The objective of the article is to open a dialogue, addressing the systemic roots of U.S. racism and discrimination, eating up America’s soul from the inside out. Social uprising erupts every generation like what is unfolding before our eyes.

Fessahaye Mebrahtu

The COVID-19 pandemic disproportionately affecting the people of color is a fundamental issue of social justice. The police brutality that sparked worldwide protests, social uprising and rioting is a symptom of a lopsided and discriminatory justice system that plagued African Americans for 400 years. We reached a breaking point by the killing of George Floyd at the hands of police. The invention of skin color based chattel slavery is the root of America’s original sin, racism. The system was designed to keep white people as the privileged race, entitled to a quality of life sustained by the people of color destined to servitude and low wages.

Every time African Americans gained an inch of progress, it faced severe setbacks, either by restrictive local and federal laws, redlines, or racist mobs, razing the progress to ashes. Civil Rights movements vented some pressure from a situation that could have devolved into civil war, even genocide. The apparent progress of the Civil Rights Acts has made little change in race relations and social justice for minorities. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (1967), warns us, “Where do we go from here – Chaos or Community?” Our current situation has caught us by surprise; first, we were unprepared for the devastating COVID-19 pandemic, exposing our broken healthcare system; second, the call for law enforcement reforms were unheeded for far too long. The killing of George Floyd by a police officer on Memorial Day sparked a social uprising and rioting and kept the country under siege, incapable of containing or calming it. For far too long, the killing of unarmed Black men and other people of color was met with impunity and with no police accountability. In the face of mounting evidence the victims posed no danger to law enforcement, most of the killings by police were justified, ending in acquittals. People are saying, “Justice delayed, justice denied.”

People of African descent have been victims of unjust laws designed to deprive them of benefits to people of European descent, i.e. whites. The solution for racism, discrimination and unjust laws rests in the hands, minds and hearts of the majority culture. White people are the privileged beneficiaries of the system that needs to be reformed. The majority of white people are not racist but as beneficiaries of the unjust system, they will fight tooth and nail for the status quo. They will even play victims of discrimination for people of color having access to “rightful resources.” Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., from the jail in Birmingham, wrote, “How does one determine whether a law is just or unjust? A just law is a man-made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law.” The chaos King warned us of emanates from unjust and opportunistic law that discriminates against fellow citizens. The unjust system creates “a house divided against itself” (Mark 3:25; Abraham Lincoln 1858 address), weakening the U.S. national cohesion and its standing before the rest of the world.

The U.S. cannot have a moral upper hand and remain a model democracy while it leads every industrialized nation in the world in life negating policies: abortion, gun violence, homicide, suicide, incarceration (especially minorities and poor citizens) and capital punishment. The glorification of possessing weapons as inalienable rights while denying human and civil rights of fellow citizens is antithetic to the American ideals. These policies have corrosive effects on the American soul. Depriving the poor of life-giving resources, such as shelter, healthcare, living wages and food to sustain a basic quality of life are issues of justice. These clear examples of the misplaced priorities we embraced uncritically as normative cannot be sustainable, and calls for an urgent overhauling of our justice system to end racism and discrimination. If we neglect it now, eventually a revolution will be inevitable with dire consequences.

The double jeopardy we are in is of our own making, embedded in our systems. It was business as usual until we had a rude awakening with COVID-19, which showed our misplaced priorities. The double standard was exposed by COVID-19. The essential workers, who are people of color, paid minimum wage, were putting their lives and that of their family members in danger. We learned that our lowest-paid employees are the essential workers, who are the economic backbones and social engines of our nation at its most need. According to recent findings, “African Americans, who are only 12 percent of the U.S. population, make up 37 percent of the essential workers. Latinos, who make up about 17 percent of the U.S. population, make up 53 percent of farm workers.” These are also the most affected by the scourge of the pandemic. Calling these people “not regular folks” exposes the disposable attitude of the majority culture toward minorities. The status quo maintains their space of privilege and entitlement. The demands of the minority for equal justice and a level playing field becomes a direct threat to the privilege of the majority culture.

