Some Thoughts on Recent Tragedies and Racial Tensions

Whats Your StoryFor some twenty-four of my twenty-seven years as a priest I have lived in and ministered to largely African-American parishes and communities. It has been a great blessing to me spiritually, liturgically, and personally.

As you may imagine, I get a lot of questions from people when racially charged events appear in the news. I’m asked what my parishioners think as well as what I think.

This past week began with the death of two African-American men, Philando Castile and Alton Sterling, in interactions with the police. Their deaths are certainly tragic and appear prima facie to be unnecessary, even possibly criminal. And while the investigations into the circumstances must continue, the videos are nevertheless horrible to watch. Add to this a long string of recently publicized deaths under similar conditions and the result is a widespread, deeply held belief among African-Americans that the weapons of law enforcement are too quickly drawn, guilt is too easily presumed, and deadly solutions are too frequently the recourse when the dispatcher notes that the subject is a black male.

The week ended with the tragic shooting death of five police officers and injury of several others. These officers had no connection with the questionable deaths earlier in the week other than the blue uniforms they wore. Whatever injustices police in other cities may have committed, the shooting of the Dallas policemen was an egregious crime that will likely set back any reasonable discussions on these matters for a long time. Violent responses only encourage more injustice and more violence. Absolutely no one is helped by this act of declared vengeance by the assailant, a man who does not deserve to be named.

In the midst of all of this, how should we respond? Something tells me that the first step is to stop and really listen to one another.

Not a Spokesman – Although I have pastored in and been immersed in the African-American community for many years, I often humorously note, “I’ve been white all my life.” I cannot begin to know the depths of what it feels like to be African-American in a country with a history like ours. I am not, and cannot be, a spokesman for the black community. And thus I resist answering those who ask me what my parishioners think. My response can only be inadequate.

But I can say that I have learned to listen and simply to accept the experiences of others, experiences that often surprise me because I’d like to think we’ve made more progress than what I hear. My parishioners are people whom I trust and I will not doubt their experiences just because they aren’t mine, or because I think America isn’t or shouldn’t be like that. Our parishioners have varied backgrounds. Many are college-educated. Some are government employees; some own their own businesses. Some work in healthcare: doctors, nurses, or nursing home staff. Others are teachers, lawyers, or work on Capitol Hill. Still others have IT-related jobs, work in retail, or are involved in real estate. Although some of our parishioners are poor, overall my parish is an upper-middle-class African-American parish. With 600 in attendance (120 of whom are children), the offertory alone is almost a million dollars per year; other donations amount to another 200,000. We are not a poor, black, inner-city parish by any definition.

Despite this, most of my parishioners (many of whom earn six figures) can attest to the ongoing frustration of “driving while black,” “shopping while black,” and “hailing a taxi while black.” A man in my parish who is nearly sixty and a professional with a job on K Street, rejoices that Uber has arrived; prior to that it was very difficult for him to get a cab. He once filmed his attempts. Empty taxi after empty taxi drove right past him only to stop further up the block to pick up another patron, usually white and/or female.

Stories like this shock me. I think to myself that this can’t possibly still be going on in America. But these are people I trust and have lived with for a long, long time; they are not fired-up activists looking for trouble. They are talking about experiences that are realities for them. I once took a walk with an African-American deacon from a nearby Catholic parish. He was wearing trousers and a button-down shirt—ordinary, “respectable” clothing. We stepped into a store and he said to me, “Now watch. I am the ‘face of crime.’ We’re going to get extra scrutiny.” Dubious, I kept a little distance from him so that I could observe. Sure enough, that extra scrutiny was subtle but undeniably there.

Many African-Americans have also experienced problems with their treatment by the police. This is not to say that every interaction with law enforcement is bad every time. But it is common enough that many African-Americans do not have the same level of trust in the police that white Americans do. The widespread anger in the black community is not artificially created by activists or by the media; even if they at times light the fuse, the powder keg comes from past experiences and from events that are still happening today.

This may not be your experience or mine. We tend to doubt the experiences of others, especially when they are different from ours. But the point is that these are the experiences of many, if not most, African-Americans.
The first step in listening is to accept the stated experiences of many African-Americans without discounting or doubting them, to respectfully acknowledge them. A respectful reply could be as simple as saying, “I’m sorry that this has happened to you in the past and still continues in our country. Thank you for telling me so that I can better understand.”

White Americans also have experiences with race that are painful. In fact, one of the greatest difficulties in this time of political correctness is that many of the feelings and experiences of white Americans are excoriated and/or disallowed. In some sense they are not even allowed to express them at all without being shamed or sidelined.

