Racism in America has been the hottest topic of the last few weeks, with many voices clamoring for dominance in the debate. Yet, certain conservative circles, which overlap with some Catholic circles and certainly oppose racism on principle, circulate the dismissive attitude that this is not a discussion we need to have.
From their perspective, shared in memes and social media rants, the problem of racism was already settled, and to renew the concern now is either silly or deceptive. After all, the reasoning goes, slavery was abolished long ago; the Civil Rights movement of the ‘60s was a success and segregation a faint memory; real racists now only exist in tiny fringe groups and everyone agrees that racism is evil. Some go further and make the issue completely bipartisan: modern examples of discrimination or “white privilege” are merely figments of the leftist imagination, they say, purely invented as a political tactic, and should be disregarded or vehemently refuted as such. But this thinking is disingenuous, especially when accompanied by assertions about the “real” problems, implying that racism itself is not a modern problem.
Of course, the issues at play are exceedingly complex, and it is equally faulty to assert, as many progressives do, that modern racism is the fault of conservatives. Progressive ideologies and their effect on our communities carry a heavy share of the blame for current tensions. Yet the sin of racism, and the blame game for the sufferings of black communities, is used as a political wedge by both sides to score points, to our shame. In this climate, it is unwise to fall into the habit of believing that racism is relegated to the past.
Sadly, that is not how sin works; old sins do not keep tidily in the pages of history books. The politics of new movements can be questioned, the violent actions of groups can be called to account; and the arrogant virtue signaling of celebrities rightly can be ridiculed; but there is no doubt about the human condition. Sins are perennial in human flesh, like a cancer that viciously returns after successful chemotherapy; they spring up as weeds in a garden left untended. We can’t rely lazily on the victories of our forebears, even if we once believed those victories to have been complete. The enemy of humanity is too seasoned a campaigner to allow us to rest on those laurels; he will take the tiny seed of sin left over and nurse its foul growth until it is strong enough to invade again, under our radar. There is no final victory on this side of the end of the world.
Interestingly, for an American conservative seriously to think any social advance against sin is permanent requires significant cognitive dissonance. It is disingenuous to argue that racism is a thing of the past but that the evils of communism, for instance, must be regarded as warily now as in the days of our fathers. Why would the errors of racism be a settled issue but the errors of communism an ever-present concern, long after the Berlin Wall fell? Both evils of the past century are completely capable of making a comeback in this one. We can both be on our guard against, say, the socialism of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and be vigilant against the new shoots of latent racial discrimination.
G. K. Chesterton addressed this perennial fight for good against resurgent evil in his classic Orthodoxy. In the chapter titled “The Eternal Revolution,” he pointed out that you can’t just paint a fence post once and call the job done. “If you particularly want it to be white you must be always painting it again; that is, you must be always having a revolution. Briefly, if you want the old white post you must have a new white post.”
“One reason offered for being a progressive is that things naturally tend to grow better,” Chesterton explains, “But the only reason for being a progressive is that things naturally tend to grow worse.” Christianity, GKC argued, is the only answer to the progressive desire to improve the world continually, because the Christian knows that “men were naturally backsliders; that human virtue tended of its own to rust or to rot… Human beings as such go wrong.”
This need to forever renew human institutions against the creeping effects of sin is the whole point of Chesterton’s epic poem The Ballad of the White Horse, the story of King Alfred’s fight to drive the invading pagan Danes out of England. Chesterton draws an analogy from a prehistoric sketch of a horse, cut long ago into a chalky hillside in southern England. If the Horse is to remain on the hillside, it must be weeded regularly, menial as that task is:
Away in the waste of the White Horse Down
An idle child alone
Played some small game through hours that pass
And patiently would pluck the grass,
Patiently push the stone.
Not only are the best things worth fighting for, but it is our fate to take up that same battle over and over with each generation. In driving out the pagan invaders, King Alfred takes up this constant fight against evil symbolized by weeds threatening to erase the beautiful picture of the Horse. He is victorious against the Danes but, in his old age, the heathens attack England once again. His courtiers are dismayed that the king cannot rest confident in his old victory, saying “surely this is hard, / That we be never quit of them.” Alfred is not so shaken by this news. He points to the picture of the Horse on the hillside and says,
Will ye part with the weeds forever?
Or show daisies to the door?
Or will you bid the bold grass
Go, and return no more?
And though skies alter and empires melt,
This word shall still be true:
If you would have the horse of old,
Scour ye the horse anew.
He warns them to remain armed and ready for defense against all evil, for it will always come again—and in subtler ways. Surveying his land, Alfred remarks:
I know that weeds shall grow in it
Faster than men can burn;
And though they scatter now and go,
In some far century, sad and slow,
I have a vision, and I know
The heathen shall return.
You can’t weed the shoots of sins like racism from the garden of human society just once. You must weed it many times over, year after year; because as long as there is soil for good things to grow, bad things will grow with it. Free American soil is particularly fertile; all manner of things take root here. And the enemy is sowing weeds while we sleep. As Chesterton said, to defend and renew the good things, you must always be having a revolution.
Erasing racism—and any human sin—is a slow revolution of continual renewal, and not simply a swift one of hashtags and violence. It requires charity and forbearance with one another as we uncover problems and work out improvements. Patiently let us pluck the grass, and patiently push the stone.
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