I read this six months ago and thought to do a post about racism in America, but it never happened. Since my colleague Jeannine has thoughtfully raised the subject in her most recent post, I decided to share this. Edward K. Braxton is the bishop of Belleville in southern Illinois. He was originally a priest of the archdiocese of Chicago; I knew him slightly 30 years ago when he was head of Calvert House, the Catholic center at the University of Chicago. (I say slightly as I became very close instead with one of his assistants, a Franciscan friar studying for a Ph.D. in medieval theology.)
Last December, for the World Day of Prayer for Peace, he wrote a pastoral letter for his diocese on the subject of the racial divide in America. It is a long document and I do not have the time to summarize it with any justice. As I did in a previous post, I suggest you just read it. It is a lot shorter than the encyclical Laudato Si’, but it is almost certainly going to make you uncomfortable. I will quote just one passage, where he describes his own interactions with the police:
Before we continue, let me add a personal note. I am not a completely impartial outside observer in the face of these events. I have had two personal experiences with law enforcement officers that made me very conscious of the fact that simply by being me, I could be the cause of suspicion and concern without doing anything wrong. The first experience was when I was a young Priest. The second was when I was already a Bishop. In both cases I was not in clerical attire. I was dressed informally.
In the first experience, I was simply walking down a street in an apparently all-White neighborhood. A police car drove up beside me and the officer asked, “What are you doing in this area? Do you live around here? Where is your car? You should not be wandering around neighborhoods where you do not live.” I never told him I was a Catholic Priest, but I wondered what it was I was doing to attract the attention of the officer? This was long before I heard the expression, “walking while Black.”
In the second experience, I was driving in my car in an apparently all-White neighborhood with two small chairs in the back seat and a table in the partially open trunk tied with a rope. A police car with flashing lights pulled me over. The officer asked, “Where are you going with that table and those chairs? Before I could answer, he asked, “Where did you get them? Then he said, “We had a call about a suspicious person driving through the area with possibly stolen furniture in his trunk.” I wondered what I was doing to make someone suspicious. Many years would pass before I would hear the expression “racial profiling.”
This is an important witness to a near universal phenomenon: Blacks and Latinos, particularly Black and Latino men, have their lives and perceptions shaped by these kinds of incidents. As I have indicated in a recent commbox, it has happened to me. And any discussion of race in America must start by acknowledging this shared experience.