A Thomistic Approach to Structural Racism

In a previous installment, I suggested how we can situate racism generally within a Thomistic account of evil, and sketched a Thomistic approach to one kind of racism, “race-hateful acts,” in which the will unnaturally sets itself against “the nature we ought to love.” Let us recall some of the Thomistic “philosophical equipment” and vocabulary which was set up in the previous discussion:

  1. Evil: An evil is any defect or deprivation, which can be either “moral evil” (defect of willing) or “evil for a nature” (defect in anything else)
  2. Racism: Racism is a certain kind of injustice due to group membership, in which someone is rendered more or less than she is due, on account of her racial identity—either from a private individual, or from the community.
  3. A distinction within injustice: Injustice in the broadest sense is measured by what is accomplished, i.e., whether someone is actually receiving more or less than she is owed, regardless of intention (“material injustice”). If a material injustice is done intentionally, it becomes also a “formal injustice.”

Now it is time to put this equipment to work tackling another kind of racism: structural racism. Here, racial injustices are produced by sets of social arrangements that may or may not be glued to individual human intentions. What would a Thomistic approach to structural racism involve?

Structural Racism: An Illustration

Let’s begin by illustrating structural racism, for which it is useful to consider the famous historical case of “redlining.” During the 1930s, the federal government developed loan insurance programs to support homeownership and neighborhood development in the aftermath of the Great Depression. Neighborhoods with mainly Black residents, however, were excluded from the program: literally marked in red, or “redlined.” The rationale was simple: White homeowners did not want black neighbors. So, the more Black residents there were in a neighborhood, the more high-risk the loans for local homes were deemed to be.[1]

Predictably, these regulations created economic incentives and market practices that functioned like a little machine, churning out disadvantages for Black homebuyers and Black neighborhoods: devalued homes and diminishing of Black purchasing power and home equity. But black homebuyers could not escape redlined neighborhoods simply by moving away. White neighborhoods (like my own, here in South Bend, built in the 1920s) were requiring buyers to sign “covenants” promising not to resell to non-white buyers, so as to protect neighboring homes from the devaluing that would accompany black purchasers wherever they went.

This arrangement was rooted in race-hateful acts: The will’s turning against the good of one’s neighbor, viewed as “undesirable” or “lesser.” But the structural dimension of this racism appears from the following fact: Once the social structures for transferring property are set up this way, their effect becomes inevitable. The social structure itself, in its ordinary functioning, deprives black homebuyers of their due. And it does so, regardless of whether this loan officer, this real estate agent, or this homeowner is acting from race-hateful intentions.

In other words, the effects of social structures can become unglued from the intentions of the people carrying out various roles in that structure. Each person has his or her own task. But the structure itself creates a context of regulations, customs, and expectations, that shapes the way each task can be performed. The structure thus functions like a channel for water, funneling individual actions toward certain effects, distributing goods according to a pattern of justice or injustice. And when the burden of unjust effects falls disproportionately on certain racial groups, that is precisely structural racism—a material racial injustice, on a Thomistic analysis.

Two further clarifications can help drive home the point that structural racism can persist or develop even in the absence of any race-hateful intentions. First, in cases where structural racism originates in race-hateful choices, it can still persist even after those causes are removed, because damaged social structures tend to become self-sustaining. We easily understand that in every generation, children enter the world already inheriting burdens or benefits from previous generations: e.g., the burden of a parent’s traumatic experiences in a refugee camp or in combat; the love of books from a grandfather who was a writer. It should be no surprise, then, that the material injustices are similarly liable to be “inherited” as burdens by subsequent generations. These injustices are carried back into the functioning of social structures, where they contribute to preserving the pattern of unjust distribution, even after the structure has been reformed.[2]

For instance, although redlining was outlawed in the late 1960s, this injustice is preserved today in a well-known feedback loop. Redlining was an important factor in impoverishing neighborhoods; the impoverishing generated its own set of self-reinforcing spillover effects (including greater obstacles to participating in the housing market); and the cycle continues. (Compare the Detroit redlining map from 1939 to the Detroit poverty map from 2016, over 75 years later, and 50 years after the end of redlining.) Today, black homeowners disproportionately live in previously redlined neighborhoods. Black homeownership rates are dramatically lower than any other group. Their home values are on average lower and appreciate more slowly; their mortgage applications are more often rejected. Black Americans are disproportionately affected by hazards related to substandard housing, including lead poisoning, hazardous materials, contaminated water, and death in home fires.[3] Despite reforms, the housing system continues to deprive certain groups of their due, and hence remains materially unjust.

