There have been, sadly, far too many protest chants of late coined to strike the public consciousness in campaigns against abuses of police authority. One now well-known chant speaks in memory of Eric Garner—“I can’t breathe”—Mr. Garner’s last words as he died on a Staten Island sidewalk.
Breathing is a necessity for life that represents the fact that we are made in the image and likeness of God, who literally breathes the breath of life into a living being (Gn 2:7). The chant raises consciousness about the ways racism takes away an individual life as it also takes life away from all of us.
Like breathing, people of faith are called to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thes 5:17). Nine members of the Charleston Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church exemplified prayer without ceasing, in intimacy with God, when they were murdered on June 17, 2015. And since Eric Garner’s death in July 2014, the wound that is racism seems to bleed unceasingly.
Breathing and prayer represent the universal good of human life and dignity. They represent our divine source and direct us to our ultimate purpose. The “I can’t breathe” chant is not only about an individual life; rather, it goes to the soul of Jesuit education to live the magis, the better course of living for the greater glory of God.
“The more universal a good, the more divine it is,” wrote St. Ignatius Loyola in the Constitutions of the Society of Jesus. Drawn from St. Thomas Aquinas, this was Ignatius’ animating vision of education. For Ignatius, education was not primarily about an abstract value of universal knowledge; rather, it was directed at a fuller integration of faith, learning and living of persons and communities for the magis—the greater glory of God.
A Glaring Disparity
Jesuit institutions of higher learning face a tension between the Ignatian mission to form men and women for others and the incessant pressure to achieve a greater academic reputation. Standing among the most elite institutions of higher education, Jesuit institutions rightfully strive for academic excellence, greater selectivity and economic success.
This tension is apparent in many ways, not least in the fact that Jesuit schools are predominantly white institutions. Racial disparity in higher education is neither accidental nor an anomaly. As the Georgetown University scholars Anthony Carnevale and Jeff Stroh demonstrate in their report “Separate and Unequal: How Higher Education Reinforces the Intergenerational Reproduction of White Racial Privilege,” white students are concentrated “in the nation’s 468 most well-funded, selective four-year colleges and universities.”
The Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities celebrates the fact that all 28 Jesuit colleges and universities rank in the top tier, according to the U.S. News and World Report rankings. Meanwhile, “African-American and Hispanic students are more and more concentrated in the 3,250 least well-funded, open-access, two- and four-year colleges.”
While some may claim that our education system is “colorblind,” in practice it certainly is not. Mr. Carnevale and Mr. Stroh explain that the problem is not only that our secondary education system creates a barrier to college by leaving too many students of color unprepared for college. More disturbingly, the postsecondary system does not treat equally white, African-American and Hispanic students who are similarly qualified.
White students who are just as unprepared for college as their African-American and Hispanic peers get more and better postsecondary opportunities. Conversely, African-American and Latino students who are prepared for college “are disproportionately tracked into crowded and underfunded two-year and open-access four-year colleges.” This structural inequality is too often ignored in conversations about affirmative action, especially when public debate focuses on cases in which a white student was not accepted.
White parents rightfully seek the best education for their children. But white academic and economic success is not due simply to the hard work of students or their parents. Rather, as the education scholar Richard Rothstein explains in a study published by the Economic Policy Institute, “The Making of Ferguson,” racial disparities are rooted in a century of deliberate governmental and business policies that created housing and educational segregation. Housing segregation is a “structural lynchpin” of economic and racial inequality. Owning a home and housing location are critical to predicting access to quality education, development of personal wealth, employment, health and safety, democratic participation, transportation and quality child care.
Jesuit institutions tend not to acknowledge that they are predominantly white institutions. There are several reasons for this, including ignorance, denial, fear of losing applicants and donors and the moral and practical conundrums such honesty presents to people shaped by a predominantly white culture. None of these constitute a good reason to ignore this reality.
Drawing upon the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius in an address at Santa Clara University in 2001, Peter-Hans Kolvenbach, S.J., superior general of the Jesuits, modeled how Jesuit education can articulate “a composition of our time and place” that “embraces six billion people with their faces young and old, some being born and others dying, some white and many brown, and yellow and black.”
Knowledge is pursued not only for its own sake. We must also question the ends of knowledge: “For whom? For what?” Father Kolvenbach answered these questions forthrightly, affirming that every Jesuit academy is called to live in and for a social reality—the composition of our time and place—and “to shed university intelligence upon it, and to use university influence to transform it.”
That suggests Jesuit institutions should no longer remain passive agents in the reproduction of racial inequality. Some institutions, like Fordham University, have undertaken a deliberate training process of “Undoing Racism” among administrators, faculty, staff and students. A growing number of notable scholars at Jesuit institutions are addressing the structural and cultural dynamics at the root of this enduring historical injustice in their research, publication and teaching. Jesuit institutions, with few exceptions, however, tend not to acknowledge the larger “place and composition” of our institutions within a predominantly white society.
The point is not to inflict guilt or shame. I write from a profound sense of love for Ignatian spirituality and the education that I obtained through 14 years of Jesuit education. If I, like many of my fellow Jesuit graduates, have been able to escape the bondage of unexamined racial assumptions and become critical of them, this is due in no small measure to the superior education that opened our intellectual, moral, religious and spiritual horizons for conversion.
This is one of the basic, liberating goals of Jesuit education. The Jesuit historian John W. O’Malley describes this goal through Wittgenstein’s metaphor of “showing the fly the way out of the bottle,” that is, helping students to grow beyond, and become critical of, received bias. