Commentary Part I – My Experience
Saint Paul writes, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free person, there is not male and female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Galatians 3:28
“Then God said: Let us make human beings in our image, after our likeness. God created mankind in his image; in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” Genesis 1:26, 27
I grew up in one of the whitest states in the United States. In fact, I believe for much of my childhood it was the whitest state in the United States. As I think back over my school days, the only person of color I remember in my school was a foreign exchange student from South Africa. Interestingly, it was in the days when South Africa still had the Apartheid system. He was colored, not black, because his ancestors came from India.
And so for me, growing up, racism was something that happened somewhere else. And long ago. I learned about slavery, the Civil War, and the Jim Crow laws. I read To Kill a Mockingbird. I learned that in the midst of the riots of 1968, the Civil Rights Act was signed as the fix to these problems.
My first experience of racism was not my experience at all. When I was in college, at a tiny college in a very rural town in upstate New York, there was a restaurant we used to frequent because the food was home style and the prices were cheap. The restaurant was named for a woman who had a collection of bad jokes she could try out each Fall with a new class of freshmen. The only one I remember was when someone would invariably ask about the two steaks on the menu, one for $7 and one for $8. When someone would ask, what’s the difference between the $7 steak and the $8 steak, she would answer with glee, “A dollar.”
It was obvious that she was kind of an iconic figure in this rural town. But when a black student arrived, to my memory the only one in the school, she would not serve him at her restaurant. He, and the others he was with all walked out. To the best of my memory, we never went back.
It never entered my mind that I might have issues of racism. But late in my college career, when I was doing a short visit to a Puerto Rican community in Buffalo for a Spanish class, I found myself in a supermarket as the only white person in the store. All the others were black. And I was afraid. Why? It was not because they did anything to me. They did not threaten me. In fact, they were all doing what people do in a supermarket. They were shopping. I was afraid because for the first time in my life I was the minority. I was white, and everyone else was black.
As I reflected on my experience, it was as if scales fell from my eyes. Suddenly, racism was not something “out there”, something only other people felt, but it was also inside me. I worked at trying to see the world differently.
My life has taken me to Chicago and to Saint Louis, two cities among many where racism is easy to see. Look at maps of the city by race, and it is obvious we are segregated. Still. Today. Too often we live in neighborhoods with people who look like us.
Teaching and working with persons of color has changed the way I see America. In one community, I regularly said Mass in the county jail. After Mass I heard confessions and engaged in conversations. To get into the jail, I had to walk by the homeless. And because of the compassionate people who volunteered at the prison, I got to know the homeless by name. The prisoners were overwhelming black. I remembered their names as well. We were all people, after all.
When I first started working in the Midwest, one of my tasks was to interview students to gather some of their experiences. Two stories in particular stood out to me. First, a black high school student was discussing how he was treated, recounting how a friend said to him one time. “You can’t be black. You can read.” Stunned by this quote, I asked him, “And this was your friend?” “Yeah,” he said, “he just doesn’t see that it is not funny. But he’s a good guy. Just stupid sometimes.”
There was another student, a white student from one of the affluent suburbs, who was describing why he decided to come to this school. He lived a sheltered life in a mostly white, affluent suburb. “I realized that I could not get from my home to the city on my own. That did not feel right.”
My educational doctoral studies in Chicago showed me how small my problems were, both where I worked and in my life. Every school I have worked in had students with problems, difficult lives, students who had to overcome a lot. But most of the time the major discipline concern was the dress code.
When I was in class for my doctoral degree, I listened to Chicago Public School educators talk about real problems. There was an administrator who began class one day, talking about the beginning of his school day, attending to one of his students who had been stabbed at an El stop. In school law, we debated at some length about whether or not it was unreasonable search and seizure to make students go through metal detectors a second time after a fire drill. (By the way, it was not. Side note: schools with predominantly white students do not go through metal detectors, even though overwhelmingly school shootings have happened in schools with a majority white population.) There were schools where students had to bring clear see-through backpacks to school so that what was in them was visible to all.
There was a time a private school teacher told me about being at school where the basketball team was losing badly. The public school was predominantly black. And then the private school students started a chant: “That’s all right, that’s ok, you’ll be working for us someday.”
One time I had a parent pull me aside at a gathering to ask me if I thought it was good for the image of our school to be playing football games at the football field at a largely Hispanic high school. Other schools were said to have referred to the field as “that prison field.” When I told her I thought it was very appropriate, she did not quite know what to say. And I’m sure if I asked her, she would say she was not racist.
These experiences and stories and many others introduced me to the real world, a world unlike the one where I grew up. They also introduced me to parts of myself I did not know. I had to ask myself. “Did I treat people differently solely because of the color of their skin? Was I more sympathetic to the problems of white students because they were more familiar to me? Did I see those in need, particularly students and persons of color as those I needed to help, rather than those I needed to walk with? And in what ways was my being white an advantage I never considered?