There is much dismay and fear among many white Americans at the soaring rate of crime in poor neighborhoods, the high rate of black-on-black crime, and the further breakdown of African-American families. There is also a frustration when, despite the emergence of a strong black middle-class in many regions and the election (and reelection) of an African-American president, many activists minimize progress and still label the United States a racist country.

Most white Americans do not simply lay this at the feet of the African-American community. The causes are also seen as rooted in a poorly designed, patronizing welfare system that has undermined poor families, isolated them in housing projects and inferior schools, and locked many into a suffocating cycle of intergenerational poverty.

But again, publicly expressing such thoughts, fears, or experiences is extremely difficult in today’s politically correct culture. And thus resentments simmer and honest conversations about mutual solutions seem impossible.

The terrible, radical act of an isolated gunman has surely not helped the advancement of honest, respectful, candid discussion of our various experiences. But I remain convinced that such conversation is essential. We ought not to doubt or excoriate the experiences of others.

Some will say, “What good will listening do? It’s just a bunch of talk.” Perhaps, but if real listening can take place, maybe better understanding and mutual respect will pave the way to better, more mutually satisfactory solutions. I know it’s big and idealistic, but I think there’s a place for big and idealistic—even in this cynical, decaying culture of ours.

I’m no policy wonk; I’m just a white guy who has loved and ministered to God’s people in largely African-American parishes for a long and wonderful time. There’s something about this long conversation over the years that has fostered mutual respect, love, and understanding. Believe it or not, we actually talk about things other than race! We talk about God and about the stuff of life: family, the death of loved ones, the latest movie, football, the weather, and how bad traffic is getting. People are people.

After all these years I can say to my parishioners, most of whom are African-American, “For you, I am your pastor. With you, I am your brother. From you, I am your son.”

Life lived together can do that. Race gives way to relationships, fears to familial feelings, concerns to commonality, and different experiences to delightful enrichment. It’s a long conversation that isn’t over yet, but that already blesses us.

Thank you, Lord. Help us to listen.

22 Replies to “Some Thoughts on Recent Tragedies and Racial Tensions”

  1. As a white Catholic child growing up in Dallas during the fifties and early sixties, I was oblivious of the Jim Crow era that was transitioning to the desegregation around the time I was in the fifth grade. Since my mother had died when I was 15 months and my father had six kids to raise as a single parent, we had a maid named Alice who we loved and she cared for us and ran the house Monday through Friday while my father was at work right up until my father remarried my mother’s sister when I was five. She sometimes brought her grand daughter over to play with me and my sister. It didn’t seem unusual that many people we knew also had maids right up until Lindon Johnson’s Great Society came along.It wasn’t that they just all quit at the same time, the concept just seemed to quitely fade away. In school, integration transitioned over a period of time from about the time I was in the fifth grade and did not fully integrate until the year after I graduated from highschool when they built a larger highschool to accomodate all students. I have learned much about the history of the past and experienced what has brought us to the present from my perspective of being a privileged white male. I have respected, shared friendships, played sports with and been nextdoor neighbors to many African American people I have grown up with as well as Hispanics. I have listend and discussed the history of the racial divides with African Americans and Hispanics while growing up here in Texas. I have watched the white European/American culture continue to be maligned, excoriated and minimalized by a pandering political class calling for political correctness and understand the sensitivities of minorities to the point where the pope and the secular government is telling me that white culture owes an apology to and ask forgiveness to every radical movement from LBGT, Balck Lives Matter, CAIR, LULAC, La Raza; NOW and the Alinsky socialist elitist in Washington D C stealing us blind of our contitutional rights and freedoms. Kumbaya.

  2. I am a “white guy” who has been the victim of reverse discrimination because of my position, the way I look, the way I talk, the state from which I come, but never because of what I actually thought or did or intended. I have been presumed guilty of racism before without a hearing due, perhaps, to a few bad actors who had very serious personal challenges (one who eventually went to prison after his problem became apparent when he was in a position of power) and executives who, in their lust for power, overreacted in order to secure their future promotions. I was like one of the police officers shot down in Dallas. A kind of soft assassination continues in office politics today when wounded or scarred people get promoted – people who allow their personal shadows, vices and unwarranted paranoia to drive their decisions and actions. Their sickness drives their actions, and they are the walking wounded, too weak to actually lead in a Christian way though they walk around using the Name of the Lord to bless people around the office – a sort of attempt to hide their condition, their intense weakness under the Name of God.

    So now, because of someone else’s racial PTSD, I now have a sort of PTSD where I look to avoid having an employment or business relationship with the walking wounded. It is a prudent thing to do.

