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Ferguson & the Social Sin of Racism

The New York Times has a useful timeline of events in Ferguson, Missouri since the August 9 killing of Michael Brown. Grantland's Rembert Browne has a gripping and harrowing personal account of his first 48 hours reporting in Ferguson. Recent racial profiling data from the office of the Missouri Attorney General gives a statistical snapshot of the institutionalized racism that exists in Ferguson. The Wall Street Journal reports that in a city where 2/3 of the residents are African-American, 50 of 53 police officers are white. By following #Ferguson on Twitter, not only can you get up-to-the-minute reporting of events on the ground, you also can get an introduction to a slew of talented journalists like the Washington Post's Wesley Lowery, the New Yorker's Jelani Cobb, the Atlantic's Ta-Nehisi Coates, the Boston Globe's Akilah Johnson and others who can answer (and often, already have) just about any question you might have about the crisis centered on Ferguson.

I know a priest who once began a sermon on Matthew 25:31-46 by noting that in 30 years of ministry, every conversation he'd had about this parable eventually---and usually quickly---turned to the question, "Does that mean I have to give change to every beggar who asks?".  Similarly, almost every discussion of institutionalized racism in America today eventually ends up with someone saying, "Are you calling me a racist?  Because I didn't/don't have anything to do with _____ (fill in the blank: slavery, Jim Crow, racially exclusive housing covenants, Ferguson....).

With all due respect, as the US Catholic bishops noted 35 years ago in their pastoral letter "Brothers and Sisters to Us", that's not the point when we're talking about the social sin of racism:

The structures of our society are subtly racist, for these structures reflect the values which society upholds. They are geared to the success of the majority and the failure of the minority. Members of both groups give unwitting approval by accepting things as they are. Perhaps no single individual is to blame. The sinfulness is often anonymous but nonetheless real. The sin is social in nature in that each of us, in varying degrees, is responsible. All of us in some measure are accomplices. As our recent pastoral letter on moral values states: "The absence of personal fault for an evil does not absolve one of all responsibility. We must seek to resist and undo injustices we have not caused, lest we become bystanders who tacitly endorse evil and so share in guilt in it."

"Brothers and Sisters to Us" is dated in some parts, and prone to an overuse of the quasi-diplomatic language that often affects documents written by committee; but in many places it remains relentlessly, prophetically clear-eyed and sober-minded:

Racism is an evil which endures in our society and in our Church....

Racism is a sin....

Racism has been part of the social fabric of America since its European colonization....

Racism is unemployment housing the population in our the attitudes and behavior of some law enforcement officials....

Racism is not merely one sin among many; it is a radical evil that divides the human family and denies the new creation of a redeemed world. To struggle against it demands an equally radical transformation, in our own minds and hearts as well as in the structure of our society....

As Catholics we're heirs to a long tradition of moral reasoning that recognizes the existence and values the importance of institutions, and of society as a whole.  We also recognize the existence of sin---both individual and social.  Maybe we can draw upon those resources to help ourselves, and the rest of the nation, to get over the "...but I'm not a're not calling me a racist, are you..." kneejerk response, and get on with the necessary work of repentance and reparation for the sin of institutionalized racism.



Commenting Guidelines

Maybe one of Commonweal's African-American contributors will contribute something on Ferguson & and Social Sin of Racism.

The situation breaks my heart.  How can we end up with face-offs in the street, in the year 2014?  Did the last 50 years accomplish nothing?


No, Jim, nothing has changed in 50 years.  In 1964, the Daughters of Charity, who lived at their provincialate in Normandy, just down the road from Ferguson, spent a lot of time visiting the poor at Pruett-Igoe, tha notorious housing project.  They noticed the nearly total lack of men.  (Due to ADC regulations.)  The children were feral and seemed to live on popcorn.

Those children are now the grandparents of men like Michael Brown.  A woman interviewed for one of the Post-Dispatch's many stories on the shooting talked about how the women work, the men stay home smoking dope, and the children run wild and destroy property.  She said they cuss out anyone who objects.  


Would love to hear from the Daughters of Charity now?  What have they tried to do to change this *dynamic*?

Big disappointment - have you seen one catholic pastor or the STL archbishop in any news coverage; walking with the Ferguson families; participating in the religious leadership meetings?  Why not?

STL, like other Midwest and Northeast cities that are more than 50% catholic have done little over the decades to address this ingrained cultural and societal differences.  Have you ever wondered why some very catholic cities historically have had significant and violent reactions to efforts to address racism e.g. Boston busing for one example; .  Appears that the catholic church merely moved to the upper middle class suburbs along with the white population and left behind crumbling and now closing schools and parish churches?  Why?

