By Dr. Alex Mikulich
Over 100 years ago, in his introduction to The Souls of Black Folk, W.E. B. Du Bois wrote: “the problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color-line.” Despite claims that we live in a “post-racial” society after the historic election of Barack Obama, the fact remains that the color line and racial hierarchy endures in the 21st century.
At issue for the Jesuit Social Research Institute, from the perspective of Roman Catholic social teaching and thought, is the persistence of disproportionate advantage for white Americans in relationship to pervasive and persistent disproportionate disadvantage for people of color in every sphere of life including health, wealth, income, education, housing, and the criminal justice system.
More than one issue among others, the contradiction between Gospel values and practices of racial inequality is scandalous. The contradiction between Roman Catholic and American claims for universal human dignity and equality, and the reality of social, political, and economic advantage that white Americans consciously and unconsciously accept and assume, betrays this scandal.
Racial prejudice, in every form, the Roman Catholic Church states:
denies equal dignity of all members of the human family and blasphemes the Creator, can only be eradicated by going to its roots, where it is formed: in the human heart.
In the U.S. context, in which too many assume that racial justice has been achieved because of passage of Civil Rights legislation in 1965, the Roman Catholic Church rightly emphasizes that
it is not enough that laws prohibit or punish all types of racial discrimination: these laws can be easily gotten around if the community for which they are intended does not fully accept them. To overcome discrimination, a community must interiorize the values that inspire just laws and live out, in day-to-day life, the conviction of equal dignity of all.
The Church is clear that conversion of people’s hearts must be joined with denunciation of every form of exclusion, and that the State and society should promote “equitable behavior, legislative dispositions, and social structures.”
Du Bois’ prescience regarding the persistence of racial injustice is no small part due to its historical rootedness. Race has been “a fundamental in global politics and culture for half a millennium. It continues to signify and structure social life not only experientially and locally, but nationally and globally.” In 2001, the Roman Catholic Church agrees:
The situation since 1988 with regard to racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance has regrettably not improved; indeed it has perhaps deteriorated, at a time when the movement of peoples has continued to increase and intermingling of cultures and multi-ethnicity have become “social facts.”
The Church and science agree that there is only one race—the human race—and that we all trace our roots to Africa. “Race” has no scientific basis. Divine revelation “insists on the unity of the human family.” The African proverb that “I am because we are” says it best. Drawing upon this African insight, the rock star Bono asks: “could it be that all Americans are, in that sense, African-Americans?” Theologically and practically, the Church calls all people to witness to the innumerable ways that “I am because we are.”
The U.S. Social and Historical Construction of Race and Whiteness
Contrary to science, however, society uses discrepant terms for “race.” For example, application forms that request an individual’s race use terms that refer to color (white, black), a common cultural and linguistic heritage (Hispanic), or a broad geographical region (Asian).
The ambiguity of racial and ethnic terms in society reveals a deeper problem with the historical construction of whiteness. The problem, the historian Nell Irvin Painter explains, is that the history of slavery helped construct the idea of the white race in contradictory ways. On the one hand, “Americans traditionally associate whiteness with freedom and blackness with slavery.” On the other, “Caucasian” as “a designation for white people originates in concepts of beauty related to the white slave trade from eastern Europe, and whiteness remains embedded in visions of beauty found in art history and popular culture.”
Although race has no scientific basis, “Americans cling to race as the unschooled cling to superstition.” White Americans tend to remain ignorant both of the fact that we are socialized racially and that there are contradictions between self-professed claims to values of equality and the ways we actually live in the 21st century. The philosopher Charles Mills calls this ignorance an inverted, or perverse, way of knowing in which whites “will in general be unable to understand the world they themselves have made.”
White Americans often tell people of color to “get over the past.” In doing so, whites miss James Baldwin admonition that “History, as no one seems to know, is not merely something to be read. And it does not refer merely, or even principally, to the past. On the contrary,” Baldwin continues,
the great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us, are unconsciously controlled by it in many ways, and history is literally present in all that we do. It could scarcely be otherwise, since it is to history that we owe our frames of reference, our identities, our aspirations. And it is with great pain and terror that one begins to realize this. In great pain and terror one begins to assess the history which has placed one where one is and formed one’s point of view.
The Construction of Whiteness in European Philosophy and in the Founding of the United States
Deeper assumptions about whiteness and non-whiteness have been socially constructed and re-inscribed throughout U.S. legal history. The interrelationship between cultural and legal construction of whiteness and non-whiteness is a powerful engine driving the continuity of racial assumptions that persist throughout U.S. history.
