Human beings are storytellers. We are formed by stories, and stories are always constructed but only sometimes true. In storytelling, framing matters: we must decide where to begin the story, from whose perspective to tell it, which details to include and which to omit. The way we choose to tell a story shapes the sense we make. Whole worlds rise and fall on the backs of stories.
White supremacy survives in part by stories. White people recite a set of shared storylines, accented by common narrative tropes, animated by the same cast of characters. White people do not need to know each other to know each other’s stories. We know white people by the stories they tell.
In recent weeks, many white people have relied on these stories to make sense of and defend themselves against the events in Ferguson and New York. Above all, these stories of white supremacy allow white people to remain undisturbed and unmoved, both physically and spiritually. They do not want to relinquish their racially segregated neighborhoods or the racialized power these spaces provide them; they do not want to re-consider their belief in the fundamental goodness and innocence of either their race or the country to which they pledge allegiance. They know they are good; their stories tell them so.
Serving as chief pastor of an entire archdiocese, Archbishop Carlson of St. Louis also responded to the events surrounding the killing of Michael Brown by telling a story about them. But rather than upending the mythology that sustains white supremacy, the Archbishop enlisted it. The Archbishop ought not be singled-out; he tells the stories that many white people do. As Bryan Massingale and other scholars of race have warned us, his framing represents the magisterial rule rather than its exception.
Archbishop Carlson frames his pastoral narrative through the lens of whiteness. In a series of three statements on Ferguson, Archbishop Carlson condemns violence with fervent single-mindedness. Appearing to espouse a pacifism that admits no exception, Archbishop Carlson exhorts the faithful to “reject any false and empty hope that violence will solve problems. Violence,” he continues, “only creates more violence.” Quoting John Paul II, he proclaims, “violence is unacceptable as a solution to problems.” Under this simple aegis, the Archbishop denounces the burning of buildings and the hurling of rocks. Rather than distinguishing between just and unjust uses of violence, the Archbishop claims to oppose violence in and of itself.
But does the Archbishop really believe what he says?
While the Archbishop denies the use of violence to the protesters, he does not deny it to the state. Law enforcement officers undoubtedly deploy violence in support of law and order. Incarceration, too, is inherently violent, even when necessary. Yet, I could find no statement from Archbishop Carlson chastising St. Louis’ police officers for carrying a gun or baton or taser. Nor could I find any occasion on which the Archbishop exhorts Catholic members of the military to “reject any false and empty hope that violence will solve problems.”
Archbishop Carlson insists on pacifism for the disproportionately black women and men protesting white supremacist violence but allows violence for many others.
Like many white people, the Archbishop calls upon the memory of Martin Luther King, Jr. in defense not so much of either racial justice or principled pacifism, but of the racial self-interests of white people. The Archbishop marshals Reverend King to condemn disproportionately black protestors but not to trouble either his white parishioners or the white supremacist status quo.
And yet, as Martin Luther King, Jr. himself articulated in a speech announcing his opposition to the War in Vietnam, one cannot tell “the desperate, rejected, and angry young men” and women trapped in the United States’ Northern ghettos that “Molotov cocktails and rifles would not solve their problems” while the United States continues to “use massive doses of violence to solve its problems, [and] to bring about the changes it wanted.” Precisely because the violence of the state does not even look like violence to him, the Archbishop’s commitment to pacifism proves selective.
Perhaps we do better to ask what the Archbishop means by peace. Peace, to him, seems not the opposite of violence but whatever disturbs the status quo. In his August 18th statement, the Archbishop speaks of “the turmoil and tragedy in our St. Louis community,” and seeks to comfort those who “are struggling to find peace in the chaos.” Again, in his October 10th release, he exhorts the faithful to “be an instrument of peace amid the chaos” and to “work for calm in the turmoil.” The disruption of black bodies protesting a white supremacist order seems tumultuous and chaotic; the ordinary violence of white supremacy appeared a type of tranquility unworthy of comment.
We learn even more about the Archbishop’s peace from his November 24th statement, released in the wake of a local grand jury’s decision not to indict Michael Brown’s killer. This missive suggests that the Archbishop condemns not just violent protests but civilly disobedient ones as well. After repeating his call “for prayer, peace, and calm,” the Archbishop argues:
“Since the grand jury received the case in August, we have seen offensive and violent outbursts by protesters, and acts of civil disobedience. Despite our calls for peace, which Michael Brown’s family have echoed, we continue to see that segments of our community have not fully renounced the tendency to lash out with antagonistic behavior and violence.”
