Since the killing of George Floyd in May, along with the prior tragic deaths of Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor, I have received many calls and emails from persons expressing their sadness and asking advice on what they can do. For many, it was the first time they had felt compelled to act. Most questions fell into three categories: (1) What is racism? (2) What does the Catholic Church teach? (3) What can I do? Let’s take each one separately.
What is racism?
Racism is a sin. In Nov 2018, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops published Open Wide Our Hearts, a pastoral letter on racism. Defined: “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…Racist acts are sinful because they violate justice. They reveal a failure to acknowledge the human dignity of the persons offended, to recognize them as the neighbors Christ calls us to love.” (Mt 22:39)
There are many opinions on the actual forms and levels of racism, but below is one opinion of a racial think tank, Race Forward, which says racism comes in two forms, individual and systemic, and on four levels.
- Internalized: learned bias within you.
- Interpersonal: acting out internalized racism on each other.
Examples of individual racism: thoughtless racial comments, racial jokes, displaying hateful symbols (certain flags, pictures, emblems) or remaining silent in the face of any of these acts.
- Institutional: “discriminatory practices in schools, workplaces and government agencies.” Churches too, as holy places run by fallen humans, have been complicit in racism, but they are realizing their past wrongs, making efforts to change and are working towards justice.
- Structural: “the unjust racist patterns and practices that play out across institutions that make up our society”.
Examples of systemic racism: bank lending practices, inadequate housing, healthcare disparities, food insecurities/food deserts, incarceration, educational opportunities, wealth gap.
What does the Catholic Church teach?
The church points us to Scripture: “If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for whoever does not love a brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen.” (1 Jn 4:20)
From “Brothers and Sisters to Us” 1979 pastoral letter: “Racism is a sin: a sin that divides the human family (and) mocks the words of Jesus: ‘Treat others the way you would have them treat you.’” (Matt 7:12)
The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches: “Every form of social or cultural discrimination in fundamental personal rights on the grounds of sex, race, color, social conditions, language, or religion must be curbed and eradicated as incompatible with God’s design.” (1935)
From Pope Francis on June 3, 2020: “We cannot tolerate or turn a blind eye to racism and exclusion in any form and yet claim to defend the sacredness of every human life.”
What can I do?
The USCCB: “the persistence of racism demands our attention now. Racism emerges in the actions and inactions of individuals; and it is embedded in our institutions and public policies. Our faith calls us both to personal conversion and to transformation of our society.”
The USCCB recommends four practical action steps for eradicating racism.
Step 1: Prayer. Designate prayer time—rosary, adoration holy hour, quiet time, reflection. Ask the Holy Spirit to come into your heart, to heal you and to help rid you, your family and society of racist attitudes. Without prayer, efforts to end racism may not take root.
Step 2: Educate yourself. Learn about different races and ethnic groups—their history, struggles and successes. There are hundreds of books, articles, webinars and videos that you can access. Choose a few from this list to get started.
- USCCB pastoral letter – Open Wide Our Hearts.
- “How White People Can Talk To Each Other About Disrupting Racism”
- “Faith in a Time of Crisis” video with Bishop Shelton Fabre and Bishop Terry Steib
- “Inherent Dignity” – AOD webinar with Bishop Donald Hanchon, Father Ted Parker, John Thorne and Vickie Figueroa
- “How the church can combat racism and white privilege: Behind the Story” with Father Bryan Massingale
- “Let’s get to the root of racial injustice” TED talk
- “Racism in Our Streets and Structures” with Archbishop Wilton Gregory and Gloria Purvis, Georgetown Global
- The History of Black Catholics in the United States by Cyprian Davis, O.S.B..
- Everyone Belongs for Kids 5-12yrs, by USCCB Department of Justice, Peace.
- Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by JD Vance.
- Racial Justice and the Catholic Church by Father Bryan Massingale.
- White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism by Robin D’Angelo.
- The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander.
Step 3: Have a conversation. It is easier to love and respect those you know personally. Invite a person or 4-5 persons from the same or different ethnic group to coffee, breakfast or ZOOM for an informal conversation. Create a safe and open space for sharing. Be prepared to be surprised, delighted and/or uncomfortable. Sometimes change may sting a little.
Here are some sample questions for the first few meetings. Spend time brainstorming some of your own questions—keep them simple.
- I feel like I barely know you. Tell me more about you.
- Tell me about your cultural background.
- Tell me about someone who has greatly influenced you.
- Did you grow up around similar ethnic groups or among diversity?
- What is your impression of the racial climate in the U.S. today?
- How often do you think about your racial identity? Why?
- Does your racial or ethnic identity affect your daily or weekly decision-making process and daily activities? How do you prepare?
- Have you ever felt “weird” because you were the only black person (or brown or white person) in the room? How were you treated? How did you feel?
- Why should we talk about race if we do not live, work or worship in a culturally diverse area?
- Have you ever witnessed someone being treated differently because of race or ethnicity? Worse or better than you were treated? How did you feel? What did you do? If you did nothing, what will you do next time?
- How do you talk with your kids about race?
- Why is it difficult for us to deal with racism?
- Where do we agree or disagree on race?
- What is one take away from today? How did I change or how did I grow?
Step 4: Urge your Parish to get involved. Suggest town halls, request homilies or teachings from pastors and deacons on racism, request bulletin and online inserts from DRE’s on racism education, organize a webinar and/or book club. However, do not wait for the church to act. If your parish seems silent and slow, reach out to families and friends to get started with the hope that the parish will catch up eventually.
I hope that this article encourages you to pray, learn, talk and urge parishes to action to end racism. Let us root our efforts in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. We human persons are all created in the image and likeness of God, and we should work for nothing less than that.