Given the educative power of law to shape cultural and moral norms, the legal construction of whiteness constitutes an enduring institutional mechanism through which whiteness has been re-affirmed as the normative standard. In other words, the legal construction of white and non-white in U.S. history is one engine that drives the way that the past continues to shape the present.
Whiteness has been made to appear natural, that is, as objective scientific fact, in U.S. cultural and legal history. This “naturalization” of whiteness has been established upon a set of unscientific assumptions concerning racial physical characteristics that have been established and reestablished as publicly held common sense knowledge through U.S. history.
The law is one way that society has invested enduring social meaning in physical features and lines of ancestry. Laws defining race and racial differences find their origin in ideas promulgated by modern European philosophers such as David Hume, Immanuel Kant, and Georg Hegel, to name only a few of many modern philosophers who argued for the intellectual, moral, physical, cultural, and aesthetic superiority of European “whites” over other socially constructed categories of races, such as “Africans, Orientals, and Lapps.”
In 1684, the French physician Francois Bernier first divided races by skin color. A prominent naturalist, Carolus Linnaeus, published The Natural System in 1735 in which he established four races: Europeans, Asians, Africans, and Americans. Cornel West has detailed how Western philosophers utilized pseudo-scientific physical and aesthetic ideals to conceive Europeans as “white, civilized, intellectual, gentle, inventive, [and] governed by law” versus Africans, who were constructed as “crafty, indolent, negligent, and governed by caprice.”
This philosophical, pseudo-scientific creation of European genius over all other races influenced the framers of the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution. The only people created equal by those documents were white, land-owning males.
Although Thomas Jefferson, the primary author of the Declaration of Independence, expressed some misgivings about slavery, he argued in Notes on the State of Virginia that racial differences were natural and organic and should be categorically applied to separate the races and protect the superior beauty of whiteness. This dualistic separation between white and non-white remains part of U.S. law and broader culture.
Anti-miscegenation laws, dating back to seventeenth century colonial America, were one primary way that social boundaries of white and non-white were drawn. Forty-one states enacted such laws, which endured until 1967. The stated purpose for regulating inter-racial marriage was to prevent people of African American, Native American, Asiatic Indian, West Indian, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and Filipino ancestry from marrying whites, as a way to protect perceived white purity. Anti-miscegenation laws were officially enforced by imprisonment, hard labor, and monetary penalty, and by vigilante justice, including lynching.
Laws barring interracial marriage extended to the process of naturalization into U.S. citizenship. For example, until 1931, a woman who was qualified in every respect to become a citizen, could not naturalize if she was married to a foreigner racially ineligible for citizenship. Moreover, even if a woman was already a citizen, she could be stripped of citizenship if she married a racially ineligible foreigner. In this way the law shaped procreative choices and who would be married to whom, reinforcing legal segregation in housing, public accommodations, and commerce. This historical background is critical because the contemporary spatial segregation of U.S. metropolitan areas along racial and class lines did not happen in a vacuum.
Legally, the U.S. Supreme Court established precedents, or “prerequisite” cases that delineated who should and should not be eligible for naturalization. The legal scholar Ian Haney Lopez draws our attention to a body of 52 cases decided between the Civil War and 1952 that demarcated who should or should not become a citizen. The courts utilized two primary rationales for delineating white and non-white: physical characteristics and publicly held common sense knowledge.
A 1913 South Carolina Federal District Court case, Ex Parte Shahid, for example, rejected the application for naturalization of a Syrian-born man based upon the court’s interpretation of physical European white characteristics. Ironically, citing the ambiguity of “free white persons” in the first naturalization statute approved in 1790, the court’s decision asks: “what is a white person?” In its tortured discussion of the question, the court admits that the 1790 statute is “uncertain, ambiguous, and difficult both of construction and application.” Nonetheless, bypassing ambiguity, the court concluded that
It would mean such persons as were in 1790 known as white Europeans, with their descendents, including as their descendants in other countries to which they have emigrated, such as the descendants of the English in Africa or Australia, or of the French and Germans and Russians in other countries. This may not, ethnologically or physiologically speaking, be a very clear and logical construction.
Haney Lopez explains that the emphasis upon descent, repeated three times in a single sentence, changes the ambiguity of white into a fixed, biological, and natural grouping. Instead of utilizing the ambiguity of the language of white and non-white as a way to question the credibility of physical, racial categorization, the court gave further legitimacy to a non-scientific concept.