Here, the Archbishop seems to label civil disobedience “antagonistic,” that is, unpeaceful. One wonders whom the Archbishop believes to be antagonized? Rejecting the spirit of the Civil Rights Movement, the Archbishop conflates peace with the absence of conflict. More than the Archbishop wants justice, he years for the restoration of a calm—or rather, pervasively white supremacist—social order. He asks not just that the people of St. Louis protest non-violently but that they “accept [the decision not to indict the killer of Michael Brown] as the proper functioning of our justice system.”
Mistaking the mundane violence of white supremacy for peace, the Archbishop frames the conflict at the center of his story as one of racial unity ruptured by the turbulence of black protest. For him, racism is not primarily structural but personal. He blames not white supremacy but the human heart. Racism unfolds as a type of family feud, an interpersonal spat. In this way, he laments not that St. Louis exhibits one of the highest rates of white supremacist racial segregation in the United States, but that “we have not [yet] integrated everyone’s heart.”
This is a trope of white storytelling. White people are comfortable describing racism as a problem of personal bias and hate. Telling this story allows white people to easily place themselves on the side of moral righteousness; racism represents only what those who wear white hoods and burn crosses do; or it is an impoliteness of the uncouth. In this story, an action qualifies as racist only if its agent intended it as such. White people remain author-protagonists; they are racist only if they say they are. White people can acquit themselves, if they want to; they do not have to submit to the judgments of people of color. Their reality remains, as always, what they make it.
But racism is not just, or even primarily, hate. As James Baldwin voiced it, “I don’t care whether Senator Eastland or Barry Goldwater likes me…I do care that they have the power to keep me out of a home, out of a job, and to put my child on a needle…I don’t care what they think or feel; I care about their power.” More than it is anything else, racism is white power and supremacy. And white power, as Bryan Massingale notes, is mediated and sustained through structures and institutions not just interpersonal actions. For this reason, he urges magisterial officials to move beyond the merely “personal” in order to include what he terms “the structural dimensions of the race question.”
But when the Archbishop turns his attention to cultural substructures, or in his words, the “deeper underlying issues,” he does so in such a way that black and white people are equally to blame. White supremacy is alluded to only when it can be excused, counterbalanced, or at least made to sound reasonable. What he gives with one hand he takes with another. While “white flight” and “racial profiling” might be regrettable, the story the Archbishop tells makes them sound unavoidable. Two common white supremacist talking points—“black on black violence,” and “family breakdown,”—however, tell us where to point a finger. And, while he mentions “abuses of authority,” he also bemoans “mistrust of authority.” It does not occur to him that “abuses of authority” by law enforcement officials who routinely racially profile might make “mistrust of authority” both legitimate and conducive to survival.
For the Archbishop, the problem is not really racism but universally shared character flaws. In this way, he argues, “we need to keep in mind the issues here are bigger than Ferguson. They are as deep as the hold of sin on the human heart and as broad as the solidarity of the entire human race.” Rather than singling out white people as uniquely culpable for and privileged by white supremacy, the Archbishop defines the situation as something for which white people bear no special blame.
In prioritizing the interpersonal components of racism, the Archbishop recognizes only those problems whose solutions leave white power and the underlying structural apparatus that support it intact: a vaguely worded pledge that the Archdiocese will “assist the churches in Ferguson and the surrounding area to deal with issues of poverty and racism;” a commitment to “establishing…the commission on human rights in the Archdiocese of St. Louis;” increasing the number of poor children able to attend Catholic primary and secondary schools; and offering a mass for Peace and Justice in every parish.
Like many white people, Archbishop Carlson considers “racism” a problem to be solved rather than a world to be unmade. For this reason, he believes we can fight racism without descending into chaos or submitting to turmoil. The set-up dictates the punchline; like all fairytales, the story white people tell about race can end only one way, happily.
In addition to assuaging the consciences of individual whites, this narrative also exonerates corporate bodies, like the church. In the Archbishop’s story, he and his archdiocese are equipped, perhaps uniquely so, to be a part of the solution: he stands above the fray, an outside party come to adjudicate a nasty dispute. Styling himself a voice of reason, the Archbishop acts as a communal counselor, “urging anyone who feels the desire to violently lash out to first pause and consider the potential consequences of their actions.” In this same vein, he positions himself as the leader of other leaders, “challenging…all religious, political, social, and law enforcement leaders [to] join him in asking the Lord to make us instruments of peace” and to provide “the courage in order to combat the brokenness and division that confronts us.”