Second, it is important to stress that structural racism does not even need to originate in race-hateful choices at all. To take an example which has become familiar after two years of COVID: The “pulse oximeter” is a medical device that estimates your blood oxygen levels by shining light through your finger. At 88%, your blood oxygen is considered dangerously low, requiring medical intervention. The problem: skin pigment affects the light shining through, causing the device to overestimate blood oxygen levels in darker-skinned patients.

Of course, no one imagines that the inventors of the oximeter deliberately calibrated it to put darker-skinned patients at greater medical risk. But that is the effect. This set of medical practices and devices is deformed by structural racism, without anyone intending the result.

A Thomistic Approach to Structural Racism

Now back to Aquinas: How would he describe the kind of evil that is structural racism? As we saw above, structures can defectively product injustices even when (for example) loan officers, real estate agents, nurses, etc. are not intending to deprive Black clients of housing and health care. So structural racism cannot be a defect in a human will. Therefore, it must be an evil for a nature. But what kind of nature?

I suggest that within Aquinas’s metaphysics, structural racism is an evil of a human artifact—specifically, of a social artifact. Now the word “artifact” might make us think of physical products such as chairs. But there are also social artifacts, such as cities, schools, laws, procedures, practices, and customs. We humans continuously build up these artifacts, generation after generation, out of our creativity and rationality. For Aquinas, it belongs to human nature to construct such artifacts, because we are social beings; we flourish only together in community.

Thus, whereas Locke or Rousseau might think of social structures as ways we protect ourselves from others, Aquinas sees them as required by our nature for a good life together. Because of my social nature, I flourish only as part of a flourishing community. And a flourishing community needs structure: It must have rulers, education, systems for trade and peacekeeping, all organized through laws and customs. This organization would be necessary, Aquinas insists, even if there had been no original sin.[4]

A community’s social structures serve to distribute to its members common goods, such as honors, knowledge, wealth, property, safety, mobility, etc. (as well as punishments, but I will not address that here). When these structures function well, distributing common goods to each member justly, according to his or her due,[5] the community is in a good condition. Indeed, the community’s good condition—its flourishing—is what the common good is at the most general level. A social structure that distributes common goods unjustly, therefore, is defective or evil. And a defect in a social structure is a defect or evil for the community, holding the community back from attaining its natural good.

So now we have found where structural racism fits into Aquinas’s theory of evil: Structural racism is an evil or defect in a social structure for distributing common goods, such that the structure, in its functioning, produces injustices, distributing to some more or less than they are owed. Specifically, an unjust social structure is racist, when the resulting injustices burden some racial groups more heavily than others.

Conditions for Structural Racism

Now here an objection might arise. Someone might say,

This Thomistic analysis doesn’t help with the disputed cases. Of course, it’s wrong to use race as a criterion for distributing housing (as in the American housing system under redlining, in the 1930s)! But when race isn’t a criterion for distributing housing, why should we talk of structural racism, just because housing outcomes are worse for some racial groups? There may be other causes of the disparity that have nothing to do with racism.

Now it is worth emphasizing again that racism is a type of injustice, and an injustice in the broadest sense—material injustice, in Aquinas’s language—is defined by what is accomplished, i.e., with whether someone receives her due, regardless of why this happened. At the end of the day, if the community is improperly distributing goods, it is not suitably fulfilling its nature, regardless of whether the racist structure (a) originally came into existence through race-hateful acts, or (b) is currently being managed with race-hateful intent, or (c) just became defective through a series of unfortunate catastrophes and bad management. Aquinas’s theory of evil helps us see that no matter how it originated or is currently managed, the structure in itself is still defective, and the community is defective to the extent that it operates through that structure.

Still, more clarity would be helpful. Luckily, Aquinas’s metaphysics can help formulate a more nuanced way of thinking about racial disparities in apparently well-functioning systems. Consider: For Aquinas, patterns always have causes. Regularity is never the result of chance, which acts “rarely or never.” If something happens regularly, there has to be some cause—for instance, a human intention (I decided to eat yogurt every morning), or a social practice (it is store policy that everyone gets a free coffee on their birthday), or a nature doing its thing (fire by nature tends to set dry wood ablaze).

