One of about 300 protesters gathered in Nathan Phillips Square June 5 had a message for people who choose not to pay attention to global protests. Michael Swan

Gerry Turcotte: Racism protests are a sign of hope

  • June 25, 2020

It wasn’t so long ago that many of us were using the COVID-19 virus to argue that our world was more interconnected than we care to admit. Divisions are commonplace and people move through their lives erecting barriers between the haves and have-nots, between the East and the West, between the good and the bad.

These divisions define our politics locally and globally, so that conservatives battle liberals, communists battle capitalists and one religion decries another. The virus showed how we were human beneath it all, linked by our mortality and vulnerability, in a world that isn’t so big after all.

Another pandemic has similarly demonstrated our interconnection, and one that is predicated on equally deep divisions. The protests that have emerged throughout the world, catalyzed by the death of George Floyd in Minnesota, have turned the spotlight on the systemic racism that permeates our communities.

Rallies across Canada, the U.S. and Europe have articulated the fear and anger that communities feel because of an entrenched racism that has delineated how we police each other, how we define each other and ultimately how we abandon each other. These protests are calls to action urging us to confront our failings, to acknowledge the privilege of whiteness and admit to its role in perpetuating injustice among black, Indigenous and marginalized communities.

As we’ve seen from the reaction to these protests, this isn’t a message that is embraced by all. Some have characterized the protests as an attack on a good majority because of the actions of a corrupt few. They have also been called a cover for pernicious assaults on democratic freedoms by anarchists intent on overturning decency.

And of course there are those who label these protests as the voice of the disgruntled, unhappy with their deserved lot. Perhaps more sinister still are those who have used their faith and their religious institutions to position the unrest as ungodly, un-American or undemocratic.

More heartening is the chorus of voices that have been raised to express solidarity for those who have lost their lives to injustice or who live with the daily reality of institutionalized violence and discrimination. Pope Francis has provided one of the most powerful voices to condemn what he has called the “sin of racism.”

In an address at the Vatican the Pope insisted, “We cannot tolerate or turn a blind eye to racism and exclusion in any form and yet claim to defend the sacredness of every human life.”

In a speech many years earlier he exclaimed: “I wish to emphasize that the problem of intolerance must be confronted in all its forms: Wherever any minority is persecuted and marginalized because of its religious conviction or ethnic identity, the well-being of society as a whole is endangered and each one of us must feel affected.”

The global protests show that many agree. Complacency has been replaced by action; silence by raised voices. Most encouraging of all is that many of these are the cries of young people, appalled by the brutality and complicity of their communities with racism in all its forms.

Institutions, from police forces to universities, are reviewing how and what they do to address the scourge of racism. Many are turning a reflective eye on the basic assumptions that have governed behaviour, processes and structures, understanding that change must be profound if it is going to make a difference.

And our religious institutions will need to take a lead, to use their pulpits to commit to change and guide us to a better understanding of our interconnected humanity. If a virus can do it, surely humans can as well.

In the end these protests are a sign of hope. To identify and even eradicate racism would be a blessing, not a curse. To empower those who are subjugated is never a loss, even for those who have benefited from the uneven distribution of power.

For those who fear the change they need to ask one simple question: What would Jesus do? The answer is unequivocal. He would overturn the tables and excoriate the hypocrites. He would call on us to do more and to be better. He would issue the most anti-racist directive ever spoken: Love one another as you do yourself.

It isn’t complicated. It’s not ambiguous. There’s no room for multiple interpretations. It’s basic common sense. It’s the Golden Rule. Let’s make it happen.

(Turcotte is president of St. Mary’s University in Calgary.)

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