Race relations and a renewed awareness of racism are among the issues informing Catholic voters’ choice of candidate and parties as they head to the polls.
Protests erupted across the U.S. this year in the wake of the deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor. On the evening news, racial tension still appears to be high, but Black Catholics looking at the historic and global perspectives of racism feel encouraged that people are talking about the issue.
Those protests and the discussions that ensued in both the public and ecclesial sectors gave Deacon Mel Tardy, president of the National Black Catholic Clergy Caucus, a sense of hope.
“It’s one thing when you see evil happening and nobody reacts, it’s another thing when you see evil happening and people do react,” he told Today’s Catholic, newspaper of the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend, Ind., in May.
Deacon Tardy serves as a deacon at St. Augustine Parish in South Bend. At that time, he felt that a sense of justice had been triggered, he said, and he was encouraged by the size of the protests and the diversity they reflected.
Joe King, a parishioner of St. Edward Parish in Pembroke Pines, Fla., volunteers at the St. Joseph Project, an initiative of the Archdiocese of Miami that aims to help Black men become good fathers. He grew up in the South as the civil rights movement was coming into being, but initially, lynching was still legal.
As young boy, he witnessed the Ku Klux Klan burn a cross in a neighbor’s yard. “So I saw real racism,” he told Catholic News Service.
Although he doesn’t feel racism should rank as high as other challenges in most people’s lives and to their faith, recent events have renewed his efforts to reach out to his fellow Black Americans and remind them, “Now, let’s think about this and not go on emotion.”
“We just had a Black president serve two terms. If racism is that bad, how did that happen?” he asks.
A former Democrat, King is a strong supporter of Donald Trump — whose campaign platform includes a promise to fully fund and hire more law enforcement officers, and to bring violent groups to justice. King approves.
“You can’t let people get away with lawlessness,” he said. At the St. Joseph Project, he challenges young Black men to instead look at whether they are accepting their share of responsibility in challenging situations, and to consider the relationships in their own lives versus the racial conflict they see happening on TV.
Deacon Tardy acknowledges that progress that has been made in race relations. His focus is on systemic racism, which is hard to identify for those who haven’t been its victims.
Both men agree that systemic racism doesn’t exist where people think it does anymore. Certain racist behaviors and practices have become unacceptable, but different kinds of racial injustices have developed.
When violent incidents do occur, they’re being recorded on video and shared widely, stoking an already existing feeling of fear among Black Americans, according to Deacon Tardy.
Generational poverty, housing density and barriers to education, jobs and health care are among the kinds of structural racism that Black Americans are up against and should consider when deciding on a candidate, he said.
King, however, feels that ideology of racism has led to a different, primary evil.
“There’s only one ideology, the ideology that brought us slavery. The same one brought us Jim Crow laws, the same one brought us the Klan, the same one is pushing abortion today. And abortion is very heavily racist. That’s where your systemic racism is,” said King.
They point to Scripture, the direction of Pope Francis and the points extolled in “Faithful Citizenship” as the way Catholics should decide how much of a priority racial justice should be in their voting choices. “Turn your TV off and read your Bible,” advised King.
And although the church does not endorse any candidate, he reiterated that “people need to vote their conscience, and nothing has moved conscience of America more than seeing a sworn officer of the law, in the presence of others, to intentionally bring his knee to hold the full weight of his body on the neck of an unarmed, handcuffed George Floyd for eight minutes, until he died. That’s got to be on people’s minds.”
Any incumbent in the upcoming election has a track record on the issues, including racism, Deacon Tardy noted.
“All elected officials and candidates could be speaking about it more, amplifying the voices of certain individuals, and highlight certain issues,” he said. “Creating laws and encouraging the enforcement of laws that will create better perception of justice is something the president could make a priority.”
Presidents sometimes underestimate their impact on certain populations of people, he added.
It still won’t be easy, he admitted.
“Even today, to talk about racism, whether it’s in the context of the church or it’s in the context of the nation, people are not comfortable. I think, in a sense, they’re hoping that if we don’t talk about it, it doesn’t exist. If it exists, then maybe I’m complicit.”
But some conversations about race are happening in the public sector, the media and in the church. Deacon Tardy has spoken at several parish gatherings. And following the Sept. 9 day of fasting and prayer for an end to racism, some dioceses committed formally to ongoing action to increase awareness.
Catholic bishops in California have initiated a yearlong, statewide effort to learn more about how it has shaped the lives of Black Catholics, and to form a plan to address those wrongs that can be righted.
According to an announcement from the California Catholic Conference, the effort aims to move the needle on “understanding the extent and nature of the sin of racism in ourselves, our church and our nation” and is intended to offer “tangible change, in which the bishops, together with the clergy, religious and faithful of California, participate.”
“We realize the road ahead will be challenging, but these are steps we as a church must take,” the bishops said.