Searching for Justice and PeaceDecember 16, 2014
Last Sunday, on the second anniversary of the massacre of children and teachers at the Sandy Hook Elementary School — an occasion that seemed to draw only the most muted observance — the former vice president of the United States mounted a vigorous defense of the official use of torture. At the same time, tens of thousands of demonstrators continued marching in the streets of Washington, New York, Chicago, St. Louis, Berkeley and many other cities to protest the police use of fatal force against unarmed black men.
Does that opening paragraph conflate too many disparate threads from today’s headlines? No. Our front pages and news screens present a fairly horrifying picture of a society soaked in bloody violence. We live in an extraordinarily violent culture, and we appear to be powerless to stanch the hemorrhage that is draining the life from communities across the nation.
Our national addiction to violence fuels the injustice that destroys life, diminishes survivors and degrades the authority of those who approve of the use of violence as a way to keep the peace. When law enforcement authorities become increasingly violent, disrespect for the legal system mounts as the pervasive sense of injustice and fear grows rapidly. Rather than legal violence being a deterrent, in fact, the disproportionate use of lethal force by police officers becomes a flashpoint for civil unrest and even anarchy. If we’ve learned nothing else from the cycles of history, surely we’ve learned that official violence always triggers a backlash, sometimes a violent backlash, sometimes growing into a revolution. Aristotle and Plato had a few things to say about this a few millennia ago — have we learned nothing?
Official violence against black men in the United States is a scandalous shame for a nation that claims to stand for equal justice for all. The injustices pervading this particular moment in American history are manifest: titans of the banking industry — who only quite recently undermined the world economy resulting in untold economic miseries for millions — now get to rewrite the laws to protect them from further governmental rebuke while a black man doing nothing more serious than selling loose cigarettes is choked to death by police who ignored his repeated plea, “I can’t breathe.” A black child waving a toy gun on a playground is gunned down immediately while members of Congress shamefully take millions from the National Rifle Association as private stockpiles of guns and weapons grow unchecked. The NRA’s response to a classroom full of dead first graders mowed down by an assault rifle? “The only think that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.” Explain that logic to the mother of Tamir Rice, a child with a toy gun killed by the real gun of a supposed “good guy” — a police officer sworn to protect people from harm. God help us.
Now comes former Vice President Dick Cheney, saying he’d do the whole torture thing all over again. The official violence that agents of the U.S. government inflicted on suspects is a revolting tale of wanton immorality. But Cheney says it was all quite justified by the horror of September 11. Jumping gleefully into the bloody pit of horrific acts against humanity does little to protect this nation, and only fuels the radical hatred and mindless determination of terrorists to do even more harm. The rise of ISIS is a mutation of Al Qaeda, a more virulent strain of the deadly cancer of terrorists who wantonly destroy lives. Yes, we must stop them — but not at the loss of our own moral compass, at the expense of our hard-won free society that should exemplify the ideals of justice and peace.
To their credit, the U.S. Bishops as well as the Vatican have roundly condemned the U.S. use of torture. Catholic teachings on the sanctity of human life are very clear on this point. What’s interesting is that too many politicians who try to co-opt the Catholic vote with “pro-life” positions have no problem with torture, the proliferation of guns and opposition to immigration reform.
Hatred of “the other” is a sickness abroad in many parts of our land these days, fueling the racial injustices that never really went away despite the claims to a “post-racial” society upon the election of Barack Obama as president. Indeed, President Obama’s success has seemed to evoke some kind of primal hatred in some quarters, a level of deep hatred that goes well beyond political arguments.
Opposition to immigration reform and the clear and relentless attacks on the simple idea of fairness and justice for undocumented children is more evidence of the inhumanity that runs rampant in too many corners of our nation today. Almost all of us trace roots to other countries, and our ancestors suffered many of the same ugly and violent attacks. Yet, today, too many opponents of fair and just immigration reform seem, at best, ahistorical when it comes to manifesting any basic understanding of respect for the human dignity of all people regardless of “papers.”
Here again, the U.S. bishops have been staunch supporters of immigration reform, reinforcing the consistency of the Church’s teachings on human life with a clear commitment to treating all people with justice, compassion and fairness
Our nation will not know true peace unless and until we establish a more moral plane of justice for all human beings who inhabit this land. Justice is not for a few at the expense of the many. Justice is not for those who can afford to buy it. Justice is not for the perfect among us. Justice is for everyone — yes, even for the guy with his little street business selling selling loose cigarettes, for the student who does not quite have all the right papers, for the child on a swing pretending to be a police officer with a toy gun. True moral justice is not about “getting mine, too” but rather, defending everyone’s right to life, to liberty, to a modicum of happiness, economic security, domestic tranquility and appropriate levels of security and defense. Quite simply, justice will never happen at the end of a gun, on a waterboard or in some dark place of rendition where agents of our government suck the life from other people in the name of defense.
