White People Must Listen to the Prophetic Call for Justice

Sr. Emily TeKolste, SP
June 16, 2020

The mayor of my hometown recently announced an intent to sue Minneapolis for the recovery of police costs in the wake of George Floyd’s death and the resulting nation-wide protests. He backed off of this intent within a day, but this announcement reveals the deep ignorance of many white people — especially white people who live in areas built on the white flight of the 1950s and 1960s — of what’s really behind the ongoing Movement for Black Lives.

Instead of throwing blame or even settling for arrests of the officers responsible for the police brutality that inspired the protests, white people are called to go further. We must look deeply at our systems and at our own hearts to see more clearly the structural and historical racism in our society and the ways we are socialized into a white supremacist culture. We must change the system that creates and fosters a willingness to sacrifice Black lives and dreams.

The city I grew up in had a reputation for ticketing people for “Driving While Black.” I can still remember having only three of the Black students in my class of 500 at the local public junior high school. Perhaps even more significantly, the city drained the taxbase from Indianapolis, leaving the city’s public amenities worse off because the wealthiest people moved to the suburbs, while still benefiting from living in proximity to the city.

The truth that many of us need to reckon with is that these protests are not just about the killing of George Floyd and Brionna Taylor. They are not just about the killing of Michael Brown or Tamir Rice or Sandra Bland or any of the countless others who have been murdered at the hands of the police or vigilante citizens. They are about that, and more.

The protests we’ve witnessed over the past weeks and over many, many years are about a systemic imbalance of power that certainly didn’t start with the police and demand a resolution which must go far beyond the prevention of police brutality.

The protests are about systemic racism that exists beyond intent or individual action. This systemic racism shows itself through the disproportionately high impact of COVID-19 in Black communities, which are overrepresented as workers in essential frontline industries, as inmates in crowded prisons, and as residents of underinvested neighborhoods with inadequate access to health care.

Systemic racism shows itself through the ongoing racial wealth gap. White U.S. residents have a median family wealth over eight times that of their Black and Hispanic counterparts. This is the result of white people building and then passing down wealth withheld from Black families through slavery, sharecropping, redlining, unequal access to benefits of the G.I. Bill, and more.

The racial wealth gap can also be connected to more obvious manifestations of racism, including the Tulsa Black Wall Street Massacre in Oklahoma. In 1921, a white mob attacked a flourishing Black business district along Greenwood Avenue, destroying the wealth that Black residents had built up in spite of the obstacles they faced.

Systemic racism shows itself through the city’s treatment of residents in Flint, Michigan, a predominantly Black community, who were ignored as they voiced concerns regarding the contamination of their water supply. The delayed and inadequate response by local government officials undermined the health of approximately 8,000 children exposed to lead poisoning between April 2014 and August 2016.

Systemic racism shows itself through decisions to impose unaffordable fines for minor offenses, particularly on Black people, in order to provide revenue for the city’s government in Ferguson, Missouri.

In a world where racism is systemic, it’s not enough to be a nice person. It’s not enough to donate to the “right” causes or oppose only the obvious white supremacy of our nation’s current Presidential administration. Amy Cooper, who was caught on video putting a Black man’s life in danger by falsifying an accusation against him and calling the police, checked those boxes.

Amy Cooper’s behavior toward Christian Cooper emphasizes that white privilege and white supremacy manifest themselves everywhere. In her use of dog-whistle claims, she made clear that her freedom to break the rules trumped his freedom to ask her to follow them. As Fr. Bryan Massingale says, “She assumed that a black man had no right to tell her what to do. She assumed that the police officers would agree.”

It may be tempting to look to the damaged buildings and broken glass as a reason to discredit the concerns of the Black community, but we must resist that temptation. Concern about the destruction of property must never surpass concern about human life. Especially for people of faith who profess the dignity of all human life.

As Catholics, we look closely at the life of Jesus, and Jesus upended society. In a story told in all four Gospels, he even drove those doing business out of the Temple. According to Gospel of John,

“In the Temple, he found people selling cattle, sheep, and pigeons, while moneychangers sat at their counters. Making a whip out of cords, Jesus drove them all out of the Temple—even the cattle and sheep—and overturned the tables of the moneychangers, scattering their coins.” (John 2:14-16).

When injustice is in our midst, we too must drive it out.

We white people must dig into the work of racial justice. As we do this, it is important for us to listen to people of color, especially Black people, and be sure they are compensated for their time and work in educating us. There are numerous resources available. NETWORK’s Recommit to Racial Justice guide lists many, many additional resources to continue your learning, as does our Resource Library.

As the Jewish Talmud reminds us, “Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief. Do justly now. Love mercy now. Walk humbly now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.”

Emily TeKolste is a Sister of Providence of St. Mary-of-the-Woods, Indiana, and a grassroots organizer for NETWORK Lobby for Catholic Social Justice. She lived in Carmel, IN, until 2014. She has contributed writing to Global Sisters Report.