The Racial Divide in the US Revisited: An Interview With Bishop Edward K. Braxton

The bishop of Belleville, Ill., discusses the complex subject of the racial divide and the Church’s role in fostering racial harmony in the United States.

Bishop Edward Braxton of Belleville, Ill.
Bishop Edward Braxton of Belleville, Ill. (photo: Catholic Diocese of Belleville)

BELLEVILLE, Ill. — Intense media scrutiny of violent encounters between Black Americans and White representatives of law enforcement is re-igniting a national discussion about the complex issue of race relations in the United States today.  

Earlier this year, Bishop Edward K. Braxton of Belleville, Ill., one of just 10 active U.S. Catholic bishops who are African-American, released a pastoral letter — “The Racial Divide in the United States: A Reflection for the World Day of Peace 2015” — that has generated interest among Catholics across the nation who seek to better understand the issues involved and effectively address them. Here with the Register, he discusses the concerns he raised in that pastoral letter and sheds light on how Catholics can work together to bridge the divide.

 Do you see any progress being made to overcome what you’ve described as the “racial divide in the United States”?

I believe we have made, and we will continue to make, important progress on the road to this goal. And that progress should not be looked upon as insignificant. Indeed, it is so significant that some people, Black and White, may feel that the goal has already been achieved, since in their day-to-day experience they never see the fierce face of prejudice face-to-face. Still, I seriously doubt the goal will ever be fully achieved.

Many people thought this would come about in the wake of the leadership of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the nonviolent revolution he led. But it did not. Others thought it would come about after the election of President Barack Obama, a biracial man who identified with the African-American community. There was much idle talk of entering a post-racial era.


But it still has not happened. Why?

Racial harmony and healing the racial divide caused by America’s original sin [slavery] is a high and distant goal that will probably be a part of the ongoing history of the long American democratic experiment.


Bishop Braxton, how long have you been aware of this racial divide?

All of my life. Or at least ever since I was old enough to observe my surroundings and reflect on my experiences and the experiences of my family and friends.

One cannot grow up in Chicago and live as a member of the Catholic Church in the Archdiocese of Chicago without regularly seeing, hearing or learning about the challenges of multiracial and multiethnic living caused by the racial divide. Each day’s morning news provides new evidence that, in spite of many remarkable strides that have been made in the relationship between African-Americans and White Americans, a great divide continues to exist between life experiences of Black people and White people. What is true of the society in general is also true of the Catholic Church. In some ways, the divide may be more acute in the Church, because Black Catholics are such a small percentage of the larger Catholic community, which expresses itself primarily by means of Eurocentric culture.


One year has passed since Mr. Michael Brown Jr., 18, was shot and killed during an altercation with former police officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Mo., on Aug. 9, 2014. Since that day, we have seen many incidents of violent, fatal conflict in the media between African-American citizens and White representatives of law enforcement. Why has this seemed to increase so dramatically during the last few years?

I am not so sure that the number has dramatically increased. I do not have the statistics on that question. The number has surely decreased since the 1960s. The worst of the most recent incidents did not involve a police officer [i.e., a White supremacist’s massacre of eight Black Christians and their pastor, Rev. Clementa Pinckney, at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C.]. What has clearly happened is that greater attention has been given to these sad events, and so they have a higher profile.

This is certainly due to a heightened sensitivity on the part of the communities involved and the widespread impact of 24-hour cable TV news and social media. Phone videos, webcams, body cameras, dashboard cameras, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and text messaging have all provided a rapid dissemination of graphic images of events, which, in the past, would only be known via printed accounts in newspapers, which are several steps removed from the immediacy and raw pain of events.

This immediacy electrifies communities and often leads to national and international reactions, leading to peaceful protests and acts of civil disobedience.

With the advent of instant communications comes oversimplification, exaggeration, error and rage. It may also shine a bright light on terrible social realities that have been long denied or kept in the shadows.


What is a balanced view of the situation?

