Black Catholics respond to Abby Johnson

Last Thursday, pro-life activist Abby Johnson released a video called “My biracial boy,” in which she said she’s not upset that her adopted biracial son will be racially profiled by police when he grows up. She explained her theories about race and the family and what needs to change.

Today I was joined by four black pro-life Catholics who saw the video and wanted to respond.  

In the group are author and blogger Alessandra Harris, Marcia Lane-McGee, co-host of the Plaid Skirts & Basic Black podcast, Andrea Espinoza who works at a college library and is a Master’s student, and Eric Phillips, who works with the Respect Life ministry. In the first half of the video, they responded directly to Johnson’s words. In the second part, they speak about their experiences with racism in the pro-life movement and in the Church; about what keeps them in the Church; what changes they hope to see; and what a biracial child ought to be able to expect from his parents. 

Here is a transcript of the video. Many thanks to a friend who donated her time to transcribe it, to Leticia Adams for introducing me to the group, and of course to Marcia, Eric, Andrea, and Alessandra for sharing their insight and stories, and especially to Alessandra for managing the tech part.

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“Black Catholics Respond to Abby Johnson”

Simcha Fisher, Andrea Espinoza, Eric Phillips, Marcia Lane-McGee, Alessandra Harris

Simcha Fisher: Hello, my name is Simcha Fisher. I am a pro-life Catholic.  Last Thursday, pro-life activist Abby Johnson recorded a video and put it on YouTube, and the video was titled “My Biracial Boy.” In it, she talked about her adopted, biracial son, who is 5 years old, and how he is likely to be treated differently by the police than her white sons, and how she’s okay with that. She did take the video down. I posted a copy of it on my site simchafisher.com, and I also called her up to interview her about the video to make sure I understood what she was saying, and I posted a transcript of that video on my site as well.

So today I am here with a group of four Black Catholics who have agreed to come together and share some of their response to Abby Johnson’s video and some of the things she said in it. So, thank you, everybody, for coming here today and sharing your viewpoints. Let’s start out by introducing ourselves. If you could just go around the group briefly and tell us what you do and a little bit about your involvement with the Church, with the pro-life movement, whatever you’d like.

Andrea Espinoza: Good afternoon, Simcha. My name is Andrea, and I live in the Northeast. I am a parishioner in the Diocese of Brooklyn. I work as an administrative assistant at a college library, and I’m also a Masters student in Library and Information Science. I am a cradle Catholic with a reversion period, and I am active in the young adult scene here in New York City.

Alessandra Harris: Hi, my name is Alessandra Harris, and I am an author and blogger. I’m also am a cradle Catholic. I live in the San Francisco Bay Area. I went to my first March for Life when I was 10 years old, and just the videos of aborted babies being thrown away in a dumpster really touched my heart, and it’s led me to be pro-life, not just in belief but in my life personally. I’m a married mom with 4 kids and I believe right now my role in the pro-life movement as a Black Catholic is to really remind people that pro-life encompasses the unborn up to a natural death, and everyone in between. And that means protecting all lives including the Black person being killed from gun violence and those on death row. 

Eric Phillips: My name is Eric Phillips. I’m from Chicago, Illinois. I’ve been a Catholic all my life, baptized Catholic. I’m 33 now, but I’d say around age 25, 26, I embarked on an adventure to really study my faith. Prior to that I had really no idea what my faith was about. In that journey I fell in love with my faith. Since that time, I’ve done some things with the church. I’m a member of the Society of St Vincent de Paul for one. Two, I work with the Archdiocese—I don’t work for the Archdiocese of Chicago but I work with some members of the Archdiocese of Chicago when it comes to Respect Life ministry. They do a lot of talks on Theology of the Body, St. John Paul’s long explanation as to who we are as human beings from the moment of conception onwards. So, I’ve done that and learned a lot from the people I’ve met, and I’m always looking to learn more and to grow in my faith. 

Marcia Lane-McGee: Hi my name is Marcia Lane-McGee, I am also from Chicago, IL, born and raised. I am actually a convert to the Church. I became Catholic in the year 2000. I was 20 years old, so this year was my 20 year Catholic-versary; it was very exciting. The Catholic Church has been a huge part of my life, a huge part of making great decisions for my faith and for my future. I became involved in the pro-life movement about one year after my son was born. I am a birth mom to a Black child– obviously because I’m a whole Black person– in a transracial adoption, actually. I used to be in youth ministry. Currently I am not in any active Church ministry. I do cantor at Mass though. I also have a podcast with one of my best friends. It’s called Plaid Skirts and Basic Black, and it’s about being a Black Catholic and seeing the world through our Black Catholic lens. I’m really excited to be here.

Simcha: Thank you all so much. I’m really excited about this conversation. I think we’ll just go ahead and jump right in. I want to be fair to Abby and I don’t want to put any words in her mouth, so we’re just going to quote her exact words. I’ve got some excerpts from the video, and then maybe we can just take some turns responding to them and letting people know what your response is.

So she opened up by saying “I recognize”—also, she used her son’s name in the video, and I’m not going to do that—“I recognize that I’m going to have a different conversation with [my son] than I do with my brown haired little Irish very very pale skinned white sons as they grow up, because right now, [my son] is an adorable, perpetually tan-looking little brown boy, but one day, he’s going to grow up, and he’s going to be a tall, probably sort of large, intimidating-looking, maybe, brown man, and my other boys are probably going to look like nerdy white guys.” So, she’s got predictions about how her kids are going to look when they grow up. Eric, is that something you’d like to respond to?

Eric: Yes, thank you for the question. I’m sure her children are beautiful, right. Just because they’re children are white, she doesn’t have to call them nerdy, you know. Regarding her son, the one that’s “tan.” Obviously, I’m a Black man. Sometimes it’s hard to put this into words, but at a young age, I kind of understood what the stereotypes for Black people were, particular Black males, which is lawless, brutes, sexually promiscuous and what not, but like I said, that’s a stereotype. As I got older, myself included, I can tell you, just because you come from a certain area does not mean you’re going to turn out like those people in that area. Just because you come from a well-to-do area doesn’t mean you’re going to turn out to be an outstanding individual as well.

