Overcoming Racism: What is Racism?

Submitted by: Jim Bacik

In 2018, the American bishops published a pastoral letter, Open Wide Our Hearts: The Enduring Call to Love that remains a valuable religious and moral guide to overcoming the racism that continues to affect our country. The pastoral letter recognizes racism as our “original sin” and describes it as a “conviction or attitude” that one’s own race is superior to other races, which are deemed inferior and unworthy of equal regard. This distorted attitude can lead to sinful actions that exclude, ridicule, mistreat, or unjustly discriminate against persons on the basis of their race. Racist acts are objectively sinful because they violate the natural law by not giving others their just due and by failing to acknowledge the inherent dignity of other persons. From a Christian perspective, they are sinful because they violate Christ’s command to love our neighbor. Fear and hatred of others can arise when we forget the fundamental scriptural truth that all people are brothers and sisters, sharing a common origin “equally made in the image of God.”

The pastoral recalls the biblical story of Cain who forgot this truth and killed his brother Abel (Genesis 4:1-16). It also quotes the First Letter of John: “Everyone who hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life remaining in him“ (3:15). Racism also includes sins of omission when individuals and churches remain silent and fail to act when encountering racial injustice. The bishops acknowledge that the sin of racism, which denies the fundamental dignity of all God’s people, “persists in our lives, in our country, and in our world.” It is manifested in unjust housing restrictions, limited educational opportunities and high incarceration rates of black citizens.

The pastoral letter recognizes that we still suffer from “institutional racism,” which arises from practices and traditions that treat certain groups unjustly. It explains: “the cumulative effects of personal sins of racism have led to social structures of injustice and violence.” Upbringing and culture can infect our hearts with racist attitudes without our conscious knowledge or consent. Unconscious prejudice can lead to racist actions that we do not recognize as evil but which demean others and deny their just rights and benefits as citizens. As a prime example of systemic racism, the pastoral mentions the “Flint water crisis” which exposed thousands of children in Flint, Michigan to lead poisoning beginning in 2014 when the city switched its drinking water supply from the Detroit system to the Flint river in a cost-saving move. This disaster resulted from policy decisions that denied needed resources to update the water system in a segregated, majority African American community.

Finally, the American bishops who have consistently opposed abortion, euthanasia and assisted suicide as intrinsic evils, unequivocally declared “racism is a life issue,” indicating that it is also an intrinsic evil that violates human dignity. This important declaration highlights both the grave moral evil of racism and also our personal responsibility to do what we can to overcome this intrinsic evil.


What element of the bishops teaching is most helpful to me in understanding racism?

About the Author

Fr. James J. Bacik has served as a priest of the Diocese of Toledo since his ordination in 1962. He is a widely regarded theologian, writer, lecturer and pastor who served as campus minister and adjunct professor of humanities at the University of Toledo for more than 30 years. Fr. Bacik is an AUSCP member. Visit his website at frjimbacik.org.

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