I once thought I was pretty much an authority on the late Rev. Boniface Hardin, spiritual leader, educator, fighter for justice, Indianapolis history-maker and a personal acquaintance to boot. Not until this year did I learn Indianapolis only got him because of racism. Segregation denied him entry to the seminary in his native Kentucky, prompting him to undertake his priestly formation at St. Meinrad across the Ohio River.
That fact, and many many more about exemplary African-Americans, along with insights into the intersections of non-white and white lives on the grand and personal scales, flowed like the proverbial water over an intense year of frank talk and formal study called the Racial Equity Discussion series.
My parish, St. Thomas Aquinas, played host to the six gatherings, held virtually under the auspices of our standing Race and Culture Committee. “Enlightening,” “thought-provoking” and “illuminating” were some of the assessments by participants, mostly but not entirely parish members. Those adjectives applied to me, and that came as something of a surprise.
See, this white guy knew all about this race business. Having come of age during the Civil Rights Movement, having attended college in the infancy of affirmative action, having worked for a militant black community newspaper before moving on to a career as Op-Ed (as in “token woke”) columnist for The Indianapolis Star, I was prone to acute spells of smugness about my interracial empathy, awareness of white privilege and sheer knowledge of black-white history in my hometown and the cosmos. A half century before George Floyd, I had written about black men and women inexcusably shot to death by police.
But did I truly know, as my neighbors know and feel in their marrow and in their heightened wariness, how different American life remains for citizens of color? African-American attendees at our meetings, most of them successful professionals, certainly do, and they shared anecdotes about subtle and not-so-subtle discrimination that seemed anachronistic only to the naive.
Those of us who felt we were above and beyond racism – or at least getting to that lofty point – benefited from reminders that racism is far more sinister than petty bigotry; and so pervasive and deep-rooted that good folks can perpetuate it without consciousness. Among the meeting topics were Critical Race Theory, environmental racism, the myth of a majority-minority America, “How to Talk to People Who Don’t Believe Racism Exists” and “Where Are You on the Journey to Be an Anti-Racist?” Readings and video presentations, the latter given by such authorities as journalist Gary Peller on CRT and Rev. Bryan Massingale on the spiritual implications of the Jan. 6 Capitol invasion, enriched the sessions. Father Massingale is noted for spotlighting racial issues within the Catholic Church.
Volatile stuff? Even among many liberals, to be sure. At St. Thomas Aquinas, in the diverse Butler-Tarkington Neighborhood, a parish long known for carrying the Social Gospel into social action, it’s not inflammatory; it’s a warmup. “There’s a temptation for white people to avoid talking about race,” a participant noted, “but it’s important to talk to move change forward.”
Positive notes were sounded in abundance, to be sure. Participants cited instances of racial healing, listed African-American achievers ranging from Father Hardin to architect Alpha Blackburn to basketballer-civic leader Jerry Harkness, and reflected on the conciliation efforts of the local Peace Learning Center headed by St. Thomas Aquinas parishioner Tim Nation. The series was augmented by an Anti-Bias Workshop under separate sponsorship.
Always, from the opening meeting in February to the finale in November, attendees both black and white were challenged to inventory their assumptions, chart their progress as anti-racists, and most of all to confront what anti-racism – active commitment to social change – really implies. When a participant confided that she was still kicking herself for not dressing down a grocery store cashier who humiliated a customer, we all stood in her shoes.
A companion project spanning half the year entailed discussion of the acclaimed book “Caste: The Origins of Our Discontent” by Isabel Wilkerson. The author compellingly develops the thesis that racial inequality, far from being incidental or spontaneous, is essential to a stratification system of social order – parallel in many ways to the caste culture of India and indeed to that of Nazi Germany, which Wilkerson asserts was modeled after our own Jim Crow hierarchy, with certain groups consigned to the bottom rungs.
A key to the staying power of the American caste system, even for all its erosion by social progress, is acceptance. From the elite to the oppressed, people figure things are the way they’re going to be. “This book,” one participant observed, “shows how racism is baked into our society.”
My parents, down on Southside blue-collar Fountain Square at mid-century, never doubted that blacks should know their place. My wife and I, in the 1980s, joined St. Thomas Aquinas to learn our place in God’s utterly equal kingdom. If I was tempted in late life to believe I’d learned everything, I could log in to one of our Zoom discussions for a quick lesson in humility.