Sister of St. Joseph Helen Prejean grew up in a bubble. “My family is very Catholic and very white,” she says. When Prejean joined the religious life at age 18, she went from one social bubble to the next. Throughout her childhood, her parents employed African American servants. “They ate separate from us and had a separate toilet, but I never thought anything was wrong with that,” Prejean says. “That’s what culture does. Culture says, ‘Honey, that’s just the way we do things here.’ ”
In her newest book, River of Fire: My Spiritual Journey (Random House), Prejean tells the story of her journey to understanding the realities of race relations in the United States and how it informs her work to abolish the death penalty. “During my childhood my parents sheltered me from the realities of racial disparity and how we as white people treat those who don’t look like us,” Prejean says. “I only became aware of it when I moved in with African American people in the inner city, and they began to teach me about their experiences. I had never had any black peers, and that opened my eyes to how different my life is because of my skin color.”
What is white privilege?
White privilege is taking for granted that anybody, no matter what color they are, will be able to walk into a place and never be turned away because of the color of their skin. I have never been turned away because I’m white. White privilege is also the assumption that if a person wants to get a job and they work hard, they’ll succeed regardless of their background. That’s simply not always true.
In the United States we tend to believe that everybody should be like us. It was only after I met African American people and developed relationships with them that I realized how racism affected them and how different my life experiences were from theirs.
Carlos, one of the kids that lived in the St. Thomas projects, a group of housing projects in the south of New Orleans where I lived and worked in the ’80s, was a high school student. He wanted to get a summer job. So he applied to be a stock boy at a drugstore. When they saw his address was in a housing project, they wouldn’t hire him. It was only because of his skin color and where he lived. There are so many stories like Carlos’ in this country.
I once gave a talk to the Knights of Columbus where I described how hard it is for people in the community in which I worked to get jobs. A woman came up to me afterward and said, “My husband’s a dentist and he needs a receptionist. Can you send somebody?” I was working with an African American woman named Julia at the time, and I told her to apply. But the dentist rejected her application. She could not leave behind the way she talked when she walked through the door to the dentist’s office. For the white community in which the office was, this was not OK.
How is capital punishment in the United States the result of white privilege?
In my work at the St. Thomas projects and to end the death penalty I have learned a lot about institutional racism. Racism is different from individual prejudice. It’s in structures. It prevents people of color from succeeding. Even our language reflects the deep-rooted racism in this country. White is always pure. Black is always bad. Good cowboys wear the white hat, bad cowboys wear the black hat, and so on. People think that because slavery is over, racism in the United States has ended. They, like I did for a long time, do not understand the legacy of slavery.
The penal system is a legacy of slavery. Plantation owners didn’t want to lose their source of free labor once slaves were liberated, so they set up a system of penal laws that resulted in the widespread incarceration of black men. Loitering, for example, became this big catchall crime. People could go to jail for six months just for loitering. Then, after they were released, the justice system could say, “Hey, you owe us for the meals and lodging that we provided you.” These same men were then sent to a work camp, and some were never heard from again.
In April 2018, construction workers found a mass grave in Sugar Land, Texas under the site of a new school. The land is the former site of the Imperial State Prison Farm, and the skeletons found there all had African American traits and misshapen bones that suggested a life of hard labor. They were likely all prisoners forced to work at that prison farm. It was almost like a concentration camp.
Is this inequity still present in our legal system today?
Law enforcement has never treated black people the same as white people. In the South during the 1950s and ’60s, white people fire-bombed black people’s homes or lynched them for looking at a white woman “the wrong way,” the sheriffs all looked the other way. Black people had no protection under the law.
To this day, few police officers are actually held accountable for shooting a black person, even when that black person is unarmed or a child.
Among legal cases that result in the death penalty, 75 percent involve white victims; society prizes white lives more. In contrast, lawyers seldom seek the death penalty when the victim is black. The truth is, the legal system does not value black lives. And if your life’s not valued, then your death is not valued. Systemic white privilege is the root cause of this racial bias within our justice system.
How did you start to become aware of your privilege?
Before a sprout can come up, you’ve got to be in the soil. My first awakening was the realization that Jesus is on the side of poor people, and that’s where I needed to go. So I moved to southern New Orleans to work in a place called Hope House, just outside of the St. Thomas housing projects.