The physical rationale for whiteness was reinforced by the court’s reliance on a second rationale, that of publicly held common sense knowledge. For example, U.S. Supreme Court rulings in Takao Ozawa v. United States (1922) and United States v. Bhahat Singh Thind (1923) fully articulated an assumption of common sense knowledge as an objective rationale for understanding the difference between white and non-white. Like the Shahid case, the court recognized the ambiguity of basing its decision upon skin color in the Ozawa case. The court based its decision against admitting Takao Ozawa, a Japanese man, on its interpretation of the original framers, which “was to confer the privilege of citizenship upon that class of persons whom the fathers knew as white, and to deny it to all those who could not so be classified.” In Thind, the court ruled that a white person “was a person the average well informed white American” knew to be white.
The problem with “common sense knowledge” is that it assumes a direct, unmediated, universal, and objective view of reality. In actuality, such “knowledge” is unscientific and incapable of self-criticism because it is thoroughly self-interested and self-preserving. It is also vulnerable to group bias. The desire to maintain position and power precipitates blind spots, or scotosis, as a dominant group seeks its own advantage over others. The group is unable to correct itself through the insights of others.
As Haney Lopez explains, in its construction of whiteness, not only did the court refuse to gain a critical perspective of whiteness through the experience of others, but it drew upon its own bias for whiteness as a way to denigrate non-whites. Not only is white different from non-white, it is, in the court’s view, the intellectual, moral, and socially superior opposite. Thus negative characteristics are imputed to blacks and positive attributes to whites.
This natural and moral dualism is evident in the language of Thomas Jefferson and clarifies the significance of the “one-drop of blood” rule of racial descent in the United States—i.e., white is purity and one drop of black blood renders one black, and, hence, contaminated.
A contemporary example of this point was evident throughout the 2008 presidential election. Although Barack Obama is of mixed background, born of a white mother and an African father, too often he was simply black. Moreover, his blackness was frequently questioned—is he black enough or not—while his whiteness and that of his opponents went unquestioned.
“White” has never been defined by the Supreme Court, despite the fact that the Court consistently measured who is not white in evaluating appeals for citizenship. The failure of U.S. courts to define whiteness is one powerful way our system of law maintains the naturalization of whiteness and, simultaneously, the perversity of white ignorance. Indeed, as a nation, we fail to understand this history and how politicians and judges have continually re-affirmed white advantage and bias, despite evidence to the contrary.
White group bias endures in contemporary sentencing. Although it acknowledges the validity of studies demonstrating racial disproportionality in sentencing, the U.S. Supreme Court and lower courts only admit evidence demonstrating intentional racism. Through this “pinched and parsimonious understanding of what constitutes racial discrimination,” as Haney Lopez phrases it, the courts legitimize unconscious racism and the notions of race that drive disparate sentencing practices.
For example, in a 1987 Georgia death penalty case, McCleskey v Kemp, the Supreme Court rejected statistics demonstrating racial disparities in sentencing because they did not prove intentional discrimination. This ruling, among many others documented by Lopez, perpetuates the current practice of sentencing blacks or those who victimize whites “will be incarcerated more often and for longer time-periods, reinforcing stereotypes of black criminality and white victimhood.” Haney Lopez concludes:
The long sentences accorded to those who victimize Whites in part result from, and in turn reinforce, notions of White social worth, and by implication, Black worthlessness. Law makes these notions self-fulfilling prophecies that further entrench racial differences.
Historical Overview of U.S. Racist Policy
Slavery: exploitation of African slaves was integral to creation of wealth for white slaveholding elite, and from which slaves derived no benefit. Fundamental contradiction between claim of Declaration of Independence to equality and practice of Founders.
Indian Removal Act of 1830: By this act of Congress, Native Americans were forcibly removed from their lands and resettled in territory that was of little interest to whites. Their property was then made available to white settlers. This also led to economic impoverishment of future generations of Native Americans.
Jim Crow: After the Civil War, there was a brief twelve-year period of Reconstruction that was followed by white resistance that prevented African American participation in the political system, segregated education and social services, and solidified a low-cost labor pool. The Supreme Court’s 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson instituted a U.S. system of apartheid until 1965.
Lynching: Terror enforced racial subjugation. 4,749 known lynchings between 1882 and 1968 recorded by Tuskegee Institute.
White Economic Privilege and Racial Oppression
Americans tend to assume that “the playing field is level” and that everyone starts at the same starting line. Economists at the Harvard Business School and Duke University recently asked a nationally representative panel of “regular” Americans to estimate the current level of wealth inequality. Respondents dramatically underestimated the existing wealth gap. Cultural assumptions of relative equality do not stand up against the facts.
Since Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in 1968, the income gap between blacks and whites has narrowed by just three cents on the dollar. In 2005, the median per-capita income stood at $16,629 for blacks and $28,946 for whites. Scholars note that at this rate of progress, income equality will not be achieved for 537 years.
In Mississippi, whites’ average personal earnings exceed that of African Americans by more than $10,000. In Florida, Hispanic and African American average annual earnings are just below $24,000, while whites earn over $30,000. In my home state of Louisiana, seven percent of white families have incomes below $15,000 and 25 percent have incomes above $100,000. The exact opposite is the case for African Americans: fewer than seven percent of African Americans have incomes above $100,000, and fully 25 percent earn less than $15,000.
Wealth—what you own minus what you owe—is vital for economic, health, educational, and overall well being. The gap in wealth is perhaps more significant than the earnings gap because wealthier families are able to afford the best education, access to capital to start or expand a business, finance health coverage and expensive medical procedures, reside in safer neighborhoods, procure better legal representation, transfer wealth to subsequent generations, and withstand financial hardship resulting from economic downturns or emergencies. As one of the most significant indicators of racial inequality, the wealth gap exposes the myth that U.S. Americans live in a “post-racial” society.
The latest evidence indicates that the wealth gap between white and African American families quadrupled over the course of a generation. From 1984 to 2007, the racial wealth gap increased by $75,000, from $20,000 to $95,000. No evidence demonstrates that this is due to the hard work, patience, and dogged determination to save on the part of whites. Some concede that there is a racial wealth gap but still maintain that we live in a post-racial society. They contend, first, that blacks are less frugal; and second, that blacks do not manage financial assets as well as whites. This argument was expressed by Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke in an April 2009 lecture. Neither argument holds up against the facts.
Economists on the political right and left find that African Americans save at a rate moderately higher than whites. Many higher-income African Americans offer more support to lower-income relatives than do whites, suggesting even greater black frugality with less to save. Recent research finds no racial differences in asset appreciation rates for families with positive net worth.
It is commonly but incorrectly assumed that Americans gain wealth through savings plus portfolio management. The combination of inheritances, bequests, and intra-family transfers account for the racial wealth gap more than any other demographic factor, including education, income, and household structure.
These intra-familial transfers—the primary source of wealth for most Americans with positive net worth—are transfers from blatant non-merit resources. That means that the beneficiaries of these transfers did not earn them. These non-merit transfers account for 50 to 80 percent of wealth position conferred to subsequent generations.
Contrary to a common white refrain—the past is over, so get over it—history is critical for understanding the racial wealth gap. Simply put, wealth begets more wealth and lack of wealth begets lack of wealth. Economist T. Kirk White developed an economic model to demonstrate that the conditions of wealth inequality at Emancipation (1863) could dictate current disparity even if “there had been no further bumps in the road.” At Emancipation, nearly 100 percent of African American households had zero net worth, having built wealth for whites for generations.
Moreover, the historical record is clear that there were multiple bumps in the road for African Americans after Emancipation. Not only did the nation fail to endow ex-slaves with the promised “40 Acres and a mule” after the Civil War, blacks were systemically deprived of property—especially land accumulated between 1880 and 1910—by government complicity, fraud, and seizures by white terrorists.
The original Social Security legislation of 1935, created during the height of the Great Depression to establish a basic level of economic security for workers, effectively denied benefits to 75 percent of blacks by excluding domestic and agricultural workers from this historic policy. The Federal Housing Administration’s selectively administered mortgage program effectively financed development of white suburbs as it dis-invested in, and denied housing and small business loans to urban African American neighborhoods.
Suburbanization of the white middle class was further facilitated by federal highway and transportation policies that included building highways through formerly healthy urban neighborhoods and provided mortgages for white veterans, mortgage-tax exemptions, and production of massive tract housing after World War II. Restrictive covenants, as well as housing and lending discrimination, inhibited blacks from accumulating wealth. All of these practices and public policies have exacerbated historic racial inequalities.
Spatial Racism: National Housing and School Re-Segregation
Francis Cardinal George, archbishop of the Archdiocese of Chicago, in his pastoral letter Dwell in My Love, utilizes the term “spatial racism” to describe residential hyper-segregation. Cardinal George notices how spatial racism creates a “visible chasm between rich and poor, and between whites and people of color.” Yet whites tend not to be aware of this chasm, or view it as normal and natural. More importantly, white physical, social, and moral separation from people of color is tied up with whites’ inability to understand or feel empathy for people of color, much less practice the solidarity called for by Roman Catholic social teaching.
Sociologists call hyper-segregation the “structural lynchpin” of American racial inequality. Housing location is critical to predicting access to quality public education, development of personal wealth, employment, health and safety, democratic participation, transportation, and child care. The national extent of white hyper-segregation cannot happen without the participation of the vast majority of white people and institutions, including whites who claim good intentions toward people of color.
