I was about 8 years old when I first learned about racism. My older sister had just finished the epic novel “Gone with the Wind,” and as a reward, was watching the 1939 film.
Her little sister, eager to experience something a little more grown-up, could watch so long as she stayed quiet and didn’t ask too many questions.
I kept my promise through most of the first half, in awe of a time and culture unfamiliar to me—beautiful dresses and country dances, great big houses on Southern plantations. But it was the scene of wounded soldiers strewn across a town square and the city of Atlanta going up in flames that finally prompted me to ask, “Why are they fighting?”
The answer, of course, is more complicated than that, but it was the first I’d heard of such a thing. Black people were sold, bought, and used for labor, not allowed to own land or vote, and tortured and killed because of the color of their skin. I thought, how could humans treat one another like this? And why are soldiers killing each other to keep doing it? Unfortunately, my lessons in the especially horrific parts of American (and world) history were far from over.
Countless Native Americans were forced to leave their homes, move West, and suffer and die along the “Trail of Tears.” Hundreds of Hispanics were quietly and summarily lynched at the Southern Border by Texas Rangers in the aftermath of the Mexican American War. Japanese immigrants were isolated and mistreated in internment camps after the attack at Pearl Harbor.
All of this (and more) happened, in a not-so-distant past, in the United States. Each instance and form of discrimination has weakened our social bonds and deprived our great country of the unique contributions of many of its citizens.
Although there have been many advancements in the way of civil rights and discrimination laws, unjust hatred and prejudice against our brothers and sisters of different races or ethnicities has never really gone away. It is as ancient as Cain and Abel.
We are again witnessing the painful reality of racism rear its ugly head on a national stage. Black and brown people, in particular, are tired of living in fear, of being promised equality by a country that has never really delivered it. As Catholics, we should be grateful that this is being brought to the light. For we know that true freedom and redemption is through Jesus Christ and that as the Church, we are the sign and instrument of the communion of God and men (CCC 780). We play a crucial role in addressing a great evil of our time.
The U.S. Bishops noted in their pastoral letter, “Open Wide Our Hearts,” that many believe “that racism is no longer a major affliction of our society—that it is only found in the hearts of individuals who can be dismissed as ignorant or unenlightened.” But as we can clearly see, “racism still profoundly affects our culture, and it has no place in the Christian heart.”
When it comes to systemic change and healing, we have to start within our own hearts.
This is the time to be honest with ourselves and God. Let us ask: “Do my attitudes about race reflect mistrust, impatience, anger, distress, discomfort, or resentment?” “Does my love and respect of every human life extend to people of all races and nations?” “Is my heart open to those who have been hurt or marginalized because of discrimination?”
I will be spending some time praying and asking myself those questions, and I invite you to do the same.
O Sacred Heart of Jesus, you beat for the brokenhearted and the afflicted. Have mercy on us and grant us the grace to love as you love.