It was the early ’80s, and Ronald Reagan was promoting the idea that people on welfare were living like queens and driving Cadillacs on the taxpayer’s dollar. The general public thought that poor people weren’t sincere. They wondered why these folks were not working, instead of asking why they were not able to find work. But once I started living among poor people I started seeing the many kinds of suffering among the community.
I have never received welfare checks. I didn’t know how much the government gives for welfare: It’s pitiful. For poor parents, being on welfare is a dilemma. It does not provide enough money to support your family, but, if you get off of welfare, then you automatically lose health care for your kids.
Poor people wait for everything. When I was a child, if we needed to have maintenance done, Daddy would call up the person to fix the pipe in the house and they would be there right away. We didn’t have to wait in hospitals for an entire day to receive health care.
It’s so hard to get off of welfare. Many poor families have never known someone in their family who wasn’t poor: There’s a system of intergenerational poverty.
I started to question why poor people had to deal with these problems. I began to learn about human rights, and I met people at Amnesty International, which says that no government has power over life. Article 3 and Article 5 of the U.N. Universal Declaration of Human Rights lay this out. Article 3 is the right to life. Article 5 is the right to be free from cruel and degrading punishment and torture. That’s what got me thinking about the death penalty.
Where does race come into all of this?
Before I lived in the St. Thomas projects I didn’t know anything about my white privilege. I didn’t bear any animosity toward black people, and I was always charitable. But there’s a saying from Latin America: “What the eye doesn’t see, the heart can’t feel.” We live in these little social bubbles. Most white people are friends with other white people. The same was true for me.
When I first started working in St. Thomas, I started meeting African American people. I entered into relationship with them and tried to shoulder, as best I could, their struggle. I joined St. Gabriel parish in New Orleans, a community that is historically black and lower income, to worship alongside those I worked with. To this day I attend Mass at St. Gabe’s. I want to stay close to the people I live around. I want to stay close to their struggle and to their faith.
How did this change your approach to ministry?
Soon after I became a religious sister I taught at a Catholic high school for girls, St. Joseph’s Academy in New Orleans. It was the early 1960s and we were integrating our majority white school. I am really proud of the work my fellow sisters and I did there. White supremacists targeted St. Joseph’s after integration. The Klan burned a cross on our yard. The White Citizens’ Council called us communist nuns on the radio. But as a school we stood strong beside our students. For that I’m really proud of our sisters.
However, over time we had to close, even if we went under for the right reasons. More and more white parents were afraid of having their kids attend class with black students. So many of them left the school that we could not stay open.
Our principal went to meetings with other Catholic schools in the area, and he said there were concerns about how many black children we were admitting. Other schools wanted us to only take in a few black students to make white parents feel more comfortable. They were, in that way, contributing to white flight, which has happened all across this country. Catholic schools were afraid of losing tuition and afraid that their school population would drop off, just as ours did.
But I think what we did was wonderful. A sister I worked with used to say, “A real education for American society is going to school with people who are not just like you, with a mix of people, because that’s where you learn to socialize, to communicate, and not to be so afraid of difference.” That’s the education our school strove to provide.
How can white American Catholics become more aware of their own privilege?
People do wake up to injustice. I see all of this atrocious stuff happening around white supremacy and white nationalism and the terrible language about immigrants and about race coming from the Trump administration. I believe that what we need to do is educate people. When we educate people, leaders rise up. I’ve been at this for 30 years, and that’s the process. It’s what the church has always believed in: The Holy Spirit is in the hearts of the people.
I believe that if we could have a national program that just brought people together for breakfast, it would get people of all ethnicities to start talking to one another, and there would be less prejudice. The church should be the one that brings people together. I only understood my own privilege and the racial bias people of color experience once I was in communion with them.
We have a long way to go. There’s so much white dominance in Catholic parishes. It took me until I was in my 40s to understand the connection between justice and the gospel of Jesus. One of the reasons I wrote my book was just to show how, with God’s grace, the gospel of Jesus moved me past being charitable but isolated to rolling up my sleeves and getting engaged.
Instead of praying for God to help all the suffering people, that prayer now ignites my own heart. It inspires me to roll up my sleeves and understand myself as the one sent to answer my prayer. We’re called to embody Christ: We are God’s eyes and hands.
Image: Michael Lionstar, Courtesy of Helen Prejean, C.S.J.