The linkage between home ownership and relative wealth or poverty is well established. Nationally, whites are more likely to gain home ownership, are able to acquire more home equity over a lifetime, and will own a home earlier in life than people of color. Studies indicate that the relatively higher proportion of initial wealth of whites is dependent upon inheritances and gifts. At age 25, nearly 40 percent of whites and fewer than 20 percent of nonwhites are homeowners. By age 35, nearly 80 percent of whites own their home, compared with less than half of nonwhites. More importantly, whites are 2.65 times more likely than nonwhites to achieve $50,000 in home equity, 3.9 times more likely to achieve $100,000, and 6.15 times more likely to achieve $200,000 in home equity. The real estate mantra “location, location, location,” is also about the ways that home valuation is color-coded.
Even the wealthiest African American suburban communities lack access to the opportunities available in predominantly white neighborhoods. People of color find it increasingly difficult to translate economic gains, including homeownership, into neighborhood quality. Real estate steering and discrimination, exclusionary zoning and localism, and discriminatory lending practices compound and exacerbate the geography of racial wealth disparity.
A study by the Center for Responsible Lending finds that African American and Latino borrowers are more likely to receive higher-rate subprime loans than white borrowers, even when studies are controlled for legitimate risk factors. Institutional discrimination in housing and lending markets is one significant way that racial wealth inequality extends into the future.
Racial inequality and segregation are not only evident between cities and suburbs; increasingly, in the South “within city segregation and within-suburb segregation contribute equally to overall metropolitan segregation levels. Segregation may be even greater in suburbs and more difficult to change.
For example, in Louisiana, the white section of Baton Rouge has the highest median earnings ($32,631), the lowest percentage of adults without a high school diploma (8.8 percent) and the second highest life expectancy (77.3 years) in the state. This part of Baton Rouge is nearly 70 percent white, 23 percent African American, and 5 percent Latino. Yet the neighboring and predominantly African American part of Baton Rouge has the lowest median earnings ($16, 398), the third-lowest life expectancy (72.7 years), and its population is 88 percent African American, 9 percent white, and one percent Latino.
Housing re-segregation also contributes to re-segregation of the nation’s schools, another key site of the reproduction of U.S. racial inequality. Fifty years after the U.S. Supreme Court decided that school segregation is unconstitutional and “inherently unequal,” re-segregation of schools shows that “white students remain the most segregated from all other races in their schools. Whites on average attend schools where less than 20 percent of the students are from all other racial and ethnic groups combined. On average, blacks and Latinos attend schools with 53% to 55% students of their own group.” Gary Orfield concludes that “research consistently shows that segregated schools are usually isolated by both race and poverty, and offer vastly unequal educational opportunities.” Gulf Southern states, which had made tremendous gains in educational integration in the 1980s, now are losing their leadership as the nation’s most integrated schools.
The Where and How of Whiteness
White Americans tend not to be aware of the chasm of spatial racism that Cardinal Francis George addresses in Dwell in My Love. If they are aware of it, whites tend to view the chasm as natural and normal. The problem, of course, is that there is nothing natural and normal about white physical, social, and moral separation from people of color. The problem of this chasm is that it has been created by, and contributes to, the inability of whites to understand or feel compassion for people of color, much less practice the solidarity called for by the Church. This inability is termed “social alexithymia” by social scientists. This “white frame of mind” has difficulty understanding where people of color are coming from and what the racialized experiences of people of color are like. Most simply put, social alexithymia is the “significant lack of cross-racial empathy.”
Lack of cross-racial empathy becomes apparent in the everyday assumptions by which whites live. White “folk theory” or common sense knowledge takes things for granted as the way things are. Three key assumptions are held by white common sense thinking on race. First, white folk theory holds races to be biologically valid. This assumption persists, even though biological anthropologists and geneticists long ago demonstrated that there is only one race, the human race. An example of how this nonscientific, white common sense assumption persists is found in the argument that racial intermarriage will erase racial difference and conflict. In other words, the common sense assumption advances a genetic solution to a non-genetic, social construction.
This erroneous biological view also persists in the “one drop rule,” which held that any trace of African ancestry made a person African American. Whites enforced the “one drop rule” during the Jim Crow period between 1865 and 1965 to prevent interracial marriage and to segregate whites from blacks legally, politically, educationally, and culturally. This “one drop rule” assumption can be seen in the way that Barack Obama was described as the “only black in the U.S. Senate” and the “first African American” president even though he describes himself as the son a white, Kansas mother and a Kenyan father.
