A Black Lives Matter protester carries a sign against police brutality as protests across the country continue over the death of George Floyd at the hands of the Minneapolis police in the days of the May 30 coronavirus pandemic in New York City. (Newscom / UPI / Corey Sipkin)
"Every white person in this country – I don't care what he says or what he says – knows one thing. … They know they wouldn't want to be black here. If they know it, they know everything they need to know. And whatever else they can say is a lie ". – James Baldwin, "Speech at the University of California Berkeley", 1979
It has never been easy to be black in America. However, the past few months have pushed me deeply into outrage, pain and discomfort that is unmatched in my 63 years of life. See what happened:
The COVID-19 pandemic has shown that while everything could be vulnerable, we are not equally vulnerable. Blacks, Latins and natives are the vast majority of those infected and killed by this virus. In some places, the levels of "disparity" (such a sanitizing word!) Are catastrophic. But as tragic as it was, it was entirely predictable and even expected. Factors contributing to this vulnerability have been documented for decades: lack of insurance, less access to health care, negligent treatment by and from health care workers, overcrowded housing, unsafe and unhealthy working conditions. This is compounded by the way in which the least paid and protected workers are now considered "essential" and must be exposed to the risks of the virus. As a young black grocery clerk told me, "Essential is just a nice word for sacrifice." Sacrificed for the comfort of those who can isolate and work from home, who are disproportionately white.
Ahmaud Arbery, an unarmed 25-year-old black man, who was executed on February 23 while three white men persecuted him while jogging in Brunswick, Georgia. One of the killers had ties to local law enforcement agencies. Only after public protests and the 74-day disappearance were arrests and accusations made for this death.
Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old African American woman, who was killed by Louisville police officers on March 13 after they kicked the door of her apartment without warning and without identifying herself. Fearing for their lives, her boyfriend shot with his legally owned gun. Breonna was killed with eight bullets fired by three officers, in circumstances that have yet to be satisfactorily explained.
Christian Cooper, a young black man – a birdwatcher – who was reported to the police on May 25 by Amy Cooper (no report), a young white woman, who called 911 to say that "an African American man" was threatening her in New York Central Park simply because she had the courage to ask her to comply with the park's rules for her dog's leash.
George Floyd, an unarmed 46-year-old African American, who was brutally killed on May 25 in Minneapolis by a white police officer who knelt on the neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds, despite being detained, despite the urgent requests of bystanders despite his repeated desperate reasons: "I can't breathe".
Omar Jimenez, a black CNN journalist from Latin America who was arrested on May 29 in the midst of live reports on events in Minneapolis, while a white CNN journalist doing the same thing at the same time in the same neighborhood was not alone not arrested but was treated with "consummate kindness" by the authorities. The stark contrast was so disconcerting that Jimenez's white colleagues noticed that the only possible difference was the rush of journalists.
All this weighs on my spirit. I try to pray, but the inner quiet escapes me. I simply sit quietly on the weekend of Pentecost in front of a burning candle praying "Come, Holy Spirit" as the tears fall. I miss the words. I reflect on the uselessness of speaking, once again, trying to think of how to say what has been said, what I have said, so often before.
Then it happened to me. Amy Cooper holds the key.
The event in Central Park is not the most heinous listed above. The black man is not dead, fortunately. Compared to the others, it received little attention. But if you understand Amy Cooper, then everything else, and much more, makes sense. And it indicates the way forward.
Let's remember what Amy Cooper did. After a black man tells her to obey the signs that require her to take her dog to a public park, she tells him that she will call the police "and tell him that there is an African American man who is threatening mine. life ". Then she does it, calling 911 and saying, "There is a man, an African American, he has a bicycle helmet. He is recording me and is threatening me and my dog." He continues, in a breathless voice, "I am threatened by a man in the Ramble (a wooded area of Central Park). Please send the cops immediately!" Nonetheless, the fact that Christian Cooper's camera records the events and shows that he made no threatening moves towards her, spoke to her calmly and without insults and kept her distance all the time.