I fear it may be behind a subscriber wall, but if it's accessible, please do read Steve Chapman's Chicago Tribune column from Sunday, August 17th.  It is as clear and straightforward a description as I can imagine of how something like what is happening in Ferguson can come about.  What makes it remarkable is that Chapman is not a political liberal; he is a libertarian with a conscience.  

Bill d - a very pertinent point.


One of the things that I have sadly learned in the last few days of police executions and race riots in Ferguson MO is that Dred Scott - the 19th century slave who unsuccessfully sued for his and his family's freedom - is buried in nearby St. Louis City.

Talk about things coming around full circle!  It would appear that little has changed for African Americans in Missouri since the time of Dred Scott.  African American life is obviously not of the same value as it is for the entrenched whites who despite their minority status still exert a political hegemony over people of color.

The Dred Scott decision is arguably the most heinous, racist and specious judicial decision in American history.  While Chief Justice Roger Taney - himself an owner of a slave plantation in Maryland's tobacco growing region not far from my boyhood home - thought he would settle the slavery question once and for all, but as we know he only set the burning match to the powder keg explosion of the Civil War.

Why hasn't the local prosecutor there in Missouri already charge Officer Darren Wilson with homicide?  No Justice!  No Peace!

Why hasn't the Ferguson MO Police Chief Thomas Jackson been summarily removed especially after he released the video of the petty burglary at the convenience store that had no relation to the murder of Michael Brown in the middle of the street?  No Justice!  No Peace!

Why is MO Gov. Jay Nixon calling in the National Guard which will only inflame the local population to take matters into their own hands because?  No Justice!  No Peace!

It seems that we're back at the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma AL.  It's 1965 all over again!

I have my doubts that even the senseless death of this young man Michael Brown will wake us up to the pernicious racism that infects our culture.

Here is what just one Daughter of Charity in Missouri has been doing, and for several decades. And despite their fewer numbers there are many Daughters in Missouri and throughout the US who are engaged in similar apostolates.

Jim Pauwels:  can you copy and paste it?

John - beautiful story; know her and the other DCs that currently are on the board and have supported this ministry for years.  The previous Guardian Angel Settlement president was my good friend, Rev. Ed Murphy, CM, who was one year behind me in the seminary.  Ed with the board was able to raise enough funds to build and complete and open a new center two years ago. (  And, yes, the DCs have left and are leaving significant marks in the local community in the Soulard area of STL - you might also want to see the current efforts of the combined CM and DC volunteeer corps that resides in a former CM apartment building in that neighborhood dating back to the mid-1980s.  The hope (pending STL city council approval) is that the matching apartment building next door will be granted approval to be the next DePaul House (you have posted on the achievements of the same type of organization in Macon, GA).

My point - the DCs (because of lack of vocations; money to support the motherhouse in Normandy (face it - the old time gigantic administration buildings, etc. are dying out); and changing demographics and ministries abandoned the Ferguson areas of STL (they sold their buildings to Univ. of Missouri, STL - *litle Rome of the West* - )

and refocused efforts elsewhere in STL (e.g. Soulard area with Hosea House, joint CM/DC volunteer corps; Guardian Angel Settlement House, working with St. Vincent's Parish, etc.  These decisions have to be made - it is reality but we now also see that without the ministry of the DCs; the catholic church left a gap in northern STL county....and the archdiocese does not appear to have ever tried to fill that gap or address the needs of those communities.  Historically, it appears that the high point of the DCs did lead to establishing Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish in Ferguson but you see no catholic presence or statements from this parish staff, parishioners, etc.??  There is also Blessed Teresa of Calcutta Parish (  

Example that doesn't exactly inspire me:

"Locally, our Interfaith Partnership of Greater St. Louis (of which Archbishop Robert J. Carlson is chairman), is publically imploring us to keep asking the hard questions and diligently move toward solutions (see page 2). This must include prayer for peace as a means to healing. Blessed Teresa of Calcutta Parish got it right Aug. 11 when parishioners gathered around the church's Lourdes grotto to pray the Rosary."   REALLY???  Got it right???

In terms of current ministries:

In addition, have a former seminary student; now CM priest, working at St. Vincent's and Hosea House;  a former formation director colleague is the vice principal at Vincent Gray Alternative High School; another former seminary student is the director of a non-profit Habit for Humanity type project building a home every six months.


Why hasn't the local prosecutor there in Missouri already charge Officer Darren Wilson with homicide?  No Justice!  No Peace!

Justice is not determined by a family or its lawyers.  Maybe there is no evidence to support a homicide charge.  Should Wilson be sacrificed to the demands of Brown's family?   How would that work?