A second assumption of white folk theory holds that racism is entirely a matter of individual belief and that the ignorance of this individual view can be corrected by education. This view is commonly communicated in blog or newspaper opinion pieces that rightfully desire an end to racism and decry the use of racial epithets. While the anti-racist intention is good, the commonly proposed solution of educating individuals who are ignorant is completely inadequate to the task of addressing the institutional and systemic racist practices. Moreover, this individualist assumption fails to attend to the way that U.S. culture cultivates white folk theory of race.
A November 20, 2009 op-ed article by a Louisiana State University senior in the New Orleans Times-Picayune is an example of the individualist assumption. The piece, entitled “Tackling Bigotry at Ole Miss, LSU, and Other SEC Schools,” rightly criticizes common racist talk, attitudes, and practices at South Eastern Conference (SEC) football games. However, like white folk theory, the major assumption of the op-ed is that “it’s unfortunate for the individuals ignorant enough to believe such behavior is ok.” After all, “hopefully,” white racism is not “in the majority.” Although the behavior widely persists in the institutional and cultural context of SEC football games, the proposed solution is to educate individuals to overcome “intolerance,” ignoring how these beliefs and practices are rooted in U.S. culture.
A third key assumption of white folk theory is that prejudice is part of the human condition, a view that is commonly described in the statement that “all people prefer to be with their own kind.” Instead of listening to the experience and wisdom of people of color, or interrogating the magnitude of white power, whites use this third assumption to focus not upon our own responsibility but to shift the onus to practices of the victims of racism. For example, whites commonly point out that non-whites ‘prefer to be with each other.’ A stereotypical example of this point is the way that self-segregating seating occurs in school cafeterias. White folk theory blames segregation on students of color and treats white self-segregation on the same moral plane as students of color without analysis of the power issues at stake in the school and society.
As the 20th century philosopher-theologian and Jesuit priest Bernard Lonergan understood, the inability of common sense knowledge to explain reality offers the opportunity to think critically and question how human relationships create de-humanizing social conditions. Lonergan argued that the key to intellectual and moral conversion away from the bias of folk theory is that “one has to listen to criticism and protest. One has to remain ready to learn from others.”
The fact that most white Americans tend to remain ignorant of the criticism articulated throughout U.S. history from diverse African Americans such as Phyllis Wheatley, Ida B. Wells, W.E.B. Du Bois, Stokely Carmichael, Audre Lorde, Malcolm X, Margaret Walker Alexander and too many others, underscores Lonergan’s point. Yet Lonergan’s insight is easily missed by white Americans if whites continue to live in self-segregated localities separate from the experience and perspective of people of color.
In other words, these assumptions of white folk or common sense knowledge do not develop in a vacuum. It is critical to understand where whites live, how they live, and how whites educate whites into a racialized society, to understand how white folk theory develops.
The sociologist Eduardo Bonilla-Silva explains how white socialization or a “white habitus” conditions intra-group identity and cohesion. He defines white habitus as “a racialized, uninterrupted socialization process that conditions and creates whites’ tastes, perceptions, feelings, and emotions and their views on racial matters.” White habitus occurs within a separate residential and cultural life that fosters a white culture of solidarity and negative views about nonwhites. Too simply put, white habitus entails both position—the social geography, location, and power of whiteness—and practice—the ways whites are socialized to perceive and act within the world.
Described in more complex terms, white culture both shapes the social geography of residential and educational segregation and is also shaped by the moral landscape of white segregation. White self-segregation physically, socially, and morally structures the societal relationship between privilege and oppression. As the theologian M. Shawn Copeland explains, “ordinarily, [non-white] bodies are “invisible” in the process of historical, cultural, and social creativity and representation, but should these non-white bodies step ‘out of place,’ they are subordinated literally to suveillance, inspection, discrimination, assessment, and containment.”
Ethnographic studies of how whites describe their own experience demonstrate that within white gated communities, white self-perceptions of “niceness” and fear of others is initially utilized as a rhetorical way to justify living in a residential development that excludes racial others. More importantly, when whites describe themselves as “nice” and nurture fear of others, they inscribe racist assumptions into the landscape. Although the physical landscape and the perceptions that whites use to describe the landscape is socially constructed, this reality is seen as normal by whites and out of whites’ everyday awareness.
Thus, for example, within the white habitus, a white neighborhood is normal, while a black neighborhood is “racially segregated.” In other words, white habitus constitutes a racially-biased intellectual and moral horizon that defines, controls, and segregates different, other, non-white bodies.
As demonstrated Bonilla-Silva and other social scientists, whites are not likely to engage in inter-racial friendships that include a high degree of interaction, interdependence, and closeness, despite their self-professed support for racial equality. Regardless of the level of assimilation of African Americans, white geographical isolation from blacks does not “provide fertile soil upon which primary interracial associations can flourish.”
