Time to talk: African-American panelists share their stories of dealing with racism and prejudice

Photos by Lisa Johnston
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The eight African-American males, ages 15 to 70, had stories to tell.

Chris Bryant, a 1994 De Smet High School graduate, said it's difficult "when you try to tell someone about your struggle, about what it means to be a black man in America, and they're not trying to listen to you."

Elbert Williams, graduate support director at Loyola Academy, said he struggles when people make assumptions just because of race. He told of an instance when he was at a school's fundraiser and was asked if he was a basketball coach. Others shared similar examples of people making assumptions based on race. Bryant, who is of a rather slight build, was asked if he played football when someone learned he went to the University of Notre Dame.

People assumed Captain Juan Cox of the St. Louis County Police Department wasn't the supervisor on a police response scene and that Nick McDowell, graduate support director at Most Holy Trinity School in St. Louis, and Tony Thompson, owner and principal of The Academy of EPP, attended their high schools because of sports and not to get an education.

Williams recalled that when he was 12 he was tall for his age. His grandmother told him that he needed to get a state identification card — without an ID he might get picked up by the police when mistaken for someone else. "That was just the beginning of it," Williams said. "For young men of color today ... it's just something that happens."

Cox said that he chose law enforcement for a career in part because he felt as if he were being racially profiled when driving from East St. Louis, Ill., to his high school, Althoff Catholic in Belleville, Ill. Today, he still gets pulled over when driving. He has slightly tinted windows, so he rolls down all his windows and puts his hands on the steering wheel. Unjustified police shootings, he said, occur because some officers are terrified of what someone might do. "You can't be terrified and do this job," he said.

As a teen in the 1960s, Roger Webb was told by his parents that he had to be extra careful if he would be pulled over by the police. And he was told to avoid "the wrong neighborhood." In a time of overt racism, "there were parts of south St. Louis where you might not be lucky enough to get back."

Kendall Fields, a sophomore at De Smet Jesuit High School, is just starting to drive and has had "the talk" about possible police profiling with his dad.

Conversation

These are just some of the experiences the seven men discussed March 31 at De Smet Jesuit High School in a program, "Generation Rap: A Conversation About Race Across Generations." The panel is an outgrowth of an "Untold Stories" presentation, said Armando Gilkes, a math teacher and diversity director at De Smet Jesuit.

"For African-American males, a lot of times our stories are told by others, and we don't get to tell our own story," Gilkes said. "And a lot of people don't get to hear the perspective of different generations. We're not monolithic."

He recommends people keep a sense of humor when talking about race and to simply listen.

Webb, who is a historian on baseball's Negro Leagues, set the tone, talking about overt racism when he was growing up and the "trying times" during the civil rights movement of the 1960s.

Jaryn Blackshear Bryant, a freshman at St. Louis University, said progress has included landmark court cases, the Civil Rights Act and affirmative action along with other policies, but covert and institutional racism remains. "I can't go into stores without being followed. I can't drive my car in certain neighborhoods," he said. "I'm waiting for the day when people start listening to people like me and the other people on the panel. I believe change is coming. We just have to talk with each other, educate ourselves and love our blackness."

Blackshear Bryant defines racism as the power to influence someone's life based on their racial background or ethnicity. Prejudice is pre-judging someone based on race or ethnicity and bias is similar, generalizing based on race or ethnicity. "We have to understand what we're trying to say when we speak to each other so we can have better conversations," he said.

Love and respect

McDowell said that "we have to be mindful that we are all people." In listening to each other, he said, "you can't tell me how I feel if you don't know how I feel. That communication has to be open. We have to be in touch with every generation. ... Sitting down and engaging individuals is very important."

Fields asks people to be prepared to be uncomfortable when discussing issues of race. "Speak humbly, respectful of your brothers' and sisters' perspective," he said.

After the presentation, Blackshear Bryant, a member of St. Matthew the Apostle Parish and a graduate of Cardinal Ritter College Preparatory High School, said Catholicism is based on equality and love, so he tries to treat others, even those who may show a racial bias, with respect. "I try to practice forgiveness the best I can and try to understand why they did what they did before I make a judgment and condemn them for their actions. I've been brought up knowing that the way to success, prosperity and happiness in life is through love."

Catholics, he said, have a duty to uplift the community and "become the rock of the community that Christ intended us to be."

Chris Bryant, a member of Immaculate Conception Parish in Dardenne Prairie, said that "as a Christian you see that no one is perfect. I know that not everyone is going to treat me the way I feel I or anyone should be treated. Your faith keeps you grounded and keeps you trying to do the right thing at the right time." 

To combat racism:

• Activities of the mind — reading books and articles, etc.

• Activities of the heart — charity, philanthropy, volunteer work, service projects

These two activities are passive and impersonal and aren't enough unless they join with

• Understanding — involves relationship, has no fear and is where the heart and mind meet

From a presentation by Armando Gilkes, a math teacher and diversity director at De Smet Jesuit High School 

Suggestions

Ways in which the Catholic community commits to ending racism and promoting peace, justice and respect for all:

1. Pray for peace and healing among all people.

2. Study the Word of God and the social teaching of the Church in order to gain a deeper appreciation of the dignity of all persons.

3. Make a sincere effort to encounter more fully people of different racial backgrounds with whom we live, work and minister.

4. Pursue ways in which Catholic parishes and neighborhoods can be truly welcoming of families of different racial and religious backgrounds.

5. Get to know local law enforcement officers. Let them know of our support and gratitude. And encourage young people to respect legitimate authority.

Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz, statement on race relations, U.S. bishops' meeting in St. Louis, June 10, 2015 

Resources

• Bishop Edward Braxton's pastoral letter for the World Day of Peace 2015 Study Guide, "The Racial Divide in the United States: A Reflection for the World Day of Peace 2015," intended to encourage discussion and highlight significant ideas, www.stlouisreview.com/b3w.

• A Black Catholic History Rosary highlights several religious men and women, civil rights era milestones, historic documents and black Catholic organizations, www.stlouisreview.com/b3f.

• "God of the Journey," a 50th anniversary prayer in remembrance of the Selma to Montgomery March, www.stlouisreview.com/b3G.

• Catholic social teaching rights and responsibilities, www.stlouisreview.com/b3s.

• Information on Catholic teaching about the dignity of the human person, www.stlouisreview.com/b3H.

• "Love Thy Neighbor as Thyself," a re-release of several articles from bishops with perspectives of different cultural groups, addressing racism as a whole and providing suggestions to combat racism, www.stlouisreview.com/b3o.

• Response to Martin Luther King Jr.'s Letter from Birmingham Jail released by Christian Churches Together on the 50th anniversary of the letter. Other documents include a preface from the Catholic perspective and introductory letter, www.stlouisreview.com/YBb.

• "What We Have Seen and Heard," written in 1984 by 10 black bishops as a witness to the black community, www.stlouisreview.com/b37. 

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