My dear brothers and sisters in the Lord,
The current situation in our country, especially in the City of New York, brings to mind the question of racial and class divide in our society. I am grateful to my brother Bishop Edward Braxton, of Belleville, Ill., for his reflection on “The Racial Divide in the United States: A Reflection for the World Day of Peace 2015.”
In a past article, I commented on our Holy Father’s message for World Day of Peace where Pope Francis reflected on the theme, “No Longer Slaves, But Brothers and Sisters.” The Holy Father reminded us that besides the obvious enslavement of people which, unfortunately, still happens in the world, there are other types of enslavement which are just as heinous. Bishop Braxton, in his reflection, writes a very personal and poignant pastoral letter on a new awareness of the racial divide and the obvious need for a call to dialogue.
There has been a series of unrelated acts of violence against African-American men that has brought to our attention a continuing racial divide; first, Trayvon Martin, then Michael Brown and finally, in our own city, Eric Garner. Bishop Braxton brings to our attention three other cases to which I was totally unaware. As we reflect on the feelings of our fellow Americans we recognize that even the terms we use are divisive. Why should we speak of someone as an African-American or as black. Does color divide us? Does it make a difference? Or are our national origins divisive? Or are we “all” Americans?
Until we see no categorization of each other, the dialogue will have to continue. Great progress has been made in our country since the abolition of slavery and the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement, but only in the last several generations. We have seen progress for people of color who have attained the highest levels in the government even to the point of having President Barrack Obama, a biracial president, serve his country. We are not color blind yet and probably never will be. Perhaps, however, it is best said by Dr. King, himself, “I look to a day when people will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”
Hopefully, we will understand better why our brothers and sisters who feel aggrieved are asking for greater understanding and justice.
Most recently, the deaths of NYPD Officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos have shaken our city. These two officers, who were responding to a request from people who live in public housing to protect their neighborhood, were assigned from one precinct to another. While simply eating their lunch, they were assassinated by a deranged man. This only brings our attention to the pressure and the threats that police officers are under each day as they seek to protect our society. No one can deny that the incidents of black-on-black crime is greater than the incidents of white-on-white crime. That is little consolation, however, for those who feel aggrieved or feel that they are not respected by our law enforcement officers who are sworn to uphold their duty in public safety. Again, we must be careful not to speak in general or universal categories because the actions of a few do not apply to all. When we are dealing with feelings, however, it is not easy to distinguish those feelings from reality.
More to the issue at hand, which is a call to recognize that there still exists in the United States a racial divide that clearly manifests itself in the differences of opinions. I am sure if new polls were taken, we would see a great divide in how people see the situation. Adding to the misunderstandings are the demonstrations that are calling for a change in police practices. Again, we must recognize that all demonstrators are not the same. Certainly, those demonstrators who physically attacked the police officers on the Brooklyn Bridge are not characteristic of the many demonstrators who perform no acts of violence, certainly here in New York City. Unfortunately, the situation in Missouri has also influenced public opinion.
Recently, some religious leaders in the City of New York have agreed to form an organization called CORL (Commission of Religious Leaders) and to hold a prayer breakfast on the birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr. on Jan. 15. They prayed for the wisdom to imitate that great civil rights leader and prophet of non-violent action. Hopefully, in the planning process a larger inter-religious gathering can be planned in our City to bring about greater dialogue and understanding among our divided communities.
In his pastoral letter, Bishop Braxton states, “In 1958, the American Bishops published ‘Discrimination and Christian Conscience’ and in 1968 they published ‘National Race Crisis.’ But most honest students of history would acknowledge that these documents, though well intended, were not widely disseminated or implemented.” These pronouncements from some bishops of our country address this difficult issue of racism that seems to plague our society and even our Church at times. Some of their pertinent quotes are these, “Racism is a sin: a sin that divides the human family, blots out the image of God among specific members of that family, and violates the fundamental human dignity of those called to be children of the same Father. Racism is the sin that says some human beings are inherently superior and others essentially inferior because of races. It is the sin that makes racial characteristics the determining factor for the exercise of human rights. It mocks the words of Jesus: ‘Treat others the way you would have them treat you.’ Indeed, racism is more than a disregard for the words of Jesus; it is a denial of the truth of the dignity of each human being revealed by the mystery of the Incarnation.”
Bishop Braxton offers an insightful statement on the problem of categorizing individuals as minority or majority when he says, “An important step across the racial divide would be taken by acknowledging that all Americans are from different racial and ethnic backgrounds and that no group constitutes the majority. Indeed, many serious anthropological studies suggest that, in spite of their sociological prominence, ethnicity and race are very problematic categories. Frequent references to groups of Americans and groups of Catholics as ‘minorities’ seem to designate them as who they supposedly are not. They are not a part of an arbitrary grouping of Americans of certain ethnic groups (those of European ancestry) who have been arbitrarily joined together and designated as ‘the majority.’ Significantly, the majority of the world’s population is not of European origin and current demographic trends indicate that in the decades ahead Americans of European heritage may become a statistical ‘minority’ of the country’s overall population.”
It is clear that unless we engage in significant dialogue we will not understand the racial and class divide which plagues us. The divide is not carried just by lack of opportunity, or segregation in housing, but most importantly it is a mentality which is much more difficult to change.
As we come to the beginning of Black History Month in February, I make a special plea that we all engage in prayerful reflection on our attitudes toward others who in any way appear different from ourselves. We must put out into the deep and leave our comfort zone in order to engage ourselves in prayerful reflection and reconciliation with those from who we might feel estranged or even afraid.