Why Bishop Olson’s Words on Racism Disappointed

Franklin Strong
9 min readMay 8, 2021

Last Thursday, Bishop Michael Olson of the Diocese of Fort Worth spoke at my alma mater, Nolan Catholic High School. His talk was part of the school’s promised response to a racist incident that occurred in February which caused an outcry on social media and in the Fort Worth press.

You can read the Star-Telegram‘s reporting on the incident, but here are the basics:

  • In February, a member of Nolan’s JV baseball team posted a photo of MLK with the caption “Happy (n-word) Month.” This was not the first time the word had been used on the group chat.
  • There is one Black student on team–he happens to be the son of two alumni I know, both of whom attended Nolan at the same time I did. When the boy and his parents brought these messages to the administration, they were told to help their son “move past” the incident. The students who posted the messages received light punishments but remained on the team, and the administration discouraged students from discussing racism.
  • When one of the boy’s parents told the story on social media, a group of alumni wrote an open letter to the administration, which more than 900 alumni and friends of the school signed. I was one of the signers.
  • The letter asked for zero tolerance for racist incidents, for the inclusion of anti-racist texts in the curriculum, for diversity and inclusion to be made a priority at Nolan, and for students to have the opportunity to discuss and learn about racism and about the experiences of people of color in the United States.
  • In response, the school administration promised 1) to “inform the community of the concerns,” 2) to have the bishop speak to the school about “racial injustices,” 3) to form a committee to get trained on “intercultural competencies” and 4) to “implement curriculum training options” starting in Fall of 2021.

So the bishop’s speech was one of the cornerstones of the school’s planned response. And a purpose of the speech, Bishop Olson said, was “to set a program forward, at least the ground of a program, that involves each and every one of us here in Nolan’s Catholic community.”

Before I react to the speech, I want to note that I’m coming at it from two perspectives. First, I’m listening as a teacher, someone who teaches mostly non-white students and sees social justice as part of my job. Just as fundamentally, though, I’m responding as a member of the Nolan community. There’s a lot I cherish about my high school education, and I was proud to see so many of my classmates standing up in support of the family at the center of this controversy. Nolan has clearly been doing lots of things right. But I’ve also written before about the things I didn’t learn in high school. Twenty-five years ago, Nolan was very white. Virtually all of my teachers were white, and nearly one hundred percent of the books I was assigned in my English classes were written by white authors. As I wrote two years ago:

I graduated pretty sure I wasn’t racist or sexist, but also pretty sure that most of history’s great literature was created by white men. I graduated thinking literature was all about the big human questions and themes, but that the struggle against racial injustice and bigotry (a niche concern, not relevant in the post-Civil Rights world) was not one of those universal themes. I graduated ignorant of the shape and scope and even the existence of the fields of Native American literature, and Asian American literature, and even Mexican American literature, even though I grew up in a city in a border state where some of my classmates and many of my neighbors were not white. Worst of all, I graduated without any idea of how I might appear to authors in those traditions, or to those neighbors and classmates. I graduated, in other words, in that false innocence that Baldwin decried.

In March of this year, I nosed around on Nolan’s website and saw that things have not changed since 1997. The faces of the faculty and administration remain mostly white; judging by the texts for sale in the school bookstore, English teachers are still overwhelmingly assigning their students books written by white authors.

This matters, because February’s racist incident wasn’t just about the n-word. It was about the fact that some Nolan students felt comfortable being openly racist in a group with their (mostly white) teammates. It was about the fact that the one Black player on the team had to be the one speaking up, and it was about the fact that, when he did, the school’s response did not reflect the seriousness of the issue. In other words, the incident was about Nolan’s culture, and it reflected deficiencies that go back at least to the time I was there.

So I was eager to see, in practice, how Nolan would address this issue: would they treat racism as a cultural issue or just the wayward actions of one or two bad apples? Would they lay out a plan to change? Here’s why, as a first effort, the Bishop’s speech disappointed.

  1. Bishop Olson didn’t lay out a plan for change.
  2. He didn’t address racism as a cultural or systemic issue.
  3. He brought in unnecessarily divisive culture war talking points.

Before I jump in, though, let me summarize the bishop’s speech. Olson started with an anecdote from when he was sixteen, out early before Mass on Christmas morning. He witnessed an act of extreme racism: a man sped up his car and tried to hit a black woman who was crossing the street, then yelled a racial epithet at her. The woman turned to the young Olson when the car passed: “He needs to meet Jesus.” The lesson: the proper way to address racism is with the Gospel. However, there are two false paths that lead us away from a proper response to racism, Olson said: indifference on one hand, and “critical Marxist theories” on the other. “Our entire educational program at Nolan Catholic High School,” Olson said, “should be centered on Christ and the dignity and nature of every human person, every human person, regardless of the color of the skin, regardless of the language that is spoken at home, regardless of race, regardless of creed, regardless of any other distinguishing human factor.”

