“It Is a Long Arc of Justice” – Interview with Father Raymond East about the US “Black Lives Matter” protests
The killing of African-American George Floyd in police custody has caused horror worldwide. And it caused a protest movement. For weeks, especially thousands of young people in the United States have been demonstrating for racial justice. We met Father Raymond East in the Anacostia neighborhood in Washington, DC to talk with him about the protest movement.
|This is Father Ray:|
Monsignor Father Raymond East (69) is a Roman Catholic priest and prelate. He is pastor of the St. Teresa of Avila Parish in the Anacostia neighborhood in Washington, DC. About 90% of the residents of Anacostia are African-American. Father Ray is the former executive director of the Office of Black Catholics and vicar for evangelization of the Archdiocese of Washington, DC.
He was born in Newark, New Jersey, grew up in San Diego, California with six siblings, and graduated from the U2niversity of San Diego with a degree in Business Administration. He worked in a position with the National Association of Minority Contractors in Washington, DC. He became a priest in 1981.
New York Times columnist, best-selling author David Brooks described him as an “insanely joyful” man: “Just being in his presence would lift me up for a few weeks.”
“I WAS HORRIFIED”
Father Ray, the reason for the protests is the killing of George Floyd. He was killed on Memorial Day (May 25, 2020) during an encounter with police officers in Minnesota.
One of the four policemen had his knee on the neck of George Floyd lying on the floor. Floyd was unarmed and handcuffed. Although he made clear several times: “I cannot breathe”, one of the policemen knelt on George Floyd’s neck for eight minutes and 46 seconds.
What did you think when you saw the video the first time?
Father Ray: I was horrified. Three officers were kneeling on him and one on his back, one on his neck, and one on his legs. So, literally, he was paralyzed with three heavy men kneeling on him. And why? Because he maybe had a counterfeit bill.
In the amount of 20 Dollars.
Yes, 20 Dollars – this is nothing.
And you don’t know if George Floyd had intention.
Exactly and where he got it.
“THERE IS A LONG HISTORY WHICH BECOMES A NARRATIVE: WHERE DO YOU GOING TO FIND A JURY TO CONVICT WHITE POLICE OFFICERS?”
Do you think these police officers will go to jail?
For something small. Especially for the other three. The problem is if three black men were doing it, they would absolutely be seen as accomplices and they would be serving time. It is a sad reality. And it fits in a loooong narrative of hundreds of years.
What would have happened if George Floyd had been white and the police officers black?
It would have been completely different. Just because emotionally. The problem is the jury. Where do you going to find a jury to convict white police officers?
Then do you think the jury system is the problem?
Usually, such things happened in the south. And the south has such a horrible record of exonerating guilty people and doing the maximum penalty, especially the death penalty, for people of color. That’s just a loooong history which becomes a narrative. It is just very difficult to get a conviction against a police officer. That is the highest level of proof. That’s what makes people so discouraged.
“IT WAS DEADLY FORCE. AND THEY KNEW IT.”
Do you think the police officer wanted to kill George Floyd?
Everything looks like there was the intention to take extra force and to kill somebody.
Do you think, the police officers knew that George Floyd would die?
Oh, yes. There were probably 150 or 200 pounds pressing on his neck. And then you have another 150 or 200 pounds on his back and on his legs. It was a horrible crime. There were 600 pounds of force. That is deadly force. And they knew it. It was horrible.
“WE DON’T GO TO JAIL, WE ARE THE POLICE.”
Many politicians said: “Justice will be served.” There are charges against all four police officers. Do you think justice is only served if they are convicted because of second-degree or first-degree murder?
It is very rare that police officers were convicted and if so, the time serving in prison is very short. The police are almost always acquitted. Many of them continue to work for the police force without missing a paycheck. People give up and say: “There is no hope.” But I have hope that this case may be different.
Do you think all four police officers will be convicted?
It looks like there will be some penalty. But the doubt now is the other three. That’s what people make feel so discouraged. Because the police can do this: “We don’t go to jail, we are the police.”
“THE POLICE UNIONS ARE SO STRONG”
George Floyd was arrested because of a counterfeit of a twenty-dollar bill. But the police officer who had his knee on George Floyd´s neck and killed him was not arrested in the first days. What do you think about it?
In Minnesota, they have now a black Attorney General who was a Congressman. This is a big advantage. This is why it came to court so quickly. Usually, it won’t come for weeks and months, sometimes years.
