Two years ago, Ta-Nehisi Coates reignited long-standing debates around reparations. His case for reparations details the moral and material debts Americans have accrued from centuries of profiting off of systemic racism. The country will never be whole, Coates argues, until Americans reckon with the fact that “America begins in black plunder and white democracy, two features that are not contradictory but complementary.” Reparations, in this formulation, involve a recognition of the nation’s complicity in past and present oppression as well as concrete actions to rectify those historic wrongs, to pay down those debts.
As a scholar of Catholics in the United States and as a white Catholic myself, I am keenly aware of the fact that white Catholics—the children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren of Catholic immigrants from Europe—are among the most forceful critics of reparations. None of my ancestors owned slaves, the counterargument goes, so why should I be held responsible for paying someone else’s debt? Even if I could be connected to slavery, critics often add, be practical. What would reparations even look like 153 years after emancipation?
I’ve thus been following recent events at Georgetown University with avid admiration. Georgetown, the oldest Catholic and Jesuit university in the United States, spent the past year confronting its complicity in the institution of slavery. University President John J. DeGioia convened the “Working Group on Slavery, Memory, and Reconciliation” in September 2015. It was already well-documented that past president and Jesuit priest Thomas F. Mulledy had authorized the sale of 272 enslaved people in 1838 to finance a failing college, slaves owned by Maryland Jesuits. The working group unearthed the extent to which this sale propelled Georgetown’s future success, identified the descendants of the slaves sold to Deep South plantations, organized teach-ins to educate the Georgetown community on these legacies, and made recommendations to the president on how best to make amends for benefits reaped from the trade in flesh.
Rachel Swarns, who has covered this story closely for the New York Times since it started one year ago, reported on Georgetown’s plans “to atone for [its] slave past” on Sept. 1. The steps Georgetown plans to take read as if they are a direct response to would-be naysayers of slave reparations. What would reparations even look like? Well, Georgetown plans to rename buildings that honor the presidents involved in the infamous 1838 slave sale after Isaac Hawkins, one of the 272 enslaved people sold, and after Anne Marie Becraft, a black religious sister and educator. And to establish an Institute for the Study of Slavery and Its Legacies. And to dedicate a public memorial to the enslaved who built the school. And to offer preferential admissions treatment to the descendants of those enslaved people. Dr. DeGioia discussed these recommendations in a formal apology he delivered on the behalf of Georgetown University to a room with descendants of slaves in the audience.
The R-word has been largely absent from the university’s public statements. The working group and president seem to prefer the language of “truth and reconciliation” and “atonement.” Nevertheless, Coates noted in a tweet that “Folks may not like the word ‘reparations,’ but it’s what Georgetown did. Scope is debatable. But it’s reparations.” One can indeed criticize the nature and the scope of the restitution. Some descendants of the enslaved, for instance, have called for descendants themselves to have a more active role in the decision-making process and have argued for more extensive scholarship support, among other things. Yet it is hard to dispute that this is an attempt to make reparations. In fact, the working group specifically quoted Coates’ contention that “Reparations would mean a revolution of the American consciousness, a reconciling of our self-image as the great democratizer with the facts of our history.”
This “revolution of the American consciousness” is at the heart of the case I want to make for reparations, a case I make precisely because I am a white Catholic. It would be all too easy to draw the wrong conclusion from Georgetown’s reparations, modest though they may be. It is tempting to celebrate this moment in American Catholic history as a triumph, to enjoy some self-congratulation. We can all comfortably condemn the “original evil that shaped the early years of the Republic,” as Dr. DeGioia called it. But what about the evils of the centuries that followed? What of the present? How are white Catholics complicit in the crisis facing black women, men, and children today—when black people die at the hands of the police and the state in numbers reminiscent of Jim Crow–era lynchings, when we have to demand that black lives matter in the face of a society that insists otherwise? Do Catholics have a unique responsibility to make reparations for racial injustice in America? Even those Catholics who have no direct connection to the slave trade?
