Editorial: Churches can lead the fight against racism

Members of the Manna Life Center lead an ecumenical prayer service June 19 at the Neighborhood House in Charleston, S.C. (CNS/The Catholic Miscellany/Victoria Wain)

People of faith who want to move beyond the horror and outrage caused by the June 17 slaying of nine people in the basement of the Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C., must learn two hard lessons.

To dismiss this tragedy as a solo event, without context and the work of a "nutcase," feeds into a lie that perpetuates the racism that is engrained in American culture. The Wall Street Journal tried to make this claim in an editorial the day after the shooting, taking President Barack Obama to task for drawing parallels between Emmanuel today and the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham, Ala., in 1963, as "a dark part of our history." The Journal said, "Today the system and philosophy of institutionalized racism identified by Dr. [Martin Luther] King [in 1963] no longer exists." And that's the lie we tell ourselves: that in the United States, race doesn't matter.

On anniversaries this year marking great events like the march on Selma or the passage of the Voting Rights Act, it is easy to congratulate ourselves for the progress we've made and shut our eyes to the facts about promises broken and dreams deferred. We lie to ourselves when we refuse to act on dismal education rates for minority students, on the hyperincarceration of black men, and on the barriers to adequate housing that minorities still face.

TV commentator Jon Stewart spoke eloquently of this June 19, saying our country has "a gaping racial wound that will not heal, yet we pretend doesn't exist."

Removing Confederate flags from state properties and license plates is one symbolic way of beginning to correct the lie we tell ourselves, but we also need bold public policy initiatives to continue the march toward equality that was at its zenith in the civil rights era but has stalled.

People of faith have an additional hard lesson to confront. It is summed up in King's well-known, often-cited adage: Eleven o'clock Sunday morning is the most segregated hour in America. Fifty years after that statement, "eight-in-ten American congregants still attend services at a place where a single racial or ethnic group comprises at least 80% of the congregation," according to Pew Research Center.

Talking about this with Reuters news agency, Michael Emerson, co-author of Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America, said, "Until blacks and whites pray together, U.S. race relations are fundamentally unhealthy. There is no getting around this."

At their recent meeting in St. Louis, the U.S. bishops released a statement on race relations, invoking their historic 1979 pastoral letter, "Brothers and Sisters to Us." The 1979 letter called racial prejudice a grave sin that "defiles the image of God and degrades the sacred dignity of humankind which has been revealed by the mystery of the Incarnation" and called on Catholics to take "decisive action to eradicate [racism] from our society." This is a good start, but far from adequate.

Two groups well-known to most NCR readers, Call to Action and Pax Christi USA, have made confronting racism key planks in their organizational platforms. All church bodies, from parishes and diocesan offices to schools and charity offices -- even Catholic newspapers -- would do well study the work of these two groups in addressing institutional racism.

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