In short, she decided to call the police over a black man for nothing more than politely asking her to obey the park's rules. And he invented a lie to endanger him.
He knew what he was doing. And we too. The situation is completely "readable", as my academic colleagues would say. What did she and all of us know? Why did she act like she did?
He assumed that his lies would be more credible than his truth.
He assumed he would have the presumption of innocence.
He supposed that he, the black man, would have a presumption of guilt.
He supposed the police would support her.
He assumed that his race would be an advantage, which would be believed because he was white. (By the way, this is what we mean by white privilege.)
He assumed that his race would be an even insurmountable burden.
He assumed that the world should work for her and against him.
He assumed he had the upper hand in this situation.
He supposed he could exploit the deeply rooted white fears of black men.
He supposed he could use these deeply rooted white fears to keep a black man in his place.
He assumed that if he protested against her innocence against her, he would be seen as "playing the race card".
He assumed that no one would accuse her of "playing the race card" because nobody accuses whites of playing the race card when they use the race to their advantage.
He assumed he knew that any confrontation with the police would not be good for him.
Supposed that the frame of "black rapist" vs. "white damsel in distress" would have been clearly understood by everyone: the police, the press and the public.
He supposed that racial white training would work in his favor.
He supposed that his knowledge of how whites view the world, and especially black men, would help them.
He supposed that a black man had no right to tell her what to do.
He assumed the police officers would agree.
She assumed that even if the police hadn't made any arrests, that many whites would have sided with her and believed her anyway.
He assumed that Christian Cooper could and would understand all of the above.
(And he was right. He clearly knew what was at stake, that's why he had the presence of mind to record what happened.)
I'm not a mind reader. I don't have access to Amy Cooper's inner thoughts. But I know, and we all know, that without these assumptions, his words and actions – his lies – make no sense. We must also admit that his assumptions are not unreasonable. Indeed, we must admit that they are well founded. They match what we know to be true about how the country works and how too many whites think.
All of this was the almost instantaneous reasoning behind his actions. By his own admission, he acted by reflex. Nobody taught Amy Cooper all of this. Probably no one has given her an explicit lesson on how candor works in America. But he knew what he was doing.
And we too. We understand his behavior. We know how our culture frames white and black people. We know how race works in America.
The basic assumption behind everyone else is that whites matter, or should matter, more than black people. Certainly more than blacks. That black lives don't matter, or at least not as much as white lives. This is the prerequisite for Amy Cooper's decisions, actions and words. This is the basic assumption that connects Christian Cooper with COVID-19, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd and Omar Jimenez.
Amy Cooper knew it. We all know it. So who taught you? Who taught us?
A man in Minneapolis is seen standing by members of the National Guard on May 29 to guard the area following a protest over the death of George Floyd, an African American, while in the custody of a white police officer. (CNS / Reuters / Carlos Barria)
The ways of white
This is where things can get uncomfortable for most of you, which I assume (and hopefully) will be white. Because just like nobody has given her an explicit lesson on the ways of white and how it works in society – and for her – most likely you have never received even a formal lesson or an explanation. It's just something you know, or rather, that you do in a distant but real part of your brain. At an early age, you realized that, no matter how bad things were to you, at least you would never have been black. And it occurred to you, even if you rarely say it consciously, that you would never want to be black. Because you realized, even without being explicitly said, that being white makes life easier. Even if you have to do hard work down the road, at least you don't have to carry the weight of darkness as an obstacle.
And if you're really honest, something else has come up somewhere in your mind. You realized that if you wanted, being white you could make things difficult – much more difficult – for others. Especially black people.
How did you do it, how did I do it, how did we all learn this? Nobody taught you. Nobody had to. It is something that you absorbed only by living. Only by taking into account subtle clues like what people in charge look like. Whose story you learned at school. What the bad guys look like on TV. The kind of jokes you've heard. Like your parents, grandparents and friends, they talked about people who didn't look like you.
