In a front page headline on April 25, 2021, the Washington Post asked: “In the aftermath of the Chauvin verdict hangs a question: Where do we go from here?” A very good question.

US racism and white supremacy have a long history, and Christians have contributed to that problem, right from the beginning. Jesus brought life and truth but many of his later followers followed his teachings very selectively. Christians today – even those who reside in Rome — are not infallible. When they sin and fall into error, however, they must do more than simply apologize and feel bad. They have to repair the damage. 

This week some historic as well as contemporary reflections about Christianity and racism in the New World.

On May 4, 1493, just a year after Christopher Columbus arrived in the New World, Pope Alexander VI (not a striking example of moral rectitude for sure) issued his papal bull Inter Caetera. Alexander was far more interested in wealth and power than spirituality. His document which became known for proclaiming “The Doctrine of Discovery” announced that any land not inhabited by Christians was open to be “discovered” by Christian rulers and that “the Catholic faith and Christian religion be exalted and be everywhere increased and spread… and that the barbarous nations be overthrown….”

The Doctrine of Discovery produced clear examples of how racist ideas of supremacy over Indigenous peoples were used not only to justify but to sanctify the seizure of occupied Indigenous lands, the physical removal of communities to undesirable reservations, and systematic genocidal violence. 

There is much about American history that can make one proud of being American. Unfortunately, American history also attests that too often American Christianity promoted and sustained racism through the brutal colonialism of missionaries and the enforced segregation of its churches.

The majority of early American colonists did not recognize the deep culture and traditions of Native peoples, nor did they acknowledge their tribal land rights. They sought to convert the Native people in the New World and at the same time strip them of their land.

Newcomers from England during the 17th century, for example, saw themselves as settling in a “virgin land” where real “civilization” had not yet been established. From the colonial period on, relations between European and Native peoples were predominantly expressed and negotiated in terms of land. The issue of land became, in many ways, the deepest “religious” issue over which world views collided. Many of the colonists saw the new land as a “wilderness” to be settled, not as already inhabited. They also saw the New World as the New Promised Land and considered the Indigenous peoples like the Canaanites of old to be conquered and removed. John Winthrop (1588 – 1649), English Puritan lawyer and governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, was convinced that God favored his community above all others. In 1641 Winthrop helped write the Massachusetts Body of Liberties, the first legal sanctioning of slavery in North America. About a hundred and forty years later, in a 1783 sermon celebrating the American Revolution, Yale president Ezra Stiles praised the rise of the “whites” whose numerical growth, he said, proved divine favoritism. Interestingly, there were almost 700 thousand African slaves in the US by 1790, which equated to approximately 18% of the total population. White Supremacy.

Over the course of nearly three centuries, American Indigenous peoples were “removed” from the lands they had occupied, “displaced” to other lands, and had their lands “ceded” to the newcomers. Then, native tribes were forcibly “settled” on “reservations.”

Early Christian slaveholders used the Bible to justify the enslavement of darker-skinned people. Vigilante groups terrorized Black Americans as the vigilantes rode around in white hoods with the Bible in hand. Prominent evangelical pastors spewed racist hatred against America’s first Black president. And most recently of course we have witnessed racial hate crimes, murders, and police brutality.

So what do we do once we realize that religious actors have been complicit in forming and upholding American racism? What might we do to correct racism? Certainly racial justice will not come just from individual acts of charity. It will require the transformation of our social structures. Racism is systemic.

A failure to grasp the systemic nature of racism  could explain why the country has not made as much progress as it should—and could—on racial equity. Racism is a virus. Like the coronavirus, if ignored it will not disappear. Many people have a too narrow view of racism that has really blocked racial progress. They fail to understand systemic racism and are, therefore, more likely to attribute poverty, for example, to individual failings rather than to structural disadvantages like racial disparities in wealth and wages and substandard education for Blacks. Segregated housing, too, has left many Black people living in neighborhoods without access to good jobs, reliable public transportation, or quality health care.

As President Biden said following the conviction of former police officer Derek Chauvin, who was found guilty of second-degree murder and manslaughter, the killing of George Floyd “ripped the blinders off for the whole world to see the systemic racism” that has become a “stain on our nation’s soul.”

Combating racism is a particular challenge to US Catholic leadership. As Thomas Reese stressed in an article in yesterday’s April 29th National Catholic Reporter: “The American Catholic bishops are frequently criticized by the left and the right for what they say in the political arena….But it’s what the bishops haven’t said, particularly on racial justice, that has kept them from being a more prophetic voice in American life. Few if any bishops, for example, have participated in the Black Lives Matter movement or said anything about voter suppression laws. African Methodist Episcopal clergy, on the other hand, have rallied and threatened boycotts over voter suppression bills in state legislatures across the country. The U.S. Conference of Catholics Bishops has said nothing. The reluctance of Catholic bishops to take on racial issues has deep roots in Catholic history. Catholic bishops did not lead in the abolition movement. Catholic immigrants, many of them poor, did not want to die to free Black slaves.”

I am neither anti-Christian nor anti-American, but, being very honest, we all have a lot of transformative work to do. I share Jesuit Fr. Thomas Reese’s concerns about US Catholic leadership; but I also applaud some positive Catholic signs which give encouragement and guidance.

The honesty and reparation of Georgetown University and the Jesuit Community are prophetic examples. In 1838, the Jesuits sold 272 Black men, women, and children and used the proceeds to support their Georgetown University, founded by Bishop John Carroll in 1789. 

