Confronting racism of modern age with lessons from the past

Guest Column

Will Jemison

By Will Jemison
In the fall of 2003, I was one of 12 Americans selected to spend two weeks exploring the rural former East German countryside and to attend an educational symposium at a local university. Although I’d heard of the many examples of cultural oppression that occurred during years of communist rule and Russian influence, nothing prepared me for my arrival at the hotel and special instructions for the black, Chinese and Indian students in my cohort learning that we would have to register at the local police station. This registration wasn’t to single us out as some sort of threat, but was to protect us from what we soon discovered was a skinhead rally that was planned for the town we were visiting.
At the age of 22, overt racism was foreign to me. I grew up and attended diverse schools, had school friends of multiple ethnic backgrounds and it was fairly common for folk of different races to be guests in our home. Although I was aware of the historical struggles of my parents, grandparents and ancestors, racism, as it had been defined to me, wasn’t something I knew. That changed for me on a very cool day in Germany in 2003.
What also changed for me was the belief that racism was something that was strictly about overt acts. The white nationalists of Germany not only sought to have a direct impact on blacks, Asians and Jews, they sought to ensure that more covert acts would be normalized by the government to ensure they would no longer need swastikas, or in America’s case, hoods, to show their impact.
Those covert acts included: sanctioned methods of housing discrimination, increased restrictions on university admissions and “native” first employment policies. Each of those acts, if enabled, sought to gradually reduce the economic and social progress of racial and ethnic minorities in Germany and place them in a sort of second class status.
White nationalism is racism. It’s racism rooted in violence and fear, and in the case of the Ku Klux Klan, one that seeks to destroy any group they don’t agree with, including Catholics.
By now, we’ve all heard of the events in Charlottesville, Va. A rally of racists, ironically armed with Asian-made tiki torches, marched for greater rights and to protect symbols of their Confederate “heroes.” Hopefully, the irony of them rioting over symbols of traitors to the American union isn’t lost on you. For those it isn’t, the Confederacy’s purpose was to undermine the American democracy and ensure slavery remained legal in what became present-day Southern states.
The notion of upholding symbols of the confederacy, whether it be a flag or a statue, is diametrically opposed to everything we as good Americans and Christians should value. Erecting monuments to traitors is akin to placing a statue of Benedict Arnold in the halls of Congress or of Lucifer in a church. However, this is exactly what we’ve allowed to occur. The perception of white supremacy has corrupted our political and social structures in this state and our country.
It’s this perceived supremacy that gave us the Southern Strategy. The Southern Strategy was created in resistance to civil rights legislation and has been used to justify inaction, gerrymandering and a plethora of societal ills. During the 1950s and 60s, these monuments to confederate traitors were constructed, not to be reminders of great men, but to remind increasingly well-educated Negroes of their place. The Southern Strategy is also what gave rise to Donald Trump and his empty promises of border walls and immigration quotas that explicitly target black and brown people. The same Trump who himself lacks the moral and ethical competence to reject racism in all forms. Yes, the Southern Strategy continues to show its influence and last week, that influence gave rise to Charlottesville.
This strategy is continuously present in this state whether through legislation that seeks to ensure substandard education of our youth or to provide state-sanctioned discrimination against our LGBTQ brothers and sisters. As Catholics, we should be alarmed at these increasingly overt acts of discrimination by our legislators because they directly oppose the Gospel.
It also finds expression in the refusal to welcome the stranger and the alien and to treat them with compassion and justice and further expression in the obstinacy of many who are deeply concerned about unborn children but callous and skeptical as young men and women of color are seemingly killed with impunity.
In recent days when the holder of our highest political office has condoned and equated Neo-Nazis, the KKK and other white supremacists with those protesting their heinous ideology, I am reminded of the courage of the modern German people who have unabashedly acknowledged their past and become one of the world’s most humane and welcoming nation states.
Our Holy Father, Pope Francis, from the beginning of his papacy has called upon Catholics, other people of faith and people of good will to embrace the radical call of Jesus of Nazareth to see all people as images of a God who loves all of us beyond measure and without limits. That insight is found in the foundational documents of our country in light of recent events, may we all strive to live that truth with even more fervor.
(Will Jemison is coordinator for Black Catholic Ministry for the Diocese of Jackson)

Black Catholic History Month: celebrating gifts of diversity, honoring contributions

Will Jemison
Since the first week of November, we have seen a drastic shift in the balance of power of our nation. The party that enjoyed some level of comfort as the leading Senate party, has now found itself having to reinvent how they manage their affairs and interactions in dealing with the party that is, in theory, in control of Congress.
The new majority party in Congress is also now forced to reflect on how they got to this point and how they will, in turn, be forced to deal with a new degree of scrutiny that comes with the great gift in which they have been given, leadership.blackcatholichistorylogo
As we begin our observance of Black Catholic History Month, let’s consider the above reference and compare ourselves as our elected officials must do, with a strong lens focused on inflection. In the state of Mississippi, Catholics represent a relatively small percentage of those who identify as Christian.
However, our presence is often felt at the highest levels of both local and state government as a force for positive change in social justice and civil issues that affect all Mississippians, regardless of religious affiliation. Of course, this involves each group within our church having to be at the table and answer the call to service when tasked.
Predominately black parishes have historically been the beacon of hope within traditionally underserved communities in Mississippi. During the days of Jim Crow, our parish schools were often the only schools where children could receive a quality education without fear of the school closing for over-excelling or for lack of books, desks, teachers and other necessities afforded majority schools.
Religious sisters from across the nation, including the Sisters of the Holy Family, Oblate Sisters of Providence, School Sisters of Notre Dame, Dominican Sisters, and Sister Thea Bowman’s order, the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration, all came to Mississippi with a sense of purpose to, in their own way, change the educational landscape of a state that for decades refused to invest in the sustainable growth of black Mississippians.
Although many of these challenges still exist today, the landscape of our state changed when religious sisters and brothers, priests, lay associations and ordinary citizens united to carefully discern their charism and set forth to change the lives of many they didn’t know.
As we celebrate the many individuals who have contributed to the tapestry of our diocese and the larger church, let’s also take time to reflect on how we achieved the many opportunities given to us and more importantly, what we will do with the blessings we now have.
Will we allow our opportunities to help others and bring more people to the church go unused? Will we allow our blessings and the richness of our Catholic faith to die for lack of willingness to reach outside the church and share our gifts?
In honor of Black Catholic History Month, each edition of Mississippi Catholic will feature articles highlighting the many contributions Catholics of African descent have made to the overall church. Special recognition will be given to the four causes for sainthood of American black Catholics who gave selflessly for the growth of Catholicism in the black community. Those causes; Father Augustus Tolton; Venerable Mother Henriette DeLille (Founder of the Sisters of the Holy Family); Mother Mary Elizabeth Lange (Founder of the Oblate Sisters of Providence); and Venerable Pierre Toussaint; each have the possibility of becoming the first black saint from the United States.
Please mark your calendar for the Bishop’s 2015 Martin Luther King, Jr. Celebration on Sunday, Jan. 11 at 3 p.m. in St. Peter Cathedral in Jackson. The keynote speaker is noted civil rights attorney, Benjamin Crump, of Tallahassee, Fl. Crump is best known for his representation of the families of Trayvon Martin, and most recently, Michael Brown of Ferguson, Mo. Also, during this upcoming celebration, we will honor several religious orders who have served our diocese faithfully through the years and welcome the Redemptorist community who are now serving the Mississippi Delta. This event is free and open to the public. A reception recognizing our honorees will immediately follow.
(Will Jemison is the director of the Office of Black Catholic Ministry for the Diocese of Jackson.)