Bishop Braxton on Racism

Bishop Braxton on Racism July 1, 2015

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.

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  • Alexandra

    We do need to talk about racism, perhaps especially because it makes so many so uncomfortable. We have to acknowledge the systemic racism that would make a black man seem dangerous, simply because of his ethnicity and skin color. Until we acknowledge this mind-boggling racism, we will not be able to eradicate it. And we MUST eradicate it; how can we call ourselves Christians if we do not?

    • Thank you for your comment, Alexandra. You are right – we MUST eradicate it.

  • Thales

    I first have to say that the Bishop’s reflections are very important. Some very good, thoughtful, and prayerful comments. I was very impressed with his study guide, and his invitation for group discussion and prayer on these important issues. If we could implement the Bishop’s suggested techniques for discussing these matters, we would be much better off and well on our way to healing.

    The Bishop is obviously a very thoughtful and prayerful man. His initial 10 observations in Section II are fantastic, a must-read. Section IV is great stuff. The Section V on eliminating the expressions “minorities” and “minority groups” was interesting. I think I was under the impression that these terms were chosen and preferred by the “minority groups” themselves, and not perpetuated by “majority” groups or institutions, but maybe I’m wrong? Regardless, I whole-heartedly agree with the Bishop’s thoughts on eliminating the terms. Section VI is another fantastic, must-read section. Great stuff.

    A couple of random thoughts, including a couple of things that I’m sad to say gave me pause.

    1. Regarding his two personal anecdotes, I comment with caution, as I am sensitive that personal experiences are just that—personal—and that I can in no way full appreciate what the person felt or experienced because I simply was not there and was not in that person’s shoes at that time. But I had a couple of thoughts: I found it interesting that he noted that these things happened when he was dressed informally and not in clerics. I wonder if he thinks that these things would have happened if he was wearing clerics. Perhaps so. But I suspect the Bishop would concede that things would have happened differently if he was in clerics. This is not to negate that race probably had a part in the suspicion against him or that the suspicions were unjustified, but only to observe that attire may have been a factor too.

    A related thought: Since being falsely suspected of shoplifting years ago, I always mindful when shopping of not acting suspiciously when I’m in a store (open demeanor, not with hoodie over my head hiding my face, not rummaging in bags, etc.), so as to avoid someone thinking that I’m shoplifting (Does anyone else do that or am I the only one?) Attire, demeanor, and actions contribute to a person’s suspicions.

    Also, the second story the Bishop shares doesn’t sound to me like an instance of “white police unjustly racially-profiling a black suspect.” It sounds to me like some other unknown person unjustly suspected a black man and then called the police reporting a person with stolen furniture in vehicle, and the police acted appropriately by responding to a complaint and checking out a vehicle carrying furniture. I suppose the police could have been lying about the phone call and the reason for pulling the Bishop over, but I didn’t sense that implication from the Bishop’s account.

    A final observation: I’m not black, but I’ve experienced the situation where (as the Bishop writes) “simply by being me, I could be the cause of suspicion and concern without doing anything wrong.” When I was 13 or 14, our neighbors asked for a babysitter for their baby and toddler. My sister (who was a year and a half younger) and I went over to babysit the neighbor’s kids. Afterwards, the neighbors told my parents that they were okay with my sister babysitting, but not with me. At the time, I was stunned, because it was my first experience of being distrusted as a possible pervert—something that I would have never dreamed of in a million years. I know understand what my neighbors were thinking, and I can’t blame them. And that still happens: when I bring my children to the playground I’ve learned to avoid interacting with other children who are not my own, after an incident where a woman with great concern ran up to me when I was assisting her daughter to get on a swing at the daughter’s request. Does it hurt to be suspected as a potential pervert or child abuser? Sure. But sometimes that’s the way the things are.

    2. I was very saddened to see the Bishop misunderstand the facts on some of the racial events he describes. He groups the Trayvon Martin case as another instance of “young African-American males” and “White representatives of law enforcement” and says Zimmerman is white. [sigh] Zimmerman is not white—he’s Hispanic. And his background showed many instances of positive relationships and interactions with blacks. The Bishop is obviously a thoughtful person, cautions against media bias and sensationalism, and cautions against jumping to unfair generalizations…. so how could he possibly think that Zimmerman was another example of a white-black racial event? It’s a good reminder to continued humility and caution in dealing with these difficult matters, when even the Bishop, who is so good throughout his statement in advising caution and understanding, can mistakenly fall for a false narrative.