The problem of white habitus and white hyper-segregation is that it is a dynamic site for the reproduction of white dominance within the power dynamics of the neighborhood, state, and nation. The mechanisms of the white habitus include physical, social, and moral distancing from people of color, as well as denial of whites’ self-sense of racial superiority, fear of racialized others, and intra-white solidarity. Perhaps most significantly, the profound evil of whiteness concerns whites’ lack of empathy for people of color and the inability to perceive how whites need people of color to become fully human and open to transformation in God’s love.
The Future and Racism
The sociologist Eduardo Bonilla-Silva persuasively argues that the U.S. is “evolving into a complex and loosely organized triracial stratification system similar to that of many Latin American and Caribbean nations.” Roughly stated, (see Bonilla-Silva’s full analysis), the three groups in order of relative power are i) whites; ii) lighter skinned Latinos, and Japanese-, Korean-, Chinese-, and Middle Eastern Americans; and iii) blacks, dark-skinned Latinos, Vietnamese, Cambodians, Filipinos, and Laotians. Although the emerging order will be more pluralistic and exhibit more racial fluidity than before, it “will serve as a formidable fortress for white supremacy.”
New forms of white racism do not depend upon the overt racism of Jim Crow. Instead, white “colorblind” ideology adapts four tropes or strategies to maintain privilege: i) Utilize an abstract liberalism that rhetorically supports equal opportunity but opposes any policy to alleviate persistent inequality; ii) Explain away race by claiming it is natural; for example, segregation occurs because “everybody is attracted to people who look the same”; iii) Claim inequality is due to cultural difference, for example, “Mexicans don’t value education as much as Japanese;” and iv) Minimize racial consequences by arguing “it’s past—get over it."
Whites utilize these tropes consciously or not to form an ideological wall that may be more difficult to dismantle than Jim Crow. This ideological wall becomes impenetrable by employing a safe, colorblind way to state racial views without appearing to be irrational or overtly racist. The wall is further reinforced as whites adapt the four tropes, often in tandem, to project racial innocence and avoid the absolutism of Jim Crow.
A deeper irony for whites concerns how we de-humanize ourselves as we collectively deny complicity in racial oppression. Most whites have yet to explore the profound damage racism has done to us and the way we need people of color to become authentically human. As Catholic social teaching recognizes, there is a way beyond American irony through two wells of transformation: God’s love and those whom we oppress. Dare we drink from these wells?
- Blueprint for Social Justice (Loyola University, New Orleans)
- Color Lines Magazine
- Department of Sociology (Rice University)
- Highlander Research and Education Center
- Institute for the Study and Promotion of Race and Culture (Boston College)
- John Hope Franklin Center (Duke University)
- Kellogg Institute for International Studies (University of Notre Dame)
- Roy Wilkins Center for Human Relations and Social Justice (University of Minnesota)
- The Carter Center News and International Affairs
- The Martin Luther King, Jr. Center
- The School of Social Service and Administration (The University of Chicago)
 Pontifical Commission on Justice and Peace, The Church and Racism: Towards a More Fraternal Society (The Vatican, 1988), #24.
 Ibid., Church and Racism, #24.
 Ibid., Church and Racism, #26.
 Howard Winant, The World is a Ghetto: Race and Democracy Since World War II (New York: Basic Books, 2001), p.1.
 Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, Contribution to World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance (2001), #4.
 Pontifical Commission for Justice and Peace, The Church and Racism: Toward a More Fraternal Society (The Vatican, 1988), #25.
 Ibid., Church and Racism, #20.
 Nell Irvin Painter, The History of White People (New York: W.W. Norton, 2010), p.xi.
 Ibid., History of White, p.xii.
 Charles Mills, The Racial Contract (Cornell University Press, 1997), 18.
 James Baldwin, “White Man’s Guilt,” in The Price of the Ticket: Collected Nonfiction 1948-1985 (New York: St Martin’s Press, 1985), p.410.
 Ian Haney Lopez, White By Law: The Legal Construction of Race (New York University Press, Revised and Updated, 2006).
 Cornel West, Prophesy Deliverance: An African-American Revolutionary Christianity (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1982), chapter 2, “A Genealogy of Modern Racism.”
 See Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia Query XIV available online at http://www.pbs.org/jefferson/archives/documents/frame_ih198149.htm (see especially pages 229-231), accessed May 13, 2011.
 See Randall Kennedy, Interracial Intimacies: Sex, Marriage, Identity, and Adoption (New York: Vintage Books, 2003).
 Ibid., White By Law, p.174.
