In the United States, February is designated as Black History Month. The UK similarly designates October of each year. While, of course, the histories of people of African and Caribbean ancestry in the two countries are very different, the purposes of designating a month of reflection and celebration are similar. It is an intentional time for a collective reminder of past injustices, as well a celebration of the achievements and contributions of black people. More to the point of our personal moral lives, Black History Month is an opportunity to reflect upon and, when necessary, repent of our own moral failure in matters of racial relationships. And it is a time to consider how legal, political and other public institutions continue to contribute to racial inequality and injustice.
In both the US and UK, we are reminded of our own need for self-reflection through sport. Perhaps no public institutions are more racially integrated than professional athletics teams. National Football League teams in the US may display a variety of slogans on their helmets, such as “End Racism”, “Stop Hate”, “Inspire Change” or “It Takes All of Us”. Premier League players in the UK have the phrase “No room for racism” on their sleeves and kneel before the start of each match as part of a broader, comprehensive campaign to resist racist and discriminatory speech and practice. While these are positive steps, the fact that they are needed reminds us that something is still wrong. Despite racially diverse sports teams, racial incidents still arise on both sides of the Atlantic. The same person will cheer the black players on the team he supports and hurl ugly racial epithets at the black players on the opposing team.
In part, Christian theology can account for individual racist or discriminatory sentiments. While more general than anti-black racism, the story of Adam and Eve in Genesis 3 and its refrain in the Cain and Abel story in Genesis 4 are an account of the alienation and disaffection that is part of the fallen human condition. These are accounts both of sinful behaviours and their alienating effects. Regardless of deeper questions of systemic racism or so-called “critical race theory”, these stories are reminders both of our own moral responsibility for racist acts and attitudes and our need to repent from them. In fact, these broader political or theoretical discussions often act as a cover for, or distraction from, our individual responsibility to confront and address actual individual acts of racism.
Black History Month also calls us to the concrete historical injustices inflicted on black people. The history of chattel slavery in the US is especially egregious, of course. The horrific treatment of black slaves in the US has no direct analogue in the UK. And while discussions of systematic or systemic racist legal and political institutions are important, it seems undeniable that “non-systemic” vestiges of past well-documented systems of racial injustice have at least residual effects. Even if (hypothetically and for the sake of the point) there are no systemically racist institutions in the US (and I do not claim this is the case), the historical legacy of slavery and post-Civil War Jim Crow laws have not been fully overcome in American society. The disadvantages caused by those institutions have not disappeared. One need not subscribe to controversial social theories to acknowledge this simple causal observation.
Nor should we resist confronting our own sinful impulses related to race and ethnicity simply because others with broader objectionable agendas do the same. As individual moral agents, we have responsibility both to be reconciled to our brothers and sisters and to advocate for reconciliation of all. Put another way, we can (and must) proactively affirm that black lives matter without endorsing the objectionable ideological and political agendas of “Black Lives Matter”. Nor do we need to subscribe to reductionist critical race theories to recognise the abiding social problem of racism. Not every injustice is reducible to racism. But every racist act is an injustice.
In the US, February is the birth month of the great journalist and public intellectual Frederick Douglass. Born into slavery in Maryland, Douglass rose to prominence through the publication of several newspapers and, after the Civil War, high-profile government positions. Among the causes that Douglass most championed as the means for black people to overcome the legacy of slavery was education. One of his great successors, Booker T Washington, is perhaps the most prominent practitioner of that cause, through establishing what is now known as Tuskegee University. Both these great men called upon black people to overcome past injustices through education. February is a month when the rest of us, in the UK and US, might take the time to educate ourselves on the abiding need to confront our own racial sins of commission and omission.
Ken Craycraft is the James J Gardner Family Chair of Moral Theology at Mount St Mary’s Seminary School of Theology, Cincinnati
This article first appeared in the February 2022 issue of the Catholic Herald. Subscribe today.
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