Systemic Sins Matter: Coming to Terms with Racial Injustice in Society

The news seems to be flooded these days of terrible updates. From killer viruses to murder hornets, we find ourselves afraid to leave our doorsteps. Perhaps we have been now called to focus upon yet another disease eating away at us, one which has gone on too long without being taken seriously enough, or excused as simply “one off” incidences which bear no connection to a deeper stream of consciousness or trend within our society. I believe the time has come to come to terms with the hard fact that racism has never gone away, and it continues to fuel injustices and sometimes atrocities.

By now, we have all heard of the shooting of Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia, a black jogger murdered by white gunmen, only to be followed up just now by the death of George Floyd, a black man who was arrested on a counterfeiting charge and, after his initial resistance, held down by a police officer for eight, knee upon the neck, even after Floyd had complied and begged to be let up, struggling to breathe. These are just the latest in a stream of cases that have emerged over the years involving violence and racial profiling. This is true not just in big ways that end in tragedy, but also in smaller ways that easily have taken a turn for the worst.

For example, there is a news story about armed white men storming to a black neighbor’s home in search of a missing white girl, and the mother having to push her son away for fear that his mere presence might be seen as an “aggression.” It turned out, the girl was at a friend’s house, but no arrests were made on the men who perpetrated this threatening behavior. Most recently, a black man bird-watching at a park asked for a white woman to leash her dog, as the park rules dictated, and when she wouldn’t comply, tried to lure the dog off the grass with treats. This caused her to go on an unstable screed, and call the police claiming that “an African-American man” had threatened her life and her dog’s life.

Ironically, on the same day that I was having dinner with my black friend from Georgia at an Olive Garden near where I live, there was another Olive Garden in Indiana at which a white customer refused service from a black waitress, then screamed for and demanded a white waiter, to which her manager complied, instead of telling the noxious customer to take a hike. On that note, I would like to share one of several incidents related to me by that friend, showing the strange cross-section of a lock-down world and the widening gaps of prejudice that become evident as a result.

During the course of this pandemic and the precautions put in place to prevent its spread in his city, his mom was leaving from the back of their house, into the lane that runs behind it, and into their street, so that she could go to the grocery store. At the end of the lane closest to them, there was another car and a police cruiser. His mom was told by the police officer that she could not be driving down the lane because of a local ordinance that forbids the use of lanes as thoroughfares, but of course, if you live there, you use them to access and leave the back of your house. His mom asked the officer how she could use the lane to access their house if she’s not allowed to use it, and told him that she lived there.

The officer, with surprise on his face, asked “YOU LIVE ON *THIS* STREET?” and his mom said “Yes!”

He continued to have a disapproving look, and she asked pointedly, “Is it because I’m black that you don’t think I live on this street?” He then looked at her awkwardly, and told her she couldn’t drive forward, for she would be interrupting police business, so she then backed up and turned around to go in the opposite direction.

She believes she was likely profiled and that the officer wouldn’t have made such assumptions, nor raised such suspicions, of their neighbors. Indeed, all he had to do was ask her to turn around and go the other way. This is not a one-off happenstance. The same friend’s father had an experience when trying responding to a call for rent, when the person who posted the ad insisted the space had already been taken. However, when he had a white friend call to double-check, the man then said that the space was vacant.

The point of the matter is these incident really and truly does happen on a fairly regular basis, and can potentially have dangerous, or even deadly, consequences for innocent people being racially profiled by those who assume they shouldn’t be somewhere they are, because, in essence, black and brown people are automatically assumed to be “low end” or “up to no good” in a predominately white section of town. I have heard similar stories from other friends, most of them young men, of Hispanic, Arab, and South-East Asian descent, who find themselves suspect of being “thugs” or “terrorists” just because of what they look like. I genuinely do worry about them, and I am frustrated that I live in a society in which such worries are warranted.

I’ll be perfectly honest, as a white woman who has never had to experience this first-hand, it took me a while to come to understand that these types of incidences really are pandemic. For a long while, I thought this was simply “one off” instances, or misunderstandings. I still think its important to be careful not to rush to conclusions and weigh all evidence with balance, because misunderstandings still can and do happen, involving well-intentioned individuals. But it has become quite apparent to me that something is systemically screwed up in our society, and it puts my friends of different races in a constant state of apprehension, particularly around the police. Even getting pulled over for the most minor of offenses has resulted in friends calling me up to have as a stand by witness in case things go due south.

