Racism is a sin. It has been denounced by our popes and our bishops and leading Catholic theologians. I have yet to meet a Catholic who believes that racism is acceptable. However, during the past days of protests and demonstrations, I have encountered many Catholics who mistakenly believe that it does not exist.

In personal encounters and exchanges on social media, people professing to be Catho­lic have repeated the old myths that black people just need to get off welfare, work harder and stop breaking the law if they desire better treatment.

Such statements neglect the facts that many black people who are on welfare, along with many others, do work. They work at jobs that, by law, do not provide a salary sufficient to afford a decent home or food for their families. For example, it has been reported that a minimum wage worker would need 2.5 full-time jobs to afford a one-bedroom apartment in most of the U.S.

Another report noted that American taxpayers spent an estimated $6.2 billion on public assistance including food stamps, Medicaid and subsidized housing just for Walmart’s low-wage workers. Hardworking employees of other companies also have to rely on government assistance because, by law, their wages are kept too low to meet their living expenses.

How many working people of every color could be moved off the welfare rolls if we simply required companies to pay a living wage?

Yet even getting a job can be difficult for minorities. As Forbes magazine reported in February, “There is a wealth of research and evidence that suggests that people with more ‘ethnic-sounding’ names experience bias during the hiring process and are less likely to be called back for roles they are qualified for compared to their counterparts.” Calling these job-seekers lazy is not the answer.

Too many of our fellow Catholics seem ignorant of the fact that whites are the biggest beneficiaries when it comes to government safety-net programs such as the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, commonly referred to as welfare.

According to a report from the Department of Agriculture, more than 40 percent of SNAP recipients are white. Another 25.7 percent are black, 10.3 percent are Hispanic, 2.1 percent are Asian and 1.2 percent are Native American.

The myths about black crime also persist. For example, reports such as one issued by the Department of Justice Bureau of Justice Statistics found that a majority of most violent crimes are committed by people who are the same race as their victims. Indeed, the rate of white-on-white violent crime, it found, is about four times the rate of black-on-white crime.

Recognizing that the default response to social ills such as mental illness, drug addiction, homelessness, unemployment and illiteracy is too often incarceration, our bishops have advocated for sentencing reform and increased use of rehabilitative and restorative justice programs that focus on education, literacy, job placement and substance-abuse treatment

America’s bishops recognized the gap between reality and perception in 2018 when they issued their pastoral letter on racism, “Open Wide Our Hearts.”

While acknowledging the progress that has been made in race relations, they called for further catechesis to facilitate “conversion of hearts.”
They noted, “Too many good and faithful Catholics remain unaware of the connection between institutional racism and the continued erosion of the sanctity of life. We are not finished with the work.”

Furthermore, they wrote, “We cannot, therefore, look upon progress against racism in recent decades and conclude that our current situation meets the standard of justice.”

When the current demonstrations subside, the work of eliminating racism will continue. Let us humbly admit that no one has all the answers, but open ourselves to the truth about race in America.

Deacon Walter Ayres is director of Catholic Charities Commission on Peace and Justice