On the issue of law enforcement, it should be obvious that American society needs police officers to help maintain order and to protect the citizens. It is equally obvious that the work of police officers is very difficult and very dangerous. They leave their homes each day not knowing if they will return unharmed. Most police are fair-minded and respect the human dignity and worth of all citizens, but some are not.

It is a fact that some young African-American men commit crimes requiring their arrest by the police. However, this should not lead to the demonization of all Black men as dangerous, violent criminals. It is a fact that some White police officers use excessive force and display racial prejudice when they interact with Black men suspected of crimes. However, this should not lead to the demonization of all White police officers as racists ready to kill Black men at the slightest provocation.

Has the number of deadly encounters, Black and White, increased? Perhaps it has not. What has increased is the speed with which the word is spread far and wide — and the speed with which opinions are formed, positions are hardened, and rage is ignited. Very likely, by the time you read this interview, new names will have been added to this litany of sorrows.


Why are many African-American leaders now using the expression “Black Lives Matter”?

Originally, “Black Lives Matter” — along with “I Can’t Breathe!” and “Hands Up! Don’t Shoot!” — emerged as slogans and protest statements after the deaths of Mr. Michael Brown Jr. and Mr. Eric Garner. Demonstrators and marchers around the country and around the world shouted these phrases almost like a mantra to call attention to what was widely perceived by many people to be systemic bias and racism in the criminal-justice system, and particularly in the behavior of some members of some law enforcement entities.

All reasonable people should be aware that Black lives matter, because all lives matter. But the use of this expression was a dramatic way of calling attention to a reality largely ignored by the larger society. Namely, there are many circumstances in which society seems to operate as if it does not believe that the lives of young men of Color really do matter as much as the lives of young White men.


What does the phrase intend to accomplish?

The intent of the frequent use of the phrase “Black Lives Matter” is to confront the consciences of those who might reply, “Of course, Black lives matter, because every human life matters.” Expressions such as these were seen as a way of ignoring the terrible reality that the actions of some police, the decisions of some criminal-justice agencies, the structures of many prisons, the practices of some public schools and the actions of some young Black men (who take the lives of other young Black men in gang violence) seem to say Black lives really do not matter. Gradually, what began as a slogan became a movement that has become involved in organized efforts that encourage community leaders to actually act as if Black lives matter and to address the tragic truth that more young African-American men die each year at the hands of other young African-American men than at the hands of undisciplined White police officers.

In some underserved Black communities, you now see young men wearing T-shirts with the message, “Let’s stop killing each other!” You also see renewed efforts to improve education, health care, employment, housing and family support — decreasing domestic violence, teenage pregnancies and abortions.


On Jan. 1, 2015, you published a major pastoral letter, “The Racial Divide in the United States.” How was the pastoral letter received?

When the pastoral letter was sent to all of the parishes in the diocese, a number of priests, deacons, religious and laity wrote to thank me for an “important and urgently needed statement.” Many, however, remained silent. Some were not inclined to act on my request to discuss its contents with their parishioners, making use of its study-guide format. Other parishes, however, welcomed the request. Groups from several parishes began a series of frank and fruitful conversations with a group from the only parish in the diocese with a large African-American population. My entire staff spent a day discussing the pastoral letter and sharing their personal histories. Many said the chancery staff had never had such a conversation about the relationships between Black and White people. They said it was long overdue. Typical comments were, “I really don’t know any Black people well”; “It’s amazing that I know much more about the suffering of Jewish people in Germany than I know about the suffering of ‘Colored people’ in my own country”; and “I know so little about the African-American experience. What are Jim Crow laws anyway?”

My letter, “The Racial Divide in the United States,” began to have a far greater impact once it was available on the Internet and after it was published in Origins and other journals. Almost immediately, calls, letters and emails began to pour in from all over the country and from around the world. Most writers expressed great gratitude to me for writing about such a volatile topic in what they considered a non-confrontational and balanced manner. They said I gave them the words they were searching for to express how they were feeling about ongoing racial strife in the country.