I myself have always been taught to have an ample sense of caution around armed authorities, and never to move my hands the wrong way if I’m pulled over in a car and given a ticket, as one wrong move could result in being “misinterpreted” and winding up shot. This brings up another whole topic about the way our police system works, and if the prospect of instant death for a speeding ticket is really best for a healthy citizen-law enforcement relationship. When I was in the UK, I did not experience this same sense of concern over the possibility that a police officer might gun me down for a minor misunderstanding because, quite simply, they don’t carry firearms in the same way and have different training.

I want to clarify that I believe the vast majority of the men and women in our police forces are good people, trying their best to do a very difficult job. I have interacted with many of them in my own community, of many races (White, Black, Hispanic, etc.), and have a keen appreciation that they are human beings just like the rest of us, who lay their own lives on the line to keep us safe, and thus should never be broad-stroked, anymore than all Catholic priests should be blamed for the abusers in their ranks. That having been said, I believe the entire law enforcement system is in need of reform, especially in areas where abuse can be most highly perpetrated, particularly in minority or mixed communities.

I also believe we need to put ever-increasing pressure on our leaders to put their nose to the grind stone and have serious discussions about the place and purpose of firearms in our country, and it what areas they become more of a detriment than a benefit. I do not claim to have all the answers on that front, nor that I want to take away legitimate gun ownership, but what I do know is that the series of mass shootings, in addition to issues of police shootings, is untenable for a society to just bear up under indefinitely without making any substantial attempts to reform policies, ensuring that a balance is struck between responsible carrying and societal security.

I would not have come to this understanding about the struggle of minorities in particular if it had not been friends who told me their first-hand experiences and made me realize just how much stress and strain it puts them through, worrying that making a wrong move with the police may get them arrested or even killed because may be assumed guilty before proven innocent due to the color of their skin. No amount of polemic could have gotten through to me like their personal stories could have, which I feel is one of the things lacking in our society. We hear people shouting rhetoric, and it all sounds hyperbolic, but if we hear someone leveling with us from a place of trust, then anyone who is open to the truth will hear and respond.

We need to open our eyes to systemic racism, as well as individual racism, which can fester within good people even on a subliminal level. It’s easy to allow long-seated prejudices and assumptions to take root in our minds, especially given the long and disturbing history of slavery, segregation, and racial conflict. We have come a long way from where we were, but we also have a long way to go. In the meantime, people are dying. People are scared. People are, rightly, angry. Unfortunately, this anger sometimes boils over into a response of violence, which is then hijacked by extremists who wish to use a cause for their own ends, and thus the situation devolves into a vicious cycle.

I sometimes wonder if there is any single thing that is going to cure this particular pandemic. I doubt it, really, because there is no single point to attack in cleansing it. It is like a spider’s web of psychological pre-conditioning and the systemic corruption. Injustice must be cured through justice, and yet how is justice born out of the tangle of injustice? What is the antidote for it? I don’t know. The best answers I have to offer are better education on a personal level and legal reform on a national level. But again, that is so much easier said than done. Perhaps it all hinges on a wing and a prayer, and a gnawing hope that we are ever evolving towards something better than we are, even if it’s through fear and trembling.

Nevertheless, it is our duty to at least try to make whatever incremental changes we can. We have to take it upon ourselves to pull this poison out by the root, starting within, and moving out towards our society. We must see that this type of discrimination is not allowed to fester, but that justice be held to higher account, and indeed one which truly handles all citizens as being equal under the law, which sadly, is an ideal enshrined in law we have yet to truly realize in practical execution. We need reform, in the system, and in ourselves. We must acknowledge that systematic sins matter, and repentance, and restitution, needs to be made for these most grievous faults.

Christianity teaches that all people are made in the image and likeness of God, and that Christ lived among us, and allowed Himself to be crushed by the sins of all the world, for the salvation of all those who live in Him and through Him. That’s what the word “catholic” means, with regards to the characteristics of the Church. It stands for the universality that transcends all racial and national barriers. Even when the Bible was twisted to serve the agendas of slave-owners, devout Christians continued to rise to the challenge, as major shakers and movers in both the Abolitionist movement and the Civil Rights movement.

It is our time to rise, as those who listen to the voice of the Spirit have always have in the past, and speak out in the best tradition of our social teaching, in defense of those whose lives are often de-valued or pre-judged for who God made them to be. That is what it means to be truly and universally “pro-life”, proclaiming that each and every life matters, especially those at risk of being dehumanized, which at the end of the day, is one of the most lethal roots of societal evil and one of the worst blasphemies, since it denies the divine spark at the center of every soul.

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