Just as the world is facing the coronavirus pandemic and its deadly impact, racism likewise is a deadly virus that must be cured, Washington Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory said during a June 5 online dialogue on racism sponsored by Georgetown University’s Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life. The dialogue was viewed by 7,900 people watching it via livestream.

During the panel discussion on “Racism in our Streets and Structures: A Test of Faith, A Crisis for Our Nation,” Archbishop Gregory was asked why he referred to racism as a virus when he issued a statement about the death of George Floyd – the African American man who died in police custody on May 25 after a Minneapolis officer knelt on his neck for an extended period of time. 

“It’s an appropriate image at a moment when we’re all thinking about a virus that threatens us,” he said. 

Archbishop Gregory said many of the questions experts are asking in confronting the coronavirus equally apply to racism: “How is racism, this silent but deadly virus, passed on to other people? Is it learned at home? Is it transmitted through our structures? Is it part of the air that we breathe, and how do we find a vaccine, how can we protect ourselves, how can we render it ineffective?”

Archbishop Gregory had opened the discussion with a prayer, saying, “May our acts of solidarity and justice with the living be a memorial to those who have died.”

In his prayer, he prayed for the victims of police brutality and for their families, and he asked God to “bless those who take to our streets to protest injustice,” and he also prayed that law enforcement officers will have “a commitment to equal justice for all, and respect for the lives and dignity of all those they serve and protect from harm.”

The brutal death of George Floyd at the knee of a police officer, the nationwide protests it sparked, and what should be done to address racism were the key topics discussed by the panelists, who also included Marcia Chatelain, Ph.D., an associate professor of history and African-American studies at Georgetown University; Ralph McCloud, the director of the Catholic Campaign for Human Development, the U.S. bishops’ anti-poverty program; and Gloria Purvis, the host of the EWTN radio show “Morning Glory.”

The four panelists, who are all African American, each shared the emotional reactions they felt when they, like people around the world, saw the videotape of Floyd’s death that had been recorded by an onlooker during the arrest.

“I recall being physically sick, almost to the point of fainting and passing out,” McCloud said.

Gloria Purvis, host of the EWTN radio show “Morning Glory,” participates in the June 5 online dialogue on racism. (Screen grab courtesy of the Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life)

Purvis said when she watched it, “I remember saying, ‘Stop! In the name of God, stop!’ I thought this was so grievous to do to another human being. The image of God was being abused in front of me.”

Archbishop Gregory said seeing the video of Floyd’s killing brought back a flood of memories. 

“As a youngster, I was taken to the viewing of Emmett Till,” he said, of the 14-year-old African American youth lynched in Mississippi in 1955, whose body was displayed in an open casket in Chicago where he grew up, and which was the home city of young Wilton Gregory.

The archbishop, who also issued a statement decrying the recent shooting death of Ahmaud Arbery, a young African American man, by white assailants in Georgia, said that Floyd’s death reminded him of “a whole collage of individuals who have been assassinated for no other reason than the color of their skin.”

Chatelain said Americans were able to witness Floyd’s last moments, and are also “witnesses to the indifference that allows death to come that way… The knee on that man’s neck was weighted by all of the systems that have sanctioned that behavior.”

She said the protests across the United States and around the world represent “a referendum about capitalism, colonialism, and at the heart of it, white supremacy… This is about a series of interconnected systems.”

The educator noted that the societal inequities facing communities of color are not new, and in the commissions examining the deadly race riots of 1919, she said black leaders a century ago identified the problems of “police brutality, not enough jobs, poor schools for our kids (and) lack of health care.”

Ralph McCloud, the director of the Catholic Campaign for Human Development, participates in the June 5 online discussion on racism. (Screen grab courtesy of the Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life)

McCloud, who is recovering after being diagnosed with COVID-19, noted that racism does not operate in a vacuum, and he said many injustices faced by minority communities were factors in them being disproportionately impacted by the virus and the health crisis and economic downturn left in its wake. He noted how many African Americans and other people of color live in overcrowded housing where social distancing is impossible, in communities where health care is inaccessible, and work in service industries where they were deemed “essential” and had to continue working and possibly being exposed to the virus. And he noted how the predominantly minority populations in prisons also faced sickness and death from the virus because of crowded conditions there.

Knowing family members and friends sickened and dying of the virus has become a reality for many minorities, he said. And this spring has seen several notorious instances of black Americans being killed by police officers.

“There’s a degree of stress and a degree of trauma associated with being African American in 2020, given all that we’ve experienced,” McCloud said. He noted how one of his nephews was paralyzed after being shot by police. “His only crime was walking away from the police.”

Purvis, who is the chairperson for Black Catholics United for Life and a board member of the Northwest Pregnancy Center, said the pro-life and the racial justice movements are both “animated by the Gospel imperative that we must defend the vulnerable and the oppressed.”

