Racial disparities continue to persist in American life. As a response, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops recently instituted a new initiative to fight racism in all its forms.
Though racism — irrational animus toward others based on their skin color, ethnicity, or race — is a sin within the human heart and cannot be fully eradicated by public policy, we can work in the public arena to mitigate its effects.
Faith in the Public Arena
Combating racial disparities will require overcoming policies championed by both the political right and left that entrench established ideological and economic power structures. In other words, it requires the wisdom of Catholic social teaching.
The effects of racism can be measured many ways, but one way to look at them is the degree to which African Americans and other persons of color are excluded from social, economic, and political participation in American life.
The possibility of participation in the economy, in cultural life, and in politics, is, according to the Church’s social doctrine, a necessary condition for human flourishing. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church states, “The equality of men rests essentially on their dignity as persons and the rights that flow from it: Every form of social or cultural discrimination in fundamental personal rights on the grounds of sex, race, color, social conditions, language, or religion must be curbed and eradicated as incompatible with God’s design” (1959).
Laws remain on the books that, while not necessarily discriminatory on their face, disproportionately affect persons of color.
The policies that exacerbate racial disparities and deny social participation today are found primarily, though not exclusively, in three areas: education, criminal justice, and the family.
For example, too many children of color are trapped in underperforming schools and, as a result, there is a significant achievement gap between white students and students of color, particularly African-American and Latino students.
As education is the great ladder of opportunity, denying children the right to a good education puts a significant barrier in their path to social, cultural, political, and economic participation.
Kids need a lifeline, and giving families greater choice in education is a top civil rights imperative.
Similarly, kids trapped in failing schools and who lack hope often turn to a life of crime, which is known today as the school-to-prison pipeline. And because of overly punitive sentencing policies that helped politicians win elections, we imprisoned many nonviolent people unnecessarily, particularly African-American men, when what they really needed was treatment, counseling, or a job.
Putting more people in prison will certainly limit crime in the short term, but not without other long-term costs.
Fortunately, public officials on both sides of the aisle now recognize these costs, and Minnesota has led the way in criminal justice reform during the past few years, enacting policies such as “ban the box” and drug sentencing reform.
But more can be done, such as reconsidering the length of probation sentences imposed on offenders who have shown good character, as well as identifying ways to eliminate the collateral consequences of a conviction that impede access to education, employment, and housing.
Imprisoning large numbers of African-American men during their prime education and earning years has severely harmed their long-term economic prospects, as well as their ability to marry and form families. Many of these men are considered unmarriageable and, as a result, 70 percent of African-American children are born out of wedlock to women who are often not even partnered, let alone married.
A major difference in the percentage of white and black children born to married parents (64 to 30) is perhaps the most significant cause of racial disparities, and one that creates a cycle of poverty and exclusion that leads back to the education-to-prison pipeline.
According to the Institute for Family Studies, “Black children in the United States enjoy less family stability than white children, experiencing close to twice as many family transitions — union dissolutions and partnership formations — as white children. Family instability is associated with a host of negative outcomes ranging from asthma to obesity, and from teen pregnancy to substance abuse. It is also negatively linked with fundamental predictors of success in adult life like educational attainment. For these reasons, black children’s family instability is an important part of the U.S. stratification story.”
Similarly, welfare reform was meant to encourage marriage and foster family stability, but is often structured in ways that either do not encourage marriage, or even discourage it. That needs to change.
The data is in: Family structure matters to child well-being, and kids need both their mother and father to play an active role in their life.
To be sure, combating racial disparities is a complex and challenging problem. Other issues, such as discrimination in employment and housing, and the creation of barriers to economic mobility by the monopolistic behavior of businesses and industries, also play a role.
But to decrease the reality of an economy of exclusion and foster greater social participation by minorities and persons of color, education, criminal justice, and marriage are important places to start.
Jason Adkins is executive director of the Minnesota Catholic Conference.