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A Discussion of Race at Lucille’s Kitchen

 

The Most Reverend Archbishop Harry J. Flynn of the St. Paul and Minneapolis Archdiocese is spiritual leader of 800,000 Roman Catholics in Minnesota. He was formerly Bishop of Lafayette, Louisiana. In November, 2003, Archbishop Flynn issued a pastoral letter on racism, titled “In God’s Image”. The letter included this statement: “It has been my observation that racism in Minnesota is no less real and no less serious than that which I experienced in Louisiana. However, racism here is sometimes more subtle, less blatant .. more indirect and less open.” In other words, abundant white racism lurked behind the veneer of “Minnesota nice.”

On Tuesday, December 2, 2003, Archbishop Flynn met with a group of black ministers and others from the predominantly black community of north Minneapolis to discuss the pastoral letter and its implications. The meeting, broadcast on a local radio station, was held at Lucille’s Kitchen in Minneapolis. Hosted by the publisher of a black community newspaper, it was similar in format to other political gatherings held on that site. The meeting began at 9:30 a.m. and was attended by eighty to one hundred persons.

Archbishop Flynn sat at the front table surrounded by black ministers. Most commended him for issuing the pastoral letter although some expressed past complaints about the Catholic church. The racial rhetoric was harsh. The Archbishop discussed how the pastoral letter had attracted some hostile response though most were sympathetic with its aims. He recalled how, as Bishop of Lafayette in Louisiana, he had also been at the center of controversy when he insisted that a Catholic school replace its mascot, “Johnny Reb”, who carried a Confederate flag. The fight against racism was the right thing to do, he said; it was consistent with Christian teachings.

Bill McGaughey, a white resident of north Minneapolis, stepped up to the public microphone as the third person in line. While he was waiting to speak, a man ahead of him icommended the Archbishop for not being a white man, despite his skin pigmentation. “White”, this man said, was a “state of mind”. The Archbishop had shown that he could overcome that limitation.

When it was McGaughey’s turn to speak, he said he disagreed with the views previously expressed. He spoke for around two minutes about racism from his perspective. (See “A Difference of Moral Opinion” following this narrative. ) Then he answered several follow-up questions from the moderator. While his statement sharply challenged what was previously said, the discussion was civil. McGaughey then stood near the back of the room . None of the other speakers supported his point of view.

First to respond to McGaughey’s statement was Rev. Jerry McAfee, pastor of the New Salem Baptist Church, a frequent spokesman on northside community issues. He said that McGaughey was “insane” for expressing those thoughts, adding that McGaughey had left the meeting room. He did, however, agree with the point that antagonisms between black and white people served the economic interests of some people. Asked to comment on McGaughey’s statement, Archbishop Flynn said that it echoed other comments that he had received: that raising the issue of racism was “too divisive”.

A friend of McGaughey’s, Charlie Disney, engaged McAfee in a discussion after the meeting. McGaughey was standing near the exit door making himself available for any who wished to talk. The CEO of City Inc., a nonprofit community center, exchanged contact information. A Star Tribune reporter spoke briefly with McGaughey and asked for the spelling of his name. (Nothing ever appeared in the paper about his dissenting views.) McGaughey joined Disney and McAfee for awhile and then shook hands with Archbishop Flynn as he walked past them to the door. McGaughey remarked to the Archbishop, “Keep the discussion open”. The latter amiably responded, “Yes, that’s important.”

As the meeting room emptied, McGaughey had a more leisurely conversation with Macalester history professor, Mahmoud El-Kati, who wore a brightly colored African cap. Responding to McGaughey’s point out that slavery was abolished in the 1860s, El-Kati stressed the importance of having a wider view of history. A woman who said she had recently published a book joined in the discussion but did not give her name. The group parted on friendly terms about an hour after the meeting had officially ended.

McGaughey wrote up an account of this meeting and sent a copy to Archbishop Flynn, requesting further discussion. The Archbishop wrote back, suggesting that he make an appointment to talk with the head of the Archdiocese’s Office on Social Justice, Kathy Tomlin. The meeting was delayed for a few months while McGaughey took part in a political campaign in Louisiana. It was finally held in April 2004.

