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Think. Discuss. Act. Racism

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Review: Episcopals and Catholics Fight Racism in Church

N. Cobbey. (July, 1992). “Racism Report Calls Task Formidable (Editorial and letters to the editor).” Episcopal Life.

I.C. Bishops. (March, 2000). “Moving Beyond Racism.” Migration World Magazine, v28, i3, p5.


(Download Racism Report overview as a PDF)

In July of 1991, The General Convention of the Episcopal Church called its delegates to complete a 66-question survey as an institutional audit to determine the extent of racism in the Church. Of 104,808 in attendance, 1,588 responded.

Several patterns emerged in the findings of this survey:

  • Blacks and Native Americans say they experience the highest degree of alienation and disrespect from the Episcopal Church.
  • Ordained members more than lay members perceive difficulties with racial and ethnic issues, see more opportunities for change, and report more efforts to facilitate change.
  • Bishops tend to see more need for change than clergy and lay members, although the difference is not great.
  • People from the Northeast and Far West see more need for change on matters of race and ethnicity than people from the South and Southwest.
  • Women tend to see more reasons for changes in race and ethnic relations than men, but men report actually taking more action to reduce racism than women do.

At the Convention, Lennox Joseph, chief executive of the consulting NTL Institute, offered an initial interpretation of the results. He declared that the audit showed “a clear pattern of institutional racism” as well as “a mandate that the church move forward” in its attempts to confront racism.

Joseph further noted five areas of institutional racism in the Episcopal Church: resource allocation, leadership, interpersonal communications, status, and mission.

Seven recommendations were presented for dioceses and the Convention by its consultants:

  • Acknowledge and respect resistance to change as a natural human part of the process.
  • Communicate a vision of acceptance of complexity of one’s own ethnic group and others.
  • With consultants, design a process to address and resolve differences between lay and ordained members about the centrality of changing racial and ethnic relations.
  • Bring lay and ordained members of different racial and ethnic groups together to work through differences.
  • Acknowledge the inevitability of stress and deal with it, avoiding condemnation, denial, and suppression.
  • Encourage local units to use the audit only after a group of lay and ordained members receives training in race relations and uses of the audit.
  • Administer the audit at future General Conventions.

By July 1992, The Diocese of New Jersey had conducted an institutional racism audit, and sixteen other dioceses were in the process of preparing one.

The editors of the paper took the consultants to task for their report (“Clear Advice Clouded by Hazy Language”):

Racism in the church is a vital issue and major changes are necessary. But this report is too bound up with statistics, scientific method and jargon. Rather than risk turning people off, the authors should have supplemented their advice on HOW to proceed with some no-nonsense suggestions on WHERE to go from here.

In a similar call for attention to racism within the church, the Roman Catholic bishops of Illinois issued a pastoral letter calling on the 3.7 million parishioners in their state to oppose all forms of racist behavior, including the use of bigoted language and racist jokes. (In 1979, the National Conference of Catholic Bishops issued a statement describing racism as a sin.) This letter, however, offers the practical note lacking from the Episcopal report.

Following are excerpts from the letter by the Illinois bishops:

We begin with three facts.  First, racism exists; it is part of the American landscape.  Second, racism is completely contrary to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  Third, all baptized Catholics have a moral obligation to work toward the elimination of racism.

What is meant by racism?  Racism is a personal sin and social disorder rooted in the belief that one race is superior to another.  It involves not only prejudice, but also the use of religious, social, political, economic or historical power to keep one race privileged.

Racism exists, in some form, among all peoples. In any form it is intolerable and unacceptable.

Racism is personal, institutional, cultural and internal.  Personal racism shows itself in an attitude or action taken by an individual to diminish the God-given dignity or rights of another because of race.  An example of personal racism in action is the verbal or mental demeaning of African Americans simply because of their color.

Institutional racism allows racist attitudes or practices to shape the structures of an organization.  Institutional racism reveals itself, for example, when promotions are manipulated so that African Americans are not fairly considered for certain positions.

Cultural racism is the extension of this sinful attitude to the mores, standards, customs, language and group life of a whole society.  One culture’s ways of thinking and behaving are then regarded as the only way to live.  All other social patterns are dismissed as deviations or dangers.

Internalized racism is a sense of inferiority or lack of self-esteem because one belongs to a particular race. When an African American child grows up believing that to be black is inferior, he or she is a victim of internalized racism.

Events continue to remind us that racism thrives. . . .  it can shock and therefore move us to ask again how to confront more effectively the sin of racism.

Any confrontation cannot ignore the more subtle forms of racist actions: realtors who manipulate sales and steer clients along racial lines; law enforcement officers who routinely profile black drivers for police checks; department store detectives who automatically follow young black males, parents who drive past an excellent school to register their children at another because a substantial number of the students in the first school are African American, groups who deliberately avoid contact with racially diverse or culturally different communities.

Almost unconsciously, the sin of racism can touch and stain every aspect of life, from friendships to work relationships, from where people recreate to what programs they watch on television.  Given the long history of racism in our country, how can anyone hope to abolish at last this moral plague?

It would be naive to think that racism will disappear overnight, it is too deeply embedded in the American experience.  But change will come if we remain constant and never lose sight of the goal…

Here are some actions, some small and some larger, which we all can take:

    • Take a personal inventory of your own heart and discover what has to change.
    • Seek opportunities to know and learn from a person of a different race.
    • Identify racist behavior in our community, speak with others and make plans to oppose it.
    • Refuse to use biased language and to tell jokes tinged with racist attitudes.
    • Teach children to move beyond mere toleration and to accept open-heartedly people of all races.
    • Avoid investing in companies which supports or practices racist policies and tell the company why you are withdrawing your money.
    • Elect public officials who work for racial justice.
    • Have your parish sponsor workshops which both present racism in all its complexity and evaluate it morally.

Questions for Reflection and Discussion

  1. Do you believe racism exists in your Church at an institutional level? If so, to what degree do you consider it is present and how much damage is it doing? Would you recommend that your local church and denomination invest the necessary time and money to undertake an audit of its institutional racism?
  2. What do you think are the differences between personal prejudice and institutional racism?
  3. Why do or do you not personally believe racism is a sin? How is racism contrary to the gospel of Jesus Christ?
  4. What can Christians do individually or collectively to end racism? How and when would you implement the above goals and suggestions?


  1. A definition of racism, some ways of measuring its existence, the willingness to deal with it, and some sense of the priority of the issue are needed if racism is going to get attention from the Church and society and be discussed profitably.
  2. Racism was a fashionable topic and issue in many circles during the 1950s and 1960s. The U.S. public tends to tire of problems unresolved in a reasonably short time frame. The riots of 1992 and rap music brought the issues of prejudice and discrimination to the attention of the American public-especially in the minds of children and young people.
  3. Although the Catholics of Illinois took the initiative toward ending racism, it is applicable to all Christians.  This article notes that racism is still thriving today  because it is deeply embedded in the American experience.  Racism exists, in some form, among all peoples, in any form it is intolerable and unacceptable.  However, we must take individual and collectively responsibility to end it.  The best way for racism to end is among all those who proclaim Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior.

Dean Borgman and Sandra Whitley

© 2018 CYS

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