Racism is a sin: a sin that divides the human family, blots out the image of God among specific members of that family, and violates the fundamental human dignity of those called to be children of the same Father. Racism is the sin that says some human beings are inherently superior and others essentially inferior because of race. It is the sin that makes racial characteristics the determining factor for the exercise of human rights.
– Brothers and Sisters to Us: Pastoral Letter on Racism, US Conference of Catholic Bishops, 1979

A few days ago, as I tried to take in how a Tulsa police officer could have shot to death Terence Crucher, an unarmed black man and father of four, who stood with his hands up next to his stalled SUV, I recalled having seen a 1921 photo from Tulsa, Oklahoma which showed a black man with his hands up, taken during the so-called Tulsa race riot (aka Tulsa massacre).

For two days in May 1921, white citizens of Tulsa, Oklahoma, enraged that armed African-American army veterans had attempted to protect a young black man accused of raping a white woman from a threatened lynching, rampaged through the segregated Greenwood neighborhood in that city. The rioters burned down 35 blocks of the neighborhood. Perhaps as many as 300 black people were shot by rioters or died in the flames. When the Oklahoma National Guard arrived on the scene and restored order, some 6000 black people were arrested and detained. No white rioter was ever arrested, detained or charged.

What happened in Tulsa last week, and ninety-five years ago, is a reminder that African-America history in the United States has been and continues to be a constant struggle, against overwhelming odds, for freedom, civil rights and economic and social inclusion and yes, even physical survival. That history includes but is not limited to: slavery, massacres and lynching, police violence, incarceration, de jure and de facto segregation and racial stereotyping that depicts black people, and especially black men, as a violent and dangerous criminal class.

It is in the context of that history that we must have the conversation about race and racism in our country. When we talk about race and racism, what we are actually discussing is this cruel and evil belief: that some human beings (white people) are inherently superior and others (non-whites in general and black people in particular) are essentially inferior because of race.

It was this belief in white superiority and black inferiority that provided the rationale for the kidnapping and enslavement of Africans and the legal violence, discriminatory laws and social customs that stripped African-Americans of their civil and human rights, and imposed on them segregated substandard schools, housing and neighborhoods and excluded them from all but the most menial occupations. In the logic of white superiority and black inferiority, African-Americans only got what they deserved.

It would be a mistake to believe that American racism is primarily about the hateful attitudes of individuals or even particular regions. Rather, racism and white supremacy, historically embedded in American political, social and economic institutions, has from the very beginning contradicted the noble principles upon which our nation was founded: freedom, liberty, justice and equality. The struggle to overcome racism and white supremacy and include African-Americans and other people of color such as Native Americans, Asians and Hispanics within this nation as full and equal citizens and participants in this society, has been the defining moral and spiritual issue of American history and of our own time.

Because of our (white) self-induced amnesia when it comes to racism in our society, it is easy for whites to minimize or dismiss entirely the burden of historical injustice that black Americans struggle to overcome daily. Police shootings, for example, which might appear to be a string of tragic but isolated incidents, appear to African-Americans and other people of color in our society as part of a long history of violent repression directed against their communities.

In the era of Jim Crow, white supremacists openly stated their determination to do whatever was necessary to frustrate the aspirations of black Americans to full and equal participation in society. In our own time, apologists for white supremacy have hijacked the language of equality and civil rights to angrily denounce “political correctness,” “reverse-discrimination,” “playing the race card” and so help me, “black racism,” when African-Americans exercise and defend their basic human rights.

This is not to deny that our society has made progress in confronting the reality of racism in our society and rectifying contemporary and historical wrongs. In 2001, after eighty years of silence and denial about the Tulsa massacre, efforts began to finally face what happened during those dark days in May, 1921. The Oklahoma Commission to Study the Tulsa Race Riot http://www.okhistory.org/research/forms/freport.pdf issued a report that established the historical facts and the involvement of municipal authorities, including the chief of police, in the riot. The report recommended reparation payments to riot survivors and their descendants; a scholarship fund, an economic development enterprise zone in the historic Greenwood district and a memorial to the victims of the riots.

But although the mayor apologized on behalf of the city to survivors and a memorial park was eventually established in the city, reparations and legal efforts by survivors to receive compensation were rejected by the courts, including the US Supreme Court on the grounds that the statutes of limitations had long-before expired. (Since 2013 Federal legislation to change the statute of limitations regarding the Tulsa massacre has been introduced each year in Congress, but has died in committee.) And as the shooting death last month of Terence Crucher sadly demonstrates, it continues to be dangerous to be a black man in this country.

Racism, personal and institutional and the ideology of white supremacy is, at its heart, a collective and individual sin requiring repentance and that change of heart that is conversion. As our bishops wrote in 1979: “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.” http://www.usccb.org/issues-and-action/cultural-diversity/african-american/brothers-and-sisters-to-us.cfm

The first step of repentance is to acknowledge the reality of having sinned. This is not easy, because to acknowledge our sins undermines the narrative of our own rectitude, righteousness and good intentions. It is much easier to simply live in denial or to evade our own responsibility by condemning the sinful failings of others. But repentance and conversion are always worth the effort: when it comes to the sin of racism, justice and our life together in this society depend on it.

– Deacon Charles Rohrbacher is the Office of Ministries Director for the Diocese of Juneau. Phone: 907-586-2227 x 23. Email: charlesr@gci.net