Mission Week Speakers Urge More Knowledge and Action on Racial Inequality

It’s time for new talk – and a new commitment to change – about race in America. It’s time for a new version of The Talk in America.

Those were key themes during an “On the Issues with Mike Gousha” program at Marquette Law School on Tuesday that was part of Marquette University’s Mission Week for this school year. A capacity audience in the Appellate Courtroom heard thoughts from three nationally known figures in social and racial justice causes during the program, which was titled “Racial Justice: Black, White, and the Call of the Church.”

The Talk? That’s the term used often for the conversation many African American parents have with their children about how to behave out in the community so that they don’t get in trouble – or worse – with police officers.

The Rev. Jim Wallis, president and founder of Sojourners, a social justice organization based in Washington, D.C., described how he has coached baseball for many children. He said the black youths he coached all have heard The Talk, but few of the white youths know what it is. That is because the white kids benefit from white privilege, he said, which he defined as “having your kids walk out the door and not just be afraid all the time.”

He said he tells parents of the white children, “You’ve got to have the talk, a new talk, and tell your kids what their black teammates and classmates are hearing from their parents.” They need to learn about the realities of being black in America and they need to take action to right injustices.

Father Bryan Massingale, a Milwaukee native who formerly taught at Marquette and now is a professor at Fordham University in New York City, said the definition of racial justice is “fundamental equality.” That is so simple yet so radical, he said, because the United States has never had a real commitment to it.

There is commitment to racial decency and improvement, Massingale said, “but the idea that people of color, African Americans, are truly equal is something this country has never truly endorsed.” All you have to do is look at the unequal opportunity in education or the high incarceration rates for African Americans to see that is so, he said.

“I don’t think we even would know what genuine racial equality would be like because we’ve never truly been committed to or tried it,” he said. He said the issue could be brought home to a Milwaukee audience simply by saying the name of Harold Breier, the Milwaukee police chief of several decades ago whose views and practices were regarded by many as racist.

Nationwide, Masssingale said, “There’s a fundamental ideology of white supremacy that is really at stake here.” He added, “What I really mean by that is the idea that this country and public spaces and public institutions belong to white people in a way that they don’t belong to anyone else.”

Both Massingale and Wallis were strongly critical of organized religion’s record on racial matters. Massingale said, “Part of it is the silence of the churches when it comes to this issue. . . . . When is the last time you heard a homily on the sin of racism?” He said that many religious leaders practice “a permissive silence, a silence that gives comfort to the hatred, the anger, the intolerance, the fears that are never interrogated or labeled forthrightly as being sinful.”

Bree Newsome is a filmmaker, musician, speaker, and activist who lives in Charlotte, N.C. In an act that drew national attention, in June 2015, following the murders of nine black people by a white man in a church in Charleston, S.C., she climbed a 30-foot flag pole on the grounds of the South Carolina state capitol to take down the Confederate flag.

Newsome told the audience that people need to learn much more about the 400-year history of black people in the United States. The reality is that black people have never had “full access to the American dream,” she said. It is not enough to point to people such as Oprah Winfrey as successes. Everyone needs to get real about the overall picture of what African Americans have dealt with and continue to deal with.

Asked what the solutions to racial inequality might be, Newsome said the solutions are known, but the nation needs to get serious about them. Wallis said there needed to far more honest conversation among people of all backgrounds and a movement for true repentance, which he defined not as being sorry for past sins but as “turning around and going in a whole new direction.” Massingale called for “a renewal of compassion” and a broad understanding that young black people who have been killed by law enforcement officers are “our own.” He said, “We’ve been able to tell ourselves that these aren’t our kids,” and that is a big reason for why we are where we are.

Newsome, Massingale, and Wallis are taking part in programs across the Marquette campus as part of Mission Week. Massingale will give the closing keynote address at the Weasler Auditorium at 6 p.m. Thursday. For more information, click here.

To view a video of the one-hour “On the Issues” program, click here.

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