    There are some other factual misunderstandings that make me sad. The Bishop says “The police told him not to pursue Mr. Martin on foot. However, he did.” That’s not true: listen to the phone call; Zimmerman complied with the operator’s instructions. The Bishop is confused about “stand your ground” not allowing police to arrest and charge Zimmerman—“stand your ground” was not a relevant issue in this case, and obviously Zimmerman was arrested and charged and went to trial. There was an eyewitness, at least of the tussle before the shooting—not “no eyewitnesses.” The Bishop is also confused about the lesser charge issue—the jury did consider the lesser charge of manslaughter. And the Bishop is misunderstanding the import of the Angela-Corey-affidavit-method—this method was hailed as a positive by Trayvon Martin supporters because it pushed the prosecution of Zimmerman forward to a trial, avoiding the grand jury step which might have thrown out the case (like they did in the Michael Brown case). Speaking of the Brown case, the Bishop doesn’t seem to recognize that the “Hands up!” allegation was not true. And I think it’s significant that the grand jury and the Holder’s Department of Justice eventually cleared the police officer. (This whole section kind of read at times like the Bishop had gathered the account from some other blog or report or article, that unfortunately, didn’t have all the facts. It’s clear that the Bishop is a thoughtful person who is not partisan blinded to one side or another—consider his discussion of Antonio Martin shooting and recognition that sometimes police act properly even with regretful deadly results, and his discussion of the horrific racial murder of the police officers by the mentally unstable black man.)

    I’m sad, because I think these mistakes undermine the great stuff the Bishop is saying. Racism is such an evil and it is such a source of pain, that caution has to be used, due to the danger of people and incidents being labeled unjustly as “racist” and the danger of stoking the fires of revenge with no good cause. At the same time, racism is a real scourge (Exhibit A, the church shooting), and the Bishop’s main points are fantastic for starting to deal with this scourge.

    • Alexandra

      Just for the record: “Hispanic” is not a race, or an ethnicity, or a nationality. It’s the kind of arbitrary grouping together of a variety of people, for someone’s convenience, about which Bishop Braxton writes when he discusses the uses of the terms majority” and minority”.
      I think that it’s helpful to take what the Bishop writes as being valid on its face. From my perspective it is not helpful to second-guess the reality of another. If one reads the literature, it becomes apparent that people with dark skin are treated very differently from those with fair skin. An interesting book to read in this regard is The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander.

      • >Just for the record: “Hispanic” is not a race, or an ethnicity, or a nationality. It’s the kind of arbitrary grouping together of a variety of people…

        Technically, I believe “Hispanic” is a linguistic grouping, precisely analogous to “Arabic”.

        Of course, in both cases, many stereotypes accrue to the grouping, and so both are often *treated* as if they are a racial grouping in social and public discourse.

        When I attended a Hispanic Heritage mass celebrated by my Catholic parish a couple years ago, I was amazed — and then embarrassed that I was amazed — at the richness and diversity of national origin represented in our Hispanic community. The commonality of language enables it to indeed function as a single community, but at the same time obscures its diversity from the superficial gaze of us Anglos.

        • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

          And to complicate things: it is not a monolithic linguistic bloc: Brazilians do not speak Spanish and a substantially minority of “Hispanics” descended from Spanish speaking ancestors speak only English, or speak it as their primary language with much more limited functionality in Spanish. (This is treated beautifully in Cheech Marin’s “Born in East LA.”) Also many Hispanics identify as white, just to make things more exciting.

    • trellis smith

      Thanks for sharing Thales

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO


      thank you for a long and thoughtful response. I want to respond to a few things, though I am not going to get into the details of either Michael Brown or Trayvon Martin—my only comment on them is that it is worth reflecting on why the interpretation of the facts in both cases (and in this case, with conflicting witnesses and partial accounts, interpretation is critical) seems to split so strongly on racial lines. I am not saying it is a perfect divide, but it is very strongly correlated.

      On Bishop Braxton’s experiences with the police, I want to make a couple comments that I hope will help clarify what he writes. I think he makes the point about appearing in mufti because a clerical collar grants him a situational identity that in some sense subordinates his racial identity. A good example of this comes from the experiences of a black Marine Corps recruiter who was assigned to South Boston—a poor white neighborhood known to be hostile to blacks. The author of the book (a WSJ reporter if I remember correctly) asked him if he ever had any problems while on duty down there. He said the only problem he had was ex-marines trying to drag him into bars and buy him a drink (forbidden while on duty). The reporter then asked if he had ever gone back, off duty and out of uniform, and the marine just laughed and said he never would. So Bishop Braxton is highlighting his dress because he wants to make clear that his professional/religious identity (priest or bishop) did not factor at least initially, to how he was treated.

      You are right to see some nuance in the second incident, but the point the Bishop is making is that the police were called because he was black—it is not that the police themselves were profiling him, but rather that he was being profiled and the police were being used as instruments of a race based fear.

      Your point about being accused of shoplifting is a good one, but the key point for this discussion is that, in the experience of many blacks. the ONLY thing they do that provokes suspicion is that they are black. They are not acting in suspicious manner, they are not dressed inappropriately: it is their blackness that generates fear and suspicion.

