Clergy protesting the Unite the Right Rally, August 12, 2017 (Photo: Anthony Crider)

Blackface and White Comfort: Reading The Bishops’ Letter from Charlottesville

Traditions

The US Catholic bishops’ pastoral letter Open Wide Our Hearts seeks to assuage white guilt rather than inspire a courageous stand against white supremacy.

This is the first post in a symposium on the United States Catholic Bishops’ recent pastoral letter on racism, Open Wide Our Hearts. Subsequent posts will appear in the coming weeks.

I.

“Blackface is as American as the ruling class,” Princeton historian Rhae Lynn Barnes recently wrote. She was reacting to revelations that Virginia Governor Ralph Northam and Attorney General Mark Herring admitted to wearing blackface in the 1980s, and State Senate Majority Leader Tommy Norment edited a 1968 yearbook replete with blackface. The photos and reports caused an ongoing scandal, but one that should not be too surprising to those paying attention to the home of the old Confederate capital.

Coming from Charlottesville, site of the August 12, 2017 Unite the Right “rally” that began in white supremacist bloodshed and ended in murder, it seems hardly new at all. As Barnes points out, the town’s University of Virginia fundraised with blackface performances to make up for “losing” its enslaved peoples in Reconstruction. During World War I, the university sponsored a minstrel show on the steps of the same Rotunda where a white mob chanting Nazi slogans assaulted anti-racists with lit torches on August 11, 2017. And in 2016, high-schooler Zyahna Bryant called for the removal of the town’s statue of Robert E. Lee, raising awareness that statues of Lee, Stonewall Jackson, Lewis and Clark, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and James Monroe had long put a white face on a town that was majority-enslaved during the Civil War.

It is in this context that Catholics here encounter the U.S. Bishops’ recent pastoral letter, Open Wide Our Hearts. Fresh in the minds of locals is not only the glaring absence of Catholic clergy from among the Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, and Christians who confronted the white supremacists with hymns and locked arms in front of their rally entrance, but also the Richmond bishop’s statement that afternoon praying “that those men and women on both sides can talk and seek solutions to their differences respectfully.” The message was met with instant derision, as it failed to distinguish between the culpability of the KKK and black residents, of those in Hitler shirts and Jewish clergy, of those wanting to kill queer folks and the many trans community defenders who showed up. Personally, I hoped the bishops’ letter would avoid the same mistake of holding all people equally responsible.

I was pleased to find that it did… at times. But then again, at times it did not. The document is as skittish as a guilty conscience, vacillating constantly between vague admissions of fault and specific self-praise, understandings of racism as structural and merely individual, awareness of power difference between races and claims that all are accountable for racial injustice. Since coverage of the letter has been almost uniformly laudatory, I aim to offer critical thoughts in the spirit of mutual accountability and hope for dialogue beyond reflexive affirmation.

II.

The bishops begin by rooting their approach in Trinitarian love and defining racism. “Racism arises when – either consciously or unconsciously – a person holds that his or her own race or ethnicity is superior, and therefore judges persons of other races or ethnicities as inferior and unworthy of equal regard” (3). While the recognition that racism is cultural, structural, and systemic occasionally appears, their dominant understanding is interpersonal. It is an “attitude” that “leads individuals or groups to exclude,” “a person ignor[ing] the fundamental truth” that we’re made in God’s image, and so forth. While they note intermittently that “racism can also be institutional,” both the diagnosis and remedy rely on an incomplete vision of racism residing mostly in the human heart (5). (Otherwise the letter’s title would read, “Open Wide Our Hearts, Dismantle Our Culture and Systems.”)

The bishops rightly point out gross examples of bigotry: racial profiling targets Latinx people disproportionately, nationalism creates fear of immigrants and refugees, and the Flint water crisis affects black residents most heavily. But they curiously opt not to “condemn” or “reject” any of these evils explicitly, saving those for threats to police. “We reject harsh rhetoric that belittles and dehumanizes law enforcement personnel who labor to keep our communities safe,” they write. “We also condemn violent attacks against police” (5). Dehumanization and violence are worth condemning, undoubtedly, but in a document on race it is raises questions to do so only when aimed at predominantly white law enforcement, particularly as it becomes increasingly visible that the police system dehumanizes and violently attacks people of color.

Thankfully, Bishop Anthony Taylor of Little Rock submitted an amendment to condemn the imagery of swastikas, nooses, and Confederate flags. Such a motion should be perfunctory at this moment. The bishops, however, rejected the amendment. Nooses and swastikas are already “widely recognized signs of hatred,” they reasoned – with a logic not applied to widely-scorned violence against police. As for the flag that signifies white ownership of black Americans, they claimed, “While for many the Confederate flag is also a sign of hatred and segregation, some still claim it as a sign of heritage.” Reading this letter in Charlottesville, it is instantly clear who constitutes this “some” the bishops cater to, as well as the “many” they ignore.

