No Innocent Space: Confronting Racism Here

Too often, when we talk about racism in the United States, we frame it as a sin of the past or as personal ignorance or prejudice. In many educational settings, we see emerging emphasis on racism as a legacy from history, both systemic and structural. Lamentably, this is not always true in our church: the USCCB’s 2018 pastoral letter against racism, “Open Wide Our Hearts,” never addresses racism as social sin, even though it does point to the “social structures of injustice and violence that makes us all accomplices in racism.” Not enough of us recognize the ways that our physical realities—where we live, learn, work, shop, relax, and worship—are infected by racism.

Racial segregation, Cincinnati  Blue=White, Green=Black, Red=Asian, Orange=Hispanic. “Racial Dot Map.”

As the “Racial Dot Map” (produced in part throughout this essay) shows, the legacy of racist segregation is alive and well today. But as opposed to what some may think, segregation is neither an intransigent flaw nor a racist feature–it is our problem, our challenge, wherever we are.  

Our Social Reckoning

In Pope Francis’ new encyclical on solidarity, Fratelli Tutti, racism is described as a “vicious attitude” that continues to reemerge “and shame us,” casting doubt on the extent of our social progress (no. 20). But racism is not just a painful relic from history or a generational difference that we can outlive (especially given the way that young white men are being recruited by white supremacists). It is present in the spaces we inhabit, festering below the surface. Later, the encyclical refers to racism as a “virus that quickly mutates and, instead of disappearing, goes into hiding, and lurks in waiting” (no. 97). If we think of racism as something that infects only people or structures, then our solution might be to avoid those people and advocate for changing those structures.

This is why, for example, a number of white people think it’s preferable to be “colorblind” than to continue to explore the depth and breadth of racism in our social, educational, economic, political, and religious institutions. Or they insist they are not racist, “the least racist” person, or don’t have a “racist bone in my body” as if racism can be easily detected and evaded or, alternatively, inherited by some pitiable individuals. Or people invoke neutrality—“let’s stop talking about race” or “let’s keep it light”—which does nothing to solve the problem. (Some even have the audacity to complain that whites suffer from racism or think of “racist” as an insult that is below them). If this is how we respond to the moral catastrophe and religious heresy of racism, we fail to see our physical presence or social location through a racialized lens, persisting in obliviousness to the reach of racism and our complicity in racism as not only personal or structural, but also spatial.

George Lipsitz explains in his book, How Racism Takes Place, that “whiteness in this society is not so much a color as a condition. It is structured advantage that channels unfair gains and unjust enrichments to whites while imposing unearned and unjust obstacles in the way of Blacks” (3). He continues, that because of policies that “racialize space and spatialize race, whiteness is learned and legitimated, perceived as natural, necessary, and inevitable” (6). Whites are often afforded inclusion and upward mobility while people of color are frequently excluded and exploited.

Racial segregation, Chicago. Blue=White, Green=Black, Red=Asian, Orange=Hispanic. “Racial Dot Map.”

Racialized space (or spatialized racism) is unavoidable. It causes racial disparities in economic opportunity, access to quality education, transportation, nutrition, and healthcare, as well as financial security and life expectancy.

Lipsitz insists that the persistence of white supremacy is due less to fear or deception than self-interest. Because whiteness delivers unfair advantages to those who participate in it, it not only “skews opportunities and life chances for their own benefit” but it also “externalizes the worst social conditions onto communities of color and provides whites with a floor below which they cannot fall” (36). The “possessive investment in whiteness” perpetuates unjust inequalities along racial lines, undermining democratic norms of freedom, equality, and justice for all (37). It devalues and demonizes Blackness and urges an allegiance to racial privilege that breeds greater distrust and division across the color line. As Ta-Nehisi Coates laments in Between the World and Me, it convinces people to prefer to “live white than live free” (143).

