How the church can recognize the legacy of slavery and move toward reconciliation

Rep. Frederica Wilson, D-Fla., Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas and Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., at a ceremony to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the first recorded arrival of enslaved African people in America, on Sept. 10 on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)Rep. Frederica Wilson, D-Fla., Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas and Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., at a ceremony to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the first recorded arrival of enslaved African people in America, on Sept. 10 on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

Over the past 20 years, Catholic institutions and leaders have made real efforts toward racial reconciliation. Examples include the U.S. bishops’ anti-racism pastoral letter “Open Wide Our Hearts” in 2018; the formation of the Ad Hoc Committee Against Racism in 2017; individual statements from church leaders, including Bishop Edward K. Braxton’s 2016 pastoral letter on the Black Lives Matter movement; religious men and women acknowledging their history with slavery, including the Jesuits in 2016 and three orders of nuns in Kentucky in 2000; and the U.S. bishops’ 2001 collection of essays Love Thy Neighbor As Thyself.

“Open Wide Our Hearts” acknowledges the need for U.S. Catholics to fully reckon with the sin of slavery: “The generational effects of slavery, segregation, and the systemic use of violence—including the lynching of more than 4,000 black men, women, and children across 800 different counties throughout the United States between 1877 and 1950—are realities that must be fully recognized and addressed in any process that hopes to combat racism.” The pastoral letter was accompanied by resources to educate Catholics about racism and its effects on education, employment, housing and migration; guides for clergy to lead discussions on race; and educational material for students at all levels.

These efforts are helpful, but the church can do more. And this summer, The New York Times provided a template worth considering.

The U.S. church can create an accurate timeline of its history and relationship with slavery—rather than waiting for the secular media to do it.

The 1619 Project was published to commemorate the 400th anniversary of what many historians believe was the first transport of African slaves to the European colonies that would become the United States. That summer, two English privateer ships attacked Portuguese vessels and captured 20 to 30 enslaved Africans. In August of that year, the White Lion arrived in present-day Virginia, and its crew sold several Africans to the colonists as indentured servants. Eventually, more than 12 million Africans were forcibly transported during the trans-Atlantic slave trade, including about 380,000 who were taken directly to North America. By 1860, the slave population in the United States had grown to four million.

The extensive work by Nikole Hannah-Jones, who spearheaded the project, and other writers, historians, sociologists and photographers traces this history. They argue that no part of American life is untouched by the legacy of slavery, from our prison system to our daily traffic jams (the result, in part, of segregationist housing patterns). In an interview about the project, Ms. Hannah-Jones said that it is for “Americans who are not black, so that they could understand this history and ongoing legacy and really reckon with our true identity as a country and who we really are. I wanted to reframe the way that we see this history and the way that we see ourselves.”

The 1619 Project was published to commemorate the 400th anniversary of what many historians believe was the first transport of African slaves to the European colonies that would become the United States.

Black worshipers have always been part of the Catholic Church in the United States and yet, as Tia Noelle Pratt recently wrote in America, there is often “incredulousness that surrounds the very idea that black people are Catholic.” Rather than serve as a safe space for black Catholics, Ms. Pratt writes that the church has become “a place where [racial] segregation is heightened and perpetuated.” She argues, however, that there is still time for the church to show black Catholics—and all black Americans—that it is committed to racial justice.

One way to do this would be by using the 1619 Project as a teaching moment and as a model for the church’s own efforts toward reconciliation. Here are two ways that can happen.

First, the U.S. church can create an accurate timeline of its history and relationship with slavery. While the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops provides great resources, as mentioned above, there is a need to clarify which Catholic institutions had connections to slavery; which bishops or other members of the clergy used enslaved persons as free labor; which Vatican documents were used to condemn or support slavery; and what the official church teaching was on slavery.

In my own research, I have come across history I was unfamiliar with, including the 1452 papal bull by Pope Nicholas V, “Dum Diversas,” that granted Afonso V, the king of Portugal, “full and free power, through the Apostolic authority by this edict, to invade, conquer, fight, subjugate the Saracens and pagans, and other infidels and other enemies of Christ,” language that was used by Catholics at that time to justify the institution of slavery. I also found “In supremo apostolatus,” a decree by Pope Gregory XVI in 1839 condemning slavery. Creating and making publicly available an accurate timeline that acknowledges such history would be beneficial to Catholics and better than waiting for the secular media to do it.

