Why Does Catholic Teaching Have a Hard Time Explaining How Racial Injustice is Perpetuated by Non-Racists?

Racial Inequality Does Not Require Prejudice

Well over a century ago, W.E.B. Du Bois famously stated that “the problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line.”[1]  Many have interpreted the color line to be a problem of race relations, one that would be resolved if people stopped being prejudiced. In Catholic teaching, racism is “a sin that divides the human family”[2] with thoughts and actions that flow, knowingly or unknowingly, from “the same prejudicial root.”[3] This is a primarily cultural view of racism, as unpacked in Brian Massingale’s Racial Justice and the Catholic Church. However, the problem of the color line is not primarily about whether people of different races coexist without prejudice (and we have made much less progress than many Americans think). Nor is the color line primarily about discrimination, though discrimination is a significant factor in sustaining it. Rather, the color line is about whether opportunity and privilege are tied to race. We see this in the rest of Du Bois’ quote:

The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line, the question as to how far differences of race . . . be made the basis of denying to over half the world the right of sharing .  . . the opportunities and privileges of modern civilization.

What Du Bois describes is a racialized society: a society in which race shapes one’s life opportunities. Accordingly, many scholars of race see racism as a matter of systems that create unequal opportunities along group lines. Attention has largely focused on how discrimination is embedded in institutions, not just among individuals. While important, however, this focus, too, overlooks structural racism, which “can continue to make a society racist even if there no longer be anyone individually racist.”[4] Structural racism explains how racialized opportunity structures do not require racial conflict, hostility, or prejudice to be sustained even if such factors played a role in their creation.

To be clear, discrimination remains a thorny problem. However, even if all prejudice were resolved today, the actions of non-prejudiced individuals would still inadvertently perpetuate racial injustice as long as racialized opportunity structures are not dismantled and the incentives associated with them remain. Like a crooked tree that has spread roots into every part of society, racialized opportunity structures may have been nurtured in the soil of prejudice but do not require prejudice to keep bearing misshapen fruit once grown. Justice requires uprooting the trees, not simply changing the soil. As Martin Luther King Jr. declared, “True peace is not merely the absence of tension; it is the presence of justice.”[5] The absence of discrimination alone is not enough.

Discussions of systemic racism address the way racialized opportunity structures lead to unjust outcomes, but they tend to conflate structure with culture, such as by examining the discriminatory rules or processes of institutions. Less attention is given to the role of social structure itself in shaping behaviors by virtue of the incentives and constraints inherent in the system of positions, with race as one set of positions. Moreover, even when racism is discussed through an institutional lens, individuals are assumed to tacitly accede to prejudice as they “give unwitting approval by accepting things as they are.”[6] As such, the solution to institutional discrimination is still treated as beginning with the individual through “a genuine conversion of heart, a conversion that will compel change, and the reform of our institutions and society.”[7]

Unsurprisingly, this has provoked a backlash from Whites who do not accept “white guilt” for attitudes they claim not to hold and for actions they claim not to participate in. Regardless of whether any of us are free from prejudice or not, however, a single-minded focus on discrimination fails to address how social structures contribute to injustice even in the absence of prejudice. Work analyzing racial discrimination remains a necessary task, but more attention also needs to be paid to how patterns of racialized deprivation, harm, and suffering are caused by everyday actions that have little to do with discrimination.

Because Catholic teaching presents an undertheorized view of social structures, it struggles to explain how individuals can perpetuate racialized outcomes without prejudice or create harm out of otherwise good actions or attitudes. As Daniel Finn has pointed out, the Catholic Church lacks the understanding of social structure necessary to explain what Christians have long been aware of regarding how “economic, political, and social institutions are quite real . . . and can make leading a moral life far more difficult.”[8]

Consider the closest analogs to the concept of social structure in Catholic theology. At first glance, structures of sin sound like social structures. But structures of sin refer to values enculturated in individuals (e.g., the desire for profit or power) rather than patterned social relations.[9] As such, they do not explain how relations among social positions shape the likelihood of certain behaviors as distinguished from the influence of individual values or cultural norms. Imagine how a person struggling with alcoholism might respond differently in an Alcoholics Anonymous group versus among drinking friends. Structures of sin do not capture how a person’s social position amidst a network of relations provides constraints and incentives that affect the likelihood that he or she will imbibe.