So when it comes to her son, I’m not her son’s daddy, I don’t have any kids of my own, but I would hope that she has a conversation with her son, and in that conversation, I would hope that she would express a possibility or the reality that, no, not everybody’s going to look at you as being intimidating. You don’t have to be intimidating just because you’re Black or just because you’re tanner than the next person. I would hope that the conversations she has with him is to have good character about yourself, be honest, be straightforward, do good work, because as a Black individual, and as her son being a “tan” individual, he has a certain, like one of my bosses said way back when I used to work for a particular company. I was going to say the name, but don’t worry about the name. My boss would always tell me, “Eric, you’re Black; you have to bring the full pie; you can’t bring half a pie.” So I would hope the conversation she would have with her son is that he would always have to put his best foot forward because there will be people out there that will think that the position he’s in, he didn’t earn what was given to him, or soon enough he’ll do something wrong and it won’t be his no more.

She has to, her and her husband or whoever, has to help build his psychology, not just psychology that says you can do x, y, and z, but who you are, we as Catholics, you are made in the image and likeness of God, but the color of your skin no matter what society throws at you, is not your limit, regardless of whether someone is “intimidated” by you or not, and if they are intimidated by you, without them knowing you, that’s not your problem, that’s their problem, something’s wrong with the way they think.

So I would hope that, as I look at those comments, I have no ill will against the woman, I don’t know her, but those are in my view very ignorant comments to make, and one day her son may see that video, and who knows what effect that may have. But I’m confident that the young man will grow up to be nerves of steel and iron, and I’m sure he will grow up to be very nice young man. Do everything you can Ms. Johnson to not have his mentality thinking that he’s to be a menace to society, because that’s not the case. 

Simcha: Does anybody want to add anything to that before we move on to the next section? Okay we’ll move on, then. The next thing that Abby says is: “statistically, I look at our prison population and I see that there is a disproportionately high number of African American males in our prison population for crimes, particularly for violent crimes just statistically when a police officer sees a brown man like my son walking down the road, as opposed to my white nerdy kids, these police officers are going to know that statistically my brown son is more likely to commit a violent offense over my white sons, okay?” she says. “So, the fact that in his head he would be more careful around my brown son than my white son, that doesn’t actually make me angry, that makes the police officer smart, because of statistics.” Who would like to respond to this idea of statistics?

Marcia: Okay, well, here’s the thing, if we want to talk about statistics. Black men (people) make up 12% of the US adult population, right, as it stands 2 years ago. You know in statistics, they’re always a couple years behind, but they make up 33% of the US prison population, and that doesn’t necessarily mean they are more likely to commit violent crimes, that means, that other statistics show that Black neighborhoods, Black schools, are more likely to be policed. They’re policed more, so they are caught more for crimes, it doesn’t say they commit more crimes.

I was talking to someone else the other day about the school-to-prison pipeline about how Black students are policed more even in the setting with white students, where a white student is more likely to be disciplined for a provable offense like skipping school or smoking on campus, but a Black student is more likely to be disciplined not only for that but also implied insubordination, so there is aa bias created by the statistics, but the statistics are also biased.

So, people sometimes don’t realize that these statistics, not that they’re untrue because they’re numbers, it’s math, but they don’t take into account the fact that there are other factors that lead to Black men being incarcerated; it does not mean that they’re more violent.

Currently I work in a residential facility. I run a home in a residential facility. I have 9 teenage boys in my care. It’s pretty much like, there’s Black kids and white kids that I have in my care; it’s pretty even. And all of my kids do stuff wrong. It doesn’t matter, like my Black kids lie and steal food from the pantry and so do my white kids. And I catch them all, and I know that is part of where they are as teenagers or people living in a residential facility. I don’t watch my Black kids more than my white kids; I watch them because they’re teenagers, not because of their race, and I think that some white kids are given a pass.

Even when we talk about marijuana convictions, Black people are more likely to get a higher drug charge, and white people are more likely to get a pass. I was telling a friend the other day. White people are more likely to be carrying marijuana on them, because they have it; it’s out. (Well right now it’s legal). But I knew from friends of mine, my white friends always knew where to get marijuana and I was like, “how do you even, this is so confusing,” but Black people had higher police so they were caught with it.

So, I think the disparity was due to the significant amount of policing, but it also doesn’t make the police officers “smart” that he is more likely to think that her son will commit a violent crime. It makes the police officer biased.

Instead of realizing their own bias, like if her son, who is biracial, is walking down the street with her nerdy quote/unquote “nerdy white kids,” however she wants to describe them, at the same time, it doesn’t make it fair, she can’t explain away that, “oh yeah, the police officer approached my son first,” and it could be her other sons committing or doing whatever they want to or roughhousing and rabble rousing, you know all the things that teenagers do. I’m so old; it’s not even funny, when I talk about what teenagers do. I’m so old. So, it’s more likely the officer is biased, not smart, and because the statistics are against us because we don’t have all the information sometimes.  

Simcha: Thank you, that was a very illuminating answer. I think we’ll continue right on through her speech. After she says it would make the police officers smart, it doesn’t make her angry, that her biracial son is more likely to be profiled, she says “what makes me angry is why, why are the statistics the way they are? I believe that the primary reason we see a lot of the illness in our society today is because of fatherlessness particularly in Black homes. 70% of Black homes were without fathers,” she said. Eric, I think you had a response to that?

Eric: Yeah. I think first when you start to talk about people’s “culture,” we have to look at it from its wholeness, right, we’ve got to try to get the biggest picture we can, right.

