I grew up a white kid, in a white, urban, neighborhood, in a white parish, within a city that was 40% African American. In my eight years at St. Bernard school, there was one African American student. No African American families were parishioners, although large African American neighborhoods were within blocks of the church. I never heard our parish priests say one word comparing the gospels to the disparities in Baltimore. In high school, there may have been three African American students.
Despite this, race remained a relevant lens from which our family viewed life. Some of my relatives and neighbors would make derogatory remarks about African Americans. People were worried about block busting and African Americans moving into our neighborhood. I was fortunate because my father took a different view. He was not perfect, but talked about the inequities in Baltimore and the segregation of Baltimore’s neighborhoods, and that poverty was not self-inflicted. Within several years our neighborhood went from 100% white to predominantly African American. By the end of high school I knew only four African Americans in a city that was approaching 50% of the population.
Fast forward a few years, and I became friends with two African American guys who were defensemen on my college lacrosse team. I was the goalie, and they took good care to befriend and protect me. One night, we all went to dinner at Mama Martha’s restaurant in LaValle, Maryland. It was all you can eat night and Jeb, Stony, and we were hungry. Somewhere around the third round of the all-you-can-eat dinner, the manager came up and told us, “we had had enough and you need to leave”. I didn’t get it, but Jeb and Stony did. After a few tense moments in which the manager threatened to call the police, we left. In the car on the way back to campus I kept saying, “The sign clearly said ‘all you can eat’!” and I didn’t understand how they could not honor that. Jeb looked at me and said, “ Are you that stupid?” I clearly did not get it, and at nineteen years old, for the first time, I realized in a small way what racism felt like.
One year later, by the grace of God, I fell in love with my future wife, Helen. I was completely smitten from the first day I met her and it wasn’t until I was asked, “What is she?” that I realized race was a lens through which many of us view much of life.
Helen is Native American; I thought that was pretty cool. I didn’t think that was a big deal, except in a positive way. She had a rich cultural background, we were different, but that was good. Later I started to see that is not the way everyone views it. In the 1970s, people stared at the difference. I started to see that her experience was different, subtle-but there.
For the first time, I realized how easy it was to be white. I hadn’t needed to think about these things and now I did. On several occasions, there were instances that I could see now where initiated because of our racial difference. Several years later, we were married and I remember the first time I thought- “What would be the race of our children be and what would that mean? Would they face some of the issues their mother has?”
Years later, as a manager at JP Morgan, I was responsible for hiring a large number of individuals across the country. I thought I made the decisions objectively. Looking back, I often failed that responsibility. I know I considered race in terms of stereotypes, assumptions, and numbers. The bottom line was that profit often mattered more than fairness and equity. I had a nice liberal, progressive view of myself, but I did not always live up to the values I set for myself. I’m certain there were numerous other times I’ve not lived up to the standards I should have.
Lastly, St. Ignatius has blessed me in the last three years as I’ve seen the unfairness and inequity people of color experience every day on the streets of Baltimore. Loaves and Fishes and Viva House have revealed the realities of life that clearly demonstrates the structural and practical racism that is deeply embedded in our society. At the same time, the fabulous people of color who are parishioners at St. Ignatius teach me every day with their love, intelligence, and friendship that has overcome so many adversities.
Let us take some time to reflect on the experiences and actions of our lives through the lens of race.
When we’ve made mistakes in the past because of our ignorance or insensitivity to the impacts of racial bias, what do we do about it now?
God of justice, In your wisdom you create all people in your image, without exception. Open our ears to hear the cries of those wounded by racial discrimination, and their passionate appeals for change. Strengthen our resolve to make amends for past injustices and to right the wrongs of history. And fill us with courage that we might seek to heal wounds, build bridges, forgive and be forgiven, and establish peace and equality for all in our communities. Amen.
Written by Len H.
Every issue of “Becoming Antiracist” is written by a fellow St. Ignatius parishioner.
Len H. is the Chair of the Environmental Justice Subcommittee of the Justice and Peace Committee, is a member of the Pastoral Council and Loaves and Fishes.