The Reality of Economic Privilege
We are pleased to present this document to you. It grew out of our 2006 policy paper: Poverty in America: A Threat to the Common Good. In that document we called for policy changes to reduce by half the number of Americans living in poverty by 2020. Catholic Charities USA and Catholic Charities agencies across the country are aware that we cannot responsibly address the issue of poverty without addressing the impact of race. In our Vision 2000 statement, we recognized the connection and interplay between these issues when we stated that Catholic Charities USA needs to be “a leader in eradicating racism which permeates our society and its structures.” Never has the urgency to address the issues of poverty and racism been so visible and paramount than during and after Hurricane Katrina.
As a nation we were shocked, appalled, and embarrassed as we watched along with others from around the world the life and death consequences of being poor in America. What Americans and the world witnessed, however, was not a surprise to Catholic Charities USA and its member agencies. Everyday we observe poverty and racism as we serve a disproportionate number of people of color who are poor. When the tragedy in the Gulf Coast occurred, we were hopeful that finally America would be moved to action – to develop solutions that would result in our nation finally addressing poverty and racism to ensure that never again in our history would we experience the tragedy and suffering that took place in the Gulf Coast.
This is Not an Easy Conversation
But as fast as the winds of Katrina blew in and the flood waters rose, the will of the people and the political will in Washington, D.C. receded. Two years later, the issue of poverty and racism remains unchanged. Therefore, it now requires our collective attention. This document is being presented to assist us in advancing this long overdue conversation. In order to adequately and seriously address poverty in this country, we must have a candid conversation and subsequent action that changes the impact that race has on poverty. This is not an easy conversation, one that many of us might like to avoid. The document itself may evoke a range of emotions in each of us that may cause us to be very uncomfortable.
A Call to Action
Whether it is anger, sadness, guilt, or denial, this document will touch us each in a very personal way. This document helps us begin a process for change by first educating us, then causing us to reflect on our own personal experiences, and finally moving us to recommit ourselves to addressing the issue of racism and poverty in our lifetime. For some, the discomfort may cause inaction or polarization. We must not let that happen because for all of us this is a call to action. We ask each of you to join us in cutting poverty in half and in making our country whole.
The privileged status of whiteness did not “just happen.” It has been deliberately constructed over a long period of time. White privilege is the result of social policies, institutions, and procedures that deliberately created a system that advanced the welfare of white Americans and impeded the opportunities of persons of color. Among the most important effects and manifestations of white privilege are the economic advantages that have been conferred upon white Americans by public policy and political power throughout our history. Racism inevitably causes economic disadvantages and burdens for groups of color. Here are several key events and movements that exemplify the link between race and poverty, events that both burdened people of color seeking to escape poverty and eased the way for white Americans to advance their economic fortunes.
• The institution of slavery. Slavery means exploited labor; the labor of enslaved Africans was essential for creating wealth for others from which they often derived no benefit. Slavery resulted in the creation of wealth not only for the white slave-holding elite, but for all who benefited from and participated in a “slavery-centered” economy (e.g., merchants, bankers, fishermen, shipbuilders, traders, auctioneers, bounty hunters, and immigrant farmers).37
• The Indian Removal Act of 1830. By this act of Congress, Native Americans were forcibly removed from their lands and resettled in territory that was of no interest to whites. Their property was then made available for white settlers. This stolen land became the basis for white economic enrichment which could be passed on as an inheritance to future generations. This economic disenfranchisement also led to the impoverishment of future generations of Native Americans.38
• Supreme Court Decision of Plessy v. Ferguson (1896). This decision enshrined the realities of racial segregation, second-class citizenship, and “separate but equal” facilities in our national life. Among the many pernicious effects of this decision was the creation of inferior educational opportunities for African Americans. They and other communities of color endured severely restricted access to quality education. Segregated schools were poorly funded in comparison to their white counterparts. This created a deficit of educational attainment – the effects of which are still with us – which translated into economic disadvantage in the labor market, including participation in higher paying and socially prestigious professions.39
• The exclusion of Asian Indians from eligibility for U.S. citizenship. In 1923, the U.S. Supreme Court (U.S. v. Bhagat Singh Thind) ruled that while Asian Indians were indeed “Caucasians” by race, they could not be considered “white.” The result was that many Asian Indians were stripped of their naturalized citizenship. This meant that they were unable to legally own property; many had their assets taken from them and given to whites.40
• The exclusion of domestics and agricultural workers from the Social Security Act of 1935. At the height of the Depression, this law created a new public policy that established a basic level of economic security for many of the country’s workers. However, by excluding domestics and agricultural workers, this act effectively denied Social Security pensions and benefits to 75 percent of black workers.41
• The provisions of the Wagner Act (1935), which allowed unions to exclude African Americans from union membership. This legislation granted legal protections and recognitions to labor unions not previously enjoyed and gave many working class whites access to higher wages and benefits. However, because the act also allowed unions to exclude blacks from union membership and its benefits, it legally protected white laborers from competition in the job market, creating economic opportunities reserved for whites, and further maintaining the existence of a lower paid, exploited labor pool.