 Bernard Lonergan, Method in Theology (Minneapolis: Winston Press, 1979, ), p.52-53.
 Ibid., White By Law, p.99.
 Michael Norton and Dan Ariely, “Building a Better America—One Quintile at a Time,” online at http://www.people.hbs.edu/mnorton/norton%20ariely%20in%20press.pdf (Accessed May 9, 2011
 Darrick Hamilton and William Darity, Jr., “Race, Wealth, and Intergenerational Poverty: There will never be a post-racial America if the wealth gap persists,” The American Prospect (September 16, 2009).
 T. Kirk White, “Initial Conditions at Emancipation: The long-run effect on black-white wealth and earnings inequality,” Journal of Economic Dynamics and Control Vol 31, (2007): p. 3370-3395.
 William Darity, “Forty Acres and a Mule in the 21St Century,” Social Science Quarterly Vol. 89, No. 3, (September 2008): p. 656-665.
 Catholic Charities USA, Poverty and Racism: Overlapping Threats to the Common Good (2008).
 Francis Cardinal George, O.M.I., “Dwell in My Love: A Pastoral Letter on Racism,” (April 2001), online at http://www.archchicago.org/cardinal/dwellinmylove/dwellinmylove_2.shtm (Accessed May 9, 2011).
 john a. powell, “Reflections on the Past, Looking to the Future: The Fair Housing Act at 40,” Journal of Affordable Housing and Community Development Law Vol. 18, Issue 2, (Winter 2009): p145-168.
 Mark R. Rank, “Measuring the Economic Racial Divide Across the Course of American Lives,” Race and Social Problems Vol. 1, No. 2, (June 2009): p.57-66.
 Edward N. Wolff, “Racial Wealth Disparities: What are the Causes?” Indicators, Vol. 1, No. 2, (Spring 2002): p. 63-76, here p. 68.
 Melvin Oliver and Thomas Shapiro, Black Wealth/White Wealth: A New Perspective on Racial Inequality (New York: Routledge, Second Edition, 2006), pp. 8-10.
 Debbie Gruenstein Bocian, Keith S. Ernst and Wei Li, “Unfair Lending: The Effect of Race and Ethnicity on the Price of Subprime Mortgages” (Center for Responsible Lending, May 31, 2006) online at http://www.responsiblelending.org/mortgage-lending/research-analysis/rr011-Unfair_Lending-0506.pdf (Accessed May 9, 2011).
 Ibid., powell, “Fair Housing Act at 40,” p.149.
 Sarah Burd Sharps, Kristen Lewis, and Eduardo Borges Martins, A Portrait of Louisiana: Louisiana Human Development Report (American Human Development Project of the Social Science Research Council, 2009), p.21. Online at http://www.measureofamerica.org/wp-content/uploads/A_Portrait_of_Louisiana.pdf (Accessed May 9, 2011).
 Gary Orfield, “Schools More Separate: Consequences of a Decade of Resegregation,” (Civil Rights Project, University of California at Los Angeles, 2001) online at http://civilrightsproject.ucla.edu/research/k-12-education/integration-and-diversity/schools-more-separate-consequences-of-a-decade-of-resegregation/orfield-schools-more-separate-2001.pdf (Accessed May 9, 2011).
 Gary Orfield and Chungmei Lee, “Historic Reversals, Accelerating Resegregation, and the Need for New Integration Strategies,” (Civil Rights Project, University of California at Los Angeles, August 2007) online at http://civilrightsproject.ucla.edu/research/k-12-education/integration-and-diversity/historic-reversals-accelerating-resegregation-and-the-need-for-new-integration-strategies-1/orfield-historic-reversals-accelerating.pdf (Accessed May 9, 2011).
 Joe Feagin, Racist America: Roots, Current Realities and Future Reparations (New York: Routledge, Second Edition, 2010), p. 89.
 Jane H. Hill, The Everyday Language of White Racism (Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2008).
 Ibid., Lonergan, Method, p. 240.
 Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, Racism without Racists: Color-Blind Racism and the Persistence of Racial Inequality in the United States (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, Second Edition, 2006), p. 103.
 Bryan N. Massingale, Racial Justice and the Catholic Church (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2010). See Massingale’s description and analysis of white culture pages 13-42.
 M. Shawn Copeland, Enfleshing Freedom: Body, Race, and Being (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2010), p. 15.
 Ibid., Bonilla-Silva, p. 124.
 Ibid., Racism without Racists, p.179.
 See Mary E. Hobgood’s elaboration of this insight in “White Economic and Erotic Disempowerment,” in Interrupting White Privielge: Catholic Theologians Break the Silence (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 2007), p. 40-55.