Before the 1960s such crimes occurred all the times but there were no cameras and therefore, there was never proof.
And a problem is that they know each other: The judges know the officers, the District Attorney knows the officers. That’s why people are in such despair. The culture needs to be changed.
And the Police Unions are so strong. For example, in the case of Buffalo a few weeks ago where a policeman hit a 75-years-old man and pushed him down. All members of the Buffalo Police Department’s Emergency Response Team resigned in protest after two of its members were suspended.
The injured 75-year-old man in Buffalo was a white man. Is police violence a problem for all and especially for African Americans?
Twice to three times more for African-Americans. But it is against everybody.
But there is a difference and a racial dimension: in Buffalo, they were trying to stop a march where people were defending the civil rights of black people. That wouldn’t have happened in a regular encounter. It was a march for black civil rights and that gave all the officers the attitude to get control of this situation how the President told them to do: “We’re going put this down at any cost and if there are white people then they are not on our side.”
In the sixties, they killed white people because they were allies of black people with no rights: “You are a traitor of the race.”
“THE PROBLEM IS THE CULTURE AND THE MENTALITY. THE WHOLE SYSTEM NEEDS TO CHANGE”
When I was at the protests at the White House, there were also many black Secret Service officers. You cannot draw the line between a white police force and black people…
No, you can’t because it is the mentality of the police force which is why the whole system needs to change.
And many officers don’t feel that way that’s why we saw pictures of officers kneeling down or talking with the people in a friendly way. We have seen these pictures and they are beautiful. But the mentality of the police forces is: “This is the enemy. The people who pay us are the enemy. And we have to control them.”
Do you think President Trump is a part of the problem because he supports robust police conduct and enforcement?
He is not the first one. It is the system and the mentality. It is the cooperation between the Attorney General of the United States, the Attorney Generals for the different states, and the criminal prosecutors for the cities. It is one big system.
And the person who has written about this system probably with the greatest clarity is Bryan Stevenson. And Bryan Stevenson wrote a book where he talked about the greater problem of racism and justice in America. In the United States what is considered white is a social construct. When immigrants come through there is often opposition. So, for example, there was a time when the Irish coming through during the potato famine. They were not considered white.
They were outsiders. And they were Catholics.
Exactly. And when the Italian Catholics came, they were outsiders, too. They were also not considered white.
And now it’s similar to the Latinos. They are also not considered white.
Of course, with the Latinos, it is much more complicated. Much of the violence has been exactly the same in places where there are large numbers of Latinos. Latinos have suffered the same injustice.
“WE CALL IT DRIVING WHILE BLACK”
Many people, including President Barack Obama, said that every African-American had bad experiences with the police. You too?
Oh, my goodness, yes. And even now wearing the collar I get stopped – regularly.
And you get stopped only because you are black?
Yes, and we call it driving while black. Of my parent´s seven children all of us have been stopped for unreasonable stops. Even in the last ten years, we had very serious stops with no cause in different states in the country where we were very fearful.
My last one happened in New Jersey. I was going up to visit my uncle. And they detained me for two hours accusing me in the car in the cold and snow and the problem was I had a black hoodie because it was very cold.
“I WAS TRAPPED AND I WAS VERY FEARFUL”
Do you think it would be worse if you were not a Catholic priest?
Oh, my goodness, it would be ten times worse. But not in this case. It was in a part of New Jersey which is very non-Catholic. If we would be in North New Jersey they would say: “Father, we made a mistake.”
They detained you and you had to stay in your car for two hours?
For two hours and finally there were three police cars and six officers, no charge and one mean officer had authority over the other people, he claimed that there had been burglaries in that neighborhood and there were looking for somebody who might be breaking in.
It was late – around 3 am – because I didn’t leave Washington until 10 pm. They were knowing that I am a priest but it didn’t make a difference because I was black. If I had been a white priest, I would never have been stopped.
The suspicious person who committed the burglary was an African-American or they didn’t know the color?
That is actually a very common reason.
Ok, you don’t think it is true?
It’s an excuse: “We thought there was somebody passing twenty-dollar bills.” “We thought there was somebody breaking into houses.”
That „we thought“ is a very common reason for stopping. Once they can establish that, then they have the right to do anything of questioning and interrogation. To stop me for that length of time. And I said: “I am an old black man.” It was terrifying.
