Belleville, Ill. — In a 19-page reflection on the "racial divide" in the United States, Bishop Edward Braxton of Belleville, who is African-American, said he twice had been the victim of what he considered to be unjust police attitudes.
The episodes "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," wrote Braxton in "The Racial Divide in the United States: A Reflection for the World Day of Peace 2015," issued Jan. 1.
In the first episode, when Braxton was a priest, "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 about 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," he said. "This was long before I heard the expression, 'walking while black.' "
The second episode, Braxton, by this time a cleric, 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.' "
In neither case was Braxton wearing clerical garb. Even so, "I am not a completely impartial outside observer in the face of these events."
In his "call to Christian dialogue," Braxton alluded to Pope Francis' choice of theme for the 2015 World Day of Peace: "No Longer Slaves, but Brothers and Sisters." In addition to physical bondage, the bishop said, "there are also forms of social, emotional and psychological slavery: slavery to prejudice, racism, bias, anger, frustration, rage, violence and bitterness in the face of systemic injustices. Regrettably, these forms of slavery endure in the United States and they are born from the tragedy of the European 'slave trade.' "
Braxton wrote, "Many young students of history are surprised, even shocked, to learn that Catholic institutions and religious communities 'owned' human beings from West Africa as enslaved workers on their plantations."
He quoted a now-deceased auxiliary bishop of Newark, N.J., Joseph A. Francis, who, when asked why there were so few African-American Catholics, replied, "If you had seen and heard what I have seen and heard, you would not be amazed that there are so few, you would be amazed that there are so many."
The Belleville diocese, headed by Braxton, is directly east of the St. Louis archdiocese, scene of near-constant protests over the police killing in August of unarmed African-American teenager Michael Brown in suburban Ferguson, Mo. With the two dioceses separated by the Mississippi River, Belleville is only 23 miles from St. Louis.
Braxton summarized the killing of Brown, as well as five other African-Americans in recent years: Eric Garner, who died from a New York police chokehold in July; 12-year-old Tamir Rice, shot to death by a Cleveland policeman in November; John Crawford III, who was shot by police inside a Wal-Mart store in Beavercreek, Ohio, in August while he was holding an unpackaged pellet gun he had picked up from a store shelf; Trayvon Martin, whose 2012 killing by Sanford, Fla., neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman brought new scrutiny to "stand your ground" laws; and Oscar Grant III, whose New Year's Day 2009 shooting death at the hands of a Bay Area Rapid Transit policeman resulted in a $2.8 million wrongful death settlement to his family and served as the basis for the movie "Fruitvale Station."
The bishop concluded his reflection with 14 things Catholics could do on race matters. Among them were going to Mass at least one weekday a week to pray for guidance on ways to bridge the racial divide; praying the rosary weekly with one's family for the intention of ending racial conflict and prejudice; examining one's conscience monthly to acknowledge acts that reinforce racial division; initiating an effort to get to know police officers, thanking them for their service and helping young people get to know the police and vice versa; "break the ice, start the conversation" with someone of a different racial background; and watching movies that explore racial issues, mentioning "The Help," "The Butler," "Selma" and "Lincoln." On the topic of slavery, Bishop Braxton recommended "Twelve Years a Slave" over "Gone With the Wind," which, he said, offered "a completely romanticized presentation of what the evil of slavery was actually like."