Second, the church can conduct a nationwide study asking Catholics how well they understand slavery and whether they believe its effects are still being felt today. An example of what such a study would look like was conducted by The Washington Post in July. The poll surveyed 1,025 U.S. adults and found that 67 percent agree that the legacy of slavery still affects U.S. society today a “great deal” or “fair amount.” The study found that younger Americans were more likely to agree, but it did not include data on religious affiliation. The church could conduct a similar study among U.S. Catholics.

Making this kind of research readily available for Catholics would be a concrete way for church leaders to follow up on the call to action they issued in “Open Wide Our Hearts.” By engaging in historical study like this, the church and its leaders can continue to show their commitment to eradicating racism in the United States and, as Ms. Hannah-Jones said, help to “reframe the way that we see this history and the way that we see ourselves.”

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Tim O'Leary
1 year 1 month ago

Patrick - thanks very much for the link on the African slaves in Spanish Florida. Very revealing and certainly adds to the argument that the modern view is myopic and even more demeaning of African-Americans.

E.Patrick Mosman
1 year 2 months ago

The idea of paying reparations or offering an apology to someone who was never a slave by those who never owned a slave is ludicrous. How would eligibility be determined? Would an apology or reparations be limited to only those that can prove conclusively that the are direct descendants of two slave families or would or would would anyone with even a trace evidence of African heritage in a DNA test be eligible? Since none of today's potentially eligible recipients were slaves perhaps reparations should be a one-way flight ticket to their ancestors home country. The financial settlement would be met by the tribe that sold their ancestors to the slave traders.

Tim O'Leary
1 year 1 month ago

Patrick - I agree with all your points. Alas, I think the purpose of politicians raising the issue is never to actually get reparations per se, but to keep the country embroiled in racial identity politics. It is useful to the Democratic Party to keep their voters in line, like in the old plantation days. Notice further that the blackface controversy is exposing the hypocrisy of liberal or Democratic politicians. Trudeau blamed white privilege for his multiple lapses in this new-found identity crime. Rather than face up to his own personal infringement, he used the "white privilege" excuse, meaning "it is not me, but my tribe that is responsible. My tribe needs to pay so I don't sin again."

Dr.Cajetan Coelho
1 year 1 month ago

Thus wrote Mahatma Gandhi: "No one chains a slave without chaining himself".

Tim O'Leary
1 year 1 month ago

Another consequence of this privilege of victimization is that people make things up to get points or rewards. We all know the Tawana Brawley story of old, and the Jussie Smollett, Covington Kids and Rachel Dolezal episodes. Here is another one from 2 days ago, trying to implicate Karen Pence along the way : Girl Who Claimed Hair Was Cut in Racist Attack Admits She Made It Up (link below to original story and Wapo correction). This can only happen if there is a sense of privilege in being a victim.

https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/education/virginia-sixth-grader-now-says-she-falsely-accused-classmates-of-cutting-her-hair/2019/09/30/ad0cbd92-e390-11e9-a331-2df12d56a80b_story.html
https://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/3-boys-christian-school-where-karen-pence-teaches-allegedly-cut-n1059461

Judith Jordan
1 year 1 month ago

Tim O'Leary---
Yes, we do all know about Tawana Brawley, etc. Why do you ignore all the many more numerous cases where black people were mistreated by law enforcement and others?

Tim O'Leary
1 year 1 month ago

Judith - I repudiate all mistreatment or selective treatment of anyone based on the color of their skin, including the mistreatment of black people by white & black police. Notice how many times this is not just a white-black thing. ... Oh, I forgot. You cannot see it when it is not a black-white thing.

Judith Jordan
1 year 1 month ago

Tim O'Leary---

Will you ever tire of making false statements about me? Since you seem to want to keep the church and its members on the right path, I assume you know about that little thing known as “not bearing false witness.”

You say you repudiate all mistreatment of anyone based on color of skin, etc. Glad to hear it. I just wondered why you only cited cases about abuse of whites and not any about abuse of blacks.