Were you afraid?
Oh, my goodness, yes. Because it was late at night and there was no traffic on the road.
And no camera…
No camera, I was trapped and I was very fearful.
Do you know any white American who experienced a similar situation?
It would never happen.
It never happens?
Oh, my goodness. Why would you stop somebody when he is out of town with DC plate and he is an old person? It is crazy. Where everything shows that he is not the burglar. That is the unfairness of it. And the fact that it happens so routinely. When I get stopped, I ask: “Officer, what is wrong?” And then they always take time and they come back after 20 minutes and say: “Well, the lights of your license plate on the back is defective.”
So, you say the police conduct is arbitrary. Is there anything you can do? Do you have a remedy?
It’s so rarely done. First, you have to go to the jurisdiction. And you have to wait a long time. And when they heard you, they would not take you seriously.
“THE VAST MAJORITY OF POLICE OFFICERS ARE GOOD – DEPENDING ON WHO YOU ARE”
Secretary Dr. Ben Carson said in an interview with CNN: “The vast majority of police officers are wonderful.” Do you agree?
If the vast majority were wonderful why did I get stopped for two hours for no reason? Six officers were there. As they were wonderful why did they not say: “Ey, Officer Freeman, stop this right now. What are you doing?”
Were the six officers there all white?
There was one black officer. He was in the third car. He could not say anything. It’s hard for him to be a black office on a white police force.
Is there social pressure?
Absolutely. Yes, the vast majority of police officers are good – depending on who you are. Because they are not good if you are black.
But Dr. Ben Carson is also an African-American. Why does he say that the vast majority of police officers are good?
Because of who he works for. He would be bullied by President Trump and he would probably lose his job.
For example, I was stopped in Delaware many times. And I was always very careful and I am older. I know if I were a college student: Heaven, help me. I have been stopped many times in Delaware where the police followed me for one or two miles on the road. And then they stopped me, and then make me give out my identification and detained me for at least fifteen minutes.
The majority of Delaware police might be nice to white people. Prince George County was horrible for so many years. Even when they had black officers, things still happened. And black officers in order to be accepted have to be complicit with the police culture. It is so hard to change the culture. So many of the officers in the United States are white: 77 percent.
Do you have also all the problems with the police here in Washington, DC? In Washington, DC 46 percent of the population are African-American. It is the biggest ethnic group.
It is the culture. I think DC is a lot better because there are so many African-Americans in the population and in the police force. Then the culture changes a little bit. And then there are not enough female officers. DC is doing a lot better. And we had a woman police chief. And actually, she was great. And very much respected. But the culture has to change.
“JIMMY HAD TO TALK WITH THE BOYS. HE SAID THEM WHAT THEY HAVE TO DO”
I heard, that many African-American parents have “the talk” with their children to prepare them for encounters with the police. Is this true?
Oh, my goodness. My brother James, he is tall, he is 6’3″ [190 centimeters]. And he has two sons, they are now 6’4″ [193 centimeters] and 6’5″ [195 centimeters]. And they are in a politically very conservative jurisdiction in Southern California. And Jimmy had to talk with the boys. He said them what they have to do. And they still get stopped and detained.
They came on Thanksgiving Day seven years ago. They were detained in the front of their own house. Several officers came up. My sister is very good at de-escalating difficult situations. She went out: “Hey guys! How are you doing? Happy Thanksgiving! What’s going on here?” It’s not just anecdotal, it is the norm.
“WE NEED POLICE”
One claim of the protesters is “defund the police” or “abolish the police”. Do you think things will get better without the police?
You need good laws and you need law enforcement and police. And you need a good judicial system.
The education of police officers is relatively short and they are mainly trained in shooting and do not learn de-escalation. Is this also a problem?
If you picked up five action steps that would probably be action step number two. That’s the mandated training.
What’s number one?
To look specifically at the record and statistics and open up the record to officers who had many violent interactions or have used deadly force before. The second thing would be to mandate national standards.
You talk about the mandated training. You have fifty states and the District of Columbia. Do you think you can reach nationals standards?
Democratic Congress under Nancy Pelosi tried it. They not going to use the chokehold. That should be a national statute. The use of teasers has always been problematic. It was supposed to deescalate. But it is used now to accelerate the lethality of weapons. If bullets cannot stop them, they use the teasers. They killed people by teasers.
