Cementing Systemic Racism in a Local Catholic Parish
George Floyd receives less words than the parish's loss of balloons.
“Many black and brown Catholics are turning to the church for solace, only to find, at worst, silence, and at best, a delayed response.”
Olga Segura in “How can Catholics help lead the fight against racism?“
I went through an exercise in racism identification recently, sharing a bulletin from a Twin Cities parish the weekend after George Floyd was killed. The bulletin came to me from a friend who found its “Pastor’s Column” incredibly upsetting:
For some, the bulletin may seem innocuous. Those in my community attuned to issues of race and racism, however, found it infuriating. The parish may be free from the effects of rioting and looting, but it appears not to be free from a cultural apathy towards suffering black members in our neighborhoods.
Much could be said about why Catholics should take issue with a “Pastor’s Column” such as this one. I’ve detailed in previous posts why a focus on looting and rioting is not helpful in the present situation, even as we strive for peace. We should focus here, however, on questions of proportion, passion, and defense. I hope this analysis can provide small contributions to more comprehensive responses in the future. And I hope it can help to equip Catholics who want to address similar issues in their own parishes.
Consider the condemnation of looting in the column: “We are now facing a scourge of lawlessness… a time of great unrest and violence… Our neighbors need our prayers!” Anger at injustice and passionate condemnation occur just once in the column, in this discussion of rioting and looting in the Twin Cities. In comparison, George Floyd is given only a dispassionate Catholic equivalent to “thoughts and prayers.” The difference is punctuated by the use of punctuation. While victims of looting receive an exclamation point, George Floyd receives a generic period, just another death listed with no context: “Together let us pray for the repose of the soul of George Floyd, as well as for justice and peace.” He receives less words than the parish’s loss of balloons.
When discussing George Floyd, I’ve realized a marked consistency in how my black friends talk about it. They say, “George Floyd was murdered” or, “George Floyd was killed.” (Or, rather, “George Floyd was murdered!” and, “George Floyd was killed!) His death comes with a perspective. In contrast, I’ve noticed my own tendency to say, “George Floyd died,” as if his death was the natural consequence of biological processes. It wasn’t. He was publicly tortured and killed by a state official whose experiences as a police officer in our community led him to believe he would get away with it. My black friends gave an accounting of history, and I have to face my inclination to whitewash it. (Considering local systemic problems, note that the police department after the murder released a statement which flatly contradicted video footage, and the police union chief who was elected by a majority of officers called for the reinstatement of three of the officers who participated in the killing).
In the Pastor’s Column we don’t even see a death. We just pray for the “repose of the soul.” No mention of a killing. No mention of law enforcement. No mention of racism or racial injustice or the black community. No mention of the horror and grief that has stricken the black community worldwide because of what happened on our own streets. You might have read the column and, without having watched the news, assumed the looters and rioters just appeared out of thin air.
The racial makeup of parish leadership and its defenders should be noted, even if just briefly. The parish is in a racially diverse neighborhood and has diverse students in its school. However, the parish and school staff of about 25 appears to be 100% white. Upon a quick review of its website, the school faculty of more than 30 does not appear to have any black members. This is unsurprising. A large number of Catholic schools educate minority students and exist in neighborhoods that have predominant racial minorities, but the schools often fail to actually hire any of them. Certainly, a racially diverse staff does not solve all problems. But it may help to explain the column’s seeming lack of awareness of the perceptions of its black neighbors.
Defense, Gaslighting, and Systems Building
After sharing critiques of the Pastor’s Column, I received a number of defenses and defensive questions from other Catholics. Considering racial makeup here, these were brought forward exclusively by straight white persons. The persons of color who responded, either publicly or privately, all supported my post. This has actually been the case for every post on racism that I have made over the last week. Persons of color in my community have been supportive of my efforts to identify and respond to racism and issues of race, while straight white persons have been the only persons to take issue. I’ve been going through this for a week, and I’m exhausted, frustrated, and disappointed. I can only imagine the feelings of my black friends who have been doing this their whole lives, while I’ve stood by in silence.
