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Bishops Misfire on “Racial Equity”

The American bishops drew a crucial distinction in a statement on President Biden’s Inauguration Day between things on which they can cooperate and “dialogue” with the new administration and those on which they cannot. Those distinctions were absolutely necessary to avoid the impression – amounting to grave scandal – that they had no problem with a self-proclaimed “Catholic” taking steps to further abortion, homosexuality, or transgenderism, all of which have been criticized by Pope Francis as a kind of “ideological colonization” in the developing world, but also in developed nations.

So far, however, almost no one has paid attention to potential dangers in the other half of the bishops’ Inauguration Day statement, those issues on which the Biden administration is supposedly “good” – immigration, environment, racism, etc. – as if other approaches to dealing with these matters than the usual progressive pieties are “bad.”

The bishops need to pay careful attention to what they and the administration mean – and even the wisdom of entering into various controversies – when they “dialogue” about social problems in this highly polarized period. For example, they just commended Biden (see here [1]) for promoting “racial equity” in housing and prisons.  Equity sounds like good-old American equality. But in the current lexicon of Critical Race Theory and Critical Legal Theory, “equity” means something far different, and far closer to the ideological extremism of Black Lives Matter than Liberty and Justice for All.

In fact, racial “equity” is in multiple ways the antithesis of “equality.” That the bishops do not seem to be aware of this shift in meaning – or may even have advisers who are deliberately advancing this novel notion of justice, which President Biden was already pushing in his Inaugural Address – bodes ill for how they are going to enter into truthful “dialogue.”

To put this in a somewhat simplified form, according to “racial equity” wherever a group – defined by “race” – is “over-represented” or “underrepresented” in some sector, it must mean that there’s some concealed injustice because equality of opportunity has not produced “equity” in outcomes.

The slightest reflection, however, shows that this is a crude way to evaluate the complexities present in a whole society.

To take a relatively neutral example, 70 percent of the players in the Superbowl last night (and the NFL generally) are black, even though black people make up only 13 percent of the population. (Should Colin Kaepernick apologize to the NFL, since football is one of the most “progressive” sports?)

More seriously, black women (again, about 13 percent of the female population) have about 33 percent of U. S. abortions.

So, should the bishops urge the administration to pressure teams for more white participation in professional football – and to reduce drastically the number of black babies aborted? What would happen in that “dialogue”?

Trying to fix differences among groups via “equity” (the very fact of using racial groups as a basis of judgment) is not only unjust – the best players or scientists or musicians of whatever race must be discriminated against in the present because of injustices perpetrated by some people against other people in the past. The whole notion that one “racial group” deserves or needs government action to reach some statistical target ignores the fact that people within racial groups have differing histories.

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For instance, Kamala Harris, who is black, white, and Asian actually benefitted from her racial background: her mother was from a high caste in India, and her mixed-race father emigrated from Jamaica – some of the most prominent “black” Americans (Sidney Poitier, Colin Powell, Susan Rice, Candace Owens, Cicely Tyson,  Neil de Grasse Tyson, to name just a few) have families with Caribbean roots. Personal histories are always complex, but race seems to have had less to do with their achievements than the advantages of family and cultural backgrounds.

Like the debate over “systemic” racism, distinctions are in order. I myself think “systemic” racism should not be used to describe generalized, lingering, racism, which does exist in American society, of course. Because if “the system” is “racist,” then it is illegitimate. You could call racism “systemic” in pre-Civil War America, or the days of Jim Crow laws, or during South African apartheid – i.e., when the legal system identifiably discriminated. But not America in 2021.

On the question of imprisonment, which the bishops explicitly commended the administration for tackling, there are high numbers of black men imprisoned, to be sure. But that’s primarily because, amid many other important factors, they commit a disproportionate number of serious crimes.

By using the ideological term “equity” in their recent praise of the administration, the bishops have walked, seemingly blindly, into a hornets’ nest. Do they really want to practice what racial “equity” celebrity Ibram X. Kendi describes?

The only remedy to racist discrimination is antiracist discrimination. The only remedy to past discrimination is present discrimination. The only remedy to present discrimination is future discrimination.

This goes way beyond the older efforts at “affirmative action” in which various American institutions were encouraged to look for candidates from groups previously discriminated against who were equal (or nearly so) in requisite skills or accomplishments to competitors. Racial “equity” openly calls for anti-white racism (transforms anti-racism into racism) a direct contradiction of Martin Luther King’s dream that someday his children (and by implication everyone) would not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.

By invoking the term “racial equity,” the American bishops have placed themselves among a group of anti-racist racists who say they want us to judge people by race. We’re not so far here from “white privilege” and – the ultimate devil term – “white male supremacy.”

I don’t believe Archbishop Coakley, a good man who heads the USCCB committee that issued the recent statement, intended to go down that path. But someone along the way did. If the bishops are going to enter into “dialogue” with an administration that has embraced “racial equity” and other equally radical notions that look like steps towards greater justice but aren’t, they need to be much more aware of what they’re really endorsing – and who they’re dealing with.

 

*Image: Harriet Richardson, a student organizer at Pennsylvania’s Juniata College, presses a cloth to the wounds of Galway Kinnell, Poet-In-Residence at Juniata, during the civil rights march at Selma, AL, 1965 (photo by Charles Moore)

Dr. Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing, president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C., and currently serves as the St. John Henry Newman Visiting Chair in Catholic Studies at Thomas More College. His most recent books are Columbus and the Crisis of the West and A Deeper Vision: The Catholic Intellectual Tradition in the Twentieth Century.