So, with African American culture, it doesn’t start in 1960. Technically the birth of the nation was 1776, we were here before that. So, 1776. So, you can start grading our culture and look at evaluating our culture from 1776 onward. I’m not going to go all the way to 1776, but let’s just look at post-Civil War, 1865 on up.

I think before we can get into the statistics she was talking about, I want to make sure we as Black people know what our culture is so we don’t have to allow another person who’s looking at statistics to tell us what our culture is, that’s not good. And if anybody needs to get a handle on the statistics, it’s us.

So, Thomas Sowell, he’s an economist and professor at Stanford University, an African American man; he’s about 90 years old, so he’s got some experience, wrote about 30 books regarding the Black family. I’m going to quote from his book. The name of his book, for anybody that cares, is The Vision of the Anointed: Self Congratulation as A Basis for Social Policy. On page 104, he says “going back 100 years which is just one generation out of slavery, you find that the census data of the area shows that it is slightly higher percentage of Black adults had married than had white adults. This in fact had remained true in every census from 1890-1940. Prior to 1890, this information was not included in the census.”

He goes on to say that “slavery has separated people but it had not destroyed the family feelings they had for each other, much less their desire to form families after they were free. As late as 1950, 72% of all Black men and 81% women had been married, but the 1960 census showed the first signs of decline that accelerated in 30 years.” And so get to 1960 all the sudden things start to change for, I guess, the unity of the Black family, and I’m going to lead into it, and then at a certain point Alessandra can chime in, so like in 1929 we experienced the Great Depression; in 1935 President Roosevelt and members of the Congress came up with the New Deal, and the New Deal put in place the first programs that we consider welfare.

So, a lot of the states had pretty much responsibility just deciding those stipulations or limits or criteria that people had to meet to qualify for welfare assistance. A lot of these states enacted rules that essentially discouraged the man from being in the home.

When we go from 1935 to 1960s, actually to 1964, President Lyndon Baines Johnson expanded the welfare programs or added to the welfare programs that President Roosevelt had instituted. He put a lot more money into them as well. Many states had a lot more to spend, presumably on people that needed it the most, but these states and local agencies still had on the books laws that discouraged males from being in the home, for instance those “man in the house” laws, basically if the head of the family was given assistance, let’s say a woman, and it was known to the agency that there was only supposed to be one person there, they would conduct spontaneous visits to make sure no man was there.

And so in response to this, a lot of participants in this program made sure, and a lot of the men themselves, made sure that they weren’t there, so they could continue getting government funding and whatnot. Laws or rules such as that, speaking as a man, that has a lasting effect, not just on the children or the woman but among men, knowing he can never be there to see his children, to raise his children, to be there with his wife. And what the statistics don’t capture is that psychological emotional effect on men and in children and women. That’s what statistics do not capture.

And so, we have to like, statistics are really good, in measuring a lot of things but they don’t capture the full picture, and we need to realize that about statistics. And what happens is that we have children growing up without a father from infancy, from 5-6-7, into adulthood, their vision of a father is absent, so they grow up exactly doing what their father did, which is not be there, and that kind of perpetuates a cycle. So, what I call that, that’s not Black culture. That’s not Black culture. In my opinion, it was an attack on the family; in my opinion, I call that cultural vandalism.

I’m not saying that those people who practice this behavior are at heart/ in essence vandals; no, they are made in the image and likeness of God, but that behavior is a vandalization. Meaning that, vandals, what they do, vandals don’t create; they take what’s already there and they find a way to deface it. Our culture has always been a desire for the family. Like I quoted from the book, even after slavery, men and women wanted to get together to form families; that’s just in our blood, and I think that’s not just in our blood; that’s just inherent within most individuals, to want to build a family, to have children, to raise them.

So, it’s not correct to say our culture is one that discourages family, but there’s a vandalistic mentality that has spawned from a racist outlook on Black individuals. Alessandra, do you want to chime in?

Alessandra: I’m going to let Simcha move onto the next question, but I did just want to add to what you’re saying about that time, in the 60s and 70s, we have to look to how communities of color were moving to more urban areas, and that’s when white flight was happening. So, you had people in communities of color where the money and the resources were fleeing the communities.

So, you had a lot of African Americans and especially African American males, who no longer had the ability to get a job, and Black male unemployment is still the highest in the country. So, you had people who were having trouble getting a job; you had schools that to this day are completely underfunded. So it’s hard to work your way up in a system when you don’t even have the basics being met at your school so you can get a degree, and even to this day Black people are more likely to have to drop out of college because of student debt and not being able to afford a college education. And I’m going to talk a little bit more about the statistics, but I’m going to let Simcha go back to the video.

Simcha: So, the next part of the video that she recorded she says “70% of Black homes were without Black fathers. Fatherhood initiatives, their voices had really been silenced, and I started wondering why. I found out what happened,” she said, “there were these activists in the Black community who were trying to redefine what Black fatherhood is and this is what made me angry. This is what should make the Black community angry. There are studies out there that are trying to redefine Black fatherhood. The 70% number is a lie because Black fatherhood looks different from white fatherhood that Black fatherhood actually does look like a Black man coming in and out of the home not being consistent presence in the home and that vision of fatherhood is the equivalent of white father being consistently in the home. Black fathers do not get a pass just because it is culturally different, just because it is Black fathers don’t want to be in the home, and culturally it has been acceptable for them to be with multiple women. That is racism,” she says. “But that is what is happening in research institutions right now.”

I’m sorry, I just have to say I did ask her where she read these studies and she couldn’t remember.

“They are trying to redefine fatherhood because they don’t’ like that 70% statistic, so instead of setting the bar higher for Black fathers, they are simply redefining fatherhood in the Black community; that’s crap.”

Alessandra?