It will be interesting to see which theories hold up and which claims collapse.  Even Michael Baden points out that Brown could have been "charging" the officer when he was shot in the head.  Given his treatment of the store clerk, it's not beyond belief.  

Baden's autopsy findings also call into question Brown's friend's account of what happened.

Angela - looks like the same Steve Chapman article is here at Townhall.Com; I believe it should be accessible to folks here who wish to read it.


Thanks everyone for the comments and the links.  Among other things, it brings to mind another line the pastor I cited in the post was fond of using:  "Be careful about pointing the finger at others because when you point one finger, you've got three fingers pointing back at you."  (Try it.)

This Pew Research Center poll provides grim illustration of that fact.  It shows that less than 40% of non-Hispanic whites polled agree that Mr. Brown's death at the hands of Officer Wilson raises important issues about race in America.

It's a reminder that America doesn't have a race problem; we have a racism problem.  And that it's not a problem African-Americans have to take more seriously; it's a problem European-Americans need to take more seriously.

Thank you, Jim.

From Luke's post:

The Wall Street Journal reports that in a city where 2/3 of the residents are African-American, 50 of 53 police officers are white. 

Megan McArdle provides an explanation of how this imbalance came about.  The underlying narrative seems to be one of racial change, as a majority-white town became majority-African-American.  Walter Russell Mead expands a bit on this point:

One of the problems in Ferguson seems to be the indirect result of progressive civil service policies and lifetime tenure for state and local employees. In the bad old days of Tammany Hall, when a new ethnic group surged into a city, it would quickly achieve political control and then set about firing all the old teachers, cops, and firemen and handing those jobs out to loyal members of the reigning political machine. There are a lot of problems with what used to be called the “spoils system” (a reference to the old saying “To the victor belong the spoils,” meaning that the winner of the election gets the jobs, government contracts and other goodies), and a return to it wouldn’t make this a better country—but this is how so many cities have ended up with police forces (and teachers and other government workers) of a different race or ethnicity than the community around them. Over and over again, we’ve seen how feelings of mistrust and mutual disrespect surge when these disparities reach a certain point.

This explanation of how the imbalance came about seems believable.  What that explanation doesn't address is what to do about it.  Rembert Browne's Grantland piece to which Luke linked in his post is an extremely vivid impressionist portrait of the distrust between African-American residents and the mostly-white police.  This lack of trust surely is one of the primary issues facing African Americans and seems to play out in community after community, even if it doesn't boil over into protests and rioting.  It has been a problem for as long as I've been following the news during my lifetime, and surely it goes back for decades (or longer) before that.  Perhaps this is an area where churches, including the Catholic church, and other community organizations can play a role?  Can the church help to build trust?  There are initiatives already in flight.  Can the church do more?


I see by the latest news reports four items:

1)  A store video showing the shooting victim stealing a box of what are apparently small cigars, commonly used to make blunts.

2)  The same store video showing the shooting victim shoving and bullying either the store owner or a store clerk.

3) One of the three autopsies  indicating the presence of marijuana in the shooting victim's blood.

4)  One or more of the autopsies seems to be indicating that all but one of the shots entered the front of the shooting victim's body, and the sixth appears to have entered the top of the head, which may (or may not) indicate that the shooting victm was coming toward the police officer with his head down.  Item 4 may or may not be established as fact.


Oh, well, he  stole some blunts and had some weed in his system. Good thing that cop shot him 6 times.

Don't you ever get tired of being you, Schwartz?



Gerelyn posted:

In 1964, the Daughters of Charity, who lived at their provincialate in Normandy, just down the road from Ferguson, spent a lot of time visiting the poor at Pruett-Igoe, tha notorious housing project.  They noticed the nearly total lack of men.  (Due to ADC regulations.)  The children were feral and seemed to live on popcorn. Those children are now the grandparents of men like Michael Brown.  A woman interviewed for one of the Post-Dispatch's many stories on the shooting talked about how the women work, the men stay home smoking dope, and the children run wild and destroy property.

This kind of thing has been increasing ever since the War on Poverty began, and It is a virtual guarentee that huge numbers of young men of color are going to go off the rails and end up like the shooting victim.  And if it continues, and I see no indication that it won't, this nation will go down, especially since white people seem to want increasingly to follow the lead of people of color.  It is the morality of the citizenry that will determine whether this nation stands.  Does anyone remember the slogan "Women don't need a husband to raise a child"?  One of the most destructive slogans ever unleashed in the world.

A lot of talk about Molotov cocktails but with 2000 TV camaras, press camaras, and citizen cell phone camaras, we have no pictures of thown  burning cocktails  or even burnt ground or glass.  I think we are being fed BS.

@Jim Pauwels - Thanks for the links.  As for what Catholics---and specifically, white Catholics---can do?  One way for Ferguson area Catholics to help in the current situation might be by joining the protests. 

