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State of Race at UD: Perspective from history, Catholicism

11:35 AM  Mar 10th, 2016
by Una M. Cadegan ’82

Text from a presentation by Una M. Cadegan, associate professor in the Department of History, given Jan. 26, 2016, during the Symposium on the State of Race at UD.


Good afternoon. My name is Una Cadegan. I have taught at UD, mostly in the history department, since 1987, and I am also an alumna of the university.

I am honored to be asked to speak today as part of the opening of this symposium. I will make two brief points as a historian, a cultural historian of US Catholicism, and then make a final observation more as a Christian, a Catholic Christian formed by long association with Marianist education.

First point: the history of the Catholic Church in America with regard to race is partly admirable and partly shameful. We could go a long way back, and talk, for example, about Catholic slaveholders in colonial Maryland. But even if we concentrate on the more recent past, we can see both things to admire and things to be ashamed of. In the photographs of the marches of the modern civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s, we often highlight the priests and religious sisters and brothers who marched in their Roman collars and their habits, advocating for racial justice. We Catholics are proud of them, as we should be. We hold them up as examples of the best of our tradition, which is what they are.

But we also know that many of the people opposing civil rights for African Americans, especially in the cities of the north, were also Catholic. White urban ethnics—and I am very aware that I am talking in some cases about the parents and grandparents and great-grandparents of people in this very room—opposed integration in their neighborhoods, then sold their homes and moved to the suburbs, then participated in political movements and political decisions that made sure that the policies that had made their own assimilation and social mobility possible were unavailable to the new citizens of the city centers of the urban north. And many, many of these voters and their political leaders were also Catholic. This is a failure that is still affecting our society and our church today, and we have not yet really begun to grapple with it.

So that’s the first point—we have not yet truly begun to face the whole truth of the extent to which Catholicism was complicit with racism in the very recent past—a past so recent it shapes the present in direct, tangible, measurable ways.

My second point is related, but briefer. When these issues are raised among white Catholics (not only among Catholics, but that’s my focus here today), one response that often comes up is: well, Catholics were also discriminated against, and look at us now. We’re fine. If we did OK, then whatever is the problem with African Americans must be their fault, not the fault of the discrimination.

If you are tempted toward that argument (and I understand the temptation), or if you know someone who has made it (and I think we all do), let me just say very clearly—it does not work. The differences between anti-Catholicism and anti-black racism in the US, at every point where we can make the comparison, are more crucial for the present moment than the similarities. This is not a historically defensible way out of our need to face the truth about Catholicism and racism in the US, in the deep past, the recent past, and in the present.

Which brings me to my third point. Christians do not need to fear the truth. We all know the present moment is difficult, contentious, and often ugly—but I can’t avoid the feeling that is it also graced. Something is moving that is different from anything I can remember. We might, as those formed by Marianist educational purposes, call it a sign of the times. We might, as Christians, call it the Spirit. But make no mistake about it, we are being summoned to respond. Here, in this place, dedicated to knowledge and service, but for so long so, so separate from our neighbors across the river in the city whose name we took on nearly a century ago. As I’ve heard and read in several places recently—if you ever wondered what you would have done during the Civil Rights movement, now is your chance to find out. As a historian, it is my job to see clearly just how deeply racism is intertwined with the history of this country. But as a Christian, I have to believe what our president said last week in his State of the Union address, quoting Dr. King: “Unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word.” Let’s try it and find out.

Some resources for further reading:

Bishop Edward K. Braxton (Diocese of Belleville, IL), “The Racial Divide in the United States: A Reflection for the World Day of Peace, 2015” (available at www.usccb.org).

Shawn T. Copeland, LaReine-Marie Mosely, and Albert Raboteau, Uncommon Faithfulness: The Black Catholic Experience (Orbis Books, 2009).

Bryan N. Massingale, Racial Justice and the Catholic Church (Orbis Books, 2010)

John McGreevy, Parish Boundaries: The Catholic Encounter with Race in the Twentieth Century Urban North (University of Chicago, 1996).

United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Research Report Commemorating the 25th Anniversary of “Brothers and Sisters to Us,” US Bishops’ Pastoral Letter on Racism (2004; available at www.usccb.org).

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