But the church does not stand outside the ongoing history of white supremacy. As Bryan Massingale urges, magisterial story-tellers must acknowledge the church’s complicity in what he terms “ecclesial racism.” Rather than moderating worldly disputes, the church first ought to confess. If we know the Catholic Church by the stories it tells about the world and its place in it, then what the Black Catholic Clergy Caucus said in 1968 sadly holds true still today: “the Catholic Church in the United States is primarily a white racist institution.” An Archbishop of St. Louis ought to begin any discussion of race by articulating both the ways in which white supremacy has shaped his archdiocese as well as the ways in which his archdiocese has shaped white supremacy.
Church storytellers must begin at the beginning: St. Louis grew in size and status largely because it served as a major port city in the United States’ extensive domestic slave trade. The church placed the headquarters of what was then a western diocese in the city of St. Louis for this same reason. The slave trade helped to bring the archdiocese of St. Louis into being.
This spatial framing makes the archdiocese’s participation in slave ownership unsurprising. The first Bishop of St. Louis, Joseph Rosati, provided to the area’s St. Mary’s Seminary a supply of slaves. His successor, Peter Richard Kenrick, claimed several black women and men as chattel. Other purportedly holy women and men followed suit. Just south of St. Louis, in Perry County, as late as 1830, the Vincentian order corporately owned more than slaves than any other slaveholder in the surrounding area.
Even after the end of chattel slavery, St. Louis’ white Catholics, both immigrant and native, remained virulently white supremacist. Their segregationist violence was both permitted and sometimes sanctioned by archdiocesan officials. In 1916, the heavily Catholic Polish-American Association fiercely promoted a residential segregation ordinance for the city of St. Louis, which passed into law by a vote of nearly three to one.
Even after this ordinance was overturned, the white Catholics of the archdiocese still managed to preserve the segregationist status quo they helped create. The area surrounding St. Louis contains dozens of so-called “Sundown Towns,” those which strove to keep blacks out by any means necessary, from exclusionary zoning policies to extrajudicial mob violence. And, in the city of St. Louis, when the majority Catholic white population could no longer fight black integration, they fled it.
But suburbanization did not make white people more amenable to integration. Just as they had while still living within city limits, the whites of St. Louis strove to keep black people from joining them in the suburbs. For example, in 1970, the all white St. Louis suburb of Black Jack voted itself out of existence so that it could draw up a new town charter more capable of blocking the planned construction of apartments open to black renters. As a result of these coordinated white supremacist strategies of segregation, the archdiocese of St. Louis encompasses one of the most racially segregated and racially unequal areas in the country.
Racial division, then, is not like a “bitter divorce” as one author in the Archdiocesan newspaper argued; it is not a falling out; it is not something for which blacks and whites are both at fault; it is not a misunderstanding. White and black people remain residentially separated because white people want it to be that way and because they have the power to make their wishes reality. Racial segregation endures because it accords white people power and privilege.
But white people do not want black people to be so separate from them that they cannot be subject to heavy surveillance by majority white police forces. White people desire that black people remain residentially distant but still under their control. When the Archbishop frames the United States’ racial problem as one of division he both obfuscates and oversimplifies. In the case of the way in which the war on drugs applies one set of judicial rules to predominately black neighborhoods and an entirely different set to predominately white ones, for example, black people would be much better off if white people would just leave them alone entirely.
The Archbishop urges the people of his archdiocese to “have a willingness to sit down together and dialogue, by having the humility to admit our mistakes and say we are sorry.” But history proves white people nearly incapable of racial apology. One wonders when white people have apologized or made amends to black people for anything.
Even more, when we contemplate the long centuries of chattel slavery, the white supremacist war of terror against Reconstruction and the brutally segregationist regime of Jim Crow it instituted, the one hundred years of Northern urban enghettoization, the dozens, if not hundreds, of white race riots perpetrated against black property and black bodies, the nearly forty years old white supremacist war on drugs, among many other indignities, one must also ask, what in the world do black people have to apologize to white people for?
The tale of race in the U.S. does not involve two parties, equally flawed and equally aggrieved. White mythology obscures racial reality: racial inequality persists because white people want it to. This is our country’s most true story.
The church cannot aspire to neutrality. Rather than mediating between two sides, the church ought to take the side of those who struggle against white supremacy most boldly. But the church cannot do this until it learns to prefer the racial chaos that looks like violence to the white supremacist violence that passes for peace.