Then, that little word struck me: We. Who is the “we” in my query? Eventually, I had to admit that “we” are people like me—white, middle class, hardworking folks—who have come to believe that, because the racist legal and institutional superstructure is now dismantled, racism is a thing of the past. Convinced of that, we have allowed ourselves to remain oblivious to the more subtle, insidious forms of racial injustice that remain.
Should we not have known that there is still systemic injustice and inequality in our society, engendering deep resentment and anger waiting for an event to set off the fault lines running through our common life?
It is an ineluctable fact of fallen human nature, that injustice seems distant and even unreal, until it touches us closely and sharply. This insensibility—indistinguishable from indifference—leads to impatience with those who press their complaint.
My initial response to the violence was rather boilerplate and superficial. I sympathized with the “All lives matter” response. As I pondered this more deeply, I came to believe that such responses, though sincere, often harbor motivations (as I saw in myself) that are, in point of fact, forms of evasion if not of denial. An example my fellow social conservatives may find relatable: We are annoyed when we say, “Unborn lives matter,” and some of our fellow Catholics retort, “All lives matter.” We rightly see this as a deflection.
I cannot accept the ideological underpinnings of the Black Lives Matter movement. That’s just how I see it. Still, Black lives matter. That is a fact. The very discomfort the statement engenders is proof it needs saying — even shouting — publicly and without qualification.
[W]e have allowed ourselves to remain insensible of the more subtle, and therefore more insidious forms of racism that remain. Jim Crow is dead, but his ghost haunts us.
I am satisfied that my reasons for coming finally to that considered judgment are compelling, but I make no demands on the conscience of any man. Ultimately, my consideration is of a piece with my commitment to the ethos of the Catholic Worker, but that is only the way on which I have found myself. Decades ago, Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin called for a revolution of the heart, in order to begin the process of what Maurin described as “building a new society within the shell of the old.” I hope we can take up that work together, each in his own way, and at last.
In any case, we are seeing the toxic effects of this quotidian insensibility playing out in our streets, right now.
Whether the rioters are criminal malcontents out for mischief and mayhem, or committed ideologues ready and willing to burn it all down, or simply people who have reached the breaking point—there will doubtless be some of each—the impatience and the demand for basic change, which animate the peaceful agitation, are every bit as real and sincere as the injustice which has brought us here.
The sincere protestors desire structural change in our society, and will not be content with more empty words or empty promises or empty slogans about doing better, while the status quo remains intact.
Even as we rightly condemn the orgy of destruction, we need to recognize another violence: different in kind, spread over generations, and frequently deadly. Either we become sensible of this, or it will be lethal to the body politic.
The debates over what to do will be excruciating. They are necessary, whether in town halls, state houses, Congress, or at the dinner table. Finally, the slower and less visible forms of economic and cultural suffocation must prove no more tolerable than was Derek Chauvin’s knee on George Floyd’s neck.
Larry Chapp, PhD taught theology at DeSales University for 19 years. He now runs the Dorothy Day Catholic Worker Farm with his wife, Carrie, near Wilkes Barre, Pennsylvania.
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