The struggle for racial equality in this nation is filled with empty promises, vacuous rhetoric — and excuses.
The police excuse violence against minorities as the product of simply doing their jobs. They are plagued, they say, by a few “bad apples” who tend to turn the perception of the police “barrel” into something negative.
Protestors with legitimate concerns and even more legitimate reasons to take to the streets excuse the broken glass, the fires, the looted stores by blaming their own “bad apples,” those ubiquitous “outside agitators” who apparently appear out of the ether when a legitimate movement for justice takes hold of a community, or in this case, a nation.
But the “bad apple” excuses don’t hold water. Consider this:
What if an airline, after a horrific crash, used that lame excuse. What if they said “you know, 95 percent of our pilots are highly skilled, but we have a few bad apples who just can’t land for the dickens.” (That’s a line from comedian Chris Rock, by the way.)
White people have used another excuse for generations, the old “I’m not racist because some of my friends are Black.”
It’s the kind of comment you might expect out of some members of Congress, but it serves as no excuse. Black people know it and so do white people. What a weak attempt to somehow pass the buck on generations of institutional racism that, let’s be honest, we’ve all been a part of in one way or another.
Thomas Merton recognized the vacuity of that and other excuses and wrote about them often. Back in January of 2016, Father George Kilcourse, a Merton scholar, brought the late monk’s writings on race to our attention again with a perceptive essay in the local daily newspaper.
Merton often read and quoted Harlem native and writer James Baldwin. And Father Kilcourse wrote that both the monk and the Black man of letters “knew that white liberals lacked any perception of black persons’ lives.”
“They could deal with the Negro as a symbol or a victim,” Baldwin said, “but had no sense of him as a man.”
That’s as valid an observation today as it was in the 1960s. Regardless of the good intentions in our hearts, most of us can never comprehend the simple fear that people of color face every day. It is a fear that manifests when they leave their houses; drive down a street; attempt to shop — attempt to do anything, really, that the rest of us take for granted.
We can recognize their tribulations in our heads; but we can’t seem to wrap our collective hearts around them. Like the great journalist, the late Gordon Englehart, said of his World War II experiences — “You can read all you want about the battles and wars. But unless you’ve been in them, heard the bullets and seen people die, your opinion on the matter is invalid.”
Both Pope Francis and our own leader, Archbishop Joseph Kurtz, have asked us not only to support efforts to eliminate institutional racism, but to change our very hearts.
The archbishop said we need to condemn the sin of racism “with our hearts and with our actions.” Pope Francis has encouraged us to not despair over the struggles we face in creating a more just society for everyone. “What is important,” he said, “is the frankness, the courage of our witness, of our witness to the faith.”
The calls for change in laws and regulations, in policing and public policy, are being heard throughout the land. Some positive steps — changes in police actions and tactics, for example — have actually occurred. But changing our collective hearts? That may take a while, because we’ve tolerated treating people of color poorly for four centuries.
Merton wrote, and Father Kilcourse reminded us, that the civil rights movement accentuates “not a black problem but a white problem.”
“The problem,” Merton said, “is in ourselves. It is everybody’s problem. The racial conflict is only one symptom.”
So, what to do? Let us look in the mirror; let us look into our own hearts and souls.
Let us recognize that making excuses won’t work anymore.
Record Editor Emeritus