Police violence is not a new problem in the United States. Why do many people think that nothing changes?
The problem is that they won’t even face the problem. In a county in Arizona, there was a Sheriff Joe Arpaio reelected yeah after a year because the people liked his kind of aggressive behavior.
He would never do the training. He would never ask his officers to look at the question of racism because he is tough-on-immigration and he is tough-on-crime.
And whenever people want to win an election in the United States – especially as we continue to drift to the right – to be tough-on-immigration and tough-on-crime is actually a very positive thing and now unfortunately also Catholics are going in this direction. So, we are not headed in the right direction. So, it takes a movement like this to bring the question to the table.
So, the first point was to look at the records and statistics, the second point the mandated training. What is the third point?
And the third point is to look specifically at the question of racism. We must define racism and talk about becoming anti-racist.
How would you define racism?
Racism is defining one group of people categorically as superior and another group as inferior based skin color, ethnicity, or national origin.
What is the fourth point?
And the fourth one will be civilian oversight with civilian boards. In many cases, there is no independent oversight.
And the fifth thing will absolutely be recruiting. You need a diverse police force. When you got more women…
…then there is another culture?
Exactly. The culture changes. There is a “Blue Line” which means that officers will defend bad officers. That’s a part of the culture that needs to change.
“BLACK-ON-BLACK CRIME IS AN EPIDEMIC. COMMUNITY AND POLICE HAVE TO WORK TOGETHER”
I read an article in the Wall Street Journal from Heather McDonald, and she wrote systematic police racism is a myth.
That’s very sad but I hear it.
She wrote: “In 2019 police officers fatally shot 1,004 people” – what is a lot because in Germany there are only sixteen per year – “most of whom were armed or otherwise dangerous. African-Americans were about a quarter of those killed by cops last year (235), a ratio that has remained stable since 2015. That share of black victims is less what the black crime rate would predict since police shootings are a function of how often officers encounter armed and violent suspects. In 2018 (…) African-Americans made up 53% of known homicide offenders in the US and commit about 60% of robberies, though they are 13% of the population.” And “a police officer is 18 ½ times more likely to be killed by a black male than an unarmed black male is to be killed by a police officer.” Is she right?
Black-on-black crime is an epidemic. And that has to be controlled. But this is hard to do without the cooperation of the community and police working together. So, they have to work together, meeting and solving problems together. For example, in DC we have an advisory neighborhood commission. I think it is really important that you have good community/police relations.
“THE LAST THING, THEY WANT IS BLACK PEOPLE CARRYING GUNS”
Another point is that it is not so easy to be a police officer in the United States because there are a lot of guns and every encounter can become very dangerous. Is there something to do against guns and gun violence?
Yes, that’s a big thing. But gun-ownership is a very important part of American culture.
The Second Amendment protects the right to bear arms: “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”
But it is very difficult to change the Constitution because you need 2/3 majorities in the Senate and the House of Representatives and you need a 3/4 majority of the states. Is the Constitution too difficult to change?
It is very difficult and, in this case, nearly impossible.
When you look at US history there is always race behind and here is why: The militias were formed to catch slaves and to protect property and evolved into police departments. And therefore, people bought arms to form militias A very strong gun bearing culture has grown up over these years and probably will always be there.
But in the Philando Castile case [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shooting_of_Philando_Castile] which took place right there in Minnesota it is clearly seen that the Second Amendment does not apply to black people or people of color because even when we have legal weapons we get killed.
Because the police officers think that they will shoot?
Exactly. Do you know why California became very anti-gun?
The Black Panthers were formed in 1968. The Black Panthers believed in arming. They said: “If we are armed using Second Amendment rights, then we can protect our own community from black-on-black crime. And we can protect ourselves from the police.”
So, they armed themselves. And a group of Black Panthers went from Oakland to Sacramento [capital of California] with their legal arms. And they were demanding community change (better education, fair policing, and economic justice).
Overnight California went from a pro-gun state to an anti-gun state. I think it took two days to pass the legislation. Because they said: “The last thing, we want is black people carrying guns.” Especially in the sixties. So, it was so ironic.
“THE CIVIL RIGHTS MOVEMENT IS THE BEST EXAMPLE THAT PEACEFUL PROTEST CAN BRING CHANGE”
In the days after the killing of George Floyd, there were in many cities of the United States – also here in Washington, DC – riots and looting and burning cars. The basement of the parish building of the St. John’s Church near the White House was set on fire. What do you think about this violence?