    That stated, I know of many African Americans who are quite stable and strong leaders for whom I would be happy to work or with whom I would have a business relationship. But, I ask these gentle persons: would you please refrain from promoting the walking-wounded who may do harm to others? Thank you.

  3. It is terribly unfortunate that bad Blacks give a bad name to good, God-fearing ones. This same mentality applies to other ethnic groups too. Many people think Americans of Italian descent are linked with the mafia or that Hispanics are lazy. Stereotypes and prejudice are never good but people sometimes react more out of fear than out of prejudice. If high crime is linked to certain groups of people, it is easier to categorize them than relate to them on an individual basis.

  4. Thank you for this, Monsignor. I am a black, middle class cradle Catholic, who has always worshipped in white parishes. I often think my fellow pew sitters and my priests have no understanding at all what it is like to be black in America. I really, really appreciate your sensitivity. And I am very much encouraged to turn a listening ear to my many white friends.

  5. While Father brings up many good points, I believe this article inadvertently illustrates one of the difficulties when discussing race in America. The article itself is structured around white-black race relations, but one of the main data used to describe the matter involves a black man’s difficulty in hailing a cab. What percentage of the cab drivers engaging in this activity are actually white and are white cabbies more likely to pass on a black fare than Arabs, Subcontinentals, off-the-boat-Africans, or American blacks?
    This is not to discount the observation, but to say that it might not be wholly relevant to the discussion as it is structured in this article.

    1. In this city most cabbies are currently Ethiopians. You might be very surprised how Ethiopians see themselves in relation to African Americans and to whites. You might want to do a little listening in that department before finalizing this critique. The Berbers, even those that extend to Ethiopia do not see themselves at all like we Americans do. Yes, it is a very interesting study. Careful before you yourself simplify this to white and black. There is a little more going on there.

      1. Monsignor,
        It seems we agree that there is a little more going on here and on rereading my post I realize that I did not express my point very clearly.
        Further, I unfairly cited your article as an example of race discussions in America. While I stand by my assertion that discussions on race in America unaccountably and almost invariably turn black-and-white (pun intended), I also understand that the perspective from which you offered this piece places it beyond such characterization.
        Hopefully I have not distracted the discussion too far – your pieces are always a refreshing read.
        God Bless.

  6. The only answer to these problems is Christ and the traditional teachings of His Church. Unfortunately, the country rejects Him and the descent into chaos will continue as people seek solutions through deceivers like Marx and Mohammed. The absence of the Trinity is Hell.

  7. I could´t agree more with Nate. By the way isn´t racism a form of offense to the 5th commandment?

  8. Thanks again Msgr. Pope. Also, I enjoy hearing your calm, reassuring voice on ESPN broadcasts. Easily recognizable as “Msgr. Pope.” I’ve also heard you at March for Life. God bless you and your continued ministry to all in your parish and throughout our troubled nation. Bad times call for a loving and faith-filled response. You provide that for all of us, so thank you again. One thing I would like to bring up is the issue of mental illness, especially as it affects our military veterans. Clearly more help is needed for the ones, like this young man in Dallas who come home wounded in mind if not body. The number of Americans who served who take their own lives each day is staggering, but how many people know of this tragedy in our midst? The number is over twenty per day! What can be done to help our men and women who served us faithfully and who are affected to the point they would not want to live anymore? This man was one of them, he just happened to take five innocent police officers before his life ended. But the media is not talking about the mass suicide problem among our servicepersons. I guess that’s not as interesting as covering police and Facebook videos. Our media creates more trouble than it ever solves. They pretend to care but are actually evil in stirring the pot on a daily basis. Just my 2 cents.

  9. I attended Mass at Monsignor Pope’s parish in DC about two years ago…it was an experience I will never forget. I felt very welcome among this African-American congregation, and believed that what I was seeing was an incarnation of a properly ordered equality enunciated by St. Paul in 1 Corinthians 12…Unity & Variety, not the false, secular equality which seeks to make everyone and everything UNIFORM.
    There are different kinds of spiritual gifts but the same Spirit;

    there are different forms of service but the same Lord;

    there are different workings but the same God who produces all of them in everyone.

    To each individual the manifestation of the Spirit is given for some benefit.

    Here I saw an authentic cultural expression in the liturgy…a stupendous & exuberant choir; but all applauding the same Truth as in any Orthodox Catholic parish.
    They are lucky to have Monsignor Pope!

  10. I remember visiting your parish, and I loved meeting the people there. I am considered white (though a lot of times I will get mistaken for Latina or mixed because of my southern Italian heritage), and I was welcomed with open arms. I only wished then that your parish was out in the country so that I could go more!