Now Aquinas points out that whenever goods are being distributed, there is always some proper cause that should be determining what the recipients ought to receive. A distribution is just, Aquinas says, only if it is responding to the proper cause. For instance, knowledge is the proper cause for being promoted to professor. It would be unjust to make someone a professor “because he is Peter or Martin,” or “because he is rich or a relative.”[6] In other words, knowledge is the proper cause that should be linking up professorships and applicants.

Now let us put a twist on Aquinas’s example. What if a university selects professors according to knowledge, and yet it turns out that those selected are nearly all named Martin? This should puzzle us, because there is no essential connection between being named Martin and having knowledge. It is not as though human nature, doing its thing, always results in knowledgeable Martins! So why the pattern?

If we are following Aquinas’s metaphysics, we should expect a cause of the pattern—something that regularly links up “knowledge” and “being-named-Martin” somewhere further up the chain. That cause cannot be nature: Being named Martin does not naturally make one most knowledgeable among humans. Nor can the cause be human intention: It is not as though some bizarre teacher will only teach Martins. Thus, the cause lies in a social custom: In this city, it is the practice only to educate only noblemen, and most local noblemen take the name Martin.

But education is a common good. So, a social practice that links nobility with education is the distribution of a common good. Therefore, we should ask again whether that distribution is just—i.e., is education actually due only to noblemen? If not, then the community is distributing education unjustly, in accord with an improper cause (nobility), giving commoners less education than they are due.

So, now, the million-dollar question: If education is being unjustly distributed “upstream,” what does that mean for the distribution of university professorships “downstream”? If we continue thinking in terms of “causes of distribution,” we can see that the unjust distribution “upstream” contaminates what would otherwise be a just distribution “downstream.” Because nobility controls distribution of education, nobility remotely exerts influence on the distribution of professorships—but nobility should not have such influence on the effect, because it is not a proper cause of being owed a professorship. Thus, although the university’s promotional practices, viewed on their own, appropriately links promotion of professors to knowledge, the effects of that practice turn out to be causally contaminated by an unjust educational distribution further up the chain.

There is much, much more to be said here. But this rough sketch can help begin to suggest a way of (a) understanding how patterns of racial disparity can emerge from a structure that is supposed to be “blind” to race, and (b) identifying when those patterns indicate an underlying injustice. Patterns do not come from nowhere; when racial disparities emerge in the distribution of goods, then we know that race is being linked to causes of distribution somewhere up the chain. Sometimes it turns out that the link is innocuous, because linking occurs outside the framework of a community’s distribution of goods. For example, the male and female champions of the Boston Marathon are usually Black, because Kenyans are Black, and Kenyan runners are legendarily fast runners, apparently for biological reasons. Here, the link between race and genetic predisposition to speed occurs outside the framework of any distribution within a community.

But sometimes race gets linked into the causes of distribution by the way a community distributes goods—and in that case, the racial disparities “downstream” express an injustice. For example, suppose the nearby cause of racial disparities in housing is “poverty.” Already a Thomistic analysis would require us to ask the question, “Is substandard housing due to the poor?” But let us set that aside, and assume for the sake of argument that the poor receive their due in housing. But then we have to ask: What links up poverty and race? If the answer is “underperforming schools,” then we still have to ask: What links up underperforming schools with race?

If it turns out that race’s causal influence originates in the distribution of some earlier common good, as the cause of that distribution—then that earlier distribution is unjust, and the injustice will contaminate the entire chain of distributions from there on down. For race is never a proper cause of how much of a common good someone ought to receive.

Do We Have Moral Responsibilities Toward Structural Racism?

Now what are our moral responsibilities regarding structural racism? As I have been arguing, structural racism, in Thomistic terms, is an evil for a nature—a defect in a social structure that produces injustices to my neighbors. Of course, it is possible to benefit from injustice, but the current case concerns harmful injustices: receiving less of some good (e.g., education), or more of some evil (e.g., punishment), than is due. So, the underlying question is this: When my neighbor is being harmed, am I morally obliged to step in?

