A young man participates in a Youth for Peace vigil in Rome. His face mask reads “The only race I know is the human one.” The June 9 vigil was in response to the May 25 death of George Floyd at the hands of police in Minneapolis. AFP via GETTY IMAGES

News

Protesting for justice: Local leaders respond to Floyd killing, racism and unrest

The May 25th killing of George Floyd during his arrest by a police officer in Minneapolis struck a raw nerve for Angela Hardin and others.

The death of Floyd, a 46-year-old Black man, was “the straw that broke the camel’s back,” said Hardin, coordinator of the archdiocese’s Black Catholic Implementation Team (BCIT) and member of St. Benedict the Moor Parish in Omaha.

“I have never in my life actually seen a person die … at the hands of a person in authority who had no regard for human life,” said Hardin. “I was filled with so much rage and anxiety that I cried.

“Time and time again you see Blacks die in the hands of police officers and nothing is done about it.”

Angela Hardin, coordinator of the archdiocese’s Black Catholic Implementation Team (BCIT) speaks at a listening session in Omaha Nov. 2, 2019. The BCIT pursues locally the goals and vision of the National Black Catholic Congress, including combatting racism, giving Blacks a voice in the Church and encouraging them to share their gifts. MIKE MAY/STAFF

The ordeal sparked outrage across the United States and other parts of the world, prompting protests in many cities, which in turn led to rioting, looting and further violence in some locations, including Omaha.

Pope Francis and U.S. bishops, including Archbishop George J. Lucas, expressed sympathy over Floyd’s death and reiterated the Church’s stand on racial injustice.

“Ever since I saw the video of the violent death of George Floyd at the hands of police officers, I have been praying for him and for his family,” the archbishop said in a June 1 statement.

“Many law enforcement professionals have rightly decried the violence that led to his killing. This is a shocking example of the racism that too often remains embedded in our institutions and in our communities,” said the archbishop.

YEARS OF INJUSTICE

The BCIT also responded, at the request of the Catholic Voice.

“These injustices have been taking place for over 400 years in America,” the team said in an email. “The difference is we now have access to cameras and video to record the actions many Black Americans have been trying to bring light to for centuries.

“Our Black community is not surprised at the videos and reactions across the nation. The difference is other races are starting to see our injustices.”

Progress toward equality still seems far off, said the team, which pursues the goals and vision of the National Black Catholic Congress, including combating racism, giving Blacks a voice in the church and encouraging them to share their gifts.

“It’s difficult to talk about progress because many view it as something our Black community should be appreciative of – it’s hard to celebrate the wins when we are still not treated as equal.”

Christopher Whitt, a BCIT member and vice provost for institutional diversity and inclusion at Creighton University in Omaha, also responded to the Catholic Voice’s request for comment.

“The United States has never truly named and dealt with the insidious racism at its core that is woven into its founding,” Whitt wrote in an email.

“When incidents and/or movement get some traction in the public discourse there is renewed interest. It is unfortunate that we have seen systemic racism persist and in many cases embolden individuals to engage in some of these individual acts of racism that get so much attention,” he said.

“The systemic racism is truly the sin and is what hurts all of us regardless of our identity, since we all play some role in it.”

PASTORAL LETTER

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops addressed systemic racism in a 2018 pastoral letter called “Open Wide Our Hearts: the Enduring Call to Love.”

“Today, racism continues to exist in our communities and in our parishes,” the pastoral letter said. “Racism is what makes us see the ‘other’ with suspicion or to attribute negative characteristics to an entire group of people. This evil manifests itself in our individual thoughts, and also in the workings of our society itself.

“Today, continuing inequalities in education, housing, employment, wealth, and representation in leadership positions are rooted in our country’s shameful history of slavery and systemic racism.”

The document draws from Pope Francis’ comments in his 2013 apostolic exhortation, “Evangelii Gaudium” (The Joy of the Gospel), in which the pope “noted that exclusion and inequality create the climate for discord,” the U.S. bishops said.

They urged people to examine their hearts “for how we might contribute to or break down racial divisions, intolerance, and discrimination.”

The BCIT suggested some steps to support the Black community.

By learning:

  • Read a book on anti-racism or add books to your collection by Black authors.
  • Watch a documentary, movie or series covering black history.
  • Listen to an educational podcast.

By action:

  • Support Black-owned businesses or restaurants.
  • Speak up among family and friends.
  • Donate to the BCIT in Omaha.
  • Call, email and write government officials demanding change.
  • Participate in protests.
  • Vote.

“There needs to be meaningful engagement in moving beyond simply aiming to not be racist and identifying ones’ selves as anti-racist,” Whitt said. “Anti-racism involves actively working to dismantle racist systems, structures, and practices.”

STEALING INNOCENCE

“As a Black person in the United States, there are endless circumstances where we encounter systemic racism. It is evident in economics, education, media coverage, in our Catholic Church, and in so many other aspects of our lives,” Whitt said. “It is pervasive.

“Often I think about the heartbreaking moments when I will have to steal a bit of my 3-month-old and 3-year-old sons’ innocence and give them ‘the talk’ on how they have to work to survive and stay alive in America as Black males due to the ways society may see them as threats as they grow towards manhood,” he said. “It eats me up that I will have to do that and others will not, due to their racial identity within this current system.”

Locally, the BCIT wrote, it would like to see more Catholic leaders of color.

The group also would like to see more wealth shared among parishes.

St. Benedict the Moor Parish in Omaha “is located in one of the most impoverished zip codes in Nebraska,” the BCIT said. “It’s impossible to think the congregation would be financially sustainable without support from well-funded peers.”

Despite the widespread racial inequalities, members of the team said they have hope.

“There is hope that the nation can change. We have to rely on our faith and know that the Lord is with us and he will never abandon us. … Pray for peace and unity among all of God’s children.”