  • I hosted a small Twitter chat on this letter in January. This blog post includes the discussion questions we used for the chat, as well as links to a storified version of the chat and a number of resources suggested by participants for further reading and discussion of racism in the Catholic church.

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

      Thanks for sharing!

  • Julia Smucker

    I just read through Bishop Braxton’s letter and am feeling a bit shell-shocked, for lack of a better word. For me I think it had the intended effect – or maybe it’s better to say that that remains to be seen. But in the immediate at least, I am not left feeling guilted for the accidents of my own birth, which would probably leave me feeling somewhat resentful; nor am I even feeling righteous anger over other people’s sins. I suppose what I’m feeling after reading the letter is just saddened, in ways I’m finding hard to define at the moment. I may have to reflect more on his argument for eliminating “minority” terminology, and I am wondering whether my brother Thales may have misread him on a couple of points, although I don’t question the sincerity of his lament over the evil of racism. I’m open to continuing the conversation later with this shared lament as a starting point. But for now I think I need to go pray a rosary.

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

      Please come back, either here in the comments or in a post of your own.. This is a hard subject that deserves much prayerful reflection on our part.

      • Julia Smucker

        Well, I was thinking of responding to Thales along pretty much the same lines you did: about clerics as a possible mitigating factor weighing against racial stereotypes, rather than normal clothes as giving him some part of the blame somehow; and about the difference between the two profiling anecdotes as to whether or not it was directly on the part of the police, which is a factually correct distinction but doesn’t make either experience any less fundamentally unjust.

        The one other thing I was thinking is that Bishop Braxton did in fact acknowledge the questionability of the “hands up” accounts. But then, having no clearer knowledge of the facts of this or any of the other incidents than anyone else whose access to them is filtered through a smorgasbord of ideological options, I’m wary of getting into the moral minefield of those speculation games. Bishop Braxton may have done a better job than many (right or left) simply by virtue of his up-front honesty about the inevitability of bias.

  • Regarding the question of how to interpret this or that particular report by a person of color about an interaction that might or might not have been racist, I’d like to offer my blogpost on Ferguson, Intersectionality, and Occam’s Big Paisley Tie.

  • Thales

    David and Julia

    David, I agree with your point that dress can subordinate racial identity. (This prompts a thought — if someone’s perceptions change because of dress, doesn’t that tend to show that the person is not motivated by racism? Because if the person was racist, dress wouldn’t change perceptions? We don’t need to discuss this now, because it’s whole new and different debate that detracts from the Bishop’s important thoughts on how to address racism.)

    Re: why interpretations of the Michael Brown and Trayvon Martin incidents split on racial lines. I think I understand why they do. Racism/unjust racial profiling is real, blacks have experienced it while whites haven’t, so when blacks hear about an episode that appears to correlate to actual instances of racial injustice in the past that they have encountered, they interpret the episode one way; while whites who have never experienced racism will interpret the episode in a different (and perhaps inaccurate) way. I get that. But that just gives even greater reason to proceed cautiously when discussing the facts of certain episodes. The Bishop is obviously one who is very thoughtful and mindful on this issue — see his initial observations #1, #2, and #7. Julia, I agree that later on in his account, the Bishop does mention the questionability of the “hands up” accounts, which I appreciate. And I suppose that the Bishop was writing before additional facts were determined and before Eric Holder’s Department of Justice finished their investigation essentially finding no racism, and so the Bishop didn’t have the benefit of these findings.

    So set the Michael Brown case aside. I’m still completely bewildered why the Bishop thinks Trayvon Martin case was a white-black racial episode. It’s important to proceed cautiously when discussing specific episodes (and the Bishops knows that and generally does that — see above). Racism is real and it’s a grave evil that needs to be addressed. But misidentifying an episode as racist hurts that goal because it undermines the argument against racism by giving the person who incorrectly thinks that racism is not a problem reason to dismiss the argument — not to mention the fact that it’s a calumny on the person involved in the episode and his/her family.

    Re: the Bishop’s second incident. I agree that the Bishop was unjustly profiled by the person making the phone call to the police. I just thought it a little odd for the Bishop not to make that more explicit, since a dominant theme throughout the article was interactions between blacks and white law enforcement, and here was an instance where law enforcement seemed to be acting properly (with the anonymous reporter being the one engaging in unjust racial profiling).

    Re: David’s last point about blacks experiencing a reality that I have never experienced: being black generating suspicion. I agree with the point.

  • James Cover

    Turn your other cheek. Love your enemies. Pray for those who hate you. Isn’t this what Christians are supposed to do?

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

      Yes, but turning the other cheek does not mean turning a blind eye to the sin of racism. Nor does it mean standing by while others are treated with less than the dignity they deserve.

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