I can hear some of you protesting. You don't want to admit it, especially your ability to make life difficult for black people. You don't want to face it. But Amy Cooper made the truth clear and obvious. He knew deep in his soul that he lived in a country where things should work for white people. He knew the real deal. We all do.
This is the reason for the pain, indignation, lamentation, anger, pain and fury that have poured into the streets of our nation. Because people are tired. Not just individual outrages. But of the fundamental assumption that binds them all together: that black lives do not count and should not matter – at least not as much as white ones.
We struggle to admit that Amy Cooper reveals what W.E.B. Du Bois calls "the souls of whites". Because, to quote James Baldwin again, facing the truth "would reveal more to Americans than Americans want to know." Or admit that they know.
What do we not want to admit? That Amy Cooper isn't just a rogue white person or a bad-spirited white woman who did a hateful thing. Yes, we should and must condemn his words and actions. But we don't want to admit that there is much more to this story. We all knew that she had the support of an invisible but very real apparatus of collective thoughts, fears, beliefs, practices and history.
This is what we mean by systemic racism. I could call it white supremacy, although I know that whites find that term even more of an obstacle than a white privilege. The essayist Ta-Nehisi Coates gives the best short description of this complex reality called white supremacy. He describes it as "a secular system in America that claims that whites should always be assured that they will not sink to a certain level. And that level is the level occupied by blacks." Amy Cooper knew it. And we too.
I could call it white supremacy, although I know that whites find that term even more of an obstacle than a white privilege.
We don't want to admit that Amy Cooper isn't just a bad white woman. We don't want to face the truth about America that his words and actions betray. We do not want to admit that that gift in Central Park that morning was the scaffolding of age-old accumulations of the benefits of candor. Advantages that affect black people. Benefits that kill people of color.
Without addressing this truth, Amy Cooper's actions make no sense. He knew what he was doing. And we too. Even if we don't want to admit it.
Where do we start from?
"But I don't know what to do with this information." This is what a white male student said in class after I lectured in detail about the long tragic history of medical experimentation and mistreatment inflicted on African Americans by the medical establishment, i.e. by white doctors and nurses, by white hospitals. , including Catholic institutions sponsored by white religious communities.
I understand the feelings of helplessness, confusion and even discomfort that can plague us. It is easy to be overwhelmed by the magnitude of the problem, by the immense weight of centuries of accumulated righteous fear, resentment, privilege and anger. It can be shocking to face the vastness of this nation's commitment to white benefit and advantage. Where do we start from?
Let me be more specific: what should white people do now that they know they know what Amy Cooper knows – assuming they want to do something? (The reason for the specificity will become clear).
First, understand the difference between being uncomfortable and being threatened. There is no way to tell the truth about race in this country without whites feeling uncomfortable. Because the pure truth is that if it depended on people of color, racism would have been resolved, repeated and done long ago. The only reason for the persistence of racism is that whites continue to benefit from it.
Repeat the last sentence. Make it your mantra. Because until the country accepts that truth, we will never go beyond superficial words and half-measures ineffective.
The only reason for the persistence of racism is that whites continue to benefit from it.
Systemic racism benefits whites. This is the truth that Amy Cooper knew and that we all know. This truth supports all the hypotheses that support the racial madness and madness in which we live. I know that stating that systemic racism benefits whites makes people, especially whites, uncomfortable. I also feel a twinge of discomfort in being so direct. (I know the types of comments and online emails that will surely follow.)
But avoiding and sugar coating this truth is killing black people. Silence to make white people comfortable is a luxury we can no longer afford.
If whites are unwilling to face very uncomfortable truths, then the country is destined to remain what Abraham Lincoln called "a divided house". And he warned that such a house cannot stand.