At the meeting, McGaughey and Tomlin exchanged views on race relations. Tomlin gave him a copy of the church’s study guide on this subject. Toward the end of the meeting, she revealed that the impetus for the Archbishop’s initiative had come from a lay committee of a church in Woodbury, a St. Paul suburb, urging that the Catholic church do something to attract more black members. The Archbishop was, in a sense, doing constituent service.

To McGaughey, it seemed strange that the Catholic church was condemning white racism as a ploy for suburban churches to gain more black members. Woodbury was a largely white suburb. Residents of American cities often move to the suburbs to escape blacks living in the inner city. McGaughey, on the other hand, continued to live in a section of Minneapolis where the black population outnumbered the population of whites. So here was the church hierarchy condemning whites for their racism to please a congregation whose members or their forbearers may have fled the city to escape blacks. It was those continuing to live within the city who would have to live with the consequences of the church’s guilt-laden message on race. Let the suburbanites instead wear the horse-hair shirt of this teaching.

McGaughey pointed this out in a subsequent letter to Tomlin. He questioned whether the price of increased black membership in the church was condemning white racism. Did black people actually demand this? He wrote that, from his own experience, he thought black people were more concerned about inner-city crime than they were about racist attitudes among white people. He enclosed a newspaper clipping about a black woman who owned and operated a beauty parlor in the same shopping center as where the Archbishop had spoken. She had been mugged several times recently by young black thugs and was thinking of giving up her business. Could not the church speak out against crime? If Tomlin had any doubt as to what black people want, McGaughey suggested that she talk with a certain black man from north Minneapolis whose address and phone number he gave.

There was no response from Tomlin. So here is where the dialogue ended. At least, McGaughey had shattered the stereotype of a Minnesota man too “nice” to express his true thoughts about race. The written version now appears.


A Difference of Moral Opinion

by William McGaughey

For a long time, I have felt that American society - my society - has suffered from a spiritual sickness in its race relations. There is no doubt that black people in America suffered greatly through the institution of slavery. There is little doubt that post-Reconstruction arrangements in the South humiliated and degraded black people by the pretense of “separate but equal”. Even after legal segregation was ended, many white people have harbored hateful attitudes towards blacks, believing themselves to be superior. But that’s as far as I will go. Slavery was abolished in the 1860s; legal segregation, a century later. The rest of it is a matter of individual attitudes and preferences. Top-down solutions of force will not change people’s hearts. And what we have today is a problem of the heart.

As I said at the forum with Archbishop Harry Flynn, for all my adult life - for more than forty years - race relations in America have characterized almost entirely on the basis of white people hating and oppressing black people. Whites have been demonized as racists. After all this moral haranguing, race relations remain unsatisfactory. We remain a suspicious, angry people, politically and socially polarized. From my perspective of being a white person, the decades of moralizing and sermonizing about race have failed to change people’s hearts. Sure, some white liberals, following in John Brown’s foot steps, have adopted an aggressive anti-racist posture. The “silent majority” of whites do not buy into this argument because they know it is a lie. White racism, so to speak, has gone underground.

Why is the “anti-racist” argument a lie? The lie consists of the idea that white people are the only ones guilty of racism. Racism, to me, consists of an angry, hateful attitude directed against members of another racial group. It is selfishness expressed in racial terms. It may also include the idea that one’s own race is intellectually or morally superior to another race. While I cannot peer inside another’s heart or mind, I can say that some black people give indications of being racist by those definitions. Black people, too, are capable of racism.

If white racism is bad, then black racism must also be bad, I would think. Why are not the two problems covered in the same discussion? It is the double standard inherent in most discussions of race relations today which makes this a lie. It is that which causes many white people to tune out the discussion when the problem of racism is raised. Why talk with dishonest people who are using race for appearance’s sake?

