ordinary, everyday men and women — to a tiny colony of early converts from Paganism to Christianity. And he gave them the facts. “You are the Body of Christ,” he wrote, and he added nothing by way of limitation on that statement. No qualifications. No temporizing. No effort to explain away the full impact of the words. No sentence saying, “Yes, you are the Body of Christ, but don’t take me literally. Don’t think, speak, and act like Christ...don’t think that you people alive in Corinth today, are really united to the body of a man who was crucified in Jerusalem and died years ago.” St. Paul offered no such watered-down explanation of his words. He told the Cotinthians the facts: “You are the Body of Christ,” and he implied they should think, speak, and act like Christ.

To follow Christ’s leadership, to imitate Him, to call a spade a spade as he did, is the toughest job in the world. But that, it seems to me, is precisely our job as Catholics gathered for this National Conference on Interracial Justice. It is our job to speak the truth as plainly and precisely as we can. It is our job to reaffirm, to the best of our ability, the fundamental Christian principles concerning justice between men of different races or nationalities. Second, I think we must try to apply those principles to specific, concrete problems of contemporary American life. Third, I hope we can develop ways and means for seeing that these Christian ideas gain wider and wider acceptance throughout our beloved country.

Personally, I am confident that this convention will achieve these objectives. Our commissions on housing, schools, employment, and on parochial life will speak out loud and clear. They will express faithfully the true mind and heart of Christianity on the complicated problems of race and nationality in American life.

But, let us suppose for a moment that our convention was finished, our statements issued. Let us suppose even further that one year or ten years, or even twenty years from now, educational opportunity in all American schools were truly equalized and raised to the highest standards of intellectual achievement. Let us suppose that discrimination in employment were gone, that ghettos were gone, that all Americans enjoyed equal and excellent opportunities for health and hospital care, for employment, for housing. Would we then, would we, in those days of an almost Utopian perfection, have eliminated racial prejudice? The answer, I fear, is “No!”

The sad truth is that racial prejudice and injustice would still be with us. Yes, even if we achieved every one of our current goals, even if we erased all the existing external indications of racial prejudice and discrimination, we would still have the disease inside, festering like a cancer, needing constant treatment and remedial care.

I make this point and emphasize it because I think it helps to reveal the fact that racism cannot be cured solely by attacking some of the results it produces, like discrimination in housing or in education. True, we need effective programs to reduce such discrimination. Action in these areas is necessary, appropriate, and justified. But we must also treat the disease of racism itself. And this means we must understand the disease. For racism is an immensely complicated phenomenon. It is an affliction of the spirit, of the soul of man, rather than a disease of his conscious, intellectual life. That is one reason why racists are so irrational and illogical in their attempts to justify their prejudices.

The roots of racism lie deep in man’s nature, wounded and bruised by original sin. The secret sources of racism, to quote that eminent teacher and philosopher, Yves Simon, lie deep in man’s greed for a cheap labor supply. Deep in man’s insecurity about his own means of livelihood, deep in man’s desire for aristocratic distinction, his desire to feel that he is a member of a distinguished people, an elite better than other human beings; deep in his anxiety to be somebody, to belong to a group which does not include everyone, to be free of his fear of sinking into the great, struggling, undifferentiated mass of humanity. Even warped religious feelings can produce racism. Jews, for example, have suffered persecution from misguided Christians who tortured Jews for their part in killing Christ. These Christians conveniently forgot, or tried to avoid the fact that Christ died because of all the sins of all men — Christian sins as well as Jewish sins — the white man’s sins as well as the Negro’s. No one wants to face the fact that his or her own personal sins killed Christ. It’s so much easier to blame the Jews, or some long-dead Roman soldier.

History is full of pitiful examples of misguided efforts to create selected groups among the peoples of the world: the phony racial elite set up by Adolf Hitler; the discredited doctrine of Karl Marx establishing an elite of the working class. the Brahman elite of the Hindu caste system; the bourgeois elite of wealth; or even the Grecian elite composed of intellectual men supposedly of great wisdom.

All these efforts to separate men failed. All similar efforts will fail because they are based on materialistic desires for money, or security, or power, or success in this world. None of them recognizes that the only true superiority, the only genuine elite, in this world, or in the next, is the elite of those men and women who have given their lives to justice and to charity. These Christian virtues unite men. Racism separates them.

A great philosopher has written: "...It is not community of race, of class, or of nation; it is the love of charity that makes us what we ought to be, members of the Family of God, of the only community where each person, drawn out from his fundamental loneliness, truly communicates with others and truly makes them his brothers, by giving himself to them, and, in a certain sense, dying for them...who is my neighbor? The man of my blood? Of my party? The man who does me good? No. It is the men to whom I show mercy, the man to whom is transmitted through me the universal gift and love of God, who makes the rain from Heaven fall upon both the good and the wicked...”