I think the whole Civil Rights movement in the USA should be based on peaceful protest and creative non-violence. And we take this biblical principle from teachings from Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Gandhi.
Some people say: “You can demonstrate peacefully but then you will not change anything.” Do you agree?
No. I think you can do a peaceful movement for change. The civil rights movement is the best example that peaceful protest can bring change. And also, the fact that South Africa was able to overcome apartheid without the slaughter. They thought that there was no way that South Africa could overcome apartheid without this blood bath.
But it didn’t happen because of the non-violent philosophy behind the movement. And Nelson Mandela combined with Bishop Tutu [Desmond Tutu, born 1931, anti-apartheid and human rights activist, Anglican Archbishop of Cape Town from 1986 to 1996] said: “We are not going to take revenge.”
There is a Christian approach to non-violent protests that is based on the Gospel, on forgiveness, unconditional love, reconciliation, and of the ability for the churches to lead the lament of the people.
“THE COMMON GOOD IS UNDER ATTACK”
Rev. Al Sharpton said in his sermon at the funeral service for George Floyd: “George Floyd’s story is the story of black folks. The reason we could never be who we wanted and dreamed of being is you kept your knee on our neck. (…) Like George, we couldn´t breathe. (…) It’s time for us in George’s name to stand up and say, ‘Get your knee off our necks.’” Do you agree?
First, that’s a preacher’s technique.
Would you say that you could not be who you want and dreamed?
I have witnessed a great deal of progress. But there are many people who feel they have a knee on the neck. And Rev. Sharpton is referring to systems in the United States that are not for the advancement of peoples but there are for the suppression of peoples. And that suppression has to do with the systematic keeping people under control rather than the advancement and lifting up of people. That is the larger point he is talking about.
What are these systems and what is this suppression? The police?
Not just the police. We are talking about economic, educational, ecological, and social systems.
Bryan Stevenson has dedicated his life to making the connection between the Criminal Justice system and other forms of suppression.
It is time to reform our institutions. All parts of our society can come together for the advancement of the “common good.” And the common good is under attack. But in some circles, people are very suspicious of the common good and they would equate it more with socialism.
“DO YOU THINK THAT PRESIDENT TRUMP IS A RACIST?”
Al Sharpton said also: “A man comes out of a single-parent home, educates himself and becomes president of the United States and you ask him for his birth certificate because you can’t take your knee off our neck.” Do you think that this was racism?
It depends on how you define racism.
But you think that if Obama would be white, they never had asked him after his birth certificate?
Oh, my goodness never. No, no, no. Never, never. And it infuriated many people because Barack Obama is different, he is literally biracial and was raised by his white family.
His father is from Kenia and his mother is white.
And he was not raised in Kenia.
He was raised in Hawaii and Indonesia.
The challenge is why would you even think that somebody who has a Hawaiian birth certificate is not American. Trump gave the birther movement such credibility and such power that people still doubt that President Obama was born in America.
Do you think that President Trump is a racist?
President Trump himself denies being a racist. He claims to have done more for black people in America than any other President. But it is not enough only not be racist. We should strive to be “anti-racist.” That means to commit ourselves to build trust and mutual understanding between communities. Our goal is one nation united with liberty and justice for all.
“IF THAT WAS A CHANGE OF HEART I WOULD SAY: THANK YOU GOD, YOU HAVE DONE A MIRACLE”
Many people say Donald Trump has only the aim to divide the nation. In a video posted on his social media accounts he said:
“I understand the pain that people are feeling. The death of George Floyd on the streets of Minneapolis was a grave tragedy. It should never have happened. It has filled Americans all over the country with horror, anger, and grief. We support the right of peaceful protesters and we hear their pleas. The voices of law-abiding citizens must be heard and heard very loudly. We will stand with the family of George Floyd, with the peaceful protesters and with every law-abiding citizen who wants decency, civility, and security. (…) Healing, not hatred. Justice, not chaos. I stand before you as a friend, an ally to every American seeking justice and peace. (…) We must all work together as a society to expand opportunity and to create a future of greater dignity and promise of all of our people. (…) We are working towards a more just society, but this means building up, not tearing down, (…) standing in solidarity, not surrendering to hostility. (…)”
What do you think about it?