“We, the People” have a moral responsibility to insist that our government exemplify the moral ideal of human dignity and justice for all. Rather than resorting to wanton, lawless violence against human beings, our government agents must be people who can exemplify our best values, develop humane and sensible solutions to even the most complex of social problems, and manifest well-formed conscience when it comes to making choices about the need for the use of weapons as a last resort, not a first impulse, when it comes to defense of self, community and nation. We need to demand that our leaders work harder and more urgently to reset the national moral compass toward the true north of justice and peace for all people.
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View from the SummitDecember 7, 2014
I had a front row seat at the White House Summit on College Opportunity last Thursday, December 4, which gave me an opportunity to focus somewhat more carefully than usual on how our national leaders speak about the vitally important issues of college access, affordability and degree completion today. President Obama underscored his longstanding commitment to college access for all Americans: “Making sure more of our young people have access to higher education and can succeed and complete their work and get their degree — that has to be an American issue.” Not a Democratic or Republican issue, he repeated, but an American issue. He made an oblique reference to the problem of chronic racial injustice in the criminal justice system made clear in the recent protests over the grand jury decisions in the Michael Brown and Eric Garner cases, and how education must be the means to restore our “common sense of purpose.” I wish he were less oblique and more direct, but this is a president who seems worn down by all of the fierce and unrelentingly complicated issues at home and abroad.
President Obama called out members of Congress who are trying to undo the limited help that the Obama Administration has extended to undocumented students covered by DACA (Deferred action for childhood arrivals): “One thing we certainly shouldn’t be doing is making it harder for more striving young kids to finish their education and depriving America of their talents and discoveries…. it does not make sense for us to want to push talent out rather than make sure that they’re staying here and contributing to society.”
As I listened to President Obama, Secretary of Education Duncan and others, I felt a good deal of pride in Trinity for what we have been doing for a long time to ensure educational opportunity and justice for our students. Long before the White House got involved in calling together presidents of very wealthy colleges to ask if they could take a few more impoverished students (the January White House summit invited a very narrow list of mostly wealthy, elite colleges and universities, prompting a good deal of criticism among institutions like Trinity that serve precisely the populations that President Obama has declared an urgent national priority), Trinity has welcomed a majority of very low income students as a matter of mission. Nearly 80% of Trinity’s undergraduates receive Pell Grants, and among full-time first-year students, the median family income is just about $25,000. Those statistics are startling when compared to the income profile of students attending not only elite private universities but even many public universities today. Trinity leads the way when it comes to providing a high quality education for students who might not otherwise be able to go to college — we were founded to provide access for women who, in 1897, were excluded from the men’s universities of that time. Though the students have changed with the times, the historic mission first articulated by the Sisters of Notre Dame continues, deeply rooted in the virtue of social justice.
During the summit, First Lady Michele Obama spoke of her personal passion to improve college counseling in high schools. She spoke of the “two worlds” of counseling — the kind of counseling that occurs in very large public schools where counselors have huge caseloads and little time to help students, and the small, intimate forms of counseling that occur in largely private school settings where already-well-prepared students get every advantage in the college prep process. Mrs. Obama announced the Reach Higher initiative to encourage schools, colleges and universities to do more to improve college counseling.
Here again, I’m proud to say that Trinity’s master’s program in Counseling embeds college counseling in the degree courses, and our partnerships with a broad range of college access providers (DC-CAP, College Success Foundation – DC, KIPP-DC, Cristo Rey, others) also helps to ensure as much opportunity as possible, particularly for D.C. students.
As part of our participation in the White House Summit, every college and university had to make a specific commitment to do more to improve access. While Trinity already does quite a lot, we made two additional commitments:
- Partnership with the D.C. Public Schools to improve the capacity of students who intend to major in Nursing or STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) disciplines to succeed in math and other essential general education courses;
- Development of cohorts of students who want to major in the sciences and math, similar to the successful Conway Scholars program for Nursing.
