Working Against Racism

[Editor’s Note: This is from a series of articles written for PACE, a journal for Roman Catholic educators. The third article in the series is specific to the Roman Catholic Church and, therefore, is not included here.]

What Needs to be Changed?

As was pointed out in the November PACE, racism is not a high-priority issue among white people generally-even among PACE subscribers. If you are a white person, living in a predominantly white community, moving in religious and other environments that are predominantly white, the issue of racism may seldom come to your attention. Television invades your living room with news of some racist incident, an occasional homily may remind you that racism is still alive and well, and once in a great while something may happen or someone in your immediate presence may say or do something that reveals racial prejudice, and for a short time you have to think about it.

Generally speaking, in a white setting racism may be viewed as something that happens someplace else or that existed at some distant time in the past. If you are in such a white setting, you may hear people say, “I never owned slaves,” “I never hurt anyone,” and so on. Such statements help to form a basic attitude in your environment, one that dismisses the subject of racism quickly. For most white people, racism has no important impact on their daily lives. That is not a criticism of white readers and their white surroundings; it is simply a statement of fact.

Why, then, should PACE readers be asked to examine a subject that may be of such little immediate interest? For me, the answer is a simple one, I hope not a simplistic one. Three statements summarize it:

1)   God loves all persons and groups.

2)   Justice is one way of showing love.

3) Racism is a phenomenon that frustrates justice for many individuals and groups.

It follows rather quickly from these statements that for the Christian, there is no choice but to work for the elimination of racism in any and all of its forms. This article is the first of three offering suggestions for carrying out this obligation. It begins the series by distinguishing different levels of racism in order to choose the appropriate strategy to cope with each. The second article will propose changes that white people can make to eliminate racism; the third will discuss what the institutional Church might change to the same end.

Let us plunge into the life of the world where racism is a fact of individual and group relationships to try to develop some clarity about what the phenomenon is; how it functions; and where, when, and how we might work for its elimination.

What follows are five brief descriptions of hypothetical situations in which language is used and/or action is taken. Following each description is a discussion section. Individuals, classes, or parish groups could consider each situation with this question in mind: Is that an example of racism?

Situation 1


You are riding in a car driven by an acquaintance who is not a close friend. The operator of a car in front of you makes a sudden right turn, crossing your line of traffic without any directional signal. Your driver slams on the brakes and comes to an abrupt stop, just missing the turning car, and screams, “A woman driver!”


Score one for yourself if you agree that this is not an example of racism! It is clearly an example of sexism of a personal, attitudinal nature. The driver of your car has some ideas and feelings about women and the way they drive; those judgments are stereotypically applied to all women, and thus anger is directed here not just toward the one woman who has violated a good driving code but toward women drivers generally.

What your driver says and feels is not based on race in any sense and is therefore not an instance of racism per se. It is stupid, irrational, and sexist-but not racist. Surprisingly, though, people often lump all forms of prejudice and oppression under the one category, racism. You may need to clarify this early in your discussion. For any feeling, thought, or action to be racist, it must be based on some perception of race.

Situation 2


A white family-husband, wife, and two children-are relaxing in their suburban backyard. The house next door is up for sale, and they have seen prospective buyers come to look at it. A black couple has just left the property after spending considerable time there, and it appears that they might be interested in buying. Contemplating who their new neighbors might be, the wife turns to the husband and says, “I sure don’t want any niggers living next door!”


Clearly this is an example of a prejudice based on race. (This is easy so far!) In our logical minds, we know that the idea of making judgments based on race is one that does not make sense. But unfortunately, in the mind and heart of the speaker in this instance, some powerful ideas and feelings are operating.

Presumably the speaker knows nothing about the people she has seen except the visibly identifiable color of their skin. On that basis alone, she has made a pre-judgment about the desirability of knowing the observed couple. That is enough for her; she has already decided that she does not want them or anyone like them as neighbors. Skin color here becomes the operative definition of who the observed couple is. This is an example of personal racial prejudice, or pre-judgment.

