Confronting Racism

May 31, 2020

Dear Members of the Georgetown University Community:

In recent weeks my communication with you has focused on the global pandemic and how we—as a Georgetown University community—are working our way through the challenges generated by a virus that has created a degree of dislocation and disequilibrium unlike any we have experienced in our lifetimes.  In just three horrific months, one in four Americans has become unemployed and is looking for work.  More than a hundred thousand people in our country have lost their lives to COVID-19.  Our individual and collective routines and rhythms have all been disrupted.  Although we are now beginning our tentative first steps toward a re-opening (under conditions of great uncertainty), we know we have much to do to rebuild our nation.

In the midst of this devastating experience, the original fault line of our republic has been exposed once again for the nation.  We grieve the killing of George Floyd in Minnesota, Breonna Taylor in Kentucky, and Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia as unconscionable acts of violence.  Their deaths, and subsequent nationwide protests, once again present our country—and each one of us—with the imperative to confront the enduring legacy of slavery and segregation in America.

On too many occasions over the years, there has been cause for me to share reflections with our community, as we grapple with the devastating impact of racism and hatred in our nation.  In August 2014, following the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri; in December 2015, following the grand jury decision in the killing of Eric Garner in Staten Island, New York; in August 2017, following the march of white supremacists and neo-Nazis in Charlottesville, Virginia.  In these moments, which encompass far from the full extent of experiences of racism and racist violence, I have tried to frame the work in which we must engage within the mission and purpose of the Academy.  Our role in society—to pursue the truth—through the methodologies and disciplines through which we establish knowledge in our world, demands our engagement.  In our response, we have sought to accelerate our academic commitment to addressing racial justice, and to address our own connection to the institution of slavery and the enduring legacy of racism and to undo the structural elements that sustain this legacy.

We know this legacy is sustained by two elements: first, it is sustained by our own interiority—our beliefs and attitudes, our biases and prejudices, our ways of interpreting and making meaning in our world.  Perhaps this element is unconscious, implicit, and unintentional, but it is nevertheless omnipresent and fundamentally influential.  We also know that the very ideas of race and subsequently of racism are social constructs, the product of early American scholarship, developed and nurtured in order to justify the institution of slavery.

The second element consists of institutional structures that perpetuate inequity and inequality.  Consider what we have seen since mid-March with the pandemic caused by COVID-19: African Americans in our country have been hit disproportionately hard by COVID-19.

A study by amfAR—the Foundation for AIDS Research, done in collaboration with colleagues at our O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law, indicates that 22% of U.S. counties are “disproportionately black” and that these counties “account for 52% [of COVID-19 cases] and 58% [of COVID-19 deaths].”  In a recent column, Michele L. Norris of the Washington Post indicated:

For the members of the Georgetown University community, this evidence of structural injustice in healthcare has animated the work of many of our colleagues for decades.  Recently, through the work of our colleague, Professor Christopher King, PhD, we have a deeper grasp of the health disparities here in our nation’s capital.  His 2016 report, The Health of the African American Community in the District of Columbia: Disparities and Recommendations provided a comprehensive presentation of the realities here in the District.  In the coming days, a second report, Health Disparities in the Black Community: An Imperative for Racial Equity in the District of Columbia, will be released.  Professor King calls us to the work of achieving the day “when race is no longer a predictor of a health outcome.”

There are other structures—economic, educational, housing, criminal justice—that sustain inequity and inequality that are the enduring legacy of our American history.  Coming out of these past three months, we know we have a nation to rebuild.  We need to find ways to put forty million Americans back into the workforce and we must still contain a virus that remains a lethal threat to all of us.  At the same time, we cannot return to a status quo that leaves inequity and inequality in place.  As part of that determination, we must address the conditions that lead to the senseless and indefensible loss of life of our fellow citizens.  We need to confront the violence that shapes the daily experiences of far too many, who expect so much more of us, as a people.  We need to listen to the anger, the pain, the trauma that accompanies our failure to meet these expectations.

This requires the work of each of us and of all of us.  Individually, in each of our own interiority, we must determine how we contribute to perpetuating injustice and sustaining structures that cannot continue and that now must be reimagined.  And, for us in our shared membership in this Georgetown University community, it remains for us in the Academy to contribute to this work of reimagining the social, political, economic and moral structures to ensure justice for all—and especially for those for whom it has been too long denied.


John J. DeGioia