She said the protests that followed George Floyd’s death have happened because “we don’t want the power of the state used against us… We are equal citizens and do not want police brutality on our communities.” She added, “The real issue is that a human being had his life snuffed out by the very state that is paid to protect and serve. That’s what Black Lives Matter means. We want to be able to walk, to live, and move without fear, like everybody else.”

Marcia Chatelain, an associate professor of history and African-American studies at Georgetown University, participates in the June 5 online dialogue on racism. (Courtesy photo/Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life)

The panelists all expressed admiration for the people protesting racism and police brutality across the country.

“I get so much hope, and I get so much inspiration from people who are day in and day out in the streets,” Chatelain said. “They’ve been undeterred by tear gas, undeterred by threats of state violence. I’m so deeply moved by everyone who turns out the next day.”

Chatelain added, “We have been presented with a gift in the movement for black lives, because it is raising consciousness, and it is pushing the faith of people to see and believe that something else is possible.”

When asked about the risk that protesters are facing in gathering together in crowds during the COVID-19 pandemic, Purvis said, “They are risking exposure to this virus because of the grave injustice to their fellow brother in Christ.” She later noted, “People need to speak truth to power.”

McCloud said the crowds protesting for racial justice reminded him of how civil rights demonstrators in the 1960s who knew their lives were at risk sometimes filled out their wills beforehand.

“They know death and danger is a possibility, but it’s more important than sitting at home and doing nothing,” he said.

Washington Archbishop Wilton Gregory participates in the June 5 online dialogue on racism. (Screen grab courtesy of the Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life)

Archbishop Gregory said that for him, “a big sign of hope is the huge number of young people who have taken up this as a personal concern,” and he noted how “a group of young priests have decided by Zoom meeting to come up with proposals that they intend to implant in their parishes… They are energized, and I want to encourage them to continue that dialogue.”

He noted witnessing pivotal moments during his life that sparked hope for racial justice, including the passage of civil rights legislation in the 1960s and the election of Barack Obama in 2008 as the first African American president. Archbishop Gregory said seeing so many people, including many white Americans, marching together for justice gives him “a spirit of hope that somehow, this is more than just a passing moment. I pray it’s more than a passing moment.”

Washington’s archbishop said he hopes the movement will spur personal and systematic change for justice and equality. “People realize if we don’t work together, we will miss perhaps the most significant moment for real national transition that I’ve witnessed,” he said.

Also during the online dialogue, Archbishop Gregory was asked about his statement criticizing the June 2 visit by President Donald Trump to the St. John Paul II National Shrine, on the morning after members of the National Guard reportedly fired tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse peaceful protesters across from the White House and the president then walked to Lafayette Square and posed for photos holding a Bible in front of St. John’s Episcopal Church.

Archbishop Gregory, noting how St. John Paul II was a champion of human rights, said, “That shrine is a holy place because of the man it honors, and it should never have been used as a political statement.”

The archbishop said the criticism that his statement was too political reminded him of how people criticized priests and nuns for taking part in civil rights marches.

“They said, ‘You shouldn’t be in the political arena. You should be in church.’ The Church lives in society,” not within the four walls “of the structures where we worship,” Archbishop Gregory said. He noted how Pope Francis has challenged Catholics to go out into the world and proclaim the Gospel.

Later, Archbishop Gregory emphasized that “the Church needs to remember that too close an alignment with any one party weakens our prophetic capacity… No political party is completely aligned with Church’s social justice teaching, with the teaching of the Gospel.”

He noted how through the Church’s history, when Church leaders became too close to kings, queens or emperors, that made it difficult for them to call those leaders to task.

“When you get too close to any one party, you lose the capacity to speak the Gospel truth to everyone,” Archbishop Gregory said.

When asked what can be done to achieve racial justice, Chatelain noted, “If justice is going to come, it’s going to cost us something… We have reaped so much from this system of inequality. What are we willing to give back?”

Purvis said the nation, and individuals, need to have an examination of conscience on the issue of race.

“I feel like the Lord is calling the entire nation to repentance,” she said. “…We need to examine our conscience daily for what acts, what thoughts we hold that demean our brothers and sisters in Christ.”

The panelists emphasized the importance of listening to the concerns voiced by people of color, and working for justice in all levels of government. McCloud encouraged people to accompany minorities as “they seek to improve their lives, their neighborhoods, their communities.”

John Carr, the director of the initiative who moderated the discussion on racism, said in his closing remarks, “We have to look at our own behavior. We have to change ourselves, we have to change our communities, we have to change our country, and we have to change our Church.”

Carr quoted what Pope Francis had said earlier that week: “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.”