Alessandra: Well I’m going to only agree about one thing, that the 70% statistic is a lie, because statistically, and I’m going based on the Institute for Family Studies, which is a conservative think tank, and also if you look at the Black Family Statistics, they have similar numbers. 36% of Black families they are headed by married parents. 8% are headed by cohering parents, which means 44% of Black families have a Black male in the home and not to mention the Black single dad homes which is about 3%. So, the 70% is inaccurate, and people keep repeating that, and I hope we can stop because if you look at the statistics, that is incorrect.

What I wanted to talk about more than the statistic is the idea that the Black Lives Matter movement and that Black activists want to redefine what the Black family is. Even–I’m not even going to go onto the website of Black Lives Matter; I’m not going to talk about that specifically because the Black Lives Matter movement is more than just one organization and more than just one website’s mission statement.

But what people are talking about is that the nuclear family of a mother, father, and kids; traditionally the African American and African community believed that all the community raises a child, so not saying there’s not a mom and dad. There has to be a mom and dad to have a child, but saying that the mom and the dad are important, their children are important, and so are the aunties and the uncles and the grandma and the grandpa.

If you look at the African American family, to this day, data reveals there’s a huge gap between the finances of Black and whites. In 2020, it’s almost as wide as back in 1968 when the Fair Housing Act was passed, which was the response to centuries of unequal treatment of Blacks and whites in nearly every aspect of society and business. So, you still see today that less than 50% of Black households own their own homes compared to over 70% of white households, and you still see that Black people make less money and have tremendously less wealth than white families. And you still see that even a Black household headed by someone who has a college degree still has less wealth than household headed by a white person who only has a high school diploma.

So when we’re talking about the nuclear family, we’re saying  we don’t believe in the individualistic “I’m going to pull myself up by my bootstraps” and “only my husband and I are going to raise this child.” We believe that that’s not going to work for us when we don’t have that wealth, where maybe I can’t afford the best education and private tutors. I’m going to need to go to the community center that offers those programs. I’m going to need to ask my sister and my dad and my mom to help babysit my kid because I can’t afford a nanny. So, I feel like we’re saying is that we’re trying to strengthen the Black community, strengthen the moms, strengthen the fathers, strengthen the kids, strengthen everyone around us that makes us be able to excel in this culture, in this community, and around the world.

Simcha: One of the things that Abby did in her video was to speak directly to Black women. I was a little bit taken aback, to be honest with you. She said “Black women, you deserve better than that, you deserve a man that will be that will father a child with you and be in the home with you and your child, and second of all, your children deserve to have a father that is consistently in the home with their child. Black children do not deserve a lesser father simply because they are Black.” And Marcia, you brought up a really interesting question when we were talking about this earlier: you said, “what do you think there is to say about expectations for non-Black people adopting Black or biracial children? What do those children deserve from their adoptive parents?” What would you say about that?

Marcia: Well, I believe that when a Black or biracial child is adopted by a white family, like my son was, They deserve—basically you’re filling a need and filling a void in your heart. It’s two-way street.

Basically, the first thing you should be prepared to do is love this child just like if it were your child, your natural child. You don’t know how it’s going to turn out or what challenges it’s going to face.

But also recognizing that, one of the things I made sure of when we were making an adoption plan for our son was that, “please don’t ever say that you’re ‘colorblind.’ Please don’t ever say “I’m colorblind, we’re not racist.” Because you when you see my Black son, which is now their Black son, so our Black son, you are seeing that he comes with a set of challenges, that there’s already the cards are stacked against him in certain aspects and raising that child understanding that knowing that it is an injustice, not accepting it.

Every child deserves that. They deserve—especially little black boys deserve to know that there will be injustice and that itself is not okay, right, like their parents, they need to be– she needed to be able to say that she was going to fight for her son’s personhood and fight for justice in his life instead of accepting injustice, and I believe that parents of Black and biracial children that they should be prepared to do that. They should be prepared to fight for their children.

Just like if they were going to the school board, talking to a teacher about a grade they weren’t supposed to get or why didn’t so-and-so invite them to their party; they should be prepared to go to the mat for their child every time and don’t just accept that’s the way it is. And if you’re not prepared to accept that 24-7-365, do not adopt a child that is Black or biracial. If you’re not prepared to fight that fight every day, because you will fight that fight every day; that’s what a child deserves.

A child deserves parents who love them and will fight for them. That’s real. And that’s really at the base of everything else. All the other stuff will come, right? There are conversations that need to be had. My son’s dad and I we had to kind of tag team about having that talk about racial injustice. Oh it’s an open adoption, I don’t know if we talked about, it’s an open adoption that I’m in, so I get to be a part of my son’s life. And at first, I was like, “I can be open, cards and letters, fine, whatever,” and they’re like, “no, we’re going to have a Black child, you really need to be there.”

And that’s what they did to make sure to fight for him in that instance, because they weren’t going to be able to recognized racism necessarily until I brought it to their attention. They weren’t going to be able to recognize injustice that he might face and so they’re like “no, no, you need to be here, you need to be involved,” and so we did tag team and have the talk.

He just got his driver’s license so we had the “get pulled over–hands on the dashboard”, you know what I mean, all those things, because they’re ready to fight for him, and I think that my son has an amazing support system because of that. And it breaks my heart to believe that any other child may not have that.

And every, every child deserves to have a parent that will fight for them, but a child in a transracial adoption deserves to have someone who is prepared to fight for them. That’s how I feel. 

Simcha: Thank you. We have one last section from the transcript from Abby’s video that I was hoping that you could respond to. Towards the end she says “if Black America wants to start rioting and talking about something, this is it, this is it. Our prisons are disproportionately filled with Black men because of this 70% statistic. Mark my words, it’s not because of bad cops, it’s because of bad dads. 70% of these dads are walking out on their babies. You want to end what’s happening in these Black communities, don’t try to redefine Black fatherhood. The root is not with bad cops, the root starts in the home.” 