Situation 3


A white couple whose home is for sale is conferring with the real estate agent who has been showing their house to prospective buyers. An offer that is within the owners’ desirable price range has been made by a black couple. The husband in the white couple makes it clear to the real estate agent that they have decided not to sell to blacks, and in fact says to the agent, “We will not consider any offer from blacks.”


Clearly again, racial prejudice is expressed, but there is an additional element. The couple has acted on their prejudice to deny to any black person or persons an opportunity to bid on the house. Added to the prejudice is a discriminatory action. It goes beyond the simple expression of racial prejudice, which could hurt the black couple if communicated to them, but whose impact would be limited to a psychological level. The discriminatory act additionally denies to the black couple something they want and for which they are prepared to pay the price being sought.

This is an example of racial discrimination, as distinct from prejudice. Prejudice is a matter of thought, feeling, and belief. It becomes discrimination when the prejudice is acted upon in a manner that denies to persons in the group against which the prejudice is held something desirable to them. Since the discriminatory act is here based on race as defined by skin color, it is racial discrimination, a form of racism.

Situation 4


Developers have recently opened for rental a large number of housing units in a metropolitan area’s urban center, where the lack of housing is a major crisis. The developers have decided that in this market they can be selective about tenants, seeking only people to whom they want to rent. They have decided that one way to limit the prospective clientele is to restrict rentals to people who have no children. That becomes a clear and openly stated policy. The developers have been renting for about six months, and in every case where a family with children has expressed interest, they have made their policy of no children clear.

A local Hispanic agency has now challenged the developers, claiming that the policy is discriminatory. A large number of Hispanic people in the area are in need of housing; among them, a very high percentage are families with children. The developers’ policy automatically cuts out a disproportionate number of Hispanic families and black families as well. The policy is therefore discriminatory, the Hispanic agency claims.


This situation is a bit more complicated than the first three. Several questions need to be answered: Does the policy really have anything to do with race? In enacting the policy, did the developers intend to keep blacks and Hispanics out? Does the policy, in fact, have the effect of keeping blacks and Hispanics from the housing?

A court case like this can keep lawyers busy and rich for years! Some lawyers will gather statistics to show conclusively that a very high percentage of black and Hispanic families are barred from this housing by the policy, and that, in contrast, a much lower percentage of white families in the area are limited. They will argue that the policy itself, aside from any intention to discriminate, does in fact discriminate.

Other lawyers will argue that, in order to claim discrimination, it must be proved that discrimination against black and Hispanic families is intended. Still others may claim that the policy discriminates against all families with children, but not on the basis of race.

Intention to discriminate is very difficult to prove. To do so in a court of law, one must have specific evidence of that intention in the written or spoken words and expressed opinions of the creators of the policy. If, for instance, one could produce a witness who claims to have heard a developer of the property say that he did not want blacks or Hispanics renting his property, presumably that would help to establish intent to discriminate.

The problem with insisting that one must prove intent to discriminate is that, historically, people have many times set in operation management policies that cover the discriminatory intent. In this case the policy functions very neatly to keep at least many blacks and Hispanics out of the housing units. The effect of the policy is the same as if the intent were there. In a sense, the intent is irrelevant; the result is what matters.

The particular case on which this situation is based is in the courts at this writing, and we will let the courts decide the issue for themselves. For our discussion this example points us to another form that racism sometimes takes. In the above situation, an institutional policy does the racist work, whether the racism is intentional or not. The concept of institutional racism is a complex one and needs much greater explication than is possible here.

Situation 5


Several hundred small cities and towns surround an urban center; the population of this metropolitan area is three million. The whole area has grown in population over the past twenty years, with a significant increase in the percentage of people of color. Most of the increase in the number of people of color has been in the urban center, while the suburban towns have shown little change in the percentage of residents who are people of color.

A study of the metropolitan area shows three significant patterns developing:

–                   Housing opportunities for people of color have not opened up in the suburbs.

–                   The number of manufacturing and engineering jobs has increased in the suburbs; the urban center has shown an increase in service-related jobs, which generally pay less.

–                   Transportation systems are designed primarily to get people from the suburbs to jobs and entertainment in the city; they do not function to get large numbers of people from the city to jobs in the suburbs.