What to do next? Nothing. Sit in the discomfort that this harsh truth brings. Let it get distressing. Let me push you to tears, anger, guilt, shame, embarrassment. Above what? On your ignorance. Over time, you followed something you knew was wrong. Or when you told a racist joke why you might. Because you knew that your white friends and family would allow you to get by or even join them. Because you thought it was "just a joke". Or the times when you wouldn't hire the black person because you knew your white employees would have problems with it and you didn't want the hassle. Or when you knew that the black person was right, but it was easier not to upset your white friends. Or wealthy donors, who are almost always white. (By the way, the disparity in wealth did not simply take place nor is it due to the laziness of the black and brown people. Look at the complexions of our "essential workers" for the test.) Above all, feel the guilt, the pain, the embarrassment of doing nothing and not saying anything when you have witnessed a clear racism.
Stay in discomfort, anxiety, guilt, shame, anger. Because only when a critical mass of whites is outraged, grieved and grieved by the status quo – only when whites become troubled enough to declare, "This can't and won't be!" – only then will the real change begin to become a possibility.
Third, admit your ignorance and do something about it. You understand that there are many things about our history and life that we will have to unlearn. And learn further. Malcolm X said that the two factors responsible for American racism are greed and bad education. All of us have been taught a sterilized version of America that masks our terrible racial history.
For example, most of my white students – and black students too – know nothing about the terror of lynching. They don't know that for a 30-year period from 1885 to 1915, on average every three days a black person was brutally and savagely publicly murdered by white mobs. This was not taught, or was taught to mean only that, in the words of a white student, "some people have been beaten really badly." (Note the passive voice, which obscures who made these beatings and why).
However, without knowing this story, the Civil Rights Movement becomes only a story of well-being on desegregation and on the union of races: sharing schools, drinking fountains and (perhaps) neighborhoods. The brutal, savage and sadistic violence that whites have inflicted with impunity on blacks – and browns and Asians – in order to defend "white supremacy" (their words, not mine) is never addressed. Nor do we face the truth that most of the racial violence in our history has been and continues to be inflicted by white people against black people.
(Unsplash / Logan Weaver)
To create a different world, we need to learn how this came about. And unlearn what we had previously taken for granted. This means that we must read. And learn from the perspectives of black people. (Not to blow my horn, but my book Racial Justice and the Catholic Church are a good place to start.)
Ask that your parish and diocese sponsor not only a competition evening, but an entire series. How about Lent? Tell your priests and the directors of religious education to make anti-racism a fundamental feature of their homilies and the religious formation of your children. Insist that your kids learn a truer image of the world than you do, and not just during Black History Month. Take a position and say that you will bring your presence and dollars elsewhere if they don't. And when they do the right thing, write them a note of support – because, trust me, they will hear a lot from the other side.
While you're at it, write to your bishop and ask how anti-racism is part of ministry ministry formation. Ask how he is actively educating himself to become an anti-racist. Let him know that if seminarians and candidates for ministry and religious life are unwilling or unable to be actively anti-racist, then they do not have a vocation for church leadership because they have not embraced a fundamental requirement of Christian discipleship.
Fourth, have the courage to face your family and friends. I tell my white students that they will see and feel more racial bigotry naked than I do. Because when I'm in the room, everyone knows how to act. The sociologist Joe Feagin documents how whites behave in a way when on the "front stage", that is, in public. But "behind the scenes", in the company of white companions, a different code of conduct prevails. Here the racist acts and words are justified: "This is how your father grew up". "Your grandmother belongs to different generations." "It's just a joke." "But after all he is really a good person." "But if you ignore this, he's a really fun person to be with." "You can't choose your family, but you still have to love them." "It's only once a year." "I wish he didn't speak that way. But you can't change the way people feel."
I understand the desire to have peaceful relationships or at least without conflict with family and friends. But as Rev. Martin Luther King said so well, "There comes a time when silence is treason." Silence means consent. Or at least, complicity.
Until whites call whites, there will always be safe places where racial ugliness will be produced and contaminated. And people like Amy Cooper will continue to assume that whites will always have their backs, no matter what. And they won't be wrong. And black people will continue to die.
Until whites call whites, there will always be safe places where racial ugliness will be produced and contaminated.
Fifth, be "unconditionally pro-life". These are the words of St. John Paul II since his last pastoral visit to the United States. He summoned Catholics to "eradicate all forms of racism" as part of their sincere and essential commitment to life.
