“I’m not completely impartial and an outside observer to the fact of the racial divide in the United States,” he said. “I’ve had more than a few experiences that have made this clear to me.”
He shared two personal stories regarding his experience with police officers who racially profiled him with the nearly 75 people in attendance Monday night in a conference area of the church.
“Simply by being me I can be the cause of suspicion and concern without doing anything wrong,” said Braxton, who is black.
One of the experiences, he said, happened when he was a young priest in Chicago walking down the street of a predominantly white neighborhood, and the other happened while he was a bishop. In both cases, he was not wearing clerical attire, he said, but rather informal clothing.
During the incident early in his priesthood, Braxton recalled an officer in a squad car with lights flashing asking what he was doing in a neighborhood where he does not live. “I never had the chance to tell him what I was doing in the area. I never had the chance to tell him where I lived. I never had the chance to tell him that I was a Catholic priest staying with friends in the area and I was just taking a walk.
“I wondered and still do, what it was that I was doing that attracted the attention of the police officer,” Braxton said. “Since I was a very young priest, this was long before I ever heard the expression ‘walking while black.’”
In another experience, Braxton was driving a car with two small chairs in the backseat and a table in a partially-opened trunk tied down with a rope through an affluent all-white neighborhood.
“A police car with flashing lights and sirens ablare pulled me over,” he said. “The officer asked him, ‘Where are you going with that table and chairs?’ Before I could tell him that I was taking them to a family that needed them ... he asked ‘Where did you get them?’”
Braxton said the police department had received a call about a suspicious person driving through the area with possible stolen furniture in his trunk. “I wonder what I was doing to make someone suspicious,” he said. “Many years would pass before I would hear the expression ‘racial profiling.’”
When he asked him to open the trunk, the bishop said the police officer asked him what was in a large black case, which contained his crosier, a staff used by the bishop. The officer asked if it was a weapon, Braxton said, which garnered laughter from attendees. “It’s quite the opposite,” the bishop told the officer of his crosier.
More recently and closer to home, he said, he visited with parents of students at area Catholic schools in his home who expressed concerns about racial insults their children had received from other students at the school.
In contrast, Ignatius Shambro, of O’Fallon, a member of St. Clare Church, recalled being in the fourth grade at a Catholic school in Venice in 1954 when a sister asked how many races did God create. Shambro said he and his other classmates all got the answer wrong. The correct answer was one — the human race.
Shambro shared his story with the bishop as did others during a 20-minute question-and-answer session following Braxton’s lecture Monday night.
Understanding the racial divide
The topic of the racial divide in the United States is “immensely complex,” Braxton said during his more than hour-long talk. “Almost everyone has an opinion about it depending on what newspapers they read, what websites they check and what television stations they watch. ... Most people have an opinion about the racial divide in the United States. But often those opinions are not formed by much information. They are simply opinions formed by a few moments on the evening news or what their friends and neighbors think.”
He noted the racial divide remains relevant in light of recent events including the tax code reform, the plight of the “dreamers” here in the United States and “seemingly alarming and disturbing comments made by elected officials in high positions.”
The history of the United States is complicated as it began with the “tragedy of the European slave trade when innocent human beings were captured from West Africa and brought to the United States to be bought, sold and owned ... in bondage to work in the lucrative plantations of the South, which became the engine of the United States on the backs of these persons ...”
Long after the emancipation of these individuals, Braxton said, “it’s consequences continue to cast a shadow over this nation and that shadow is the racial divide.”
Everyone has an opinion when it comes to the racial divide; however, those opinions are influenced by many factors, he said, including age, family background, personal experiences, religious beliefs and influences of the media.
In recent years, the media has brought national attention to the deaths of African-Americans by police officers, including the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, which has lead to the emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement.
“Most police officers, we believe, are fair-minded and respect the human dignity and worth of all citizens,” Braxton said. “Some, however, do not.
“It is a fact that some young African-American men commit crimes requiring they be arrested by police,” he added. “However, this should not lead to the demonization of all African-American youth as dangerous, violent criminals. Nor should they be arrested, tried and convicted automatically on the streets of Chicago, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Detroit, St. Louis, Dallas, Oakland and many other cities.”
By the numbers
While many African-American people live in Southern Illinois, the vast majority are not members of the Catholic Church.
There’s only one predominately African-American Catholic parish in the Diocese of Belleville — St. Augustine of Hippo in East St. Louis.
The Diocese of Belleville has 108 parishes stretching over 28 counties in Southern Illinois, according to the diocese’s website.
Braxton provided the following statistics regarding African-Americans who are Catholic across the country:
▪ Of 69 million Catholics, about 2.9 million are African-American.
▪ Of the 428 Catholic bishops, only 15 are African-American including Braxton.
▪ Of the nearly 40,000 Catholic priests, 250 are African-American.
▪ Of the 48,000 religious sisters, there are fewer than 400 who are African-American.
“These numbers make it clear why it is many members of the Catholic Church in the United States and in Southern Illinois have only infrequent and somewhat superficial context with Catholics of different racial backgrounds than their own ... this also contributes to the racial divide here in the United States.”
Do what you can
Braxton encouraged those in attendance to reach out to African-Americans and others with different racial backgrounds who they may know just superficially and get to know them better by inviting them out to lunch or over to their home for dinner.
He also recommended people follow his mantra — listen, learn, think, pray and act.
“You cannot go forth with bridging the racial divide unless you do all of those,” Braxton told attendees. “You must listen to other people, to other experiences. You must learn from those experiences. Then you must think about what you learned and how that suggests you must change some aspect of your life. You must think hard, talk to others, family members who disagree with you, talk to others whose lives are different than yours. Then you must pray ... In prayer, you may discern what you can do.
“Everyone can do something,” Braxton repeatedly said. “Everyone must prayerfully discern what they can do, and do what they can. However, slight it may be ... My primary concern is to challenge you not to accept the possibility of doing nothing.”
Sister Carolyn McWatters said Braxton was being “too polite” during his talk. “We people of white as opposed to people of color need to educate ourselves on what it means to be white and the white superiority that we have in our blood, which is part of our whole history and is very much real in this country,” she said. “Until we understand that, I don’t think we have the ability or the compassion, the understanding and the will to do the kind of action that is required.
“As long as we are standing on the outside and not claiming our own complicity in the racism that exists in this country, we will never make the kind of changes that are needed.”
The bishop responded: “I hear you and I appreciate it, but I think it’s better that you say that than I say that,” which garnered laughs from attendees.
“None of us desire to be racist, but we just are,” McWatters said following the conclusion of the event. “We need to change our perspective.”
Ignatius Shambro’s wife, Anne, said people can learn a lot from the kindergarteners she teaches at St. Clare Catholic School in O’Fallon.
“If you want to know how the world is talk to a kindergartner,” Anne Shambro said. “It’s so simple, so right, so good. You love people just because they are nice.”