Andrea: Okay so in regards to that statement, I think we need to go farther back, and I’m talking ‘all the way to slavery’ back, because the root of separation starts when families were split apart due to slavery. The master would sell the mother to one place and the father to another place, and that cycle has perpetuated itself.

The way it’s perpetuated itself now is that we see the mass incarceration of Black men, right, and we see the two-sided ness of the incarceration when a Black man is incarcerated for 20 years on  a petty crime but a white man will be let off with probation or a warning for that crime, and his records are sealed. So, we have to look at that.

Then we have to look at the side that a lot of Black fathers don’t even make it home to their children because they are murdered. For example Malcolm X’s father was killed when he was 5 or 6 years old, supposedly from a street car accident. We have Medgar Evers getting out of his car in his driveway to come home to his children, he is shot down by Byron De La Beckwith. We have Dr. King in town for a union strike, he is shot on a hotel balcony. If we want to make it more relevant for our generation, I live in New York, so Sean Bell, killed on his wedding day, left behind an infant child. Who else, let me see? We have Eric Garner, left behind 2 daughters, strangled to death, and then we have George Floyd, whose daughter broke all of our hearts when she said, “you know my dad’s going to change the world.”

I think the most amazing thing about Black fatherhood is that through all of this, through all the struggles, through all the dichotomy in the American justice system, through all the people saying that Black men aren’t good fathers; Black men are some of the best fathers we’ve ever had, because when the chips are down, they’ve been there.

When people have told us, you can only go so high, our fathers have helped us break the ceiling. Our fathers have sat at the head of our tables; our fathers have been on television showing us that even when the world is against you, you keep going, and that is something that Ms. Johnson’s statement failed to take into account. 

Simcha: We’ve gotten through most of the transcripts that we have from Abby’s speech. Toward the end of it when I interviewed her, I asked if her if the pro-life movement in America has a racism problem, and she thought for a minute and she said, “racism exists.” So, I guess I’d like to ask you the same question. Do you think the pro-life movement has a racism problem? 

Marcia: Yes, absolutely it does. The pro-life movement, it’s very clear that they only think, and I mean I’m making a generalization– I will fully admit that– I feel the pro-life movement only insists racism exist in the womb. And they want to talk about Planned Parenthoods only being in predominantly Black neighborhoods and they’re like “that’s awful,” but they’re not thinking about how their mindsets and policies that they vote into place and the way that they continue to villainize Black fathers and Black culture affect our lives out of the womb.

There was a video I saw on Instagram, my sister sent it to me, people were driving home and there were pro-life protesters outside of a Planned Parenthood right after the George Floyd was murdered, and they were saying and their sign literally said “More George Floyds will die here today than on the Street.” And the woman was like “the what?” That’s what she said. She’s like, “that’s the real problem, that’s what you should be upset about.” It’s that whataboutism we get when we want to say Black Lives Matter, but they go “what about Planned Parenthood? what about this?”

They are trying to deflect, and because they don’t want to deal. I presume they don’t want to deal with the whole person after they are born. I firmly believe once a Black child is born, that is when we need the pro-life movement even more. We need you to vote in polices that help mothers, policies that are able to abolish those laws like the “man in the house” laws, because that still exists, right now it still makes more fiscal sense to not be married to the father of your children if you are struggling in the Black community; it makes sense. Because you’re more likely to struggle when you’re married because your government benefits will be cut; it’s less food stamps, less everything. And that is frustrating.

So pro-lifers aren’t there for that, and I absolutely believe it’s because racism exists. They already have an idea about us in the mind, and it’s—someone said to me once, a friend of mine. She’s Black, and she said, “I don’t understand why you’re pro-life,” and I was like because “you know, everyone needs to live and everyone needs to get what they need.” She goes, “Issue is that it seems like pro-lifers only want us; they don’t want to kill us in Planned Parenthood because to want to be able to kill us in the street whether it’s a death slowly death by starvation or if it’s death by cops.”

The pro-life movement absolutely has a racism problem. I don’t think, just like this country, the pro-life movement was not built for me right now as I am.

America wasn’t built for Black people; it was built by Black people, let’s be real. But the pro-life movement wasn’t built for Marcia at 40 years old, right. Me in the womb, my 17-year-old mom, absolutely. But now as I am, they don’t care about my spirit or my wellbeing. And you know what, here I am still fighting for life because I know it’s the right thing to do. 

Simcha: Thank you. There’s an even more discouraging question, maybe. Your thoughts on whether the Catholic church in general has a racism problem. 

Andrea: Okay so I’ll preface it this way. The racism problem in the Catholic Church. It’s like the house is on fire, and there are people in the house that’s on fire, and people outside the house are trying to say, “hey your house is on fire,” but the people in the house are like, “no, it’s not.”

So, the Catholic Church– the word Catholic comes from the Greek word for universal– but the American Catholic church has grown alongside this country. We would be kidding ourselves if we said the American sector of the Catholic Church didn’t have a racism problem, and I’ll tell you why. Because the same people that built those racist same institutions that believed that Black people were 3/5 of a person, they were the same people that built the Catholic church, they brought in those prejudices with them. They were the same people who forced native Americans to give up their culture, change their names, attend these Indian boarding schools to rehabilitate them and make them more European. These were the same people that refused to ordain Black priests so that the Venerable Tolton had to go to Italy to seminary. These are the same people that denied Black nuns the opportunity to become novices in their orders so they had to create their separate orders.

The thing that makes it worse is that a lot of Catholics do not know this information because we teach the faith but we don’t teach the history, and because we don’t teach the history, it perpetuates on and on and on. So, the same stereotypes perpetuate on and on.

I bet you a lot of Catholics in America do not know that the reason why there are so many Black parishes in certain dioceses is because when Black families moved to the area in places through historical periods like the Great Migration and they wanted to go to the neighborhood parishes, the neighborhood parishes said “we don’t want any n-words in our parish.” So, they would send them to parishes in the Black part of town that were underfunded and ill prepared. Then you also have the parishioners the communities, those racist parishioners who did not want Black parishioners in their parish. There’s a reason why Malcolm X said the most segregated hour in America is 11:00 on a Sunday morning. And we still have that.

