The scene is a young black woman with a protest sign approaching a white police officer who is part of a line of men and women clad in riot gear.
The young woman asks, “Can’t you just say it? ‘Black lives matter!’ ”
He responds, “All lives matter!” Walking away, shaking her head, she utters, “You just don’t get it.”
The encounter occurred this past summer, when Black Lives Matter protests erupted across the country in response to the brutal police killing of George Floyd. His death unleashed a powerful, and in some places violent, reaction to the black lives lost to our criminal justice system. It also focused the spotlight on the reality of racism in American society.
The question is, just what is it that the young man does not “get”?
After all, he is correct: All lives do matter. No one can argue with that, especially Catholics who assert the sanctity of all life, from conception to natural death. From the developing fetus to the octogenarian, the homeless and immigrant, woman or man, gay, straight, prisoner, student, CEO and unemployed, special needs individual, millennial, or “boomer”: all lives matter because life itself matters! Every person shares in a common dignity as a daughter or son of the divine Creator.
So, what are we missing?
Perhaps a clue can be found in our nation’s history. In their 2018 pastoral letter on racism, “Open Wide Our Hearts,” the U.S. bishops point to three realities in America’s history that help us understand the enduring and destructive presence of racism in our country: the Middle Passage, the Dred Scott Decision, and Jim Crow laws.
To confront racism, it is vital that every American know and understand these elements of our history, elements that laid the foundation for the patterns of racism and xenophobia that have continued to plague our country since its inception.
American slavery was founded on a conjunction of European expansion into the Americas and the growing industrialization of a modernizing world. These created an opportunity for a rising merchant class and European nations, seeking power and wealth, to exploit the market of raw materials in the New World.
The collection of raw materials is a labor-intensive industry, so entrepreneurs turned to the thriving and ancient slave trade in Africa for cheap workers. In what came to be known as the Middle Passage, the movement of slaves from Africa to the Americas, slavers from all three continents involved became rich by trafficking fellow human beings.
During the 400 years of active trade on the Middle Passage, more than 12 million men and women were abducted, hauled to a new continent and sold off as commodities, a traumatic element that no other “immigrant” group coming to the Americas endured. Of the 12 million, it is believed that about 2 million men and women died in the passage. About 388,000 African slaves were brought to markets in what would become the United States. By the time of the Civil War, there were almost 4 million slaves in the United States, concentrated mostly in the South.
If you adjusted that figure with the population of the U.S. at the time, the percentage of enslaved Americans would come out to roughly 60% of the country’s 330 million people today. That is the equivalent of the combined population of California and Texas, the two most populous states in the country.
The effect on the entire country of a system that treated that men and women as property cannot be overstated. Slavery is founded on the idea that the freedom and welfare of some people is less important than others. Slaves were the engine that drove the early American economy. It quite literally built what we know as the United States.
Slavery has always troubled the conscience of Americans. Legislation, court battles, and eventually a civil war are evidence of a nation’s discomfort with this peculiar institution. However, it took centuries for that discomfort to force any change. And the change was painful.
The inscription on the pediment of the Supreme Court building in Washington, D.C., reads, “Equal Justice Under Law,” but even in 1935, when the court building was completed, that statement would not have applied to people of color.
The 1857 Supreme Court Dred Scott decision was probably the most well-known case of how “equal” does not always equal “equal.” In federal court, Dred Scott and his wife, having lived for extended periods in two “free” states, sued their owner for their freedom. In a highly convoluted and shaky argument, Chief Justice Roger Brooke Taney, backed by a mostly southern, pro-slavery court, ignored all legal precedents and wrote an opinion claiming that the Constitution and its framers did not intend for African Americans to ever become citizens.
Slaves or freemen of color had no right to sue in federal court. Furthermore, the court stated that the federal legislature could not make decisions for states as to whether they would be free or slave. This put thousands of people in the untenable position of being citizens of a state but not citizens of the United States. This status was not to be corrected until after the Civil War with the ratification of the 13th and 14th Amendments and the end of slavery.
Jim Crow laws describe a collection of state and local laws enacted during the 100-year period after the Civil War and ratification of the 13th and 14th Amendments. These laws had the purpose of limiting the movement, education, voting rights, and access to housing, transportation, work, and health care of African Americans. Even in progressive states like California, so-called “sundowner laws” restricted travel by African Americans after dark.
Voting suppression, not very different from proposed voter identification laws today, was extremely common, requiring voters to be landowners or to have an identification card that was not possible for black citizens to obtain. Criminal penalties for African Americans were harsher and of longer duration. Lynch mobs enacted their own form of justice, often on false charges. White supremacist groups like the KKK, the Proud Boys, Aryan Nation, etc., arose in support of this inequitable system.
The Middle Passage, the Dred Scott decision, and Jim Crow continue to inflict trauma on the psyche of our country. Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, the three ideals of the Declaration of Independence, did not apply to African slaves for almost the first three centuries of their presence in what became the United States.
That is why it is necessary to state that Black lives do matter. Because in the history of our country, in our laws and in our society, the word “All” in “All Lives Matter” had never included Black lives, just as “all men are endowed by their Creator” and “with liberty and justice for all” did not include Black lives. The Middle Passage, Dred Scott, and Jim Crow are all historical proofs of this inequity.
Understanding that racism has been a constant feature in the history of our country is the first step toward eradicating it. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops defines racism as the attitude that “arises when — either consciously or unconsciously — a person holds that his or her own race or ethnicity is superior, and therefore judges persons of other races or ethnicities as inferior and unworthy of equal regard.”
But racism is not just an individual sin. The abuse of power and privilege has been an unfortunate staple in our government, our criminal justice, housing, and education systems. Sadly, this extends even to our Church, although I pray that we are getting better at listening to the cries for justice.
June 19, 1865, the date when slaves were liberated in Galveston, Texas, often known as “Juneteenth,” may have marked the end of slavery in the United States, but the journey to racial equality is a long and tortuous road whose end we still have a difficult time envisioning.
I believe that Juneteenth will take on special significance in the coming years as our nation continues to wrestle with the issue of racial injustice and discrimination, the legacy of what has been labeled the “original sin” of our nation — slavery. The protest marches and violence of the summer of 2020 spurred by the murder of George Floyd and others are the responses to continuing legacy of slavery. As people of faith, we are called to contribute to the healing of this terrible wound that has left our society so broken. When Black lives are included in the “All,” we will finally “get it.”