Meanwhile, social sin explains the way the consequences of sin extend beyond the individual but does not get at how the causes of sin may also go beyond the individual. This is because social sin treats structure as the aggregate of individual thoughts and actions, as “the result of the accumulation and concentration of many personal sins.”[10] Social sin presumes the socially unconstrained freedom of individual actors: “the human person is free. This truth cannot be disregarded in order to place the blame for individuals’ sins on external factors such as structures, systems or other people.” Social sin thus implies consciously held attitudes and intentional actions taken by morally culpable individuals, which makes it a concept that cannot help us explain systemic harms that do not require individual intent to discriminate.

Understanding Social Structures

There has been a growing realization among Catholic theologians of the importance of clarifying how social structure works.[11] Such clarification is also needed before we can understand how non-racists perpetuate racial inequality. By social structure, I mean “systems of human relations among social positions.”[12] Both the positions and the system of relations between positions matter for understanding social behavior. Catholic teaching has typically failed to treat social structure as a distinct category with its own causal force, but, drawing from critical realist ontology, I treat agency, structure, and culture as distinct but mutually conditioning categories of social reality. Structure and culture have their own ontological realities, emerging from the interaction of individuals, but then existing at a “higher” level and exerting “downward” causal influence back on individuals.

Daniel Finn points to two key insights we gain from understanding social structure in this way.[13] First, social positions exist as real things apart from the individuals that come to occupy them. Furthermore, the fundamentals of the relation are defined by the relation between the positions rather than by the individuals occupying the positions. For example, the relationship I have with a student is shaped more fundamentally by the nature of our positions as professor vis-à-vis student than by the individuals occupying the positions. As a professor, I will tend to relate to any student as an authority figure within the scope of my role, no matter how timid or friendly I may be. Likewise, students will tend to relate to me from a perspective of relative submission, no matter how confident or capable they may be. Our fundamental relationship is shaped, not by our personalities, but by our social positions.

Regardless of who occupies the position of professor or student, there exists a relation of inequality between the two positions. This is why authority figures are held to greater account than others in cases of wrongdoing; as a society, we recognize that their position entails greater power. We recognize this to be true in the case of parents, teachers, doctors, and police as well. Every social position exists in relation to other positions, and each relation entails a power dynamic inherent in the relation and not the individuals.

In America, race, too, is a matter of social position. Whites have greater power than other racial groups by virtue of occupying the dominant position. As with other social structures, the fundamental relationship of Whites to non-Whites is shaped by social positions rather than personalities. This is not to say that individuality does not matter. But neither Whites nor non-Whites can stop relating to one another, on some level, as a White person and a person of color; nor can either remove the underlying power dynamic. That non-Whites are typically well aware of their social position vis-à-vis wWites while Whites are typically unaware does not change the fact that this power dynamic is operative. Just like authority figures have greater power whether they are cognizant of it or not, so too do Whites whether they recognize it or not.

The second key insight is that social position shapes the actions and attitudes of the individual who occupies it because of the restrictions, opportunities, and incentives inherent in the position. Social structure points to how human agency is never socially unconstrained but is always circumscribed by the context of our social position. There are things I will no longer do as a husband that I might have done when I was single and things that I regularly do as a father that I never thought I would do when I did not have children. There are things I do not have to think about as a man that my wife is always aware of as a woman, and things I am confronted by daily as a Chinese-American that my White friends never have to deal with. Of course, none of what has been said so far removes human agency. If we are willing to face the consequences, we can act against the incentives or constraints of our positions. But such choices often appear irrational or unintelligible, if not unethical, like turning down requests from superiors at work or ignoring the welfare of one’s children.

In a racialized society, people of the same race are placed in the same social location which entails facing similar opportunities and constraints and, hence, developing similar perspectives. Since race interacts with other social positions like class and gender, we should not make this out to be more uniform or totalizing than it is. But neither should we reject the fact that there is something fundamental shared along racial lines not because of culture or biology but because of structure. Consider a childhood lesson shared in a best-selling memoir by a Black author.[14] While still a girl, Austin Channing Brown’s father tells her that she should never put her hands in her pockets in a store after touching an item. Separately, her mother tells her never to open an item in a store even if she purchased it. What she quickly learns is that being Black means being an object of suspicion. This is not an idiosyncratic lesson but one representative of the experience of many people of color. People’s social locations affect how they are treated, and hence, how they view the world and interact with it.