The converging effect of these three major patterns results in a limitation of job and housing choices for people of color, in contrast to the choices available to whites.


Now it is really getting harder to see how racism functions! In this situation we observe three massive systems intersecting with a result that is racist because the combined effect of these systems limits choices for people of color.

Situation 4 illustrates how institutional racism might function through a policy decision. But situation 5 necessitates an understanding of how institutions function in systems, which in turn have cumulative effects on the institutions of society.

The distinction can be illustrated readily by thinking about schools. One particular school is an institution, but that single institution is also part of a school system, made up of many schools. That particular school system is also part of a complex of other educational systems, including colleges, universities, and other huge categories of units with an educational purpose.

In situation 5, we see the three immense systems of employment, housing, and transportation – each of which is composed of many institutions. These systems function both independently and interdependently to serve people (sometimes we might wonder about the extent to which these systems actually serve, but that surely is their intention.) This illustration shows how racism may function through systems and the interaction of systems.

Clarity About Action

Gaining clarity about the different ways in which racism functions becomes especially important when adopting plans for action. It is important to be clear about what you are trying to change. You probably are trying to change or eliminate one of the following:

–                   a personal prejudice

–                   a discriminatory act or pattern of acts

–                   an institutional policy, procedure, or practice

–                   an injustice at a systemic level

The goal that is chosen – the object of change – will determine strategies, the choice of resources to use, and which groups of people will need to work together to achieve the goal.

Here is a simple illustration of how the choice of a goal affects decisions about action. If you are a teacher in a school and have determined that you want to work to create a classroom environment in which prejudices can be confronted and overcome, you know immediately that you have a great deal of control over the situation. You are the person who is responsible for what happens in that learning setting. You will need to gather material resources — books, films, class exercises, and so on. You will profit from consulting other trusted teachers and parents. But in the final analysis you can act pretty much on your own as you work toward your objective.

If, however, you decide to try to eliminate what you feel is a discriminatory behavior that you have observed in the principal’s office, your strategic choices become very different. You have to be very accurate about keeping records. You will need to work closely with other people. At some point you will probably have to work through some legal or quasi-judicial agency to process your complaint. With this goal in mind you will move into very different strategies than you would have if your goal had been to affect classroom environment.

Should you subsequently decide to work to change a school board policy that you believe has a racist effect, or should you want to change certification procedures for teachers at the state level, once again you move into realms where strategic choices are very different. In these actions you will need to coalesce with others, you will be dependent upon group functions, and you will need to come to grips with issues of institutional and systemic power.

Most people that I have known over the years who have been concerned about racism choose to work on bringing about change at the personal, attitudinal, and behavioral level. Such efforts are always to be applauded and supported. However, the analysis I have suggested here leads to a conviction that, if we do not also work at the level of institutional and systemic change, institutions and systems will operate as they always have – namely, in patterns that are racist more often than not.

No plan or conspiracy has to exist in order for institutions and systems to be racist, though, of course, such plans may be made when extreme bigots get together. Most of us are not in touch with such persons on a daily basis. Simply stated, if those of us who are white continue to believe, perceive, analyze, and act the way we always have, then the result will be racism in the institutions we control or influence. To change those patterns requires intentional plans, implemented consistently over a long period of time. The knowledge of how to bring about change is available to us; the major question is one of will. Do we really want to see change?

For those of us who are Christian, the question of will is not confined to a statement of what we want. We are not here to fulfill our wills alone; we must also ask what God’s will is for all people whom God has created. Let us pray to seek congruence between what we want to see happen and what God wills.

Who Needs to Change?

For those of us who are white, once we have come to recognize the presence of racism in our midst in its many forms, that inevitable moment comes when we must decide whether or not to make those personal and institutional changes that are necessary if we are to become active in the struggle against racism.

Most often when whites decide to work against racism, they concentrate on ways in which black society, black people, or other people of color might change. That happened in 1968 after the Kerner Commission reported that white institutions were deeply implicated in the creation of what it called two separate, unequal. societies. Unfortunately, most of the programmatic efforts that followed upon that report were designed to bring about changes in communities of color, with little done to suggest how white people and white-controlled institutions might change. What we need now is a major commission that begins where Kerner left off ¾ with the assumption that much of the cause of racism lies among whites – and then proceeds to make recommendations for white change.