When I moved to Saint Louis, it was right after the Michael Brown killing in the suburb of Ferguson. It did not take long to realize the anger was not about Michael Brown’s killing per se, but rather, it was about long pent up anger at a system that was grossly unfair and unjust. In largely black communities, a parking ticket could put you in jail because you could not afford to pay it. Since you could not pay off the parking ticket a little at a time, you went to jail. Some could not make court to pay a parking ticket because you might lose a job, or could not find child care. Then they had to pay court costs on top of their fine.
Saint Louis is divided between the county of Saint Louis City, which is the city proper, and Saint Louis County, which is the area around the city. There are many, many very small municipalities in Saint Louis County, and many made their revenue on police tickets. Put bluntly, they made their money on the backs of the poor who lived there, and the poor were usually black. After the Ferguson riots changes were made to the law. Ironically, the white judge who sent many blacks to jail for unpaid fines himself owed a significant amount of money for his unpaid fines.
I have had to recognize that not speaking out about an unjust system is to support it. While I cannot change the world, I can try to see things differently. And while I do not have systemic solutions, I do know I need to better understand how we have come to the place where we are. I have tried more these days to simply listen. I need to understand the experiences of those who often on a daily basis experience racism.
The Archbishop of Saint Louis, Archbishop Robert Carlson, came to the religious community where I live and talked about the listening sessions he organized in parishes in North County, predominantly black, after the Ferguson riots. What impressed me most was his telling of the healing he witnessed when people simply heard about the hurt and pain of others, sometimes pain which had been held in for decades. He has demonstrated calm and courageous leadership not only among Catholics, but among the Church community in metropolitan Saint Louis. He still does.
In listening, I have learned that a lot of my students today know someone who has been shot or have been shot themselves. I learned our students of color get pulled over for being in the wrong place, even if the wrong place is where their school is or where they live. I have learned a lot by simply listening. I know have much more to learn.
What I have learned most is that we all lose when it becomes us against them. And such is the current state of affairs. I do not believe our country has ever been this divided, at least in my lifetime. We are so polarized. We are polarized politically, geographically, racially and religiously. We spend far too much time blaming and insulting others, rather than listening to them and seeking to understand their concerns.
And today we still jump too quickly to judgement. The police officers I personally know are good upstanding people who desire to protect and to serve. They strive to do what is right. I believe this attitude reflects the vast and overwhelming majority of police officers. Confronting the sin of racism does not mean hating cops. It is more than possible to be anti-racism and pro-cop.
But in Minneapolis, three officers helped or stood by when George Floyd was killed by the fourth officer. In Georgia it seems evident the prosecutors gave more than the benefit of the doubt in the killing of Ahmaud Arbury. During the protests and riots in Saint Louis after police officer Jason Stockley was acquitted, an undercover St. Louis Police Officer was assaulted by other cops. An unarmed off-duty black police officer was shot by cops on his front lawn. I strongly believe good cops are the majority. But good cops need to speak up. That will take courage. But as they put their lives on the line every day, they show they have that courage in them.
By listening, I have come to realize that the country I live in is broken. Rather than a great melting pot, we are now the country of broken pieces, separate from those who are different than we are. There has been hostility against migrants and refugees, who are largely black or brown. We live with people like us. We get our news from sources who tell us what we want to hear. We seek to comfort ourselves by telling ourselves that we are not so bad. At least I know I do these things.
Saint Paul held out the great religious ideal in 1 Corinthians chapter 12:12. “As a body is one though it has many parts, and all the parts of the body, though many, are one body, so also Christ.” And he stresses that we are most complete, most Christlike, most the body of Christ when we recognize that every human being has something to offer us. Every human being, as we are told in Genesis 1:26 is made in God’s image and likeness.
And so here is what I believe Saint Paul is trying to tell us. When George Floyd is killed by a cop, the entire Body of Christ suffers with George Floyd. When a black man cannot go jogging in his neighborhood without getting shot, that is everyone’s problem. We all suffer. When a white police officer is shot and paralyzed making a routine traffic stop, it is our problem. When one member suffers, we all suffer with them.
Can we become more united? I believe so. I believe we must. Can we work to create a society where we are judged on the “content of our character and not the color of our skin?” We must. We must understand love conquers fear, that when we begin to try to love and understand, fear can be driven out.
Part two of this series will focus on the historical roots of the problem of racism. Part three will examine some of the recent instances of racism that continue to stoke the flames of anger. In part four, I will lay the groundwork for listening and understanding, in an ongoing feature called Stories. We must, I believe see that understanding and getting to know each other is the only way forward for us. And since every human being is made in God’s image and likeness, we are indeed all in this together.
His Eyes Are Fire by Loewenklang
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