Responding to the call to combat racism

8 mins read

For 8 minutes, 46 seconds, the world watched in horror as George Floyd struggled to breathe. His neck pinned by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin’s knee, Floyd begged in vain for mercy. Before passing out, the 46-year-old Floyd called out for his “momma.”

“That nearly broke me to hear a grown man call out like that in desperation,” said Gloria Purvis, a host of the EWTN radio show Morning Glory.

Purvis told a virtual panel of other black Catholics that she remembers thinking, “Stop, in the name of God, stop!” while watching the disturbing video of Chauvin, a white police officer, abusing Floyd, an unarmed black man who was in custody amid suspicion that he used a counterfeit $20 bill.

Floyd subsequently died, and Chauvin has since been arrested and charged with second-degree murder. Three other former Minneapolis police officers — who, like Chauvin, were fired — are facing charges for aiding and abetting second-degree murder.

Purvis, a member of the National Black Catholic Congress’ Leadership Commission on Social Justice and chairperson for Black Catholics United for Life, compared watching Floyd suffer in his final minutes of life to witnessing an abortion in real time, and not being able to stop it.

“I wished I could have just pushed (Chauvin) off,” Purvis said, “And that kind of helplessness, that kind of crippling helplessness, in the face of such a brutal act against another human being has greatly disturbed me and I don’t think I’ll ever forget it.”

Purvis’ comments during the June 5 virtual dialogue on “Racism in Our Streets and Structures,” hosted by Georgetown University’s Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life, underscored the horror, frustration, indignation and anger that have prompted millions of black Catholics, people of color, sympathetic whites and others the world over to take to the streets.

Panelists are seen during a June 5, 2020, Georgetown University dialogue on racism in U.S. as a test of faith and the nation. They are: Washington Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory; Marcia Chatelain, associate professor of history and African-American studies at Georgetown University; Ralph McCloud, director of the U.S. bishops’ Catholic Campaign for Human Development; Gloria Purvis, host of the EWTN radio show “Morning Glory”; and John Carr of Georgetown University’s Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life. (CNS screen grab/courtesy of Georgetown University’s Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life)


Not to be confused with violent arsonists and looters, the peaceful protestors are marching against centuries of racial bigotry and violence that still is made manifest today in sinful social structures, savage economic inequality, cash-strapped struggling inner-city schools and subpar access to health care — all on top of repeated instances of police brutality against unarmed black men and women.

In addition to Floyd’s tragic death on May 25, many Americans this year learned of the Feb. 23 slaying of Ahmaud Arbery, an unarmed 25-year-old black man who, while jogging in Glynn County, Georgia, was struck by a vehicle, called a racial epithet and shot dead. The three suspects — all white men — were not arrested until weeks later, when a disturbing video surfaced and public outrage mounted.

Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old black woman in Kentucky, was shot dead in her own apartment during what has been described as a “botched” search warrant execution by police officers on March 13. As of mid-June, authorities had not arrested anyone in connection with Taylor’s death.

In recent years, the American public has witnessed the stories of other unarmed black men killed by police: Michael Brown, Philando Castille, Eric Garner, Laquan McDonald, Alton Sterling, Sean Reed and countless others.

“We’re reminded that bigotry and indifference are really woven in the fabric of America, and that racial and economic inequality go on,” said Auxiliary Bishop Joseph N. Perry of the Archdiocese of Chicago.

Bishop Perry told Our Sunday Visitor that the nation’s federal, state and municipal governments, national and local institutions, criminal justice systems and other social structures historically have had different approaches to white people as opposed to black and brown-skinned communities. That racist double standard, the bishop said, sometimes provokes situations that get “out of control.”

“And when black and brown people push back hard, mainstream America then wonders why everyone’s upset,” Bishop Perry said. “The surprise itself registers then as something of an insult.”

‘More than just a passing moment’

Bishop Perry and other black Catholics who spoke with Our Sunday Visitor or participated in the recent Georgetown dialogue on racism discussed the root causes of the street protests that have not only taken place in major American cities, but across the world in Rome, Australia, London, Paris and elsewhere.

“There are many more white faces in this response than I ever saw before, and that gives me a spirit of hope that somehow this is more than just a passing moment. I pray that it’s more than just a passing moment,” Archbishop Wilton Gregory of Washington, D.C., told the Georgetown panel.

The black Catholic leaders also shared thoughts on how to understand the protests through the lens of Catholic social teaching and its principle of the dignity of the human person, as well as what Catholics of all races can do to bridge divisions and show solidarity with one another.

“It’s extremely important for the Catholic community to understand that racism is a life issue. We should be as passionate about (ending) racism as we are about protecting the unborn,” said Pamela Harris, the director of ethnic ministries for the Diocese of Columbus, Ohio.

Harris, who is also president of the National Association of Black Catholic Administrators, told Our Sunday Visitor that when Catholics hear “black lives matter” — a controversial phrase because of concerns many white Americans have with the politics of the movement’s leaders — they need to consider some important realities. For example, black people in America make up about 13% of the country’s population but comprise around 33% of the nation’s sentenced prison population.