Scripture, too, displays a fundamental awareness of social structure. Paradigmatically, the parable of the Good Samaritan is a structural lesson that teaches that being a neighbor is not about who one is or what one believes but about acting like a neighbor (translation: doing what one in the position of a neighbor does). Throughout the Bible, the Israelites are repeatedly enjoined to remember their prior status as foreigners and sojourners (Ex. 23:9; Lev 19:34; Deut 10:19). Why? Because there is something about the position of being a foreigner that they are told to remember as a basis for treating the foreigners among them well. Jesus and the apostles remind Christians that being followers of Christ entails living like a sojourner (Matt 8:19–20) or a foreigner and exile (1 Pet 2:11) with our citizenship in heaven (Phil 3:20). These exhortations only work because they evoke specific incentives and constraints tied to being in the positions of a sojourner versus a citizen.

Discussions of the plight of the poor, the challenges of the wealthy, and God’s rejection of kings also involve appeals to social structure. Why did God not want his people to have a king like the other nations? Are kings inherently immoral? No, but even kings after God’s own heart, like David, are likely to behave in problematic ways due to the opportunities of their social position, as we see with the story of David and Bathsheba (2 Sam 11). Why is it hard for a rich person to enter the Kingdom of God (Matt 19:24; Luke 18:25)? Are rich people automatically unfaithful? No. Rather, when one occupies a position of privilege and wealth, one is incentivized to find fulfillment in what that wealth brings rather than the word of God (Mark 4:19) and less likely to recognize a need for a savior (Rev 3:17). Why is the command to care for those in poverty repeated frequently? Are they inherently deserving? No, but the constraints of their vulnerability are presumed by their social position; hence the common pairing of the poor and needy in Scripture (Lev 25:35–36; Deut 15:7–8; Ps 82:3–4).

How Non-Racists Perpetuate Residential Segregation

The concept of social structure is necessary to understand how structural racism works to perpetuate residential segregation in America. Structural racism helps us see that, while discrimination is an important factor, non-racist choices can also have racist consequences, especially when made in the context of racialized opportunity structures. As such, decisions made by all Americans, not just Whites, contribute to racial injustice regardless of intent; in fact, individuals pursuing otherwise good things can simultaneously promote injustice. Furthermore, social structure shows us how such choices are circumscribed by the social positions of the actors and are not just straightforward expressions of cultural values like prejudice. Structural racism points out, first, how opportunity structures, once racialized, retain causal power even if discriminatory intent is no longer in view. Second, it points out how individuals make rational choices in terms of the opportunities and constraints of their positions, which lead to racial disparities because of these structures.

The two dominant narratives of racial inequality in contemporary discourse tend to neglect structural racism. First, much of mainstream American discourse reduces all racism to matters of individual prejudice in what is purported to be a colorblind society. This perspective underestimates the prevalence of segregation and justifies it as a matter of self-segregation by racial minorities rather than an ongoing consequence of racialization. This assumes, first, that Whites and members of other racial groups share the same desire to be with members of their own race, and second, that Americans of all races have equal agency to pursue their desires in the housing market. Both assumptions are false. First, residential preferences vary significantly by race, with Whites preferring to be in predominantly White neighborhoods and Blacks equally happy to live with a 50-50 racial split or in a predominantly Black neighborhood. Second, Whites have a greater capacity to realize their preferences, with their choices regarding where to live, where to send their children to school, or where to go to church constraining the choices of others.

The second narrative that has crystallized against colorblindness is a strong version of anti-racist discourse that reduces all racism to matters of racial conflict as institutionalized in systemic form. While the first narrative lacks any accounting of systemic racism, the latter makes systemic racism a totalizing account. As much as such accounts assert that racism can operate without prejudice, examples cited are frequently about discrimination (typically perpetuated by Whites). Accounts of residential segregation emphasize the role of institutional prejudice with the FHA redlining of mortgages, blockbusting tactics of real estate brokers, and the use of racial covenants to prevent Blacks from buying homes in White neighborhoods. Little attention is paid to the ways in which racialized outcomes may also be a consequence of non-racially motivated behaviors by Whites and non-Whites alike, like concerns over home values and school quality.