Then, nowdays we have a specific religious movement that worships in a specific form of the Mass, which is a beautiful form of the Mass, but it is built on the idea that if you are not this, if you don’t meet this condition, this condition, this condition, you’re not Catholic enough. For a lot of us, I can’t relate to that. I grew up in the Caribbean. We didn’t have organs. Have you ever seen what happens to an organ at 95-degree weather with 100% humidity? It warps! So, we had to create our own traditions, but it doesn’t make it any less Catholic.

The key problem with the racism in the American Catholic church is that it’s predicated upon the idea of whiteness and it will always have that problem unless we do something, because guess what, the majority of the world’s Catholics; they’re not white. 

Simcha: That being the case, if this is your experience of the Catholic Church, what is it that keeps you coming back? 

Eric: Thank you for the question. Simply put, what keeps me coming back? Primarily the Eucharist.

But let me say this first. I think a lot of African Americans and enslaved in the slave times saw this same story in the Exodus and Moses how the Hebrews 400 years being enslaved, God came to their salvation. As a Catholic it’s hard; life here in this nation’s hard; and as a Black Catholic, it’s even harder because everything that’s been said already, but if you look at the story of Christ, it was not an easy life. He had 12 apostles; 11 of his apostles were martyred.

I think when you study Scripture, you just accept the fact that being Catholic, and at the time the Hebrews, the Jews, living in the Roman Empire, they were looked down upon because their culture. I find myself in the same situation today, but that doesn’t mean I have a right to turn my back on the Church that Christ founded. I have to accept this fight. I think we’re all born here for a reason, not by happenstance. God willed us into existence for times like this, to fight the good fight. And fighting the good fight means suffering, but because you suffer, you don’t abandon the fight. You stand for the Cross; you stand by the Cross of Christ. That’s how I approach it.

So, what can we say, what keeps me coming back, there’s nowhere else for me to go. This is the truth. [Amen]

Also, how do we make progress? The thing Alessandra said on her video, is prayer and fasting, that’s always worth prayer and fasting, and after that comes action.

So before the quarantine, what I would do is go to different churches in the city, some on the southside because I was primarily going to churches on the southside, and then I would go to predominantly white churches because I just wanted to see how they did things differently, I just wanted to get a feel for the community, things like that. We have to find ways to build camaraderie with one another, to the point where we start asking each other over to each other’s houses. I’m telling my people with different ethnicities and cultures, alright, so I think white parishioners should visit a Black parish, try to build some relationships, you know, try to get involved in some of those ministries, and vice versa, to the point where you can start inviting people over to dialogue.

Because just like there’s a Theology of the Body, there’s also a theology of food, and I think that really helps break down ignorance, because a lot of people, I would call racist, not because I think they hate me, although there are people who hate me because of the color of my skin. I think some are racist because they’re just racially ignorant, and so I think eating with one another, doing things with one another, helps break down that ignorance and helps us understand one another better so that one side does not think the other side is just trying to be the victim all the time, you know. I think that’s one particular way we can do that. Did you want to go onto your next question, because I can just keep talking, I can go right to it.

Simcha: I guess it kind of leads into it. I was wondering if there was a time when, I mean, we’ve been talking about all the problems we have and all the issues you deal with. I was wondering if there was a time you could share when you really did feel a fully seen member of the Catholic Church.

Eric: So, as I was stating, I would visit certain parishes on a random Sunday when I had time. There’s a parish—I’m going to mention this parish’s name because I had a good experience—St. Josephat on the north side of Chicago [Marcia nods and smiles]—Oh it’s you? Okay, you know this was actually the second time there the first time I was there I was trying to help.

I’m with another organization called the Camino Project, long story short we send young Catholics on pilgrimages. So, the first time I was there, I was talking to the priest. I was trying to see if they could help us out with a certain fundraiser. It fell through, but one day it came to me, you know what, that church it looks very interesting, let me attend at the Mass, okay.

So, I went to the Mass there, and the time came for the homily, and the priest there was a white priest. He started to talk about something that Andrea alluded to, how he used to work in the Black community. It was actually half Black and half white, and the priest went on to say how the Black people would go to mass but would be treated like second citizens of the mass, had to sit in certain spots had to be the last to receive the Eucharist. Then he went on to say that one of the Black parishioners approached the head priest about it, and the priest rebuked her, said she was being selfish and things like that.

So, one day that lady just stopped going to Mass. And he went onto explain that this is what a lot of times racism does, right. When you treat a fellow person like that, Catholic or not, you kind of help them lose their faith. And he went on to say that’s something worse, said we need to check ourselves as people, find out where our faults are at, repent of our faults, and do what we can to do better, because no person, especially at a Catholic at Mass, should be treated like that regardless of color of that person’s skin.

And so, I was happy I came that day. It was just a random day and it was not Black history month; it was on his heart. It was one of his experiences. His experience was hearing this woman’s story of her experience. And eventually she started going back to Mass again and receiving the Eucharist.

I felt appreciated by it because I didn’t think the homily was said because it was expected, right. It was just– so Black history month, I expect to see people honoring Black history, but this was just totally out of the blue. And I felt appreciated because from that time on I knew that experience was in his heart and mind, and it changed him, and I know that wherever he’s at now, he’s preaching that same homily somewhere else, he might still be at St. Josephat. But I felt appreciated that day. Oh, for sure, I mean I felt everybody was looking at me, but they weren’t. I was just kind of like, oh, I’m just a Black person here on this day that he says this. 

Simcha: Thank you for sharing that. Is there anything else that any of you would like to share that you feel that your fellow Catholics, that white Catholics ought to know about the experience of being a Black Catholic?