The full compendium of the hundreds of university commitments is here: White House Summit College Commitments 12 4 2014
Will anything come of all of this talk? For Trinity, the real action takes place every single day. I hope that by participating in the summit, Trinity can get more visibility for the great work we are doing here, and, by extension, find ways to secure additional financial support for our students and the services they need for success. Every opportunity we have to tell Trinity’s story helps us to win more support to make our mission even stronger.Read comments (0) Add Comment
White House Summit on College OpportunityDecember 3, 2014
Trinity will be front and center on Thursday, December 4, at the second White House Summit on College Opportunity. This event follows a similar gathering earlier this year during which President Obama challenged a smaller group of presidents of Ivy League and other elite institutions to enroll more low income students. At that time, I expressed concern to the White House that Trinity and many colleges and universities like us — institutions with long and strong experience in promoting success for low income students — were left out in favor of schools that, while prestigious, have little experience supporting students with a broad range of service needs. I’m pleased to say that the Obama Administration listened to these concerns and opened the door more broadly for this second convening of schools and collegiate partners focused on promoting more educational opportunity.
The event will be live-streamed during the day. President Obama will speak in the morning, with remarks by Mrs. Obama and Vice President Biden later in the day.
I will be participating on a panel with other college and university presidents discussing strategies for improving retention and completion for all students, and particularly for those who are low income.
Trinity is recognized as a leader in providing significant college access opportunities for women of color in the Washington region. For the White House Summit, we are pledging to increase our efforts to promote academic readiness for student entrance into major pathways to Nursing, other Healthcare majors and the sciences. We are developing a partnership with the D.C. Public Schools to encourage greater college and career preparation for the health professions, with particular emphasis on math readiness in high school. We also plan to develop more cohorts of students who want to major in Math and Science.
I will report more on Trinity’s commitments to expand access as well as more on the White House Summit through the day tomorrow — follow me on Twitter @TrinityPrez — and I will update this blog tomorrow night.
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Law v. Morality: The Lessons of FergusonNovember 30, 2014
Americans have been on an endless quest to embody in our system of laws the idea of moral perfection. Disappointment is our constant companion on this journey because the law is a poor substitute for a well-formed moral conscience. Those who proclaim what is known as “Natural Law” theory may disagree with me, but in fact, American history proves, time and again, the terribly finite limits of the law when it comes to morally correct decisions.
The susceptibility of law to a narrow (and narrow-minded) construction of words interpreting evidence as understood through the filters imposed by one point of view (a prosecutor, a judge, a juror) produced morally repugnant decisions from Dred Scott (1857, denying citizenship to African Americans) to Plessy v. Ferguson (1896, upholding racial segregation) to Korematsu (1944, upholding internment of Japanese American citizens) to Carrie Buck (1927, upholding forced sterilization). Sure, American legal history has also produced some redeeming moments like Brown v. Board of Education (1954, desegregation of schools), the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, among other landmarks of civil rights — all in danger of curtailment in an era when we feel less urgent about protecting civil rights and liberties.
More frequently, however, and especially in recent years, we have seen vigorous and loud debates over whether certain laws and legal decisions are not just legally correct but morally right — some denounce Roe v. Wade (1973, legalizing abortion) as immoral while others hail it, and in the same way some would demand Hobby Lobby (2014, private employers can refuse to cover contraception) and Citizens United (2010, unlimited corporate spending on elections) be enrolled as immoral decisions while others believe they are morally right.
Interestingly enough, the loud public debates today about law and morality seem to revolve around sex and money, while some of the gravest injustices continue to affect and afflict people on the basis of race despite the appearance of settled law on this topic, illustrating the rather large gap between law and morality.
Reading the testimony, evidence and results of the grand jury decision in Ferguson, Missouri, concerning Michael Brown’s death at the hands of now-resigned Officer Darren Wilson — and considering the aftermath including Wilson’s subsequent interview on ABC — what’s clearest of all is the limitation of the law, once again, to satisfy fundamental concepts of morality. The question is not really whether the grand jury decision was right or wrong — in our legal system, the grand jury was entitled to review the evidence presented and render its decision. The decision is what it is, a most unsatisfying answer, to be sure, but in fact, most likely legally correct based on how the evidence was presented.
In the aftermath, the immense expressions of outrage and passionate denunciation of the legal process and its agents (the prosecutor, the police) reveal the plain fact that the grand jury could not satisfy the quest for a morally correct result in the sad and tragic death of Michael Brown. Indeed, the evidence that came forward after the announcement of the decision exacerbated the sense of grave injustice, appallingly immoral decision-making on the part of those entrusted with keeping the peace.
In particular, the testimony of Officer Wilson — both in what he said to the grand jury, and in what he said later to George Stephanopoulos in the ABC interview — is an object lesson in what might be legally correct and morally repugnant. Legally, he said he was in fear and responded in self-defense. The grand jury accepted this line of reasoning. But a moral ear to his testimony would have heard him describe the young black man, Michael Brown, as a “demon,” using shamefully stereotypical language often associated with the worst forms of racism in the past. Wilson had other options to avoid shooting Brown; he could have summoned help, stayed in his car and waited for help. But to Wilson, based on Wilson’s own language, Brown was not a human being but some kind of monster to be killed.
