In the mid 1980s, I was studying theology in Boston. Several other young Jesuits and I moved from Cambridge—where the Jesuit School of Theology was located near Harvard Square—to live in Roxbury, the black and Latino section of town. Each day when I would get on a bus I would almost always be the only white person riding. As soon as I boarded, all conversation would cease. After a few days of these silent rides, a large black woman turned to me and said loudly, for all to hear, “Can you puhleeze tell me why it is that the Police is riding this bus?”
“No, Ma’am” I replied. “I’m not a cop. I’m a studying to be a priest. I’m living on Copeland Street.”
After that, conversation became more natural, and the uncharacteristic silence lifted. But everyday thereafter, I’d get on the bus and find a way to explain to folks I wasn’t a cop.
As 2006 dawns, we remember the sacramental moments of the past year and look for ways that God is breaking into our lives in this new year. Rosa Parks’ birth into life everlasting is such a moment; it was an event that should make us all pause, reflect and act. One simple way white Americans can honor and remember Rosa Parks, and experience an iota of what it is like to be black, is to ride a bus on the other side of town.
The Comfort Zone
As Catholics, we are called to work for reconciliation in our society and culture. Such work necessitates getting out of our comfort zones—whether that means riding the bus or reaching out in different ways—and going where the “other” lives and moves and has their being. One worthwhile New Year’s resolution would be to make an effort this year to understand racism and do something to overcome our society’s entrenched racial divisions. We discover Christ when we surmount the barriers placed between “us” and “them.”
Too many of us are oblivious to the virulent racism that is on the increase in the United States. Just visit the Southern Poverty Law Center website’s Intelligence Report to learn a bit about what is going on. Numerous white racist groups pollute the internet with their insane rhetoric. Cherubic, blond, blue-eyed, Neo Nazi preteens, Lynx and Lamb Gaede, known as the recording duo Prussian Blue, sing a virulent racism. Such racists garner attention on national TV shows, but elicit too little outrage among white citizens.
Yes, there is more integration in the workplace and in the media. Halle Berry and Jamie Foxx have won Oscars. Nationwide there are six times more blacks elected to office than there were in 1970. Three times as many black households’ income exceeds $50,000 a year than in 1968. But we worry too little about institutional and structural racism. Median income for African American households is $30,134, more than 30% less than that of white families, $48,977. The wealth gap is even greater, with white families enjoying ten times the net wealth of black families. As Jonathan Kozol demonstrates in his recent book, The Shame of the Nation: the Restoration of Apartheid Schooling in America, our schools today are more segregated than 1954, the year of the landmark decision in Brown v Board of Education that abolished segregation. Civil rights activist and NAACP chairman Julian Bond also points out that truly integrated neighborhoods are falling victim to what he calls “integration fatigue.”
Catholics are especially called to a convert our society and heal hearts, minds and souls of the sin of racism. Many of us are not that many generations removed from the experience of prejudice ourselves. “Practically every accusation that has been made against American blacks was made against the Irish [in America]” notes sociologist, Fr. Andrew Greeley. “Their family life was inferior, they had no ambition, they did not keep up their homes, they drank too much, they were not responsible, they had no morals, it was not safe to walk through their neighborhoods at night…they were not willing to pull themselves up by their bootstraps, they were not capable of education, they could not think for themselves and they would always remain social problems for the rest of the country.”
Though our Catholic Church leaders have not always been in the forefront of the struggle against prejudice, in 1998, Philadelphia’s Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua, issued a prophetic call for an end to racism in a pastoral letter. “Racism is a moral disease and it is contagious. No one is born a racist” he wrote. “Carriers infect others in countless ways through words and attitudes, deeds and omissions…In short, racism and Christian life are incompatible.”
The only way to ensure that sentiments like these don’t simply become well-intentioned rhetoric however is to take action. In 2006 we need to make known the truth that racism is a sin as forcefully as we have made known the Church’s opposition to abortion. Racism will not be eradicated until it is a major problem for white people as well. We have to feel in our hearts a little of the confusion, fear, shame and pain of being treated as an undesirable presence.
Following Jesus is rarely easy and always challenging. He was well known for table fellowship with those considered different by the majority groups of his time—a first century version of riding the bus. Don’t wait until Martin Luther King day or the month of February to think of race and Black History. Love of God and love of neighbor call us to respond to racist attitudes, dynamics and structures in our society and culture with courageous, conscious choices that will lead to awareness and transformation.
In the spirit of Rosa Parks, I challenge all of us this year—in one way or another—to ride the bus.
If you’ve never had a meal with an African American friend or co-worker and asked them to teach you about racism, both personal and institutional.
Ride the bus.
If you’ve never gone to a church where the congregation is predominantly African American.
Ride the bus.
If you’ve never read John Lewis’ superb autobiography Walking with the Wind or Bob Herbert in the New York Times or made the commitment to tackle Taylor Branch’s magisterial trilogy chronicling the history of the civil rights movement.
Ride the bus.
To experience a bit of what black and Latino people experience everyday, in 2006 we need to get on the bus and ride to those worlds beyond our comfort zones where there is much for us to learn.