By Father Chris Mann
Michael Jackson makes a great point in his hit song “Man in the Mirror:” If you want to make the world a better place, take a look at yourself and make a change — to which I would add, with the help of God’s grace!
Donald Sterling, the former owner of the Los Angeles Clippers who was banned from the NBA and fined by the league after private recordings of him making racist comments were made public, has become a representative of racism in America for many people. Father Gregorio used him as an example at the start of his recent column on racism, “Separating one group from another” (Aug. 29).
Without defending Sterling’s comments, it is important to note that racism and slavery have complex histories and can’t be pigeon-holed in the box of political conservatism. To blame affluent whites as the cause of slavery and African-American poverty today is simplistic and historically unfounded.
I grew up in South Philly — a “Two Streeter.” As a public school student, I cannot recall being in a classroom that was not interracial. There were “black” and “white” neighborhoods. Heck, there is still an area called “Chinatown.” To eat good Chinese food in those days one ventured through several “kinds” of neighborhoods. It was not perfect, but by and large people got along.
In Marine Corps basic training I learned, “There ain’t no such thing as white Marines, black Marines, red Marines or yellow Marines. There’s only one color Marine. Green! Marine Corps green!” Commanders do not ask one’s racial preferences when assigning roommates. I lived with whites, blacks and Asians; both Catholics and Protestants — and even a Mormon. Somehow we “green-folks” just got along.
As an adult, I lived in the gang-infested barrios of Santa Ana, Calif., an African-American parish in Jersey City, N.J., and in Harlem, N.Y., which is now multiracial. More than once I was reprimanded for referring to someone as African-American —”I’m Haitian,” or “I’m Trinidadian,” or “I’m Nigerian” or something to that effect. Especially weird was my missionary experience in Sudan. It was so tempting to inadvertently refer to the Sudanese as African-Americans. Fortunately, I managed to avoid that gaffe.
Every person and place along the way is a blessing from Jesus, my judge. He is the Truth that compels me to write.
Indeed, slavery stands abeam legalized abortion as low points in American history. Both are serious sins against the dignity of the human person. But it is supremely false to lay the blame for slavery exclusively at the white man’s feet.
Factually, the Africans enslaved in America were already slaves in Africa. They were sold to slave-traders by the black Africans and Arabs who captured them. A noteworthy case is that of St. Josephine Bakhita who as a Sudanese child was sold multiple times to harsh African slave owners, and mercifully set free by an Italian diplomat.
Additionally, the 1860 Census shows that only about 1.5 percent of Americans owned slaves, which includes a large number of free black slave owners, Native American slave owners, and Jewish slave owners. Actually, most transatlantic slaves were owned by Hispanic slave owners in Latin America — who at one point were cared for by “The slave of the slaves,” St. Peter Claver (d. 1654), a Spaniard.
Many people believe that Africans never enslaved white people, which is patently wrong. Consider the Barbary Wars from the 16th to the 19th centuries. Some 1.5 million Europeans were enslaved by black Muslims in Africa.
In actuality, slavery has existed throughout human history. After all, the Slavic people were enslaved (ninth century) — from which the English word “slave” is derived. The point is that social injustice is not a black and white problem; it is a human problem, which still exists.
Through all my travels one thing is clear: people are people. African-American parents and grandparents love and worry about their children every bit as much as mine do. In Sudan, I learned that people pay no attention to the different colors of goats. Distinctions make no sense to the Sudanese because beneath their color they are all the same — goats. Maybe we can learn a lesson.
America’s founders truly failed in some ways. Still, America has done better than societies founded on non-Judeo-Christian or secular values. The declaration, “All men are created equal” was the backdrop for the Civil War and the Civil Rights Movement, among other causes. May the Christian culture enshrined in those words forever unfurl in history — all the way to heaven.
Instead of playing the name, blame and shame game, maybe we all need to do a serious examination of conscience using Jesus Christ as the measure. Yes, white people need to change as do blacks and Asians and so on. When Blessed Teresa of Calcutta was asked what is wrong with the church, her response shocked her interviewer: “I am.”
So, what do you think is wrong with the world? This priest is looking at the man in the mirror.
Father Chris Mann is parochial vicar at Infant Jesus Parish, Woodbury Heights.