On the conviction that no such commission will be appointed, I will proceed to make my own suggestions, based on more than twenty years of focusing on what whites can do to work for the elimination of racism. Some things need to be done to bring about change in white persons, and some things need to aim at changes in institutions that are controlled by white people.

Gaining a New View of History and the World

Most of us who are white have been taught a distorted view of history and of the world; we need to make a conscious effort to compensate for that mis-education.

The history we have been taught and the view of the world we have learned have been from a European, American, and white perspective. Only recently have there been modest attempts to include a wider perspective.

A simple test about the histories of nations and peoples on the African continent, of native peoples in North America, of Hispanics in Central and North America, or of Asians who migrated to the United States would illustrate how little most of us who are white really know. Even educated white people often express incredibly ignorant views. Consider, for instance, the law professor who said to me that there never were any civilizations in Africa, or the high school teacher in a prestigious Boston school who asserted that there is no such thing as culture among native peoples!

Again, the contributions of people of color to our own national history are largely unknown among whites because they were not included in what we were taught as children. The title of Bill Cosby’s film, Black History: Lost, Stolen, or Strayed? conveys the point. The contributions of blacks and other people of color were simply ignored in the history books; as a result, we have widespread ignorance of those contributions. Even the traditional geographical projection of the continents has been challenged as white and European based. The old Mercator Map expanded the image of the size of land masses in the Northern Hemisphere which was inhabited mostly by white people. The more recently developed Peter’s Projection Map, which more accurately reflects the size of land masses, shows us a very different view, with greater size emphasis on areas occupied mostly by people of color. New geographic perspectives and history taught from a multiracial point of view will give us a whole new picture of what the world is like.

Compensating for the distorted view of history and geography that we grew up with will take some effort on the part of whites. We will have to read many new things and reinterpret much of history; we may even have to learn a new language. We will have to seek out the resources from which we can learn: individuals, museums, ethnic centers, magazines, newspapers, TV shows, every communication medium known. The effort must be a conscious, deliberate one, and with it will come a new world of excitement as learning opens our minds and hearts to new possibilities of understanding.

To prepare ourselves to assimilate new information, we will need a new sensitivity to accept and receive the new insights, perspectives, and learnings. Habits of the mind will probably need to change, and they will change as new information is absorbed. We will need to constantly check out the ways in which our willingness to receive the new information can be sharpened. That will not always be easy, but it is sure to be an exciting learning venture.

Overcoming Lies

Most of us who are white have been exposed to generations of lies about people of color; these lies have conveyed to us, in both blatant and subtle ways, that people of color are inferior. We need to consciously overcome these lies.

The major communication systems of this century, radio, movie, and television have been filled with lies about people of color. The Cosby film referred to previously, which pieces together clips from old movies, newsreels, and TV shows, is a quick history of how those lies were propelled into the culture. The dominant message of those lies is that blacks are nothing, people from whom no good should be expected. I saw the old movies as a child, you probably saw them, and many of today’s college students tell me that they saw the questionable old TV shows in their own childhood on Saturday morning TV reruns.

Unfortunately, today’s movies and TV shows sometimes repeat the same lies and often add new stereotypes. For many whites, those stereotypes generally are accepted and unchallenged features of the belief system that shapes their view of people who are not white. Every stereotype, every lie, has a demonstrable history, and many of these damaging notions were in the hearts and minds of the founders of our nation, built into the laws and structures of our society. These lies continue to be a part of the cultural air we breathe today.

Obviously, stereotypes about lazy, crap-shooting, lying, cheating, stealing, good-for-nothing blacks (expand or adapt the list for any group you choose) hurt those persons about whom the lies are taught. But at this point, I hope you will consider how those racial lies also affect those of us who are white. We ought to be concerned enough to purge any trace of those lies from our hearts and minds because they are poison and dangerous to our health.

