The work of the Racial Justice Commission

Full disclosure: I belong to the Racial Justice Commission, invited by then member Deacon William Johnson several years ago. What does this diocesan commission do? Like many such commissions, it advises the bishop so that he can make policy decisions and issue pastoral helps to the people of the diocese. Another important thing it does is show that our diocesan leadership sees racial justice as a constitutive dimension of gospel preaching. Twenty-three years ago the diocesan synod (meeting) convened by Bishop James McHugh recommended setting up such a body to keep a regular check on the pulse of relationship among the many ethnic and racial communities in the six counties of South Jersey. With the recent mergers of parishes, from 124 to 70, because of the scarcity and the aging of priests to minister to a half million Catholics, and because of the financial consequences of fewer Catholics maintaining regular membership in parishes, consolidation became unarguably imperative, painful as it was and is.

The RJC’s mission statement sees the RJC’s task “to serve as a catalyst for identifying and eradicating the sin of racism.” That’s strong language that will bring up short those who see racism as a merely secular problem that “we don’t have here.” This latter is sometimes a genuine sentiment expressed when Catholics are asked why they resent their parish being merged with a nearby one with a different racial composition. Or else it is heard when parishioners object that the church should not be meddling in politics, and that sermons should confine themselves to Jesus and other religious subjects, as though Jesus never told his followers that loving all neighbors is as mandatory as loving God. The parable of the Good Samaritan removes all doubt about whether people unlike us are our neighbors.

The vision statement of the body says the RJC “will be an agent of transformation that explicitly and consistently affirms our God-given dignity and our human right to be free from racial domination, and will lead the Diocese of Camden to embrace the Gospel vision and Catholic social teaching that all races are equal.” That language, too, challenges those assuming some preferential superiority of one race or another.

The group’s members come from different areas, languages, ethnic groups and ages but can always become more diverse. Membership is open to Catholics and others who share the RJC’s mission and vision. One recent racial issue the RJC could hypothetically take on is that of affordable housing. New Jersey has the national distinction of hosting Burlington County’s 1975 Mount Laurel decision, a Supreme Court mandate that all the state’s 567 communities provide housing that less advantaged incomes can reach. Conscious that no one wants their local neighborhood to devolve into a ghetto if middle-income residents begin panic selling when a family of color moves in, the RJC envisions legislation calling for small enclaves of lower cost homes spread across the state. The key word is small. If small groupings of less expensive housing were scattered across urban, suburban and rural areas, no longer would we have the dishonest dodge of wealthy towns paying impoverished cities like Camden, Trenton, Newark and Paterson to do the duty of the well to do. The result of this has been the catastrophic clustering of poor people in prison-like ghettos.

The alternative would be the sensible solution of small enclaves whose minority children would blend in with other children to reflect the racial diversity of a healthy neighborhood. People of different origins shopping and studying and living and praying together will eventually break down the animosity that so victimizes minorities this long after Selma without ruining anyone’s property values. Busing to achieve racial equality failed decades ago because children went home after school to houses where racist attitudes undid whatever good was done in school. School then became a racially artificial environment. But law requiring statewide compliance at the same time would remove the danger of highly impacted crisis areas where formerly pleasant neighborhoods degenerate into slums — as happens when the majority refuses to hire the minorities, who then cannot afford to keep up their homes, as every family on the street should do for the common good. It’s fine to demand that people care for their property, but it’s hypocritical to hobble a man and then blame him for failing to run a race.

The RJC seeks new members committed to gospel values like this.

Since these things are so, the Second Amendment must be repealed.