@Bob Schwartz - Thanks for your comments, but as long as European-Americans persist in turning discussions about the social sin of institutionalized racism into discussions of the moral failings of individual African-Americans, then it's going to be difficult (if not impossible) to get at the root of the problem.

"This lack of trust ...has been a problem for as long as I've been following the news during my lifetime, and surely it goes back for decades (or longer) before that.  Perhaps this is an area where churches, including the Catholic church, and other community organizations can play a role?"

Jim P, Look up the history of Matt Ahmann and the National Catholic Conference on Interracial Justice. That was based in Chicago. Which had several parishes, like Milwaukee's St. Boniface, that were nationally known in the civil rights movement.  There was a time. Bernard Law, before he got near a red beanie, was getting death threats as editor of the Mississippi Catholic. His boss was Archbishop Thomas Toolan, whose memory should be happier and better known. Msgr. George Higgins was everywhere Roy Wilkins went. Higgins was one of yours, too. Philip Berrigan got his start working in that area; that is what his order the Josephites, did.

I could wax randomly nostalgic and threaten to do so, but to cut to a point: The Church was active, even if the folks who were most active were constantly reported to their bishop or delated to Rome, depending on their rank. The Church was active, but it had plenty of opposition within. What it had without were the principles Luke Hill lays out at the end of his post.

One might, if he were an historian looking for tenure, trace the rhetoric and personalities of Catholic reaction, pro and con, to the civil rights movement and see how much overlap there was to the different sides that formed during and after liturgical reform. I think such an historian wil find extensive (but not complete) commonality.

It has become much harder for priests to find someone to cover their Masses so they can get out and about and help with issues beyond parish borders, but that doesn't let the laity off the hook. Plenty, like Luke, are out there, but without a collar they are known by their organizations, not their church. IMHO, though,we have raised a generation of needy and needful Catholics whose personal needs (in their mind) trump "Brothers and Sisters to Us."






As for what Catholics---and specifically, white Catholics---can do?  One way for Ferguson area Catholics to help in the current situation might be by joining the protests. 

FWIW - I'm sure I haven't followed the story as closely as many other folks here, but the snippets of video I've seen on the evening news show that the protesters aren't uniformly African-American; there are whites marching with them.  

I am not sure that joining the protests would help build trust between residents and the police.  How would the one bring about the other?


Why in God's name should the protestors trust the police!?!

Tom, I'm sorta embarrassed to say that I had never heard of the NCCIJ nor Matt Ahman.  Here is his obit, I hope it isn't behind a subscriber wall.  

(As a sort of aside, although it also relates to my comment in the next paragraph: when Ahman passed away, I was in deacon formation.  I'm fuzzy on the exact timeline now, but it's entirely possible that our coursework that year included a mandated course (mandated by Cardinal George, who had earned a reputation in an earlier ecclesiastic post as a builder of bridges between races and ethnicities and came to Chicago wanting to do the same) on racism and easing racial tensions.  If Ahman and his work ever came up in the course, I don't recall it now.  It focused more on current intra-church initiatives to build bridges between African-American and white Catholics, initiatives like the Sharing Parish program that continue today and are doing good work.)

I offer this comment as a comment, not an excuse: I missed pretty much the whole civil rights movement, at least anything that happened before the late 60s and early 70s, because I wasn't old enough.  As a point of comparison: when I was a recent college grad, not yet married and pretty much unburdened by any responsibility, I once spent an enjoyable Saturday afternoon in a tavern on Chicago's North Side watching a ball game.  I chatted with the guy on the next barstool, who was about 15-20 years older.  As the afternoon wore on and we got deeper into our cups, he told be about his service in Vietnam, which understandably enough was the great event and turning point in his life.  Naively, I assured him I knew how it was, as I had taken a 20th-century history course in college and we did a unit on the war.  He was extremely offended that his life experience was treated as history, as something to be described in a text book.  (I think I've related this incident before here.)  The lesson I took away is that there is a gap between people who have lived history and those who read about it.  When it comes to civil rights movement, I'm in the latter grouping.  I've heard of Higgins and Egan - they're legendary Chicago priests.  But I never met either of them and their great days were before my time.  I'm grateful to you for the instruction.  Truly.

My generation works on whatever it is we're working on.  There is always more to work on.


Abe - perhaps they shouldn't, but wouldn't all parties be better off, and quite possibly fewer young African American men would be beaten or shot by the police, if the police could earn the trust of African Americans?

