Confronting White Supremacy

Naming the Sin
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Bishop Mark J. Seitz of El Paso, Texas, talks to a group of migrants as he walks and prays with them at the Lerdo International Bridge in El Paso June 27, 2019. (CNS photo/Jose Luis Gonzalez, Reuters)

In an urgent, beautifully written letter on racism, “Night Will Be No More,” Bishop Mark Seitz of El Paso, Texas, has given every Catholic bishop (or any religious leader) a model for how to reflect on injustice in ways both prophetic and pastoral. At this political moment, when every utterance can be scrutinized and seized on for partisan purposes, the easy choice would be to remain silent and avoid confrontation. But Bishop Seitz clearly understands that this moment does not allow for silence. 

The letter opens forcefully and with necessarily blunt language referencing the August shooting in El Paso that left twenty-two dead: “Hate visited our community and Latino blood was spilled in sacrifice to the false god of white supremacy,” the bishop writes. “Words like ‘racism’ and ‘white supremacy’ make us uncomfortable and anxious and I don’t use these labels lightly…. Challenging racism and white supremacy, whether in our hearts or in society, is a Christian imperative and the cost of not facing these issues head on, weighs much more heavily on those who live the reality of discrimination.”

Seitz also isn’t afraid to call out political leaders. “Our highest elected officials have used the word ‘invasion’ and ‘killer’ over five hundred times to refer to migrants, treated migrant children as pawns on a crass political chessboard, insinuated that judges and legislators of color are un-American, and have made wall-building a core political project,” the bishop writes. The letter describes the border wall as “a powerful symbol in the story of race” and a “monument to hate” that has helped “to merge nationalistic vanities with racial projects.” In a reminder that increased militarization of the border didn’t begin with the Trump administration, Bishop Seitz connects economic and racial exclusion in discussing the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), legislation passed under the Clinton administration that was a boon for corporations but devastating for poor Mexican workers. “We saw steel barriers go up at the time of NAFTA; at the very moment when NAFTA ensured the right of wealth to cross the border freely we limited and criminalized human mobility,” the bishop writes.

Fr. Raymond Kemp, a Georgetown University professor who worked at the historically black St. Augustine Catholic Church in Washington, D.C., for more than a decade, compared Bishop Seitz’s letter to a seminal document developed by Latin American bishops at a 2007 meeting in Aparecida, Brazil, of which then-Cardinal Bergoglio served as the principal author. “There are so many bishops wearing French cuffs who are cut off from the direct experience of people and they don't get it,” Kemp told me. “This bishop is clearly in the trenches. There is no sugarcoating. He is coming straight at it with all his heart and soul.” Seitz’s “Night Will Be No More” is now immediate required reading for Kemp’s “The Church and the Poor” class at Georgetown.

Racism and white supremacy remain enduring realities that must be continually confronted.

Bishop Seitz’s reflection comes only a few months after the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops released a national pastoral letter, its first major treatment of racism in several decades, Open Wide Our Hearts: The Enduring Call to Love. Seitz describes his contribution as an opportunity to “complement those efforts and to reflect on these issues from the perspective of the border.” The USCCB letter was welcome, offering timely reflections that should spark dialogue in parishes across the country. But Bishop Seitz provides a more systemic, comprehensive treatment, buttressing it with a history of the region:

After its entry into the United States, Texas saw dramatic mass migration into the state from White settlers from other parts of the country. These settlers brought new industrial farming practices which cleared desert brush and cacti as well as the expansion of the railroad network and impressive economic growth. But they also brought with them harsh, prejudicial attitudes towards Mexicans, Mexican Americans and Indigenous in the region as well as legalized discrimination against African Americans. In their wake came ‘Juan Crow’ laws of segregation, the prohibition of then-common interracial marriage, new racial hierarchies, the dispossession of tribal communities, efforts to disenfranchise Mexican residents and a true campaign of terror. This campaign included the lynching and murder of likely thousands of Latinos, terror undertaken just as much by vigilantes as by official state actors like the Texas Rangers, and often in concert.

And, perhaps most importantly, he draws a direct line from that historical racism to the racism of the present day. “We in the borderlands understand in our bones the reality of hate directed at Mexicans and how people can be ‘othered,’” the bishop writes:

We can see uncomfortable parallels in the treatment of asylum seekers from Mexico during the time of the Mexican Revolution in the early 1900s and in current policies like the deployment of troops to the border, the punitive Remain in Mexico policy and the forced detention of families. Then as now, fears were callously whipped up and there was talk of ‘invasion’ which led to brutal actions against refugees.

Religious leaders can play a critical role in helping rescue history from the myths that anesthetize us, and in providing sacred spaces for healing and reconciliation. This process must include Christian institutions reckoning with their own legacy with racism, as, for example, Georgetown University has begun to do with its involvement in the slave trade. “A sober reading of the history of colonization can discern both the presence of a genuine Christian missionary impulse as well as the deployment of white supremacy and cultural oppression as tools of economic ambition, imperial adventurism and political expansion,” Bishop Seitz writes. Centuries later, racism and white supremacy remain enduring realities that must be continually confronted. The sins must be named, and this political ideology must never be allowed to succeed.

John Gehring is Catholic program director at Faith in Public Life, an advocacy group in Washington, and a former associate director for media relations at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. He is author of The Francis Effect: A Radical Pope’s Challenge to the American Catholic Church (Rowman & Littlefield, 2015) and a contributing editor to Commonweal.

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