Our Ecclesial Reckoning

The church, which is both universal and local, has also been infected by white supremacy, as Brianne Jacobs and Kevin Brown (among others) wrote last week here at Daily Theology. They continue the work of previous Catholic theologians who confront the personal and corporal wounds of racism in the church. Thomas Merton pointed to fear and hatred as doing violence to the “Body of Christ,” causing it to become a “Body of Broken Bones.” In New Seeds of Contemplation, he reflects, “Hatred recoils from the sacrifice and the sorrow that are the price of resetting of bones. It refuses the pain of reunion” (72). M. Shawn Copeland uses the same image of the “body of broken bones” in Enfleshing Freedom to champion solidarity as demanding that we “acknowledge and repent” for our participation in or benefit from the violence done to people of color—especially women of color—and adopt a “social praxis in the here-and-now” that honors the dignity and freedom of all (104).

More recently, Katie Grimes considers how the “Body of Christ” is porous, such that it interacts with the world. As she argues in her essay, “Breaking the Body of Christ,” this helps us make sense of why the sacramental life has been insufficiently potent for resisting and transforming “white supremacist modes of belonging.” This means that “No matter how eloquently the church explains itself or how expertly it performs its foundational sacraments, it cannot keep the world out.” Our churches reflect racialized space and spatialized racism. This spatial problem won’t be solved by pastoral letters denouncing racism and white supremacy (as Bishop Seitz prophetically provides us) or book clubs on racial justice (even though every Christian should be reading Kelly Brown Douglas, James Cone, M. Shawn Copeland, and Bryan Massingale). It won’t be satisfied by more inclusive sacred art in our homes, schools, and churches. Confronting our complicity in racism isn’t about pitting racists versus non-racists, but committing ourselves to the unending work of anti-racism. This requires more than learning about implicit bias or microaggressions or confronting the church’s historical ties to slavery and segregation.

Racial segregation, San Francisco/Oakland. Blue=White, Green=Black, Red=Asian, Orange=Hispanic. “Racial Dot Map.”

Insofar as the spaces we inhabit are infected with racism, this means, as Grimes proposes, that we adopt personal and collective disciplines of “spatial re-habituation.” Grimes is critical of trying to “persuade whites to do the right thing,” maintaining that “White people cannot save themselves.” The vice of white supremacy infects not only white identity, agency, or relationships, but the spaces we inhabit. This means not only decentering self-interest but rearranging how we interact with the places we inhabit.

Changing Our Relationship with Place

Paul tells us that unity demands humility and that Jesus’ followers must “humbly regard others as more important than yourselves,” prioritizing the interests of others (Philippians 2:3-4). The pervasive and pernicious effects of white supremacy and anti-black racism are an indictment of white Christians’ feeble commitment to live up to this moral standard. But in this moment of racial reckoning, there are some concrete steps we can take to resist and reform the racialized spaces we inhabit. Here are five examples:

First, white Christians must dismantle what Joe Feagin describes as the “white racial frame” that fails to grasp the scope of racial inequality.

Feagin reports that half of whites believe that Black Americans have the same levels of education and employment as whites, 3 in 5 whites think Black Americans have the same access to healthcare, and only twenty percent of whites have an accurate grasp of the racial discrimination faced by Black Americans. Some of this lack of understanding is more nefarious than ignorance: 80% of whites say housing and employment discrimination is not a current problem for Black Americans; more than half of whites say Blacks living in poverty lack sufficient motivation and nearly two-thirds of whites say racial inequalities would disappear if Black Americans “try harder.” Half of whites say the government has no responsibility to correct racial injustice and more than three-quarters of whites say blacks deserve no special treatment in American society today. White Americans have a lot of listening and learning to do to become more aware of reality; if we stay in our usual spaces, we won’t listen and learn as much as we need to.

Racial segregation, Detroit. Blue=White, Green=Black, Red=Asian, Orange=Hispanic. “Racial Dot Map.”

Second, white Americans must do more than become more sensitive to racial injustice; we have to become advocates and allies against the policies that perpetuate them, especially in spatial terms.

“Not In My Back Yard” (or NIMBY) opposition to changing land use (for affordable housing, for example) prioritizes self-interest and perpetuates fear, distrust, and degradation of individuals, families, and communities of color. White Americans benefit from gentrification (forced economic displacement), without being attentive and responsive to how this disenfranchises long-term residents. “Nice White Parents” shows (not without controversy) how even progressive parents undermine school integration. White Americans must abandon the “white savior complex” they learned in being trained to prefer philanthropy to justice and instead follow the lead of Black activists, educators, and community organizers who are working for liberation from racial oppression.  