It’s magnificent. That’s beautiful. But words have to turn into action.
So, you don’t believe him?
I wish this would be his new campaign speech. But he never says this at his gatherings. If that was a change of heart I would say: “Thank you, God, you have done a miracle.”
“YOU SHOULD ELECT PEOPLE WHO REPRESENT ISSUES THAT ARE CONSISTENT WITH THE GOSPEL”
Many Christians criticized President Trump for the photo with the Bible in front of the parish building of the St. John´s Church. They said: “You should open the Bible and read and not use it as a requisite to make propaganda.” Joe Biden also made similar comments. What do you think about it?
I cannot make a judgment on his motive.
However, Bishop Budde [Mariann Edgar Budde, born 1959, bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington] found that very offensive and she said: “You used military force to clear the plaza and to do that for what purpose?”
Joe Biden is Catholic but he is also pro-choice.
What is a big problem.
For many people in the United States, especially Catholics, it is difficult to vote for somebody who supports abortion.
That’s why the Bishops every four years come out with statements. It’s called “Faithful Citizenship.” And it doesn’t tell people who to vote for but it outlines those principles.
Many Catholics say that anybody who is really Catholic should feel himself politically homeless because in either party you can find great things that go against Catholic teachings and Catholic beliefs. But we realize also you shouldn’t be a single-issue voter but you should consider all the issues. And you should elect people who represent issues that are consistent with the Gospel. That’s the decision the voters have to come to. And it is a hard decision.
What are these principles?
The right to life is the primary consideration. All the other issues flow from this basic right: The right to health, to home, to work, and to family are fundamental rights.
The question is whether the candidates are as a whole focused on these principles.
And do you think that Joe Biden is such a candidate?
In considering the choice of a president, Catholic teaching is anchored on the commitment to defend human life from conception until natural death. Both candidates need to be evaluated on their respect for the dignity of every person as a child of God. Pope John Paul II called this building a “culture of life.” Our judgment must address issues of racism, poverty, hunger, employment, education, housing, and health care. On all the issues on the ballot, it is important to see beyond party politics and campaign rhetoric. We choose candidates according to principle, not party affiliation, or mere self-interest.
“IT IS A LONG ARC OF JUSTICE”
If we compare white Americans and black Americans then you see there are differences concerning the average wealth and income, the unemployment rate, poverty, the incarceration rate, abortion, health, and life expectancy (see graphics). And Black Americans are also more affected by the Corona crisis.
What are the reasons for this inequality and these differences? Is it racism?
The historical record points to racism as the cause. Historically so many of those categories have not changed. They have been great advances but to eliminate the effects of racism we must eliminate racism.
If you look at the unemployment rate. In February – before the corona crisis – the United States had the smallest difference in the records. The development of the African-American unemployment rate was very positive in the last ten years.
I would say: it is a long arc of justice. And in some areas, things have gotten worse. Covid highlighted the contrast.
The United States is still a partially segregated country. Do you have the impression that sometimes there is a lack of mutual understanding of the problems of other groups?
Somebody said: “When the world gets the flu we come down with pneumonia.” Because the effect of Covid-19 is much greater among certain minorities. That’s why I think we have to speak with compassion and understanding. People should always see the common good wherever they are.
“WE CALL IT THE SCHOOL-TO-PRISON PIPELINE”
If you have low income, you have low wealth, if you have low wealth, you cannot live in a good neighborhood, if you live in a bad neighborhood, there are no good schools for your children, if you cannot attend good schools, it is more likely that you won’t get a good job and that you will have only a low income…
All those factors you mentioned are true. It is a vicious cycle. One example is the “school-to-prison pipeline.” Children start having trouble when they are in elementary school – boys especially. So, they drop out of school early. If you cannot read and do math and you drop out in high school your chances of going to prison are very high. So, in this neighborhood, almost 2/3 are functionally illiterate. That is why ¼ of the men in our neighborhood have been in trouble with the criminal justice system. They are more young men in prison then there are in college.
The United States has the highest incarceration rate worldwide. 30% of the prisoners are African-Americans.
And the sentences are relatively long. Therefore, very often the father is not in the family, and there is a lack of income. And then it is more likely that the next generation also commits crimes and has problems with drugs.
The problem is multi-generational.
Whether it is gangs on the street or incarceration in the prisons: these conditions follow families over generations.
