by Vicki Lott,
Pax Christi USA National Council
Why have we not learned from history? I’m not even talking about the age-old lessons from the Middle Passage and slavery, more than 400+ years ago. Why haven’t we learned from our recent history? For example, the “I Cant’ Breathe” chant, t-shirts, and so on that were trending after police in New York City placed a chokehold on Eric Garner on July 16, 2014, causing his death. The officer did not face federal charges and wasn’t fired until July 2019 — five years later. An almost identical killing of George Floyd took place in Minneapolis on Memorial Day, 2020.
And why didn’t Minneapolis learn from the death of Philando Castile on July 6, 2016, when he was pulled over for a traffic stop in Falcon Heights, MN, a suburb of Minneapolis? In that incident, Philando was riding with his fiancée and four-year-old daughter in the car. He told the officer that he had a firearm, which he was authorized to carry, and within 13 seconds, the officer fired seven shots at point blank range. Philando died and the officer was acquitted of all charges.
In the cases of Eric Garner, Philando Castile, George Floyd, and so many more whose names would cover this whole page if listed, why do incidents of police killing Black men keep happening? Why do so many Black men and Black women, such as Sandra Bland, die in police custody?
Then we continue to see other cases where White men kill unarmed Black men, such as Trayvon Martin, who was shot in Sanford, FL on February 26, 2012. His killer was acquitted of all charges in July 2013. And Ahmaud Arbery who was shot in Glynn County, GA on February 23, 2020. No arrests were made until May 7, 2020.
The Jamaican political activist Marcus Garvey (1887-1940) said, “A people without the knowledge of their past history, origin and culture is like a tree without roots.” This country has deliberately and methodically falsified and omitted the true history of economic and racial injustices in this country since its founding. They even concocted a “slave Bible” that omitted any passages that might lead to insurrection, like Moses’s statement to Pharaoh to “let my people go.”
We Americans have all been socialized to believe the default position that Black lives don’t matter. The cases named above are clear examples of that. To overcome that tendency requires intentionality far beyond expressing outrage and condolences over and over and over again.
Too often, we blame the victims. Even during this Covid pandemic, some Black people are saying that if Black people would exercise more and eat right, then Black people couldn’t be more prone to poor health conditions that make them more susceptible to the virus. Well, Ahmaud Arbery was out jogging for his health, and he was gunned down!
As a nation, we need to tell the truth about the atrocious history of institutional racism and have those uncomfortable conversations that take a deep dive into the root causes. This includes White, faith-based institutions in general, and the Catholic Church in particular, which owned slaves, promoted segregation, discriminated against Black people who wanted to join convents and seminarians, and more. The Church’s silence about so many of today’s injustices is complicity. There are more tangible steps to building an anti-racist society, but the first steps are to become aware of and tell the truth about history.
Vicki Lott, Ph.D. is a member of the Pax Christi USA National Council, the Pax Christi USA Anti-Racism Team, and co-chair of Social Justice Ministry at Holy Cross Catholic Church in Austin, TX.