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Program unearths, heals racism


Most Americans would probably deny being white supremacists. It’s a label associated with the Ku Klux Klan and their latter-day counterparts, skinheads.

Precious Blood Fr. Clarence Williams thinks most Americans are wrong. Americans fail to recognize that they are white supremacists, he believes, because the attitude is so deeply rooted as to constitute the very backbone of our culture.

Williams, who heads the Office for Black Catholic Ministries for the Detroit archdiocese, has developed a “Recovery from Racism” program to help people, black and white, to examine their own negative racial attitudes and move beyond them. The program, in its fourth year, borrows techniques from 12-step programs.

Martin Luther King Day, 2002, Williams said, is an appropriate time for local communities to sponsor such a program on a continuing basis, as several organizations, including Catholic Charities USA, the National Black Clergy Caucus, the National Federation of Priests’ Councils, Bread for the World and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, have done. The program is in place in about 15 dioceses and archdioceses, he said.

Williams points out that 2002 marks the 500th anniversary of the year the first enslaved African arrived in the Caribbean, setting the stage for racial conflict throughout the hemisphere.

According to a statement issued by the National Black Catholic Clergy Caucus, the 1501 event preceded full-scale importation of Africans, which began in Spain in 1518. The statement’s purpose was to challenge people everywhere to repent of racism and take steps to overcome it.

Bill Waldmann, a deacon in the Detroit archdiocese and a Williams-trained facilitator, said of the program, “It’s a power tool to help us understand how we’ve been affected by racism. Most of us are not even aware of how we’ve been racialized. It’s part of us in ways we don’t recognize.”

Recovery, Waldmann said, “is a lifelong process.” But first, we all need intervention, he said. Like alcoholics who need to be jarred into recognizing that they need help, members of a sick society need gentle confrontation aimed at moving them from complacency to health.

To that end, Williams founded the Institute for Recovery from Racisms in Detroit. He has trained more than 50 facilitators in the Detroit area, 150 nationally, to offer workshops, using materials he’s refined over a decade.

As a black priest, Williams’ deepest personal concerns are over U.S. society’s black-white divide. The program, though, is applicable to all forms of racism, he said, whether the target is Asians, American Indians, or, following the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, toward Arabs and Muslims in our midst.

In addition to elements of 12-step programs, the program draws from Elisabeth Kubler Ross’s five stages of grief, laid out in her now-classic psychological study, Death and Dying. The stages are denial and isolation, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.

But Williams’ goal is hardly mere acceptance of racism. Rather, in the manner of 12-step programs, his program aims at inspiring people to live in new ways. Recovery begins with identifying one’s “dysfunctional behaviors” and identifying the benefits of change. So, beyond Kubler-Ross’ final stage of acceptance, Williams adds three stages of “racial sobriety.” He calls them reengagment, forgiveness and witness.

The workbook Williams has developed for the program -- a product of his doctorate dissertation -- is extensive and incorporates a variety of worksheets. It begins with a warning of discomforts, even dangers ahead. Those who enter the program and begin to change their lives “can be viewed as breaking taboos,” he said.

Workshops begin with a “Racial History Journal.” Participants are asked to write down memories of significant experiences involving persons of another race, starting with primary years and, by decades, moving onto the age they are today.

NCR attended a workshop last year at a parish in suburban Detroit. The reporter was paired up for a period of one-on-one discussion with a black man.

The reporter recalled her first serious negative impression: the racist language and fear exhibited by aunts and uncles when blacks moved into a neighborhood that had formerly been an enclave of European immigrants. Their fear took on new life when one of the uncles was killed in a robbery by a black man.

Her partner recalled attending a new, predominantly white school as a boy and being told by a teacher, “You don’t belong here.”

Rather than repress such memories as “racist,” it’s better to let them surface and deal with them, recognizing how they can develop into dysfunctional patterns, the program suggests.

“If I understand how my history makes it difficult for me to dialogue with a member of another race, at least I have a starting point,” Waldmann said. “I may work in a multicultural workplace, then go home to a homogenous neighborhood. So we move in and out of these frames. Our repertory of behaviors changes from work to home.”

“People want to preserve their innocence, so they become angry when someone points out their prejudice,” Williams said. Change begins “when we say, ‘I’m tired of this. Racism is not something I’m going to play along with anymore. I want to make a change.’ ”

“Once you accept the concept of racial sobriety, all our interactions change,” he said. “Think of President Truman, when he integrated the armed forces. He embraced racial sobriety when he did that. He did not wait for consensus” -- that is, for people to feel comfortable with the change, or to endorse it.

Detroit has been an excellent laboratory for such a program, Williams said. The city has one of the largest urban black populations, “70 percent of the city,” Williams said. The black Catholic population is also large: 30,000 of the city’s 1.3 million Catholics.

But Williams believes Catholic parishes everywhere are a good starting point for recovery because Catholics played a major role in shaping racial attitudes as they exist today, he said.

“Catholics and blacks from the South have defined racial relations in all the Northern major cities,” Williams said. “When blacks came from Alabama to the Midwest, the first people they interacted with were Catholic ethnic groups,” the people who made up the inner cities. “Blacks moved into their neighborhoods. They attended the schools, interacted with the police, the judges, and ultimately those interactions began to define the language of race in the North.”

Immigrants to U.S. cities were first identified as members of an ethnic group -- Irish-Catholics as opposed to Protestants, for example, he said, and only later as whites against black.

Pamela Schaeffer is the former managing editor of NCR.

Related Web sites

Institute for Recovery from Racisms

National Black Catholic Clergy Caucus

National Black Catholic Congress

National Black Catholic Evangelization Forum

Secretariat for African American Catholics

National Catholic Reporter, January 18, 2002