Donald M. Kerwin (C'84) is executive director of the Center for Migration Studies of New York, a Catholic think tank devoted to the study of global migration.
How does the killing of George Floyd by police officers in Minneapolis, Minnesota, speak to U.S. refugees and immigrants? How do the experiences of African Americans and immigrants intersect? What can the Catholic tradition teach us about our nation’s original sin and common ground in the civil rights struggle?
Catholic teaching speaks powerfully on racism and other hateful ideologies. In its 2018 pastoral letter against racism, Open Wide Our Hearts, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) argued that racism ignores our common origin and identity as children of God. The U.S. bishops defined racism straightforwardly, as the view that one’s “own race or ethnicity is superior” and that others are “inferior and unworthy of equal regard.”
Systemic racism takes many forms, all of them well-known to migrants and refugees. It infuses “nationalist ideologies” that fill “American public discourse with xenophobic rhetoric” designed to instill fear of “foreigners, immigrants, and refugees.” Ethno-cultural nationalism holds that race, ethnicity, and culture (in an exclusionary sense) are the defining features of a community, and that persons who lack these characteristics cannot fully belong.
Racist ideologies and animus diminish the prospects and threaten the lives of migrants and refugees throughout the world. The fruits of racism can be found in the disproportionate presence of African Americans in the criminal justice system, and in how the U.S. immigration system cruelly separates parents from their children, criminalizes asylum-seekers, and confines tens of thousands of immigrants in U.S. detention centers, even during a pandemic.
In a recent edition of Human Rights Magazine, Karla McKanders, a clinical professor of law at Vanderbilt Law School, reports that the 4.2 million black immigrants in the United States endure high rates of arrest, detention, and removal. In addition, the administration has attempted to divest them of status, by seeking to terminate Temporary Protected Status for Haitians, Sudanese, and other national groups, and by denying them entry to the U.S. asylum system. The U.S. president also infamously characterized Haiti and African countries as “s@$*-hole” nations, and said the United States should seek to attract more immigrants from Norway.
The U.S. immigration system has also created two-tiers of U.S. citizens. One tier consists of citizens who enjoy society’s full rights and protections. The other tier, U.S. citizens who are the children of undocumented parents, lives in perpetual insecurity; regularly loses parents to deportation; and suffers from dislocation, depression, and social isolation. The president has threatened to end birthright citizenship, which is guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment. In effect, he would apply the racist logic of the Dred Scott decision—which barred children of “African descent” from citizenship—to children with undocumented parents.
Systemic racism undergirds legal systems that violate rights and deny due process, that rule by color of law but dishonor the rule of law. It can be witnessed in the extra-judicial killings of African Americans and in the high levels of physical abuse, degrading and threatening language, and severe enforcement tactics used by far too many immigration officials.
As the bishops wrote, racism seeks to divide and place “brother and sister against each other, violating the dignity inherent in each person.” It constitutes a failure to love God and neighbor which, in St. Augustine’s words, often takes the form of a “lust to dominate.” It presents itself when “certain groups of people are vilified, called criminals, or are perceived as being unable to contribute to society”—a dynamic that both African Americans and immigrants know well. It inspires labels such as “illegal immigrant” and “criminal alien,” as if human beings could be illegal or alien. Toni Morrison spoke of “the malign language of law-without-ethics, or language designed for the estrangement of minorities, hiding its racist plunder in its literary cheek.” This is the familiar language of nativists as well.
In his general audience on June 3, Pope Francis spoke on George Floyd’s death and countless similar killings as follows: “We cannot tolerate or turn a blind eye to racism and exclusion in any form and yet claim to defend the sacredness of every human life.” As the Holy Father recognized, racism can take the forms of “omission, when individuals, communities, and even churches remain silent and fail to act against racial injustice.”
African-American Catholics have long expressed frustration at the indifference and complicity of many Catholic institutions, leaders, and their co-religionists regarding the racial injustices that pervade and circumscribe their lives. At an immigration event hosted by my agency in early 2017, participants similarly wondered why religious leaders “had failed to speak in their defense during the election campaign and why so many of their coreligionists were willing, at the very least, to overlook [the] slanderous attacks on them.” Since then, the attacks have escalated; thousands of families have been divided; and the lives of many migrants, refugees, and asylum-seekers have been lost. "In the end,” said Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., “it is not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends we’ll remember.”
Racism can be overcome, but only—as Pope Francis put it in another context—through “a process of change” rooted in the realities and insights of those on the peripheries. One step in this journey is to “grasp,” as James Baldwin wrote, that, “Whoever debases others is debasing himself.” In trying to separate “the other” from the human family, we separate ourselves. In building walls at our borders and in our communities, we wall off ourselves. “My dear brothers and sisters,” said Thomas Merton, “we are already one. But we imagine that we are not. And what we have to recover is our original unity. What we have to be is what we are.”