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The Enduring Legacy of Racism

Updated: Mar 10, 2019

During the month of February, our nation observes Black History Month (or, more recently, African-American History Month). Although the roots of Black History Month go back to 1915, it did not become an official national observance until 1976, when President Ford called upon the American public “to seize the opportunity to honor the too often neglected accomplishments of black Americans in every endeavor throughout our history.”

The start of Black History Month reminded me that the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops published a pastoral letter on racism this past November. Entitled Open Wide Our Hearts, it is the latest in a series of USCCB Documents on racism, going back to 1958. It begins by defining racism: “Racism arises when—either consciously or unconsciously—a person holds that his or her own raced or ethnicity is superior, and therefore judges persons of other races or ethnicities as inferior and unworthy of equal regard. When this conviction or attitude leads individuals or groups to exclude, ridicule, mistreat, or unjustly discriminate against persons on the basis of their race or ethnicity, it is sinful.” With so many of us today, I believe the key word in that definition is “unconsciously”. Spending my early years in the segregated South, I did not have to be told or taught that black people were inferior to white people. I knew that because they were not allowed in our restaurants, our department stores, our taxicabs or our washrooms. In our churches and our buses, they had to sit in the back. While the laws and social mores have changed, some of these early messages may remain in the back of our mind and leak out in unexpected ways. Here is a small example: Even though our congregation has become more ethnically diverse, how many of us have even noticed that all of the sacred images in our church are of white Europeans? What does that say in a subtle way about the universal call to holiness?

The Bishops’ letter says that racism today comes in many forms. “Racial profiling frequently targets Hispanics for selective immigration enforcement practices, and African Americans for suspected criminal activity. There is also the growing fear and harassment of persons from majority Muslim countries. Extremist nationalistic ideologies are feeding the American public discourse with rhetoric that instigates fear against foreigners, immigrants, and refugees.” The Bishops decry the bold expressions of racism by groups and individuals “such as nooses and swastikas in public spaces”. But, they note, racism often comes in the form of the sin of omission “when individuals, communities, and even churches remain silent and fail to act against racial injustice when it is encountered.” Ultimately, the Bishops note, racism is rooted in our hearts, and that conversion of hearts is the only long-term answer to dismantling what the Catechism of the Catholic Church calls “the social structures of injustice and violence that makes us all accomplices in racism.” Whenever “we start to see some people as ‘them’ and others as ‘us,’ we fail to love.”

The letter acknowledges that many ethnic groups have been targets of racism and ethnic prejudice in our country, the letter focuses mainly on the experience of Native Americans, African Americans, and Latinos, acknowledging that the Church has sinned in remaining silent over injustices and being complicit in “cultural oppression”.

A final section of the document declares that combatting racism is a pro-life issue. Ironically it was debate over this very point that engulfed the recent media coverage of the March for Life in Washington: “The Church in the United States has spoken our consistently and forcefully against abortion, assisted suicide, euthanasia, the death penalty, and other forms of violence that threaten human life. It is not a secret that these attacks on human life have severely affected people of color, who are disproportionally affected by poverty, targeted for abortion, have less access to healthcare, have the greatest numbers on death row, and are most likely to feel pressure to end their lives when facing serious illness. As bishops, we unequivocally state that racism is a life issue.”

by Father Joseph Chamblain, O.S.M., Profiles in Catholicism

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