The conversation about racism is eerily silent in the Catholic church, according to School Sister of Notre Dame Shawnee Marie Daniels-Sykes, and it’s been so for too long, she said.

Fr. Bryan MassingaleIn an effort to ignite the discussion, Sr. Shawnee approached Mount Mary University, where she is a professor, about hosting an event on racism with Marquette University professor Fr. Bryan Massingale as the keynote speaker.

“A lot of young people want to talk about this issue because this is the age group,” Sr. Shawnee said. “Their peers are the ones being traumatized and killed on our streets.”

Fr. Massingale spoke at Mount Mary University on “Unconscious Racial Bias and the Challenge of Solidarity: Catholic Social Justice Post Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, and . . .” Wednesday, Nov. 19.

During his speech, Fr. Massingale localized the issue of racial bias when he mentioned Dontre Hamilton, an African American man killed by a Milwaukee police officer in April.

“I sense among some in the archdiocese a reluctance to face this issue and I understand that race is not an easy thing to talk about,” Fr. Massingale said to a diverse – in both race and age — audience. “We have an opportunity as Catholics that Catholicism embraces black, white, young old, poor and rich, and yet we live in silos.”

According to the 2010 U.S. Census, Wisconsin’s population is 83 percent white, 6 percent black and 6 percent Hispanic.

“They didn’t come here because they have a shared racial background; they came here because they have a shared common faith and that’s what we need to do more in this archdiocese,” Fr. Massingale said.

In his talk, Fr. Massingale listed cases in which unarmed African American men have been killed by some authority figure like a police officer or security guard.

“Something catastrophic is going on in our country,” he said. “The issue that we face is not only a few rogue police officers or security guards or neighborhood vigilantes … this is a conversation about us.”

Fr. Massingale said society as a whole needs to change.

“I’m not here to bash police officers; it’s too easy to let us off the hook and say, ‘It’s the problem of police officers,’” he said. “The police reflect us and our social values. I’m trying to argue they’re not an aberration; they are a representation of what is going on in America.”

Fr. Massingale said most of the racism today is unconscious and more of a “social conditioning.”  

“They act as they do because they’ve been formed in such a way that their behaviors are oriented by the texture of the culture that they belong to,” he said. “Culture is to society as the soul is to the body. Racism is a culture … we don’t recognize the way in which our cultural experience has influenced our beliefs about race.”

Ignorance about racism often stems from a lack of proper historical context, noted Fr. Massingale. People have what he described as, “Black history in 10 seconds.”

“Black people came here and they were slaves. Lincoln came and freed the slaves. Things were still bad in the south. Martin Luther King came and made everything better. Now Barack Obama is president and everything is fine,” he said. “That’s black history in 10 seconds.”

Fr. Massingale said the lack of association with non-whites could lead people to those unconscious feelings of racism.

“We know better, for example, but yet we still tense up when a black man or a Latino approaches us,” he said. “And then we’ll be acting ashamed and embarrassed wondering, ‘Where did that come from?’”

Demographics in southeastern Wisconsin play a part in the overall ignorance about race, he said.

“This flourishes because of the influence of social isolation and social indifference,” Fr. Massingale said. “We are a diverse community that is isolated from each other … isolation fuels ignorance, indifference and fears.”

Fr. Massingale added that those with close relationships to people from different backgrounds may be more tolerant.

“Almost every person, the majority who become passionate advocate of racial justice, has become that way because they’ve formed deep, affective relationships.… That moves them to see life differently,” he said.

The church’s role in advocating for racial justice has been lacking, even when it’s been proven that its voice has an impact, said Fr. Massingale.

“The Civil Rights Movement, the most successful social justice movement in this country’s history, was a profoundly faith-based movement,” he said. “Scholars have noted that when the Civil Rights Movement lost its moorings in the faith community, it also lost its passion, its energy and its effectiveness.”

Fr. Massingale believes the Catholic Church, in particular, has not been courageous when facing these issues today.

“I say all of this not as someone who likes to throw stones at the Catholic Church. I am proudly a Catholic priest,” he said. “But the only way I can serve the church and be a priest with integrity is by calling out the church when the church needs calling out.”

The faith community is in the middle of a moment of truth, Fr. Massingale said, and it needs to be a leader on this issue.

“We have to be honest here and say if faith isn’t an important resource for the struggle of social justice than you can’t blame people for not being in the struggle if the church isn’t leading the way,” he said. “When we live in a world where a black man is killed every 28 hours, the silence in the church is not only deafening, it’s incriminating.”

During the question and answer portion of the event, 18-year-old Anthony Mensah, a senior at St. Lawrence Seminary, Mount Calvary, and the son of Antoinette Mensah, director of the World Mission Ministries office for the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, stepped to the microphone and told a story.

“One of these problems I’ve had over the last four years is this increasing comfortableness that saying these things like, ‘I’m a thug’ … I should be good at sports because I’m black or I should be scary at night because I’m black,’” Mensah said “It just gets to you.”

He was with friends at school who were having a conversation and telling jokes that made him uncomfortable. He walked out of class and a teacher approached and asked what was happening.

“I’m just wondering what can (I) as a young black man – and I know it’s not just me –what can we do to not just give up?” Mensah said. “To be honest, there are these days when I’m just ready to give up this fight and I haven’t even started fighting.”

Fr. Massingale listened patiently as Mensah poured out his story to the more than 150 people in attendance. Then the priest had what he called a “Pentecostal moment” and stepped off the stage and began walking toward the 18-year-old.

“Your question is at the heart of a lot of what’s going on,” Fr. Massingale said.

“This is personal because I have been where you are and I am where you are and I need you to hear this,” he said. “When you feel this way, you are feeling absolutely normal … you need to know that your story here is one that’s shared with you and me and every other black man in this room.”

Then Fr. Massingale called for all the black men in the room to stand up. Men of all ages rose one by one. Mensah looked out to them as they stood up.

“I can tell you that they have been exactly where you were,” Fr. Massingale said pointing to the men standing. “They’re still going. They’re still fighting. They’re not giving up. At times it’s tough … we don’t want you to give up. We want you to be like us.”

Fr. Massingale let his Pentecostal moment flow through him.

“It will never be easy and it’s not fair,” he said. “But you can do it. I know it because I’m doing it and they’re doing it, and we’re not going to let you not do it.”