This is what I think: I am a racist, and you might be too

This is what I think: I am a racist, and you might be too
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I am a racist.  There, I said it.  Admitting to being a racist is not something I say with pride.  I am not proud.  But many decades ago I learned about my racism, my prejudice.  And I must confront the racism that lives within me.

I remember the first time I realized I was a racist.  It was an occasion when I was the only white person in a supermarket filled with black people.  For the first time in my life I was a minority.  And I was afraid.  Not because anyone was speaking badly to me, or yelling at me, or following me around the store.  In fact, everyone else did not even notice me, because they were busy shopping.

I was afraid only because the other people around me were all black.  There is no other way to put it.  And while it was decades ago, that experience shaped me profoundly.  It resulted in an awareness that I needed to confront my prejudice.  I had to admit it existed.  Prejudice was not something “out there” but rather was something within me.

And I think of this prejudice when I read about events around the world and close to home.  I remind myself of this experience when I get angry at others for acting differently than I do.  I remind myself of this experience when I feel helpless against events out of my control.

A couple of days ago I stumbled across a video that posed a question: What is it like to be you? The question has gotten me to think a lot.  I should admit I do not know what it is like to be people that are different from me.

As I look at what is going on around the world, I realize how little I know about what it is like to be someone else.  I do not know what it is like to live on a Caribbean island that might be months without power because of multiple hurricanes.  I do not know what it is like to have my house completely flooded.  I do not know what it is like for the land around my house, and perhaps my house too, to be destroyed by a raging forest fire I can do nothing to prevent.

I do not know what it is like to be a victim of crime. I do not know what it is like to be at war, or in war. I do not know what it is like to be a refugee, forced to flee my home because of evil ISIS, with nowhere to go. I do not know what it is like to live in a country with limited freedom, where speaking against the government might get me thrown in jail or worse.

I do not know what it is like to be pulled over by police for no reason, asked what I am doing in a neighborhood in which I do not belong. I do not know what it is like to be in jail. I do not know what it is like to be black, Hispanic, Asian, Muslim or Arab.

I do not know what it is like to be a cop.  I do not know what it is like to put my life on the line every single time I put on the uniform or go to work.  I do not know what it is like to be homeless.  I do not know what it is like to be without work.  There is simply a lot I simply do not know when it comes to the lives of others.

But I wonder what my life would be like if I did. I have celebrated Mass, heard confessions and listened to those in jail.  I have spent time listening and getting to know people who are homeless. I know personally those who were given hope by DACA, only to be worried now it will be taken away. I know more than a few people who have witnessed someone get shot.  I heard from people who got help for a man shot right outside their door.

I do not know what to make of the last few days in Saint Louis.  I have come to love living here.  I am glad my Dominican priory is in the city of Saint Louis.  I like Saint Louis.  I can honestly call it home.

At the same time, I am not naïve.  Like many major cities, and like many small towns, there is in Saint Louis and elsewhere a history of racism.  And I am not naïve.  Racism is still alive and well.  In a small way, I make it so.

While I get angry about broken store front windows, and feel sad for the small business owners who own these small businesses, I must remember that often I am not aware of the broken windows that are part of other areas of the city in which I live. I must remember the unequal education that comes from different schools.  Because I must remember I choose to live with people who are just like me.  And all too often, so do you.

When I get angry about the way the police are treated, I must remember that I have never been pulled over without cause, like other people have experienced. I have never been asked why I am driving in a certain area, because I do not belong there.

When I hear about how people were treated badly by the police, I must remember the many cops I know who risk their lives daily for the safety and well-being of the communities they serve.  I must remember they are people who put their lives on the line every single day. I must remember that often they are heroes.

I must remember that life is not either-or, but both-and.  How often do I fail to listen to another point of view because I do not like it? If there is a sadness I feel for my city, my country, and the world, it is that all too often the other is seen only as an enemy.

I must remember that I can be both afraid of other people and see them as another Christ. I must remember that it is too easy to leap to conclusions without knowing the facts. I must remember that it is easier to disagree with someone by relegating their opinion to extreme mocking and insults.  I must remember how in the short term it is easier to make enemies than friends.

But I also must remember that with the prejudices that live within me so does the Christ.  That I can be filled with the Holy Spirit, and not a spirit of vengeance.  I must remember to seek to understand why people get so angry they destroy.  I must remember to seek to understand people who are afraid, and want greater border security to feel safe. I must remember the fundamental belief that everyone, every person, everywhere, regardless of who they are and where they live and what they look like, that everyone, regardless, is made in the image and likeness of God, and has a dignity that comes from God.

I pray I am less racist today than I was those decades ago when being a minority made me afraid.  I pray that realizing how I have never really been a minority, I cannot know what so many minorities feel and experience in their lives, often every day.  I pray for the grace to confront the prejudice, the racism, the evil that still resides too often in what I say and do.  And I pray that others can do the same.

Catholics need to respond to racism

The image accompanying this story is jarring. It is from Detroit in 1942. I have never personally encountered something so blunt and racist.  Naively, I wanted to believe that this type of overt racism was a thing of the past, and that more and more people were beginning to realize how racism damages, and how many hold racist views, sometimes without even being aware of it.

In researching for this story, I found interesting examples of the history of racism.  There was this statement from the mayor of Baltimore in 1910.  “Blacks should be quarantined in isolated slums in order to reduce the incidence of civil disturbance, to prevent the spread of communicable disease into the nearby White neighborhoods, and to protect property values among the White majority.”  There is a book by Beryl Satter called Family Properties that documents how black communities were exploited by landlords in Chicago.

But lest we think this is limited to the past, Marketplace recently ran a piece about alternatives to mortgages and housing loans in Detroit.  And as recent events in Charlottesville demonstrate, racism is alive and well in the United States.

It is certainly the case that there has been a lot said about the events of Charlottesville, Virginia.  But what is a person of faith to do?  How is it that a Catholic can move beyond ideology and politics to approach the issue from the discerning view of faith?  While these are not easy issues, the bishops of the United States have materials on their website to help with the challenging issue of how to confront racism.

The challenge lies in the words of Pope Francis:

Some of you said: this system can no longer be endured. We must change it; we must put human dignity again at the center and on that pillar build the alternative social structures we need. It must be done with courage, but also with intelligence, with tenacity but without fanaticism, with passion but without violence. And among us all, addressing the conflicts without being trapped in them, always seeking to resolve the tensions to reach a higher plane of unity, peace and justice. – Pope Francis, October 28, 2017

It can be the case that we simply do not know about what the Catholic Church in the United States is currently doing to help Catholics and other people of good will begin to address some of these very complex issues.  Too often, the Catholic faith can be presented as something far removed from everyday life.  And yet, Jesus sends us forth to teach, make disciples and baptize.

But how are we to do this? How is it that a person of faith is able to summon the courage to confront racism in a way that does not become immoral itself?  How is it that we confront the threats to human life in our world today?  Violence, racism, abortion, assisted suicide, genocide, hunger, and other issues are complex issues without simple solutions.  So the question remains.  How does a faith-filled individual work to express the acceptable outrage without using immoral means to do so?

This past January, the US Bishops released a task force report that contained recommendations about actions and prayers that could be taken.  Recognizing this is a long-term project, the bishops nonetheless encouraged Catholics and all people of good will to summon the courage to move forward.  To that end, this past July Archbishop Kurtz, the president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops called for a day of prayer this September 9.  A website authored by the USCCB Department of Justice, Peace and Development suggests five concrete ways to cultivate peace and work for racial justice.

