Sharing Faith With Those Who Don’t Look Like Us

[Fr. Bryan Massingale teaches theology at Marquette University.]

How does the concept of social sin apply to racism?

One of the key concepts in contemporary thinking about racial justice is white privilege. Because we live in a society that attaches a pervasive social stigma to dark skin color, those with light skin color have certain advantages, privileges and benefits that persons of color do not enjoy. Conversely, people of color have certain systemic disadvantages, burdens and stigmas that they have to overcome.

From a white perspective, everything is normal because white people don't see the advantages that are inherent simply by being born in society with physical characteristics prized by society. People often express surprise that an African American is intelligent and articulate. I wish I had five dollars for every time a white person has said that to me! It shows how they've been malformed by an ethos that they're not even aware of. That's the structural sin of white privilege and white advantage.

What still needs to be done about racism?

African Americans still encounter far more pervasive discrimination in the process of housing selection and mortgage lending than any other racial or ethnic group. This is important because residence is significant for determining so many things: access to education, health care, even wealth.

African Americans are still more racially segregated than either Latinos or Asians. On paper, both blacks and whites say they want to live in an integrated neighborhood; but each has a very different understanding of what "integrated" means. African Americans would see the most desirable racial mixture as 35% to 50% black. For most whites, that's too much integration. Studies show that 8% black is the whites' tolerance level. So racial segregation is a major place where we need to look at making systemic changes.

Because of enduring residential segregation, most white people have very little chance to talk to a black person concretely about his or her life experience. Without that, you're not going to make substantial progress in race relations. This is where the Catholic Church can make a very powerful contribution because the Catholic community cuts across all income and racial groups.

We are not taught how to talk about race in an interracial context. Whites talk about race among themselves. Blacks do too, as do Latinos. But when we get together, there is this strange code of civility that results in silence or avoidance. As long as that's there, there's very little chance for any kind of understanding to take place.

What is the greatest internal challenge for the church?

According to the USCCB website, 46% of the Catholic Church in America is people of color. You wouldn't know that by looking at the church's leadership : not just the bishops but also the leaders in our major Catholic organizations and universities.

The Catholic Church can't be credible in talking about racism if it doesn't call itself to account. The demographic shift that's going on within the Catholic Church is posing urgent questions. The church is getting browner; it has to adjust to that reality.

What are some of the new forms of white resistance to racial inclusion?

One is the glass-ceiling phenomenon. Studies show that while African Americans experience few barriers in being admitted to entry-level positions. When it comes to promotion to middle or senior management, women and racial minorities encounter the next barrier. I call it the resurgence of tokenism : where people of color are present in limited numbers and in very limited kinds of positions.

Another is the use of the internet as a tool for racist propaganda. If you Google the "N- word," you are directed to millions of sites : some with the most vile forms of racial intolerance deliberately targeted at kids. We also have the rise of white supremacist music targeted at young people.

Thirdly, there is what I call "rational racism" or "reasonable discrimination." That's when people say, "Granted not all blacks are lazy, dumb and violent; but most are. Therefore I am justified in treating you as if you are until you prove that you're not." That puts the person of color in a hole, so they're constantly having to prove themselves. That justifies cab drivers passing by an African American. In doing so, the cabbie is not being prejudiced; he's simply exercising a rational; form of caution.

How can the church help with racial justice?

It can by promoting the fact that one of the glories of being Catholic is that we have people sharing our faith that don't look like us. At my parish (All Saints in Milwaukee), because we're predominantly an African American parish and have a Gospel choir, we always get suburban parishes sending their religious education classes to our church. Afterward, I'll go to our visitors (always white!) and I'll say, "Why are you here?" Most look uncomfortable and say they don't know. So I invite them to look around. I point out the variety of people present and I say, "This is why you are here. You are here because you are practicing for life in the reign of God. When you get there, not everyone is going to look like you."

No one has ever talked to them about race relations like that : in the context of faith. That is one of my missions in life.

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