Presidential Candidates Clash on Racial Justice

Donald Trump and Joe Biden hold different policies on race; Catholics weigh in as Election Day looms.

Presidential Democratic nominee Joe Biden (l) and Republican President Donald Trump have different approaches to how best to address racial disparities.
Presidential Democratic nominee Joe Biden (l) and Republican President Donald Trump have different approaches to how best to address racial disparities. (photo: Evan El-Amin / Shutterstock)

A summer of race-related strife in the United States has brought questions of racial justice to the fore of the 2020 presidential election campaign trail, while also highlighting the significance of recent teachings on racism by the nation’s Catholic bishops. 

The topic took center stage at the first presidential debate between incumbent Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden on Sept. 29. 

Amid the interruptions and insults, the candidates’ positions, representing two distinct perspectives concerning racial justice, became clear: Trump emphasized his record in boosting employment for Black Americans, a perspective that underscored “equality of opportunity” as the gold standard of a racially just society. In contrast, his Democratic contender called for addressing “systemic injustices” in education, work and law enforcement as a needed part of correcting long-standing racial disparities, a view that acknowledges relevant factors beyond individual choice and equality under law. 

The different emphases highlighted not only different policy preferences, but also different approaches to fundamental questions, such as the nature of racism and the relevant conceptions of justice to apply to racial inequality. In doing so, the presidential contenders represent different philosophies on racism in the wider discourse, which will be in contention even after the election.

An EWTN/RealClear Politics poll from August 2020 found that 50% of Catholics trust Biden more than Trump on race relations, while only 30% said the opposite.


Historical Context

This summer’s intense focus on race was catalyzed by the Memorial Day death of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man who died in Minneapolis police custody after an officer kneeled on his neck for more than eight minutes. But the issues in play cannot be separated from a much broader history. Slavery along racial lines has long been referred to as America’s “original sin,” and even after the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, institutionalized racism existed in the form of Jim Crow laws. 

Present-day advocates for racial justice say that the effects of these policies, which discriminated against Black people and other minority groups in a wide range of areas, and the patterns they created weren’t fully addressed with the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and continue to have an impact today.

“It is very evident that the issues of racial justice are still urgent and pervasive in this country,” Jacqueline Rivers, director of the Seymour Institute for Black Church and Policy Studies, told the Register.

Floyd’s death was a recent instance of a string of purported unjust uses of force by law enforcement against Black men that has captured national attention in the past decade, spanning Trump’s presidency and Biden’s time as vice president in the Obama administration. The 2014 police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, for instance, gave rise to the activist group Black Lives Matter Global Network and the wider Black Lives Matter movement.

Beyond the deaths of the individuals involved, racial tensions have turned violent during this period. In June 2015, Dylan Roof, a white man who had espoused racial hatred, killed nine Black people during a Bible study at a church in Charleston, South Carolina. Just over a year later, Micah Xavier Johnson, a Black Army veteran, killed five police officers in Dallas, with the expressed intent of killing white officers in reaction to the police killings of Alton Sterling in Louisiana and Philando Castile in Minnesota.


Church Response

In response to the rise of racial tensions and renewed focus on the impact of racism in America, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) formed the Ad Hoc Committee Against Racism in August 2017. In November 2018, the U.S. bishops approved the text of a formal statement on the subject, “Open Wide Our Hearts: The Enduring Call to Love, a Pastoral Letter Against Racism.”

“The entire body of bishops felt the need to address the topic of racism, once again, after witnessing the deterioration of the public discourse, and episodes of violence and animosity with racial and xenophobic overtones, that have re-emerged in American society in the last few years,” said Bishop Shelton Fabre of Houma-Thibodaux, Louisiana, the chairman of the ad hoc committee.

“Open Wide Our Hearts” speaks of the evil of racism on an individual level, but also states that “racism can also be institutional. ... The cumulative effects of personal sins of racism have led to social structures of injustice and violence that [make] us all accomplices in racism,” referring to the Catechism of the Catholic Church’s section on “social sin” (1869). The document notes several perceived instances of systemic racism, including the disproportionate number of inmates of color in U.S. prisons, as well as the unbalanced distribution of resources to “de facto segregated communities,” such as the predominantly African American city of Flint, Michigan, which experienced a water crisis after government neglect.

The bishops called for a “genuine conversion of heart,” which would lead to “the reform of our institutions and society.” They also noted that “the evil of racism festers” due to a lack of formal acknowledgement of the harm of racism and a failure to account for laws and practices that “deny justice and equal access to certain groups of people.” For instance, in describing the “African American experience,” “Open Wide Our Hearts” points to the “systematic denial of access to numerous wealth-building opportunities” as a factor that continues to negatively impact Black families and communities today.

After Floyd’s death, Archbishop José Gomez of Los Angeles, president of the USCCB, released a statement, saying that “racism has been tolerated for far too long in our way of life.”

“We need to finally root out the racial injustice that still infects too many areas of American society,” said Archbishop Gomez, offering support for legitimate protests that erupted in the aftermath of Floyd’s death but disapproval for related violence and looting.