The letter is accurately sub-titled “A Pastoral Letter Against Racism,” because it invokes “racism” repeatedly without once mentioning the words “white supremacy.” As Bryan Massingale has noted regarding previous episcopal documents, it glosses over the specifics of racism, acknowledging yet hand-waving its systemic side (which would indict injustices against communities of color) while emphasizing its individual or group occurrences (which any race can be guilty of, in their understanding). This frees the bishops to blandly state, “All of us are in need of personal, ongoing conversion” (7), a statement that assumes equal responsibility from the indigenous and white alike for “racism.”

This tension between a vague nod to racial inequity and a persistent assumption that all are responsible for reconciliation leads to painful attempts at confession. The letter admits to wrongdoing in the passive voice, in short clauses, and in between much self-celebration, undermining the stated intent. Despite insisting on history’s importance, the bishops make a stunning effort to blur over the church’s past sins in language that leaves the agents of evil a mystery. One reads that “Native Americans experienced deep wounds” during colonization (11), that “[B]lacks encountered new forms of resentment and violence” after slavery was abolished (13), and that Latinx people “have encountered negative assumptions made about them” (15). The phrasing implies that any race – or church – could have been guilty of these crimes.

One egregious example is the treatment of Catholicism’s relationship to native peoples in the early stages of European genocide against them. “During this time there were missions that stood as a barrier to the abuse of indigenous peoples and provided a form of protection in a rapidly changing reality,” the bishops write. “Although not all encounters with missionaries were benign, a number of missionaries heroically defended Native Americans as they sought to bring the Good News of Christ to many who had yet to hear it” (12). After the couched insinuation of modest guilt, the document suddenly finds an appetite for specifics, listing Pierre-Jean de Smet, Anselm Weber, Junipero Serra, Kateri Tekakwitha, Nicholas William Black Elk, and the martyrs of La Florida Missions as examples of “heroic” encounters between the church and natives. This passage, obscene as it is to the historical record and healthy understandings of atonement, is replicated elsewhere. When admitting the most minor of racial sins against the formerly-enslaved Augustus Tolton, for example, the bishops immediately (and conveniently) emphasize his saintly will to forgive his perpetrators.

The most extended and vulnerable racial confession in the letter is worth noting. “Acts of racism have been committed by leaders and members of the Catholic Church – by bishops, clergy, religious, and laity – and her institutions,” they say in the passive voice, importantly noting the form of racism that transcends the personal level. “We express deep sorrow and regret for them. We also acknowledge those instances when we have not done enough or stood by silently when grave acts of injustice were committed. We ask for forgiveness from all who have been harmed by these sins committed in the past or the present” (22).

Compared with the previous admissions, short and embedded in praise, this is a focused acknowledgement of sin. But once again this positive direction is countered by its footnote referencing a sermon of Augustine’s, reading: “The Church as a whole says: Forgives us our trespasses! Therefore she has blemishes and wrinkles. But by means of confession the wrinkles are smoothed away and the blemishes washed clean” (22).

The clear implication is that the church is “washed clean” of its sins against those it enslaved because of a paragraph confessing to “acts of racism.” In fact, by the document’s end – and in my understanding, despite the efforts of some bishops – this document is composed in a manner that assuages white anxieties about racial responsibility. Whatever its intent, it functions to increase white comfort. At each turn, the bishops are careful not to alienate a presumed white reader dependent upon the racial status quo. As Massingale noted with the 1979 US Bishops’ letter Brothers and Sisters To Us, this answers the question implicit in the title: Open Wide Whose Hearts? The answer is: Catholics. But there follows the silent assumption that Massingale verbalizes: “’Catholic’ = ‘white.’” The response to racism for “us” whites, the Catholic Church, is to simply “open our hearts.”

A treatment of race in a white supremacist society should not make white people comfortable, yet this letter does so. It is comforting for white people talk about racism instead of white supremacy and frame the conversation in terms of Trinitarian love rather than rage at injustice. It is comforting for white people to occasionally reference the existence of systemic and cultural racism but operate overall as if the issue is (other) backwards people. It is comforting for whites to lament specific injustices against people of color yet save their true condemnation for threats to the largely white police force protecting systems serving whiteness. It is comforting for white people to insist repeatedly that “all” races need conversion and to bury monstrous race crimes under vague phraseologies and specific examples of past virtue. It is comforting for white people to speak of race atrocities in a passive voice that erases the perpetrator and imply that these stories should end in saintly forgiveness against the wrongdoer. It is comforting for white people to headline a list of groups who have been targeted for racial prejudice with – yes – the Irish and Italians (10). And finally, it is comforting for white people to skip over reparations in the reconciliation process and claim that an abridged confession washes the white conscience clean.

