Catholic Culture Overview
Catholic Culture Overview

Defining Racism

By Fr. Jerry Pokorsky ( bio - articles - email ) | Feb 17, 2021

Since the definition of “racism” is elusive, some suggest that using the traditional vocabulary of sin is the better path. But there are too many racist examples to ignore (e.g., the burning of crosses by the Ku Klux Klan and the Nazi “Master Race” ideology). We need an accurate and just definition to help us ensure that proposed solutions do not wreak greater havoc.

Upon scrutiny, popular definitions are inadequate. The Merriam-Webster definition reads: “A belief that race is a fundamental determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race.” The US Conference of Catholic Bishops repackages the definition, applying sinful pride to race awareness: “Racism arises when—either consciously or unconsciously—a person holds that his or her own race or ethnicity is superior, and therefore judges persons of other races or ethnicities as inferior and unworthy of equal regard. When this conviction or attitude leads individuals or groups to exclude, ridicule, mistreat, or unjustly discriminate against persons on the basis of their race or ethnicity, it is sinful.”

Based on this definition, the USCCB document proceeds to list a litany of racist offenses: symbols of hatred such as nooses and swastikas; hiring, housing, and educational discrimination; racial profiling; selective immigration enforcement; disproportionate racial incarceration patterns; harassment of Muslims; xenophobic rhetoric; etc. The bishops add: “Every racist act—every such comment, every joke, every disparaging look as a reaction to the color of skin, ethnicity, or place of origin—is a failure to acknowledge another person as a brother or sister, created in the image of God.”

But the charge of racism, thus defined, also indicts arguably reasonable law enforcement and national policy practices. Police officers who keep members of warring gangs apart after an arrest based on skin-color are racist. Preventing illegal immigration at our southern borders is racist because it is “selective.” So the overabundance of evidence of racism (as defined by the USCCB and others) is inescapable for most of us.

The poorly defined term of racism blurs the distinction between race and harmful cultural habits. The inner-city culture (with concentrations of various races) is often violent. It isn’t sinful (although it may be racist, according to the Marxist definition of racism) to ask why and investigate the cultural causes. Further, most would agree there is a significant difference between a racial slur viciously spewed, and a benign ethnic joke, repeated among friends.

Given the flawed definitions and the endless examples, the bishops have unavoidably concluded that racism is “systemic.” Recently, a representative group of bishops signed a lengthy letter to Congress calling for action: “We ask you to consider the needs of the historically marginalized, especially with regard to how any new policies may address the systemic racism and oppression that is manifest in disparate health and economic outcomes.”

Labeling most social behaviors as examples of systemic racism is dangerous. The unmistakable implication is that we must accept that our country is hopelessly racist. Everything is corrupt. The only way to fix a systemic problem is to tear everything down and begin anew with a Brave New World designed by elites and endless class struggle.

The bishops’ overall narrative on racism implicitly suggests a blanket condemnation of Caucasians, even implying that white people cannot ascribe racism to racial minorities. The bishops are echoing a common theme of neo-Marxist critical theory: “Racism is the oppression of a marginalized group in a society that is based on white supremacy. If you are a white person, then you naturally benefit from white privilege.” How does one repent of one’s whiteness?

It is doubtful the bishops hold this view. But it’s likely their ideological USCCB ghostwriters do, echoing the ideology of the neo-Marxist Black Lives Matter leaders who claim racism “is everywhere, it’s almost like the air we breathe.” Indeed, examples of racism are deemed so pervasive that many Catholic schools now have “diversity officers,” like KGB commissars, monitoring compliance with politically-correct views and rules.


We need a reasonable, intelligible, comprehensive, non-ideological, and just definition of racism to prevent, literally, the overthrow of Western civilization. At its core, it seems racism might be defined as the hatred of another person because of race. But it is not likely such people hate others because of the color of their skin. They hate people because of patterns of behavior that they associate with the color of their skin.