Alessandra: We’re in a group with hundreds of Black Catholics, and I actually posed the question to people because my experience as a Black Catholic is very different from every other Black Catholic’s experience. And that’s one of the things that we, a lot of people express, that there’s Black Catholics spanning the continents, there’s Black Catholics all over the place, and we all worship differently and have different traditions, but we all have a relationship with Jesus Christ and we believe in the Eucharist and we believe in the Church.

So even though we all have different experiences and different traditions and different ways we worship and different parishes, that we all want to be seen as the body of Christ, and we all want to be recognized as being made in the image and likeness of God, but with that being said, like Marcia had said earlier, people want to have white Catholics see their Blackness.

And as a writer, in fiction, the default is white, so unless you say this character has brown skin, you’re going to assume that character is white. So too, if you say I don’t see color, you’re defaulting to the white experience. So, when we say we’re Black Catholics, it doesn’t take away our Catholicism at all but it acknowledges our culture and our traditions and our skin color and everything that encompasses. 

Simcha: Well, I’m wondering if I should rephrase my final question in light of what you just said, but I’m just going to go ahead and ask it and you can change my question and answer a different question if you’d rather. Is there anything you would like from white Catholics in particular, understanding of course that white Catholics are not a monolith any more than Black Catholics are, is there something that you would request or that you would hope for?

Marcia: Actually, I just talked to someone about this recently, just say “welcome” when we walk into your parish. Don’t make me earn my spot there.

I feel that– so I sing at church, I’m a cantor at the masses hereat church, and I have a very pretty singing voice. Like that’s a fact, it’s not like “oh, I’m so great.” But I know that if I want to feel welcome in a church, all I have to do is sit next to an old white lady and sing out of the hymnal, and then someone will talk with me at the sign of peace, and then if I don’t, it’s awkward. I feel that not making me earn my spot in the church is a huge way to actually welcome me in the church, because guess what, I’ve been a member of this church for 20 years. I’m here, whether you welcome me into this building or not, and I think just saying “hey welcome”—don’t tokenize me.

It’s funny how—Eric you mentioned St. Josephat. I used to live in Lincoln Park, I lived in Lincoln Park neighborhood in Chicago for about 5 years, and St Jospehat was where I went to mass on Sunday nights. I really enjoyed the mass there. I enjoyed is so much there because I was welcome right away all the time. And I didn’t realize that was it was until I started going to masses other places where I would walk in, they would say “welcome,” I would get this “do you want to bring up the gifts?” I would say “absolutely,” and then one day, I don’t know if it was the usher or someone heard me sing, and he’s like “oh my gosh, I have been trying to figure out how to get you to come back here more times, and now you just need you to join the choir, that’s how we get you to come back here!”

And I just thought it was that they were already, they like wanted me there, I always felt like I was wanted there. Like seriously, just saying “welcome,” I know that sounds crazy because you’re just like “Welcome, we’re Catholic; we welcome everyone.’ That is not true. I feel like an exhibit when I come to mass; people always kind of watch to make sure I know what to do.

I had someone in Mass tell me “now honey, this is where we stand,” and I’m like, I’m a legit catechist; I’m a youth minister. I know what I’m supposed to do.” But the people with the small Catholic microaggressions, like “wow, you knew everything?” I’m like, “I am Catholic. I grew up in Chicago, where if you want a good education, you’re more likely to go to Catholic school. So, I knew this before I became Catholic.”

So just treat us like any other Catholic, but also acknowledging our Blackness in that moment, knowing that, just like you would a Black person acknowledging that their skin comes with stuff, right, our skin comes with baggage, but we’re here to share the faith with you.

So I feel that sometimes—you know there’s that song “we are one body, one body in Christ” that we do not stand alone. I feel sometimes as a Black Catholic, I know that we are one body in Christ, but often I feel that I am standing alone when I enter a predominantly white Catholic space.

Even, I was a youth minister in a moderately sized town in Indiana for about 3 years, and the first weekend that I was in church there, I did not feel welcomed. And I was asked to, they were one Eucharistic minister short because I was going to introduce myself at all of the masses, and I was like “I can do it, it’s fine, just tell me where to stand. I can give them the Cup.” Where there was an older couple, and they looked at me like they were suspect, like the man just looked at me like, who are you with this Cup. Right? They didn’t have to know anyone at this mass, because it’s the Catholic church; you don’t know everyone who goes there, but they saw me and the wife went to go up to get the cup, and I was ready. And he yanked her back and just gave me this look, and then they went back to their pew.

And I was just like, I’m so glad I’m here to minister to all the racist kids. No, they weren’t all, they really, it turned out to be a fantastic experience, but I will never forget that day. I will never forget that Sat night mass when even though he didn’t know anybody else as a Eucharistic minister, they definitely, I don’t know what they thought I did to the church wine. I was really upset because I was like, I’m going to have to finish this nasty wine but that’s what really happened. I had to finish—church wine is gross, y’all.

That’s what it was, I don’t feel welcome until I earn my spot, and I shouldn’t have to earn my welcome in the Catholic church. It’s a Catholic church.

Simcha: Okay, all right, thank you so much everybody, thank you so very much for sharing your time and your experiences, and I’m hoping that this is the beginning of conversations for people and not, just that people will listen to it and try and really hear what you’re saying but that it will spark some more conversations in our homes and in our parishes. All right. Thank you everybody. 