What will be the new normal in the post-COVID-19 and social uprising USA? It is worth reflecting on “the man-made unjust laws,” designed to perpetuate racism. Racism is America’s national virus, which has been mutating since the invention of chattel slavery, for 400 years. We cannot deny that as the root cause of our current chaos. Locally, Milwaukee has earned the notoriety as the most segregated city in the country. Other major U.S. cities are in no enviable position, either.

Minneapolis, considered a liberal city, became the flash point of social uprising. The police forces of our major cities are behaving like an occupying army. “Where do we go from here?” The status quo is no longer sustainable as it has kept a whole population on chokehold and utter economic neglect for too long. Human beings created in the “image and likeness of God” (Genesis 1:27) are to live a life of dignity “endowed by our Creator.” In reality, “the inalienable rights” are reserved for the privileged ones, based on skin color and of European origin. The countless codes and laws to safeguard the privileged are historical facts, still operative in the minds and hearts of people and expressed in the brutalities against minorities by law enforcement.

The killing of Ahmaud Arbery by vigilantes was too familiar in the Black community, but it only became a crime after the release of a video recording. The song of Billie Holliday, “Strange Fruit,” continues to release the odious stench of Black flesh burning every time an unarmed Black person is killed at the hands of law enforcement or a vigilante. Innocent until proven guilty applies not to people of color. Floyd was begging for a breath of air, the breath God blew into our nostril to be living beings. (Genesis 2:7) Eyewitnesses were pleading on his behalf, as he gasped for air, the barely audible, “I can’t breathe.” The eruption of social outrage like a dormant volcano was simmering and rumbling for decades as people ignored it, intentionally or inadvertently.

The killing of Floyd exposed America’s “sin-sick soul” of racism. Human rights and civil rights laws are in our books but white privilege does not have the willpower to implement them. Many do not even believe in them or consider that these laws don’t apply to minorities. There is a clarion call for “metanoia,” i.e., a conversion of heart and mind: “The Lord says, I will place my laws within them, and write it upon their hearts; I will be their God, and they shall be my people.” (Jeremiah 31:33) People of European descent need to learn from African Americans and other people of color about forgiveness and resilience. The African American Spirituals give us hope, saying, “There is a balm in Gilead, to make the wounded whole. There is a balm in Gilead, to save a sin-sick soul. … Oh, you can tell, the love of Jesus, you can say, he died for us all.” Spirituals expressed African Americans’ yearning for human dignity and the justice of God in their darkest hours.

In the eyes of God, there is no manifest destiny or American exceptionalism based on racial superiority. “In God, there is no favoritism.” (Romans 2:11; Colossians 3:25) The “cut above others” attitude becomes the breeding ground for narcissism, racism and supremacy, leading to nihilism and the chaos we are witnessing now. It is time re-envision harmonious coexistence of King, who inspired a whole generation, and continues to inspire. One of his famous quotes states, “Our goal is to create a beloved community and this will require a qualitative change in our souls as well as a quantitative change in our lives.” Yes, inspirational leaders can channel raw energy into constructive and positive power, refocusing our priorities. The early church community, known for its harmonious coexistence, was based on sincerity of heart. (Acts 2:43-47) Even when issues arise, they were quick to address them with pleasing results. (Acts 6: 1-7) St. Peter reminds us of our baptismal call, “Since you have purified yourselves by obedience to the truth for sincere mutual love, love one another intensely from a pure heart.” (1 Peter 1:22)

America has the capacity to turn this chaotic situation into positive solutions, and redeem itself with the grace of God. In these difficult times, we are witnessing the generosity and the sacrifice of people of good will. The protests and social uprisings show the solidarity of all people, across color lines and generations. More and more people are recognizing racism is the problem of the majority. However, solidarity of all peoples united in peaceful demonstration gives us a glimpse to the harmonious community King envisioned, “based on the character of the person not the color of one’s skin.” The silent majority has to wake up and work for justice. Peace is not the absence of war or volatile demonstrations. Pope Paul VI’s invitation, “If you want peace, work for justice” is more relevant than ever. Silence is no longer an option. Honest dialogues with all the discomfort and even pains they might cause is crucial. I cannot be a Catholic Christian, while harboring racism or benefitting from unjust and racist laws. It is time to obey the law of God and reject unjust man-made laws. (Acts 5:29)

Fessahaye Mebrahtu is the Director of Black Catholic and Ethnic Ministries for the Archdiocese of Milwaukee.