Georgetown University unveils new initiatives to engage issue of racial injustice

The oldest Catholic university in the U.S. will expand its academic focus in African-American studies and establish a new research center as part of a series of measures to better engage the issue of racial injustice in America -- a decision partly fueled by recent campus unrest with its own historical role in slavery.

In a passionate 45-minute speech Friday, Georgetown University President John DeGioia outlined the Jesuit school's renewed commitments to racial equality and to studying the underlying structural and root causes that has led progress on this aspect of equality to move "at a painstakingly slow pace."

"Not for the first time, hardly, but in the last year and a half, we have been witness to incidents that shake our confidence in, for many, an assumption that as a country we were overcoming the legacies -- and their structural groundings -- of slavery, subsequent segregation and systemic racism in all our of lives," he said. 

Events and demonstrations in the past two years across America -- from Ferguson, Mo., to Baltimore, to Cleveland, to Chicago, to Charleston, S.C., to Flint, Mich. -- are reflections of structures long present, DeGioia said. "We just have better lenses today," he added, pointing to new media and technologies that expose the images to a larger, at times global, audience.

The unrest has stretched beyond cities and onto numerous college campuses, including the D.C.-based Georgetown, founded in 1789. In November, students, many of them members of the Black Leadership Forum, staged a sit-in outside DeGioia's office motivated to change the names of two campus buildings recognizing two Jesuit priests involved in the slave trade in the 1830s. A month later, the university gave McSherry Hall and Mulledy Hall temporary news names, Remembrance Hall and Freedom Hall, respectively, as it reviews possible permanent names.

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"Today, we mark a milestone in our efforts to make visible, and to reconcile, the role of slavery and the forced enslavement of Africans and African-Americans by our community," DeGioia said at the Dec. 11 renaming ceremony.


More: "Two Jesuit names worthier of Georgetown halls" (Jan. 16, 2016)


The previous names, he said, were "a failure of moral imagination" -- a concept he repeatedly revisited during his town hall Friday -- and challenged the university to use the moment as a step toward building a strong community serving all of the common good.

"This is the moment for us to find within each of ourselves and within our community, the resources of our moral imaginations to determine how we can contribute to responding to this urgent moment in our nation," he said Friday.

DeGioia, who has led the university since 2001, offered four commitments he believed will "provide the architecture" to take that step:

  • establish a major in African-American Studies, in addition to forming a department or interdisciplinary program that would serve as a "center of gravity" for exploring questions of race and injustice;
  • expand its faculty in this area seeking to recruit four faculty in each of the next two academic years (2016-17, 2017-18);
  • create a new research center for the study of racial injustice in U.S. society.
  • develop a senior officer position at the university to support these efforts.

A working group on racial injustice will be appointed to oversee the first three commitments.

"I commit Georgetown to making these important new investments. These will happen, but we will do all this … as we do all important and successful work that we have all been a part of here together by listening to one another, letting all who can contribute to participate in the new endeavors and working together to achieve our goals," DeGioia said.

"Why is this a priority now?" he continued. "Because our social and political culture has not been remedied, and in fact, in a set of recent events, it has deteriorated. Because there is a holy impatience among the African-American community, that delay is just another way of saying 'no.' Because the moral imperative for complete social justice continues to summon us -- not to discussion but to action -- and that summons will not go away.

"We ignore social morality at our peril," he said.

Earlier in the address, DeGioia said the images from Ferguson and other U.S. cities shatter the idea that America has entered a post-racial society, even as its first African-American president nears the conclusion of his second term.

"Along with our cameras, we have the realization that we are hardly post-racial. One hundred and fifty years after the abolition of slavery, American society is still grappling with the problems of racism and racial injustice regarding our citizens of African descent," DeGioia said.

Among the examples of ongoing problems, he listed income, housing, education and health disparities; people of color overrepresented in U.S. prisons; and environmental discrimination.

"We are witnesses today of the ramifications of the American experience of racism traceable to the very settling of our country. What we witness must lead us to confront how continual racial injustice within the American context is manifest, and how to identify creative responses to it," he said.


More: "US Catholics allergic to reality of environmental racism, theologian says at St. John's University" (Feb. 2, 2016)


As a Catholic and Jesuit university, Georgetown has special importance to respond to the demands of social justice -- among them issues of race, DeGioia said. While in the past four decades the school has had success in responding to other challenges, "we have not, however, sufficiently grappled with the problem of racial injustice."

The president, himself an alumnus, credited the groundwork conducted by the school's current African-American Studies program (formed in 1980 and housed in the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service) and the Center on Poverty and Inequality at its law school. In September, DeGioia commissioned a separate 15-member Working Group on Slavery, Memory, and Reconciliation -- composed of students, professors and Jesuit priests -- to review the university's historical role in slavery. It was this working group that in November recommended the university rename Mulledy and McSherry Halls.

Such initiatives, he said, give Georgetown the confidence in its ability to begin these new efforts, whereas he doubted such a conversation could have occurred even a decade ago. Going forward, the university, across departments and schools, has "a new contribution to make at an urgent inflection point in our history." DeGioia said. "This moment demands our engagement in fact."

"There is no more urgent question facing our world than the question of understanding this test of justice. What are our responsibilities to one another, especially those who may be other?" he said.

[Brian Roewe is an NCR staff writer. His email address is broewe@ncronline.org. Follow him on Twitter: @BrianRoewe.]


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