"That a white man and a black man could be friends had never occurred to me before." That's what segregation does to us.
Amid the cries of alarm in the wake of the tragic violence in Charlottesville, one unanswered question stands out: After all these years—all this bitterness and anguish and even bloodshed—what, if anything, can be done to end racism in the United States once and for all?
Court decisions, laws, programs, institutions and processes of many kinds already have been put in place targeting racial bigotry. Perhaps, though, we need even more of them. If so, let’s have them.
But there’s one solution that gets to the heart of the problem yet is often overlooked. It can’t be legislated or imposed by court order, but it’s essential just the same. It’s friendship.
I grew up in a segregated city—Washington, D.C.—at a time when racial separation was largely taken for granted. I still recall an incident from that time that suggests how racial matters stood. It happened in my fourth-year classroom in my all-white Jesuit high school. (In case you wonder, that school has long had a racially mixed student body—I’m talking about something that happened a long time ago.)
Several of my classmates got into a heated argument about segregation with our teacher, a young Jesuit scholastic. He argued that racial segregation was wrong. The kids argued that it was part of the natural order of things and therefore right. Listening, I realized that I agreed with the teacher. But it wasn’t something I felt very strongly about one way or the other.
A few years after that, one of the few professors at Georgetown, who socialized with students outside class, invited me to drop by his home for a chat. When I got there, I was surprised to find another guest—a young black man from the professor’s hometown in the Midwest. It soon became clear that the two of them were old friends.
I kept what I felt to myself, but I was astonished. The idea that a white man and a black man could actually be friends had simply never occurred to me before. Was that obtuseness on my part? Of course. That’s what living in a segregated environment does to you.
These days nobody would call Washington a segregated Southern town, but blacks and whites still mostly live in self-segregated neighborhoods, still often study, work and even worship in segregated settings. And as far as I can tell, black-white friendships remain the exception rather than the rule.
Back in 1958, the bishops who headed what was then called the National Catholic Welfare Conference (predecessor of today’s U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops) issued a statement entitled “Discrimination and Christian Conscience.” This was 10 years after Archbishop, later Cardinal, Patrick O’Boyle desegregated Washington’s parochial schools and four years after the Supreme Court in Brown v. Board of Education overturned public school segregation.
The NCWC statement made many good points, including the fact that Catholic immigrants had also been targets of discrimination in their day. But perhaps the statement’s most important point was that the great obstacle to ending racism lies in “hatred or even indifference.”
Friendship is the antidote to such sins of the heart. But friendship is impossible for people who don’t get to know one another and interact in settings conducive to making friends. Surely this is an area where the Church and the churches have something to offer. In the wake of Charlottesville, the U.S. bishops have set up a new Ad Hoc Committee Against Racism. Maybe the committee should give building friendship a look.