“Do this in memory of me:” Remembering Broken Bodies, Remembering Ourselves: Engaging the Impasse of White Racism through the Audacity of Eucharistic Hope in the Age of Obama
By Alex Mikulich, Ph.D., JSRI Research Fellow
The paper was originally presented to the Catholic Theological Society of America’s 2009 Annual Meeting to a Panel Selected by the President-Elect of CTSA.
The election of Barack Obama and his speech on race mark a new opportunity for white Americans to engage the impasse of white racism. I draw upon the central message of Mr. Obama’s presidential campaign and his speech on race—the audacity of hope—and deepen it theologically through Jesus’ call to “Do this in memory of me.”
Mr. Obama’s call to practice hope, in his speech on race, is grounded in a critically realist historical perspective, interwoven with an incisive understanding of our fundamental interconnectedness as human beings, including our common aspirations for fullness of life. Recognizing the enduring presence of the past, Obama does not fall into the cultural amnesia or naiveté of a so-called “post racial” society. He quotes William Faulkner’s insight that “the past isn’t dead and buried. In fact, it isn’t even past.” The wisdom of the audacity of hope is that in order to become our brother’s and sister’s keeper, we must contend with current disparities because they are the presence of our past today.
By the term impasse of white racism, I mean the perception held by well meaning white people that we bear no responsibility for institutional racism or systemic racial inequality in U.S. society. Far from entering a “post racial” age, in which the U.S. has progressed beyond the racism of the pre-Civil Rights era, we live in a society where good white people perpetuate unearned advantage through silent racism—unspoken negative thoughts, emotions, and assumptions about black Americans that shape our action and institutions—and through the role we take as passive bystanders, whereby our passivity sustains systemic racial inequality and empowers the racism of others. 
Theologically speaking, U.S. white racism, including its silent and passive forms, is a negation of the significance of God’s creation that we celebrate in the central act of the Church, the Eucharist. We are called to the loving memory of God communicated through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus for all, fully expressed through a re-membering that brings together peoples deemed most insignificant, despised, and forgotten in history, including U.S. history. When we forget these broken bodies, we forget ourselves and lose our identity.
I raise a question for white U.S. Christians in the context of our practice of Eucharist: what is the condition of the possibility of white U.S. Christians engaging this impasse and practicing a Eucharistic hope? Re-membering the forgotten broken bodies of U.S. American history will be no easy task, for involves confrontation with our own cultural amnesia and complicity in the enduring violence of America’s original sin of racism. Drawing upon the inspiration of Constance FitzGerald and M. Shawn Copeland,  I contend that practicing Eucharistic memory entails living a critical memory of broken bodies throughout U.S. history. Re-membering all broken bodies in memory of Jesus—is the condition of possibility of practicing authentic Christian hope that engages the impasse of white privilege and racism in our Church and society. I proceed by describing the case of Luis Ramirez, analyze how common sense white racism operated in the murder of Ramirez and the acquittal of his killers, and conclude with a call to Eucharistic memory of forgotten broken bodies strewn across U.S. history.
Luis Ramirez, a Mexican immigrant who worked two jobs and cared for two children with his fiancée, was beaten to death on July 12, 2008 by several Shenandoah Valley Pennsylvania high school seniors. As his fiancée explains, Mr. Ramirez was walking her sister from home to a friend’s house that night. As Ramirez walked with her, a group of physically mature 17 and 18 year old white high school seniors chided the white girl for walking with an “illegal immigrant.” They told her to “tell your Mexican friend to go home or you will be laying dead next to him.”
Less than one year later, on May 7, 2009, an all-white jury acquitted two white 18 year olds of third degree murder, aggravated assault, and ethnic intimidation. Although Mr. Ramirez died from injuries he sustained by multiple kicks to his head while he lay immobile on the street, the jury convicted the young men of simple assault, a misdemeanor.
The defense attorney did not contest the facts of the case. The defense attorney did not contest that his clients yelled racist slurs at Mr. Ramirez. Nor did the defense contest the fact that Luis Ramirez died from multiple kicks to the head. Instead, the defense attorney shifted blame for instigation of the beating to the victim, Mr. Ramirez. The defense attorney placed the entire onus of ending the fight on Ramirez, and because Ramirez attempted to defend himself physically, he is blamed and accused for his own death.
I find the white common sense justification for this murder deeply disturbing. The ways that silent and passive forms of racism interacted to reify white dominance in this case is terrifying. Although the defense attorney discounted the racial slurs as “simply what came to the boys’ minds when they were drunk,” social psychologists and we know that the language articulated by the youths, however improvisational it may have been, represents their own negative thoughts and stereotypical assumptions about Mexican immigrants. More terrifying is how these previously unspoken stereotyping and paternalistic assumptions have been re-articulated by others during and after the trial throughout the community. These expressions by community leaders empower other white bystanders—well meaning whites who say nothing in the face of these racist practices.
The all white jury did not find that the combination of repeated expression of racial slurs, the clearly expressed threat to kill the girl whom Ramirez was walking home, and kicking an immobile Ramirez in the head as enough to demonstrate intent. Racial slurs combined with the excess use of violence—that kills—does not indicate intent on behalf of the killers—after all, they are “good kids,” praised as football standouts—and excused for their drunkenness, it is the victim “who made some bad choices.” In and out of the courtroom, the victim is accused, blamed, and found guilty of his own death.