The introductory letter for the latest version of “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship,” the USCCB’s teaching document on election preparation, notes that issues like racism have become “even more pronounced” since the text was originally published in 2015, stressing that racism is a “serious threat to human life and dignity” that cannot be dismissed or ignored in a Catholic’s assessment of the candidates. The letter, written in 2019, also directly references “Open Wide Our Hearts” and states that a Catholic cannot vote for a candidate who “favors a policy promoting an intrinsically evil act,” including racism, “if the voter’s intent is to support that position.” Additionally, if a candidate promotes an intrinsically evil act, such as abortion or the redefinition of marriage, but also including “racist behavior,” a voter “may legitimately disqualify [him/her] from receiving support.”

“Forming Consciences” also emphasizes the need for continual societal correction of unjust discrimination, including discrimination based on race. 

“Where the effects of past discrimination persist, society has the obligation to take positive steps to overcome the legacy of injustice, including vigorous action to remove barriers to education, protecting voting rights, support good policing in our communities, and equal employment for women and minorities” (“Forming Consciences,” 85).


Issues of Importance

Those who talk about addressing racism as a systemic problem point out that it is less of an “issue” than it is a widespread, often implicit factor affecting many areas of life. 

Still, Catholics like Louis Brown can point to several places to start. In comments to the Register, the executive director of the Catholic advocacy group Christus Medicus Foundation and former Trump appointee to the Department of Health and Human Services highlights two in particular: disparities in criminal justice and health care.

Recent studies support the existence of these systemic problems. For instance, an essay by Lyman Stone published in the conservative online journal Public Discourse extensively considered data on police violence, concluding that “racial bias in police killings is real.” On the topic of health care, Brown notes that communities of color suffer from both disproportionately lower access to quality health care and also face greater rates of “unjust and illegitimate denials of medical care.” The significance of these disparities has been highlighted during the coronavirus pandemic, as Black Americans have died from the virus at a rate twice as high as whites.

He says his organization, along with some partners, is launching a Health Care Civil Rights Task Force to address these issues that “disproportionately effect the materially impoverished and folks with disabilities.” 

“We need to bring about justice, but an important aspect of justice is respecting human dignity,” said Brown, who says addressing racial disparities in criminal justice and health care, including higher rates of abortion in the Black community, is part of “advancing the gospel of life.”

Rivers adds another issue: economic inequality. Like disparities in health care, the pandemic has also helped to expose persistent disadvantages in wealth and employment faced by Blacks. African Americans, she says, are hit especially hard due to socioeconomic factors like denser neighborhoods and households, as well as their greater rates of being “essential workers,” unable to work from home and often reliant on public transportation.

“All of these factors are related to socioeconomic status,” said Rivers, who adds that these disparities are due primarily to historic discrimination in housing practices, not cultural patterns among Blacks, the effects of which limit African Americans’ access to education, health care and many other societal benefits.


The Candidates’ Positions

Both Trump and Biden, in different ways, have made efforts to boost the Black community part of their campaigns. Trump, who received more votes from African Americans in 2016 than the two previous GOP contenders, announced on Sept. 25 his “Platinum Plan for Black America.” Characterized by the words “opportunity, security, prosperity and fairness,” the plan includes increasing access to capital in Black communities by almost $500 billion. Promoting school choice, increasing opportunities for home ownership, unrolling a National Clemency Program, and making Juneteenth a national holiday are also included in the wide-ranging plan. Also part of the “Platinum Plan”: police reform, including diversity training. 

Trump also points to successes during his first term — such as bringing the Black unemployment rate to a historic low of 5.4% in August 2019, restoring funding to historically Black colleges, and signing into law the First Step Act, hailed by even liberal media as the most significant recent reform of criminal justice — as evidence that he’ll be a better president for Black Americans.

Biden’s approach also commits to boost economic and educational opportunities, but he includes something additional. A part of his website entitled “Lift Every Voice: The Biden Plan for Black America” states that “African Americans can never have a fair shot at the American Dream so long as entrenched disparities are allowed to quietly chip away at opportunity.” The proposal is pointed about addressing racial inequity and disparities in areas like health and education, stating that “race-neutral policies are not a sufficient response to race-based disparities.” Support for a study of “the continuing impacts of slavery,” including an examination of reparations as a possible part of racial justice, is also included in Biden’s plan.

In the area of criminal-justice reform, Biden supports the decriminalization of marijuana, as well as an end to private prisons, cash bail and the death penalty, issues relevant to the African American community, given that Blacks make up 34% of the male prison population but only 13% of the general public. Biden, however, has resisted calls from activists to defund the police.


Debate Clash

The two candidates sparred over race at their first debate, but the conversation had less to do with policy proposals than it did with personal character. Biden accused Trump of using racial “dog whistles” during his presidency to “generate racist hatred, racist division” and flat-out called the president a racist. Trump referred to the former senator’s role in passing a controversial crime bill in 1994, which Biden justified by warning of “predators on our streets,” adding that Biden has “treated the Black community about as bad as anybody in this country.”