III.

When Reverend Traci Blackmon preached in Charlottesville on August 11, 2017 in preparation for the coming violence, she called for prophets who will “speak love in the face of hatred.” She described a conflictual love, one which confronts and increases tension. In fact, she insisted Christians can learn from David beheading Goliath. Channeling a holy rage at encountering the KKK again decades after childhood, she yelled that this time, “We must not relent until we cut the head off!

Open Wide Our Hearts has its virtues, such as naming racism as a life issue, and I assume others in this symposium will address them. I think it more important to note that it fails Reverend Blackmon’s litmus test. It roots itself in love, but a love that will not even confront the Confederate flag or assert that Black Lives Matter. Blackmon’s rage at injustice is wholly absent in the document. Rather than making racial power brokers uncomfortable, it coddles them. When Catholic Congressman Steve King asked what was wrong with white supremacy recently, his bishop recommended he read this letter. But King will look in vain for one mention of what is wrong with white supremacy because the bishops will not so much as utter those words. If it cannot directly answer such a brazenly racist question from an openly bigoted man, it is a spectacular failure, not worthy of the people threatened by the problem it claims to address. 

Photos of blackface will disappear in tomorrow’s news cycle but the white culture co-created by the Catholic Church will continue mocking and killing people of color, as it has for centuries. If blackface is as American as the ruling class, we can say that white supremacy is as Catholic as the white church’s unwillingness to own up to it. Our hope in such a situation, I think, is in attending to those like Reverend Blackmon, envisioning and embodying an uncomfortable “courage to speak love in the face of hatred.” If white Catholics seek to address this life issue, they must learn to locate their teachers in those figures.

Open Wide Our Hearts

Symposium Essays

Blackface and White Comfort: Reading The Bishops’ Letter from Charlottesville

The US Catholic bishops’ pastoral letter Open Wide Our Hearts seeks to assuage white guilt rather than inspire a courageous stand against white supremacy.

MT Davila

The Conversion of Hearts and the Sin of Racism

In Open Wide Our Hearts, the US Catholic bishops successfully describe how racism has historically been at the heart of American life, but the pastoral letter emphasizes personal conversion at the expense of structural transformation.

Cary Dabney

Open Wide Our Hearts—The Ups and the Downs

The United States Catholic bishops’ recent pastoral letter on racism shows how racism has been woven into the history of the US, and is honest about the Church’s past complicity in that racism. It says less about how Catholics today can combat systemic racism, but offers hope for fruitful dialogues throughout the country.

KC Choi

Where Have All the Asians Gone?

Although recognizing the discrimination faced by Chinese and Japanese Americans in the past, Open Wide Our Hearts could say more on the experience of Asian Americans as “model minorities” within the system of white racism.

Shawnee Daniels-Sykes

Dismantling White Privilege: A Reflection on Open Wide Our Hearts

Since the arrival of the first African slaves at Jamestown in 1619, Eurocentric racist ideals and practices have been embedded in the culture of the United States. The Church must learn from the history of racism in the United States if it is to dismantle systemic racism.

2 thoughts on “Blackface and White Comfort: Reading The Bishops’ Letter from Charlottesville

  1. Just wanted to elevate the voices of folks of color that have been critical. Fr. Joesph Brown, SJ had an excellent conversation as a guest on NCR’s podcast (https://www.ncronline.org/news/opinion/ncr-conversation/ncr-podcast-unpacking-us-bishops-pastoral-letter-racism). Olga Segura of America Magazine has been covering the letter since its release & always includes POC in her articles (https://www.americamagazine.org/voices/olga-segura). I attended a lecture earlier this week on the letter, and the presenter mentioned how notable it was that the bishops did not see fit to include a section on White Catholic experience that grappled with what had been done & why.

  2. Thank you for this important critique. When I go to inner city rallies called by black parents whose son was killed by white cops I am always stunned by the lack of white people there. When I confront white friends about showing up for racial justice and putting their bodies in a justice situation they say it is too dangerous to confront white police in a poor black neighborhood when they are white. This by people who claim they believe in heaven and that the 10 commandments can be summarized by love God and love your neighbor. Christians, listening to Jesus is to listen to our black neighbors. Come to them to listen.

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