Bob Dylan’s classic song asks nine questions. I want to focus on the last of them: “How many deaths will it take til [we know] that too many people have died?”
First and foremost, please read the entirety of Fr Bryan Massingale’s essay on racism and white privilege in America. The link is here. If you’re seeing a printed version, you’ll have to type everything in. If you see this on Facebook, just click on the link:
Please do not dismiss this article. I knew Bryan somewhat when he was doing his doctorate in moral theology in Rome and I was a seminarian (his diocesan brother, Jim Connell, and I were good friends). Bryan is sensitive and brilliant. He has a perspective, and I encourage everyone to meditate on the “assumptions” he lists and his six recommendations he makes at the end.
Beyond that, in conjunction with Archbishops Gregory of DC, Gomez of LA, and Cupich of Chicago (you can find their comments on the blog “Whispers In The Loggia”—www.whispersintheloggia.blogspot.com), I want to insist that there is a culture in our society that is deeply prejudicial, even if not always stated or overt. It is assumed. It needs to be challenged and displaced.
Now for a history lesson— how many people remember that there were lynchings of African-Americans in Mobile as late as 1983? Isn’t this terrifying? I used to teach racial justice to seniors (and sometimes endured personal attacks as a result). I used the video series “Eyes on the Prize,” documenting the struggle for civil rights from Rosa Parks through the Selma march. People then (African Americans and whites who were standing with them) were murdered (remember—this was the 1960s); the murderers were rarely tried; they were virtually always acquitted by all-white juries (“I never saw him pull the trigger…”). Amy Cooper’s accusation, that a black man’s request she leash her dog was turned into harassment and threats. While differing in degree, her accusation is based on the same assumptions that were the basis of the vicious condemnation of a black man of an utterly unsubstantiated accusation by a white man and his daughter, detailed in “To Kill A Mockingbird.” This time, though, with Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd, there is video. This time, we “saw them pull the trigger”…
Do I condone violent rioting? No. Do I understand the frustration and rage? I would be lying if I said I truly did, though I have an inkling of it from my own childhood. And I know that in my dark heart I am capable of (and have exhibited) violence from anger and frustration over far less serious matters than the deaths of innocent people.
Is there an answer? I think there is. More and more, I turn to the “Truth and Reconciliation Commissions” of post-apartheid South Africa: “You tortured me; you killed my family; I want to tell you my anger and anguish; I want you to hear it and ask for my forgiveness, and I will give it to you.” Spearheaded by Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela, this process saved their nation from a horrific reactionary bloodbath (one that everyone expected). Did it work? Yes, Is it a permanent solution? No. Nothing is automatically permanent; we must continue to work at it.
“White privilege” is not as obvious as “apartheid,” but for that reason it is more insidious. Will we ever be able to form “Truth and Reconciliation Commissions” here? This can happen, but only if people like me recognize the scars of racism and “white privilege” in my own heart and am willing to confess them. I have more confidence in the mercy of people of color than I have in my own willingness to confront my prejudices and presumptions…
This kind of self-examination sounds much more like an exercise for Lent than for summer, but after all we’re still in the midst of a COVID-19 pandemic; if we’re still self-isolating, perhaps this would be a worthwhile exercise to occupy our time.
This past Sunday we prayed “Lord, send out your Spirit and renew the face of the earth.” Might this crisis be a part of exactly that? This would surely put a unique twist (one consonant with Jesus’ remarks to Nicodemus in John 3) on Bob Dylan’s refrain: “The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind/The answer is blowin’ in the wind.”