Even beyond defending a parish accused of racism and racial issues, over the last week straight white persons, again and again, have sought out ways to redefine the experiences of injustice towards persons of color. I have now had an experience felt by all of my black friends: having to hear from white people how we don’t understand what racism is, sometimes backed up by a citation to Merriam Webster. They’ve had to experience white persons dictating to them the terms of the ways in which they communicate their own harms.
I’ve also observed some Catholics attacking the confrontation of racism by drawing from the playbook of gaslighting:
identifying things important to you and using them against you (suggesting you’re a bad Christian),
repeated sarcastic or dismissive comments,
inserting positive words between attacks (“I really value your voice…”),
bringing in side issues in an attempt to discredit or attack you or align others against you (i.e. abortion, COVID-19, political affiliation),
saying that you lack common sense, are crazy, or are being dishonest with yourself, and
saying that everyone who disagrees with them is a liar or can’t be trusted (“I’m not going to read that because that publication is so biased”).
These tactics (perhaps tolerable alone, but when used together build up into gaslighting which is a form of manipulation and abuse) are all utilized to get my black friends and those who care about their perspectives to question their reality, to destabilize and silence. Others defending the Pastor’s Column might observe these abusive tactics by their peers, but they don’t say anything, perhaps in order to maintain a united front.
If you want to see how systemic racism works, vocally identify issue of race in a Catholic community. Then watch all the ways in which the community will activate itself, not to address the issue, but to discredit its confrontation. If you–like me–want to identify broad issues of race in specific parishes, you need only identify one instance of of these issues. Then the racist inclinations of the community will appear. They will rise up with the defenses. The inclination (whether passively or actively antagonistic) as a community to dismiss black perceptions in order to maintain institutional purity or protect a public image is itself a form of racism. You’ve uncovered a systemic problem. You address that, and the defenses continue to build up.
The defensive inclinations against accusations of racism are not simply how systemic racism is maintained. They’re how systemic racism is constructed: partly through active defenders of racism, and partly through silent bystanders. They both play important roles in developing these problems, each encouraging the other. One actively engages in racist behavior, and the other secures the space for racist behavior. One amasses weapons, and the other builds the barricade. In the end, it’s the barricade that lasts longer, the cover-up more ingrained than the initial crime and which becomes the crime, which makes the initial discrete problem systemic. It’s not dissimilar to the construction of the clergy abuse crisis, where a relative small number of people committed the abuses directly, but the larger number of people who saw harm and did nothing (or silenced those bringing it to light) constructed the harm’s perpetuation.
Defensive posture creating space for racism, the closing-in-of-ranks which itself becomes a form of racism, is highlighted by the fact that almost none of those seeking to discredit the identification of racism began by asking, “Can you tell me more about how this is racism?” (To be fair, a couple have asked this, and I provided the response described below.) Instead, I have been met by, at best, dismissal disguised as clarifying question and, at worst, sarcasm. I have observed what my black friends have been trying to point out to all of us for years: that refusal to accept black experiences except on white terms.
“Traditional” parishes in particular have been identified as frequently facilitating and creating race-related problems. They even create environments which drive current black Catholics away from the Church. In a discussion last week, Cardinal Turkson warned that African Catholics coming to the US and Europe for schooling often leave the Church because they experience an unwelcoming Catholicism. He said, “Feeling welcome in some of our traditional churches over here is an issue.” While Catholicism is growing rapidly in Africa, African and African-American Catholics in the United States are often pushed to the margins and out the door.
“What is racism?”
Undergirding many of the recent interactions I’ve described is a fundamental disagreement on the meaning of racism. Members of the black community, especially those who have researched and written on the subject, have described racism in broad terms, something much more akin to the concept of sin generally, an evil bred into every American heart and which will guide our thoughts, words, and deeds if we do not actively work against it. Catholics in parishes like the one described above, however, tend to describe racism in the most restrictive terms, such that even America’s slaveholders couldn’t necessarily be said to be engaging in racism. According to them, racism requires an active belief that one race is superior to another; because slaveholders may have not considered black people inferior to white people, but just wanted to reap the benefits of free labor, many Catholics would thus conclude (if honest) that we should not call such slaveholders racists. We would need, according to them, an explicit statement revealing an interior orientation. The forced distinction should be as infuriating as its consequences are shocking.
