I recently watched “The Blind Side,” an Oscar-nominated movie just released on DVD. It’s based on the true story of a white family in Memphis, Tenn., that takes into its home a virtually homeless black youth.
In many respects, the racial situation is not bad. Sensing “Christian duty,” the administrator of an elite private school enrolled the teen, Michael Oher, to give him an education better than that in public schools. Several teachers befriend Oher.
The athletic coach, who argues for Oher’s admission in the thought that he has the makings of a football star, angrily defends Oher when a racist football referee treats the youth unfairly. (The coach was right. Oher excelled in high school football and at the University of Mississippi. He now plays for the Baltimore Ravens.)
With roots in the South, Oher’s foster parents would have understood what racial segregation was all about. Yet, they draw Oher into the family.
Still, racism appears. During a football game, an opposing player taunts Oher in racist tones. The official hears all and ignores it. When Oher reacts, the official promptly penalizes him for “unsportsmanlike conduct.” In the stands, some shout scorn for Oher. In another scene, Oher enters the school library. Other students icily telegraph that he is unwelcome.
At lunch in an upscale restaurant with her well-to-do friends, Oher’s foster mother is warned that he might sexually attack her adolescent daughter. Talk about returning to the historic racist myth that black males are driven by an intense and virtually uncontrollable libido, and that young white females especially arouse them.
Looking at American life generally, blacks and Native Americans experience poverty at levels much higher than those of other ethnic groups. The results, personal and social, are destructive and tragic.
Where is racism in all this? Racism creates, and draws from, ethnic stereotypes and generalities. It prompts the thought that ethnicity causes one group or another to be so wanting for initiative, or ability, that they are doomed to live in terrible circumstances, that they can do nothing to improve their lot, and that they are not worthy of society’s concern.
Add to this the old Calvinist “rugged individualism” of U.S. culture, and the end is indifference about terrible conditions experienced by many.
A scene in the movie provides a reason, to a point, for this indifference. Oher’s foster mother goes to see his biological mother and finds a scene of want and despair similar to many others throughout America. Jarred, she tells her friends: “I have lived in Memphis all my life. I never knew that people in this city lived like that.”
“Get out your checkbooks!” one woman laughingly responds, as if writing checks is the answer to the problem.
The Church teaches that racial prejudice is sinful. It insists that everyone is an individual, with a dignity given by God. Hence, it opposes exploiting anyone, abortion being an extreme form of exploitation. This belief calls Catholics to uproot both prejudice and intolerable social conditions.
Religious values are crucial in all this, but sadly there is little energy in churches overall for confronting the problem.
At February’s Tea Party convention in Nashville, Tenn., a speaker absurdly said that people who could not spell the word “vote” or speak it in English decided the 2008 election. The crowd cheered. The remark provokes a chilling question.
Prejudice in America historically also has burdened German-, Irish-, Italian- and Polish-Americans. Did the event in Nashville indicate that 50 years hence, Hispanic-Americans will tell their grandchildren about the burdens of racism? God forbid.
Msgr. Owen F. Campion is associate publisher of OSV.