Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Reflections

Committee members of the Racial Equity Inclusion Task Force share their reflections.

Travel Experience of Salvadoran Friends Underscores Our Need to Improve
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As many know, there are several trips annually to El Salvador where St. Dominic Parish not only provides for the needs of many, but also supports a crew of dedicated community leaders to carry out the good work in Chitiupan. I was fortunate to travel along with the most recent delegation to view progress made in our sister parish. As an added benefit, on our return, we travelled alongside our dedicated Salvadorian crew for a visit to Cleveland.  While a couple of our El Salvador friends had travelled to Cleveland before, most had not.  Four of the five travelers speak very good English. One, Raul, speaks no English, had never been on a plane but very much looked forward to his first visit outside his native land.

To say the least, the culinary experience in Chiltiupan is something to appreciate. The main dish usually involves some version of a pupusa-often referred to as a Spanish pierogi. Stewed chickens and rice and beans provide most of the remaining sustenance. To our visitors, the chance to try American cuisine is a much-anticipated adventure.  In this case, the first chance for the same was presented at a non-descript BBQ joint at the Dallas-Ft. Worth airport.

The name of the joint is not important.  But it is what the well-travelled would expect.  You order at the front end, pay outrageous prices, and then collect what is often less than satisfying food at the end of the counter. The team was excited and voiced a friendly Spanish chant as they approached to make their selections. I stood back so as not to interfere with their enjoyment, but close by to offer assistance. Excitement was evident - their first order on American soil after a long flight was finally here.

Then came the look.  The look from behind the counter.  Who are these guys all speaking Spanish ordering to their hearts’ delight? The look became a frown as a few did not understand the menu selections which quickly turned to a cold and unwelcoming stare when Raul approached for his order.  He could not read the board or order for himself.  And he was not sure what he really wanted.  It was literally his first meal outside El Salvador, and he wanted it to be perfect.  Then it came - the voice.  “Why can’t you people just be like us. And do you Mexicans have money?” More than confrontational, it was completely derisive.  As one might expect I interceded and asked why the frown, negative emotion, and racist comment.  Oh yes, payment would be forthcoming from me, but I regret that they chose this location. That said, I suspect that attitude was generally the norm.  While personally disappointed with the experience, the team felt no worse and enjoyed the simple meal with no comment on the interaction. No doubt, I was grateful our friends were so forgiving.

This experience caused me to reflect on where we are in the U.S. and where we are going. Our Salvadoran friends were confronted with the same attitudes, comments and racism faced by Black Americans. Not long ago four Black students were refused service at a Woolworth’s counter in Greensboro, NC resulting in one of the most remarkable civil rights protests. That event was preceded by only a few years in the Supreme Court decision striking down segregated schools.  It was followed a few years later with the Civil Rights Act. Progress.  Progress long overdue.

Bit by bit racial exclusion seemingly chipped away. The following decades saw progress on many fronts, even the fundamental right to vote in a district where a Black candidate could win an election was becoming a reality. There was some progress, but the attitudes seemed to stay the same.  Or perhaps even harden.

Unfortunately today, that progress stands still. Some even rightfully suggest we are regressing - at warp speed.  No, it still remains illegal to deny a seat at a counter, or to prohibit admittance to public schools, or refuse to accommodate a Black traveler. But that is how it is written in a book, not practiced.

Today, there is a growing trend to prohibit studies of the Black experience in America. This growing trend is not only frightening but clearly racist in intent and practice.  Perhaps even worse, in many states unnecessary requirements are imposed on voters with the sole practical intent of stymying the Black vote. Under the guise of voter fraud, restrictions on ballot initiatives, limits to voter registration, unnecessary limits on pre-election day voting and the absurd decision to permit only one box for ballot collection in some of the largest cities in the US have blossomed in many states. Decades of progress in voter rights flushed with the bath water. As a lawyer with four decades of experience on many fronts including Constitutional Law, this is more than disappointing to witness.

In our state in the last weeks, the effort to restrain voter rights in the name of fraud prevention is quickly gaining ground.  Indeed, most recently, the Ohio Secretary of State noted that the use of a state of the art third-party electronic voting system seems likely to be eliminated because the system sends automatic reminders to voters of upcoming elections.  Of course, the reminders might help Black candidates. It should be evident that much like the blatantly unconstitutional redistricting fiasco recently witnessed in Ohio, racism lies at the base of any justification. And similar to the other ballot restrictions justified under guise of anti-fraud efforts, the program will likely be eliminated.

These are but a few areas where we have regressed in the last few years.  Much like the experience of our Salvadoran team, for Black Americans, racism in our society today seems prevalent - and growing. But much like my encounter with the servers in Dallas, it is incumbent on many of us who usually stay on the fringes to interject and change that path.

The very purpose of the St. Dominic DEI committee is to heighten parish awareness and improve the thought process relating to diversity and inclusion in our community.  We can make life better in our community and for all people and races. We should, we must.

A Reflection on Black History Month
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A reflection on Black History Month, from Margaret Bernstein, a member of our church’s Racial Equity Task Force.

Black History Month is evolving. In the years since George Floyd died, I’ve watched it move beyond an annual recitation of facts about African American achievers, and widen into a bigger discussion of struggle and survival. I’m fascinated by a new social media trend --the #MyBlackHistory hashtag. It’s democratizing February and making it clear that every black family has a story of overcoming. On Facebook this month, I’ve seen a tribute posted to a great-grandfather who was a South Carolina sharecropper and railroad worker, while someone else shared a picture of their great-aunt, a pianist and teacher who attended Juilliard and performed with Count Basie.

Another person paid homage to an ancestor named James Robert Sands Jr. “Born a slave but eventually became a free man. A husband, father, educator and appointed Justice of the Peace in Monroe County, Ark., in 1916. I salute you Great-great-grandpa Sands! #MYBLACKHISTORY”

This grassroots trend recognizes the fact that black Americans share a history of triumphing over racist laws and systems, and that our tenacious forebears are achievers, even if they’re not famous.

I think it's good to see Black History Month getting freshened up, especially considering that some critics of the month are asking when will we be done with rehashing the past. In my opinion, our nation is only beginning to acknowledge all the roadblocks that African Americans faced, in order to vote, to be educated, to live free. For African-Americans, it’s been a challenge just to learn about our own heritage: The U.S. Census didn’t count blacks until 1870. Before that, we were possessions, enumerated like cows and horses. No names -- just ages and genders on slave lists. Like many African-Americans, I know the names of my relatives born in the past century but I can’t go back much further. As a race, our history hasn’t been passed down, because slaves weren’t allowed to read or write, they weren’t given last names and their families were often split up.

As a nation, we're just starting to excavate the history of black Americans. To wrap our minds around how America enriched itself through black bondage, and to grapple with the repercussions that still endure. I would like to recommend to my fellow parishioners a soon-to-be-published book about how Catholic priests relied on slave labor, and sold slaves to finance the creation of Georgetown University. The book is "The 272: The Families Who Were Enslaved and Sold to Build The American Catholic Church " by New York University journalism professor Rachel Swarns.

For most of us, this is an untold chapter of our church's history. I say ... let the history out, and let it inform new conversations.