    I am with you that real listening has to take place. I love getting to have deep, real conversations with people about today’s issues in the world. We don’t always have to agree, but in my job I really do have to be open-minded, especially when it comes to why some people do what they do. Do I understand what it’s like to live in a poor neighborhood? No, but I can ask questions and figure out how to help people that do have that struggle. Yes, some people do some truly despicable things, and I will never understand why or how, and I have trouble forgiving those despicable things. I’m a human, too.

    Great post, and it’s interesting to read your perspective on all of this.

  11. Thank you Father for your wise counsel. I am a white man and I think I do understand what some blacks go through to some degree because I went through the reverse in my early life. I went to school in a black neighborhood. There was no school busing, you had to use public transportation and walking. Many times I was chased or beaten up and robbed when caught by groups of blacks. One did not participate in after school activities because it meant you stood out more and had less protection when you went home. On the bright side it was also a good deterrent for not having to go to detention lol. Let me put it this way…..walking while white in a black neighborhood was no picnic either.

  12. Dear Msgr.,
    You have been for years one of my favorite “go-to guys” in matters theological, including its impact people & events in our world. I have a profound respect for your erudition & insights. Perhaps this time, though, I went to the proverbial well once too often. Unless you have access to facts in the Baton Rouge and Falcon Hgts cases the rest of us aren’t privy to, your use of phraseology, “Their deaths are certainly tragic and appear prima facie to be unnecessary, even possibly criminal…questionable deaths…injustices police may have committed..” in the context of the current charged atmosphere pushes the envelope towards rash judgment. The Minnesota video showed nothing that would answer the actual question, namely, what transpired up to & including the shooting. It wasn’t apparent in Louisiana video whether or not the prone suspect was going for and able to obtain a firearm. Yes, he was on the ground, but so was Jamar Clark in Minneapolis, MN (Google his case). Extensive, careful investigation indicated that even though Clark was on the ground with a police officer on top of him, he was making a nearly successful effort to obtain the officer’s firearm. An untrained person viewing the Baton Rouge video on the internet is just not going to be able to render a competent judgment. Yes, a thorough investigation may go so far as to prove that the officers in both MN & LA were angry racists in berserk homicidal rages gratified that they finally found black people to kill (I’m personally not inclined to believe so, however), but can we be a bit more even-handed, and therefore less inflammatory, in our rhetoric?

  13. I did want to compliment Msgr. Pope on another fine piece. Very thoughtful and well balanced. The issue of military veterans and mental health needs to be considered. With many suicides of veterans each day, our country needs to focus on our men and women who once served us and protected us. They have seen horrible things and so many can’t process it all and are left alone with unseen wounds that never fully heal. Msgr. Pope, thank you again for your ministry and compassion for all. I’ve heard you on EWTN radio and always enjoy and learn from you.

  14. I do sympathize with the difficulties faced by black people every day as they go about their lives, often putting up with slights and even outright rejection, never being able to really address the negative reactions of others to their appearance. It’s a painful way to live.

    But something bothers me a great deal about the discussion of race going on right now. This phenomenon of being lumped in with a group because you share similar characteristics to a dangerous population is not something only black people face. Am I just lucky that most white women of my age group don’t have criminal records and most have never even gotten a speeding ticket, much less a felony conviction, so the assumption when I come into a situation is that I am probably harmless? If a lot of white women in my age group were felons with violent criminal records, wouldn’t it be reasonable for someone to be wary of me when I enter a situation, even if in reality I am a reputable citizen and completely harmless? It might be unfair to me, but would it be unreasonable of them? How could I solve that? How could I fix that?

    Because of the pedophilia scandal in the Church, every priest who might want to mentor boys and young men is now suspect. Some people are convinced their children are in danger in any situation where a priest might have contact with their kids. It may not even be reasonable, but it is the perception of many people now, and they avoid priests because of it. Is that fair? How can priests fix that?

    Is this not the same as the problems black people face?

    What bothers me is the current discussion pits blacks against whites, instead of focusing on how ALL people react when in the company of those who they perceive are a danger to them. We have to think of solutions that do not make the emphasis race, but rather focus on how we make judgements as to whether someone is safe to associate with.

  15. I believe that Race relations are worse today than they have been in many years. I would recommend studying the thought of men like SCOTUS justice Clarence Thomas, Dr Ben Carson, Shelby Steele, and Thomas Sowell. They grew up as poor blacks (except Steele), and felt the lash of discrimination. Some were radicalized for a time (e.g., Sowell was a Marxist in graduate school), but, transcended their bitterness. Thomas and Carson are devout Christians. All have a cogent and personal awareness of the problems, an understanding of the causes at various levels of analysis, and real wisdom on solutions.

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