Observing with great concern the social unrest unfolding in the United States, Pope Francis said…
Racism in America: Separated and unequal
Imagine this. Most state governors order the National Guard in their states onto the streets to stop the destruction of property and risks to innocent lives. The United States Army appears on the scene. Assume that some terrorist plot is exposed and put down. All “outsiders” have gone away. The “thugs” are put down. Calm prevails. Then what?
First, under the U.S. Constitution, every citizen has the right to voice approval, or disapproval, about any matter, and to call political authorities to account.
Second, even when the streets are empty, it is evident that a problem lies deeply inside our society. We have a racial divide. Statistics are compelling. Where is morality in this picture?
The Catholic Church teaches that personal thoughts, or cultural systems, based upon the accident of race, are immoral. Addressing the recent reactions to the violent death in Minneapolis of George Floyd, Archbishop José Gómez of Los Angeles, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, made quite clear this teaching. Fundamental Catholic doctrine is that any human being, and all human beings, without exception or qualification, are the precious children of God, brothers and sisters with the Son of God through the Incarnation, worthy of eternal life, and always uniquely beloved by the Almighty.
Look at the realities of American life. Racial differences are real. Modern life is complex, but, for Catholics, race cannot be dismissed as just one of those things. In nothing else, current circumstances must be questioned, and the sin of racism, often embedded and historic in origin, must be viewed as evil, and every effort be employed to rid this society of it.
So frequently during the past week, after the incident in Minneapolis, officials, observers, interested bystanders and demonstrators themselves declared that the purpose of the demonstrations was to summon public opinion, at least to ask about police brutality and how, and if, such brutality seems to target blacks.
This is fact. History indicates that the law, the courts, political officials and the police all too often have been harsh, to put it mildly, in dealing with African Americans. For example, slavery was not Southern law. It was American law, embedded in the Constitution of the United States and enforced by federal courts and police. Racial segregation was, in the end, federal, specifically permitted by rulings of the U.S. Supreme Court, and it was enforced by the police.
Thirty miles from Our Sunday Visitor’s office, in Marion, Indiana, in an event witnessed by people still living, a mob lynched two black men on the public square, while police looked the other way. Lynchings once were common in many places. Entire African American neighborhoods were obliterated and inhabitants massacred by whites in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and in Rosewood, Florida. Children of the slaughtered survive today. Many people alive today remember 1948 when federal laws segregated the armed services. The movies “Selma,” released in 2014, “Mississippi Burning,” in 1988, and “Ghosts of Mississippi,” in 1996, depicted actual events. The common denominator was police indifference, or outright complicity and prevalent racism, not always overt, among whites.
Things have changed, in many cases, it is true, but black Americans carry memories of this pattern of history in their minds, and fears in their hearts, nevertheless. Importantly, many Americans see the past in circumstances today in Ferguson, Missouri, Baltimore, several months ago in New Brunswick, Georgia, and now in Minneapolis.
It greatly would help everyone if all Americans understood this history and questioned the present.
Civil unrest based on race erupted in 1968. President Lyndon B. Johnson sent the Army into some cities, but he also saw racism as the basic problem. To propose solutions, he appointed a bipartisan, multi-racial commission, led by then-Gov. Otto Kerner of Illinois.
After an exhaustive study, the commission judged that America is a society “separate(d) and unequal.” Its proposals were dismissed. It is history but uncomfortably relevant today.
Msgr. Owen F. Campion is OSV’s chaplain.