Third, this means forging friendships and other relationships across the color line.

One study found that three-quarters of white Americans don’t have any Black friends and two-thirds of Black Americans don’t have any white friends. If our social bonds are racially homogenous, we will remain divided along lines of those who endure racial injustice and those who fail to see it or care about it. In The Christian Imagination, Willie James Jennings points to a failure of intimacy as a main cause for such widespread discord and distress. Fear of intimacy has prevented a sharing of wisdom and power, refusing to participate in “joining, mixing, merging, and being changed by multiple ways of life to witness a God who surprises us by love of differences and draws us to new capacities to imagine their reconciliation,” instead embracing a hegemonic exercise of power that inflicts subjugation and suffering (9). Friendship is not only a call to share virtues like humility, curiosity, compassion, courage, and solidarity; it is also a pathway to practice equality and mutuality in relationships that foster safety and trust, authenticity and vulnerability. Friendships are the “crucible of the moral life” as Paul Wadell has written. They are essential not only as sources of affirmation and affection but also accountability. Friendships help create the conditions for people to become agents of their own future through coalitions of mutual respect and co-responsibility. We cannot achieve solidarity without interracial friendships that empower us to share life together across the color line; as we share life together, we also erase borders between spaces as “white” or “nonwhite” to something that better reflects the dynamic and diverse experience of being human.

Fourth, we need to use our digital tools and social networks as ways to build bridges across racial segregation.

If we are not careful, our screens can too easily be sources of distraction, addiction, and isolation. Since digital content and connections are so often used to access information and entertainment, we can get used to seeing ourselves more as spectators or than stakeholders, and slacktivism can too easily supplant a struggle for justice. Hashtags can raise awareness, but they don’t regularly result in a commitment to change beliefs and actions. Even though our screens can cause moral malformation, a more intentional approach can also be leveraged for witnessing the experiences of others, collaborating across distance, and unleashing new potential for creatively repurposing the spaces we inhabit, both online and offline. An argument can be made that our phones make place less important than before, which means that we do not have to be confined to repeating the cycles of racialized space. But this will only be possible if we diversify the accounts we follow and break out of online echo chambers that reinforce our worldview. As people spend more and more time with screens, we have to keep looking for ways to use them as instruments to advance more expansive social bonds and more interracial interdependence.

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Racial segregation, New York City.  Blue=White, Green=Black, Red=Asian, Orange=Hispanic. “Racial Dot Map.”

Fifth, we have to eradicate racialized space from our classrooms and places of worship and other shared rituals in our institutions.

Since moral formation happens primarily through relationships and practices over time, we have to interrogate what we repeatedly do together—and where and with whom—to unmask the ways this perpetuates racism and white supremacy. American Catholic parishes are becoming more diverse, but too many Catholic spaces remain obviously “predominantly white institutions” that otherize or tokenize people of color. In the efforts to unpack dimensions of restorative justice, our educational and religious communities have to acknowledge that healing will not come without paying a price. That’s not something we can avoid, even though it is unpleasant. In her book, Beyond Apathy, Elisabeth Vasko denounces “sin as hiding” from reality and, invoking Ivone Gebara, attests, “there are no spaces of innocence” (138). In this moment of racial reckoning for the academy, church, and society, we have work to do exactly where we are, work that prevents us from staying where we are. Racial justice requires more than personal and social transformation; it demands that we change the beliefs, practices, and places that perpetuate racism. No person is immune from this call to convert our hearts and minds and no place is exempt from being converted into space that reflects the equal dignity and rights of all.

Marcus Mescher is associate professor of Christian ethics at Xavier University in Cincinnati, OH. He specializes in Catholic social teaching and moral formation. His first book, The Ethics of Encounter: Christian Neighbor Love as a Practice of Solidarity, was published earlier this year with Orbis Books. 

Editor’s Note: This post is part of Daily Theology’s Symposium on Racism, White Supremacy, & the Church. Click here for more information or sign up for our email list below to be notified of new posts!