However, there is hope: We have a high school program for adults in our parish. There were many families where the adults were the first students since slavery that graduated from high school. The program has moved to a beautiful new building and does job training for the medical and construction industries.
Most judges and criminal prosecutors in the United States are elected by the people. To win the election, you have to make promises and you have to say that you are very tough-on-crime. And if many people are incarcerated it is good for your campaign. Is this a problem?
I think it is the heart of the problem. It is important to have a judiciary that is not politically constraint.
I had the chance to participate in a national meeting of judges, criminal prosecutors, sheriffs, prison wardens, and legislators. And the topic was minimum mandatory sentences. The problem was the rising drug-related crimes. But the solution towards harsh minimum-sentences made the problem worse. The jails were filled with non-violent offenders and big drug dealers with good legal representation were acquitted. And now we are reexamining those long minimum mandatory sentences.
If you look at the Anacostia neighborhood: There has been a big investment in public schools. How is the development in other parts of the country?
Yes, the DC government has invested heavily in new school buildings and libraries.
But if I look in other parts of the country there has not been much progress. For example, I visited central Tennessee. It was sad to see that Hispanic and black children were attending crumbling, old public schools. White children go to beautiful new, private Christian Schools. So, the schools are just not equal.
Why are the public schools underfunded?
Because they are funded by each County. So, if you live in that county you can have free education only there. So, in DC our kids cannot go to Maryland schools without paying tuition. So, the differences start very early.
There is a post from Donald Trump on Facebook: „My Admin has done more for the Black Community than any President since Abraham Lincoln. Passed Opportunity Zones with @SenatorTimScott, guaranteed funding for HBCU’s [Historically black colleges and universities], School Choice, passed Criminal Justice Reform, lowest Black unemployment, poverty, and crime rates in history. AND THE BEST IS YET TO COME!“ What do you think about it?
Opportunity Zones are great but it is an old concept. The colleges were already funded by a certain cycle. Even though they passed the Criminal Justice Reform there is much more work to do.
Unemployment, poverty, and crime rates have been on a long decline. He cannot claim credit for this decline, it happened already before he came into the office.
So, he cannot claim to be the best president since Lincoln. That is absolutely wrong.
“THESE PROBLEMS ARE COMPLEX AND AFFECT ALL POOR PEOPLE.”
I read an interview with a Harvard professor, Glenn Loury. He was the first African-American professor at Harvard in the 1980s. And he says blacks are often victims of robbery, murder, and rape – more often than white people. But these crimes are often committed by other black people.
We call it black-on-black crime. It has to be done. The communities have to work on crime.
And he says that there is a problem of inequality. The victims are very often black people because they live in high crime neighborhoods. And he says that one reason would be the behavior because of the destruction of the black families. Today 7 of 10 children would be born out of marriage. Is this a problem?
Of course, all these factors come together. A phenomenon is that many young women who haven’t experienced love from their parents – because the father is incarcerated or never married their mother – see their little babies as the only persons that love them unconditionally.
And having a baby outside of marriage becomes a socially acceptable right of passage to adulthood. But they are not able to bring up their children in a solid family structure and homeownership becomes an unreachable goal because most black families have zero net wealth.
Glenn Loury also said that the USA is another country than in the 50s or 60s. He experienced more discrimination than today. Would you say that there is a development in the right direction?
Again, there is a long arc of justice. That is why the architect designed the Martin Luther King Memorial with a long arc.
African-Americans have a lower average net wealth and lower average incomes. If you are poor in the US it is not so easy to rise in the social hierarchy. This is not only a problem for poor African-Americans but African-Americans are more often poor.
Is it a social problem that good education and health insurance are expensive?
These problems are complex and affect all poor people. A creative approach has been taken by the Catholic Campaign for Human Development (CCHD) funded by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. Ralph McCloud, the national director examines poverty and helps affected communities.
He can tell you that the best solutions come from poor people themselves and their allies.
And the Catholic campaign has a very clear plan for human development. And Ralph funds grassroots programs that lift people up.
“IF YOU DON’T BELIEVE IN GOD’S PRINCIPLES OF AN INTEGRATED CATHOLIC CHURCH THEN DON’T BE CATHOLIC ANYMORE.”
You said in your speech at the protests in front of the White House that racism is also in the church. In the church today or in the history of the church?
In the history of the church, especially in the United States.
Did you experience racism also in the church?
