Overcoming racial injustice in American society

Left, Colleen Kammer (middle) and Sisters (l-r) Marita Beumer, Ceil Taphorn, Jeanette Buehler and Mary E. Wendeln attend the national convocation of the Justice Conference of Women Religious in St. Louis; contributed photo. Right, Keynote presenters Sisters Anne-Louise Nadeau (left) and Patricia Chappell, SNDdeN (right); Joellen Sbrissa, CSJ, photo.

Exploring the topics of racism, white privilege and racial oppression, several Sisters of the Precious Blood traveled to St. Louis to attend the Justice Conference of Women Religious’ convocation in March of this year. The theme of the gathering was “Racism Through the Prism of Social Justice.”

Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur Patricia Chappell and Anne-Louise Nadeau of Pax Christi USA were the keynote presenters. Through presentation, role playing and the use of humor, they helped approximately 300 women and men from female religious congregations across the country understand the complexities of these topics.

Sisters Chappell and Nadeau defined racism as: Personal racial prejudice and the misuse of power by systems and institutions. Not surprisingly, racism has roots that run very deep. Unearthing the layers, its beginnings can be seen in the European Catholic Church in the 15th century. Pope Nicholas V’s Papal Bull of 1452, and its reiteration by Pope Callixtus III in 1455, served as the basis of and justification for the Doctrine of Discovery — the seizure and colonization of indigenous lands, the global slave trade of the 15th and 16th centuries and the Age of Imperialism in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, during which the United States exerted its political and economic forces throughout the world.

The discrimination of people of color gave birth to internalized racial superiority or white privilege, and internalized racial oppression. Sisters Chappell and Nadeau gave the Crossroads organization’s definition of white privilege as a complex, multi-generational process that teaches white people to believe, accept and live out superior definitions of themselves and their roles in society. It is both unconscious and conscious.

Cory Collins, in a Teaching Tolerance newsletter, says the term “white privilege” is often difficult for whites to accept because they are not used to being described or defined by their race. It does not mean that white people have never worked for what they’ve achieved or that they have never struggled. It should be viewed as a built-in advantage, separate from one’s level of income or effort.

Racial oppression, as defined by Crossroads, is a complex multi-generational process that teaches people of color to believe, accept and live out negative social definitions of themselves and their roles in society. As with white privilege, it is both unconscious and conscious.

Manifestations of white privilege include finding excuses, looking for explanations for behavior, becoming defensive, looking good, polite strategies and being experts on subjects or knowing the “right” way of doing things, such as “We ran hospitals and schools, therefore … ”.

Manifestations of internal racial oppression include harm to self-concept or self-esteem, e.g., “I must work harder, be better … ”, pitting people of color groups against each other, such as African Americans and Africans, and never feeling good enough. These things dilute the power that people of color could have.

Racism is something that cripples all of us. It prevents us from living in right relationship with one another and from living up to our full potential. One of the presentation slides at the convocation contained a photo of a construction truck displaying a sign that read, “Racism is not really a race … it’s a mighty slow death walk for us all.”

As Sisters Chappell and Nadeau reviewed past discriminatory laws in the United States, one clearly understands the numerous ways across the generations in which the “deck has been stacked” against people of color. Besides slavery, which supported every system and institution in the country, there was the Indian Removal Act of 1830 and the establishment of residential Indian schools (1831-1969); post-emancipation Black Codes of 1863, denying blacks citizenship and basic rights; the Plessy v. Ferguson Supreme Court case of 1896, which gave a “separate but equal” designation for blacks that lasted until 1954 and was the beginning of the Jim Crow laws that lasted until 1965; Mexican Repatriation (1929-1939); and the Social Security Act of 1935, which excluded domestic and agricultural workers — 25% of whom were Hispanic and 75% were black.

In the 1940s there was the internment of Japanese Americans; the GI Bill of 1944, which denied one million black GIs, who also risked their lives in WWII, the benefits given to whites upon returning from the war. Those benefits included low-cost mortgages, low-interest loans, free tuition and unemployment compensation. Connected to the GI Bill, the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) enacted policies to map out neighborhoods according to skin color, otherwise known as redlining.

Even today, discriminatory laws are still enacted. An example of this is the Supreme Court’s 2013 reversal of a key provision of the 1993 Voter Registration Act. This opened the way for discriminatory practices against minority voters. To counteract discriminatory practices and work toward an inclusive and just society, transformational values must be utilized, Sister Nadeau told the audience. There needs to be consensus-based decision-making, collective and responsible relationships and sharing of power. “If we operate from the position of the abundant worldview, it’s amazing how people find the resources to do what is needed,” she said.

Pope Francis calls us to a “culture of encounter” as a common goal, encouraging people to be fearless in the ways they look beyond themselves to the needs of others. This means reaching out, building friendships beyond our circles and meeting people on the peripheries.

Our responsibility is to become informed about racial injustice, and not to disengage from it because of discomfort. Sister Nadeau said our goal should be to move beyond the status quo, acknowledging our wrongdoings with humility and love, listening to how the Spirit is calling us to act and then maintaining a proclivity toward action, toward always moving the mission forward.

Story by Colleen Kammer

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