In light of the recent events in Charlottesville, Virginia, the bishops released resources for priests and deacons to assist with preaching.  A the end of this document, there are good questions for thinking about our own personal attitudes about racism.  There is the USCCB website “We are Salt and Light,” which encourages each of us to “reach out together, pray together, act together and learn together.”  There are many great actions and ideas on this website to help local communities grown in faith.  There are inspiring success stories to help us see and acknowledge the work of the Holy Spirit.

And so it is not the case the Church is silent about difficult issues.  Below is a list of websites and resources that could be helpful.

We are Salt and LightWe Are Salt and Light includes resources intended as a catalyst for both the New Evangelization and the continuing development of vibrant communities living the Gospel in the United States. Communities that strive to be salt and light share God’s love with others, as we encounter Jesus Christ, through the Holy Spirit’s transforming presence.

To Go Forth. A blog from the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Department of Justice, Peace & Human Development. Inspired by Pope Francis.

Rebuilding the Bridge: African American Affairs’ 50th Anniversary Initiative.  In 2014 and 2015, the USCCB encouraged the Catholic community to rediscover this slice of history through the prism of the Church’s involvement at the time and within the current social context.

Letter from Birmingham Jail Study Guide.  Christian Churches Together, on the 50th anniversary of the Letter from Birmingham Jail, released a response to Martin Luther King Jr.’s statement as well as a study guide for reflection. Below you will find the full package – Introduction Letter, the Study Guide Intro for Catholics and the CCT Study Guide.

Intercultural Competencies.  This page explains the five competencies that were defined by the U.S. bishops in making “Recognition of Cultural Diversity in the Church” one of their priorities.

United States Catholic Conference of Catholic Bishops Resources on Racism.  This is a large collection of resources designed to educate and provide resources to confront racism.




USCCB President And Domestic Justice Chairman Call For Prayer And Unity In Response To Deadly Charlottesville Attack

August 13, 2017

WASHINGTON—Cardinal Daniel N. DiNardo of Galveston-Houston, President of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and Bishop Frank Dewane of Venice, Florida, Chairman of the USCCB Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development, are calling on all people of goodwill to join in prayer and unity today in response to yesterday’s violent protest and deadly attack in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Full statement follows:

“As we learn more about the horrible events of yesterday, our prayer turns today, on the Lord’s Day, to the people of Charlottesville who offered a counter example to the hate marching in the streets. Let us unite ourselves in the spirit of hope offered by the clergy, people of faith, and all people of good will who peacefully defended their city and country.

We stand against the evil of racism, white supremacy and neo-nazism. We stand with our sisters and brothers united in the sacrifice of Jesus, by which love’s victory over every form of evil is assured.  At Mass, let us offer a special prayer of gratitude for the brave souls who sought to protect us from the violent ideology displayed yesterday. Let us especially remember those who lost their lives.  Let us join their witness and stand against every form of oppression.”

Justice for All?

“The city has paid about $5.7 million since 2011 over lawsuits claiming that police officers brazenly beat up alleged suspects. One hidden cost: The perception that officers are violent can poison the relationship between residents and police.” Baltimore Sun, Undue Force, September 28, 2014

To understand the current situation with protests in communities with large populations of African Americans we need to understand the larger context which many who feel disenfranchised face in their day to day lives, and have faced for a long time. It is not simply a question of race, but race cannot be easily dismissed either. The Baltimore Sun last September ran a story documenting settlements for police misconduct. And another article suggests this is a problem in most large US cities. The report by the justice department documented in Ferguson, would lead a reasonable person to believe the deck was stacked against African Americans there, some of whom spent time in jail simply because they could not pay their fines.

