Culture Change Regarding Racial Justice is Possible in Minnesota and Nationally


June 5, 2020 marked the fifth anniversary of the groundbreaking charges brought by the Ramsey County Attorney’s Office (RCAO) against the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis (ASPM). In bringing criminal charges and a civil suit, Ramsey County Attorney John Choi stated that he was seeking a change of culture in the archdiocese in its protection of children. The underlying case of abuse and missed red flags regarding a priest who abused minor boys in St. Paul, shocked the conscience of Catholics in ASPM and provided the impetus for Choi’s bold move. Within ten days of the charges, Archbishop John Nienstedt resigned.

Over the past five years ASPM, under the leadership of Archbishop Bernard Hebda, has experienced a significant change of culture and attendant healing. This was attested to in the January 2020 Cultural Assessment Report issued by RCAO. Today, the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis is described by attorney Jeff Anderson as the safest diocese in the country, while also becoming a national leader in promoting restorative practices to bring healing. A significant dimension of this turnaround is the presence of victim-survivors in key roles who bring needed wisdom and determination to foster greater justice and accountability.

The brutal killing of George Floyd not only shocked the conscience of Minnesota, but indeed the nation. The tumultuous events that have ensued speak to the deep-seated and systematic racial injustice integral to American culture, as well as the collective harm and trauma these injustices have wrought. If clergy abuse and cover-up are besetting sins of modern Catholicism, racism and apathy to this scourge, are besetting sins of the United States.

I am not surprised that Minneapolis was the flash point for the ongoing horror show that is racial injustice in America. Since I began law school a quarter century ago in the Twin Cities, I have been aware of an element of racism within the ranks of the Minneapolis Police Department (MPD). African American law classmates and now current law students of color relay similar stories of harassment and injustice. Notwithstanding the many good cops on the beat in Minneapolis, clearly the culture of MPD has countenanced a racist element for far too long, to deadly ends.

Lest we shift our gaze too narrowly on MPD as a scapegoat, Minnesotans must confront the ugly reality that we have a significant problem with racial justice in our state. It is a problem of culture. Perhaps the aversion to face this challenging reality starkly contradicts our self-styled image as the land of “Minnesota Nice.” Numerous studies clearly show significant racial disparities exist across multiple categories in Minnesota – some of the most acute in the nation. This has manifested in a culture that has too long ignored or deeply harmed people of color. Mr. Floyd’s senseless death and the acute racial disparities that persist in Minnesota, cry out for a state-wide change of culture. The need for a change of culture regarding racial justice extends beyond Minnesota, as the diverse nation-wide protests have shown.

John Carr, Director of Georgetown University’s Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life, said about his native archdiocese, that good things are happening now in ASPM because things were so bad five years ago. Indeed, they were – but from the ashes and with seemingly few options, new life and creative solutions have emerged. Similarly, Minnesota is ground zero when it comes to racial justice and may serve as a catalyst to informative dialogue and meaningful reform here and nationally. My hope is that Catholic leaders would play a significant role in Minnesota and nationally leading critical conversations about racial justice and the common good. Catholic universities throughout the nation are in a strong position to answer this call. For example, multiple Catholic universities have explored the effective and interdisciplinary use of restorative justice as a tool to respond to harm, in promotion of accountability and healing. Restorative practices are tailormade to confront the harm of racism by inviting victim-survivors to tell their stories – stories that Americans need to hear.

Additionally, Catholic social teaching offers a constructive framework which transcends political ideology to foster critical analysis, honest dialogue and social solidarity. Catholic social teaching also encompasses a prophetic dimension that promotes human dignity and confronts structures of social sin. A persistent challenge for effective Catholic engagement in matters pertinent to racial justice is a far too pervasive apathy regarding this social sin – apathy that has been consistently noted by African American Catholics across the ecclesial spectrum. My hope is that the senseless death of Mr. Floyd in Minneapolis is a tipping point to more robust advocacy by Catholics -including American bishops – for greater racial justice in the United States.    

Culture change regarding racial justice is possible in Minnesota and nationally. It will require honesty, introspection, an inclusive process and the collective will to change. Change of culture in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis was possible through humble and competent leadership, the wisdom and integral presence of victim-survivors and the creative use of restorative justice and restorative practices to help heal direct harm and its ripple effects in the community. These same dimensions can be employed effectively in Minnesota and nationally in seeking an American culture that is more just, humane and inclusive. Minnesota has no shortage of gifted and determined African American thought leaders and other people of color who can lead the way, name the harm and help Minnesota transform.

Perhaps the place that was the flashpoint for a collective convulsion surrounding the scourge of racial injustice could also be the place that leads the nation to finally confront and meaningfully address our original and persistent national sin.