Systemic Racism & Police Violence Against People of Color

Catholic Committee of Appalachia

The Catholic Committee of Appalachia joins with myriad voices being raised in protest of the refusal to indict the white police officers involved in the recent violent deaths of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and others. The homicides of these two unarmed men and the failure of the grand jury system to provide for the possibility of justice reveal that we are not living in a “post-racial” society. These recent events, and increased visibility of widespread harassment of people of color, have, for the first time for many Americans, shined a light on the reality of systemic, racist police violence, a reality that communities of people of color, including Hispanic, Asian, and Native peoples, know all too well.

Our faith in the God of Life compels us to speak. But we are aware of the temptation to speak without listening first, to propose solutions without mourning first, and to reiterate abstract teachings without trembling first before the horror of relentless violence faced by our sisters and brothers.

Like many other voices in our churches, we are tempted to make a plea for peace as we see violence added upon violence. As part of its anti-racism work in the 1990s, CCA issued a statement on prejudice, bias and racism calling for respect and reconciliation among peoples and communities in the context of an intense wave of hate crimes in this country.

Indeed, peace is what all persons and all communities long for. However, we know that peace without justice is a false peace, a farce. In today’s context, in this time of instance after instance of police brutality, yet another call for peace is premature. We cannot help but understand the intensification of racist police violence, and the lack of accountability for the perpetrators, as the systematic, deadly oppression of black women, men, and children. That such continual violence against people of color would come from those charged by society with “keeping the peace” should be an apocalypse—that is, an unveiling— for Americans of the reality of white supremacy and social structures that serve, reinforce, and transmit racism in this country. For those with eyes to see and ears to hear, these events must serve as a revelation that the system is not simply one which is “broken” but otherwise good. Rather, our social and economic structures, our mechanisms of political participation, and our justice system, are all shot through with racism at the core.

When political and ecclesiastical leaders alike call for respect for the legal process and the rule of law in such a context, we are reminded of the words of the prophet Ezekiel: “[T]hey led my people astray, saying, “Peace!” when there is no peace” (Ezekiel 13:10). We think, too, of the words of Pope Francis on the relationship between violence and injustice:

“[U]ntil exclusion and inequality in society and between peoples are reversed, it will be impossible to eliminate violence. The poor and the poorer peoples are accused of violence, yet without equal opportunities the different forms of aggression and conflict will find a fertile terrain for growth and eventually explode. When a society – whether local, national or global – is willing to leave a part of itself on the fringes, no political programs or resources spent on law enforcement or surveillance systems can indefinitely guarantee tranquility. This is not the case simply because inequality provokes a violent reaction from those excluded from the system, but because the socioeconomic system is unjust at its root.” (Evangelii Gaudium, no. 59)

Indeed, recent events have revealed to many of us that the faces who represent peace and order in some neighborhoods represent terror and repression in others, especially those inhabited primarily by persons of color. We recall, too, that Jesus was born into a political context ruled by an elite who would not hesitate to slaughter innocent children out of fear of any threat to their power, and that Jesus himself was a victim of Roman political violence, a lynching sanctioned by the state and designed to terrorize and to keep a colonized and dominated population “in line.” We join with countless persons and communities who explicitly or implicitly invoke the God of Life by insisting loudly and clearly that Black Lives Matter and that people of faith cannot merely keep silence at the foot of the crosses of our crucified sisters and brothers.

In the face of such tragedy, white Christians are confronted and brought back to the heart of Jesus’ message, which is conversion: “Repent, and believe in the gospel” (Mark 1:15). The gospel, the “good news,” that Jesus proclaims is far from abstract, but is rather an announcement of “glad tidings to the poor” and “liberty to captives,” and a call to “let the oppressed go free” (Luke 4:18). All Christians are called to conversion in one way or another, but we believe white Christians are called to a conversion which is both personal and societal, a conversion which confronts our own fears, prejudices, and privileges as well as the social structures which express, transmit, and perpetuate relationships of domination.

Many white Christians continue to need personal conversion from the captivities of fear and prejudice which distort their perception of and relationships with people of color.  Even well-meaning white Christians are tempted to point fingers at others—“He or she is racist, not me.” Relatively few white Christians have really learned to mourn their own complicity or acknowledge their privilege. In general, white Christians have not joined with people of color on the streets at marches and vigils against police brutality and most American churches have remained conspicuously silent in recent weeks. It often remains easier for white Americans to recognize and oppose injustice overseas than it is for people of privilege to acknowledge the oppression and killings taking place across town.

