NOT AN ANOMALY
As a black Catholic, I was disappointed to read the “After Charlottesville” editorial (August 22), which managed to repudiate Trump’s response while producing a similarly dissatisfying reaction.
For one, Charlottesville is in no way an anomaly; it is a continuation of racial animus and violence that America has never confronted. Being a nation of laws didn’t stop thousands of black people from being lynched, for example.
It is important to acknowledge that Charlottesville occurred in a context where white identity is growing stronger, along with the feeling that white people are being discriminated against and losing out on jobs to minorities. This cannot be ignored. It is exactly what propelled Donald Trump to the White House. Ignoring this reality and simply placing hope in elections falls short.
As a Christian, I believe strongly in the powerful combination of faith and works. As someone who works in politics, I believe strongly in the power of organizing. And as a black person, I know that the hard and tedious work of confronting racism is incumbent on white people.
I would feel much safer if white allies acknowledged America often falls short of the ideals they espouse, and began standing up to racism wherever it occurs. Only then will we make progress on racial injustice in this country.
A recent editorial concluded that in our fight to eradicate hate and racism we should ignore the distracting antics of white nationalists and Nazis, choosing instead to show up to vote on election day.
Labeling the actions of white nationalists as “antics” trivializes the danger inherent in their organized hate. It was Nazis who marched through the campus of the University of Virginia carrying torches and chanting slogans, not schoolyard bullies. Additionally, organized displays of hate are not a distraction. Labeling organized hate rallies as distractions prevents us from understanding that hate movements are fed and nurtured by the quiet, socially acceptable systems of privilege and oppression our country was quite literally built on.
We know with certainty that Nazis and white supremacists do not go away if Americans push them into dark places or trivialize their activities. Driving them into the darkness actually encourages and legitimizes their growth. It’s only when we call them out into the light that we can systematically dismantle them in a public forum. That is not for the benefit of Nazis. It is for the benefit of Americans who do not understand that racism is not limited to organized hate groups and is present in our daily lives.
It is magical thinking to assume that the tools to eradicate racism will appear in a list of names on a ballot when we have failed to do the work necessary to create a country where the values of equity and justice can take root. The argument that electoral politics is the real path to eradicating racism and hate is alluring because it is a simple directive that presents few challenges. The argument forgives and even encourages silence, allowing well-meaning liberals to sit back and leave the fighting to someone else.
As Mark Lilla said in a recent interview with David Remnick of the New Yorker, “the first thing you do when fascists show up in the street is you show up, too.”
There are fascists in our streets, and there is racism embedded in our way of life. We cannot dismiss or trivialize them either in practice or in the language we use to describe them. We must shine a light on them, strip them of their bluster, and notice how they exist in our daily lives.
We need to show up against racism every day—not just election day.
THE EDITORS REPLY:
We thank Adrienne Alexander and Emily Miller for their letters. It is good to know that Catholic activism is very much alive in Chicago. On the substance of their complaint, however, we remain unconvinced. Showing up to vote is essential, but it is only one aspect of politics, as Alexander concedes. Organizing an effective political movement is a full-time job. As the editorial noted, the task of assessing and then influencing “public sentiment” is crucial to bringing about the change Alexander and Miller rightly hope for. That requires a commitment to engaging those one might otherwise disagree with, and that means not making sweeping accusations of racism against one’s political opponents. Now, the demonstrators in Charlottesville were self-avowed racists. But while most of the violence in Charlottesville was caused by the neo-Nazis, some of the counterprotesters also came armed. That was a moral and political mistake, and one of the principal concerns of the editorial. Why do Alexander and Miller ignore that fact? Most people follow politics only episodically, and when they see a violent confrontation between opposing groups they blame both sides.
It is worth remembering that when the American Nazi Party staged provocative marches in the 1960s, Jewish groups eventually decided to ignore them. It worked. The Nazi demonstrations dwindled in numbers and the group was ultimately consumed by infighting. There will always be a fringe element of right-wing extremists in this country. Why give them the publicity they are so desperately seeking?
I was intrigued reading the symposium on Mark Lilla’s recent book The Once and Future Liberal in the last issue (“Beyond Identity,” November 10). The four thoughtful, experienced people each contributed a different angle of vision to the topic.
What puzzled me, though, is that, despite the references to religious figures such as Martin Luther King Jr., there was no real mention of the fact that the civil-rights movement of the 1960s was deeply based upon the Christian tradition of nonviolence. Not merely the content but the tactics of liberals during that period had specifically Christian roots. Yet as the conflict at Charlottesville unfolded and in subsequent encounters, I have come to realize how much I miss that voice of unshakeable commitment within both action and discussion. Without brave people whose ideals transcend the way that “the world” does politics, how will we ever achieve reconciliation?
In regard to Jerry Ryan’s “The Other Guy” (July 7): I am eighty-eight years old and I too remember when the second person of the Trinity was called the Holy Ghost. I was happy when we began to say “Holy Spirit.” Ryan is concerned that we don’t hear or say much about the Holy Spirit in the Catholic Church. I share his concern.
From about 1980 onward for twenty-five years or more there were three Catholic prayer groups in our four-county area. Two were led by priests and one by a layman. The Holy Spirit had a prominent place in these meetings, in the prayers and in the hymns: “Come Holy Spirit,” “Spirit of the Living God Fall Afresh on Me,” “There’s a Sweet Sweet Spirit in This Place,” and others.
I took part in each of these groups at one time or another and they were Spirit-filled meetings. However, after a time the leaders either moved away or died and the groups disbanded. I miss the fellowship but the Holy Spirit is definitely a part of my life, not just a “phantom shrouded in mystery,” to use Ryan’s words.