@Jim Pauwels (9/19, 9:24 am)  Thanks for your question.  Here are some initial thoughts by way of response: 

  1. By joining the protests white Catholics would be making a statement that they too oppose the institutionalized racism that led to Michael Brown's killing and to the subsequent violence and coverup. 
  2. The presence of many white Catholics as part of the protests might act as a restraint on violence. 
  3. Once this disastrous situation has ended, there will be the opportunity for many conversations in the coming months and years.  White Catholics who joined in protesting the social sin of racism as manifested in Ferguson in recent days might well be received as more credible participants in those later conversations.

Obviously, but it's not going to work if the trust has to come before the beatings and shootings stop. I guess what I was getting at is that one thing white people could do is mistrust their inclination to give the police the benefit of the doubt. There is also this weird tendency to try to "equalize" these situations, to make it seem as though this is a level, two-way street where both sides need to give the same amount, and both sides are equally to blame. That power balance has never existed.

How would joining the protests help anyone?  


Imho, Luke, assigning guilt to a group and attempting to forestall any "kneejerk" objections individuals might raise to being included in the group is wrong.  So is absolving another group of responsibility for whatever they do.  (They're not children.  They're not mentally incompetent.  They're adults who choose their actions.  The paternalism required to see them as incapable is itself racist.)

What will those who join the protests be protesting?  

Some have decided to wait for facts about what happened to emerge before joining protests.   

Googling "supporters of darren wilson" brings forth 17 million results.

Luke Hill - +++++_+

So, what do we see on the STL archdiocesan website - one guest column and an a snippet about a Ferguson parish meeting and saying the rosary.

Still no sight of any catholic pastors, the STL archbishop, or local catholic parishioners.  Embarrassing?

Where are the religious nuns and priests of STL?  STL has one of the largest number of religious nuns and priests in the US.


Googling "supporters of darren wilson" brings forth 17 million results.  

I'm not sure if you understand the Google...

@Gerelyn (8/19, 10:00 am)  Thanks for your comment.  I think we agree that "assigning guilt to a group" and "absolving another group of responsibility for whatever they do" isn't desirable in this situation.

But whatever other facets there are to the situation in Ferguson, it seems to me to be a fairly clear manifestation of the social sin of institutionalized racism.  If that's the case, then one of the conversations we as Catholics should be having---as we do with any number of sinful situations---is about how we respond to that sinful situation.

To answer your second questions: in my view (and it's all too easy for me to say; I'm hundreds of miles away), European-American Catholics could join the protests and make clear that they are protesting the racist actions that have helped provoke and extend this crisis.

If there is an admirable person to be found in this swirl of conflict, violence and competing claims, it is that State Police captain, Ron Johnson.  Whatever faith tradition he adheres to, if any, he is doing the church's work.  And he did join the protest marchers are one point.  But he is also working for justice - public order is a component of justice.  Justice, truth and peace are the virtues that need to prevail in Ferguson.  Just my view.


Gerelyn:  What is it that you just don't get about this racial murder by a policeman?

I am thousands of miles away from Ferguson but I know probable cause when I see it - which is the legal standard for arrest, not irrefutable proof [which is the standard for conviction at trial].  

This isn't a [sacrifice] of Officer Wilson.  It is simple justice that would go a long way to quelling the anger and frustrations of millions of people of color across the country for their serial exploitation by over-armed police SWAT teams.

Your statement [Given his treatment of the store clerk, it's not beyond belief.]  is a perfect example of how the Ferguson Police Chief Jackson hopes to taint the reputation of the deceased Michael Brown, and thereby corrupting the ultimate jury pool there in MO, all in order to protect one of the police force's own.  [Essentially the same thing happened in Florida with the trial of George Zimmerman for executing Trayvon Martin where Zimmerman's slimy lawyer engaged in racist stereotyping of Trayvon Martin.]  Wake up!  You've already swallowed that b.s. whole.

The first thing lawyers learn in law school is that no two witnesses to the same crime ever have exactly the same story.  [You stated:  Baden's autopsy findings also call into question Brown's friend's account of what happened.]  Reality, as we humans understand it, is social construction. The only way to come the truth of what happened is for the people of Ferguson to have a trial where we can evaluated the sum whole of all the testimony.  

From my own clinical experience I can already ascertain that the stories coming from the eye witnesses do converge on the one salient point:  Michael Brown was defenselessly gunned down in the street with his hands in the air.  

[The bullet wounds to the head and face could only have happened with Michael Brown bending over, falling to the ground. In other words, he was already probably mortally wounded before Darren Wilson finished him off with two more pops to his head.  That sounds like a execution to me worthy of Tony Soprano ... ]

Arrest Wilson.  Begin the process of a trial.  Remove all the racist cops from the Ferguson police force ASAP starting with Jackson - and you can include the local district attorney in that house cleaning. Demilitarize the police not just in Ferguson but everywhere.  Remember it suppose to be:  Protect and Serve.