Okay. On to my objections.

Bishop Olson didn’t lay out a plan for change. Despite his promise at the start of the speech, Olson didn’t present, or even suggest, a program for change. Stating “Racism is a sin,” repeating two lines from Nostra Aetate, and asking us to see Jesus in our neighbor is not a plan.

More worryingly, Olson’s speech seemed to suggest a rationale for not acting. The path of atheistic Marxism, Olson said, errs in its belief in the “perfectability” of human beings. But implicit bias, he said, “can only be overcome by God’s grace.” I won’t argue the theology of that, but waiting for grace can easily become an excuse for doing nothing.

Even the example Bishop Olson used to argue against indifference–the story of the Good Samaritan–shows he doesn’t really get the point of the alumni letter. The Samaritan helped a man who was robbed and beaten and left on the side of the road. Nobody disputes the morality of those actions. But the alumni who wrote the letter in March are asking Nolan to examine and rectify the conditions that led to the injury. To build on the metaphor, what they’re asking for is a safer road.

He didn’t address racism as a cultural or systemic issue. Before I can have faith that the leaders of Nolan will challenge racism in our community, I have to believe they understand what racism is.

Do they understand that the problem isn’t one or two students saying the n-word on social media? Do they get that the problem is the underlying belief system that leads a student to mock Black History Month and MLK? Have they thought about where that belief system comes from? Do they see the connection between that belief system and the messages about race (inadvertent though they may be) that Nolan puts out?

I don’t want to be uncharitable. Maybe the leadership at Nolan has been thinking about these questions. But the evidence wasn’t there in Bishop Olson’s speech.

He brought in unnecessarily divisive culture war talking points. Midway through the speech, Olson said:

The second approach which is also inadequate and evil, are critical theories that are based in the denial of God’s existence and the denial of human nature and attacks upon the human family and each and every human person. It’s a denial of original sin, and sees us instead as entirely self-contained and able to perfect ourselves. We have no need of God, we have no need of other people. We have need only of a massive collective, with a redistribution of material wealth. This of course is Marxism.

Later, he reiterated the point, railing again against what he called “Critical Marxist Theory.” “It has no place here,” he said.

In the Facebook alumni group where Bishop Olson’s speech was shared, the primary reaction was bafflement. “Why is he talking about Marxism?” people wondered. “Who said anything about atheism?”

The alumni letter was signed by real estate agents, doctors, dentists, stay-at-home moms, teachers. There was nothing in it about seizing the means of production, establishing a dictatorship of the proletariat, or smashing the bourgeoisie. Instead, the letter itself cited the Catholic social teaching we were all taught at Nolan.

In order to understand what Bishop Olson was talking about, you have to be steeped in right-wing media, where the moment’s two biggest boogeymen are “Critical Race Theory” and Marxism. I don’t have the energy here to explain what critical race theory is (here’s a good primer, and another), but suffice it to say that CRT, while influential, is neither as widespread nor as scary as this speech would have you believe. As Adam Harris puts it in The Atlantic, people who don’t know much about critical race theory use it as a stand-in “for anything resembling an examination of America’s history with race.” And offhand or out-of-context comments, like BLM co-founder Patrice Cullors’ description of herself as a “trained Marxist,” are being used to turn anti-racism into a new Red Scare.

Really, though, charges of Marxism and scaremongering about “Critical Race Theory” are deflections, means of avoiding asking hard questions and making needed changes. Of course this is nothing new: both conservatives and moderates levied exactly the same charges against Martin Luther King, Jr. in the 1960s.

Bizarrely, Olson opened by saying that this year has been characterized by fear — but also by grievance and resentment:

As you know, we have a lot of fear in our society in this last year. A lot of fear. A lot of fear caused by this pandemic, and which has increased our pressures and tensions among us, but has also allowed to rise to the surface numerous grievances, numerous resentments, that have now flared up, and which many — for their own self-advantage — have really incited and played upon for personal gain, but also for destruction of other people.

Again, these words don’t make sense except when seen through the lens of right-wing media, which spent most of 2020 depicting the protests of George Floyd’s death as either unjustified racial grievance or as the result of agitation by opportunistic race-baiters. In other words, Bishop Olson chose to open not with a criticism racism, but instead with a criticism of people calling out racism.

That should have no place in a speech that was supposed to be about racial injustice. This was not the time for both-sides-ism. This was the time for the Bishop to show he understands the depth of the Nolan community’s concerns about racism. Bishop Olson missed that opportunity.

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Franklin Strong

PhD in Comparative Literature. Latin American lit, African American lit, religion, politics, feminism, teaching, Cuba, Spain, Texas.