Strolling through the streets of our neighborhood as part of our daily walk, my 6-year-old daughter blurted a question I knew was coming sooner or later: “Papa, what happened to Mr. Floyd?”
She heard comments about George Floyd’s death in conversation with her classmates. The news coverage about what happened to him and how our society is responding has been intense. She has also heard my wife and me several times speaking with concern about violence against black people in our country.
Whether walking or driving, every day we encounter people with signs bearing George Floyd’s name and the names of other black people who lost their lives violently in recent months.
His name is ubiquitous, a real reminder that we cannot forget how he, a black man, died, and the circumstances associated with his death. In remembering George Floyd’s name, we remember also the names of many others who died under conditions exacerbated by racial prejudice.
Raising one’s voice in protest for George Floyd’s unjust and untimely death, as many Catholic leaders and organizations have done so far, keeps him alive in our collective memory. Doing so, we embrace the responsibility to confront racism and question those privileges that many people enjoy at the expense of the well-being and dignity of others.
It was only a matter of time before my children asked pointedly, “What happened to Mr. Floyd?” Of course, the next question is always, “Why?” This is not the first time they ask these questions because, unfortunately, this is not the first time that we find ourselves in this situation.
One can barely keep up with the many reflections and opinions sparked by George Floyd’s death. I am encouraged by the number of initiatives and conversations everywhere to confront racial prejudice. Many speak of structural change. Others of cultural transformation. Others of reform. We need all of the above.
Yet, like many parents, at home my wife and I live with two young children who want clear answers to complex questions in language that they can understand. Any hope for structural change, cultural transformation and reform starts there, at home, with how we help our young children to think and navigate the intricacies of racial prejudice and other biases.
Not long ago, I wrote in this same column about how urgent it is for parishes, programs of religious education, Catholic schools and other instances of church life dedicated to faith formation to address racism head on. Parents and children need guidance and resources.
We need to hear our priests and deacons in parishes preach more often against racial and cultural prejudice, drawing faithfully from the Scriptures and Catholic social teaching. We need seminaries and universities forming Catholic pastoral leaders to prepare them to speak and act against racism and other forms of prejudice without hesitation. Our bishops need to lead the way.
When we say that racism continues to pervade every aspect of our society, we as Catholics must stop pretending that this is something that others do. This is not a time to play naive. A full quarter of the U.S. population is Roman Catholic. Where can we hide?
Many Catholics in our society, whether in leadership or in the routines of our own homes, privately or publicly, promote racist attitudes and benefit from systems based on racial disparity. If we start acknowledging that, and if Catholic leaders are more forward addressing racism in the public square, then I can do a much better job talking about racism with my children.
What did I answer to my daughter? One short sentence, “We failed to love Mr. Floyd.”