Sure. Because I was born in 1950. And I was born in New Jersey and I grew up in California. My experience is different than in other areas where discrimination was higher and more pronounced. For example, my mother in New Jersey, she couldn’t go to the catholic parish that was right in her neighborhood because parishes even in the north were segregated. Parishes in the south were very strictly segregated.
But then the Civil Rights Movement in the church came a little bit more quickly and it all depended on church leadership. For example, Cardinal O´Boyle [Archbishop of Washington from 1948 to 1973] came from Pennsylvania – a state that was not segregated – to Washington, DC which was a Jim Crow segregated District. And the first thing he did was to desegregate the school system.
So, before Brown v. Board of Education in 1954 [Supreme Court decision that ruled that racial segregation in public schools is unconstitutional], he desegregated the parishes. Did it happen very easily? No. Was it welcome by white parishes? No. But eventually, things changed.
What does “segregated” mean? It was not allowed to go to another parish?
I am talking about “de facto-segregation”.
It was the racism of society the church went along with it.
It did not speak out against segregation until there was a bishop who was anti-racist and with great courage desegregated a diocese.
So, Bishop Hannan from Washington DC. He was set down as the Archbishop of New Orleans. Louisiana was a very segregated state. So, he had death threats against him. And he just said: “If you don’t believe in God’s principles of an integrated Catholic Church then don’t be Catholic anymore.” So many people just left the church rather than belong to a church that was integrated.
“THE STATEMENT ´BLACK LIVES MATTER´ HAS BECOME SO POLITICIZED”
You said before the White House: “Some Christian folks cannot say that black lives matter.” Do you mean Catholics today?
Yes, Catholics. Meaning this: that statement has become so politicized, they would say: “I would never say black lives matter.”
Because the black lives matter movement has been mischaracterized as left-wing. It is trying to positively affirm the dignity of peoples of African ancestors. That is not a partisan affirmation. It is a human one.
I went to a university in Maryland where students came together and discussed black lives matter. It was really interesting. Because the younger generation sees things in different eyes then we baby boomers. Baby boomers are divided. Young people, they say: “Yeah, black lives matter, I get it.” That’s why the movement attracted so many young people.
Ben Shapiro said: “The phrase ´black lives matter´ should be relatively uncontroversial because it is true that black lives matter. (…) It is the implication of the phrase the people are objecting to. The implication being that there are a bunch of people they think they don´t.” He compares the phrase “black lives matter” with “the sky is blue” because he claims both are uncontroversial. “Black lives matter” would be an “obvious truism.” Can you understand his line of reasoning?
He has a very thoughtful line of reasoning. I strongly agree that all lives matter because every human being is made in the image of God. And they are endowed by the Creator with dignity and rights as well as duties.
But nevertheless, we proclaim the dignity of black lives because that dignity is denied in too many cases at too many places. Starting with the large number of black babies aborted before birth and goes through all stages of life. George Floyd is only one case of many cases.
“IF WE DON’T SAY IT THAT BLACK LIVES MATTER, WHO WILL?”
In your speech in front of the White House, you said: “If we don’t say it that black lives matter, who will?”
In the civil rights movement in the 50s and 60s, the churches were very important. The leader of the civil rights movement Martin Luther King was a Baptist Pastor. The late Congressman John Lewis (1940-2020), an icon of the civil rights movement, was an ordained Baptist minister, too.
What do you think is the role of the church in the black lives matter protest movement? How important is the church for social change?
I think the Christian voice is very important. When Christians go to the scriptures and specifically to the teachings of Jesus, they are trying to apply his teachings in a consistent way to the dignity of all life. Christians cannot remain silent in the face of injustice. They must echo the truth as proclaimed by Jesus.
“USE GOD´S GIFTS TO TRANSFORM THE WORLD INTO THE BELOVED COMMUNITY.”
How important is it for your identity to be an African-American?
I see my heritage as a gift. I didn’t choose my parents; I didn’t choose the era in which I was born. But I am so glad that I was born when I was born. And I thank God for the parents God gave me. I am also glad that my parents taught me Christian values of inclusion and reconciliation. We should all thank God for making us who we are. We should ask God for the grace to become what God wants us to be. And we use God´s gifts to transform the world into the kingdom of God, the beloved community.
I want to use every gift God has given me because my life matters to God and all lives matter to God. I pray that in respecting life we may all give glory to God, our creator.