As the personal face of “the system,” white police officers stand in the meeting place of the personal and societal dimensions of racism. Despite the idealized, noble images of police that circulate in our society, our communities’ “peace keepers,” too, are affected by the distortions of personal prejudice and caught up in a racist system and culture, all the while given access to deadly means of dominating vulnerable persons.  The institutions and practices of policing thus represent a place where personal and societal conversion is imperative.

The ongoing intensification of race related violence in our society must be turned around, and the personal views of white Christians in relation to this violence are in need of conversion. The confusion exhibited by many in comfortable society to the anger, looting and disquiet on the nightly news reveals a great disconnect within American society.  While rejecting the possibility of redemptive violence, CCA recognizes and regrets the fact that in many neighborhoods counter-violence in response to violent oppression is the only expression of frustration and anger which seems to garner the attention of people of privilege.

Here in Appalachia, we acknowledge the need for societal conversion particular to our region. We recognize and mourn a regional proneness to and history of racism rooted in and connected to historical racial division and ghettoization, a lingering male “machismo,” and an often racially-charged individualistic gun culture. And yet these realities, too, are complex, as large portions of the Appalachian region know what it is to be misunderstood, denigrated and mocked while at the same time struggling with poverty, addiction and hopelessness.

We insist that white Christians open themselves to the voices and experiences of people of color to be confronted by the reality of their personal and cultural assumptions and prejudices. Those who are already convinced that racism is sin, especially, must be open to deeper conversion. In the Gospel of Mark we learn that even Jesus was confronted with his own prejudice and distance from others and underwent a kind of conversion. When a Syrophonecian woman, a Gentile, begs Jesus to expel a demon from her daughter, Jesus replies with an insult, insisting that his mission is to the Jews, not to the Gentiles: “[I]t is not right to take the food of the children and throw it to the dogs” (7:27). The woman replies “Lord, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s scraps” (7:28), and in that human encounter, Jesus is challenged to change his mind. It could be argued that this encounter was part of a gradual radicalization of Jesus’ teaching that we see in later chapters which describe a complete overhaul of social relations (e.g. chapter 10). Far from presenting a negative image of the Lord, the story rather portrays Jesus as one who shows us what it means to be a person open to growth and increased intimacy with others.

We are called to the kind of conversion that Jesus demonstrated—conversion of both our hearts and our social structures and economies. We are called to interrogate our own attitudes and those aspects of our culture that we still believe are self-evidently “good” by listening to the experiences of those labeled “other,” especially those who are hurting the most by the way our society is structured both socially and economically. Societal conversion must include the recognition that a complete renovation is necessary. As it is, the current system constructs, preserves, and transmits white privilege and domination, and mystifies them in such a way that the vision of white persons is clouded from seeing social relationships for what they are.

CCA recommits to the praxis of listening first to the most marginalized and making a preferential option to see reality and take action from this perspective. CCA calls for:

•    bishops, priests, religious, and lay leadership in the church to actively resist and challenge racist attitudes and social structures lest the institutional church become a facet of the religious wing of the structures of white supremacy;

•    churches that move beyond a necessary denunciation of the sinful structures of racism toward the annunciation of the new social reality of the Kin-dom of God by becoming true places of inclusion and instruments for the transformation of society;

•    a national and local politics that embodies the characteristics of God’s Kin-dom, originating not in the fear of the other but in the desire for authentic human encounters which transgress boundaries and affirm difference;

•    the immediate demilitarization of community police forces, a rejection of the assumption that killing is justified by the very nature of the work of the police, and a reorientation of the practice of policing toward nonviolence and restorative justice;

•    the support of peoples’ movements which encourage forms of community and economic life that are truly participatory and radically democratic as the only way beyond division, marginalization, and exclusion.

The Catholic Committee of Appalachia joins with people of faith and other persons of good will in prayerful desire for the radical transformation of local, national, and global systems of domination in all of their forms. In this holy Christmas season, we greet the coming of the Prince of Peace and pray for his peace in our communities. But in our Christmas joy, we remain an Advent people who know our Messiah, too, as the Sun of Justice (Malachi 4:2). As we pray for peace, we continue to demand and await his justice for all vulnerable communities that still long for his coming.