“We have a community that is tired of obstacles that are strategically placed in front of us to keep us from flourishing in society,” Harris said. “We must work together to ensure a fair legal system, and that we have access to health care, education and employment opportunities.”

Those exact same issues — including police brutality and acts of terrorism committed by white people — were cited as root causes during the 1919 race riots that struck several American cities that year, said Marcia Chatelain, a history and African American studies professor at Georgetown University.

“The knee that was on (Floyd’s) neck was weighted by all the systems that have sanctioned that behavior, and all the people who depend on that behavior in order to secure their own personal property as well as their status in society,” Chatelain told the Georgetown panel.

Motivated by the Gospel

In the United States, especially in the early 21st century, discussions of systemic or institutional racism risk being sidetracked by concerns among some that the issue is an ideological tactic driven by progressive political activists. But that ideological framing misses the greater point, black Catholic leaders said.

“The movement for pro-life and racial justice is not motivated by right-left dynamics, but by the Gospel imperative that we must defend the vulnerable and the oppressed,” said Purvis, who added that the protests are “clearly” about the kind of police brutality the world witnessed in Floyd’s death.

“The call of this movement is to say, ‘We don’t want the power of the state used against us,'” Purvis said. “We’re equal citizens as anyone else, and we do not want police brutality in our communities. This is a call of justice that everybody should be able to get behind.”

Ralph McCloud, director of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Catholic Campaign for Human Development, shared with the Georgetown panel that his nephew is paralyzed from having been shot in the back by a police officer. McCloud said his nephew’s crime was simply being a black man who had walked away from the police.

“I would hate to live in a country where we all saw what happened to George Floyd and nothing happened, and we didn’t see the kind of outcry or public witness we’re seeing now,” said McCloud, who added that the Floyd video made him physically ill to the point he almost fainted.

“It kind of affirmed in a way for me the protection the system often (gives) for those persons who abuse folk for no other reason than because of their race,” McCloud said.

Archbishop Gregory said the Floyd video brought back memories from when his parents took him as a boy to the viewing of Emmit Till, a 14-year-old black boy who in 1955 was brutalized, lynched and mutilated in Mississippi for the alleged offense of whistling at a white woman. Till’s parents insisted on an open-casket viewing to shock the world’s conscience.

“I remember as a younger man being overwhelmed by the awful event,” Archbishop Gregory said, “but also it was one of those moments that as a young black person, parents had to give you the talk — how do you perform, how do you respond, how do you behave when you’re in such a precarious situation?”

Danielle Brown, the associate director of the USCCB’s Ad Hoc Committee Against Racism, told Our Sunday Visitor that Floyd’s death underscored the often exhausting reality of what it is like to be a black and brown-skinned person in the United States.

“There’s just this level of discomfit to be a person of color that you’re constantly faced with, but you become so used to it that you get conditioned to being on your guard,” said Brown, who added that people the world over “have just had it” with the continued racial injustices.

“People are done,” Brown said. “They’re protesting in these countries and are walking to the U.S. embassies saying, ‘United States, do something.’ This is no longer a person of color issue. This is a matter of national diplomacy where other nations are saying, ‘U.S., you need to put up or shut up.'”

The role of Catholics

The nation’s Catholics can play an important role in fostering racial healing, reconciliation and justice, according to the leaders who spoke with Our Sunday Visitor. Brown encouraged the faithful to read the bishops’ statements against racism, including the most recent document, the 2018 pastoral letter titled “Open Wide Our Hearts: The Enduring Call to Love.”

“I think it’s important to underscore for people to know what the bishops have really said. The bishops have not been silent on this,” said Brown, who also emphasized the centrality of prayer in the struggle for greater racial justice.

“It’s almost shameful the extent to which people completely disregard prayer,” Brown said. “I’ve heard people say, ‘The ‘time is up for talk and prayer.’ To an extent, but if everyone was truly praying about this problem, full-heartedly, I think there would be a pivot that would be noticeable.”

Brown added: “We cannot see racism as the only problem that is outside of the seismic power of God to change hearts and heal nations.”

Black Catholic leaders said that white Catholics can also build bridges with their black and brown-skinned brothers and sisters in Christ. That entails the hard work of listening, sharing experiences, reflecting on one’s own behavior and culpability in reinforcing racially unfair social dynamics. In some cases, it may even challenge some in the white Catholic community to think about what steps or sacrifices they would be willing to make to advance justice for people of color.

“I think we need leadership from the white Catholic community to come forward. I don’t think the black community can do this by itself,” said Auxiliary Bishop Perry of Chicago, who added that he favors seeing small groups gather for people to delve into discussions where they can become aware of how their outlooks on race were formed by what they overheard in the kitchen while growing up.

“There’s an old African proverb,” Bishop Perry said. “When an African child in the village does not feel the warmth of the village and its acceptance, that child grows up to burn down the village in order to feel its warmth.”

Said Bishop Perry, “I think a sense of understanding and empathy is what’s called for right now.”

Brian Fraga is a contributing editor for Our Sunday Visitor.

Brian Fraga

Brian Fraga writes from Massachusetts.