Racism in the United States
Todd David Whitmore
The Common Good
This January, Kathleen Maas Weigert, who has been a fixture and inspiration at Notre Dame for many years through the Center for Social Concern and other avenues, leaves to become the Director for the Center for Social Justice Research, Teaching and Service at Georgetown University.
It would be impossible for Notre Dame and its individual community members to repay the debt owed to professor Weigert, but it is important to try.
The details of professor Weigert's contributions to programs from peace studies to Catholic social tradition are available elsewhere, so instead of rehearsing the litany of her achievements she and I thought it would be more fitting if she simply suggested a topic on which I would write my last column before her departure. She gave me some options, but this statement of hers stands out: "I still find the issue of racism one of the most difficult to discuss, let alone to act on for us as a nation and as a church." Given professor Weigert's efforts on the full range of issues while at Notre Dame, a brief attempt on my part here to say something on this topic is the least I can do.
Before any prescriptions for racism can be put forward, it is necessary to try to describe it accurately and to do that involves in large part the effort to take on the perspectives of minorities. In other words, it seems to me that any attempt of a white person to write on racism involves an act of impossible empathy. It is an act that requires both a certain kind of presumption and humility. The first reason why racism is so hard to address is that it is tremendously difficult to hold together presumption and humility well in a sustained way.
I say this as a person who does not think that empathy per se is necessarily difficult, but who does think that the historical and contemporary differences in the experiences of African-Americans and whites in the United States (and this is the form of race relations that I will focus on here) are sufficiently vast that bridging the gap in any way requires sustained effort.
I have a copy of James Allen's "Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America," to remind me of those experiential differences. The popular myth is that lynchings were activities carried out at night by hooded men too ashamed, really, to reveal who they were when committing such atrocious acts. However, the majority of lynchings were public events, often with children in attendance. Those lynched were frequently tortured and burned beforehand. Photographers showed up and printed out postcards so that those attending could write to tell relatives.
"Without Sanctuary" is a collection of these postcards. Being postcards, the pictures (sometimes with the sender circled and smiling) and the notes on them were open for all who came across them to see. No shame. No shame at all.
I look at this book as a starting point. I understand that lynchings are not as frequent today. But the legacy is still there. Part of that legacy is in the continued provocation of fear. Once a pattern has been established, it does not take many instances of a man being dragged to death behind a truck to remind a group of persons that they are vulnerable.
Our Thanksgiving day was laced with irony because we spotted a pick-up with a confederate flag decal and about two feet of twine hanging from its rear bumper tied into a noose. The message was clear.
The legacy also continues in instituted practices, such as racial profiling by police forces. In Florida, for instance, 80 percent of those persons stopped and searched are black or Hispanic, even though they constitute only 5 percent of all drivers.
There are instances closer to home. In 1991, I began seeing a young African-American boy as part of the Big Brothers program. One year, when a police officer had been shot and killed, officers surrounded T.'s house. There was someone living there who, because he had a name similar to the suspect's, was thought to be the suspect. T.'s younger brother, then 10 years old, was by the window. The police told him to stick his hands out.
In fear, the boy ran. T., in fear that the officers would start shooting, ran to the window and stuck his own hands out. There they stayed while his grandmother and aunt tried to tell the disbelieving police that they had the wrong person.
T. has never committed a crime (He broke up with one girlfriend because she smoked). I understand the need for police vigilance. I am also trying to understand what it must be like to be 15 and have several guns pointed at you by representatives of the state because you might be the person whose name sounds like that of the suspect.
In my column, I have tried to reflect on issues in light of Catholic teaching. In this case, where I am attempting to get a sense of what it must be like to be black today, the image that comes to mind as perhaps most fitting is that of the Babylonian exile of the Jews in 587-539 B.C. Defeated by Nebuchadnezzar, many of Judah's people, particularly the leaders, were taken to Babylon. They were not enslaved, but neither were they living in a place they could call home.
In summoning this image, I do not subscribe to a pure — and therefore romanticized — form of victimization theory where all whites are bad and all blacks are good. A few weeks ago, T. and I ran into a friend of mine.
After some conversation, she asked him why, given the context within which he grew up, he never got involved with drugs or gangs. I turned to him and said, "Yeah, T., what happened?" He replied with characteristic brevity, "You." I do not feel guilty so much as part of an ignorance that is hard to identify with clarity, let alone overcome.
I also know that there have been other instances of patterned injustice — the rape of Nanking, for example. It is important, however, not to think that something is less horrible just because it is frequent. On the contrary, frequency is one indication that the activity is normalized — such that, for instance, it can be celebrated on postcards.
I take the vast reduction in the number (some would say disappearance) of lynchings and the response to the dragging of James Byrd, Jr. to be an indication that such actions are no longer considered normal by most Americans. But the task of impossible empathy is far from over. Subtle forms of racism are all the more difficult to identify.
At Notre Dame, for instance, do we (whites) assume if we see an African-American that he or she is an athlete? That he or she is not a student here and does not belong on campus (our own form of profiling?) Do we identify (largely white) Notre Dame as "safe" over against the (largely black) neighborhoods where some off-campus students live as "dangerous" in a way that reinforces stereotypes? Do African-Americans at Notre Dame feel at home or in exile? Why? These are difficult questions. But it is important to ask them and then listen.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.
Todd David Whitmore is an assistant professor in the theology department. His column appears every other Thursday.
All Viewpoint Stories for Thursday, November 30, 2000