Working Group on Racial Justice: A Georgetown Response

You may view the members of the working group here and President DeGioia’s remarks, which announced this effort, here

To: The Members of the Georgetown University Community
From: John J. DeGioia
February 4, 2016

Charge to the Working Group on Racial Injustice: A Georgetown Response

In a conversation with the Georgetown community on February 4, 2016 entitled “A Conversation on Racial Injustice: Georgetown’s Future Engagement,” I outlined a set of commitments for Georgetown University that embrace a responsibility to address long-standing issues of importance to our community.  Georgetown will engage in a focused effort to position the University to be a leading center for intellectual and academic engagement specifically focused on racial injustice in American society.

The purpose of the Working Group is to explore and recommend pathways of choice for this new stage of development for the University.  The Working Group will address three commitments:

These commitments are grounded on our dedication to academic excellence, our presence in the city of Washington DC, and our institutional fidelity to our Catholic and Jesuit identity.

One hundred and fifty years after the abolition of slavery, American society is still grappling with problems of racism and racial injustice regarding our citizens of African descent.  Recent public manifestations of racism and racial injustice have underscored the urgency of the need to address these problems—persistent income, housing, education, and health disparities as well as public demonstrations against police killings, escalating crime rates, increasing unemployment rates, and mass incarceration of blacks through unjust sentencing practices.

We are witnesses today of the ramifications of the American experience of racism traceable to the very settling of the country.  What we witness must lead us to confront how continual racial injustice within the American context is manifest as well as to identify creative responses to it.  An authentic response from Georgetown recognizes our connection to this history, our effort to contribute as one of the world’s leading universities, our Catholic and Jesuit heritage, and the resources of ecumenical and interfaith understanding.

For a place like Georgetown it is of special importance to recognize and deepen this sense of responsibility.  Our heritage as a Catholic and Jesuit university calls us to respond to the demands of social justice.  As a Catholic university, we draw from the deep tradition of Catholic Social Thought.  In modern times this tradition has been captured in a series of fourteen encyclicals beginning in 1891 with Rerum Novarum of Leo XIII and continues to our present day with Laudato Si of Pope Francis.  The development of this heritage has identified seven themes, and perhaps the most important is “solidarity.”  To quote the US Catholic Conference of Bishops:

“We are one human family whatever our national, racial, ethnic, economic, and ideological differences.”1

Pope Francis, speaking in Brazil in July 2013, said:

…never tire of working for a more just world, marked by greater solidarity! No one can remain insensitive to the inequalities that persist in the world! Everybody, according to his or her particular opportunities and responsibilities, should be able to make a personal contribution to putting an end to so many social injustices.2

As a Jesuit university we have also embraced a challenge that was presented by the Superior General of the Jesuits, Father Pedro Arrupe, throughout his tenure of leadership from 1966 through 1983.  Acutely aware of the grave social injustices in our world—he was expelled by the Republican government in Spain, lived in Hiroshima in 1945, and was painfully aware of the oppressive regimes in Latin America and the failure of some in the Church to come to terms with those injustices.

In 1973, Fr. Arrupe laid the groundwork for a deeper challenge.  In a speech entitled “Men and Women for Others,” he called on educators to undertake rigorous self-evaluation and “above all make sure that in the future the education imparted in Jesuit schools will be equal to the demands of justice in the world.”3

We, at Georgetown University, have been responding to Father Arrupe’s challenge for more than four decades. We have not, however, sufficiently grappled with the problem of racial injustice.

But this is not just a Catholic and Jesuit issue—it is a crucial moral issue that is both ecumenical and interfaith and will be strengthened by the cooperative engagement of the faith traditions that contribute so powerfully to the Georgetown experience.  We can draw on this distinctive strength of Georgetown as we embrace this moment of opportunity for our community.

The Working Group will be asked to explore and recommend approaches that address three commitments:

[1] Georgetown will build upon the recent decision of the Executive Committee of the College to establish a major in African American Studies and will now seek to create a Department and/or a broader Interdisciplinary Program of African American Studies. 

Departments provide homes for mentoring of faculty, tenure, majors and minors.   They are our most common form of academic structure.  But the essential elements are a charter of some permanence, faculty citizenship that is long-lasting, a size that permits diversity of intellectual approaches, and a space that is home.  Across our nation’s universities, a Department of African-American Studies has been the most common approach of organization.

At the same time, we recognize that to draw from the full resources of our community, it will be important to determine how best to capture the “inter-disciplinary” character of this work.  How can a Department of African American Studies support this interdisciplinary character?

Our Working Group will need to explore whether the structure of a traditional department will support inter-disciplinary work that crosses the full range of schools and disciplines that can contribute to this effort.  Perhaps we will need both a Department and an Interdisciplinary program or perhaps the educational programs will be housed within a Research Center (as outlined below). 

We do not need to rush the question of structure: the structure itself can be an appropriate area of continued focus and re-evaluation as to what will sustain an enduring commitment to this effort.  But we will need to make some choices that will enable us to get started.  The steps we take must ensure there is recognition of a clear institutional commitment to African American Studies.

Among the questions the Working Group will be asked to explore:

[2] A second step that the Working Group will be asked to explore is the design of a university-wide Research Center focused on racial injustice and the persistent and enduring legacy of racism and segregation in the American experience.  Particular attention will be focused on the structural causes that are at the root of racial inequalities within our society.

This Research Center will provide a new framework for integrating the resources of Georgetown in the service of justice.  By doing so we become congruent with Decree 4, which in 1974, in the Thirty-Second General Congregation of the Society of Jesus, set forth a “redefinition” of the Jesuit Order.  It reads: “The mission of the Society of Jesus today is the service of faith, of which the promotion of justice is an absolute requirement.”4

Among the issues the Working Group will be asked to explore:

[3] Third, we can’t accomplish either of these two goals without a critical mass of new colleagues dedicated to this work.  We will act purposively to build our faculty to ensure we can responsively pursue these goals.

We will commit to recruit the number of faculty commensurate with the commitments needed to support a Department and/or Interdisciplinary program, and a Research Center.  As we expand the number of faculty recruited to support this work, we expect that some of these faculty can contribute to the educational program; some, the research program; some, both.  In addition, we will be strengthened through additional graduate fellowships and post-doctoral opportunities. 

As first steps, for the coming year (2016-17), we will authorize four immediate recruitments of new members of the faculty and four recruitments for the following year (2017-18).

I will ask the Working Group:

I will look to this Working Group to ensure our commitment to engaging the perspectives of our community as we move forward with these important commitments.  I commit Georgetown to making these important new investments.  These will happen.  But we will do so as we do all important, successful work—together, listening to one another, letting all who can contribute to participate in the new endeavors, and working together to achieve our goals.  These discussions will not be about whether we do these things, but how best to do them in the urgency of the moment.


John J. DeGioia


1 “Seven Themes of Catholic Social.” Sharing Catholic Social Teaching: Challenges and Directions. United States Conference of Catholic Bishops Communications, 2015. 2016.

2 Francis. “Visit to the Community of Varginha Manguinhos.” 25 July 2013. Web.

3 Arrupe, Pedro, and Kevin F. Burke. Pedro Arrupe: Essential Writings. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2004. Print.

4 Decree 4 of the 32nd General Congregation of the Society of Jesus December 2nd, 1974 – March 7th, 1975.” Our Mission Today: The Service of Faith and the Promotion of Justice. Institute of Jesuit Sources. 

You may access a PDF version of the charge here (new window)