“Sooner or later, all the people of the world will have to discover a way to live together in peace, and thereby transform this pending cosmic elegy into a creative psalm of brotherhood.” The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke these eloquent words almost fifty-six years ago when he accepted the Nobel Peace Prize. He went on to say that if peace and racial equality are to be achieved, “man must evolve for all human conflict a method which rejects revenge, aggression, and retaliation. The foundation of such a method is love.” Dr. King is speaking of a love rooted in faith, a faith that acknowledges that “God is love, and he who lives in love, lives in God and God lives in him” (Jn 4:16). Racial injustice and prejudice are antithetical to love, truth, freedom, and peace.
In order to adequately address issues of race, it is important to define our terms. Prejudice, with regard to race, is a preconceived notion about someone that is not based on any factual or objective experience, and often leads to stereotyping. Racism is prejudice or discrimination directed toward someone of a different race rooted in the belief that one race is superior to another. For example, during the course of a conversation I was having with an acquaintance, they learned that I am from the Newark, NJ area. The person assumed, therefore, that I grew up poor and surrounded by gangs. This individual clearly expressed a prejudicial opinion based in ignorance, but the sentiment itself is not necessarily racist. Organizations like the Ku Klux Klan and other white supremacist groups, however, would most certainly be racist.
All of us, to some extent, harbor some level of prejudice. If I am speaking to someone from the South, for example, I often assume they like to eat shrimp and grits. This assumption is not based in fact but simply anecdotal on my part. Since I know lots of Southerners who enjoy shrimp and grits, I ignorantly assumed that all Southerners like it as well. Many of our prejudices or ideas of racial superiority are learned. We consume images and soundbites from television, movies, and social media that inundate us with caricatures of various races that are often belittling and derisive and, even if only subliminally, plant seeds of half-truths in the minds and hearts of the viewer or listener. When you see, for example, images of black people as slaves, domestics, and gang members day after day and year after year, these portrayals work their way into our psyche and unintentionally become, to some extent, “true” or “the way it is.”
Prejudiced and racist attitudes of individuals also infiltrate institutional structures and organizations, thus forming the foundation for systemic racism. Slavery, Jim Crow laws, apartheid, and the Dred Scott v. John F. Sanford Supreme Court decision are clear examples of this. Even in the history of the Church, Catholic leaders and organizations chose to follow civil law rather than the law of God by owning slaves, implementing segregation in the churches, and excluding minorities from participation in the life of the Church. The residual effects of these attitudes are still felt by many Catholics of color today.
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