Archbishop Flynn’s pastoral letter on racism gives the standard excuse for the double standard. He wrote: “Some have given racism the working definition of ‘prejudice with power.’ In this sense, it involves not only prejudice, but also the use of social, economic, and political power to keep one race in a privileged position and to exclude others.” By implication, if white people occupy most of the positions of influence and power in our society, then only white people can be racists. Black people who are merely prejudiced against whites cannot, by definition, be racist because they as a group lack power.

I say that the statement that white Americans occupy a “privileged position” in society is far too sweeping. It is individuals, not groups, who are privileged. Does the Archbishop not know that many of the destitute people who sleep under the bridges in Minnesota are white? Does he not know that many whites, as well as blacks, work for less than the minimum wage? Are these white people to be lumped in with the rich white CEOs, doctors, and attorneys as being racist because they are “privileged”? How ludicrous this is.

Ever since the 1960s, the white power elite in America has been socially defined by its avoidance of “redneck” - i.e., low-class, white trash - attitudes. That is what makes the argument about an alleged nexus of racism and power so preposterous. As I said to Archbishop Flynn and the black ministers, the power structure in America is solidly lined up against “white racism”. Every corporation or bureaucracy where I have ever worked has actively promoted “diversity” and supported affirmative action. The racial ethic which they were advocating at the forum is, in fact, being aggressively promoted by this society’s power structure - to the point of being like a civic religion.

When the Minnesota Supreme Court requires attorneys to take diversity-training courses to recognize and root out white prejudice as a requirement for practicing law in the state, when our newspapers continually report events and editorialize through the prism of white racial guilt, when our institutions of higher learning are staffed with ‘60s graduates for whom the Civil Rights movement was a moral epiphany, we cannot seriously entertain the idea of a white-supremacist society even if whites do disproportionately fill its positions of influence and power. The sense of solidarity between this power elite and the great mass of white people is weak. There is no “white community”, so to speak.

I told Archbishop Flynn and the black ministers that I had come to the conclusion that the continuing drumbeat against “white racism” was a device used by powerful people in our society to beat down poor white people. If you can demonize these people as racists, then you can safely abuse them. No one then will care if they suffer. And there can be little doubt that corporate America is abusing people on a grand scale. More people are losing their jobs and their health-insurance coverage. More are working longer hours for lower real wages. Many U.S. jobs are being eliminated as production escapes to places abroad. Our political system is corrupted by money. Socio-economic stratification is increasing.

Rather than continue with a litany of complaints in this vein, I would merely say that racial divisions allow the U.S. power elite to plunder and exploit people without effective resistance. It is low-class whites who are the main targets of the “anti-white-racist” campaign carried on by this elite. Disadvantaged blacks need to realize that it is not in their own interest to see these people demoralized or destroyed; for it will take a push from the bottom of society, involving people of all races, to bring the U.S. power elite back under control so that it might actually serve the public.

The fight against racism is indeed a spiritual issue. It is an issue which a spiritual leader such as Archbishop Flynn appropriately addresses. But this issue is only spiritual, I said to the group, if one addresses the racism within one’s own heart. That racism can be defeated. If one tries, instead, to address the racism in someone else’s heart, then the effort ceases to be spiritual. It becomes instead an expression of the politics of race.

Racial politics is no longer productive. While it may affect the outcome of partisan elections, it has, socially, reached the point of diminishing returns. When I point my finger at someone else in moral reproach, I am more apt to turn him into an enemy than to persuade him. And that is what black people are doing when they accuse white people of racism. That is what Archbishop Flynn also does when, alone at his desk or in the company of black ministers, he accuses white Minnesotans of racism.

The Archbishop’s pastoral letter, in quoting Jesus, failed to include a quotation which is, perhaps, most pertinent to this situation. Christ said: “Pass no judgment and you will not be judged. For as you judge others, so will yourselves be judged ... Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye, with never a thought for the great plank in your own? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye’, when all the time there is that plank in your own? You hypocrite! First take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s.”

And since I now find myself pointing the finger of judgment at someone else, this might be a good place to end.

 

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