I have resisted the insistence by some that I give a brief treatise on the definition of racism. I’ve responded instead by providing book recommendations on the issue, in part because members of the black community have done a much better job at researching, understanding, and communicating these issues than I have, and in part because it is not the job of persons of color to repeatedly summarize information that is easily available to those who actually care to look for it. They’ve done their work; now you need to do your work.
I’m not saying you need to read every book to have an opinion on every issue. But, certainly for Twin Cities Catholics (and American Catholics generally), racism is an issue which we need to better understand. We’ve been through bankruptcies because of our failures in the past to take victims at their words. Let’s stop repeating this horrible mistake.
I suspect that a Church comfortable engaging and resolving racism and issues of race will have a calm and listening ear when racism is identified. I tend to think of straight persons as comfortable with their sexuality when they hear others surmise they may be gay and don’t feel an overwhelming need to correct. I’m beginning to think of anti-racists and racism similarly. If you are comfortable with identifying and addressing racism, you will not develop a fight-or-flight response when someone identifies your own racism. We need to overcome our starry-eyed visions of Catholic history, the state of our parishes today, and ourselves, in order to develop a deeper vision of evangelization and ecclesiology. This starts with realizing the issue is at home, in our parishes and in our own hearts, and slowly beginning to address it.
Many Catholics are doing this. I’m glad for this investment. But please also speak up. It’s not just about resisting your own racism. It’s about diminishing the spaces in which racism has room to dwell in our communities.
In closing, I would like to admit my own weakness in two areas. First, I have failed to learn about, recognize, and actively respond to racism in the past. And what I have shared over the last week comes only out of engaging these issues for several months, rather than the many years other friends have invested in these questions and the lives my black friends have been living since their births. Second, I am very tired, and thus my defensive bias is probably more acute than usual. In at least one instance, I mistook a genuine question for a dismissive question. Disagreement is not always dismissal, even if one tends to disguise itself as the other. I have no intention of stopping addressing racism or using the word “racist,” but I do believe that the first step is to admit our own weaknesses and limitations. This will be messy. But we have to do it.
“The only way to undo racism is to consistently identify and describe it–and then dismantle it.” -Ibram Kendi
An objection I’ve received from some, based on a minor detail in the Pastor’s Column:
Q: Why couldn’t the “lawlessness” referenced in the bulletin be referring to the death of George Floyd?
A: If you are asking this question, I think it may be good to take a moment and consider why it is so important to you that this statement and the actions of this parish not be racist. And why this importance leads to a reading of the bulletin that overlooks the structure of the sentence in order to dismiss a harm being alleged. The sentence answers the question on its own. The sentence refers to a lawlessness we are “now facing,” rather than a lawlessness that was faced (and that has been faced by members of our community since the American founding). It’s possible that the parish believes the police did not do anything wrong and that the death was an unfortunate accident, given that it just prays for the repose of George Floyd’s soul, rather than calls for justice or names a murder. It says nothing to suggest otherwise.
The end of the Pastor’s Column, after the pastor signs his name, includes a Prayer for Peace, drawn from the 1950 Book of Altar Prayers. This wasn’t included in the image sent to me, but was pointed out by someone else who had reviewed other portions of the bulletin. Part of the Prayer for Peace states: “Grant likewise, of Thy goodness, that all nations and races may be made one by Holy Church, Thy Spouse, and that through the intercession of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Queen of Peace, they may subject themselves to Thee in all humility.” I’m happy for this inclusion. Certainly the idea of “all nations and races” being “made one by Holy Church” would make white supremacists unhappy.
All this being said, it’s still important that a reference to race doesn’t come in the reflections and comments of the pastor. And what I’m hearing again and again from my black friends is not an interest in vague references to all races, but a condemnation of racism with at least of equal force as the condemnation of looting. Their perspective is that racism is a sin that in many places is rarely named and thus rarely addressed.
Last week, I shared disappointment and frustration at one local parish’s failure to directly address the sin of racism. This week was different. I encourage you to read the new “Pastor’s Column” in full:
How good, indeed.