Racism Is Actually Really Bad (in Case You Were Wondering)

August 21, 2017

At first it seemed that there would be nothing to write regarding the recent events in Charlottesville, Virginia; that there would be little approaching insightful commentary to be offered. The death of Heather Heyer was plainly an unmitigated tragedy; the actions of the driver who caused her death were clearly of sufficient recklessness to constitute manslaughter, if not murder; and there is no moral high ground to be seriously claimed by neo-Nazis, neo-Confederates, white nationalists, or other white supremacists.

So it seemed. But the days following revealed an alarming number of individuals stepping forward to place the counter-protestors in para delicto, as if violence, and not racism of the most virulent kind, was the only moral issue at hand. And when some of those individuals turned out to be Catholic, it became the duty of your humble servant to take a stab at setting the moral table in an orderly manner, not relying on his own insights, a practice which he hopes to successfully eschew, but relying instead upon Catholic teaching as a source of light into a very dark place.

It should be stated, therefore, without ambiguity, that racism is an absolute sin, an intrinsic evil. Thus the Second Vatican Council pronounced that the “Church reproves, as foreign to the mind of Christ, any discrimination against men or harassment of them because of their race, color, condition of life, or religion.” [1] In Pacem in Terris, Saint Pope John XXIII told us that truth “calls for the elimination of every trace of racial discrimination….” (Sec. 86) [2] In Populorum Progressio, Pope Paul VI called racism “a cause of division and hatred within countries whenever individuals and families see the inviolable rights of the human person held in scorn, as they themselves are unjustly subjected to a regime of discrimination because of their race or their color.” (Sec. 63) [3] And in the Apostolic Letter Octogesima Adveniens, Pope Paul VI had this to say:

“Among the victims of situations of injustice - unfortunately no new phenomenon - must be placed those who are discriminated against, in law or in fact, on account of their race, origin, color, culture, sex or religion.

“Racial discrimination possesses at the moment a character of very great relevance by reason of the tension which it stirs up both within countries and on the international level. Men rightly consider unjustifiable and reject as inadmissible the tendency to maintain or introduce legislation or behavior systematically inspired by racialist prejudice. The members of mankind share the same basic rights and duties, as well as the same supernatural destiny. Within a country which belongs to each one, all should be equal before the law, find equal admittance to economic, cultural, civic and social life and benefit from a fair sharing of the nation’s riches.” (Sec. 16) [4]

The fact is, any “theory or form whatsoever of racism and racial discrimination is morally unacceptable.” (Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, Sec. 433) [5] There is no context in which it is permissible. It is intrinsically evil.

The same cannot be said for violence, however. On the contrary, there is a “right to legitimate personal and collective defence.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church [CCC], Sec. 1909) [6] Indeed, one may even kill in defense of one’s own life, provided it is, in fact, the preservation of one’s own life that is intended, and not the death of the aggressor. (CCC, Sec. 2263) [7] Even waging war is permissible under restricted circumstances (CCC, Secs. 2308-2309) [8], as is revolt against the government under similar restrictions. (CCC, Sec. 2243) [9] Resort to violence is not always wrong.

There are insufficient grounds, therefore, for the claim that the counter protestors in Charlottesville were as wrong in their actions as were the Nazis and other white supremacists just because both sides resorted to violence. The Nazis and white supremacists came to Charlottesville in support of an absolute evil. The counter protestors came for the purpose of objecting to that evil, which was, in itself, good.

Violence on the part of the counter protestors, where it was not necessitated by self-defense, should not be sanctioned here. At the same time, the threat that such groups as neo-Nazis, neo-Confederates, white nationalists, or other white supremacists present us with cannot legitimately be ignored. From the death camps of the Third Reich to the slavery and lynchings of the American South, we have more than adequate warning of what these groups would bring upon us. The fright that would inspire violence against them is understandable, if not entirely legitimate. In any event, the counter protestors were certainly not equally blameworthy with those who came to Charlottesville in support of an intrinsic evil.

Jack Quirk