No Justice!  No Peace!

Monsignor John Egan (d. 2001) and Monsignor George Higgins (d. 2002) were still very much leading, indeed towering, Catholic figures in the work of social and interracial justice well into the 1990s.

Bill deHaas, Maybe it has been updated since you wrote, but I just checked the archdiocesan Web site, and found a letter from Archbishop Carlson saying he had been to Ferguson and Michael Brown's memorial, that he is offering a Mass of peace at noon tomorrow, urging rosaries by school children for peace and generally making a show of concern. That, of course, is not analysis of the evidence, finding of guilty and sentencing the cop, but it is early for a bishop to be doing all that.

I wonder whether the autopsy result revealing the presence of marijuana in the shooting victim's blood reveals anything about the shooting victim's mental state and behavior?  I also wonder whether the store video of the shooting victim's stealing from, and bullying of, the store clerk/owner reveals anything about his attitude about laws against theft and cultural norms against bullying?  Was the media being truthful in describing the victim as a "gentle giant"?

It seems that, to some people, even to ask questions like this is an outrage in itself and sending those who read the question into frenzies of self-righteous anger, which is not helpful to anyone or anything.  If someone carries a huge guilt complex about being "European-American", perhaps seeing a competent psychologist would be useful.  If one is always feeling guilty about something totally beyond one' control, clear thinking cannot be easy.


I was going to mention that most of the diocesan Web sites I've looked at were pretty inept, but the St. Louis one is pretty well done. (It also has a story from the archdiocesan paper about genocide.) In defense of bishops generally: If the police in Ferguson were handing out condoms with instructions on how to use them, I am sure Archbishop Carlson would have had plenty to say, and it would have been on all news media -- because he would have been asked by the media and he would have known he was going to be asked. Because that is the sort of thing that sets city editors alight. On the other hand, there are few newsrooms that would see any point in asking if Christians oppose unnecessary killing, or in printing the answer if they got one.

I am reliably reminded that when I mentioned Bishop Toolan (one of the good guys) before, I was actually thinking of Bishop Richard Gerow and especially his successor, Joseph Brunini. Good to have someone with a memory as long as I think mine is.

P.S. Jim, don't worry about what happened when you were young that you don't know. The hardest history to get is Recent. I remember at the age of 20, shouting, "Will someone tell me who the Sam Hill Sacco and Vanzetti are or were?" All my young life they were talked about as if I should know, and they were too recent to have any new books written about them. What happens around the time of one's birth becomes a black hole from which facts are extracted, in pain, only later. Wiki is, or ought to be, fixing that to some extent.

FWIW in the institutional racism discussion:  Crime is largely intra-racial, eg black-on-black, white-on-white, etc.  The fact that police officers of a different race are involved doesnt support a claim of societal racism.

Well, Bruce, you have now become part of the problem.  Your data may be correct but your interpretation is ignorant.

Thanks for the updates about what?  too little, too late.

Ferguson has become a media event because it involves the slaying of an African-American individual by a presumably European-American police officer. What great fodder for 24 hour cable news junkies as well as for race activists and extremists of every stripe. I see racism in the predominant narrative that alleges that a white police officer shot and killed a young black man in the middle of the street in broad daylight because.......(fill in the blank). Maybe he just hates young black men? Maybe he just felt like shooting someone unjustly? Now there is plenty of evidence that the Ferguson police department is led by individuals who minimally could use more training in public relations and in crowd control tactics, but I haven't seen any evidence that the Ferguson police are a bunch of hoodlums hellbent on making life miserable for its majority black population. No evidence either that it has only three black officers because the department routinely rejects qualified black applicants. So, if Jesse and Al are in town, the AG is on his way, and Dred Scott is buried nearby I guess this event can only be the result of racial injustice? Must due process get trampled upon whenever the victim is of one race and the assailant is of another? Many of the comments on this blog make it sound to me that the only framework for understanding here is that this is just another James Meridith being shot down by angry and vile whites. How about letting the investigation play out before jumping to conclusions?

While we are remembering Catholic civil rights activists, this man was one scrappy thorn in the side of many people an institutions:

He hit the streets in M'waukee (that's how you pronounce it, folks) the year after I graduated from Marquette which, in those days, was a bastion of non-liberalism. There was a noticeable contingent of John Birchers active in local and campus politics.


“At first assigned to St. Veronica's Church in Milwaukee, in 1963 Groppi was transferred to St. Boniface, the latter parish having a predominantly African-American congregation. It was then that Groppi became interested in - and active in - the cause of civil rights for Africans Americans, participating in the 1963 March on Washington and the Selma to Montgomery marches in 1965 on behalf of the Voting Rights Act, also working with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference voter registration project, led by Martin Luther King, Jr., during the summer of 1965.