Tim O'Leary
1 year 1 month ago

Judith - I only cited the examples that I think might make you turn away from judging a people based on the color of their skin. I have not consciously been a false witness to any of your positions. I truly believe you and many of your ideological allies mean to use the term "white privilege" in a pejorative judgmental way for a group of people only in that group by the color of their skin, and not by anything they have done as individuals. You don't like because it exposes a race-based system.

J Jones
1 year 1 month ago

Tim, I appreciate that you clarified your understanding of "white privilege". It appears to me that we have vastly different understandings.

White privilege is institutionalized and systemic. That means white privilege is extended to, received by, experienced by and protected for white people who often have ZERO idea it is happening AND who do not want it AND who object to it.

It happens to me frequently. I don't want it to happen; I seek to avoid it; I object to it. And still it happens to me frequently because my skin is white. My white skin is not my fault. I do not feel "guilty" about my white skin. I do not feel "burdened" by the privilege extended to me because of my white skin.

What I do believe is that I am responsible for noticing when I am being offered privilege because of my white skin. I believe I am responsible for declining that white privilege. I believe I am responsible for doing this in a way that communicates clearly that that responsibility belongs to me and the system/person(s) extending it to me and NOT to the African American person or persons who are denied the privilege extended to me because of my white skin a d who may be aware of and unhappy about it. The extension of privilege to me is the problem; any feeling or reaction an African American might have about the privilege extended to me is absolutely NOT the problem.

I offered an example the other day. I joined a Catholic ministry with the understanding I would be co-leader with an African American woman who been successfully performing the role for two years before I moved to town. A week into my volunteer service, we had the monthly board meeting. The board members, all of them white, asked me to provide a program update. Again, I had been volunteering for ONE WEEK. I deferred to my co-leader, explicitly noting her expertise and her tenure. I informed them that she was orienting me and that she and I would inform them when we felt I had learned enough to begin sharing the task of updating them. I closed my mouth, put my hands in my lap and turned to face my co-leader. Later, a board member stated she had picked up new organizational credit cards, checks and other banking documents. The board member gave me the deposit bag. I gave the bag to my co-leader and, again, closed my mouth, put my hands in my lap and looked around, waiting for the next topic.

I did not feel burdened. I did not feel guilty. I had done nothing to warrant guilt or a sense of burden.

I do believe it was absolutely my responsibility to refuse the privilege being offered me, a stranger to these people who knew nothing about me beyond my brief participation in Mass and what I had told them about my interest and my history. What I was was a white stranger and they handed over the ministry's credit card and a check book and asked for a monthly update from a person who had been around for a week. It was my responsibililty, having noticed those realities, to refuse to participate in what I recognize was almost certainly unconscious racism and an unconscious extension of white privilege to me. It was my responsibility to refuse the white privilege of receiving their unearned, unjustified, irresponsible and reckless trust. It was my responsibility to be fair to my new African-American colleague by communicating to everyone in the room, including her, that SHE **had** earned their trust; that I knew I had not; and that I would not participate in even an appearance that, immediately after I walked through the door, I deserved the trust she had earned through two years of hard and high-quality work.

Again, I do not "feel guilty" about or "burdened by" my white skin. I do believe I am accountable to acknowldge and reject the reality of living in my white skin: it often gains me privileges. White privilege, when it is extended to me, is evidence of racism. Neither is just, and I believe I am morally obligated to actively repudiate both when I recognize them.

Learning about and refusing to accept white privilege is the exact OPPOSITE of the navel-gazing you accused me of earlier. Learning about and refusing white privilege is about white people looking up from our own belly buttons, looking past our own egos and goals and wishes and plans. (I had a brief moment, in that board meeting, of being excited to be included so immediately; of feeling flattered that they trusted me; of believing I was so competent I could provide a program update after one week; and then conscience spoke: these were (un/conscious) compliments to my whiteness, not to me, just as racism is an (un/conscious) criticism of Blackness. Rather than gazing at our belly buttons, i am saying we need to look up at the world around us AS IT EXISTS and notice when injustice benefits us and then refuse those benefits as an integral step to ensuring justice for our African American sisters and brothers.