Most strikingly, the court issues municipal arrest warrants not on the basis of public safety needs, but rather as a routine response to missed court appearances and required fine payments. In 2013 alone, the court issued over
9,000 warrants on cases stemming in large part from minor violations such as parking infractions, traffic tickets, or housing code violations. Jail time would be considered far too harsh a penalty for the great majority of these code violations, yet Ferguson’s municipal court routinely issues warrants for people to be arrested and incarcerated for failing to timely pay related fines and fees. Under state law, a failure to appear in municipal court on a traffic charge
involving a moving violation also results in a license suspension. Ferguson has made this penalty even more onerous by only allowing the suspension to be lifted after payment of an owed fine is made in full. Further, until   recently, Ferguson also added charges, fines, and fees for each missed appearance and payment. Many pending  cases still include such charges that were imposed before the court recently eliminated them, making it as difficult
as before for people to resolve these cases.

It is easy to see why, in Ferguson, in Baltimore, and in fact in many other large cities where crime is high, there is a mistrust by African Americans toward the police. Large settlements seem to imply guilt, even if I have never experienced such brutality. An unfair justice system means my chances just might be better if I run than if I take my chances with the police and the courts. Consider the effect of living in such a situation if one is poor. A parking ticket, something many have received all over the United States, could lead to extra fines, fees, a suspended license and even jail. Even if the bias is subconscious (which seems unlikely given the emails uncovered), it is not hard to see why certain residents of Ferguson would not trust the police and the court system. The Justice Department report says as much.”Ferguson’s approach to law enforcement both reflects and reinforces racial bias, including stereotyping. The harms of Ferguson’s police and court practices are borne disproportionately by African Americans, and there is evidence that this is due in part to intentional discrimination on the basis of race.”

Writing in a blog on the Washington Post, Max Ehrenfruend documents this statistically.

Some readers might have felt that there was nothing unusual about these practices. After all, don’t cops everywhere do what they can to issue traffic tickets? That was Bret Stephens’s question in his column in The Wall Street Journal. “Using ticket revenue and other fines to raise revenues is one of the oldest municipal tricks in the book,” he writes. “That turns out to be as true in Milwaukee, Nashville and Washington, D.C., as it is in Ferguson. So are we talking about institutional racism or just the usual government bloodsucking?”

Since there might be some lingering confusion on this point, it’s worth noting again that yes, indeed, we are talking about institutional racism. The report described a “focus on revenue” that “was almost wholly a focus on black people as revenue,” as Ta-Nehisi Coates writes in The Atlantic. “Black people in Ferguson were twice as likely to be searched during a stop, twice as likely to receive a citation when stopped, and twice as likely to be arrested during the stop, and yet were 26 percent less likely to be found with contraband. Black people were more likely to see a single incident turn into multiple citations.”

Fourteen percent of Ferguson’s budget revenue was the result of these fines, so many that there is one for every man, woman and child in the city of Ferguson. And it is as much as 50 percent of budget revenue in other suburbs. (Compare that with just 2 percent of revenue in the city of Saint Louis.) It is not hard to see, then, how anger might be fermenting under the surface and when released might get ugly.

It is true that more whites are killed by police than blacks. But it is also to be expected since there are five times the numbers of whites in the United States than blacks. Consider this quote from the website Politifact.

Candace McCoy is a criminologist at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice at the City University of New York. McCoy said blacks might be more likely to have a violent encounter with police because they are convicted of felonies at a higher rate than whites. Felonies include everything from violent crimes like murder and rape, to property crimes like burglary and embezzlement, to drug trafficking and gun offenses.

The Bureau of Justice Statistics reported that in 2004, state courts had over 1 million felony convictions. Of those, 59 percent were committed by whites and 38 percent by blacks. But when you factor in the population of whites and blacks, the felony rates stand at 330 per 100,000 for whites and 1,178 per 100,000 for blacks. That’s more than a three-fold difference.

McCoy noted that this has more to do with income than race. The felony rates for poor whites are similar to those of poor blacks.

This complicates the debate. For when someone like Michael Medved says more whites than blacks are killed by police, he is right. When blacks say they are disproportionately targeted by police, it is easy to see how they might come to that conclusion. And when we observe that economically poor whites and blacks are convicted at roughly the same rate, it is easy to conclude that poverty makes it less likely someone has a good defense, as they often have to rely on overworked public defenders to provide their defense. Would O.J. Simpson have been found free if his defense team was a public defender?

