One year ago this week, our nation took a sharp turn to the right, abandoning the hope of a “post-racial” society that some saw in the election of President Barack Obama for two terms. Instead, in a stunning reversal of what we thought were long-settled national values, the United States elected a president whose first year in office has torn asunder our naive mythologies about race and racism in American society. Behold today a president whose words and deeds give aid and comfort to those who dwell in the caverns of racial suspicion and hatred, an administration that has now become famous for the most pernicious of lies about American history, denying that slavery was a direct cause of the Civil War; for failing to confront white supremacy while taunting African Americans in overt ways (denigrating Black neighborhoods as rife with crime, dismissing the NFL players’ protests as unpatriotic rather than a legitimate protest against police brutality) and more subtle but even more devastating ways (undermining healthcare subsidies, proposing a tax package that will only further burden the poor and a disproportionate share of the African American community).
As a religious tradition that proclaims the dignity of life as a fundamental element of our faith, Catholics and Catholic institutions have a large imperative to confront the racial and ethnic hatred that plagues our society and that currently fuels too much of the political chaos in our country. We are well past red state-blue state issues, Democrats v. Republicans, Hillary and Bernie and Donald and whomever. Confronting racism and ethnic hatred is not about political ideology but moral values. It’s not about being “politically correct” but morally righteous, planting our stake firmly on the side of the right of all human beings to be treated with respect, dignity and in freedom. Justice is both a legal and moral concept, and in the way our political system treats vulnerable persons, especially those who have been marginalized because of race, ethnicity, social class and other personal characteristics, we have a society that either honors moral values or debases itself repeatedly.
Last week, Cardinal Donald Wuerl of the Archdiocese of Washington issued a remarkable pastoral letter in which he denounced all forms of racism and called on the Catholic community to respond more affirmatively and boldly to the conditions that foster racism in our society. Please take a minute and read The Challenge of Racism Today, in which Cardinal Wuerl states:
“The mission of reconciliation takes on fresh emphasis today as racism continues to manifest itself in our country, requiring us to strengthen our efforts. We are all aware of incidents both national and closer to home that call attention to the continuing racial tensions in our society. In spite of numerous positive advances and the goodwill of many, many people, too many of our brothers and sisters continue to experience racism. So much is this true that our United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has established an Ad Hoc Committee Against Racism made up of clergy, laywomen and laymen to speak out on this divisive evil that leaves great harm in its wake.
“…To address racism, we need to recognize two things: that it exists in a variety of forms, some more subtle and others more obvious; and that there is something we can do about it even if we realize that what we say and the steps we take will not result in an immediate solution to a problem that spans generations. We must, however, confront this issue with the conviction that in some personal ways we can help to resolve it…
“In whatever form, intolerance of other people because of their race, religion or national origin is ultimately a denial of human dignity. No one is better than another person because of the color of their skin or the place of their birth. What makes us equal before God and what should make us equal in dignity before each other is that we are all sisters and brothers of one another, because we are all children of the same loving God who brought us into being.
“Racism denies the basic equality and dignity of all people before God and one another. It is for this reason that the United States bishops in the November 1979 pastoral letter on racism, Brothers and Sisters to Us, clearly state: “Racism is a sin.” It is a sin because “it divides the human family, blots out the image of God among specific members of that family and violates the fundamental human dignity of those called to be children of the same Father.” The letter goes on to remind us that “Racism is the sin that says some human beings are inherently superior and others essentially inferior because of race.”
“Racism is defined as a sin because it offends God by a denial of the goodness of creation. It is a sin against our neighbor, particularly when it is manifested in support of systemic social, economic and political structures of sin. It is also a sin against the unity of the Body of Christ by undermining that solidarity by personal sins of prejudice, discrimination and violence.”
Read Cardinal Wuerl’s full letter here, and the post includes a Spanish translation as well.
Trinity responds to the Catholic imperative to work to overcome racism in numerous ways. Our mission is open to students, faculty and staff from all backgrounds, races and religions who find at Trinity a place of care, intellectual and spiritual growth, hospitality and support. Our student body reflects our commitment in the enrollment of a large majority of African American students as well as a growing proportion of Latina students, undocumented immigrants, persons who have experienced economic and social marginalization in many ways. We uphold the dignity of each human person here and expect every member of the campus community to demonstrate continuous and clear respect for each other and the values of this university.
Beyond our own institutional characteristics, Trinity seeks to influence and animate the larger community in advocacy and action for human rights and civil rights, for policies and practices that protect the most vulnerable members of our community, that enshrine the Gospel values of social justice. Our work in teaching, learning, research and action here prepare students to give witness to our values in the many places they influence as well.
Recently we have focused a good deal of attention on our students who are DREAMers, predominantly Latina students who are directly threatened by unjust and hateful government actions. As I stated in my remarks in the DACA symposium last week, the recission of DACA is just one manifestation of the increasingly popular trend in our country, fostered by the current administration, to express contempt for the human person, to permit ethnic and racial hatred to influence public policy, to give wide latitude to the same kinds of dispositions that promote white supremacy and hatred of immigrants. Make no mistake about it: ALL acts of hatred against human beings based on their skin color, language, race and ethnicity have the same roots in a truly evil contempt for human life.
On campus our faculty and staff team are hosting a number of programs in which students and the campus community can gather to learn and discuss methods for continuing growth in our resolve to give witness to justice. Among other activities, this year the Trinity Reads text is Chimamanda Adichie’s Americanah about the struggles of Black women in America. Trinity Reads will also hold a screening this week of the acclaimed documentary “I Am Not Your Negro” on the life and work of James Baldwin, and Dr. Dionne Clemons will moderate in AC103 at 6:30 pm on November 7. Many more thoughtful programs are on the agenda, and I hope that all students, faculty and staff can take the time to participate in these programs as well as continuing your great work for justice in all that you do.
I will be writing more about these issues in the days to come, and I welcome your comments and essays on related topics — I will publish essays on this blog that are well-written, so send them to me at firstname.lastname@example.org
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