Is there any hope for our country’s racial divide?

As a boy who grew up white and mostly oblivious in New Orleans, my experiences of racism involve random acts and symbols that I could easily stick on the shelf, compartmentalize and forget about.

I was 7 when I started playing golf at City Park. In the mid-1960s, the brick rain shelters designed and built by the Works Progress Administration during the Great Depression became safe havens when lightning flashed on the horizon. Some City Park gambler – I don’t remember exactly who – taught me that counting to five after a lightning flash and then hearing the thunder meant the electricity was one mile away. It was a cheap, City Park University undergraduate degree in meteorology and self-preservation.

There were also bathroom shacks with water fountains, which if you were lucky dispensed cold water on a hot August day. Even seven or eight years after a 1958 Supreme Court decision that integrated City Park’s four golf courses, tennis courts and picnic grounds, I remember seeing the faded white sign painted into the bricks above the fountain in block letters: “WHITES ONLY.”

Somehow, someone had forgotten to paint over it. We’ll get to it when we can.

I didn’t think too much about that because I didn’t see many black kids playing golf at City Park, even after it was legal to do so. The City Park Junior Golf club, even into the late 1960s, avoided being swept up in the civil rights momentum of the time. Black kids really did not need to apply; after all, a separate, black junior golf club was being formed elsewhere.

My best friend in high school, a classmate from St. Leo the Great School, was an African American who grew up in the shadows of St. Augustine High School but whose parents decided to send him to Jesuit. His mother usually drove him to school in the morning – sometimes picking me up as I waited for the Carrollton bus on DeSaix Boulevard. But every day, he had to take the bus home, get off near Broad and St. Bernard and walk past St. Aug students in his Jesuit khakis, an alien in two worlds.

He never told me until years later the indignities to which he was subjected in the locker room and on the playing fields at Jesuit. Maybe he was sparing my feelings. Maybe he just wanted to suck it up and make it go away. Maybe he didn’t think I’d believe it.

No news is good news.

The hatred and racism on display in our country during the last month cry out for a Catholic response. Racism is an evil and a sin. As former Archbishop Alfred Hughes wrote in his 2006 pastoral letter on racial harmony, each of us is made in the image and likeness of God; thus, each of us has God-given human dignity and is entitled to respect.

A few years ago, an African-American Catholic attended a dinner meeting of high-profile Catholic business executives. Archbishop Hughes’ pastoral letter on racial harmony was being explained by Walter Bonam, an associate director in the Office of Religious Education.

“As Walter was talking, pretty soon several people began talking among themselves, and some even got up and left the room,” the man recalled. “It was the most disrespectful thing I’ve ever seen. That’s when I came to the conclusion that I could better devote my time, energy and money to some other organization.”

Jacques Detiege, director of institutional research at the University of Holy Cross, is a relative of Mandeville Detiege, the African-American soldier who returned from WWII and was arrested, while still in uniform, for sitting beneath an oak tree while  waiting for a bus in whites-only City Park. Mandeville Detiege sued City Park in 1949, and the Supreme Court eventually agreed in 1958.

Jacques Detiege, a member of the archdiocesan racial harmony steering committee and Pax Christi’s national anti-racism team, graduated from Brother Martin High School in 1984 and sent all three of his sons there. At a recent workshop on racial harmony, he expressed his frustration that so many, well-meaning white Catholics simply do not see racism when it hits them in the face.

How could something so obvious to him be so opaque to whites?

“I bounce back and forth from cognitive dissonance in order to get through the day,” Detiege said. “The U.S. bishops wrote ‘Brothers and Sisters to Us’ (a 1979 pastoral letter on racism), but how many Catholics have ever seen it or know it exists? In the southern Catholic Church, how do you address this without being offensive to people who don’t see it as an issue?”

Some of the “blatant ignorance” he encounters involves the use of euphemistic language over the centuries. Female slaves were called “mistresses” rather than “victims of sexual assault.” Under the placage system, young black women were offered by their families for the sexual satisfaction of white aristocrats.

“They say it gave these women a better life, but they don’t tell you their family could be beaten or arrested if they didn’t go along with this,” Detiege said.

When the Charlottesville attacks happened, Detiege said he felt a “moral dilemma” because he did not feel as though praying for racial healing would be enough.

“I am so tired of praying – I want to do something,” he said. “What I am struggling with is how to educate and inform people when people are so entrenched in their beliefs. It’s hard to begin a conversation.”

The racial harmony meetings provide at least a start. Detiege heard one young white man express disbelief that his own grandmother used to brag that she was a member of the Ku Klux Klan.

“It’s learned behavior,” Detiege said. “In other words, why am I a Saints’ fan? It’s a learned behavior. Why was I a Saints’ fan through the 1970s, when I had every reason in the world to become a Cowboys or Steelers or 49ers fan? Why do I eat fried food even when the doctor says I shouldn’t? Because we had fried seafood every Friday. It’s a learned behavior.”

So, where is the hope in a world polarized by us vs. them, black vs. white? Where is the hope when political leaders choose to throw gasoline on a fire rather than inspire the finer angels among us?

Where is the hope?

“At some point my hope is that there will be a clear voice that rings through the era and essentially says, ‘Have you no decency?’” Detiege said. “What is going to be the voice in the Catholic Church that says, ‘This is about respect, people. And if it hurts you, is this something I should be putting in your face?’”

Detiege wishes Catholic bishops and priests would speak out more forcefully than they have. He says Catholics need to hear that clarion trumpet. It is reminiscent of St. Paul’s admonition in 1 Cor 14:8: “And if the bugle gives an indistinct sound, who will get ready for battle?”

“My kids actually are my hope,” he says. “Their social networks are more diverse than mine ever were. I am hoping that society is slowly changing and that these are the last few racists coming out for their last stand.”

The U.S. bishops’ pastoral letter on racism, “Brothers and Sisters to Us,” is available free at usccb.org. Archbishop Hughes’ pastoral letter, “Made in the Image and Likeness of God,” can be downloaded at http://nolacatholic.org/media/505/download. Detiege also suggested “Racial Justice and the Catholic Church,” by Father Bryan Massingale. Contact Sister of the Holy Faith Teresa Rooney, director of the archdiocesan Racial Harmony Office, at 861-6272, srrooney@arch-no.org

Peter Finney Jr. can be reached at pfinney@clarionherald.org.

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