Tim O'Leary
1 year 1 month ago

JJ - I have been using the same meaning of "white privilege" in all my earlier comments (about MLK, Trudeau, democratic candidates, and racial animosity) that I am amazed it took this long for you to get the point. From your personal story in the Catholic ministry, I can see how very conscious you are of your race and that of your co-leader. Notice you only identified your colleague by race and sex. In human relations, many people make trust judgments based on looks, language, accent, skin or hair color, clothes, tatoos, wealth, personality, age, sex, race and religion, etc. This occurs in every society that has ever existed. Everyone should be sensitive to these biases (privileges & prejudices) and take responsibility to reduce them, and be willing to take the time to judge people by their character instead (cf. MLK).
However, notice how you have fixated on race alone in your story? That race consciousness is by your own admission in you. It is so easy then to project that race categorization on everyone around you, and judge them all by their skin color. You have denied them the presumption of innocence and the courtesy to make that judgment for themselves, to grow for themselves. We can all make personal mistakes and be in a different place when it comes to racial prejudice. But, to advance these racial preoccupations into law, as most of the Democratic candidates have suggested (with reparations, etc.) is to only re-institutionalize race consciousness. It is so counter-productive. It revives a Jim-Crow-like racial system that will only delay the day to MLK's dream.

JR Cosgrove
1 year 1 month ago

Tim, A few things, trying to reason with liberals on this site is a thankless effort. Your comments are nearly always insightful, so I really appreciate them. Second I came across an article the other day from 8 years ago about trying to have a discussion with a liberal especially with those who comment on the internet. It nearly always leads no where. http://bit.ly/2McZE7t . Third here is an analysis of the 1619 project by a historian that makes it look like a farce http://bit.ly/2LJxZvM

Tim O'Leary
1 year 1 month ago

J Cosgrove - thanks for the links, especially the 3rd one which has this quote: "[A]pproximately half of the 500,000 European immigrants to the thirteen colonies prior to 1775 paid for their passage with indenturement contracts. Anthony Johnson, a black Angolan, was typical – he entered Virginia as an indentured servant in 1621, became a free man after the term of his contract, acquired land, and became among the first actual slaveholders in the colonies.." and
"It was not until 1662 that the children of such slaves became legally slaves rather than free men, in a law passed in Virginia. The African slave trade itself was minor until King Charles II established the Royal African Company with a monopoly on the slave trade to the colonies. As late as 1735, the Colony of Georgia passed a law outlawing slavery, which was repealed due to a labor shortage in 1750. The boom in the import of slaves actually began around 1725, with half of all imported slaves arriving between then and the onset of the American Revolution in 1775."
Everyone should read the full post.
The problem with the NYT and their adherents is they seem to have little interest in the history of slavery per se, but only in its utility to further advance race-conscious policies.

J Jones
1 year 1 month ago

Tim, the dismantling of institutionalized, systemic racism and its twin sin white privilege requires that whites refuse each other at this very late date the institutionalized expectation that both African Americans and white Americans should tolerate disrespect and/or mistreatment and/or the dismissal of African Americans so as to avoid hurt feelings by white Americans who "are in a different place when it comes to racial prejudice" is racist and a perfect example of white privilege.

And it is why, in 2019, justice requires this focused attention. This is the moment. Yesterday was the moment. Tomorrow is a moment too late.

I pray the editors continue to publish articles on this topic. Great piece, Olga.

Tim O'Leary
1 year 1 month ago

I too like that the editors can post these article and permit such extensive comments, as it may be the only place JJ and Judith and others actually read the arguments against perpetuating race-based policies. We may not convince them since racial thinking can be so ingrained that they carry it to the grave. But, just an opportunity to air the issues can sow the seed of an eventual reform.

Bru Romn
1 year 1 month ago

Looking for serious replies on my thought....though I have not thoroughly read the Bible I try to read the daily readings presented on the Vatican website along with the Pope remarks and news. But does not everything in at least the New Testament of Jesus NOT really having an issue of Slavery, but just condemning the Masters for not treating them fairly etc etc. I seriously believe there is a segment of the population that would benefit from slavery on a volunteer basis. An analogy would be when I was in the Navy back in 1974, I had a welder who basically would not have been employable in what I called the real world or as a civilian. He had lousy skills, was happy for a place to ‘bunk’ and of course the navy feed him and did his laundry. I call this a form of slavery, and he got paid well. ( Master treating his slaves well. It’s almost like the farm workers in California many years ago too.

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