The other day I joked on Twitter about the irony that the phrase “colored people” was not allowed but “people of color” was okay. In fact, I think both terms are offensive, but some people took it the wrong way. Such is Twitter.
An African American replied with a good explanation. There were two reasons: “colored people” was associated with the slavery of the past, but the reason that interested me more concerned grammatical construction. “Colored people” defines the person by their color and people are more than their skin color. I like that. It’s the same reason we should not refer to “gay people” or “homosexuals” but use the terminology “people who experience same sex attraction.” A person should not be defined only by their sexual proclivity, their skin color or their religion.
The question of racism is at the forefront of most of our lives this summer with the Black Lives Matter protests, and where I live in South Carolina the race issue is ever with us. South Carolina has the highest population of African Americans per capita of any state. Charleston was one of the major ports for importing slaves from Africa, and segregation and the KKK are a blight on our state history.
After living in England for 25 years we moved back to the USA to South Carolina. After five years working as a school chaplain the bishop asked me to be administrator of Our Lady of the Rosary parish. Soon after my arrival I commissioned a demographic survey to understand the parish I was now in charge of. We soon learned that the geographical area has the most challenging socio-economic circumstances in the county. We have three identifiable sectors of deprivation: residential–the families who have lived here and been part of this community for generations, the transients: the parish is situated right on I-85 the major North South artery, and people move along those roads as well as freight and they often wash up in the dozen or so run down hotels that surround our campus. The third group are the rural poor, many of whom live in deplorable conditions–sometimes worse than the shanty towns I visited on mission work in El Salvador.
The racial make up of the parish is mixed. Most of the church goers were white with a few Hispanic families and some African Americans. The parish also hosted a parallel congregation of Vietnamese and there was a small native American contingent which included the chief of the Cherokee nation–a cradle Catholic. Several of our pro life families had adopted mixed race, African American and Asian children. It was immediately obvious to me that I was going to have my hands full, and I soon learned about the complexities of color or you might say the complexities of complexions.
Did I have racist attitudes? Sure. I think it’s part of the way we’re wired as human beings. In my book Immortal Combat I discuss how the default setting is to assume that I and my tribe are “right” and people who are different from us are “wrong” and how the assumption spirals downward: if “right” is good then “wrong” must be bad and what do “good” people do? They get rid of “bad” stuff. So prejudice is linked with pride and is the downfall and default setting of us all.
The fact of racism is one thing. Recognizing it is the second thing, and what I also discuss in Immortal Combat is how blind we are to the most basic faults in ourselves. Our own first instinct is to deny, defend and deflect. I do that. We all do that, but this fault is common to humanity. It really is color blind.
Recognizing the racism is the first step. Talk is cheap. It’s costly to try to do something about it. The challenges in the parish were new opportunities. We started to host the annual Native American Catholic celebration and struggled with the Vietnamese to find the best way forward for their congregation. Was it integration to our American parish or the establishment of an ethnic parish for the Vietnamese? They eventually chose the latter and Our Lady of LaVang parish is now part of our Catholic scene in Greenville. At the food pantry and among the homeless and the rural poor the racial make up was usually about 50-50. If people needed help they got both handouts at the food pantry and hand ups at the Mother Teresa House.
However, in working with the different racial groups it became clear that the whole question of racism is extremely complicated. There are no easy answers and only by listening to what each group of people wanted were we able to make progress.
One of the problems was that racism cropped up in the most unexpected places. Here are a couple of examples from my own experience working with a racially diverse parish: I was trying to encourage a group of parishioners to get more involved with our St Vincent dePaul food pantry and Mother Teresa House–our referral and advice center for the needy. The leader of this group of parishioners turned up his nose and said, “We don’t want to help those people. They’re lazy.” So this person made a blatantly racist comment about the folks who come to the food pantry assuming that they were all African American and all lazy. The complexity was that the person making the comment was Vietnamese.
Of course not all Vietnamese people are racist, but this one was, and when I called him on it he denied that he was racist.
Another example also illuminates the complexities of complexion. In talking to folks in the community, and our diocesan ethnics ministry experts everyone said that education was an important factor, so I started a choral scholarship program in our parish school for underprivileged kids. The idea was that students would get full scholarships and join our children’s choir and also get a musical education. The intention was to target racial minority families and I planned to reach out with some of the minority leaders to identify families who might wish to take advantage of full scholarships to our school. Our parishioners promised the money readily and I set out to find the families who wanted to be part of the program.
On hearing this, one of the snarky comments was, “Fr Longenecker just wants some cute little black boys to sing in his choir.” Again, it was a blatantly racist and ugly comment with innuendos that were even uglier. The problem was–it was not a white person who made the comment. It was an African American.
So the racism problem is complicated because it is everywhere and takes so many different forms. We talk about “systemic racism” and it is true. I have written elsewhere about the problem of systemic racism saying that racism is so deeply embedded in the system that we don’t see it, and in fact the system in which it is so deeply embedded is human nature itself. We assume we are right and people who are different in some way are wrong. When times get tough we blame the “other” who we consider to be wrong, and after blaming the other we scapegoat the other and eventually lynch the other. Rene Girard’s work on the scapegoat mechanism reveals the depth of the deception in the human heart and it’s pervasiveness within the whole system not just of America or this race or that race, but in the whole of humanity and the whole of human history…penetrating to my heart and your heart and every human heart.
James Cone’s The Cross and the Lynching Tree reveals the stark reality of this dynamic working out in the African American community in America. It is a legacy we should be ashamed of, but it also reveals that same sick dynamic of blame–one which I call “the sin of the world” in my book Immortal Combat. This dynamic reveals its ugly face whenever we blame others, malign others and project our sin onto them.
Is there systemic racism? Yes. It is ugly and sinful? Yes and it is the symptom of a greater evil that infests every human heart from the day that Cain murdered his brother Abel to the witch hunts, the concentration camps the lynching tree and the deceptive instincts and hidden attitudes of you and me.