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Shawn Vestal: White-grievance backlash is wrong answer to moment’s demands

Shawn Vestal  (DAN PELLE)
Shawn Vestal (DAN PELLE)

My fellow white people: We have a terrible hearing problem.

As millions of Black Americans raise their voices about their reality in this country, too many of us simply don’t hear.

We have a terrible vision problem.

Too many of us take but a glimpse of George Floyd’s death under the knee of a dead-eyed cop, brushing past the truths it tells, while gobbling up wall-to-wall “news” coverage of the CHOP. Images of peaceful protesters flash past our eyes, unseen, while a picture of one burning Burger King imprints itself on our vision forever.

We have a terrible speaking problem.

Called upon by events to examine ourselves and our institutions, and to speak up for our brothers and sisters of color, too many of us ask: What about me, though?

What about me?

Our problems hearing, seeing and speaking have given too many of us sick, selfish hearts. As the Black Lives Matter movement gains moral momentum, far too many of us have become defensive and self-centered, bunkering down in the willful ignorance of racism we have relied upon our whole lives.

We are not the victims here.

The failure to understand that – especially in the Inland Northwest, where our relative racial homogeneity produces a particularly friendly environment for white grievance – only nurtures and fosters institutional and implicit expressions of racism, hanging an asterisk alongside our most important national values.

This is especially true, I think, among people like me. I grew up, for all intents and purposes, around only white people in small-town Idaho, and lived among nearly only white people in the Intermountain Northwest until I moved 20 years ago to Spokane, the most diverse city I have inhabited. This means that daily life has taught me little but distorted lessons about race in America.

I think this is true, generally, of a lot of Spokane. I hear it in the emails, phone calls and conversations that come my way when I write about race – my own lack of experience and understanding echoed and reiterated through the voices of others who seem to share a similar lack, though a different political response to it.

The only way to break through is to seek the voices of others and listen.

Obviously, our region has repeatedly given overt, goose-stepping racism a nice, safe place to hide. It fosters something else, though, something that is slipperier, more insidious, harder to spot and easier to forgive or ignore: an inability to see that makes even the best-intentioned among us complicit in the inability to root out the racism our Black friends and neighbors see so clearly.

It’s this that causes us to regard racism as a chiefly historical problem. This produces insidious, twisted responses to calls for justice – turning the question of police brutality into one of “Black-on-Black” violence, say, or single parenthood in the Black community. It’s this that produces people who see racism as the “race card,” or who hurl “All Lives Matter” into the face of “Black Lives Matter.”

And it’s this that produced the backlash against a local Catholic Charities leader’s bold, open-hearted call for his fellow white people to recognize their own role in the racism that preceded us and that lives on in the distortions of justice, wealth and equality that slant relentlessly in our direction.

Rob McCann, the executive director of Catholic Charities, posted a video online in which he declared that he is a racist and his church and organization are racist. He examined the history of his church, dug into the racial makeup of his own organization’s leadership, and expressed the idea that, as a white American, he cannot excuse himself from being part of a racist system.

“Being anti-racist means fighting racism where you find it, including in yourself,” McCann said.

McCann put it boldly and in challenging terms – “I am a racist” – and made it clear that Catholic Charities supports Black Lives Matter. The video was sure to provoke those whose hearing problems are acute, but it was a direct, morally courageous expression of a truth with which white people must get to grips : We got here on the backs of a racist system, and our responsibility as moral people is to recognize that, interrogate it, listen to the voices of those who have suffered, and try to make it right.

But it was too much for lot of local Catholics and the bishop himself.

What about us? We’re not racist!

Following the outcry, Bishop Thomas Daly called McCann on the carpet, McCann issued a long “clarification” and Daly issued a public statement that displayed a massive hearing problem.

The bishop wrote that the video was “interpreted as levying false charges against ‘whites’ and the Catholic Church.” He wrote that Blacks Lives Matter is “in conflict with Catholic teaching regarding marriage, family and the sanctity of life.” He asked, a la Tucker Carlson, why BLM had not “vocally condemned the recent violence that has torn apart so many cities.”

He all but boasted about calling McCann on the carpet and promised future chidings. And then, in an especially paternalistic flourish, Daly suggested that the real focus of BLM should be abortion.

The rebuke had more Fox News in its DNA than the Beatitudes, and it coddled white grievance at a time that calls so clearly on us to stop indulging those grievances.

Just as McCann so clearly and forcefully put it the first time.

The bishop’s letter sustained and nourished the hearing problem that afflicts us, my fellow white people. It reflected an inability to hear the call of this moment, of history, of Americans who suffer, and of what we are called now to do: Get over ourselves. Humble ourselves. Listen.