When Race Doesn’t Matter

Wilton Gregory
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It was only after I had begun Basic Training, courtesy of an offer from the U.S. Army I could not refuse, that I met my first black man. Well, maybe a dozen of them, actually. I felt an immediate rapport with them, owing to a sense of shared suffering. For those of you whom God may have spared, I am referring to nine nightmarish weeks spent slogging through the snow and the ice and the mud of Ft. Dix, New Jersey while demented Drill Sergeants screamed obscenities at us. And the closeness, of course, would only deepen once we got to Vietnam, where survival literally depended on the courage and decency of the soldiers I first trained with.   

But it never occurred to me that they were to be treated any differently than guys like me. In fact, I’ve never known guys like me, for which we can all be grateful.

Nor had it crossed my mind, then or now, to think of them as inferior in any way, or unable, therefore, to meet the usual standards set for the rest of us. Standards, by the way, never intended for whites only, as if the law written in the heart were somehow color conscious, but for every human being. Or that I, beneficiary of so-called white privilege, whatever the hell that means, was entitled to lord it over them. This was driven home to me quite vividly on the first day when, chosen Squad Leader for the absurd reason that I’d gone to college, it became instantly and hilariously obvious to everyone that I knew nothing about close order drill, much less about giving cadence calls to anyone in the Army. So, for the good of morale, I was quickly relieved of my ridiculous command and replaced by one of the black soldiers who certainly seemed to know what he was doing. 

Did I resent being rejected? Was my humiliation heightened by the fact that someone of color, to use today’s cant phrase, had taken my place at the front of the bus? Of course not. Besides, it allowed me more time to read, which I managed to do with great furtiveness while marching to and from the rifle range every day. As for the African-American who took over—which, by the way, was not a phrase anyone then used—he was delighted inasmuch as it allowed him to exercise his obvious skills as a leader. It wouldn’t surprise me if he’s running whole corporations now. 

I guess what I’m trying to say is that the age of race consciousness had not yet arrived. And isn’t that a good thing? It certainly is if you’re in a war where success turns not on skin color but skill-set and character. When you’re pinned down in the middle of a fire fight, everyone’s blood runs red.  

So, when did this race madness suddenly corner the market, co-opting everything else, including right reason and common sense? What happened between 1971, when I and thousands of other young men went to war, not giving a hang about whether our bunkmate hailed from Harlem or Harlan County, and 2021, when race has loomed so large and divisive an issue that we now seem to be at war with each other? When woke mobs shouting Black Lives Matter threaten anyone who dares to suggest that all lives matter, something is clearly out of joint.

It is against that backdrop of total fixation upon race that brings me to the interview I saw the other day with the Cardinal Archbishop of Washington, D.C., Wilton Gregory, and Al Roker of CBS news, both of whom are black. Now there was a time in America when that would not have mattered, but these days it seems as if nothing else does matter. And what was so dismaying about the exchange, the thing that has stayed disturbingly in the mind, was the fact that nearly every other word spoken was reducible to race, as though the two of them couldn’t imagine a day in America not spent in having to deal with the difficulties and dangers of being black. 

“I don’t know of any African American who hasn’t tasted the bitter cup of discrimination,” Gregory began. Then he added the usual disclaimer for highly positioned men of the cloth, stating that so long as he remains in uniform, wearing the prescribed ecclesiastical costume, “I’m treated with great respect and affection. But if I take off my clerics to go out, to go shopping or run an errand, I’m in the pool of every other African American in Washington.”

What does that mean? That black people in our nation’s capital are routinely subject to acts of discrimination? Including possible violence at the hands of white supremacists? Is this on the same scale as, say, the Jim Crow practices of yesteryear which men like Martin Luther King risked their lives to oppose? What exactly does the Cardinal Archbishop risk when, dressed in mufti, he chooses to run errands in the city? Are we really expected to take seriously a Prince of the Catholic Church telling us that every day he must reckon with a society deeply and racially flawed, indeed, a society whose racist ways are positively systemic?   

This is preposterous. In fact, it is so far from reality as to amount to a kind of mental illness. Surely what blacks living in our nation’s cities have most to fear is not racist white people conspiring to kill them, but other blacks, far too many of whom have been killing them for decades. At record numbers, too. It is not people living in black neighborhoods who demand that we defund the police, but Leftists living in safe suburbs.

But what is most disheartening, it seems to me, is the fact that here is Christ’s own Vicar, who is no ordinary Catholic struggling to love God and neighbor, but a chief shepherd sent by God himself to do the work of his divine Son. So, what does he do when given a microphone and an audience of millions? Does he talk about Jesus Christ, without whom we cannot even begin a dialogue on race? Or the Church He founded in order to bring a divided world to God? No, he speaks arrant nonsense about matters which, in the final scheme of things, do not matter. He tells us that the reason he’s the only black man to have risen so high in the American hierarchy is because of white bigotry: “It took so long because we’re still grappling with racism and exclusion. That’s still a part of the world in which we live.” 

But it is not part of that world, nor has it been for some time now. And where the love of Christ is made present to men and women of whatever race, it never will be. This is what we need to hear from our brother in Christ, Wilton Gregory.

[Photo Credit: Peter Zelasko/CNA]

Regis Martin


Regis Martin is Professor of Theology and Faculty Associate with the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at the Franciscan University of Steubenville. He earned a licentiate and a doctorate in sacred theology from the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas in Rome. Martin is the author of a number of books, including Still Point: Loss, Longing, and Our Search for God (2012) and The Beggar's Banquet (Emmaus Road). His most recent book, also published by Emmaus Road, is called Witness to Wonder: The World of Catholic Sacrament. He resides in Steubenville, Ohio, with his wife and ten children.

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