Confronting Systemic Racism in a Post-Truth World

Through our scientific and technological genius, we have made of this world a neighborhood and yet we have not had the ethical commitment to make of it a brotherhood. But somehow, and in some way, we have got to do this. We must all learn to live together as brothers or we will all perish together as fools. We are tied together in the single garment of destiny, caught in an inescapable network of mutuality. 
—Martin Luther King, Jr., "Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution"

George Floyd’s horrific death in Minneapolis on May 25 was just a recent manifestation of the disturbing structure of racism that has plagued America for centuries. Massive protests have wracked the country almost continuously since then, and America’s governmental and corporate leadership have responded through policy changes and sweeping symbolic gestures. However, the issue has rapidly become politicized, so that the efforts to combat systemic racism meet with widespread resistance. America is profoundly divided acridly, which makes common solutions to almost any issue practically impossible to reach, let alone one as nuanced as systemic racism. Conservatives and progressives not only disagree with each other, they distrust and even despise each other, and seemingly more so every year. Worse yet, they do not even believe in each other’s comprehension of the social issues that they argue about.

A September 10 Gallup poll shows that American conservatives suspect their liberal counterparts of coming to their positions using biased information, not rational considerations; liberals harbor similar fears about conservatives. Another Gallup article, from December 2019, shows that political position affects personal views of the economy, the environment, mass shootings, and the general wellbeing of the country. The same December Gallup article finds that liberals are more likely to distrust the traditional family, religious institutions, and the economy, while conservatives are suspicious of science, higher education, the media, and the government. Setting the intricately intertwined institutional building blocks of our society against each other like this will, at best, create more problems than it solves.

Here we aim to remind Catholics that the Church already has the wisdom that the “post-truth” world sorely needs. God created humanity for communion with him and one another in this life, so our experience of the world is radically shaped by the ideas and attitudes we receive from the people around us. He created us ultimately for perfect communion with him and one another in the next life, so we all have the capacity to come to a fuller understanding of the one Truth that is Christ. Making sense of the post-truth world as individual Catholics, and acting as the Mystical Body of Christ to help the world make sense of itself, requires remembering that the many and various worldviews that make up the current cultural landscape each have unique insights on God’s love and His creation. Recognizing the differences in those worldviews while emphasizing their common object will bring about a fuller understanding of the Truth and pave the way toward justice and peace.

The Church has a long history of supporting worthy intellectual pursuits for the benefit of humanity. The Second Vatican Council explicitly continues this history as it tackles the challenge of evangelizing the world in all its variety. In Gaudium et Spes (⸹62), the Council Fathers encourage the use of “the secular sciences, especially psychology and sociology, so that the faithful may be brought to a more adequate and mature life of faith”. After all, as stated in the document’s opening sentence, “The joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the men of this age, especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted, these are the joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the followers of Christ”. In the following decades, the social sciences lived up to the Council’s call in part through their development of the new interdisciplinary field of cognitive science. By bringing together concepts and data from psychology, neuroscience, sociology, and other related fields, cognition scholars produced new frameworks for understanding the inextricable relationship between cultural background and personal experience of the world.

The most basic assertion of cognitive science as it relates to culture is that cultural models developed within a group over time form not just the opinions and preferences of each new generation, but the questions that those preferences answer and even the objects that they perceive and judge.[1] The culture a person grows up in cannot completely determine the questions they ask or their answers for them. For one thing, every person belongs to multiple overlapping groups, each of which has its own set of thoughts and attitudes toward the world. For example, when a doctor who has children has to patch up her pre-teen son’s skinned knee, she might feel a tension between her role as a doctor to her patient (kind, but detached and professional) and her role as mother to her son (familiar, affectionate, and a bit annoyed that her son was skateboarding without his knee pads). Similar dilemmas might confront members of biker clubs who also volunteer at their churches or newlyweds of different ethnicities visiting each other’s parents. Tricky scenarios like these can force people to choose a response in the moment, or even come up with a creative new solution. Once our doctor has cared for her clumsy son’s injuries a few times, though, she probably figures out a comfortable approach, and before long it feels completely natural.

For most people, day-to-day life is quite repetitive. They encounter the same kinds of people and things every day, and have to make the same kinds of decisions about them. Repeatedly referring to the same objects, ideas, and values is habit-forming, to the point where these habits create patterns in the brain. We first learn these patterns from our families as children, and throughout life, we adapt to the patterns of the people around us. Eventually, these patterns become sophisticated enough to form cultural worldviews, including not just tastes and preferences, but beliefs and moral values.

Stepping outside of the patterns of thought and behavior that one learns from one’s family and peers and exercising creativity is possible, but it is the exception, not the norm. Worldviews, including morals, develop within material contexts—certain kinds of homes, foods, livelihoods, and the knowledge that one’s own family and everyone like them lives the same way. As a result, most people find interacting with persons and adopting values from other cultures to be uncomfortable, if not outright objectionable. Visible markers of status or wealth can even be directly associated with moral worthiness, or lack thereof.

Throwing off or even stretching the moral norms of the worldview that one shares with all of one’s close connections is generally uncomfortable for everyone involved.[2] Those who do so can be compelled to conform by skeptical, disapproving, or hostile responses from others. The structure of moral thought itself makes it difficult for internal innovations or new ideas from another culture even to be understood, let alone accepted. Inherited sets of moral values do not just distinguish what is right and wrong; they have unique conceptions of what it is to be right, and even draw the boundaries of which questions are morally significant versus morally neutral.

Since the development of rapid international travel and worldwide instantaneous electronic communication, differing sets of cultural worldviews are coming into contact with one another more than ever before. Oftentimes, as pointed out by University of Chicago sociologist Julian Go, this exchange of ideas does not occur on equal terms.[3] Go notes that the world’s centers of trade and commerce, academic thought, and media production are overwhelmingly situated in North America and Europe. American and European thinkers and cultural figures spend much of their time and energy in dialogue with one another, enjoying the ease of communication that comes with having a common cultural background to draw from. People in other parts of the world who want to participate in those conversations, art forms, and so on are forced to translate their intellectual and cultural offerings into frameworks of ideas (and, in many cases, languages) that are unfamiliar to them and that might not feature the right concepts to capture what they are trying to express.

Cultural players around the world are expected to know and respond to new ideas coming out of Europe and North America; the reverse is not true. For instance, a South African sociologist’s findings might be dismissed by an American sociologist as relevant only to South Africa. Nevertheless, the South African sociologist had to read American sociological thought in graduate school, even though it is not directly relevant to South African society. Similar biases exist in other academic fields, the media, pop culture, fashion, and even religion. Within North American and European societies, there is a similar stratification that occurs, with majority worldviews seen as speaking for the society as a whole while other perspectives are confined to the communities that generated them. These patterns are not absolute, and there are exceptions, in that American and European cultures (and the dominant groups within those societies) do take on some influences from other cultures. However, on the whole, cultural exchange disproportionately favors concepts and cultural objects developed among just a handful of cultural groups.

The observation that people interact with the world from a particular viewpoint also implies that our understanding of God similarly occurs through our cultural lens. This principle underlies the idea of enculturation, where religious ideas are expressed using local cultural symbols, because we see God through our cultural systems. In his encyclical Redemptor Hominis, Pope John Paul II affirms this principle. He writes that man in his whole context, his family, social and national circles “is the primary route that the Church must travel in fulfilling her mission: he is the primary and fundamental way for the church, the way traced out by Christ himself, the way that leads invariably through the mystery of the Incarnation and the Redemption” (⸹14). The Church is the Church primarily through human beings in cultural contexts.

The methodological foundations that allow for an acknowledgment of a person’s cultural specificity also question the concept of truth: perhaps there is not just one truth, but many truths based on one’s social context. But, as John Paul II suggests, the Church fulfills her mission in living out the reality of Christ, who shows us God’s truth, but through the human person in her or his relationships. The scandal of the Incarnation is that God was born in a particular time and place, and the Gospels demonstrate that Jesus brought people to him through a first-century Jewish worldview.

We do the same, encountering God precisely through, not in spite of, our culturally contingent worldviews. The scandal of the Incarnation is so scandalous in part because God, who creates all things and knows each of them in their intimate detail, became a mortal, finite man who used the history and beliefs of one oppressed and dominated people, the children of Israel, to bring light to the whole world. Even more scandalously, Christ built on the nation of Israel to invite all nations to love him in their own culturally-conditioned way. At Pentecost, the Holy Spirit unmistakably shows that the Gospel translates into every language. Since then, God continues to make his particular presence known everywhere through, for example, the appearance of Our Lady under many different local guises and the heroic virtue of saints from around the world. As individuals and as the Church, we only see God, the source of truth, through our culturally-specific viewpoints, as human beings in and defined by social contexts.

Many of the claims we just made can be reversed, and they should be, in order to communicate an equally important point. Our Lady of Kibeho and Our Lady of Fatima and Our Lady of Guadalupe are all different guises of Mary, the Mother of God. The Parthians, Medes, Elamites, Arabs, and all the others who were surprised on the street by the miraculously multilingual disciples at Pentecost were hearing the same Gospel. All of the peoples evangelized by the Church throughout salvation history are worshiping Jesus of Nazareth. Christ is not the Ways, the Truths, and the Lives; he is singular. The world he made for us is singular. All people, even those who have never heard the name of Jesus, are made to come to know the one truth.

God is Love, and all human beings are capable of giving of themselves to one another and so coming to a fuller understanding of what it is to be human. Thus, in the words of Gaudium et Spes, “the effort to establish a universal brotherhood is not a hopeless one” (⸹38). Cultural differences can pose formidable challenges to this effort. Language barriers impede communication, varying rules of etiquette can cause offense, and different moral concepts and vocabularies can make even the best of intentions seem evil at first glance. However, the teaching authority of the Church commands us to overcome these obstacles and reminds us that it is never impossible.

We have a duty to remember that, even if each culture is rendered in a different artistic style by our endlessly creative Creator, we are all made in the image and likeness of God. Gaudium et Spes also states: “To be sure the disturbances which so frequently occur in the social order result in part from the natural tensions of economic, political and social forms. But at a deeper level they flow from man's pride and selfishness, which contaminate even the social sphere” (⸹25). In his 2004 book What Is A Person?, Catholic sociologist Christian Smith identifies a non-exhaustive list of thirty capacities that every healthy, fully formed human being possesses, regardless of their cultural background (Smith, 54).

Beginning with very basic features like consciousness, volition, and understanding of causality, Smith works up through things like language use and anticipation of the future to arrive finally at interpersonal communion and love. If even those who have never heard the name of Christ are capable of love, and God is love himself, then every culture can teach every other culture something unique about who God is and how he made us.

Instead of undermining truth, dialogue between people from different backgrounds, with a common goal, makes truth whole. This conclusion should be common sense. Tragically, it has to contend with two widespread heresies, which directly contradict both Church teaching and one another. Like all heresies, they each contain a seed of the truth, distorted by the “pride and selfishness” named in Gaudium et Spes.

One heresy is the idea that, because there is one truth, there is only one way to understand and to live it. Often (but not always), this dominant, exclusionary way of life is the one that originated with the majority. This is the mindset that Julian Go criticizes within the field of sociology, as cited above. It can also be found among any group that associates global religious values with specific cultural features that are only meaningful for certain “traditions” within the religion, or among those who insist that political ideals can only be enacted according to the patterns established by the dominant group.

The other heresy we criticize teaches that, because there are so many different ways of living and understanding the world, there can be no universal truth. Our experiences and the concepts we use to understand them are so different that trying to create mutual understanding with someone who does not share them is futile. The best we can hope for is fairness and equality among different systems of belief, or, barring that, making sure our own cultural group comes out on top. This is the postmodern relativism against which many better thinkers than us have already written.

Living and learning within the limits of our cultural perspectives is, in a sense, a lot like being scattered (with apologies to Plato) throughout a pitch-dark cave. In this analogy, each of us is also color-blind, but no two see the exact same set of colors. One person has managed to fashion a flashlight. Upon turning it on, he is thrilled to discover that not only can he more safely and confidently make his way through the cave, but the rocks around him are iridescent in a dazzling array of hues. The inventor’s neighbor hears his excitement and sees rays of light coming from his direction, so she painstakingly makes her way over to him through the darkness. Together, they make a second light identical to the first. However, the new flashlight owner is disappointed to realize that she only sees the rocks in dull grey. Only upon modifying her light to match her spectrum of vision does she realize the vibrancy of her surroundings—a vibrancy that appears different to her than it does to her companion.

Soon, the two have learned to describe the intricacies of the patterns to each other, and they have mapped the sites in which they started and the passage between them. Even more delightfully, they find that somehow, describing colors to each other makes it possible for them each to gain some perception of the colors that the other had and that they originally lacked. Together, the two set out to explore and find a third person, for whom the process of invention, customization, and description repeats. Eventually, after many iterations, everyone in the cave knows where they are, how to move from place to place, and the splendor of their setting in full color.

In this metaphor, the light can stand for any kind of new knowledge, revealed or discovered, and the limits of one’s color vision represent one’s cultural perspective. As we have described them, traditionalists would try to compel their neighbors in the cave to craft their lights identically to the original. They might even refuse to go and help anyone make another light, not realizing that other parts of the cave are worth seeing or that others’ perspectives might augment their own vision.

