Earl Ofari Hutchinson
The white high school students at Covington Catholic that faced off against Indian activist Nathan Phillips after the March for Life in Washington have been depicted as either despicable perpetrators of racist abuse or clean hand victims of racial attacks. They are neither. However, they did bring back a memory of another Catholic High School at another time, and another place.
Here is what I remember from that other Catholic High School. Bam! Boom! Crash! I heard that sound many times during school hours when I walked the halls to my classes at Mt. Carmel High School on Chicago’s Southside. The sound wasn’t made by a student carelessly dropping his books on the hall floor, or an accidental slip and fall. It was the sound of a Black student at the school being viciously shoved into a locker by one or more passing white students.
This was the early the 1960s. I was one of a handful of Black students that “integrated” the school. On more than one occasion I found myself picking myself up off the hallway floor as I got what we called the locker whack. I, and the other Blacks, quickly learned to keep our head on a swivel as we walked the halls going to class. The locker violence was complemented by a healthy dose of mumbled and sometimes shouted racial epithets, taunts, and jeers at us as we navigated the hallway. In nearly every case, the perpetrators were always anonymous and easily melted into the throng of passing students.
Our complaints about the racist treatment fell on deaf ears with the Carmelite Brothers that ran the school. We were simply told to pray harder, keep our mind on our studies, and things would work themselves out. There were many days though that prayer for divine intervention for an end to the torment and fear didn’t cut it. I was relieved after my first year to transfer to another school. But the memory of the ill racial treatment Black students got in those years at a prestigious Catholic high school formed an indelible impression of racial insensitivity at best, callousness at worst in my Catholic school education.
Much time and space separated my experience at Mt. Carmel, then in the early years of a big Northern Catholic school’s first effort at integration, and Covington Catholic. However. the common thread is both are Catholic high schools and provide a Catholic education. Then we expected that Catholics would do better in promoting racial fairness and tolerance. This was a big reason many Black parents in those days chose to put their kids in Catholic schools. However, there was a wide gap between the expectation and the reality as the plight of Black students at Mt Carmel then showed. We were naïve to think any different.
The track record of Catholic schools before 1965 in fostering racial equity was just as shameful as public schools in the South. Almost all of the big city public schools in the North were rigidly segregated. And so were the Catholic schools. The one difference was that Catholics preached a good game then about upholding Christian values, morality, and always maintaining the faith. Yet, Catholic priests, bishops, and assorted church hierarchy stayed away from the issue of race like the plague. There was simply too much risk in trying to buck racial conventions then.
The result was an insular and even smug contentment in the belief that Catholics did it better, much better, when it came to providing a top-flight education to its very select group of students. There was little thought that education should mean more than just getting it right in chapel services or the classroom. The civil rights movement changed some of that. Many Catholic priests became fixtures at some of the marches and protests. They spoke out against racial injustice.
Successive Popes talked a lot about racial justice and equality, and admonished Catholics to speak out. Catholic high schools such as Mt. Carmel became shining examples of racial diversity in faculty and student body.
When the video flashed of its students jeering and taunting Phillips, the Covington Catholic archdiocese wasted no time in issuing a statement condemning the behavior of the students. The school followed suit and made some initial noise about an investigation and possible discipline, that could include expulsions.
Yet, there is still a problem the initial strong condemnation from the archdiocese and school officials can’t paper over. Covington Catholic, as Mt. Carmel, then had a well-entrenched culture of white elite, racially narrow, exclusivity. This racial narrowness reinforces a culture of white privilege that spans generations. Whether the youth were perpetrators of racial hate, or victims of a media and a public that supposedly got it wrong about them makes little difference. I saw in the cavalier, contemptuous expressions on the faces of some of the Covington students, and their behavior, exactly what I saw and experienced at Mt. Carmel decades ago. As a product of Catholic high school education, I can say with bitter memory of my past, that yet another Catholic school misfired on race.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. He is the author of Why Black Lives Do Matter (Middle Passage Press) He is a weekly co-host of the Al Sharpton Show on Radio One. He is the host of the weekly Hutchinson Report on KPFK 90.7 FM Los Angeles and the Pacifica Network.