African-American Bishop Speaks from Experience About Racism in America

by | Jan 31, 2015 | Justice and Peace

Bishop Edward K. Braxton has seen the ugly face of racism up close and personal–and so is uniquely qualified to speak out about Ferguson and other flashpoints in America’s racial history.  This week Bishop Braxton, the bishop of Belleville, issued a pastoral letter on the racial divide in the United States.

 writes in Patheos

In the prologue of his letter published January 1, 2015, for the World Day of Peace, Bishop Braxton invited Catholics to imagine a United States in which a majority of Catholics were of African-American descent.  In the role-reversal exercise, he described the scene as a minority white Catholic teenager entered a church, only to find that the depictions of saints in stained glass and in art were all painted in Afro-centric art. He writes:

“…All images of Jesus, Mary, Joseph and all the saints are as People of Color (African, Hispanic, Asian, or Native American). God the Father Himself is painted on the ceiling of the church as a distinguished older Black gentleman. You think to yourself, ‘God the Father is absolute spirit. He has no race or nationality, or anatomical gender. Scripture never describes Him as an elderly, African-looking, brown skinned man.’ You wonder if the Catholic Church believes that only people of African ancestry are in heaven.”

With the stage set for deeper understanding, Bishop Braxton lays out ten observations about which he hoped blacks and whites could agree, and goes on to recount two incidents from his own life–two events which were seemingly related to his ethnicity.  He writes:

I have had two personal experiences with law enforcement officers that made me very conscious of the fact that simply by being me, I could be the cause of suspicion and concern without doing anything wrong. The first experience was when I was a young Priest. The second was when I was already a Bishop. In both cases I was not in clerical attire. I was dressed informally.

In the first experience, I was simply walking down a street in an apparently all-White neighborhood. A police car drove up beside me and the officer asked, “What are you doing in this area? Do you live around here? Where is your car? You should not be wandering around neighborhoods where you do not live.” I never told him I was a Catholic Priest, but I wondered what it was I was doing to attract the attention of the officer? This was long before I heard the expression, “walking while Black.”

In the second experience, I was driving in my car in an apparently all-White neighborhood with two small chairs in the back seat and a table in the partially open trunk tied with a rope. A police car with flashing lights pulled me over. The officer asked, “Where are you going with that table and those chairs? Before I could answer, he asked, “Where did you get them? Then he said, “We had a call about a suspicious person driving through the area with possibly stolen furniture in his trunk.” I wondered what I was doing to make someone suspicious. Many years would pass before I would hear the expression “racial profiling.”

He then cites recent incidents in which police officers and African-Americans have clashed, and in which accusations of racial profiling have dominated the news.  Included on the bishop’s list are Trayvon Martin, Oscar Grant III, John Crawford, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice and others–all victims who lost their lives in a police confrontation–and discusses the aspects of each case.

Bishop Braxton is fair in his analysis.  He is not seeking to take advantage of the furor over the cases which have splashed across the headlines.  Rather, he makes the point that America, as a nation, still has a way to go in achieving true racial reconciliation.  The recent protests on the streets of Ferguson, New York and elsewhere, and some of the recent statements emanating from our political leaders, have worked to widen the chasm, to fuel the fire of distrust and hate within the black community.  Bishop Braxton seeks to inform, and to call everyone–whites, blacks and those of other ethnic groups–to stop and consider their own perspective, and to truly love our neighbors.

In closing, Bishop Braxton offers a list of suggestions.  It’s worth your time to read and reflect on whether we have contributed to the racial divide by our prejudices and preconceptions.  He invites all persons of faith to pray, learn, think and act to achieve solidarity with our brothers and sisters of every background.

Following are his closing suggestions. To read the pastoral letter in its entirety, visit the website of The Messenger, the publication of the Diocese of Belleville.

Therefore, I will conclude this Reflection with suggestions for your consideration. Pray, Learn, Think, and Act.

  1. Go to Mass and Communion at least one weekday a week and pray specifically for guidance concerning ways in which you can bridge the racial divide.
  1. Read the Sacred Scriptures regularly focusing on the four Gospels, the Acts of the Apostles, and the Epistles of St. Paul. Meditate on passages that remind you that in Christ, God reveals His love for every human being.
  1. Pray the Rosary once a week with your family on the same day at the same time for the intention of the end to racial conflict and prejudice in the United States. Listen to the voice of the Holy Spirit within you and the voices of others around you.
  1. Examine your conscience at least once a month, acknowledging any acts or omissions (thoughts, words, or deeds) that reinforce the racial divide. Receive the Sacrament of Reconciliation.
  1. Participate in serious discussions about this World Day of Peace 2015 Reflection with your parish staff.  Place the document on your parish website.  Urge the Chancery staff, school faculty, and small groups of parishioners to discuss it before, during, or after Lent.
  1. Take up Brothers and Sisters to Us (1979) and What We Have Seen and Heard (1984). Study these key documents and learn about important examples in the Church’s teaching on the racial divide in America. There are valuable, unheeded suggestions in each letter that are relevant for today. Examine the expression, “White privilege.” What does it mean to you? Does consideration of this idea diminish or increase the racial divide?           
  2. Contact St. Augustine of Hippo Parish and Sister Thea Bowman Catholic School in East St. Louis. Learn about the ministry of the Church in the African-American community. Create opportunities for your parishioners to visit these communities. Make new friends.
  1. Initiate an effort to get to know the police officers who serve your communities. Thank them for their important service. Help the young people in the community to appreciate the role of the police, to get to know and respect them. Help the police to get to know and respect the young people.
  1. Work to establish or improve constructive, worthwhile activities for teenagers in your community. Is your parish doing all it can in this area?
  1. Become involved with any community activities that support and strengthen families. Direct your children to proper role-models who will help them lead mature, responsible, Christ-centered lives.
  1. If you live near or work with individuals whose racial background is different from your own with whom you have never discussed the issues raised by this Reflection, break the ice, start the conversation.
  1. Take note of the way in which the racial divide has been portrayed in films old and new.  A viewing of such recent influential motion pictures as Tate Taylor’s “The Help,” “Lee Daniels ‘ The Butler,” Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln,” and Ava DuVernay‘s “Selma” could prompt fruitful discussions, especially with people of diverse backgrounds.
  1. This year is the 75th anniversary of David O. Selznick ‘s 1939 film of Margaret Mitchell’s “Gone With The Wind,” the Academy Award winning epitome of old Hollywood movie making, with Hattie McDaniel ‘s exceptional Oscar-winning performance as the house “slave,” “Mammy ” in a completely romanticized presentation of what the evil of slavery was actually like.  Steve McQueen ‘s 2013 Oscar-winning film of Solomon Northup’s 1853 slave narrative, “Twelve Years a Slave” recounts the true story of a New York State-born free African-American man who was kidnapped in Washington, D.C. in 1841 and “sold” into slavery. Chiwetelu Ejiofor’s exceptional Oscar-nominated performance as Mr. Northup provides a far more realistic account of human bondage than “Gone With The Wind.” A discussion comparing these films would almost certainly shed light on the contemporary experience of the racial divide.
  2. You, your parishioners, your friends and neighbors may well have far better and more relevant ideas than these suggestions. Obviously , you should make use of them. These suggestions are simply to stimulate your conversations. If you think that I, as your Bishop and as one who lives in the midst of the divide, can contribute to your conversations, I will gladly join you .

Graphic Courtesty of EWTN