Can the new Committee Against Racism help the Catholic Church bridge racial divides in America?
The Catholic Church has stepped up its efforts to address the growing racial divide in America. During the annual United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) held in November 2017, the creation of the Committee Against Racism was announced, headed by Bishop George V. Murry SJ. In his address to the Catholic Social Ministry leaders in February 2018, Murry said the Catholic Church needs to “break the silent complicity with the social evil of racism that has marred the past and continues to mar the present.”
The USCCB is an assembly of hierarchy in North America and the Virgin Islands defining the national agenda of the Catholic Church. The 2017 conference, which included 215 active voting bishops, discussed the current polarization in the country and divides within the Catholic Church itself. Chicago Cardinal Blase Cupich spoke of dangers of Catholics falling prey to and believing “poisoning rhetoric” about immigrants.
The committee is a continuation of the Special Task Force to Promote Peace in Our Communities, which was formed in July 2016 by then-USCCB President Archbishop Joseph Kurtz in response to racially motivated shootings in Baton Rouge, Minneapolis and Dallas. The previous efforts by the Catholic Church to address the plague of racism was referred to as “Brothers and Sister to Us,” a 1979 pastoral letter denouncing the sin of racism. Yet, according to Murry, only 18% of bishops spoke out against racism over the years since the 1979 letter.
In the past, the church’s strategy focused on countering the culture of fear and criminalization of poverty. One of the achievements of the task force was a basketball outreach project. The program recruited 350 gang members and over 120 completed classes at the church; 15 went out to attend college, while another 400 participants signed agreements against violence, which further promotes the church’s effort to address the unique challenges inside the African-American community. While active in minority communities, the task force can demonstrate progress with longstanding issues like drug abuse and crime, and the Committee Against Racism can hopefully build on this success.
The establishment of the new committee comes at a critical point in modern US history. Through a series of rallies and protests, the so-called alt-right has driven a successful campaign based on racial hatred and has played a central role in the growing agenda to divide America and increase racial tension nationwide. The alt-right, an ideology many see as a toned-down version of fascism, has taken to social media to spread its overt message about white nationalism, neo-Nazi propaganda and Islamophobia.
Former White House advisor Steve Bannon and his right-wing Breitbart News platform have inspired white supremacists, neo-Nazis and white nationalists into unprecedented collaborative action nationwide. That means the various factions are now working together to start community skirmishes with minority groups following certain alt-right events. This new movement spurned the Charlottesville riots, an unprecedented coming together of far-right groups, which caused national debate about First Amendment rights of speech and assembly. Charlottesville caused mass outrage not only for what it represented, but for President Donald Trump’s tepid response and seeming unwillingness to condemn the white supremacists.
Unite the Rally organizer Jason Keller described Heather Heyer, a peaceful protester killed in Charlottesville, as a “fat disgusting Communist.” “Communists have killed 94 million. Looks like it was payback time,” Keller posted on Twitter. James Field Jr., who drove his car into a crowd of counter-protesters in Charlottesville, has since been charged with Heyer’s murder.
On October 28, 2017, the alt-right rallied in Tennessee. Upon entering Brentwood, white supremacists encountered an African-American man with a Caucasian girlfriend at a pub. Without provocation, the White Lives Matter members punched the woman in the face for dating someone of color. No arrests were made.
In the same month, a rally turned violent after alt-right leader Richard Spencer spoke at the University of Florida. The university had to pay $500,000 to protect Spencer during the speech on “white separation” from growing immigration populations, like the influx of Latinos. After the rally, three of Spencer’s supporters confronted African-American protesters and fired a weapon. This time the perpetrators were arrested and charged.
Just before Christmas last year, white hatred claimed the lives of Scott and Buckley Fricker, killed by their daughter’s 17-year-old neo-Nazi boyfriend in an affluent Virginia community. The parents had continuously complained about the boy to the school, but to no avail. Fricker brought to attention the teen’s Twitter account that “called for a ‘white revolution,’ and made derogatory and threatening comments about Jewish people and gay men, and supported Nazi book burnings.”
These examples show a steady thread of events that have increased since the election of Trump as president in 2016. The Committee Against Racism can address incidences like Charlottesville while setting the groundwork to prevent other atrocities driven by hate groups. The Southern Poverty Law Center has documented the increase of the alt-right over the past few years. Although Bannon has since left the White House, his influence has continued to inspire a new generation of social media-savvy leaders.
Leading the Charge
Addressing the multiple facets of our nation’s racial divide will be an uphill battle. Cardinal Daniel DiNardo is leading the charge against this saturation of hate by that has forced the Catholic Church to confront what he calls the “the forces of division prey on our fear of the unfamiliar, the different.” He notes that “Marches by hate groups such as the KKK and Neo-Nazis are outrageous to the sensible mind and directly challenge the dignity of human life. It is time for us to recommit ourselves to eradicating racism.”
Bishop Murry thinks that “for too long the sin of racism has lived and thrived in our communities and even in some of our churches.” His message is to the point: “In recent years our divisions have worsened, hatred is more evident and becoming more mainstream. The Bishops of the United States recognized the need for a sustained effort for this deeply strained moment in our history.” Fr. Michael Sheeran, president of the American Jesuit Colleges and Universities, expressed his confidence that fellow Jesuit Murry is a good pick for the committee leadership.
But the question is: Will the committee be equally tech savvy and able to respond swiftly to the aggressive approach of the alt-right? This will ultimately be tested in future protests and whether the Catholic Church is prepared to send members directly into these often violent altercations is something that must be considered. As the Catholic Church tries to live up to its meaning, often described literally as “here comes everybody,” the alt-right creates divisions. To keep a relevant role in social matters inside the US, the new committee is a pathway to address racial injustice in real time.
As Slate’s Washington reporter Jamelle Bouie notes, “Donald Trump has returned explicit racism to political life, and his success has energized a new generation of activists and organizations committed to the expansion of white supremacy, by violence if necessary.” In the tradition of Martin Luther King’s non-violent approach, the Catholic Church is stepping in to address these trends and offer a counterbalance to the alt-right’s divisive position. If the Catholic Church can take a strong position with a best practices platform and zero tolerance for those who create divisions and roadblocks, there may be the possibility of a breakthrough to stop the rampant spreading of hatred and xenophobia in America.
*[Updated: May 1, 2018, at 19:15 GMT.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.
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