Tackling Racism’s Causes and Effects

“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. [...] 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.”
Sargent Shriver | Chicago, IL | August 29, 1958

Our Quote of the Week tackles racism, a central issue that continues to influence the systems in which we operate and to adversely affect millions of people in our society. As we mark Martin Luther King Day on Monday, we’re focused on Dr. King’s vision of a “beloved community,” which he described as a society in which “caring and compassion drive political policies that support the worldwide elimination of poverty and hunger and all forms of bigotry and violence.”

This week’s quote is from The Roots of Racism, Sargent Shriver’s 1958 keynote address at the first gathering of the National Catholic Conference for Interracial Justice. At the time, he was serving as President of both the Chicago Public School Board and the board of the Catholic Interracial Council.

In the speech, Shriver expands on his reference to racism as a “disease,” and “affliction of the spirit”, by stating:

“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.”

Sargent Shriver’s Catholic faith informed his views on inequality in general and on racism in particular. Quoting St. Paul in his speech, he reminds the audience that human beings “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.” Sargent Shriver’s spirituality, however, transcended any individual set of religious beliefs, and can be seen as deeply invested in our humanity and our interconnectedness. When we recognize each other’s humanity and when we act with love, argued Sargent Shriver, we live in community with each other and avoid the conflict and violence that comes from what today we would refer to as “othering,” deeming those who are different than we are as threatening or inferior.

It was not uncommon for Sargent Shriver to challenge predominantly White audiences to deal with their racial biases and to work to eliminate the discrimination and oppression that were embedded in our systems. During the era when the US Supreme Court’s decision on Brown vs. Board of Education was still relatively recent and the battles for desegregation were ongoing, Shriver gave us an example of allyship decades before the term was commonly used. He showed us that when dealing with the causes and the effects of racism, one could not be neutral; one must be what today we would refer to as antiracist.

Shriver strove to be antiracist throughout his career. Working side by side with African American leaders, he achieved the successful integration of schools, housing developments, hospitals, and other institutions in Chicago. In the 1960s, Sargent Shriver’s desire to combat racism and inequality is visible in the values he asserted when he led the Peace Corps, and in his oversight of the War on Poverty programs, which were designed to provide economic opportunity and to empower disenfranchised communities around the United States (many of which were predominantly African American). And he continued to speak up and fight for vulnerable populations in the halls of Congress and in communities around the world for his entire life. (You can read more about Sargent Shriver’s civil rights work here.)

There are no simple solutions for overcoming racism in our society, which is why having the presence of mind to be actively antiracist is important for all of us. We may not have the platform and the privilege that Sargent Shriver had, but we all have a sphere of influence and we all have ways to stand up to oppression in our own workplaces, in our schools, and throughout our communities. These aren’t just fanciful words. They are an expression of an urgent need for our collective survival.

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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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