I find it noteworthy and encouraging that in September 2015, Georgetown President John J. DeGioia established a Working Group on Slavery, Memory, and Reconciliation. This led to dialogue with and apology to descendants of the slaves sold. Georgetown today is making key efforts to address the legacy of slavery and overcome racism at Georgetown, in Washington DC, and beyond. In March of this year, the Society of Jesus in the United States announced the establishment of the Descendants Truth & Reconciliation Foundation, a collaborative effort among Jesuits, Georgetown, and some descendants to raise $100 million to help address the legacy of enslavement in the United States and its impact on families and communities today.

We really need to conscientiously and collectively combat racism. 

  • We need to be alert to language, jokes, slogans, and labeling. In the January 6th attack on the US Capitol, a demonstrator wore a shirt proclaiming “Camp Auschwitz.” That action was a sinister danger sign. Auschwitz-Birkenau survivor, Fritzie Fritzshall, was greatly upset.“That made my stomach turn,” she said. “Why do they have to still wear t-shirts about hatred and stuff like that? That’s what the Nazis did. That’s exactly what they did.”
  • We need to critique and work to improve educational, employment, and police policies and actions. Friction, for example, between African Americans and the police is a reality that should be immediately addressed. 
  • We need to be alert to signs of racism in our churches, neighborhoods, and social groups.
  • We need to be alert as well to increased antisemitism. Violent antisemitism and hatred did not end with the Holocaust. According to the Anti-Defamation League antisemitic incidents in the United States reached their highest on record point in 2019. Assault, harassment, and vandalism against Jews remain at near-historic levels in the United States today.

For further reading, I recommend: The Sin of White Supremacy: Christianity, Racism and Religious Diversity in America (Orbis, 2017) by Jeannine Hill Fletcher, Professor of Theology at Fordham University.

  • Jack

15 thoughts on “Systemic Racism

  1. As recently as five weeks ago, Cardinal Gregory of Washington, DC, remarked that “even the choir needs a good rehearsal or a practice now and then” when it comes to confronting racism in our society, even though the people listening to his address in the Arlington VA diocese would not be racists. I live in the Arlington diocese, across the river from DC, and I know that choirs DO need rehearsals to shore up best practices, but I’m not sure the Cardinal’s audience could not have included racists, unbeknownst to themselves. Although I was not present at the conference on Peace & Justice in Arlington, I know that racism is a weed in my soul’s garden whose shoots need every to be pulled, spring, summer, fall and winter. The analogy of “herbicide” that the Cardinal drew must include, I think, a blend of honest self-examination and action, even if only through resistance to racism wherever it sprouts.

    Yes, the weeds have grown up with the wheat and the flowers, so it is even harder to cull the weeds, but it must be done, on my knees, with my own hands. I hope the Cardinal’s clear voice grows stronger on racism at this bend on the Potomac. It seems he is working the flora in scattered fields on the basis of “e pluribus unum,” an insight into beauty, goodness, truth and integrity upon which even the deists among the Founders could agree. How about the rest of us?

  2. I can’t help thinking that the notion of white supremacy has its roots in Roman Supremacy which ultimately led to European colonization of the world — hidden under the guise of the Christian directive to spread the Good News.

  3. Jack,
    Several parishes in our Diocese (Oakland) are participating in the extensive JustFaith (https://justfaith.org) program on systemic racism, as a result of George Floyd and BLM. The sessions are excellent in studying the history of racism, its presence today and how we can combat it. It does not shy away from the complicity of the Catholic Church, but the approach is faith-based, so it is challenging and yet hopeful.
    Dennis

  4. I was in the seminary in Little Rock, Arkansas when federal troops had to accompany students into Central High in Little Rock when Governor Orval Faubus refused to integrate the school. Not a single word was ever mentioned about the affair by the faculty or the bishop of the diocese. Also, one day when I was driving a faulty member in the city and came to a four way stop simultaneously with the car on the road to the right, I motioned him through and the priest turned to me and asked in astonishment, “You let a black man ahead of you?!”

    1. Many thanks Bill. In my second year of high school seminary our biology teacher, a priest, put up a chart one day in class showing a Black man’s skull and a White man’s skull. Then he said “It is obvious that Blacks have smaller brains than we do. Many very stupid.” Then he started laughing and said: “but we all know they have bigger tools between their legs than we do which makes them a danger to women and unable to be celibates. Ha ha”

  5. Dear Jack,
    You have touched on the importance of being ever aware of one’s own attitudes that are often subtle and unconscious. I remember my own dear mother, a truly sensitive and caring lady, saying innocently, “Even though he was a Negro, he was such a nice man!” She was genuinely confused when I uncompassionately confronted her about it. She didn’t understand what she said wrong or, worse, what her language betrayed about her thinking. Likewise, how many Catholic schools’ sports teams were the Crusaders! Even the hymn, Onward Christian Soldiers, being sung proudly about aggressively destroying the infidel. Pervasive attitudes can only be changed by interacting and engaging with those of different races and cultures and realizing that Jesus died for us ALL! (I still cringe at the change in the consecration wording when we declare that Jesus died for “MANY.” For whom did He not die?!) As one who taught in a multi-cultural middle school, it quickly became apparent that we are all God’s children and that we can all make a difference one interaction at a time. When moments of major impact, e.g., voting rights laws, etc., present themselves, we must step up to create positive change.
    Thank you again for a profound message.
    Peace,
    Frank

    1. Many thanks Frank. My Mom was a wonderful lady but when I went to Louvain as a seminarian she asked in a letter “Do they have Nixxers over there in Belgium?”

  6. Jack
    Sometimes the replies that you write to your essays contain autobiographical references to your education and theological development that are stunning in what they reveal about the Catholic experience.. Have you ever thought of writing a theological autobiography that narrates your religious development?

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