Consider this provisional working definition of racism. It applies to members of every race and culture: Racism is a state of mind in which a person uses racial characteristics alone to recall, cultivate, and unjustly act upon grievances or fears, real or imagined. By this definition, a sense of superiority may not be the primary motive for racism. Indeed, in the tangled web of human psychology, a sense of inferiority may be a more significant factor.

For a Klansman, black skin is the outward sign of, presumably, countless grievances or harmful behavior patterns—real or imagined—perpetrated by, or on behalf of, black people. The same could be said for a white face by a member of Black Lives Matter. Hence, the questions in need of answers are: Are the grievances violations of justice? Are they true? Who is responsible for the injustices? Do patterns of injustice continue in societal structures (e.g., segregation laws)? What is the evidence? What can be done? What should be done?

Using this definition, most rude and uncharitable acts are not racist. Prejudice can be reasonable or unreasonable. Hence, intelligence agents are not racist when they pay more attention to Middle Eastern types than Northern Europeans when monitoring the activities of ISIS. Undoubtedly, such profiling can be abusive, so prudence is required. FDR’s internment of American Japanese during WWII remains a shameful historical reminder.

This detailed definition also affirms that the burning of a cross by the Ku Klux Klan to intimidate a black family is racist. A vicious racial slur is racist. Attacking police because they are white (or black) is racist. Suggesting that only Caucasians are racist because they are white, is racist. Suggesting that racism is everywhere, like the air we breathe, is racist.

As with every violation of the Ten Commandments, the bishops should decry racism, carefully defined. But they have no right to implicitly (if unwittingly) invite the overthrow of our civilization with charges of “systemic racism” as defined by cultural Marxists.

Fr. Jerry Pokorsky is a priest of the Diocese of Arlington who has also served as a financial administrator in the Diocese of Lincoln. Trained in business and accounting, he also holds a Master of Divinity and a Master’s in moral theology. Father Pokorsky co-founded both CREDO and Adoremus, two organizations deeply engaged in authentic liturgical renewal. He writes regularly for a number of Catholic websites and magazines. See full bio.

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  • Posted by: philtech2465 - Feb. 23, 2021 11:45 AM ET USA

    Excellent article, Fr Pokorsky! Your "provisional definition" of racism is the best I have seen. And thank you for pointing out how neo-Marxist theory has impacted the discussion of racism.

  • Posted by: philtech2465 - Feb. 22, 2021 4:05 PM ET USA

    Excellent article, Fr Polorsky! Your "provisional definition" of racism is the best I have seen. And thank you for pointing out how neo-Marxist theory has impacted the discussion of racism.

  • Posted by: doughlousek7433 - Feb. 20, 2021 12:36 PM ET USA

    Well put! Yes, our Bishops need to think before they act, and it's apparent that they don't on many issues. That they consider thes "issues" themselves more important than concentrating on the salvation of souls, and teaching the basics of oour faith, is a failing of what Jesus taught, and in some cases, denies Church teaching. We must pray for what we, as Catholic Christians should be doing and if we do those things, God will provide the answers and help us to recover.

  • Posted by: jonesd1936 - Feb. 20, 2021 11:48 AM ET USA

    Thank you, Father, for calling out the Lefties on the USSCB staff. They are a canker on the good work of our Bishop as well as most of our nation's Bishops !

  • Posted by: murielkinsella4241 - Feb. 20, 2021 10:16 AM ET USA

    The overuse of the term 'systemic' is evident in the manipulative natureof 'woke' politics. Its over use bolsters a particular view of society for which people have no evidence or, perhaps, because they are too lazy to actually research the subject. In Ireland debate is no longer permitted on key issues; have a different opinion on gender and you are a 'phobe' and it's evidence of 'systemic' homophobia/transphobia. Fewer female politicians is evidence of 'systemic'sexism. The power of a word.

  • Posted by: FredC - Feb. 19, 2021 8:10 PM ET USA

    Father has a good definition of systemic racism (segregation laws). When I asked a group of people who bemoan systemic racism to give me a current example, they were unable to do so. The term "systemic racism" seems to be used so that the user does not need to cite an example.