The presumption of white innocence becomes the basis for excusing the use of deadly violence and re-victimizing the victim and his family after he is dead. After the acquittal, family members and supporters of the teens were not only jubilant, they repeatedly expressed that “Ramirez got what he deserved.” As one family member of the defendants put it, if Ramirez “had been in Mexico where he belonged, he would not be dead.” “We protect our own” has been the refrain from the predominantly white community.
Completely lost in this common sense whiteness is any sense of interdependence and interconnectedness and our shared human vulnerability. I call this drunken whiteness—drunk with our own self-perceived innocence—as we forget our own humanity as well as that of our neighbors. And what of “our own” who return from Iraq or Afghanistan in coffins? Absent to Luis Ramirez’ body, members of this community have also been absent to their own sons and daughters who return from Iraq and Afghanistan dead, disabled, or facing Post Traumatic Stress Disorder without the full support of the community. Disregarding Ramirez’s body makes us numb to our own bodies, numb to the deaths, the broken bodies, the PTSD that afflicts all of “our own” returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.
I find this pattern of thought and practice disturbing because it flips guilt and innocence on its head—literally and figuratively—as it re-inscribes widely held assumptions of white innocence and black and brown criminality. The common sense white way of thinking in this case is not unlike white assumptions of innocence and black criminality associated with lynching. As W.E.B. DuBois describes the science of lynching, criminality and blackness are interchangeable, such that black bodies are presumed guilty prior to any attempted utterance, any pronunciation of innocence, resistance, or self-defense.  Indeed, in this case, friends and community supporters of the perpetrators, as well as the defense attorney find Ramirez guilty.
It is not a problem confined to Shenandoah Valley, Pennsylvania or to a small group of bigots. Luis Ramirez, and countless Mexican and Latino immigrants like him, is guilty in the white mind before he even utters a word or attempts to defend himself from fatal assault. This association of blackness—here brownness—with criminality is so pervasive in our society that the innumerable ways it breaks bodies is mundane. To paraphrase the Good Samaritan story, numerous bodies of color are “left for dead,” every day, all over the U.S., from borders to deserts to detention centers, prisons, death row, and city streets.
This terror with which people of color must live is at the root of the founding of the United States and persists today. Yet whites tend to live in every institution—including the Church—as if we are innocent and free of the banality of this cultural and structural evil. As Toni Morrison puts it, the pathology of the legacy of white racism is “not something you can do for hundreds of years, and it not take a toll. White Europeans had to de-humanize, not just the slaves, but themselves.”
Since the Civil Rights movement, the U.S. prison population has shifted from majority white to over 70 percent people of color. The United States incarcerates more people than any nation in the world, including China. We incarcerate African Americans at a rate higher than black Africans incarcerated during the last decade of apartheid South Africa. Recent studies by Human Rights Watch, the Sentencing Project, and the Pew Charitable Trust indicate major disparities in drug sentencing. African Americans are ten times more likely than whites to enter prison for drug offenses, and yet nationally there are six times more white drug offenders than black. White men who are 18 or older are incarcerated at the rate of 1 in 106; Latino men at the rate of 1 in 36; and black men at the rate of 1 in 15.
The presumption of white innocence and black criminality is also exhibited in the labor market. In her study of hiring outcomes in several cities, the sociologist Devah Pager reveals that white applicants with a criminal record were just as likely to receive a callback as a black applicant without any criminal history. Despite the fact that white applicants revealed evidence of a felony drug conviction, employers seem to view this applicant as no more risky than a black man with no criminal record. The persistent stereotype of blacks as criminals is still embedded in the consciousness of white Americans, irrespective of whites’ self-stated lack of prejudice. 
If white U.S. Christians intend to witness to the redeeming memory of Jesus, then our spirituality and theology must practice the kind of memory that re-members the hopes, dreams, anger, and aspirations for life and love, and suffering of all those forgotten broken bodies that are strewn across the Atlantic ocean through the slave trade, buried on the stolen lands of Native American peoples, and imprisoned in our detention centers, jails, and cities. Christian hope does not turn its back on these injustices. “Doing this in memory of me” means living in a way that makes life and authentic hope for all possible, by giving priority to listening, and hearing, the stories of those who have borne the deadly brunt of U.S. white racism.
Re-membering will not be easy, because we whites will need to learn to listen in ways that we have not in the past, and to learn from the breadth and depth of wisdom of people of color throughout our history and today. Remembering will be difficult, because we need to hear the cries of the oppressed of our past, including those who carry the persisting memories of the trauma of lynching, among many forms of terror. We must engage the impasse and unfinished business of these dangerous memories in multiple communities throughout the nation where lynching and racial pogroms have never been fully confronted, where the complicity of ordinary citizens and community institutions in condoning racial terror continue to impede hope for new life. The conversion to which we are called will not be easy because we whites—in all our diversity—cling to our need to be in control, to our advantage, to our fears, to our desire to blame victims, and because of a strong tendency to deny how we inherit historical advantages of unearned privilege.
Yet if we listen and hear the cries of Luis Ramirez and imagine and enact new ways to share these burdens, to find new ways to walk with Jesus in our brother’s and sister’s shoes, perhaps we may yet make history and affirm the gifts of God’s creation. Perhaps we will yet recognize that forgetfulness of black and brown bodies constitutes forgetfulness of ourselves, as fundamentally interdependent and interconnected with all others in the hidden wholeness. Then, perhaps, we may yet experience a transformation into the audacity of Jesus’ hope to “Do this in memory of me” and glimpse who we are called to be the full communion of God’s table of creation.
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