Racism severely wounded lives of people of color

Michelle Wimes, Alvin Brooks, Sr. Genevieve, Karen Curls and Fr. Tom Curran comprised the panel. (Marty Denzer/Key photos)

By Marty Denzer
Catholic Key Associate Editor

KANSAS CITY — Racism can be words, actions, private beliefs or public laws. The Random House Dictionary defines it as “a belief or doctrine that inherent differences among the various human races determine cultural or individual achievement, usually involving the idea that one’s own race is superior and has the right to rule others. 2. A policy, system of government, etc., based upon fostering such a doctrine – discrimination. 3. Hatred or intolerance of another race or races.”

Anyone who has studied American History knows something about slavery, underground railroads and segregation, Jim Crow Laws, racism and the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s through today. The 2008 Presidential Election, won by Illinois Senator Barak Obama, the 44th and first Black President of the United States, heralded the defeat of racism and discrimination and birthed a new era of equality and opportunity for all, especially in government, corporate leadership, education, even in the Catholic Church.

But, did it?

A panel discussion — Historical Racism, Contemporary Challenges — held Nov. 17 at St. Monica Catholic Church featured four well-known Kansas Citians — Alvin Brooks, Founder and President Emeritus of the Ad Hoc Group Against Crime; Karen Curls, Social Sciences Division Chair, Metropolitan Community College; Father Thomas Curran S.J., President, Rockhurst University; Michelle Wimes, Chief Diversity Officer, Ogletree Deakins Law Firm — with Benedictine Sister Genevieve Robinson of Mount St. Scholastica Monastery in Atchison, Kan., as Keynote speaker. About 100 people came to hear the topic of discussion: ‘racism in the Catholic Church in the United States’.

St. Monica Deacon Ken Greene, a member of the Black Catholic Implementation Team which sponsored the event, facilitated the panel. The Black Catholic Implementation Team, founded in 1986 by Bishop John J. Sullivan, is a Family Life Office ministry serving the African American Catholic Apostolate in the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph.

Benedictine Sister Genevieve Robinson

Following the welcome, introduction and opening prayer by Deacon Greene, Sr. Genevieve, the sole African American member of her monastic community, addressed the audience. ‘In vows’for more than 50 years, Professor Emerita of American Social History, and currently serving as her community’s Archivist, she mentioned several incidents of racism directed toward her, in high school, as a young religious and later. “Racism of various degrees, some quite blatant and others less so, existed at all of the institutions where I worked and in communities where I lived,” she said bluntly.

When President Obama was elected, the media described the national attitude as ‘post-racial’, “as though the issue of racism was behind us,” Sr. Genevieve recalled.

Considering recent events, racism isn’t ‘behind us,’ it is alive and well in this country, she said, describing it as “that heavy burden that has continued to hang over this nation for nearly 400 years and … took a nasty turn after Reconstruction ended,” adding that racism is easy to witness but difficult to define.

Sr. Genevieve stated that in in recent years, “racism has raised its ugly head in many forms and without shame.” She noted that an FBI report stated that hate crimes against people triggered by racial, ethnic or other biases rose from 3,310 in 2016 to 3,489 in 2017. The report also indicated that 50 percent of those incidents were motivated by racism against African Americans, 20 percent of the victims were targeted due to religious biases and 17 percent were related to sexual orientation biases.

Power and racism
Sr. Genevieve observed that in the U.S., the major power structures, especially economic, political, educational and religious, are under Caucasian control, with a few African American exceptions, including Ken Frazier of Merck Pharmaceuticals, Linda Gooden and Rodney C. Adkins of Home Depot, and Matthew Thornton of Sherwin Williams. “Though still in a minority today,” she said, “they are joined by other board members of color on Standard and Poor’s 500 companies or as heads of corporations.”

