Discovering racist attitudes within and facing them
By Msgr. Charles Quinn
Racism is a weird disease. You do not realize you are getting it until it is too late. And then you may not even know you have it. There never was a discussion, much less a class or lecture, about racism. No one ever spoke directly about it. Offhand comments, gestures and facial expressions were the ways, like osmosis, that I absorbed the culture and attitudes of people around me. We just accepted that African Americans were greatly appreciated as musicians or entertainers, but were not allowed to have dinner at the places where they performed.
“The way things are” is “the way things are.” Yeah. Right.
It was not a sermon or theological book that awakened me. It was a decision of the Supreme Court of the United States. Who says all moral awakenings came from a religious text or person? Back in the 1950's there was a movement for racial justice for the U.S. African Americans who had served loyally in World War II. They were justifiably unwilling to accept second class status as citizens. The famous Brown vs. The Board of Education decision happened in 1954, while I was in the seminary studying for the priesthood.
That decision caused me to reconsider my attitudes and assumptions. I began to realize that some things were not right in the United States. There were injustices, not just in the South, where segregation at that time was the order of the day, but also in the North, where I lived. We were not such an open and accepting society as I had imagined. I had accepted all the wrongs and injustices in my society as somehow normal, not really sinful.
Then there came along another person whom I consider an overlooked hero of the Civil Rights Movement, Archbishop George Rummel of New Orleans, Louisiana. He was originally a priest of the Archdiocese of New York, my archdiocese. In 1953, he wrote in a pastoral letter to his diocese [keep in mind it was written in 1953]:
“Ever mindful, therefore, of the basic truth that our Colored Catholic brethren share with us the same spiritual life and destiny, the same membership in the Mystical Body of Christ, the same dependence upon the Word of God, the participation in the Sacraments, especially the Most Holy Eucharist, the same need of moral and social encouragement, let there be no further discrimination or segregation in the pews, at the Communion rail, at the confessional and in parish meetings, just as there will be no segregation in the kingdom of heaven “
In 1956 he desegregated the Catholic schools of the archdiocese. There was an uproar at this point, so strong that he had to threaten excommunication. He did excommunicate three people who were publicly and vocally opposing the integration of Catholic schools. This made national headlines. In another pastoral letter he wrote: “Racial segregation as such is morally wrong and sinful because it is a denial of the unity and solidarity of the human race as conceived by God in the creation of Adam and Eve.”
I am not sure, but I think that was the first time I ever heard racial discrimination described as sinful. After all, I read a lot of those long laundry lists of sins you find in examinations of conscience. I never remember racism being listed as one of the sins. Around this time, in the late 1950's, I began to realize there was a moral dimension to my racist attitudes. I could not ask others to change if I did not change myself. Painful as it was, I gradually realized my involvement in the sin of my society. We had neighbors that were African American, and I studied in the seminary with African American men. However, when I heard that they were not allowed to go to a movie in Washington, I felt that we had to change not only personal relationships, but also the law.
Looking back, I can say that I personally, and we as a nation, have come a long way. But we are not free of this virus. I share my story in the hope that others will take a look inside themselves to see the discriminatory attitudes they have absorbed from our culture — even without wanting to — and face them.