Rising to Common Ground: Part 8 in a series on JustFaith

By Stephanie Block

JustFaith’s next major reading project is Rising to Common Ground: Overcoming America’s Color Lines by Danny Duncan Collum. Collum is a contributing editor and columnist for the politically progressive Sojourners magazine and has written this book for “white American Catholics” who, along with other white Americans, “are the often unwitting carriers of the white supremacist virus in America.” (preface)

Somewhat mis-titled, the book’s discussion isn’t really about abstract race relations in the US but is very specifically about the situation of Afro-Americans who are descended from slaves. Comparing the health, income, and educational accomplishments of this demographic to “white people,” Collum concludes that “a large number of African-Americans are trapped in ever-deeper poverty and falling further behind the American mainstream.” (p 65) “The African-American poor are now heavily concentrated in inner-city neighborhoods where almost everyone is poor.” (p. 66) Public hospitals and schools in these neighborhoods are under-equipped (pp 66-67); families in these neighborhoods are more likely to be broken (pp 94-99); and an enormous number of black men are behind bars (pp 99-103).

This, Collum says, points “to something deep, powerful, and pervasive in American life that functions to the disadvantage of black people. It’s something we can call structural or systemic racism….” (p. 3) The term “racism,” in this sense, is used very specifically to mean not merely prejudice against another group of people but a “purpose of domination” that achieves its ends by means of oppressive and segregating actions. “A racist society, for instance, would be one in which people of one skin color are disproportionately poor, imprisoned, and underrepresented in the most prestigious professions.” (p. 8) And, as he demonstrates, Afro-Americans are “disproportionately poor, imprisoned, and underrepresented in the most prestigious professions.” Therefore, Collum concludes that the problem is covert but active racism.

If the problem is simply one of skin color, however, one must explain how it is that other people “of color” who have freely immigrated to the US are often better educated, demographically speaking, and economically more successful, at least by the first generation, than the native “Afro-American” population.

Collum hints at this distinction early in the book: “It is inevitable that, after three hundred years of constant reinforcement, many of these [negative] notions would be internalized by black people, too.” (p. 15) He is more explicit by the end when he writes: “We’ve seen that most of America’s racial injustices are rooted in the past – especially in the horror of slavery and the systematic dehumanization of Jim Crow.” (p 105)

What is to be done? Collum has two, quite different approaches. The first of these involves the implicit approval of liberationism. This is presented to the reader in chapter 8, “Where to Start?” The chapter discusses a “colloquial English” translation of the Bible[i] that retells the New Testament in contemporary race-relation terms, explores “African-American Biblical Theology, reduces the history of the Catholic Church’s consistent anti-slavery position to mere “verbal reprimands” (p. 81), and then presents current Catholic teaching as stating that the Christian’s moral responsibility is not satisfied with “individual conversion and unity within the Church” but requires resisting “racism at every level through our educational institutions, national law, and international institutions” (83). To whatever degree “resistance to racism” is understood through the liberationist’s lens, such as continuing “reparations” to the descendants of slaves, however, it is not what the Church teaches as an appropriate or adequate response to the problem.

The book’s second approach examines sociological problems in the “African-American” demographic and focuses particularly on the crisis of family life – single-parent households, out-of-wedlock births, high abortion rates, declining education and increased poverty –taking “place during the very time overt racial discrimination has begun to subside in America….So the blame for this problem, which contributes so much to the disproportionate and continuing poverty of African-Americans, cannot be attributed entirely to racial discrimination” (p.96).

One would expect a book written by a Catholic to propose ways the Church might foster family life for all people but the chapter glosses over this to focus instead on the US criminal justice system – and a supportive media – that disproportionately targets black men, suggesting that reportage and prosecution of criminal behavior is a cause of broken family life rather than a consequence of it…and an example of covert racism.

The book ends on a particularly interesting note, recommending Alinskyian organizing as a vehicle within congregations to begin bridging the racial divide and building relationships of solidarity. Specifically, Collum discusses the work of Saul Alinsky’s faith-based Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF) and its off-shoot the PICO Network, that ideally bring segregated congregations “together in a...citywide network to act on values and interests they held in common—values such as nurturing children, achieving social justice, or creating broad-based economic development” (p. 129). It all sounds so idyllic and promising until one delves into what specifically is meant by “achieving social justice” or “creating broad-based economic development,” which Collum doesn’t attempt.

Therefore, the unavoidable conclusion of the book is that the Church’s mandate to “resist racism” calls for participation in Alinskyian organizing. The JustFaith program doesn’t push the point at this juncture (it will later on) but certainly leaves the possibility open. During weeks 10-12, Justfaith participants discuss Collum’s book in great detail. Week 11 accepts the liberationist retelling of the Gospel and explores it. Week 12 asks what role the Christian community can play in furthering dialogue on the issues of reparation and affirmative action. Question 3 of this section is particularly interesting. “In addition to the policy actions in Chapter Twelve of the Collum book, we read of two examples of how the Church has been instrumental in addressing racism (pages 114-120). What efforts is your own parish or diocese involved in to address and dismantle racism?”[ii] Given the book’s final chapter, any participant with experience in Alinskyian faith-based organizing will have ample opportunity to discuss it.

Spero columnist Stephanie Block is the editor of Los Pequenos: a newspaper based in New Mexico.


[i] Clarence Jordan, Cotton Patch Gospel, Smyth & Helwys Publishers, published as a series throughout the late 60s, early 70s.

[ii] JustFaith Catholic Version, Week 12 2011-2012, Facilitators’ materials, page 6, question 3.

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