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‘A Real Wake-Up Call’: Father Bryan Massingale on Racism and the Way Forward


Father Bryan Massingale, activist and professor of theological and social ethics, discusses racism in America and how we can learn, listen, and move forward in faith.

Father Dave asks Father Massingale to explain white privilege. Father Bryan uses the example of Amy Cooper. “That morning a young white woman called the police saying that there was a black man who was threatening her and to send the cops all because he had politely asked her to put her dog on a leash, as the park regulations state. What I thought to myself was we all know what she was doing. She knew the way race worked in America, that she would have the presumption of being believed. And he would have the presumption of being disbelieved.”

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“We know that there’s an advantage to being white and there’s a disadvantage to being black,” Father Massingale says. “If we know that, then we have to do something about it. Or we have to say, we’re comfortable with that reality. It’s not simply that there are advantages to being white. It’s that the malevolent part of this is that Amy Cooper could use her race in a way to make life harder for him. People have told me that they found the most difficult thing to accept was that at some early age, I might have realized that it was easier to be white. And at some early age, I might have said, okay, I’m really glad I’m not black. They realize that because of the way race works in America, if I wanted to make life harder for someone else, I could. We don’t want to admit that, but that’s what Amy Cooper did in Central Park. And without that assumption, her situation doesn’t make sense. Without that assumption, without that truth the situation becomes unintelligible. And we don’t want to admit that, but that’s exactly what’s going on.”

Father Massingale discusses the death of George Floyd and violence against black Americans. “What happened to George Floyd isn’t new,” Father Massingale says. “We’ve been dealing with this since Trayvon Martin, since Michael Brown was Tamir Rice. There’s been hundreds of these events. Each time we get there, it seems that we were met with incomprehension. People say, ‘Well, he did something to cause this. He did something to deserve this.’ With George Floyd, people saw that for eight minutes and 46 seconds, this man did nothing to deserve being killed. I think that was a real wake-up call to people. They began to realize there really is something profoundly broken here. I’m hoping that this is the kind of moment that leads to a real change and not simply a flash in the pan, but I think it really depends upon what ordinary Americans and ordinary Catholics do … I think this is a call for deep personal examination. Ask yourselves, ‘Where in my life have I been willing to tolerate racial exclusion? Where have I noticed something being obviously wrong and not chosen to speak up?’”

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“I would challenge my brother priests, because I ask my students this question, I ask them, ‘When was the last time you heard a homily on racism?’ It never fails that fewer than 10% of my students will say they heard a homily on race or racism in the past three years. I think this is a moment that calls us priests to do some serious self-examination. And I know a priest will say, ‘Well, we don’t want to upset people again. We don’t want to make white people uncomfortable. No, we have no problem making people feel uncomfortable with any number of other issues. We have no problem making people feel uncomfortable when we preach about life. We have no problem talking about same sex marriage. We have no problem making people feel uncomfortable, except when it comes to race. And I think this is a moment of profound self-examination. Do we really believe that all human beings are created in the image and likeness of God without exception, no small print? And are we willing then to talk about the implications and consequences of that belief when it comes to how this country has treated people of color for a long, long time?”