Later in 1965, he returned to Milwaukee, becoming the advisor to the Milwaukee chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) Youth Council, organizing protests against the segregation of Milwaukee public schools. He also became second vice president of Milwaukee United School Integration Committee (1965–1966) and advisor to the Milwaukee NAACP Youth Council (1965–1968).”

Thank you so much for starting this discussion thread, Luke.  Far too often Catholic publications ignore secular events that suggest the social sin of racism, while giving much more careful attention to secular questions about issues such as the use of military force,

At the opening of your piece you mention some powerful journalistic responses to the killing of Michael Brown and the civil strife that has followed that killing.  Melissa Perry-Harris has provided an emotionally moving and thought-provoking [a rare combination] piece of television journalism as part of her coverage of Ferguson. This is the

Her reflection is an articulate representation of one, not uncommon, African-American view that race is inevitably a factor in the Brown incident. The Feehily comment above demonstrates that many whites discount race as a factor unless there is unmistakeable evidence of overt racism. 


Bill, Too late? Archbishop Carlson didn't specify when he was at the "makeshift" (ugh) memorial. If the New York Times had spotted him on the day after and put him on page one, would that have been not "too late"? Is it a case of big enough and soon enough if the media notice?

On the other hand, I fully agree with your reply to poor Bruce. But it may apply more to John Feehily -- who admonishes those who have seen what they have seen over and over and tells them to wait patiently for facts. And then loads all the facts in favor of ignorance. Anyone who can't tell the difference between "Jesse and Al" really ought not to be trying to write on this subject, for instance.

I guess my bottom line is: I am sure what happened is what I think happened, but if I were a bishop I would have pretty good reasons for not leading with what I am sure of.

This would be a good time to remember the words of RFK, announcing the assassination of MLK.


"For those of you who are black and are tempted to fill with -- be filled with hatred and mistrust of the injustice of such an act, against all white people, I would only say that I can also feel in my own heart the same kind of feeling. I had a member of my family killed, but he was killed by a white man."

 “Martin Luther King dedicated his life to love and to justice between fellow human beings. He died in the cause of that effort. In this difficult day, it's pressed well to ask what kind of a nation we are and what direction we want to move in. You can be filled with bitterness and with hatred or we can make an effort, as Martin Luther King did, to understand and replace that violence, that stain of bloodshed that has spread across our land with compassion and love."


The larger focus should be on education, jobs, responsibility, leadership into these communities.  The President, AG, Sharpton, others should put there time there.  Let these black men know they are worth something, they have a future.  Despite there challenging circumstances, they can overcome.  Mr. President, you have been there awhile now.  Why didn't you go to these neighborhoods, send resources, provide hands on help.  Your story is one these black men should look up to.  They need someone to stand there and say there not alone, your there to help.  


No one wants to see this.  White cops don't hate black men, and that dialogue should not beperpetuated.  The knee jerk reaction to always allege race has been disappointing at best.


Let's follow the words of RFK, make ourselves a better people and a better nation.

Sean Murphy
MurphysLaw Recruiting & Placement




Oh, well, he  stole some blunts and had some weed in his system. Good thing that cop shot him 6 times.

Don't you ever get tired of being you, Schwartz?

@Abe:  Good to hear from you.  Ha Ha!  You remind me of me when I was a flaming liberal.  I smoked my share of weed and did a little of the old injectables, but came to my senses.  Love those zingers Abe!


Thanks for your comments, but as long as European-Americans persist in turning discussions about the social sin of institutionalized racism into discussions of the moral failings of individual African-Americans, then it's going to be difficult (if not impossible) to get at the root of the problem.

First of all, I don't even know the definition of "institutionalized racism".  Could you define it for me?  Secondly, as a "European American" I am saying that the way we act tends to indicate our attitudes about hings, as for example stealing and bullying.  If one's attitude about stealing and bullying is that "I have the right to steal, and bully people smaller and weaker than I am", then perhaps one's attitude towards a "European American" cop might be one of "f*** off" pig, you can't tell me what to do".  Maybe or maybe not.  But it's worth thinking about.  No one has turned up any evidence that the cop harbored ill will toward people of color, but maybe they will.  It is what we believe and feel that help determine our reactions to various situations.  If your attitude is that "European Americans: ought never question these things.

Again, thanks to all for the comments and the discussion. 