According to the International Centre for Prison Studies, the United States has more prisoners than any other country in the world. We have more prisoners per capita than any other country in the world. More than one of four of all prisoners in the world are in the United States. And even at that, our prisons are overcrowded. We have 600,000 prisoners more than China, which has a significantly higher population, and almost 1.5 million more than the next country, Russia.

The Economist has numbers that are even higher. But when there is closer examination of what is behind the numbers, what they report is most interesting, and in fact quite sad. In an article in 2010, the Economist documented the case of the 65 year old jailed for suspicion of smuggling orchids into America. “Prosecutors described [him] as the “kingpin” of an international smuggling ring. He was dumbfounded: his annual profits were never more than about $20,000.” As his legal bills grew beyond what he could pay he plead guilty and was sentenced to 17 months in prison. For selling orchids from Latin American suppliers who were not always accurate with their paperwork.

“In 1970 the proportion of Americans behind bars was below one in 400, compared with today’s one in 100. Since then, the voters, alarmed at a surge in violent crime, have demanded fiercer sentences,” writes the same author in the Economist. Today it is one in 100. And consider California, where almost 4,000 people are serving life sentences for non-violent and crimes that are not serious due to the “three strikes and your out law.”

White collar crime provides another avenue for jailing large numbers of people.

Innocent defendants may plead guilty in return for a shorter sentence to avoid the risk of a much longer one. A prosecutor can credibly threaten a middle-aged man that he will die in a cell unless he gives evidence against his boss. This is unfair, complains Harvey Silverglate, the author of “Three Felonies a Day: How the Feds Target the Innocent”. If a defence lawyer offers a witness money to testify that his client is innocent, that is bribery. But a prosecutor can legally offer something of far greater value—his freedom—to a witness who says the opposite. The potential for wrongful convictions is obvious. – The Economist

And the challenges are that even thought some studies document that blacks and whites use and sell drugs are roughly the same rate, blacks are far more likely to be arrested for these crimes. There is even an old saying concerning drugs. White people do the crime, black people do the time. As the Brookings Institute writes, “An estimated one-third of black male Americans will spend time in state or federal prison at some point in their lifetime – more than double the rate from the 1970s and over five times higher than the rate for white males.”

Drug crimes have driven the steep rise in prison population growth. In 2011, for example, just under half of all arrests were drug related. Even though the United States has only 5% of the world’s population, we have 25% of the world’s prison population. What’s more, despite spending more than $1 trillion on the “War on Drugs”, the results of this new “get tough” policy has not reduced illegal drug use. According to the World Health Organization, the United States has more illegal drug users than anywhere else in the world. Clearly prison has not been a deterrent to crime.

The effect of this policy has been the particularly difficult for the black community. Consider this from Virgin Airlines owner and billionaire Richard Branson.

About 40,000 people were in U.S. jails and prisons for drug crimes in 1980, compared with more than 500,000 today. Excessively long prison sentences and locking up people for small drug offenses contribute greatly to this ballooning of the prison population. It also represents racial discrimination and targeting disguised as drug policy. People of color are no more likely to use or sell illegal drugs than white people — yet from 1980 to 2007, blacks were arrested for drug law violations at rates 2.8 to 5.5 times higher than white arrest rates.

Add to this the reality that many states have signed agreements with private companies, often with a clause to maintain a certain population, it is not difficult to see how we have arrived at the exploding prison population. My limited experience of working with those in jail also suggests that the hope that these issues, like addictions, might be treated, is not considerably likely.

Perhaps the beginning is the admission of a problem. Even if at the very basic we could admit the recent spike in prison populations has not led to a reduction in the crimes it was intended to address, providing greater economic opportunity, and a commitment to serve the common good might be a good start.