Episcopal Bishop Anson Phelps Stokes, Jr., urges church people to make “required reading” of the report of the President’s National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders. “This Lent,” says Bishop Stokes, “our spiritual reading need not be out of the Bible, for a spiritual and moral crisis has been presented to us all by an arm of government.”

If anyone still doubts that a crisis exists, he ought to take the bishop’s advice immediately, Lent or no Lent. The riot report is a disturbing, almost despairing, document. It finds that despite all the marches and all the violence and all the legislation of the last fifteen years, the plight of America’s 22 million Negroes grows progressively worse. And the rioting of last summer, indeed the whole “explosive mixture which has been accumulating in our cities since the end of World War II,” is traced to a basic single source. Says the commission: “White racism is essentially responsible.”

This is a severe moral judgment—one that ought not to be lightly offered or hurriedly credited. It is a somewhat surprising finding, too, since the report as a whole reflects a secular sociological tone. The makeup and methodology of the commission allowed for little in the way of a theological dimension. The role of the churches in urban crisis gets no study in the 250,000-word report.

But what of the charge? Is it really “white racism” that is behind our ghetto problem?

Careful analysis suggests another answer. The underlying evil is not so much prejudice as avarice. The inordinate desire for “more, more, more” is at the heart of the matter. Blame must be shared by Negro and white.

The white man relegates the Negro to the ghetto, not because of his skin color, but because by and large he appears to be a threat to what the white man thinks are his own best interests. The Negro represents a lower standard of living, and the white man sees the granting of equal rights to the Negro as a lowering of the white standard. This is so in housing, in employment, and in education—the three major frontiers of the Negro struggle.

The insatiable quest for material goods is in itself a social problem. A study might well show, for example, that a major reason for unemployment and underemployment among Negro males in the big cities is the large number of white working mothers who pour in from the suburbs every morning. These women rarely work out of necessity. Many find jobs because they want to raise the yearly family income from $10,000 to $15,000, some because they lack the fortitude to cope with their own children. Then they hire Negro women from the ghettos to care for the children and the house at $2,500 a year.

Greed is common to all races. Many Negroes rioted, not because they hated the white man per se, but because rioting gave them the opportunity to get things they might not otherwise get. The commission contends that the rioter made targets out of white power symbols. Had that been true, the objects of destruction would have been schools, police stations, courthouses, banks and loan companies, and employment agencies. But these escaped almost unscathed. The commission itself noted that rioters aimed primarily at stores selling liquor, clothing, and furniture. An estimated 80 per cent of the loss in the Newark riot was in inventory.

Let it be plainly said that if greed were ever justified, the American Negro would be among the first to qualify. The squalor of the slums—seen, for example, in the estimate of 14,000 cases of ratbite each year, most of them in the inner cities—is a condition for which the smug suburbanite, both Christian and non-Christian, must share the blame. God will surely judge every contribution to this degradation—whether by acts of commission or of omission.
Where does all this bring us? Should we try to buy our way out by vast new commitments to public spending, as the commission recommends? Such spending will help to treat the symptoms and may be a necessary stopgap. But history shows that it is not a permanent solution: public housing and urban-renewal programs have actually contributed to, rather than alleviated, racial segregation.

The commission did well to complete and publish its report four months before its deadline so as to give time for remedial action before another long, hot summer begins. The rest is up to the citizenry.

The urban crisis offers evangelicals an unprecedented opportunity for legitimate and responsible social action. What is needed is a grass-roots movement in which both whites and Negroes reach across the bounds of avarice and prejudice. Let the evangelical Negroes make constructive proposals for what their white Christian brethren should do, and let biblically oriented congregations respond with an unprecedented wave of compassion. Lent might well be observed with the riot report in one hand and an open Bible in the other.

Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.

Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.