So how does structural racism help us understand residential segregation? We must understand that the overall pattern of racial inequality in America has not changed since the Civil Rights Movement. The median White household has 10x the wealth of the median Black household and 8x the wealth of the median Hispanic household. A primary driver of this wealth gap is residential segregation. A major reason for this is that Whites have been better able to leverage home ownership. The racial gap in home ownership is larger now than it was even in the 1960s; in 2022, 75% of White households owned their homes compared to just 45% of Black households. For many Americans, the majority of their wealth comes in the form of home equity. As such, Whites are better positioned to pass on the wealth accrued from their home equity in a generational transfer of wealth whereas Blacks and Hispanics are both less likely to have equity and likely to have less equity when they do because of how segregation shapes housing values.

Consider, first, the set of relationships that exists in the racialized opportunity structure of the housing market. A body of work going as far back as Du Bois’ detailed empirical study in The Philadelphia Negro has highlighted how residential segregation is caused in part by White preferences and in part by disparate opportunities for Blacks. The difference in the preferences of Whites who want to live in majority-White neighborhoods and Blacks who want to live in more integrated neighborhoods means that Whites have less of a tolerance threshold for the presence of diversity. A tipping point is reached once a visible proportion of Blacks moves into a neighborhood, and in a predictable pattern of White flight, Whites move out, turning majority-White neighborhoods into mixed neighborhoods into majority-Black neighborhoods.

This is an example of a pattern of unequal relations in which Whites, by virtue of their social position, have greater agency to decide the makeup of the communities they want to live in than Blacks (or other non-Whites) since the very presence of Blacks (or even their perceived presence) can tip the balance into Whites leaving. It is not preferences for self-segregation on the part of Blacks but White preferences for majority-White neighborhoods that drive residential segregation. Similar patterns have been observed with regard to schools and churches.

Second, consider the kinds of opportunities, incentives, and constraints that historically shaped the actions and attitudes of occupants of social positions in the housing market. In the context of FHA redlining guidelines, the decisions made by bankers, realtors, homeowners, and homebuyers resulted in racialized outcomes whether such actors were prejudiced or not. Bankers following institutional policies applied racialized criteria to assess risk when deciding who qualified for a loan, not because they were necessarily racist but because they were following institutional rules. Realtors employed tactics that preyed on the fears of White homeowners, not necessarily because they were racist themselves, but because this allowed them to buy low and sell high. White homeowners resisted the entry of Blacks into their neighborhoods or sold their homes and moved out, not always because they feared or disliked Black people, but because they disliked what happened to their home values when Black families entered the neighborhood.

None of this is to deny that prejudice was frequently part of the picture (it was), but it was not the whole picture. What structural racism highlights is how discrimination is not required to sustain residential segregation. In each case, actors occupying similar social positions made similar choices that were deemed rational within the context of their positions. They did so freely but they did so because of non-racist as well as racist reasons in the housing market. Even now, as long as bankers operate out of institutional guidelines that are tied in some way to race-based assessments, as long as realtors benefit from homeowners’ racialized concerns, as long as homeowners and homebuyers know that home values and school quality are associated with racial makeup, as long as Whites and non-Whites have unequal levels of agency in choosing which neighborhoods to live in, removing prejudice from individuals or institutions will not stop residential segregation.

For prospective homebuyers to make the decision to buy homes in majority-Black neighborhoods requires them to choose, among other things, to go against certain constraints of their social positions. As such, it is inadequate to simply blame individuals for being prejudiced or decry their collusion with systemic racism. As Daniel Finn notes, “In an ideal world, all of the restrictions we face throughout the day would make it more difficult for us to act in sinful ways, and all the opportunities presented to us would lead us to choose what is morally good.”[15] Because the housing market is not an ideal world, challenging residential segregation requires changing the structure of the market.

Individual Goods Versus the Common Good

A critical realist approach to social structure contributes to understanding, first, why racial injustice is not primarily a matter of prejudice but of racialized opportunity structures, and second, why residential segregation as an example of structural racism should be understood not just as a problem of agency or of culture but of structure. On the one hand, colorblindness fails to explain why Americans in similar positions make similar choices in racially patterned ways or how Whites and non-Whites have different levels of agency in a racialized society. On the other hand, strong versions of antiracism fail to distinguish culture and structure at the institutional level or racists and non-racists at the individual level. Meanwhile, both accounts fail to explain how racialized opportunity structures like the housing market cause non-prejudiced individuals to perpetuate segregation through non-racist choices that are rational from the standpoint of their social positions.

As scholars of social stratification have explained, “Inequality is not fated by nature, nor even by the ‘invisible hand of the market; it is a social construction, a result of our historical acts.’”[16] Opportunity structures like the housing market are racialized when policies and practices which preserve the interests of the dominant group are institutionalized in ways that make race a basis for who gets access to resources and opportunities. Once these opportunity structures are in place, even non-prejudiced choices made by individuals result in racialized outcomes. As actors make choices that make sense within the context of their social positions as homebuyers, parents, and so forth, they contribute to racial injustice whether they are prejudiced or not. A choice to promote an individual good may hinder the common good, while a choice to promote the common good may hinder an individual good.

We should not be so naïve as to think the color line is primarily a matter of values. In a racialized society, it is fundamentally a structural problem. Even if we all become non-racists, residential segregation will continue as long as individuals make choices that “make sense” within social structures that remain geared towards unequal outcomes. It is not simply a matter of changing individual hearts or removing institutionalized patterns of discrimination (though these too are necessary). In a racialized housing market where Whites have greater agency to purchase homes and to realize their residential preferences, a cycle of residential segregation is perpetuated. As such, the purchase or sale of a home is no longer a neutral act. A choice that might otherwise be an unmitigated good now takes on an inherent tension between the individual good and the common good.

Catholic teaching needs an understanding of the way racialized social structures work to condition human agency in ways that incentivize unjust choices over just ones and promote individual goods that simultaneously prevent the common good. How can we change social structures to equalize opportunities and align constraints and incentives with just outcomes for our neighbors? In a racialized housing market, could it be that making a “right” choice as a homeowner or a parent means making a “wrong” choice as a citizen or a neighbor? What costs and sacrifices need to be made, and by whom, to change such opportunity structures?

[1] W.E.B. Du Bois, “To the Nations of the World,” 1900.

[2] “Brothers and Sisters to Us” §7.

[3] “Open Wide Our Hearts.”

[4] Doug Porpora, “What is Structural Racism?” Unpublished manuscript (2022).

[5] Martin Luther King Jr., Stride Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story.

[6] Brothers and Sisters to Us §11.

[7] Open Wide Our Hearts.

[8] Daniel Finn, Moral Agency within Social Structures and Culture (Georgetown University Press, 2020), 30.

[9] Sollicitudo Rei Socialis §37.

[10] Reconciliatio et Paenitentia §16.

[11] For example, Daniel Finn, “What is a Sinful Social Structure?” Theological Studies 77(1):136–64; Daniel Daly, Structures of Virtue and Vice (Georgetown University Press, 2020).

[12] Doug Porpora, “Four Concepts of Social Structure,” Journal for the Theory of Social Behaviour 19(2):195–211.

[13] Daniel Finn, “What is a Sinful Social Structure?” 29–41.

[14] Austin Channing Brown, I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness (Convergent Books, 2018).

[15] Finn, “What is a Sinful Social Structure?” 32.

[16] Claude Fisher, Michael Hout, Martin Sanchez Kankowsi, Samuel Lucas, Ann Swilder, and Kim Voss, Inequality by Design: Cracking the Bell Curve Myth (Princeton University Press, 1996), 7.

Featured Image: Susan Spangler, Illustration from National Cancer Institute pamphlet, 1994; Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD.


Josh Chen

Josh Chen is Assistant Professor of Sociology at Belmont Abbey College, with a PhD in Sociology from the University of Virginia and a MDiv from Westminster Theological Seminary. Before the academy, he worked for seven years among racially and socioeconomically diverse communities in the inner city of Philadelphia as a teacher, pastor, and adjunct professor.

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