The question is challenging for us culturally. I know I should certainly not kick a homeless person as I pass by. But am I morally required to buy him a sandwich? Most of us would say, “No.” If we did buy him a sandwich, we would likely feel that we had gone above and beyond what was morally required. This is the spirit behind Judith Jarvis Thomson’s 1971 “A Defense of Abortion,” which distinguishes between what someone has the right to demand of you, and what is nice of you to do. Criticizing the parable of the Good Samaritan, she objects that you are under no obligation to help someone unless you have personally committed to doing so. If you could cure a fever by stepping across a room, it is arguably indecent to refuse. But still, you are not morally obliged to help.

This sort of thinking, I suspect, explains why discussions of structural racism immediately unleash heated accusations and counter-accusations about who is to blame. It is as though both sides assume that I cannot be morally obliged to repair a racial injustice unless I am in some way personally guilty of inflicting that injustice.

Here Thomistic ethics can make an especially valuable contribution, because Aquinas occupies a totally different moral universe. Of course, Aquinas would agree that injustices ought to be repaired—there is a whole question in the Summa theologiae on restitution, which could be a whole topic in its own right. But the point I want to make for now is that for Aquinas, my moral obligations to a neighbor suffering some evil go far beyond repairing any harm that I have personally done.

Remember that Aquinas calls human nature the nature we ought to love: “When we consider a human being in himself [i.e., as human], it is in no way permissible to kill him. For we ought to love the nature in each one, even in the sinner—a nature that God has made and that would be destroyed through killing.”[7] Ought to love! It is wrong to harm precisely because we are commanded to love, and harming is incompatible with loving.

Thus, Aquinas explains that “what is morally owed is twofold.” First, we are obligated to meet the minimum threshold without which virtue cannot exist (his examples are avoiding evils such as killing or stealing). Second, we are obligated toward what helps us grow more perfect in virtue (his example is the Old Testament requirement that when a debtor gives you his coat to repay a loan, you must return it before sunset in case he might have to sleep in the cold).[8] Do not kill, do not enslave, do not hate—these moral prohibitions are just a minimum first step on the path toward fulfilling our ultimate obligation, expressed in the commandment to love the nature that ought to be loved.

And so, Aquinas further insists: “Every law aims at the establishment of friendship—either the friendship of one human with another, or of humans with God. And thus the whole law is fulfilled in this one commandment: ‘you shall love your neighbor as yourself,’ which is, as it were, the goal of all commandments.”[9] This commandment, he adds, is the same as: “Do unto others as you would have others do unto you.”[10]

You shall love. Do unto others. Even Thomson notices that Jesus does not say it would be nice of us to follow the example of the Good Samaritan (who stopped to help a total stranger that someone else beat up and robbed). Rather, Jesus commands us: “Go and do likewise.” Thomson just does not buy that we are morally obliged to act like this, and thinks most people in America would not buy it either. But Aquinas does buy it.

So, amid all the debates about who is really responsible for low homeownership rates or bad schools, and whether I’m off the hook because my great-grandparents never owned slaves, or on the hook because my parents’ home gained in value when others’ did not—Aquinas will keep reminding us that none of those details have to be settled in order to know whether I am obligated to do something now. Getting the history right and identifying guilt is critical for making restitution. But a more basic moral obligation remains, independent of any question of restitution.

If my neighbor’s house burns down, we can stand there and debate whether it was a wildfire, or the Klan, or a cigarette thrown away while drunk. But none of this changes the fact that my neighbor is now homeless, and I am passing by, and I am subject to the basic commandment written into human nature itself, to love the nature that ought to be loved. That command obliges me to love and do good to my neighbor. In failing to do so, I am guilty of an omission, which is the special sin of “failing to complete a good that is owed”[11]—in other words, the sin of doing nothing where I should have done something.

At this point we have a basic Thomistic sketch of our positive obligation toward our neighbor. Now let us apply it to structural racism. The commandment to love requires us to address structural racism for two reasons: out of love for our neighbors, and out of love for our community.[12]

First, if I love my neighbors as myself, I should be moved by seeing injustice done to them. For Aquinas, the virtue of mercy makes us responsive to the harm being suffered by our neighbor—and he calls mercy the greatest of all the virtues having to do with our neighbor.[13] If I have the opportunity and capacity to help diminish the harm (if I am in the position of “passing by,” as in the parable of the Good Samaritan), then the commandment to love obliges me to do what I can.