Institutional racism
Sr. Genevieve explained that in concept or practice, institutional racism inculcates systemic policies and practices, and economic and political structures that place minority racial and ethnic groups at a disadvantage in relation to an institution’s racial and ethnic majority. The U.S. Supreme Court for example, during its first 180 years, was served by justices who were almost always white, male and Protestant. Concerns about the court’s diversity were mostly geographical. The 20th century saw the first Jewish justice, Louis Brandeis, appointed in 1916; the first African American, Thurgood Marshall, in 1967; the first woman, Sandra Day O’Connor, in 1981, and the first Italian American, Antonin Scalia, in 1986. The 21st century saw the appointment of the first Hispanic justice, Sonia Sotomayor in 2009, and one of the few Catholics to serve on the Court, Brett Kavanaugh, in 2018. Clarence Thomas was appointed by Pres. George Bush in 1991 to replace the retiring Thurgood Marshall.  Justice Thomas is now the most senior associate justice on the Court.

In higher education and in the U.S. Catholic Church, the “complexion of the hierarchy and leadership” has changed very slowly, Sr. Genevieve said.

Higher education has been slow to change at both classroom and administrative levels. Sr. Genevieve noted that according to the College and University Personnel Association, more people of color have recently been hired in lower administrative positions including assistant deans, campus ministry, registrars or student services. The CUPA reports also indicate that the number of people of color in college or university presidencies or chancellorships remains low, she said.

Institutional racism also infected the U.S. Catholic Church, she noted; the Church hierarchy until the mid-1960s was Caucasian, with one exception.

Born in 1830, James A. Healy was ordained a priest at Paris’ Notre Dame Cathedral in 1854 to serve in Boston, Mass, the first of African American descent to be ordained a priest, although at the time he was accepted as a white Irish-Catholic—his father was an Irish immigrant and his mother a former slave.

Fr. Healy was installed as the second bishop of the Diocese of Portland, Maine in 1875, elevated to the bishopric by Pope Pius IX. Sr. Genevieve said that after his death in 1900, no African American was named a bishop until Father Harold Perry became Auxiliary Bishop of the Archdiocese of New Orleans in 1966. Over the next 52 years, popes elevated 24 African American priests to the bishopric—of those, 12 were named auxiliary bishops and three eventually became archbishops. No African American bishop or archbishop has received the cardinal’s red hat, she said, although there are African cardinals.

No priest of color belonged to the Kansas City or Kansas City-St. Joseph diocese until 1982, when Fr. Robert Stewart was ordained the first African American priest in the diocese, she continued. Fr. Stewart died Dec. 15, 2017. Currently in the diocese, there are two African American priests and one seminarian.

Over the years, Sr. Genevieve said, the Catholic Church has engaged in overt and covert institutional racism. It was common, she explained, in past generations, for parishes, schools and health care to be segregated. Often Sunday liturgies were celebrated separately for whites and blacks. In Kansas City, the practice was followed for many years, with most African American Catholics attending St. Monica/St. Joseph Church, although many of its pastors and administrators have been Caucasian. St. Monica’s parish leadership today is African American, with Father Leonard Gicheru serving as parochial administrator and deacons Ken Greene and Darwin Dupree.

Archbishop O’Hara, who facilitated the integration of diocesan high schools with the enrollment of Carmen Forte at Loretto Academy in 1947, seemingly was reluctant to integrate Holy Name Parish, within whose boundaries lived many African American Catholics, she suggested. White parishioners apparently objected to their attendance, so he established Holy Spirit parish at 25th and Euclid in 1945. He closed that parish in 1956 and the parishioners were, in Sr. Genevieve’s words, “distributed among Annunciation, St. Vincent, Our Lady of Sorrows and Holy Name parishes.” She said that most Holy Spirit parishioners began attending Holy Name Church and enrolled their children in the school, which resulted in “white flight.”