Wilson could have tempered his heat-of-the-moment perception of Brown had he expressed any second thoughts in his ABC interview. Instead, the now-resigned police officer said that he had no regrets, that he would do it exactly the same way all over again.
Agree or disagree with the self-defense line, what kind of human being expresses no regret whatsoever for killing another? Such obtusely amoral sensibilities raise a frightening spectre of police officers as automatons, fearful borgs of sci-fi lore, shooting to kill with no second thoughts. Shooting at whomever appears to be a “demon” — playing to ancient racist stereotypes that make black men, in particular, constant targets. Even children are not safe, as the recent news of the killing of Tamir Rice in Cleveland confirms.
The most painful lesson of Ferguson is the realization that more than half a century after the great legal triumphs of the Civil Rights Era, in too many places moral practice has not begun to catch up with the laws that were put into place to ameliorate centuries of racial injustice. In too many jurisdictions, police receive training that encourages them to react with force and violence, rather than intelligent and rational analysis of the scene. The trend toward police militarization fuels the perception of “us v. them” with “them” being aliens, beings who do not look like “us” — people whose skin color or accent or other characteristics place them outside of the “norm” perceived by those with power. With guns, badges and the legal authority to shoot-to-kill based on their own judgment, even if that judgment is lacking in sound moral reasoning. Many commentators noted, after the Ferguson grand jury decision, that indictments are rare after police shootings.
Moral failure produces the gravest of injustices. The law puts on the appearance of correctness, but the results are completely unfair, unjust and warped in a way that debilitates the community. African Americans, in particular, continue to suffer not only discrimination but serious threats to their lives and livelihoods as a result of a still-pernicious culture of suspicion, fear and racial hatred in many parts of the nation. Racial hatred also fuels the irrational opposition to immigration reform. Racial hatred is the clear subtext in so much of the more virulent opposition to President Obama.
What’s to be done when we can’t rely on the law to protect everyone in the community, when our reliance on law fails so miserably? We must start by remembering that the law is not a substitute for morality, that what is legal may not lead to the correct moral choice at all. We must insist that police and law enforcement authorities everywhere receive better education and training in moral reasoning and conflict resolution. We must urge courts and the legal system to adopt what Trinity Alumna Liana Fiol Matta ’67, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Puerto Rico, called the virtue of “empathy” in applying the law in any given circumstances. In her remarks at Trinity on November 19, Chief Justice Fiol Matta, she said, “A perspective that is respectful and empathetic is essential to attain justice.”
We can never stop working to achieve that grand vision of legal justice as perfectly aligned with our deepest understanding of morality. And yet, being pragmatic, we also must understand that the highest expression of the human intellect is not deferring to the law, but rather, upholding what is moral. Those of us who make our life’s work in teaching and learning need to think long and hard about the educational challenges at the center of the Ferguson problem.
What are the lessons of Ferguson that we must continue to explore? I welcome comments from members of the Trinity community — click on the comments link below or email me at email@example.comRead comments (0) Add Comment
Remembering Marion S. Barry, Jr.November 23, 2014
(photo credit: Marion Barry (right) with DC Schools Supt. Vincent Reed and Council Chair David Clarke)
While many news stories right now are recounting the foibles of Marion S. Barry, Jr., who died this morning at age 78, I prefer to remember the young activist who once was a bright hope for the District of Columbia. Other sources will recount his crimes and failings, which were many and very destructive for him and for the city. But there was a time when he was also a source of hope and inspiration for a newly-enfranchised city that still struggles too often with racial oppression and political dis-empowerment.
I first met Marion Barry in 1976 when I was a third year law student at Georgetown and he was a member of the first Council of the District of Columbia after the enactment of the Home Rule Charter. Working as a legislative intern for the great Councilmember Julius Hobson, I had a chance to see first-hand how a newly-empowered young government went about the myriad tasks of creating local laws for a city that had been too-long denied real enfranchisement. While Home Rule, itself, was something of a polite fiction — Congress did and still does control the purse-strings and has to give final approval to all D.C. legislation — the 1974 grant of limited home rule was an opportunity for the citizens and leaders of D.C. to start building their own legal and political structures.