@Bob Schwartz (8/19, 8:47)  Thanks for your question.  By Institutionalized (or institutional) racism I mean racism that is embedded in an institution.  So, for example, the dearth of African-American priests in the US is largely a result of the refusal by most US seminaries (whether diocesan or run by religious orders) to accept black students until the past few decades.  Or, to name another example, the residential housing patterns (by race) on either side of Detroit's Eight Mile Road are a legacy of federal, state and local housing policies from the early/mid-20th century.  (See Thomas Sugrue's excellent The Origins of the Urban Crisis for more.)  Is that helpful?

The data on racial profiling in Ferguson from last year's report by the Missouri Attorney General that I linked to in my original post provides ample evidence:  not of whether any individual police officer harbors racist intent in his heart, but of the police department's racist practices, practices of which the town's African-American residents are evidently well aware. 

The Pew Research Center poll I linked to above in this thread (8/18, 8:08 pm) documents the wide disparity in how non-Hispanic whites and non-Hispanic blacks are experiencing and interpreting the events that have unfolded in Ferguson.  What I'm suggesting both here and throughout this conversation is that---to borrow from one of my former pastor's favorite bits of folk wisdom---every time we point our finger at, for example, Mr. Brown's misdeeds and/or failings, there are three fingers pointing back at us.  And perhaps we ought to examine more closely what those three fingers are pointing at.

And, as usual, the brilliant Ta-Nehisi Coates cuts to the heart of the matter:

I notice that a new fact released tonight is that the cop has a broken eye socket.  The "gentle giant strikes" again.

@Luke: So you're saying that to point out facts is called "pointing fingers"?  That lends a strange ambience to this whole story.  I always thought that, in instances like this, pointing out the facts, to wit,

1) The video-documented "Strong-arm robbery" (the legal term for what the gentle giant perpetrated).

1.1) The bullying of the little guy in the store by the gentle giant that moved the crime into the "strong arm" category.

2) The marijuana tainted blood of the gentle giant.

3) The cop's broken eye socket (probably self-inflicted by the white cop to buttress his case.

should be characterized as "finger pointing" by racists in order to buttress the case by friends, family, and supporters of the gentle giant.

You know Luke, that really is pathetic for someone of your obvious intelligence.  You are well-educated, probably with at least one advanced degree, yet this "finger pointing" thing is, well, I am embarrased for you.  Seriously Luke, you can come up with better than that.  I could come up with something better than that!  Go back to the drawing board and try not to think about everything in terms of race.

There is another issue that cannot be disentangled, imo:  our fatal attraction to guns.

I hasten to sa that I have no idea what happened in Ferguson that first da.  I wasn't there (and I don't think anyone on this thread was,either).  But we know a boy died.  The cause of death was one (or more) GSW.  There is  no thought that this was an accident, nor a suicide.  That would seem to leave homicide; whether justified or not is the duty for a jury, or so it seems.   But step back just a minute.

There is an important sentence from the early days of our Western cultual treasury:

"Iron has power to draw a man to ruin."   Tht's Homer (or Robert Fagles, anyway) from the Odyssey (XIX); Odysseus is speaking to Telemachus, as they plot his revenge on the suitors (just before he speaks with Penelope, who does not recognize him).

I'd hazard a guess that Officer Wilson reckons old Homer was spot on, regardless of what hapened or what transpires legally.  His life is ruined, and it is good odds it will adversely affect his family and others (his fellow police officers, or example). 

But we demand "Shall issue" rules for coneald crry, and see open carry in airprts.  College students and elementary schools.  Mall cops, and every constable on our streets.

As long as we beat our plowshares into swords, someone will stand in Officer Wilson's shoes -flailing and cursing  in terror and anger 3, 4 nights a week, 40 years later.  Our lives and souls in ruin.

Mark L


@Bob Schwartz (8/20, 12:17 am)  Thanks for your reply and your advice.  In going back to the drawing board I wonder if it might help to establish some basic points of agreement.  Toward that end, a couple of initial questions:

1 - Do we agree racism exists?

2 - Do we agree racism is a sin?

Responding to Bob Shwartz.  Protesting that you do not even know the definition of "institutionalized racism" suggests to me that you really do not want to know..  Slavery was a fact in this country for centuries.  It was followed by Jim Crow laws (some not repealed well into the second half of the 20th Century).  It was also accompanied by de facto segregation in housing, education, and employment.  In the case of  housing and education. that segregation was often enforced by crowd violence and the destruction of Black homes and other property.  It is well documented that there are glaring discrepancies in the way Blacks are stopped and frisked, arrested, convicted, and sentenced--even when Whie behavior is comparable.  (I suspect that there are lots of afflluent suburbs where police raiding homes and backyards would find just as many folks using illegal drugs as they do in targeting Black youths--maybe more).  You might try reading The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander, The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson, and Bending Towards Justice by Gary May for some background on the history and persistence of institutionalized racism in the United States.  You might be able to infer a definition from those works.