The exchanges highlighted that when it comes to a matter like racism, sometimes words can speak as loudly as actions. In Trump’s case, the president has repeatedly drawn criticism for using racially insensitive or even inflammatory rhetoric during his tenure. During this summer’s unrest, the president tweeted: “When the looting starts, the shooting starts,” a phrase that originated during the Miami race riots of 1967. At a September rally in Minnesota, he told the mostly white crowd that they had “good genes” in the same speech where he warned that Biden would “flood” the state with Somalian refugees. And at the recent presidential debate, Trump told the Proud Boys, a group classified as “white supremacist” by government agencies, to “stand back and stand by,” before denouncing white supremacists days later after media backlash. FBI data has shown that, since Trump’s election, hate crimes have spiked in counties where he won by large margins.

Biden, in fact, claimed that it was Trump’s response to a Charlottesville, Virginia, alt-right rally in 2017, which left one woman dead after a self-described white supremacist drove a car into a crowd of counterprotesters, that prompted him to run for president. Trump condemned white supremacy at the time, but also said there were good people “on both sides.”

But Biden has his own complicated history related to racism. He opposed state-mandate school-integration proposals in the 1970s and once described Barack Obama as “the first sort of mainstream African American who is articulate and bright and clean.” This summer, Biden drew criticism for saying that Blacks who wouldn’t be voting for him “ain’t Black.”

But even more concerning today for some Catholics are the controversial perspectives on racial justice that Biden has endorsed, or at least enabled. At the debate, for instance, Trump and Biden clashed over the president’s decision to ban training programs for federal agencies grounded in contentious “critical race theory,” a perspective that considers societal issues strictly along the lines of racial group identity. Trump described the programs as “racist,” while Biden characterized them as racial sensitivity trainings.

Father John Raphael expresses serious criticism of these types of approaches.

“If a theory requires a person to ‘repent’ for being a member of a racial, cultural or ethnic group because membership in that group has been defined as ‘privileged’ by the prevailing theorist, then a predetermined outcome has ended any real dialogue or conversation,” said Father Raphael, who serves as a hospital chaplain in the Diocese of Nashville. “Adherents to such theories may easily function in a manner akin to religious groups who accept a certain set of principles as a creed to be embraced and not an actual theory to be empirically proven.”

Biden has also expressed support for Black Lives Matter, failing to acknowledge any kind of distinction between the broader movement and particular organizations that take the name and advance agendas tied up with transgender ideology and attacks on the family. Brown with Christus Medicus Foundation wrote a September column for First Things critical of the Black Lives Matter Global Network, writing that the group’s “agenda divides people in an arbitrary manner that will, ironically, lead to greater strife especially for black families.”

“There are some approaches within our American culture that have rejected a sense of love of God and a sense of love of neighbor and have sought justice without understanding that an aspect of justice is forgiveness,” Brown told the Register.


Love and Justice

Rivers suggests that for Black Christians like herself, “each election represent a tremendous dilemma”: a choice between liberal politicians like Biden, who support abortion and undermining a Christian concept of marriage; and Republicans like Trump, who she says has a “tragic lack of concern for the poor” and “for rectifying centuries of injuries that Blacks have suffered in access to housing, education and jobs.”

While she sees neither candidate as making significant progress in addressing structural racism, she believes a Biden presidency would be more likely to achieve racial justice in areas like health care and police reform. She also says that if Trump is able to successfully appoint pro-life Judge Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court, a nomination that the Seymour Institute has publicly supported, there would be little reason for Black Christians concerned with ending abortion to vote for him in November. In fact, she suggests “improving the economic standing of young Black women and providing more support for single mothers might go far in reducing abortion,” something she sees Biden as more likely to do.

Father Raphael, however, believes fixation on the role a presidential candidate could have on remedying racial injustices is misguided. He says the focus should instead be on legislation and judicial rulings and argues that the greatest impact a president can have is “enabling racial minorities to effectively take advantage of the opportunities that are accessible due to the removal of racially-based barriers.”

“Policies that actually improve educational quality and outcomes, which, in turn, facilitate successful entry into professional careers, are a more effective antidote to racial injustice than political rhetoric of any stripe.”

Regarding voting this November, Brown takes seriously the U.S. bishops’ guidance that ending abortion should be a “preeminent priority.” He says when he thinks about participating in politics as a Catholic, he can’t help but focus on the unique evil of abortion, which kills more than 600,000 lives every year, with the rate of abortion for Black women almost five times higher than it is for white women.

However, Brown calls the idea that Catholics need to pick between the born and unborn a “false choice,” which fails to consider the all-encompassing nature of the task of faithful citizenship. He says the key during an election is not merely to cast a ballot but to seek a well-formed conscience in accordance with the Church teaches, including on racism. He also recommends prayer and fasting in reparation for all injustices.

“There’s a great need for Catholic leadership in bringing about a civil society in the U.S. that reflects love and justice in all areas.”

The Register’s Election 2020 series covers a range of key issues, including abortion, economy, education, environment/energy, marriage/family and religious liberty. Find coverage here: