Mundane Racism | Know Justice, Know Peace: A Jesuit Antiracism Retreat

Podcast episode:

Welcome to Day 2 of Know Justice, Know Peace: A Jesuit Antiracism Retreat. My name is Jorge Roque, and I’m with The Jesuit Post. In this series, we are journeying together into a deeper awareness of how racism and white supremacy operate in our lives.

Let’s begin with a short prayer:

Lord Jesus, guide us into a deeper awareness of the sin of the world, specifically the sin of racism. Give us eyes to see, Lord, so that we may configure ourselves to you. Amen.

At this point in the retreat, we’re letting our hearts be pricked by the sin of racism in the world. And while the last talk you heard by Ángel focused on the long history of white supremacy, what I ask you to consider is how racism and white superiority are active in ways that are covert and quite mundane. 

White superiority is often identified with white supremacy, with a public, grotesque, and violent political ideology. And while the most extreme forms of white supremacy are still alive and scary, racism isn’t just limited to them. Believing in the superiority of white people doesn’t have to be a subterranean, terrorist ideology. It can manifest itself simply as a cultural expectation for white people to perform better, be more spiritual, be more beautiful, and more successful. And it is especially active when we normalize how white people in the country possess a higher standard of living than others.  

On this note, I remember a Facebook post I saw in high school. I grew up in the Rio Grande Valley in South Texas where 95% of the population is Latino. And a classmate of mine, who is white, posed this question on social media: are some races smarter than others? Another student, also white and fairly successful, wrote, “Honestly? Yes. There are.” No specific groups of people were named but obviously the implication was that Anglo-whites as a group are smarter than Latinos. Yes, they were just high school kids on social media, not covert white supremacists. But that’s the point. Something as innocuous as a Facebook post was the arena for them to state their belief in white superiority, a belief they had already assimilated and started to perpetuate by high school. And that belief didn’t come from nowhere. 

If we limit discussions of racism to instances of racialized violence, then that means no one has to do the work of examining their conscience and confessing their sin. I must always examine my conscience and confess my sin. If I see racism as something that belongs to those people over there, I won’t examine myself. So if you want to be devoted to the work of anti-racism, then you have the difficult task of examining yourself, which takes emotional and spiritual work. And claiming that you’re an anti-racist without unflinching self-honesty would be like claiming that you’re Catholic but never participating in the Church’s sacramental life. 

Mark Seitz, the Bishop of El Paso, put out a wonderful letter on racism by the name of “Night Will Be No More,” a response to the matanza, or shooting, on August 3, 2019 that killed 22 people. In the letter, he encourages us to contemplate the mystery of evil, “which includes the base belief that some of us are more important, deserving and worthy than others. It includes the ugly conviction that this country and its history and opportunities and resources as well as our economic and political life belong more properly to ‘white’ people than to people of color.” In other words, we need to contemplate the everyday ways racism and the belief in white superiority are alive, precisely because we need to contemplate the mystery of sin. I strongly recommend you read Bishop Seitz’s pastoral letter; it would facilitate a deeper immersion into the retreat. 

I’d like to share another story. In one of the border towns in Texas, a truck exuding noxious gases that would drive by the grade school of a poor community. Activists fought to have the route of the truck changed and told a public official “you wouldn’t want this for your kids.” To which the official responded, “you’re right: I wouldn’t want this for my kids. But I’m still going to rule against you.”  

For whom was the higher standard of living reserved? For whom was the better education and safer school reserved? For whom was the clean air reserved? Who had an easier time breathing? 

Was the public official an overt white supremacist? Probably not. But he nevertheless tolerated injustice, even when the local community was saying, “our kids are in danger.” While there may not be any official laws that explicitly reserve privileges for those lighter skin, the reality is that racism is still operative. While racism can be harbored unconsciously in ways that are mundane, it can have repercussions in public policies that affect not just one person but an entire community.

So as you pray with the ugliness of the sin of racism, let it scandalize you. I recommend for your prayer:

  1. The lament over Jerusalem found in Matthew 23:37-39. Christ called us to personally repent and believe in the Kingdom of God. But Jerusalem, this beloved city, did not. What Jesus sees as he overlooks Jerusalem is Israel’s capital killing its own prophets, eventually killing the Son of the very God they profess. In this passage Jesus grieves the sin of the world. And if we personally desire the peace and justice proper to the kingdom of God, then seeing the ubiquity and ugliness of racism leaves us with grief. The grace you’re praying for here is abhorrence and repulsion in the face of racism.
  2. I also recommend you read all of chapter 23 of Matthew’s Gospel, which concludes with the lament over Jerusalem. You’ll find what’s called the “seven woes,” when Christ condemns the Pharisees as he names their sin. I think those woes apply to the sin of racism in American history. But even more to the point, it would be good to ask yourself, how is Jesus calling me out.

I want to end with a poem. Because we need to feel in our prayer what it is that sin puts to death, who it is that racism puts to death. This is a poem by Ross Gay, called “A Small Needful Fact.” 

A Small Needful Fact

Is that Eric Garner worked
for some time for the Parks and Rec.
Horticultural Department, which means,
perhaps, that with his very large hands,
perhaps, in all likelihood,
he put gently into the earth
some plants which, most likely,
some of them, in all likelihood,
continue to grow, continue
to do what such plants do, like house
and feed small and necessary creatures,
like being pleasant to touch and smell,
like converting sunlight
into food, like making it easier
for us to breathe.

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