Of those parishes, Annunciation and Holy Name no longer exist and St. Vincent is not a diocesan parish. It wasn’t until the mid-1940s that minorities, women of color, were accepted into previously all white religious communities, though they were often segregated from the rest of the community. Even the word minority carries negative connotations, she said. They experienced “aloneness and alienation in a group in which one is perhaps only tolerated,” according to a 1974 article by Karen Katafiaz, “A New Voice for the New Black Sister” in the St. Anthony Messenger.

Today, that sense of aloneness and alienation is less pervasive, Sr. Genevieve said, but it’s still there.

She said that early in the American Catholic Church’s history, it “was more mother and protector to the African American laity. Few African Americans asserted their position in the Church.” That changed with the meeting of the first lay Black Catholic Congress in 1889. Led by Daniel Rudd, a Catholic journalist and civil rights leader who was born into slavery, the group met with President Grover Cleveland. Father Augustus Tolton, whose sainthood cause recently completed its research phase, celebrated the inaugural Mass of the 4-day Congress.

The National Black Congresses continue to push to better the lives of the African American community in the areas of health care, housing and education, Sr. Genevieve said.

Racism has been around for a long time, she said, “and severely wounded the lives of people of color, especially African Americans.” Sr. Genevieve gave some examples of racism in the Church — some religious orders enslaved African Americans until the end of the Civil War; Jesuits sold slaves to pay for building campaigns, only recently repudiating this and apologizing; most religious communities refused to admit African Americans; Catholic schools refused enrollment; many priests avoid mentioning racism from the pulpit and even “bishops have been silent on the issue of racism when it raises its ugly head for all to see.”

Alvin Brooks, for 40 years an activist against crime, concurred with what Sr. Genevieve said, adding that “racism in this diocese and elsewhere won’t end until white folks raise the issue and fight it.”

Educator Karen Curls said racism in America is tightly woven into its fabric, and the Catholic Church is a microcosm of America and its attitudes. Speaking about the election of Barak Obama in 2008, she said, “Black folks never bought into a ‘post-racial America’. That was intellectual racism. We worried every time Obama stepped up to the podium that someone would kill him.”

Curls referenced the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which states that man is made in the image and likeness of God, “not a black man or a white man, just a man!”

Rockhurst University president, Fr. Curran, quoted from the Book of Micah, “a minor prophet with a major message,” saying, “You have been told, O mortal, what is good, and what the LORD requires of you: Only to do justice and to love goodness, and to walk humbly with your God. (Micah 6:8)” Fr. Curran explained that doing justice was pursuing common good and human dignity. “Treating all with dignity is the cure for racism,” he said.

He also referenced St. Augustine, son of St. Monica, who spoke of racism as a lust to dominate others. “Racism is the original sin in this country,” Fr. Curran said.

Attorney Michelle Wimes recalled the segregated schools she attended, and the support and inspiration she received from certain white religious sisters who taught in them. “All of the black Catholic grade schools have closed, so there are no feeder schools in the black community. Have to stand up and call racism what it is!” she said.

She said the African American community has arrived at a dangerous place in society. “We must learn from each other, and that is possible without discrimination. We must learn diversity and inclusion, which should not be a white person’s act of charity!”

She suggested getting out of comfort zones and learning empathy. “No more silence. Share our stories, black to white and white to black.”

And the U.S. Bishops are silent no longer. On Nov. 14, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops approved and released, “Open Wide Our Hearts: The Enduring Call To Love—a Pastoral Letter Against Racism”. The bishops called racism “one particularly destructive and persistent form of evil [which] still infects our nation.” The Missouri Bishops also gave “A Call for Racial Reconciliation from the Missouri Catholic Conference”, which says acts of racism and violence must be recognized and addressed in order for efforts to combat racism in our society and culture to bear fruit.”

The Missouri Bishop’s letter, and a link to the USCCB Pastoral letter can be found on the diocesan website at kcsjcatholic.org/2018/11/call-racial-reconciliation-missouri-catholic-conference/.


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October 20, 2020
The Diocese of Kansas City ~ St. Joseph