When news came that this year’s Memorial Day weekend was Chicago’s bloodiest in five years, most of the violence affecting communities of color, we had no idea how much worse the week would get.
Eight hundred miles east, a white woman walking her dog through Central Park was asked by a bird-watcher to leash the pet, as required by posted signs. The man happened to be black. She responded by promising to call the police and say that an “African-American man is threatening my life,” treating 911 as a customer-service line.
Twelve hours later and 400 miles northwest of Chicago, a Minneapolis man was arrested for allegedly trying to pass a counterfeit $20 bill. He also happened to be black, but his encounter with a white person on Memorial Day, a police officer, ended differently. He died, after the officer knelt on his neck for about nine minutes — despite the man’s desperate cries for air, and, heartbreakingly, for his late mother. The man’s name was George Floyd. We must never forget it.
“We.” It is a difficult word for white Americans to use in these days when searing anguish, simmering anger, and existential sorrow explode into protest, some of which descends into violence. White people must never pretend that our place is to narrate the experience of non-white Americans, let alone feel justified in simply condemning the violence against black people, or the violence that has sparked from that justifiable outrage.
No one should allow themselves to dismiss the aims of peaceful protesters because some among them exploited the anger by engaging in criminal acts. Nor should we dismiss the legitimate work of first responders and law enforcement, despite the dangerous overreactions of some against protesters and journalists reporting on these demonstrations.
The responsibility of any neighbor, any citizen, especially those of us who profess belief in Jesus Christ, is to do the work of accompanying their brothers and sisters who carry this pain every day of their lives.
That work begins by understanding that when such feelings erupt they do not come from nowhere. They are the consequence of centuries of national racial injustice that began with the inhuman practice of slavery, was re-institutionalized during the Jim Crow era, and continues today with the myriad ways people of color are treated as less-than, or worse.
People of color suffer discrimination and indignities not only from racist individuals, but from the very structures erected by our society that were meant to protect the vulnerable.
Americans must realize that beneath the outrage is the same aspiration all people have to freely pursue a life of meaning and flourishing. The death of George Floyd was not the sole driver of the civil unrest our nation is witnessing today. It just ignited the frustration of a people being told repeatedly in our society: “You don’t matter;’ “You have no place at the table of life” — and this painful frustration has been building since the first slave ships docked on this continent.
This is where our conversation about healing should begin, not with simple condemnations, but with facing facts. We need to ask ourselves and our elected officials: Why are black and brown people incarcerated at higher rates than whites for the same offenses? Why are people of color suffering disproportionately from the effects of the novel coronavirus? Why is our educational system failing to prepare children of color for a life in which they can flourish? Why are we still asking these questions and not moving Heaven and Earth to answer them, not with words, but with the systemic change it will take to finally right these wrongs?
These questions should be particularly troubling to people of faith. As the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops put it in its recent statement on the death of George Floyd and the resulting protests, “We cannot turn a blind eye to these atrocities and yet still try to profess to respect every human life. We serve a God of love, mercy, and justice.”
Citing a recent document on racism, the USCCB went on to say, “As bishops, we unequivocally state that racism is a life issue.”
Indeed, racism and its death-dealing consequences are not just offenses against our brothers and sisters as fellow human beings. They are offenses against God, the father of us all.
And how do people of faith respond when they realize they have offended God? They confess. They acknowledge their sin, express remorse and commit to doing better. But when it comes to slavery, our nation’s original sin, and racism, which continues to enslave in our time, have we done that as Americans? Have we done it as a church? Or have we more often sought comfort in the “over-there-ness” of racist acts and crimes? Have we averted our gaze by pretending that “gang-related violence” and the conditions that make it possible are not really “our problem”?
Other societies have experienced unfathomable offenses against humanity and found ways to engage the history, to admit the crimes, to hold accountable those who committed them and to move toward something resembling reconciliation: the murder of six million Jews by the Nazi regime, the Rwandan genocide, the crimes of South African apartheid. We Americans can do this too. We are well past overdue for such a national reconciliation and the need to account for the history of violence against people of color in this country.
Tragedy does not eradicate hope. If there is anything we Christians take from our faith, it is that even the darkest deeds can be redeemed by love. And love is what is called for now. As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”
Not the love of transactional friendships and cheap associations made by the click of a mouse button or an easy retweet. Signpost solidarity will not do.
Only the hard work of familial love will set us on the path toward justice. The love we read about in Scripture. The love God has for his children, every one of us, even when we fail — especially when we fail.
Because God knows what his children are capable of, not only how we can fail in our humanity, but even more how we can build it up. And it is up to us to show God, to show all our brothers and sisters, the neighbors we know and the ones we will never meet, how deeply we can love.
Cardinal Blase Cupich, Archdiocese of Chicago