Remarks at NSO Racial Justice Panel: “Confronting Racism”

August 24, 2020

Thank you very much, Rosemary. It’s a privilege to join you for this gathering. I’d like to thank my colleagues for their leadership in enabling us all to come together in this way.

Good afternoon, everyone. What a meaningful time to be with all of you—our incoming class—as you embark on your first days, as members of our community.

Our colleagues have organized an important conversation this afternoon, and I wish to thank the planning team and our student orientation leaders for all of their efforts in support of this convening.

As Rosemary shared—we begin with another difficult reminder of the urgency of this conversation about racism in our country. In these most recent acts of police violence in Wisconsin and Louisiana, against Jacob Blake and Trayford Pellerin, both shot by police officers, we bear witness to a system that has too often failed to protect our people.

We demand more of ourselves—we expect more of our country. A better future…a better present…is possible. In this moment of sadness and pain, it is imperative that we support one another, and our Black students and colleagues, for whom this moment is especially challenging.

I hope you will see, in our gathering this afternoon, that we are a community united in this work together.

Yesterday, we formally welcomed you into our Academic community at our New Student Convocation. There, you heard about what it means for you to join a University community, the values and experiences that you will share, as members of this community. We reflected on the mission of Universities—our enduring commitment to formation, inquiry, and the common good.

As we gather today, we can see these three elements of who we are, come alive, as we seek to understand the responsibilities that we, as individuals, and as an institution, have in the promotion of racial justice.

One hundred and fifty-five years ago, the 13th amendment was passed—abolishing slavery in the United States. Yet—our society is still grappling with the problems of racism and racial injustice against people of African descent. We see the structural manifestations of this—in the need to address persistent gaps in income; housing, education and health disparities; police violence; unemployment rates; mass incarceration and unjust sentencing practices; environmental discrimination. And we see it in our daily lives, in words and actions that reflect racist attitudes. 

What we witness, and experience, must lead us to confront issues of racial injustice.

The University can be an invaluable resource to us, in this work.

We engage in the work of formation.

We are engaged in work to understand our own interiority—our beliefs and attitudes, our biases and prejudices, our ways of interpreting and making meaning in our world.

We must ask ourselves—how might we—perhaps unconsciously, or unintentionally—be contributing to or perpetuating these legacies of injustice? 

For our Black students, and our students of color, when you experience racism and discrimination in your daily lives—these are external blocks to your own flourishing that we must confront with you, as you seek to achieve all that you are capable of.  

All of us are engaged in this work of personal formation—of securing that sense of authenticity—that we are who each of us is called to be, that we are what each of us are meant to be.

We engage in the work in inquiry.

We know that, historically, the very ideas of race and subsequently of racism are social constructs, the product of early colonial American scholarship, developed and nurtured in order to justify the institution of slavery.

But as you heard yesterday, our role in society is to pursue the truth.

We must endeavor to uncover and expose those constructs in our world which do not recognize the inherent dignity of each person. We must be unrelenting in this pursuit. 

And we advance the common good—we seek to make a difference in our communities and uphold our shared responsibilities for our civic life together.

This is work that you will come to know. This is work that you will have an opportunity to contribute to…through your scholarship, your service, your engagement…during your time at Georgetown.

We’ve been engaged in a number of projects, as a response to this call for racial justice in our nation.

From the efforts of our Health Justice Alliance and our Health Disparities initiatives…

… programs in community-based policing, reform, and transformation…

…initiatives on technology and society…

…work in the humanities on African American history and culture…

…on equity in education, public policy, and environmental justice…

…and our Prisons and Justice Initiative—which seeks to uplift the dignity of people incarcerated and to end the injustices in the prison system. 

Each of these activities—and more—help to animate our understanding that a commitment to the common good is inextricable from our understanding of our history, as a nation, and the urgent work to ensure that our communities support the flourishing of all of our people.

You will engage in this work here, at Georgetown, guided by extraordinary faculty, who bring unparalleled wisdom and knowledge, regarding how to address and respond to racial justice.

Today, you’ll hear from three individuals who have made a disproportionate difference in their areas of work:

Rosemary Kilkenny—who opened our session, who—for forty years—has helped to shape our efforts on diversity and inclusion here at Georgetown;

Dr. Angelyn Mitchell—a foremost scholar of Toni Morrison, and founder of our African American Studies at Georgetown;

And Fr. Bryan Massingale—who we have been privileged to welcome on a number of occasions to share his reflections and insights on justice in the context of our mission as a Catholic institution.

Three years ago, we convened a special gathering, here at Georgetown, as part of our work on Slavery, Memory, and Reconciliation. You’ll have an opportunity to learn more about this initiative and our University’s history tomorrow, in some of your afternoon sessions, and then, throughout your time here at Georgetown.

In 2017, we gathered with our community and with members of the Descendant community—families whose ancestors had been enslaved on Jesuit plantations in Maryland—to express our contrition and to apologize for our University’s role in the history of slavery and the enslavement of people.

And it was Fr. Bryan Massingale’s words that I recited, as I offered our apology. These were Fr. Massingale’s words: “justice is a pathos, a desire, a longing, a yearning… indeed a passion…before it is a concept or a definition.”[1]

As you engage in this conversation today, guided by these three extraordinary leaders, I hope that you will find inspiration for your own journey towards justice…in your work to combat racism…and for your commitment to advance the common good.

Thank you. Thank you for this opportunity to share these reflections with you. I wish you all the very very best.

[1] Massingale, Bryan N. Racial Justice and the Catholic Church. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2010.