Witnessing and reacting to the traditionalist, a postmodernist might maintain that a flashlight made by someone else is completely useless, and so it is necessary for everyone to grope around in the dark and hope they are lucky enough to figure it out on their own. Some might even throw rocks to sabotage others’ efforts, fearing that they would take unfair advantage of their newfound vision at the expense of everyone else. In this way, both traditionalism and postmodernism lead to nothing but continued darkness. Exploring the cave to meet other people where they are is laborious, and can be risky. Helping someone else modify a flashlight to suit their vision is tricky, and only offers a benefit if the other person is generous enough to describe what they see. Even so, those steps are essential for broadening one’s vision.

Now, this process of cultural dialogue does not occur as neatly in actuality as it does in our metaphorical model. The global cultural landscape does not equally represent human communities, and ideas coming out of Western communities reflecting European ideals dominate. Thus, for a Catholic, approaching this post-truth world in justice requires embracing Catholic Social Teaching’s preferential option for the poor. The preferential option for the poor begins with the premise that not everyone has equal access to our social systems, and therefore the poor and vulnerable are to be given particular considerations. The 1986 USCCB document “Economic Justice for All” explains, “The prime purpose of this special commitment to the poor is to enable them to become active participants in the life of society. It is to enable all persons to share in and contribute to the common good” (⸹88).

While it is true that God’s love and the Christian message belongs to all people, the world we live in does not offer everyone equal access to the resources they need to thrive or the platform to make their needs known. To apply this framework to the recent racial justice protests, the response “all lives matter” to the claim “Black lives matter” is outside of these Catholic principles. Yes, God loves everyone, but the world does not. Our primary concern as followers of Christ belongs to those whose basic needs and rights are in jeopardy. The recent protests highlight a reality that American society has long known, but not adequately dealt with: African-Americans and people of non-European descent do not have equal access to America’s social systems, to cultural respect, and to safety in the streets.

The preferential option for the poor requires that these voices receive priority. Merely giving them representation in existing institutions is not enough. The rich and powerful have an obligation to work to hear marginalized voices as they have expressed themselves already. This is not because European culture is necessarily an enemy of justice, as a postmodernist might think, or because white voices matter less. It is because of the simple fact that marginalized voices have been crying out for centuries, and have not been heard. Their marginalization reflects failure by the majority to see members of disadvantaged groups as Christ present in their midst.

Our hope is that this perspective will help Catholics to heal divisions and spread understanding wherever it is lacking, especially regarding systemic racism. Since George Floyd’s death, many Catholics have dismissed the movement for racial justice, claiming that Black Americans are using “systemic racism” as a scapegoat for their own problems or a vehicle for a wider progressive agenda. Others within the Church have, in response, framed systemic racism in America as an intractable societal malady dating back to the Founding Fathers that can only be overcome through direct cultural conflict. Through our personal interactions with people on both sides of the issue, we have concluded that Christ calls us to exhort our brothers and sisters within the Church to strive to understand one another and work for peace in solidarity.

Systemic racism is so insidious because all too often, the only people who realize it exists are those who suffer from it. Those who are lucky enough not to suffer from it have to be honest, humble, and open to the limits of their own understanding before they can assist in solving the problem. In the struggle to end systemic racism, just as in every other struggle against sin, the Church must strive to convert herself. True conversion demands that we emulate Christ by bearing his Good News of peace and justice to the world. In other, better words: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God.”

EDITORIAL NOTE: The authors would like to express their appreciation to Terri Kimmel for her assistance in editing this text into its final version.

[1] Ignatow, Gabriel. 2007. “Theories of Embodied Knowledge: New Directions for Cognitive and Cultural Sociology?” Journal for the Theory of Social Behaviour 37(2):115–35.

[2] Eliasoph, Nina and Paul Lichterman. 2003. “Culture in Interaction.” American Journal of Sociology 108(4):735–94.

[3] Go, Julian. 2020. “Race, Empire, and Epistemic Exclusion: Or the Structures of Sociological Thought.” Sociological Theory 38(2):79–100.

Featured Image: Rowland Scherman, Civil Rights March on Washington, D.C. Martin Luther King, Jr., President of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and Mathew Ahmann, Executive Director of the National Catholic Conference for Interrracial Justice, in a crowd, 28 August 1963; Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD.


Abigail Bodeau and Isaac Kimmel

Abigail Bodeau is a PhD student in the Department of Religion at Baylor University. She studies the Old Testament, specializing in prophetic literature.

Isaac Kimmel is a PhD student in the Department of Sociology at the University of Notre Dame. He studies public and personal culture, cognition, and social media.

Read more by Abigail Bodeau and Isaac Kimmel