“I am Trayvon Martin!”
This has been the rallying cry of so many people (Black and other races too) since the shooting of an unarmed 17-year-old African-American teenager by a neighborhood watch volunteer in a suburb outside Orlando, Florida. The watchman, George Zimmerman, claimed self-defense and said he pursued the young black teenager because he looked “suspicious.” This has resulted in an outcry from the black community, and other supporters, asking for justice.
This lack of respect for black male life seems to be a bad story repeated throughout the history of this country. Stereotyping, prejudice, and racism are nothing new to our community (or to other minority groups either), but when a national tragedy such as this occurs, another level of despair occurs in our communities. Too many times there are “Trayvon Martins” out there whose stories are never told. These events divide us along racial, political, and socioeconomic lines. Racism is the “elephant in the room” that we don’t like to discuss, and when it comes up, it stirs up emotions on all sides.
At the heart of this issue is stereotyping. People who are not regularly subjected to stereotyping never really understand why it is such a big deal. Take this example — following the devastation of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, the Associated Press released two photos separately showing a white couple and a young black man traveling through a flooded street in New Orleans. The caption under the photo with the white couple said they were “finding” food at a local grocery store. The caption under the black man said he was “looting” food at a grocery story. Why the difference if they were in the same situation trying to achieve the same goal — survival? The only difference was the color of their skin. Too many times stereotypes drive us to perceive others differently and this leads to differential, and at times, unjust treatment. We tend to look at one another as objects and not as human beings created in the image of God.
Racism in the Church
Unfortunately, the evil of racism is still working within our Church as well. I say this because I love my Church enough to challenge it. I want to work with others so that our Church becomes all that we want it to be.
After Hurricane Katrina, many youth in my youth ministry and I were evacuated to Houston, Texas. We are from a majority black Catholic church, but while we were evacuated, the closest Catholic church was a majority white church. It was apparent that we were making the regular parishioners uncomfortable from the looks and stares we received. Also, during the sign of peace and the Our Father, none of the parishioners would shake or hold our hands.
Another, more recent incident occurred about a year ago. As an Archdiocesan employee, I was asked to go to one of our local white parishes to set up early for a meeting. Even though I was in a shirt and tie, I was interrogated about how I got a copy of the key to the hall. It wasn’t until one of our white volunteers showed up and said the exact same thing that I had said that we were left alone to go about our business. People of other minority groups have expressed having the same experiences. Now, I know that not all parishes would react like this, but the fact that this has happened, and continues to happen, many more times than we would like to admit or can document, shows that we still have work to do to improve race relations as a Catholic family. Even now, our courageous local archbishop has asked our parishes to pray our “Family Prayer,” which asks us to fight the New Battle of New Orleans against murder, violence, and racism.
Church teachings on racism
The Church has produced many documents over the past half-century in regards to racism. Here’s a quick look at three of them:
• Discrimination and the Christian Conscience (1958) followed the 1954 Supreme Court decision Brown v. Topeka Board of Education calling for the desegregation of school systems and other instances of racial segregation at the time. The basic conclusion in this document was that Christians cannot support segregation because it’s inconsistent with Christian views. In other words, we cannot treat the human person as “inferior.” The problem with this document was that it made no specific recommendations in regards to action.
• In 1968 the bishops released a new statement on racism entitled The National Race Crisis in response to the mounting racial tensions of the Civil Rights Movement and the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
• In 1979, the bishops released their next statement on racism, Brothers and Sisters to Us, which looked at how racism is a part of our personal lives and social and even church institutions. The document included recommendations for action.
And more still needs to be done to address issues of racism in the Church. As our bishops have stated, we need to move toward loving one another as humans and not demeaning one another based on what we look like or where we come from. (A recommended resource: Bryan Massingale’s book, Racial Justice and the Catholic Church, which looks in detail at how our church’s bishops have attempted to address the sin of racism over the past half-century.)
It is never easy to discuss or talk about racism. But everyone does talk about it within their own racial groups. It is something that affects us all, whether directly or indirectly. We, especially as a Catholic Church, need to be able to share our hurts and challenges. People that benefit from society’s social structures and institutions may not see the necessity of addressing this issue, but as long as one part of the Body of Christ is affected, we all are. Only when we truly challenge the norms that may cause divisions (on both sides) will we be able to come together as the loving Church that we were created to be. We must put aside our stereotypes and fears and look at one another as brothers and sisters made in the image of God.
One of us
The black community, and those that support it, are particularly outraged by the Trayvon Martin shooting because this young man could have easily been any one of our sons, grandsons, cousins, nephews, youth ministry kids, etc., but the fact that some of us cannot express our frustrations about this issue, and the constant stereotyping that we face, leads to the distrust and continued divisions that separate us now. We are called to see the value and dignity of human life and make sure that the world provides a place where we all are treated like children of God, even George Zimmerman.
It is not easy to see the value of a person when he/she hurt us or make us feel uncomfortable. We have all been stereotyped in some way. It is just that some have been stereotyped more than others, and their whole way of life has been affected. We must all challenge these notions and remember who we are, and more importantly whose we are.