• The failure of the Federal Housing Administration (1940s and 1950s) to grant loans to even minimally integrated neighborhoods. This agency provided lowcost government-guaranteed loans to working class families, enabling mass home ownership and the accumulation of wealth that could be passed on to children. Ninety-eight percent of these loans were given to whites; blacks were granted less than two percent. The refusal to grant loans to integrated neighborhoods was a practice known as “redlining.”
Many more historical examples can be cited. These suffice in demonstrating how white privilege was deliberately created and often state-sanctioned. It also resulted in “unjust impoverishment” for groups of color and “unjust enrichment” for white Americans. “Unjust enrichment and unjust impoverishment are critical concepts for understanding [our nation's] past and present” economic realities and the link between racism and poverty.42
The pernicious effects of this deliberate and state-sanctioned “unjust impoverishment” endure to this day. This creates a serious obligation to repair the economic injuries and material deprivation that has been inflicted upon communities of color. Therefore, we support conscious efforts to correct past injustices with proactive deeds. The responsibility to repair the harm or injury done to another is long recognized in Catholic moral theology. Traditional moral teaching speaks of the duty of restitution, based on the principle that “when injustice is done it must be repaired.”43 The Holy See recently has applied this teaching to the specific issue of racial grievances and the question of reparations. This teaching recognizes that various forms of racial reparation are possible, including monetary compensation, formal apologies and statements of regret, and symbolic gestures (such as monuments and memorials to the victims of an injustice). 44 As an organization, Catholic Charities USA is not yet prepared to endorse either a particular mode of reparation or any concrete proposal that is under current discussion. Instead, we call for a responsible national study and resolution of this complex question that respects the principle that “social harm calls for social relief.”45
To read the entire brief, Poverty and Racism: Overlapping Threats to the Common Good, go to www.CatholicCharitiesUSA.org
36 For studies which survey the evolution and creation of white privilege and economic advantage, see Ira Katznelson, When Affirmative Action Was White: An Untold History of Racial Inequality in 20th Century America (New York: W.W. Norton, 2005); Joe R. Feagin, Racist America: Roots, Realities, and Future Reparations (New York: Routledge, 2000); and David R. Roediger, Working toward Whiteness: How America’s Immigrants Became White: the Strange Journey from Ellis Island to the Suburbs (New York: Basic Books, 2005).
37 Joe R. Feagin, Systemic Racism: A Theory of Oppression (New York: Routledge, 2006) 13.
38 See U.S. Department of State, “Indian Treaties and the Removal Act of 1830,” http://www.state.gov/r/pa/ho/time/dwe/16338. htm (accessed August 19, 2007); and PBS, “Indian Removal 1814-1858,” http:// www.pbs.org/wgbh/aia/part4/4p2959.html (accessed August 19, 2007). 39 See John Hope Franklin and Alfred A. Moss, From Slavery to Freedom: A History of African Americans, 9th Edition (New York: Knopf, 2000).
40 “Not All Caucasians are White: The Supreme Court Rejects Citizenship for Asian Indians,” http://historymatters.gmu.edu/d/5076 (accessed August 19, 2007). See also Ronald Takaki, Strangers from a Different Shore: A History of Asian Americans (1989).
41 The discussion of this and the following two items is indebted to Ira Katznelson’s study, When Affirmative Action Was White (see note 36).
42 Feagin, Systemic Racism, 18.
43 Among others, see Henry Davis, S.J., Moral and Pastoral Theology, Seventh Edition, vol. 2 (New York: Sheed and Ward, 1958) 316.
44 Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, “Contribution to World Conference against Racism,” #12. Available at www.vatican. va/roman_curia/pontifical_councils/austpeace/ documents.
45 NCCB, Economic Justice for All, #73.
Reprinted with permission from, “Poverty and Racism: Overlapping Threats to the Common Good,” a Catholic Charities USA Poverty in America Issue Brief.