The Diocese of Camden’s office of Life & Justice Ministries is hosting the workshop Catholics Fight Racism: A Day of Prayer, Education and Action on Saturday, January 13.
The day will feature a keynote address by Dr. Tia Noelle Pratt, PhD, titled “The Numbers Don’t Add Up: The Legacy of Systemic Racism in the Experiences of African-American Catholics.” Dr. Pratt is a sociologist of religion specializing in the Roman Catholic Church in the U.S. Specifically, she focuses on issues of identity among African-American Catholics, systemic racism in the U.S. Catholic Church, and millennial generation Catholics. Dr. Pratt is a faculty member in the Sociology Department at St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia, PA. She is a member of St. Matthias parish in Bala Cynwyd, PA where she serves as a lector and greeter.
Dr. Pratt took some time to answer three questions that introduce a taste of what she’ll be talking about at the workshop. Don’t miss the chance to hear from this dynamic, passionate scholar in person. Register for the workshop today!
The subtitle of your talk includes the phrase “systemic racism.” Can you describe what that term means to you? How is it different from the idea of racism that has mainly to do with personal prejudices and biases?
It’s not about what the term means to me, but rather, what it is. Sociologist Joe R. Feagin describes racism as “foundational and systemic” meaning it pervades all of society’s core institutions including the economy, politics, education, religion, and the family. As such, it is oppressive and exploitative. It’s designed to exploit land and labor for the material and social benefit of those who created society’s core institutions and the hierarchies that lie therein.
As such, we must think about it more in terms of racial justice instead of race relations. The race relations model focuses on individual level concerns. Focusing only on individual level concerns allows folks to believe that since they aren’t using racial slurs or burning crosses on lawns, they aren’t part of the scourge of racism that plagues both our society and our church. Because of that fallacy, those who benefit from a system that exists to prohibit opportunities and actively exclude entire groups can wind up believing – falsely – that such a system doesn’t exist.
Consequently, those who are included and who have opportunities – in short, have power – all too often dismiss the experiences of those who don’t. Conversely, the racial justice model focuses on institutional level concerns and allows us to look at the ways in which entire groups have been excluded from positions of power and authority. Because we are looking at institutional level concerns, we are able to think about ways we can make changes in our institutions and systems to bring about equal opportunity and true justice.
Based on your research or personal experience, could you describe one or two ways that African-American Catholics have experienced systemic racism in the church in this country?
Slavery, systematic exclusion from the priesthood and religious life, segregated church seating and communion lines are just a few institutional level actions designed to exclude and oppress African-American Catholics within a Church that is just as much theirs as it is anyone else’s.
The legacy of this action is found in the disproportionately small number of African-American Catholics, the minuscule number of African-American priests and religious, and the disproportional impact of church closings and parish reorganization in urban areas on African-Americans as well as other racial minority groups.
For a Catholic parish or school that’s interested in starting to fight racism in their own community, what might be a good first step?
A first step isn’t just one thing. It’s several things that must happen at once. Listening to those who have been excluded, marginalized, and exploited while acknowledging that those in power don’t have all – or often any – of the answers, a willingness to be uncomfortable, and a commitment to approach this work from the perspective of racial justice are essential to anti-racism work.