12/08/2014 05:06 pm ET Updated Feb 07, 2015

Ferguson Burns and the World Looks on


One living abroad often has the current reality of the United States mirrored back to you by non-Americans. This is only amplified when one lives at the heart of the Catholic Church, where one hears not only the local perspective, but perspectives from the whole world in the particular context of a religious environment. This has been particularly true in light of the events of the past few weeks.

I went to lunch the other day and a Belgian priest expressed horror over all that was happening in Ferguson, and at the racism which exists in American society. Another priest from Africa who was also present sat stupefied that such a thing could happen in the U.S. Yet another from Italy has asked how it could be that this would happen. I have found myself explaining that racism is a sad fact in the United States. I have felt forced to explain that racism has deep roots and that it ended neither with the Emancipation Proclamation, nor with the striking down of the Jim Crow laws. I had to explain that we face it as something which, whether we like it or not, is deeply rooted in our culture. In one breath I have found myself offering an apology for American culture, and in the next realizing interiorly that I was speaking about that for which no apology exists.

Racism is not simply an American problem. All of the men that I mentioned above are good men, and friends, but they all face issues of racism in their own contexts. In Belgium, a newspaper recently published terribly racist cartoons of Barack Obama. In Italy, one can buy make-up for Halloween specifically for the purposes of going out in black face, and there are race-based problems which occur regularly in neighborhoods where refugees live beside Italians. This is not even to mention the horrific toll that racism has taken in Africa where we have seen genocide rage over skin tone. Racism is a global problem. What, then, makes the post-Ferguson reality of the United States different?

Simply stated, we should be better. We, as citizens of the United States, embrace a narrative that says that our foundations are multicultural, that the strength of our country is rooted in the combined strengths of all cultures, and that the melting pot is one in which the very best of all that we are rises to the top. However, when we study and know our own history, and if we are honest with ourselves, racism has been a part of our civilization from its beginnings. From the ways in which we treated the first peoples, to the scourge of slavery, from the battles in immigrant neighborhoods which began long before Ellis Island, to the so-called "minute men" whom purport to "guard" our southern border from the scourge of a people who would do the work that we north of the border would rather not do, racism has always been there. We hate to admit it but we are, like every other civilization, racist. It is not simply a black-and-white reality, though that is clearly a central part of the problem, but an undercurrent of general xenophobia and a radical selfishness that drive this forward. We should be better.

We should be better because we have dreamt with King of a civilization where a person is judged not by the color of his skin, but the content of his character. We should be better because, along with Spotted Tail, we have dared to trust the other, even if they have given no reason to trust. We should be better because we have, along with Dorothy Day, understood that the problem may just be the filthy rotten system. We should be better because, along with Cesar Chavez, we know that fidelity to the cause of justice is one of the few things that can bring injustice to its knees. We should be better because many women and men have shown us throughout our history that our cultural imagination not only allows us to dream of world which is better than the one in which we live, but which convicts us to make that possibility a reality.

It is good that we are unsettled right now as Americans. It is good that this is a moment which pushes our faces into the ugliness of our national reality as it is, and that will not allow us to simply to glance away as we wish that it was otherwise. Any death of any person is a tragedy, but it is good that the world should look on with particular confusion, and even contempt, as we choose not to hold those responsible for the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner accountable. We are not as good as we imagine. We can be better. We should be better.