The Catechism of the Catholic Church defines racism as: “Unjust discrimination on the basis of a person’s race; a violation of human dignity, and a sin against justice (See section #1935).” A glance at history makes eminently clear that racism has caused huge amounts of harm for a very long time. The Catholic faith teaches (and modern science affirms) that we are all brothers and sisters.
I approach this topic with trepidation. There will be a lot of things that need to be said that I will not say, first because there is so much and I can only fit in a bit. More importantly, I don’t have the expertise or the experience. Much will have to be done by people who know much more than I. I do believe I should share a couple of thoughts for reflection. As with so many conversations these days, there seem to be people talking past each other, and I don’t see that we are moving toward making things better.
There has been some recent cases of white men killing black men, and their actions, so far as I know, have been universally condemned. This has ripped open a lot of pain and anger that people have about violence, especially in connection to law enforcement.
I’m currently listening to the book With All Due Respect by Nikki Haley. She tells the story of the Charleston Church shooting in 2015, and the pain that followed. The killer was arrested and convicted. It was found that he had expressed tremendous racial hatred. There was so much anger and pain after that. Haley tells of the challenge of bringing healing to the state and not let it be torn apart. Part what she did was remove the Confederate flag from the state capital. She said she knew a lot of people who proudly flew the Confederate flag that did not match the stereotype associated with it, but the flag was a great source of pain to a lot of people, and had to be dealt with. There were many legislators that opposed that move fervently, and she persuaded enough of them by sharing her own experience. She still carries some raw pain because as a little girl she had seen her father being humiliated because he was an immigrant from India and wore a turban. There is nothing like hearing someone’s experience and the pain it causes.
One of the most important things we can do for people is to hear their story of their pain and take it seriously. We don’t have to agree with their interpretation of what is happening, nor accept what they thing needs to be done, in order to hear their pain and take it seriously. We can disagree with a lot of things they think, but their pain is their pain, and it is real. I don’t think any progress can be made if people don’t have a sense that their pain is being heard and taken seriously. There have been many stories of people being humiliated because of their race, and even having their lives put at risk. It doesn’t have to happen very often to change the way they look at things. They have talked about being afraid for their children. An incident in the news can carry a lot more weight when they are already carrying this burden.
Where to go from there? Perhaps we can look more deeply at the way the human brain works. I would recommend two books by Malcolm Gladwell. He wrote a fascinating book called Blink. It is about how our brain makes some decisions without us being aware of it, much less how. Psychologists have known for decades that we are not completely objective, but Gladwell really drills down on it. One issue is how there is a test that shows how people will more easily associate goodness with one race and badness with another race, and we don’t even know it. We want to be on the watch for how we make some bad decisions based on this unconscious bias. Gladwell also wrote a book called Talking to Strangers in which he unpacks the complexity of forming perceptions about people we are meeting. He wraps the study in the story of Sandra Bland, a black woman who was on her way to a new and promising career and was stopped for a minor traffic violation. The conversation with the officer gradually deteriorated, and she was taken into custody. She committed suicide in jail. Gladwell’s book forms a basis for doing some analysis of what happened and why, as well as implications for training police, setting policy, and forming relationships between the law enforcement and the community. This sets a different tone for the discussion and gives some solid ideas to work with.
I want to live in a world where everyone’s dignity is respected and everyone feels safe and is safe. I’m hoping people who know more than I do and who are better positioned to act can do things that move us closer to there.
I can also pray.