 

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17 thoughts on “Black Catholics respond to Abby Johnson”

  1. Dear Ms Fisher:
    This was interesting but I would have liked for your participants to esay wether Black Lives Matters is truly helpful for Black Communities. My position is that Catholics have no business supporting the organization under that name. Their mission statement is very clearly against the nuclear family and pro LGBTQ. Bishops in Tacoma, St. Louis and San Francisco have condemned it and the attending movement. In the violence and lack of policing resulting this past weekend eight black children were killed. Well meaning Catholics like yourself give cover to hoodlums attacking history and the Saints as well as Baptist Churches. As a Catholic in a mixed marriage I worry about my “ white” children being deemed racist by their mere existence. As a minority I meet racism everyday and I brush it off and I will tell my children to rise above it too. However, this movement has been called by real activists who do the work as ‘empty’, a tool for power. It is nothing but a mere idol, like feminism or capitalism. Encouraging others to get involved in this is doing the devil’s work. Our job as Catholics is to fast and pray for our own consciences when in doubt. As the woman in that protest told you, “Why aren’t you praying?”

    1. I’m one of the participants in the video. Covering BLM isn’t our job. Us being Black does not automatically mean we have to defend them. The video was made because Abby Johnson justified the hideous idea that her son should be racially profiled because his skin color meant he was more likely to be a criminal. THAT is what we focused.

    2. And also, don’t tell us how we should deal with racism. We don’t have to accept mistreatment because you’ve swallowed the poison. Jesus used the whipcords outside the temple for a reason.

  2. Thanks for this discussion. I appreciate that Abby shared her thoughts from her perspective and you took the time to respond based on your own experiences. This is the kind of dialogue we need! And honestly I appreciate Abbys video because unless we have the courage to say where we’re coming from it’s hard to learn. Most white people I know are afraid to say anything honest about what they really think because they’re afraid of being called a racist. So it’s these conversations where people are being honest about what they have been lead to think bc of what they see on the news, what they’ve been subliminally taught, what they’re “white” perspective is, it’s hard to change a mindset and be corrected! I learned a lot — thanks to panel for sharing and Simcha for setting it up.

  3. This panel has a very entitled mindset. Instead of asking what others can do for you, ask what you can do for others.

  4. If black men commit crimes at the same rate as white men and the disparity in incarceration is due to greater policing and prosecution, then black neighborhoods are the safest places in the country, much safer than white neighborhoods where white criminals are rarely arrested and prosecuted. If black neighborhoods aren’t far safer than white neighborhoods then these interviewees are, unfortunately, liars.

  5. Thank you so much to all of the panelists and to Simcha for sharing this discussion. The issue of racism in the pro-life movement and in the Church has deeply frustrated me for years. I am so glad that it is becoming possible to have a more open and public conversation about this. I found this dialogue very insightful on many levels and I hope a lot of people read it/ watch it!

  6. Marcia, I enjoy your enthusiasm.
    Just one technicality – when you’re an Extraordinary Minister of the Eucharist the Cup contains The Precious Blood, as at the Consecration it no longer is merely the church wine♡
    I would like to attend Mass in a Church of predominantly black people and other people of color♡

  7. Also, how have I not heard about Plaid Skirts & Basic Black!?!? Listening to the Confirmation episode now and really loving it. Such a good resource and so interesting.

  8. Great and important discussion! Thanks for hosting your guests and for their openness to discussing Abby’s disheartening video.

    I hope that Abby Johnson listens to your conversation, in addition to many other Catholics.

  9. Thank you to you and your guests for engaging in such a thoughtful way. The conversation was very helpful and this is exactly the kind of thing I hope will continue. I really appreciated their perspectives and their willingness to engage these questions without the hostility that I’ve come across in so many other instances when racism is the topic.

    I want to add to the conversation by sharing my thoughts on one portion of the dialogue. One of your guests addressed the question of racism in the prolife movement by relating that she doesn’t think the prolife movement cares about her after she’s born, because of the lack of support for policies that would provide for funding, and so yes, she says, the prolife movement has a racism problem. This is an area that should be discussed more, because there are many reasons why people like myself lack confidence in the government funding programs that are proposed. Your guests actually hit on one of them; that is, these programs frequently include unfair requirements and have ideological goals in mind that can do significant harm to families (they mentioned this in relation to fathers being encouraged to not be in the home). My own mother (a white woman) was a victim of a program that was intended to help lower-income, at-risk pregnant women. She was given pregnancy care but also coerced into having an IUD implanted, to reduce the likelihood of “her irresponsible behavior” resulting in another out-of-wedlock baby. She was intimidated by her doctor into believing that she would not be able to access additional care and that she might not be able to leave the hospital with her baby if she did not comply. That IUD migrated ( perforated her organs and moved to another area of her body) and caused her years of suffering that went untreated although she had complained, (because her doctors didn’t believe her due to their prejudice against her for being a young unwed mother, they actually told her this). To this day there are programs, globally, that are similar to the one my mother endured. I can’t speak for the whole prolife movement but I want your guest to know that my reasons for not supporting some of these govt. funding programs are not based on any malice, but rather it results from my own life experiences and seeing the suffering of my mother. I would also like her to know that during my years of involvement with prolife issues, I have personally taken to prayer and have advocated on behalf of black women and “born”children needing medical care. I want her to know that I do care and I’m glad she was willing to share her thoughts, because this type of communication is really helpful.

    1. Thank you for this really thoughtful comment. I think it’s a shame that things have become so polarized in this country that we don’t even really have “policy” conversations anymore — the disagreements are rarely about HOW to accomplish an agreed-upon good, but rather about what that good thing is. I would say, however, that if you’re a white person who has a non-racist reason for opposing the kind of measures you mentioned, then you really have to be loudly anti-racist in all of your interactions with the world. Does that make sense?

    2. I should add, that mine isn’t a lack of support for programs across the board. What typically happens, for me, is that I tend to not have confidence in the sweeping agenda driven proposals at the federal level, but locally, we end up supporting lots of proposals ( funding for schools, libraries, social services, health services, food support, etc). This means our county and city tax rates are higher than many, but we have pretty good services that have local oversight. The main urban center in our county does benefit from this. Ironically, the recent destructive protests that have occurred have many businesses and residents vowing to leave the downtown area. It’s sad because that area had been experiencing a lot of growth and revitalization.

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