The USCCB’s Ill-Considered Anti-Racism

On the few occasions that the USCCB has, as a body, decided to publicly criticize now-President Joe Biden for his more egregious rejections of Church teaching, a reminder has always been included that the bishops eagerly look forward to working with the new administration on those issues in which Biden’s politics do not contradict (or, at least, do not override) his professed Catholic faith. Thus, while the bishops condemn (as well they should) the president’s decision to send American tax dollars overseas to fund abortion, they heartily commend his endeavors in other tense areas of the social, political, and economic arenas.

Two actions in particular—among a first-week crop of unprecedented size—have won unearned episcopal praise. The first is a presidential memorandum calling for a review of the Trump administration’s replacement of the 2015 Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing Rule. Such a review is a clear first step toward reinstating the Obama-era regulation—which placed heavy burdens on states and municipalities to prove that they were actively working against any possible racial discrimination or segregation in housing in order to receive any federal funding from HUD—or something very much like them. The second is an executive order instructing the United States attorney general not to renew any contracts with private, for-profit prisons.

Both actions received the joint public endorsement of Bishop Paul Coakley of Oklahoma City, chairman of the USCCB’s domestic justice committee, and Bishop Shelton Fabre of Houma-Thibodeaux, chairman of the conference’s anti-racism committee. Both of President Biden’s actions, according to the two committee chairmen—in framing borrowed, apparently without question, from the administration itself—“promote racial equity.”

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There may be pragmatic reasons to seek common ground with the administration on matters of relatively less importance than, say, abortion. There is an undeniable political element to the episcopate, and the bishops may have good cause to curry favor with the temporal powers that is not readily apparent to those of us not in the know. To the extent that this is not a calculated or prudential judgment, however—that is, to the extent that the bishops actually believe what they are saying here—it ought to be quashed as quickly and conclusively as possible.

In justifying their endorsement of the criminal justice order, the bishops say simply that they “have long questioned the efficacy of private companies running prisons, and this step is a positive development in criminal justice reform.” That’s all well and good. There is plenty of room for a discussion about the prudence, and even the morality, of introducing profit incentives to the criminal justice system. Plenty of conservatives and Catholics have been conducting just that conversation for quite some time. One need not be a bleeding-heart liberal to wonder whether the cell block is an appropriate place for market economics.

The question remains, then: why is this being packaged as a victory for “racial equity”? Therein lies the problem: the bishops have clearly bought into the narrative, peddled incessantly by the secular Left, that the criminal justice system is a holdout from America’s racist past. Does anybody honestly believe that de-privatizing the prisons in which criminal sentences are served out will shift the racial composition of the citizens who receive such sentences? I certainly hope not, and I retain too much respect for the bishops of our Church to allow myself to think any of them would. The very idea is ludicrous. There are complex, societal factors driving our current criminal justice problem, and none of them will go away by cutting off a few federal contracts for penal outsourcing.

The longer our leaders rely on the easy answers, insisting that obstinate racism is the great problem plaguing our society, the longer the real culprits—declining public morality, a failing education system, the collapse of communities, and the epidemic of single-motherhood—will go unaddressed. And the longer they do, the longer our incarcerated population will remain obscenely bloated and heavily skewed toward demographics whose true problems our out-of-touch leaders continuously fail to address. So much for racial equity; this approach will offer anything but.

Likewise, the bishops’ endorsement of Biden’s fair-housing move just doesn’t line up with reality. The Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing Rule was instituted by the Obama administration in an attempt to actively combat a perceived endurance of de facto segregation and housing discrimination. Again, there’s nothing objectionable about the general premise. But the practice was a train wreck. State and municipal governments were required to prove their anti-racist efforts to the federal government in order to receive funding from the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

If a city is struggling to get by—if a city needs HUD funds, especially if it is dealing with complicated after-effects of generations-old racism, as many cities admittedly are—what could possibly make us think they should be diverting their attention, energy, and resources to proving to the federal government that they’re working really, really hard not to be racist? Surely they have better things to do, like…survive. In practice, it effectively holds poor communities hostage to the woke agenda. This is exactly what HUD concluded during the Trump administration: that the heavy burden on struggling municipalities generally hurt them in the end, with little demonstrable good toward the goal of “racial equity.” That’s why the Trump administration repealed the AFFH rule—a move to which the bishops publicly objected.

The government’s imposition of such regulations may be well-intentioned. I’m quite confident the bishop’s endorsement of it is. But at the end of the day, it just doesn’t work. At their very best, such top-down anti-racist policies do nothing. At their worst, they have the potential to do immense harm.

There may well be good instincts underlying them—instincts toward justice, instincts against hatred, the basic desires to see people live freely and well. But they are buried so deep beneath a mountain of bureaucratic red tape, pie-in-the-sky solutions to problems that don’t exist (and only distract from the real ones), and plain old-fashioned incompetence that the good will never see the light of day, and the instincts will never materialize into action. Any potential for positive change is effectively lost when the responsibility is taken up by a top-heavy institution whose only two real abilities are self-perpetuation and the art of doing nothing. Of course, that all must sound rather familiar to the USCCB.

[Photo Credit: Christine Rousselle/CNA]


  • Declan Leary

    Mr. Leary is associate editor of The American Conservative.

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