There are different ways to answer these questions. We could take a theological approach, perhaps quote Catholic social teaching that speaks of all human beings as members of the one mystical body of Christ or names racism as a moral evil. But plenty of Catholics don’t attend church regularly, let alone read pastoral letters or theological treatises. What I want to do is talk about the history that white Catholics inherit here in the United States. I want to talk about the history I inherited from my mother and my grandparents and great-grandparents. Being “Catholic” today means many different things to many different people. But the story I’m going to tell is one we white Catholics share regardless of whether we consider ourselves “devout” or “lapsed,” cultural Catholics or “practicing.” It is our historical inheritance.
There are certain myths about American Catholicism, stories white Catholics have told (and continue to tell) themselves, that have aided and abetted attempts to exempt us from complicity in racial injustice in the United States. I’ve already hinted at one of them, the idea that Catholics can be absolved of America’s “original sin” because most Catholics immigrated toward the end or after those 250 years of slavery.
Another counterargument, still compelling to many, is the fact that white Catholics have their own story of exclusion. Our people arrived after slavery, the story goes, and when we arrived we were persecuted. We were strangers in a strange land. Our churches and convents were burned, we couldn’t get jobs, we were lampooned in political cartoons, and immigration restrictions were passed to stem the tide of our coming. The white Protestant majority considered us foreigners incapable of being true Americans. But this story is not a tragic but a triumphant one. Over the better part of a century, Catholics rose from despised foreigners to the most patriotic of Americans. By 1960 we even had a Catholic in the White House to show for it. This is the story that white Catholics like to tell ourselves—I know not only because I study Catholics but also because it is the story I told myself growing up. Considering this history, why indeed should the descendants of oppressed, working-class European immigrants owe anything to the descendants of slaves?
This story is not untrue, but it is incomplete. Catholics were considered outsiders for much of their history here in the United States. And, Catholics did, by and large, become indistinguishable from other Americans as far as things like education, occupation, and social status were concerned. But race and racism are almost always absent from this story. We white Catholics have tried to distance ourselves from the inheritances of our history here in America. We have hoped to hold onto an American identity untainted by the sins of racial injustice. What is missing from this story is the cost of our transformation, “the price of the ticket,” to borrow a phrase from James Baldwin. White Catholics count ourselves among the greatest beneficiaries of the American dream and thus dare not think, let alone speak aloud, the fact that our Dream was built on profits plundered from Black women, men, and children.
One hundred years ago, most Catholics in the United States were either immigrants or their children. Catholics were an immigrant working-class people who lived in inner-city ghettoes. And they were considered outsiders for precisely these reasons. Their religious identity marked them as separate, as did their ambiguous racial status, which was very much up in the air at the time. Italian Catholics like my grandfather and great-grandfather—along with other Catholic immigrants from southern and Eastern Europe—may not have been black, but they weren’t quite white either.
So how did Catholic immigrants become white Americans? One historical moment provides clear insight into this question: the years following World War II. The distinguished service of Catholic soldiers in the first and especially the second World War placed American Catholic patriotism virtually beyond reproach. And, like many veterans returning from war, Catholics took advantage of the opportunities offered by the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944 (popularly known as the G.I. Bill). The federal government provided World War II veterans with financial support to attend high school and college, low-cost loans to buy new homes and start businesses, even unemployment compensation. Catholic college attendance skyrocketed. Catholics soon began to get middle-class jobs at nearly the same rate as their Protestant counterparts. And this rise in income also afforded Catholics the opportunity to move out of the isolation and poverty of the inner city and into their own homes in the suburbs—suburbs subsidized by the federal government. Federal policies facilitated Catholic achievement the American dream.