This has a very serious consequence: it is not possible to vote in favor or support a president who is blatantly racist, derides people of color, separates Latin families and turns brown children into concentration camps, and still defines himself as "pro-life. ". We must finally and finally face the uncomfortable but real overlap between the so-called "pro-life" movement and the supporters of racial intolerance.
In the name of our commitment to life, we must challenge not only these social policies, but also the attitude that hides support for racism on the pretext of being "pro-life". John Paul said that racism is a life problem. Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd and the numerous black and brown victims of COVID-19 demonstrate this. Catholics have become "unconditionally pro-life" for a long time.
Finally, pray. Yes, racism is a political issue and a social divide. But at its deepest level, racism is a disease of the soul. It is a profound deformation of the human spirit that allows human beings to create communities of insensitive indifference towards their darker sisters and brothers. Stripped to the end, white supremacy is a disturbing inner disease, a malformed conscience that allows whites not to take care of those who don't look like them. As historian Paul Wachtel succinctly declares in his book Race in the Mind of America, "The true meaning of the breed comes largely to this: is it someone I should be interested in?"
Protesters in Minneapolis gather on the scene on May 27 where an unarmed black man George Floyd was blocked by a police officer kneeling on his neck before he died in the hospital on May 25. (CNS / Reuters / Eric Miller)
This soul disease can only be cured with deep prayer. Yes, we need social reform. We need equal educational opportunities, changed police practices, fair access to health care, an end to employment and housing discrimination. But only an invasion of divine love will break the small images of God that allow us to live undisturbed by the racism that benefits and terrifies so many.
In her essay, "The desire for God and the transformative power of contemplation," writes Sister Constance FitzGerald of Baltimore Carmelite, "The time will come when the light of God will invade our lives and show us all that we have avoided seeing. Then the confinement of our carefully constructed meanings will manifest, the limits of our life plans, the fragility of the support systems or infrastructures on which we depend … (and) the darkness in our hearts ".
God's love is subversive and destructive. It exposes selfish political ideologies as short-sighted and corrosive.
Yet FitzGerald and the Carmelite tradition insist that God subvert our plans and plans for the sake of a new life. FitzGerald tells how, by exposing the superficiality of our "results", God leads us to "new minds, as well as to new intuitions, new wills and new passionate desires".
Perhaps, therefore, the grace of this dark moment in our nation is that it reveals how our politics, our society and our culture have become truly toxic, in order to stimulate us to build a new culture based not on the exploitation of fear but on the solidarity with and for the minimum between us.
We must pray for a new infusion of the Spirit and for the courage to let this Spirit transform our hearts. Come on, Holy Spirit!
(Do we really dare to pray that?)
I can hear some of you saying "But is that enough?" I have no illusion that these actions alone can erase the debris accumulated by centuries of commitment to white preference and black detriment. None of us can do everything that is required right now.
But just because we can't do everything doesn't mean we shouldn't be doing something. We are not as helpless as we fear. Also, impotence is an emotion that we cannot afford to indulge. As James Baldwin believed, despair is an option that only the most comfortable can afford to entertain.
We can create a new society, in which more and more people will challenge the assumptions of the white racial privilege that support Amy Cooper's universe. Our universe. One built on a different set of assumptions, one in which all lives really matter because black lives will ultimately matter.
I conclude with the last words of racial justice and the Catholic Church:
Social life is made by humans. The society in which we live is the result of human choices and decisions. This means that humans can change things. What humans break, divide and separate, we can – with God's help – also heal, unite and restore.
What is now does not have to be. Here is hope. And the challenge.
Come on, Holy Spirit!
Fill the hearts of your faithful.
Light in us the fire of your love.
Come on, Holy Spirit!
Breathe in us an ardent passion for justice.
Especially for those who have the breath of life crushed by them.
(P. Bryan N. Massingale is a professor of theology at Fordham University in New York. He is the author of racial justice and the Catholic Church.)