Big impediments to agreement on racism

After a series of columns about where we all agree, I come to the question of racism, and things become complicated. What I mean is that with the issues of immigration, jobs, abortion and the environment, overwhelming majorities of Americans agree on many of the same policy solutions. I have written on this over the last several months using studies and data to support these claims.

But when one searches for a simple poll that asks Americans if racism is good or bad, one finds nothing. This is not to say that no one is interested in the question. Search for “racism” on the internet and you will find a great deal, particularly about the president. No, what it means is that the “badness” of racism is so thoroughly ingrained in our society that no one has bothered to poll Americans on that question. Everyone today knows racism is bad. But it was not always so.

Racism, classically understood, is an ideology dating back to the 19th century that claims one’s own race is superior intellectually, physically and/or morally to another’s. As a pseudo-scientific ideology loosely based on Darwinian arguments, this kind of racism is a choice to believe something about one’s own race over and against others, and it was part of America for a long time.

But today, this is not even a debate. Racism is bad. Everyone but a few fringe groups agree on this. So why is racism such a complicated issue?

Perhaps part of the problem is that “racism” is apparently a difficult thing to define. There is the classical racism I mention above, but then there is the definition of racism given by others who say that it is “race plus power.” That means that if one belongs to a race that has a good deal of political power, then one is a racist. Gone is any need to prove that the particular person has made a choice to hate those of a different race. All that is necessary to be guilty of racism these days is that one be of the race in power.

I’m rather concerned about all of this because of my own family background. My father was from the Dominican Republic and was black. My mother is from Costa Rica and is white. And when they sought to get married in Michigan in the 1960s, the first priest they approached refused to marry them because they were of “mixed race.”

That is classic racism, but that same level of racism doesn’t exist in the church anymore, or I believe in the nation. Racism does still exist in the nation, but it comes in subtler forms. It is the topic of conversation quite a bit actually, but there is something sinister about the way we talk about race, about the way we use it as a means to political ends.

These days racism is used as a kind of cudgel to win an argument. One need not actually engage in someone else’s ideas if they have a certain skin color or if they belong to a certain political party. Call someone a racist or imply it, and the argument is won. This works precisely because our nation was so racist, because of slavery and the Jim Crow South, but it is sinister because it enables real racists.

Next month, I’d like to delve deeper into this question and draw out what the church teaches us. For now, let us agree to pray for an end to racism in all its forms.

Deacon Omar Gutierrez is director of the Pontifical Society for he Propagation of the Faith in the Archdiocese of Omaha. Contact him at

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