Learning Our History Helps Us Walk with the Excluded.
Our Church calls us to take a preferential option for the poor – that is, to prioritize aiding those who are marginalized – because it is what Jesus proclaimed was his mission in the Gospel of Luke. We know we have fallen short, just as the Levite and the Priest in the story of the Good Samaritan. In this post, we look at how our nation fell short in the formation of racial hierarchies which still impact us today.
Racism, as noted before, operates through individual prejudices, cultural assumptions about what is “good” and “normal,” and other ingrained structures, patterns, laws, institutions, and more. These did not magically appear overnight but are part and parcel of ideas present at the founding of the United States via Christian beliefs. When European Catholic and Protestant colonizers like Christopher Columbus arrived in the Americas, they found two continents of Indigenous Peoples they deemed savages because they were not Christians. Pushing Indigenous peoples off their lands using the justification that they were fulfilling God’s plan, these “Americans” needed laborers, and soon turned to enslaving Africans.
In the process of implementing slavery in order to fuel a successful economy, White Americans created a racial hierarchy that continues to haunt us to this day. This racial hierarchy designated those who are White as the supreme and best race. Black people, whether enslaved or free, were deemed the subordinate less-than race, to be despised, feared, and controlled. Catholic immigrants, including Germans, Irish, and Italians, had to fight their way into being labeled as White, eventually positioning themselves against, and above, Black people. Even when freed from slavery, Black people were denied the benefits entitled to them by the federal government during Reconstruction, faced a new form of state-sponsored violence through Jim Crow laws and lynching, and faced difficult poll taxes and tests to vote. This was all to protect White people from Black people, who were often viewed as dangerous, and as we’ve discussed earlier, “less than.”
In her 2020 book Caste: The Origins of Our Discontent, Isabel Wilkerson likens our racial hierarchy to that of a “caste” system. Unlike the categorizing people by race, which only dates back to the era of colonization, Wilkerson suggests that castes have existed for many millennia. Caste systems are “an artificial hierarchy, a graded ranking of human value in society that determines the standing, the respect, the benefit of the doubt, access to resources, through no fault or action of one’s own,” she notes. The subordinate Black and superior White castes are locked in the United States, which accounts for why other groups like the Irish, Italians, and various Asian immigrants fight to demonstrate how they are not similar to Black people.
Our country’s caste system endures through laws, institutions, and State-sponsored violence, spanning from enslavement to the targeting of Black people during the war on drugs and police brutality today. But it more insidiously endures in the ways all of us internalize where we fall in this caste hierarchy. As noted in one of our previous newsletters, we learn this caste system as we grow up in our society, or when we immigrate here. In learning our place, we learn if the nation sees us as “safe and good” or “dangerous and scary.” How others see us impacts how we see ourselves, too.
Because the Bible and our Catholic Church repeatedly call on us to have a preferential option for the poor, we are invited to learn more about our history as a country. Understanding our racial hierarchy’s history, including the seizing of Indigenous lands and enslavement of Black peoples, allows us to challenge what we might have learned about the pilgrims who first came to the “New World” It allows us to see how, while we did not own slaves and do not hate Black people, we benefit from a legacy of exclusion and marginalization. As a Jesuit parish in particular, we are invited to reflect on the second Universal Apostolic Preference of the Society of Jesus which calls us to “walk with the poor, the outcasts of the world, those whose dignity has been violated, in a mission of reconciliation and justice.” This way, we can mimic Jesus who looked down on the world with compassion, entered the world born into poverty, and was anointed to “bring glad tidings to the poor.”