Donald Trump, Catholics, and the Scourge of Racism (Gerald J. Beyer)

Catholic Social Ethics

Racism has never disappeared from the U.S. landscape. In spite of some ill-founded claims about a post-racial nation, racism has continued to manifest itself profoundly through the Obama years. But the spike in racist hate crimes and bigotry since Donald Trump’s election should shock the conscience of every American.

In my home town of Philadelphia, every first-year black student at the University of Pennsylvania recently received via a social media app messages with “scheduled lynchings.” The messages were sent using the pseudonym “Daddy Trump.”

On the day after the election, which was also the anniversary of Kristallnacht, several buildings in South Philadelphia were sprayed with “Sieg Heil 2016” and “Trump.” Swastikas were used to in lieu of the “T” in the president-elect’s name.

Such repugnant hate crimes and intimidation have taken place elsewhere in the region and in many other parts of the country since the election – some at Catholic institutions. The Southern Poverty Law Center reports 876 incidents in the ten days after the election.

As Catholic ethicist Megan Clark contends, calls for superficial unity in the face of this intolerable bigotry will not do.

We must all stand up and act – now.

For starters, President-Elect Donald Trump needs to denounce racism and racially-motivated violence immediately. He must do so in unambiguous terms. He needs to stress that his administration will prosecute all hate crimes to the fullest extent of the law. All those who voted for Donald Trump need to confront the animus that their candidate apparently unleashed.

Race and Class Matters

I am not claiming that all Trump voters are racist. Yet there is compelling data showing that an alarming portion of Trump’s electorate holds racist, xenophobic, and Islamophobic views. One study indicated that 27 percent of Trump supporters believe blacks are “lacking self-restraint, like animals.” But we should not accept the lazy binary that pits the “racist Trump voters” against the “enlightened, tolerant Democrats.” The same study revealed that “33 percent of white Democrats and 34 percent of high-income whites rated black people as less evolved than white people.”

Some voted for Trump to restore “White America.” Yet others voted for him because they feel left behind and abandoned by both parties’ establishments. According to CNN exit polls, while 52% of those making less than $50,000 voted for Clinton, Trump obtained 41% of the vote in this income bracket (7 % voted for another candidate). Note, as Jedediah Purdy observes, that Obama won among this group by a much larger margin. And Clinton suffered a sixteen point decline from Obama’s union household vote, of which he took 58%.

I have argued that Trump is not the answer to the plight of workers, and that Democrats generally have better promoted their rights. Nonetheless, I can understand why some have given up on the Democratic Party.

Many people in lower income brackets and working class households voted for Trump out of a sense of hopelessness. Many believe that the Democratic Party misunderstands and/or ignores them (Clinton herself admitted this in her nomination speech). As the editors of Jacobin magazine maintain, almost three-quarters of voters believe the economy is “rigged” in favor of the rich. By crowning Clinton the nominee well before the election season, the Democratic powerbrokers eschewed a “working class politics” and ignored the “simmering sense of alienation and class anger” among working class people.

In Pennsylvania, Ohio, and elsewhere along the Rust Belt some areas that strongly supported Barack Obama in 2012 turned to Trump in 2016. Nate Cohn points out, for example, that the Wyoming River Valley in Pennsylvania voted for Obama over Romney by double-digits but broke for Trump this election. President Obama’s margin of victory in Youngstown, Ohio was twenty points. This year Trump won this city. It seems implausible that all of these people, who voted for Obama, were motivated by racism this time. It is more likely, that they were “drawn to a crass strongman who tossed out fraudulent promises and gave institutions and élites the middle finger,” as George Packer puts it.

In short, there are many reasons why Trump won, more than I can address here. This is not to deny that racism, xenophobia, nativism, nationalism, sexism, and homophobia were significant factors.

Moving forward against these evils, however, will be much harder if we simply throw all Trump voters into a “basket of deplorables.” Christianity teaches that we should always search for the truth, and acknowledge that no one has a monopoly on it. We should also seek the light of God in all people, even as it has been dimmed by sin (St. John Paul II, Veritatis Splendor, no. 1).

Fight Racism Now

Seeing the light of God in all people does not, of course, preclude calling oppressors to conversion and fighting for justice. While scholars and pundits will continue to debate why Trump was elected, one thing is clear: we must resolutely face the vile and ugly racism and bigotry this election has evoked.

Trump supporters – and everyone else – can sign this pledge created by the Southern Poverty Law Center calling on the president-elect to condemn bigotry of every type and to ensure his administration is not comprised of any racists or extremists.

Some racists clearly feel emboldened enough by Donald Trump to promote white supremacy in broad daylight. He cannot ignore this if he aspires, as he said in his victory speech, to be the president of all Americans.

The Democratic Party – particularly its centrist/neoliberal wing – should acknowledge that its complicity in the decline of the working class’s living standards not only hurt those people and lost the election. It also has stoked the fires of racism. As numerous scholars have written (with more nuance than I can provide here), race and class are inextricably intertwined in the United States. Economic anxiety and downturn exacerbate racism. Touré F. Reed’s powerful piece gets at the nexus between class and race, and rightly chides liberals for decoupling them.

Catholic bishops and priests, some of whom either stated or implied that voting for Trump was the only morally licit choice, need to remind Catholics emphatically that racism is a grave evil. In the words of St. John Paul II, “racism is a sin that constitutes a serious offence against God.” They would also do well to recall the words of Bishop Daniel Flores of Brownsville, Texas, who rightly stated that supporting the deportation of immigrants to a place where they will likely face death constitutes “formal cooperation with evil,” which is never permissible according to Catholic doctrine.

Unfortunately, many Catholics have not assimilated these teachings. More than half of white Catholics see immigrants as a burden to society, contradicting Catholic teaching on the dignity and rights of immigrants. In their massive sociological study American Grace, Putnam and Campbell indicate that while white Catholics are less racist than they were in 1970, 7% still believe blacks are “genetically inferior” and 25% would support a law that permits discrimination in housing. Another study concluded that white Catholics and white Evangelicals exhibit much less support than white secularists and members of other religions for “policies aimed at redressing racial inequality.”

As Rev. Bryan N. Massingale writes, racism is an “ethos” that has “malformed, conformed, and deformed” white Americans’ souls and psyches even though most are not aware of it. Moreover, all whites continually benefit from white privilege, even if some (upper and middle class whites) appropriate its unjust advantages more than others. As Cardinal George stated, “this ‘white privilege’ often goes undetected because it has become internalized and integrated as part of one’s outlook on the world by custom, habit and tradition.”

To reiterate, I am not arguing that all 52% of Catholics who voted for Trump are racists. But we can reasonably infer from the data that some are, and from the perspective of our faith even one is too many. Fellow Catholics should call them to conversion, as the duty to evangelize includes “the causes of justice and social concern.” To do otherwise is to “trivialize the Gospel and mock the Cross,” as the black bishops of the Roman Catholic Church stated in What we Have Seen and Heard. As the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) has stated, all Catholics have a duty to confront racism and white privilege – starting in their own families, schools, universities, hospitals, and parishes. Those of us who are white have a duty to be allies in solidarity with our brothers and sisters of color.

Gerald J. Beyer is Associate Professor of Christian Ethics at Villanova University. His work can be found at https://villanova.academia.edu/GeraldBeyer and on Twitter: @geraldjbeyer.

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