More than talk

In the late 1960s, nothing was stable and everything was in motion. Racial injustice, the Vietnam war, and feminism mixed with a youth culture of rebellion in what many of us experienced as a societal Molotov cocktail. I was way too young to be directly involved in any of it. But I do recall the protest songs, and being told to duck down in the back seat of the car as my mom drove me through riot zones to music lessons. I also remember my elementary school principal wearing "love beads," and the relief of knowing that my uncle's draft number was unlikely to come up.

I never thought I'd see that kind of violent civil unrest again. And yet, here we are, with protests and counter-protests, raised fists, flared tempers, and riot gear. The look and feel of it all is startlingly similar. That, I think, however, is where the similarities end.

This time people aren't actually espousing a vision: they are too busy labeling their enemies, not only when they are intentionally provocative, but even when they are simply aligned with a different political party. There is so much shouting, even those who want to listen can't. And the people who take to the streets peacefully, are being co-opted and overshadowed -- sometimes even assaulted -- by those with less tolerant mindsets and more destructive motives.

Like most people these days, I long for national unity, especially with respect to matters of racial justice and harmony. As a Catholic, I must take the fact that racism is a sin seriously. Racial hatred or supremacy of any kind is detestable, and cannot be reconciled with faith in Christ. I must also be open to the possibility that I have accommodated or sidestepped in some ways. Because it does not affect me personally or on a daily basis, I am not as aware of how racism affects people of color as I wish I were, as perhaps I could be. The stories I have heard about African American men being stopped by police or reported to them for no reason sadly aren't memories of things long past. They are here-and-now events that reflect the racist realities that afflict some -- and not all -- of our citizens. And these tragedies have too often been accompanied by a body count.

I'd love to pretend that the Emancipation Proclamation, the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, the Voting Rights Act of 1964, and the election of Barack Obama are proof that racism is no longer a problem. That's because it's a lot easier for a white, middle-aged, middle-class woman like me to do that, than it is to have the much-discussed honest conversation about race.

The truth is that I don't know how to frame, begin, or even participate in a productive conversation about racism. I know it would involve me listening with the intent to understand, but acknowledging my limited ability to do so. I know I would need to spend time with people whose experiences, opinions, cultures, lifestyles, and language may make me very uncomfortable indeed. I suspect it would need to be a one-sided/their-sided conversation at first, and that whatever I had to say would have to keep until I was explicitly invited to offer it. I'd also need to expect that the views of self-appointed spokesmen on this highly charged issue are not necessarily shared by everyday people, and that people of color hold as wide a variety of opinions as their white counterparts do.

I'd like to think that the Catholic Church, even with its own less than exemplary history, could offer valuable tools for genuine justice and reconciliation. I would hope that our leaders would be courageous enough to step up and lead. Was there any official Catholic involvement in the line of ministers in Charlottesville, Virginia who prayed between the racist rally and the protesters? Surely, there is more we can do proactively to foster authentic racial and societal reconciliation.

But I think the single most important thing needed for a national conversation about race to occur is a commitment to doing more than having a conversation. After all is said, there's a lot to be done to ensure that every person is respected as a child of God made in his image. And talk is cheap.

- Jaymie Stuart Wolfe is a Catholic convert, wife, and mother of eight. Inspired by the spirituality of St. Francis de Sales, she is an author, speaker, and musician, and serves as a senior editor at Ave Maria Press. Find Jaymie on Facebook or follow her on Twitter @YouFeedThem.