The “not guilty” verdict in the George Zimmerman trail for the death of Trayvon Martin has unleashed a firestorm of criticism regarding gun violence, stirred deep emotions over the enduring legacy of racism in America, and spawned senseless acts of retaliatory violence. Without question, racism did play a role, in that Mr. Zimmerman profiled Mr. Martin as a “person of color” in the “wrong” neighborhood at the “wrong” time. If Mr. Zimmerman had significant safety concerns or thought that Mr. Martin was acting suspiciously, he should have called the police (which he did) and then went about his business as the police investigated. I know what that feels like, because it happened to me back in 1990. The police officer treated me like a criminal until he found out I went to Notre Dame, which all of a sudden made my being black OK in his eyes. My point is this: if Mr. Martin were white, Mr. Zimmerman would have most likely ignored him and the incident would never have occurred.
Despite the efforts of Dr. Martin Luther King and the countless others who gave their hearts, souls, and lives to the cause of justice, peace, and equality, racism remains an evil that endures in our society. This is not because Dr. King failed. Racism persists in our country because of the existence of evil and sin. “Racism is a sin; a sin that divides the human family, blots out the image of God among specific members of that family, and violates the fundamental human dignity of those called to be children of the same Father. Racism is the sin that says some human beings are inherently superior and others essentially inferior because of race. It is the sin that makes racial characteristics the determining factor for the exercise of human rights. It mocks the words of Jesus: ‘Treat others the way you have them treat you.’ Indeed, racism is more than a disregard for the words of Jesus; it is a denial of the truth of the dignity of each human being revealed by the mystery of the Incarnation” (U.S. Catholic Bishops Pastoral Letter on Racism, Brothers and Sisters to Us, 1979).
In this case, the profiling of Mr. Martin by Mr. Zimmerman was racist. The jurors determined that Mr. Zimmerman did not shoot Mr. Martin because he was black but in self-defense. Whatever you think about the outcome, the facts of this case and racism in America will be debated for a long time to come.
I would like to draw attention to the incredible sense of outrage and injustice that many black Americans have felt since the verdict, and the mindless episodes of violent retaliation that have ensued. Many feel a misplaced sense of “righteous” anger over this case and have taken it upon themselves to commit acts of violence in the name of Trayvon Martin. Rather than take our anger out on innocent people, I suggest that we take this indomitable energy and redirect it toward strengthening black families.
In inner cities, more than half of all black men do not finish high school (see Gary Orfield, Dropouts in America, Harvard Education Press, 2004). The number of young black men without jobs has climbed relentlessly with only a slight pause during the economic peak of the late 1990s. By 2004, the number had grown to 72 percent (see Bruce Western, Punishment and Inequality in America, Russell Sage Press, 2006).
The crack epidemic devastated many working-class and even marginally middle-class black communities in the 80s and early 90s. Among black dropouts in their late 20s, more are in prison on a given day (34 percent) than are working (30 percent; see an analysis of 2000 census data by Stephen Raphael of the University of California, Berkeley). Nearly 50 percent of all black men in their late 20s and early 30s are fathers who don’t live with their children (see Holzer, et al, Employment Barriers Facing Ex-Offenders, April 2003).
In the face of these challenges, combating the tangled web of systemic racism cannot be the sole response, since racism cannot answer the deeper, more serious questions that African Americans need to ask: Where are our husbands and fathers? Are we so preoccupied with getting drunk or high, or so obsessed with material wealth that we cannot notice what is happening to our children, to our future? Why have street gangs replaced families? Are we so busy watching pornography or sleeping around that we have become completely oblivious to the fact we are treating each other as “things” and objects, and not as equal persons made in the image and likeness of God? Do we even care? To answer these questions we must not simply look outward at the culture in order to accuse and blame. We must also take a serious look inward: we must examine ourselves and rediscover the beauty and truth of our cultural heritage. Black Catholics in particular can play a vital role in this effort by renewing our commitment to live the teachings of our Catholic faith with boldness, fidelity and enthusiasm. We must challenge the pernicious influence of contemporary culture by building upon the solid foundation of black Catholic culture that forms the heart and soul of our spiritual identity as black people. We must seek to pray and work in the spirit and faith of our ancestors, the saints (See National Black Catholic Congress, Congress IX, Spirituality Principle, 2002).
In this regard, the most critical issue that black Americans face today is also the principal threat to our existence: abortion. As a people, African Americans do a great job raising awareness around important issues such as poverty, affirmative action, racism, and civil rights, but if we continue to kill ourselves through this egregious abuse of our freedom, there will not be enough of us around for anyone to notice. When we allow abortion, we actually assist in and encourage the elimination of our race, something that hate groups could not accomplish for decades in this country. For the entire African American community, abortion is not about opinion or choice: it’s a matter of life and death.
In 2004, actor and comedian Bill Cosby gave the speech heard ‘round the world at a gala celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision. “Cosby called on black Americans to keep their self-help traditions alive. His speech challenged black people to take a hard look at poor parenting and the cultural rot preventing too many black children from throwing off the veil of ignorance covering them, a situation rooted in 21st century problems of poverty, disproportionate fatherlessness, bad schools, high rates of unemployment, and lives wasted in jail” (Juan Williams, Enough: The Phony Leaders, Dead-End Movements, and Culture of Failure That Are Undermining Black America—and What We Can Do about It, 4).
The resurgence of the black family will offer a dramatic witness to society and truly begin to break down the walls of racism. Strong black families will proclaim God’s Kingdom to a world “shackled by consumerism, mindless pleasure-seeking and irresponsible individualism—shackles of the spirit which are even more destructive than the chains of physical slavery … True freedom is found [by embracing the richness, beauty, and objective truth of our] spiritual and cultural heritage. The inspiration we draw from the great men and women of our past [our ancestors] will allow our young people to see the value of a strong family life” (Pope John Paul II, Meeting with the Black Catholics of New Orleans, no. 2). You reap what you sow: the seeds of fidelity and truth sewn in the fertile ground of authentic black culture and spirituality will yield a bountiful harvest of future generations of black families who affirm the essential goodness and rightness of black existence.
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