Examining Assumptions of White Superiority

Equally dangerous to us as moral beings are the subtle ways in which we have been led to believe that whites are superior to blacks and others of color. We need to examine how we have been convinced that the needs and the priorities of whites are more important than those of people of color.

Here I am not concerned with the blatant and overt forms that this sense of superiority takes, for instance as expressed by members of the Ku Klux Klan or allied groups. Most whites have not succumbed to that sort of stupidity or bigotry. Consider instead the ways in which assumptions of white superiority may be operative at many institutional levels of our society.

Consider, for example, the public reaction to unemployment statistics. Pick any year out of the last thirty, and look up the unemployment statistics for the nation, your state, and your city; get the statistics broken down by race. You will find a consistent pattern in which unemployment figures among blacks are almost always twice as great or more as unemployment figures among whites; furthermore, the disparity between black and white youth is much greater.

Now imagine those figures reversed over a period of years. Imagine white unemployment being twice that of blacks, or simply imagine unemployment across the board being at the level that it has frequently been for blacks. Let your imagination suggest what the public response to such facts might be. Floods of protest would result. Political rhetoric would demand immediate change. A lot of citizens would be in the streets protesting if whites were unemployed at the rate of blacks. We would not stand for it!

The reality, however, is that only sporadically is there anything like a public outcry, then usually from black leaders. White society as a whole shows little concern that blacks are consistently suffering unemployment at a level twice that of whites. Often the statistics are not reported by race, and the disparity between races is hidden and thus easily ignored. The inequality is accepted as a fact of life; it is simply the way things work. The failure by society as a whole to respond with anger is an illustration of an assumption that black unemployment is less of a concern and less of a problem than white unemployment. The implicit, unstated assumption is that blacks are less important than whites. You and I as individuals may not believe that; we may in fact find that assumption abhorrent. But the facts speak loudly about our society’s values. Other statistics in numerous areas of social and economic life indicate a similar assumption of white superiority. Statistics on health care services, infant mortality, school dropouts, and the death penalty, for example, indicate that blacks suffer disproportionately high negative effects as compared to whites in the delivery of health services, the distribution of high-quality education, and the adjudication of justice.

Again, individual whites may find that fact repulsive, but the consistency with which these statistics pile up over the years indicates that society as a whole simply is not motivated to change these dynamics of inequality. If whites were as poorly served as blacks in cases such as these, we would be close to insurrection. The prevailing attitude seems to be that it is okay to tolerate vastly unequal treatment of racial groups in our society. Until we can turn that attitude around, the gap between the stated belief in racial equality and the societal behavior of inequality favors the continuance of the implicit assumption of white superiority. Measured by this standard, blacks, black life, black prosperity, and black rights simply are not valued as highly as whites, white life, white prosperity, and white rights.

Much work lies ahead for those of us who are white and who want to change the way we believe, understand, perceive, and act so as to diminish the racism in our personal lives. But the implications for institutional change as well are enormous.

Working for Institutional Change

We need to work at changing those institutions that have had such a racist effect on our personal lives.

The communications media, which have and sometimes still do perpetuate racist stereotypes, lies, and misinformation, are white-controlled. Likewise, the institutions that produce and distribute goods, services, and resources in this nation are white-controlled. Whites control the finances; whites manage; whites make the decisions. Very few exceptions disturb this picture of white control. Those of us who are white must think long and hard about the ways in which we can use the power we have in those institutions to bring about the changes that will at least minimize racist effects.

Where shall we begin to work for institutional change? The answer is easier to say than to do. Begin in the institutions where you are. If you are in a business, begin there. If you are in a government agency, begin there. If you teach, begin in your school or college. If you are not employed in a particular institution, consider the ways in which you consume services, and identify the ways in which you may have some influence in those situations. Few of us are without influence or power of some sort in some institution.

The one institution that readers of PACE share membership in is the Church. Because of its belief in the inherent dignity of all persons, that institution ought to be better than others in regard to racism. Experience teaches us that, in fact, the Church is neither better nor worse than other institutions when measured in terms of racism. The Church does, however, provide us with a common place in which we can carry on our work against racism.