Can the two major crises currently rocking the United States – the pandemic and racism –lead to a better future? Susanne Janssen, editor of Living City Magazine, reflects.
Racism is a virus that has never been eradicated in the United States. After the Civil War (1861-1865), slavery was legally abolished, but still today people of color and white people are not treated in the same way. The death of George Floyd has shone a light on this problem. The fact that those 8 atrocious minutes of George Floyd pleading for his life were captured on video means it could no longer be blamed on the victim. This video, together with the large number of people (not only Afro-Americans) who united to protest against racism, are a sign that this time something is different. Our hope is all that has happened will not end with a wave of protests but will lead to real change.
The role of the Catholic Church
After a few days’ silence, the Catholic Church positioned itself alongside the anti-racism protestors. The Cardinal of Boston, Seán O’Malley wrote that the killing of George Floyd “is painful evidence of what is and has been at stake for African Americans – the failure of society in too many ways to protect their lives and the lives of their children. The demonstrations and protests of these days have been calls for justice and heart wrenching expressions of deep emotional pain from which we cannot turn away”. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has described racism as the “original sin” of their country, persisting through the nation’s history, festering to this day. Reflection on the issue is now gaining ground in the Church and society.
The first steps
The slogan “defund the police” calls for something more than a simple restructuring of police departments. It demands a completely new start, to create a police force which is more accountable to its citizens. In recent years much has been said about the increasing militarization of the police; but to tell the truth, much of what they do, should actually be the role of social workers.
What differentiates today from the violence suffered by Afro-Americans in the past, is the way many people are striving to learn from, listen and face up to the past, focusing on those structural issues which have lingered since the time of the abolition of slavery and segregation, such as the so-called “Jim Crow laws” and the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
Yes, because the first step has to be facing up to those prejudices within everyone, and the social privileges generally afforded to white people. Authors Ibram X. Kendi and Robin DiAngelo declare that “being a good person” is not enough in this regard. The step required is to oppose the very structures of oppression, as even now, in a routine police check, the color of your skin can make the difference between life and death.
The contribution of the Focolare Movement
Firstly, Focolare communities are looking hard at themselves for traces of discrimination and racism. The Focolare’s thinking on racial justice is an essential starting point before entering in sincere dialogue with one another and with people around us.
We create space to listen to the painful testimonies of racism endured, and also to the experience of those raised in predominantly white environments who are striving to engage in a process of recognizing their own limits. These are not easy conversations, but they are necessary in order to build relationships that are more real.
“If we’re not careful, we risk reinforcing the principles of popular rhetoric on diversity which too often support the privileged and accentuate the differences,” affirms an academic of color. Another Focolare member now more than 80 years old, he too an academic, admits that throughout his life he has had to learn to become more open, particularly when one of his daughters married a Jamaican. “I was worried their children would suffer discrimination. But now I see they are a shining example for many”.
The role of youth
Young people are in the front line demanding a change of mentality. One young girl of mixed race said, “I want to help my brothers and sisters to be listened to more, otherwise I will regret it for the rest of my life…”
The very “Black Lives Matter” slogan which united many people, drawing them out onto the streets in huge numbers, has itself been targeted to provoke polarization. It’s not rare to come across messages which strive to discredit those campaigning for more justice. However, there are also signs of a gradual change in public opinion. In fact, many have condemned President Donald Trump’s handling of the recent crises: the pandemic and structural racism. At time of writing, the Democratic Party candidate, Joe Biden, has a 13% lead in the polls, but it’s far too early to predict the situation come November when Americans go out to vote.
Susanne Janssen, Editor, Living City magazine