Bp. Braxton: Recent incidents add to problems in addressing racial divide

Catholic News Service

In three-and-half months since his seminal pastoral letter addressing the racial divide in the United States, Bishop Edward K. Braxton unfortunately has more examples of violence run amok on which to draw.

Four unarmed men of color have died in confrontations with white police officers, and the four incidents further the racial divide, according to the Bishop of Belleville.

In a recent presentation at St. Louis University, Bishop Braxton mirrored his pastoral letter -- "The Racial Divide in the United States: A Reflection for the World Day of Peace 2015" -- but the four deaths were just a part of the new information. The heinous revenge killings of police officers in New York and protests in regard to legitimate police action "open the racial divide much, much further," Bishop Braxton said.

These incidents -- the deaths, revenge killings and unrelated protests -- add to the complex problem of addressing "the great original sin of the United States," he said, referencing slavery.

The four deaths added to the familiar names of Trayvon Martin, Oscar Grant, John Crawford, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner and Michael Brown in the incident last summer in Ferguson.

- In Madison, Wisc., Anthony Robinson Jr, was biracial, yet media accounts have portrayed him as a black man.

- In Aurora, Colo, Naeschulus Vinzant was shot and killed while being taken into custody for nonviolent offenses, prompting questions about how heavily armed movie shooter James Holmes, who is white, was apprehended in that same town without a shot being fired.

- In Georgia, troubled veteran Anthony Hill was naked when he was shot. "There was no possibility of him having a gun because he had on no clothing whatsoever," Bishop Braxton said.

- Walter Scott died after being shot in the back by police officer Michael Slager while running away from the officer following an altercation. Slager was charged with murder after cellphone video surfaced of the incident.

"Local African-American leaders said, 'Thank God, for this video. If there had been no video, (the officer) surely would have been exonerated,'" said Bishop Braxton, who called the incident -- on the day of the Easter Vigil -- "more clear and more horrendous" than Brown's death in Ferguson.

Police officer Darren Wilson ultimately was exonerated by a grand jury and U.S. Justice Department in that case, which occurred after a struggle through the window of Wilson's patrol car, with Brown trying to get Wilson's gun and later moving toward the officer when the shots were fired.

Bishop Braxton was quick to note that though the incidents are similar in that men died, they are unique events with different circumstances. Further, no one knows exactly what happened because they weren't there. However, media coverage paints them with the same brush, as though they are the same.

"News media likes simplification to get it in and out in the next news cycle," Bishop Braxton said. "Things in the news make it so much harder."

This simplification "exacerbates" the racial divide, he said, just as protests of legitimate police actions do.

On Dec. 23, an African-American was killed by a police officer in Berkley, right next to Ferguson. A suspect in a convenience store theft, the man drew a gun on the officer, who shot him. Video showed the incident, but protesters descended anyway and compared that death to Brown's.

"Unfortunately, people who have reason to protest are significantly undermined when protests take place after police act appropriately in very difficult circumstances with regretfully deadly results," said Bishop Braxton, adding that the revenge killings of the police officers in New York also make things worse. "Mr. Garner's family expressed outrage and said use of Eric Garner's or Michael Brown's name in the killing of police is reprehensible."

These incidents only make it more difficult to bridge the divide more than 200 years in the making. Even Catholic institutions owned human beings and justified slavery at one point, only to see the light in the Civil Rights Movement. For instance, Cardinal Joseph Ritter desegregated Catholic schools in St. Louis in 1947, a full seven years before the landmark Brown vs. Board of Education Supreme Court Case made it the law of the land.

Catholics institutions also have made significant inroads in education and health care, and since the late 1950s, American bishops have written four pastoral letters addressing racism and the racial divide -- "Discrimination and Christian Conscience" in 1958, "National Race Crisis" in 1968, "Brothers and Sisters to Us" in 1979 and "What We Have Seen and Heard" in 1984. Braxton makes it five.

His pastoral letter "makes a tiny contribution to this conversation," he said. "It's not a simple task."

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