These eloquent words bring me back to my opening quotations from St. Paul: “You are the body of Christ.”

St. Paul is expressing those six, blunt words exactly what the philosopher describes as our membership in the “Family of God.” Both are making the fundamental, essential point that we men are spiritual beings united in a real and effective way into one body — a living, acting body, busy in the work of saving the world from the effects of sin, death, corruption, fear, pride and prejudice.

We must never forget or minimize the spiritual side of our nature and of our mission for interracial justice and charity. The Communists and the Fascists abroad, the secularists at home, the materialists and the naturalists, the tyrants either of capital or labor — all degrade man. They make him a mere pawn in the struggle for power, whether in politics, business, labor, or government. In short, they treat him not as a person, but as an object. You use an object; you love a person.

The same saint whose words I quoted at the beginning of these remarks saw that without charity we ourselves become objects, sounding brass and tinkling cymbals. It is love that crowns man with his true dignity, and the giving of love even more than the receiving. It is as persons that we communicate with each other. It is as objects that we clash with each other. Without the love that St. Paul envisaged, the world is a clashing of object against object, class against class, tyrant against tyrant race against race. With St. Paul’s type of love, we are persons — deep calling to deep, the human heart speaking to human heart. With this love we have in ourselves the width of the universe. In this love is the only complete freedom that man can ever have.

In is my belief that the CIC movement can adhere to this high standard and accomplish great things thereby; but all our efforts and programs must start with St. Paul’s philosophy of love and end up uniting men in mutual charity, rather than separating them into racial, economic, social, or intellectual cliques. To determine whether we are actually succeeding in this, we can evaluate our efforts with a practical test — a test that may be applied to any organization devoted to interracial justice: Does it establish communication between man and man, each in his full independence and integrity and difference?

I have said “communication.” I could use a more ancient word, full of implications, the word “communion.” And when I do use that word, I see something of the force of the word “Catholic” in the name of the organization. The word “Catholic” implies not that one side will be representing its case to another side in the endless negotiation, but rather that the two in their full differences will be together in the one body where each has its full excellence.

We will not try to make people over in order to accept them: this again would be to treat them as objects rather than as persons. Neither the old line bigotry of the White Citizens Council, nor latter day egalitarianism tackle the problems of interracial justice in its full complexity. Both oversimplify and distort the real problem. Both employ propaganda that would simply use and misuse persons and destroy the ideal of accepting people as they are and helping them to achieve greater freedom and happiness than ever they believed possible.

In our time, in recent days we have seen rejoicing on both sides where there is discord between men. Each side sees the possibility of exploitation. Governor Faubus can use discord for his purposes; an organization devoted to mere egalitarianism can use it in its way. Both sides rejoice, even though each conflict scars, lacerates and wounds the Mystical Body. Even something so bloody as a decapitation can make a dictator smile, as he sees its use in the cold war in the Middle East.

But those who hold the kind of communion between man and man that marks the full acceptance of each man in his uniqueness as a person cannot be content with either the exaggeration of differences or the simplification of them. Rather, the ideal of a Catholic Interracial Council wants the many to be one, in those things that matter most deeply, and yet to remain many. It wants the full sound of the orchestra, the harmony of the many different notes; it wants the full range of the spectrum, no one color being of any special beauty in itself, but all being beautiful together.

This is to define the mission in its full difficulty, because it defines the mission in its full humanity. I would say that this is a dangerously high ideal to put before ourselves, in the day-to-day work of this organization, except that anything less than this is even more dangerous. For anything less than this takes man as something less than man, as something to be manipulated by the tyrant; or as something to be rolled out on the assembly line by the egalitarian — flat, monotonous, identical.

A Catholic Interracial Council is not a council of one side against another; it is not a council for the advancement or protection of this people or that; but— to borrow the motto of one of our great foundations — it is a council for the advancement of man, for the advancement of man in his understanding of what it is to be a man, in himself and in others.

Charles Peguy, the great French author, in discussing the persecutions inflicted upon the Jewish people throughout the ages, penned these memorable words:

“I know this people, the Jewish people, well. On its skin it has no single spot which is not painful, where is not some old bruise, some old contusion, some silent woe, the memory of a silent woe, a scar, a wound, a laceration from Orient to Occident.... "

Delegates to this convention, let us dedicate ourselves to the binding up of those old wounds, whether they be on the backs of white men, Negro, yellow men, or Jews. Let us erase the memory of those silent woes, those scars, those lacerations. Let us, with God’s help and His grace, create a new and larger “Community of the Free” — a new and even better “Home for the Brave.”

Peace requires the simple but powerful recognition that what we have in common as human beings is more important and crucial than what divides us.
Sargent Shriver
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