Secondly, if I love my community in the appropriate way, I should be additionally moved by the spectacle of a defect afflicting the community. According to Aquinas, the community is the whole of which we are all parts.[14] So evils afflicting the community are even more morally urgent than evils afflicting private individuals.[15]

But how to remedy the defect, when the defective structures are so huge? Distributing the good of shelter involves the banking industry (the ninth-largest industry in the US), the real estate market, a tangle of federal and state laws, municipal zoning laws, the Federal Housing Administration, physical layouts of cities, FEMA, homeless shelters, social workers, professional associations, etc. etc. etc.

What am I, one small person, morally obliged to do in the face of something so huge? Aquinas responds that there can be no moral obligation to do the impossible. Rather, what I am obliged to do is the good I owe.[16] On the one side, I owe some good wherever I have “care of the community.” Community structures are like gardens; they must be constantly tended by individual caretakers. Wherever I have “care” of some part of a community structure, I should work to remedy any defective distribution of goods in my care, as far as I am able. On the other side, I owe some good just in virtue of being a member of the community. Even if I do not have care of a racially unjust structure, I should still desire its improvement and advocate to those who actually do have care of it.

Activists often say: You do not have to do everything; you just have to do something. And Thomistic ethics gives us a deep explanation for why that is true. Loving the nature we ought to love is not a task we can check off our moral checklist and be done with for a while. We are never done with it—for the same reason that we are never done with being human. It is a vocation to which we are each called. It is the properly human way of life.

EDITORIAL NOTE: This is a revised version of the Aquinas Lecture given at the University of St. Thomas, Center for Thomistic Studies, in Houston, on 27 January 2022; as well as a talk for the de Nicola Center for Ethics and Culture, University of Notre Dame, on 23 February 2022. The Aquinas Lecture is recorded here. The idea of this Thomistic analysis was inspired by discussions in a “Catholicism and Racism Working Group” at the University of Notre Dame, in which the author is a participant.

[1] For a case study in Detroit history, see here.

[2] It might be useful, consequently, to distinguish further between cases of structural racism where the structural “warping” that produces material injustices is located (a) in some organizational arrangement or (b) in a widespread disadvantage that some groups are under when entering the system, or in both.  Either way, there is a defective structure that produces a material injustice. But in order to work out a good strategy for remedying the deficiency, it is important to know which kind of situation one is dealing with.

[3] For some of the relevant data, see here, here, and here.

[4] Summa theologiae Ia, q. 96, a. 4.

[5] For discussion of distributive justice, see Summa theologiae IIa-IIae, q. 61, a. 2.

[6] See Summa theologiae IIa-IIae, q. 63, a. 1.

[7] Summa theologiae IIa-IIae, q. 64, a. 6.  The same link between the positive obligation to love as the ground for the negative obligation not to kill appears in Summa theologiae IIa-IIae, q. 64, a. 5, on suicide.

[8] Summa theologiae Ia-IIae, q. 99, a. 5.  It is interesting that he introduces both levels as “morally due (debitum morale),” then identifies some narrower sense of “due in the precise sense (praecise debita)” pertaining to the first level, vs. what is “commanded (mandata)” at the second level.  See also IIa-IIae, q. 80, a. 1.

[9] Summa theologiae Ia-IIae, q. 99, a. 1, ad 2.

[10] Summa theologiae Ia-IIae, q. 99, a. 1, ad 3.

[11] Summa theologiae IIa-IIae, q. 79, a. 3.

[12] Love of neighbor and love of community, of course, go back to the same root, which is the natural human inclination to live in society; see Summa theologiae Ia-IIae, q. 94, a. 2.

[13] See, e.g., Summa theologiae IIa-IIae, q. 30.

[14] Summa theologiae IIa-IIae, q. 26, a. 4, ad 3.

[15] Summa theologiae Ia-IIae, q. 26, a. 3.

[16] Summa theologiae IIae-IIae, q. 79, a. 3, ad 2.

Featured Image: Théodore Géricault, Portrait Study, 1819; Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD-Old-100.


Therese Scarpelli Cory

Therese Scarpelli Cory is the John and Jean Oesterle Associate Professor of Thomistic Studies in the Philosophy Department at the University of Notre Dame. She is the author of Aquinas on Human Self-Knowledge.

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