Joseph Flowers, an African-American, recalls being pulled over while driving his Mercedes Benz in a neighborhood near his home in Oak Park, an affluent Chicago suburb. The police officer who stopped Flowers mistakenly thought he was using his cell phone while driving. Flowers, the brother-in-law of Bishop Thomas Zinkula, shared that story during an interview with The Catholic Messenger about the family’s experience with racism. Their story appears in this week’s issue.
There’s been plenty of debate about the pervasiveness of racial profiling in the U.S. It is essential that we examine our attitudes and behavior — as individuals, as a church and as a society — toward people whose skin color differs from ours. A good start would be to read the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ new pastoral letter on racism, “Open Wide Our Hearts” (https://tinyurl.com/ybdtj3a6). This letter, for the first time, acknowledges the presence of systemic racism and white privilege.
“Racism can often be found in our hearts — in many cases placed there unwillingly or unknowingly by our upbringing and culture. As such, it can lead to thoughts and actions that we do not even see as racist, but nonetheless flow from the same prejudicial root. Consciously or subconsciously, this attitude of superiority can be seen in how certain groups of people are vilified, called criminals, or are perceived as being unable to contribute to society, even unworthy of its benefits,” the bishops write.
The letter calls for a genuine conversion of heart that will “compel change, and the reform of our institutions and society.” The bishops ask us to invite into dialogue people we would not ordinarily seek out. “Only by forging authentic relationships can we truly see each other as Christ sees us,” the bishops said in the letter approved during their November 2018 general meeting.
Undoing systemic racism will challenge us. Catholic scholar Gary Umhoefer says white, Midwestern baby boomers — of which he is one — don’t recognize “the relatively privileged ease with which we are able to ‘live and move and have our being.’” Likewise, those of us who are white don’t recognize the individual and structural difficulties that people of color experience as they strive to live and move and have their being. (NTR, Volume 30 No. 1, September 2017).
Our task, as children of the same God, is to grow in relationship with one another and in doing so, build bridges and remove the barriers that foster racism. Those barriers, such as urban residential segregation, are formidable and “have made such relationships within our parishes very rare,” Umhoefer notes.
Here are some suggestions, based on the bishops’ pastoral letter on racism:
• Be open to encounter and new relationships: Attend gatherings of diversity and faith-based groups to listen to and respect the experiences of those who have been harmed by the evil of racism. Examine where society continues to fail our brothers and sisters, or where it perpetuates inequity.
• Resolve to work for justice: Advocate for equality in how laws are implemented and for moral budgets that reduce barriers to economic well-being, appropriate healthcare, education and training. Provide further opportunities — including in our parishes — for qualified candidates who historically have been excluded, such as through hiring and contracting practices. Within our dioceses, ensure that struggling parishes, schools and organizations receive resources and training for catechesis, youth ministry and other pastoral needs. Provide the necessary support to families, seniors and ex-offenders.
• Educate ourselves: Encourage a parish reading of the pastoral letter in adult faith formation, including Social Action commissions and Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults. Organize activities within parishes, civic groups and with ecumenical or interfaith organizations that foster community, dialogue and reconciliation. Go to the U.S. bishops’ website for reading resources (www.usccb.org).
• Work in our churches: The bishops commit to preach with regularity homilies directed to the issue of racism and its impact on homes, families and neighborhoods. Priests and deacons are directed to do the same. Theologians are asked to help address these issues as well
• Change structures: Advocate and promote policies that combat racism and its effects in our civil and social institutions. The Davenport Community School District, for example, was found to have placed a disproportionate number of children of color in special education programs and a disproportionate number of minority special education students were subjected to disciplinary actions. (Quad-City Times, April 25, 2018). Where else is this happening?
• Conversion of all: Pray and work toward conversion as the first response in the face of evil actions. The Washington Post reported that “Hate crimes in the nation’s 10 largest cities increased by 12 percent last year, the highest level in more than a decade” (May 11, 2018).
• Commitment to life: Racism violates the dignity inherent in each person. Speak against racism and work toward ending it.
Joseph Flowers believes the U.S. bishops’ new pastoral letter on racism is a place to start a conversation on racism … “we need to talk about it.”
Barb Arland-Fye, Editor