There are things typically left untold in this story, however. Not all Americans could avail themselves of the opportunities available to my grandfather and his Catholic classmates. The G.I. Bill was designed to accommodate Jim Crow segregation in the South. Black veterans who had just fought the same war for freedom halfway across the world now faced the indignity of being denied freedom at home. Only a fifth of the black veterans who applied for educational benefits actually received any. As the federal government subsidized white Catholic mortgages in the suburbs, they denied mortgages to black people and redlined real estate in black neighborhoods. As the federal government supported the children of Catholic immigrants in their quest to escape the inner city and achieve the elusive American dream, it denied the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of slaves those same opportunities. In a real sense white Catholics invested in institutionalized injustice, even if they were unaware that their rise out of ghettoes was predicated on the building of black ones. Whether or not individuals like my grandfather were conscious of their investment, the effect was the same: The descendants of Catholic immigrants reaped the profits of racism. (Ira Katznelson’s ground-breaking book When Affirmative Action Was White: The Untold History of Racial Inequality in Twentieth-Century America is among the best resources on this subject.)
Of course, there are countless examples of white Catholics fully conscious of their attempt to enforce and maintain white supremacy in America. When, against all odds, black Americans fought for those very things that fueled the rise of Catholics—quality schooling and homeownership to name just two—white Catholics were often at the front lines of the resistance. When Martin Luther King came to Chicago in 1966 to fight against racist real estate practices, he faced mobs of white Catholics chanting “white power,” pelting him with bottles and rocks. King, who had been beaten and arrested and jailed across the South later said he had “never seen anything so hostile and so hateful” as what he’d seen in Chicago. When attempts were made to forcibly desegregate public schools and housing that isolated black Americans in poverty (in cities like Chicago and Boston and Yonkers), Catholics came out in droves to protest. White Catholics wrote letters to their archbishops insisting that they would withdraw their children from parochial school and refuse to donate to the church unless their bishops withdrew their support. Priests and laypeople banded together in neighborhood organizations to fight off what they perceived to be the “invasion” of their turf by black Americans. Black families who tried to achieve the same dream white Catholics had were welcomed with bricks and firebombs. White Catholics have left a catalog of hate in the historical record.
What’s the point of revising this history? My point is not to condemn white Catholics as irredeemable “racists.” History, as I’m trying to tell it, is more complicated. White Catholics received support for college education that was denied blacks. This didn’t mean that my Italian Catholic grandfather didn’t pour over his books and work late into the night to please his professors. White Catholics benefited from discriminatory housing policies that allowed them to buy homes while it locked blacks into blighted neighborhoods. This didn’t mean that my grandfather didn’t work overtime or worry about paying his mortgage to care for his wife and five kids. When we rush to simplistic, categorical judgments we can miss the fact that white Catholics were, after all, nothing more or less than human beings who lived and suffered and died like everybody else. But hard work and suffering, living and dying does not absolve us from responsibility. It’s what makes us responsible in the first place.
White Catholics share responsibility for making reparations for racial injustice because we share in its history. We invested in it and profited from it. We continue to invest in it and profit from it. White Catholics must acknowledge our shared history and embrace its consequences. This is what Coates has in mind when he maintains, “we must imagine a new country. Reparations—by which I mean the full acceptance of our collective biography and its consequences—is the price we must pay to see ourselves squarely. … What I’m talking about is a national reckoning that would lead to a spiritual renewal.”
A real reckoning with our past calls for nothing short of “a radical revolution of values,” to quote Martin Luther King. But that’s just where the revolution begins. If the quest for reparations at Georgetown teaches us anything it is that a new country, imagined or otherwise, must make concrete commitments to close the values gap, as Eddie Glaude calls it, between how white and nonwhite peoples are valued in our society. In his address, Dr. DeGioia noted the “substantial financial impact” of the university’s plans to atone for its complicity in slavery. It is well past time for white Catholics to reconcile ourselves to the fullness of our history and the consequences it has for us today. It is time for us to pay our debts. This country can no longer afford for us to forget.