That first D.C. Council was a roster of great figures in the national and local civil rights movement: in addition to Councilmembers Barry and Hobson, the group included legends like David A. Clarke (center of photo above with Barry on the right and then-DC Schools Superintendent Vincent Reed), John Wilson, Hilda Mason, Polly Shackleton and others similarly committed to ensuring full enfranchisement for D.C. citizens. Back then, Marion Barry was already a celebrated civil rights hero, someone whose presence was electric, whose convictions were passionate, who filled every room he entered with hope for broader rights and greater empowerment for D.C. Listening to him speak, I always felt convinced in the potential for expansion of rights in D.C. His unflagging belief in his cause was inspiring for the young law students like me who eschewed traditional legal practice in favor of learning the technical ropes behind making laws on the theory that justice could truly be served if we got the law right from the first draft.
Like his colleague David Clarke and others on that first Council, Marion Barry honed his early organizing talents by working alongside the great civil rights leaders of the 1960′s, including Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. (see below) and others. He led the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) one of the legendary protest groups of that era. He was visionary and relentless in standing with the poor and disenfranchised, in calling out racism and confronting injustice. Talking to him in those days was a thrill — he had been with Dr. King! He carried the legacy with elan.
(photo credit: TIME Magazine – Marion Barry (lower right) with Martin Luther King, Jr. and other activists)
I had just left my internship work at the District Building on that awful day in 1977 when shots rang out, and for a few fearful hours bits and pieces of news fueled rumors that Marion Barry was critically wounded by the actions of the group known as the Hanafi Muslims. These were the days before the internet, before twitter and facebook, before cell phones (can you imagine?) so information was limited and anxiety mounted through the 24-hour seige. A young reporter was killed, another person wounded, and more than 100 people were held hostage in three different locations. Skillful negotiators brought the standoff to a peaceful conclusion, but the experience seemed to make Marion Barry even more determined to make his mark on the city.
Sadly, as the years went by, and Councilmember Barry became Mayor Barry, the sense of justice and purity of purpose that emanated from association with the freedom fighters of the 1960′s became clouded, obscured in the treacherous weeds of poor administrative decisions in government and even worse personal choices. The dream of a fully empowered District of Columbia faded as his troubles mounted.
In a news obituary following the death of Council Chairman David Clarke in 1997, the Washington Post reporters observed:
“Notwithstanding considerable differences of personal style and temperament, Clarke had much in common with Mayor Marion Barry. Both men came of age in the civil rights movement, both courted arrest in pursuit of home rule, and both shared an early taste for politics populist and transracial.
“They were among the first politicians to cultivate the gay vote and seemed entirely at ease in public housing complexes and senior citizen centers. ….. Like many of his political soul mates, Clarke never seemed entirely comfortable in the suites of political power. Nor did he seem comfortable, some say, questioning the excesses of the 1980s, when District politicians balanced one expensive social program atop another with little regard for the bottom line.
“Yet, critics say, it was the layering of program upon program without regard for accountable management that led to the city’s fiscal crisis and the imposition of the financial control board by Congress. … Jamin Raskin, a professor at American University Law School and a lifelong D.C. resident and activist, said: “The generation of politicians who fought for home rule were long on vision. But their political values were much stronger than their knowledge of running government.”
“James O. Gibson, a former planning director to Barry and head of the D.C. Agenda, spoke to this conflict between activism and governing. “Dave was caught squarely in the middle of the tension of advocating and governing,” Gibson said. “He and Barry and others came out of a movement, but over the years, the Young Turks have become the aging Turks. Their frames of reference are in the distant past. Their causes seemed very old.” (Michael Powell and Vanessa Williams, “D.C. Council Chair David A. Clarke Dies,” The Washington Post, Saturday, March 29, 1977, A01.)
The cause of justice can never be allowed to grow old. But too many compromises — too many compromising positions — became fodder for those who want D.C. to remain a constitutional stepchild, toothless and often infantilized by members of Congress who would be hard pressed to find the Anacostia River on a map let alone find the time to visit Mississippi Avenue. Marion Barry was not the only politician in D.C. with significant problems, but his were largely personal failings. More seriously, several recent members of the D.C. Council have served jail time for official corruption, others remain under investigation as does Mayor Gray who has seen several close associates indicted. The cause of justice is debilitated when politicians put themselves ahead of the people they are sworn to serve.
Pundits today note that the death of Marion Barry signals the true passing of an era. A new generation of political leaders — particularly Mayor-Elect Muriel Bowser and the new generations taking over the D.C. Council — must restore trust and confidence in the city government. Restoring confidence in local government while reinvigorating the once-intense passion for justice for all people in D.C. is the best way today’s leaders can pay tribute to Marion Barry.
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