Are there ways in which White Catholics and African-American Catholics can work to help eradicate racial divisions and work together to give a better witness to the Christian belief in the dignity, worth and equality of all people?

Such joint efforts have been going on for years in many communities, without fanfare. It continues to go on in a variety of circumstances. There are urban communities where there are a small number of parishes where Catholics of different races and nationalities worship together and engage in community-outreach programs together in harmony and true fellowship. African-American professionals (e.g., attorneys, doctors, nurses, educators, law enforcement workers, entertainers and athletes, etc.) have worked, recreated and worshipped with people of European or Asian backgrounds for so long that it goes unnoticed. These contacts have led to a significant increase in interracial marriages with biracial offspring. Since many employers have made serious efforts during the last 50 years to bring about greater diversity in the workplace, there is far more interaction and cooperation between the races in various fields. Some Catholics who work in various forms of communication media have had an impact by presenting a number of more realistic images of people of Color in movies and television. Many news programs now feature African-American men and women, though often not as the primary anchor. In spite of some effort to undo the ill-named “affirmative action” programs, many colleges and universities have greater racial pluralism in their student bodies, though African-American men are still underrepresented. In a few communities in different parts of the country, there are stable neighborhoods that are racially diverse.


What can we do in our parishes as Catholics and communities to end the racial divide? What positive actions can we take?

In our parishes, what people first need to do is pay attention to the Gospel of Jesus Christ and ponder what it teaches and try to live it. That’s where you start. What does Jesus teach us? Love God with your whole being, and love your neighbor as yourself. He tells us that our neighbor is everybody! So people — Black and White, African-American or European-American — you start with Jesus of Nazareth. He gives us the story of the Good Samaritan — a Samaritan who didn’t even talk to Jewish people — who stops and tends the wounds of a Jewish man who had fallen under thieves, because he understands the truth of “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

It’s also important for all Catholics to contemplate the truth of the Eucharist. If they do become what they eat, they can look at Mass less as a social club and more as a call to a conversion of heart of all people to live the Gospel.


What else can people in our parishes do?

Another thing parishes could do, which wouldn’t be too difficult, is to read the bishops’ 1979 letter, “Brothers and Sisters to Us.” Get it and read it, and think about it. It’s not that long. Take my own pastoral letter on the racial divide in the United States, which has a study guide, and read it. Discuss the questions — it’s very practical and easy to understand — because many of our Catholic people of European background are simply uninformed.

Key, of course, is establishing genuine personal relationships with people of Color.

Of course, the reverse is also true: African-American people must be open to establishing genuine relationships, even though they may have been burned in the past by some experiences of being used or abused or racially profiled or whatever — because it’s a two-way street.

Those are the paramount things everybody can do. The other part, hard as it is, is invite someone to worship with you: not to become a Catholic — just to have them join you, to say to someone, “We would benefit from getting to know our neighbors of different backgrounds.”

But unless that happens, we won’t make progress.


Do you have hope that we will be able to realize racial harmony and heal racial divisions by this generation or the next generation?

In the effort to achieve full racial harmony and heal the racial divide, I fear that those who are making this effort will take three steps forward and then take two steps backwards. This is so not only because of the many (including Catholics) who will not participate in this effort — due to indifference? — not only because of the few who oppose its goals deep within their souls, but also because of the undertow of history, the weight of the nation’s original sin and the drama played out daily in what W.E.B. Du Bois has aptly called The Souls of Black Folk.

Nevertheless, Christians who affirm the redemptive truth of the Incarnation of the Word of God in Jesus Christ, the transformative power of the amazing grace poured out by the Holy Spirit and the powerful nourishment that we receive when we are fed by the Bread of Life in the Eucharist must never grow weary of grace-filled efforts, working tirelessly, day after day after day.


Peter Jesserer Smith is the Register’s Washington correspondent.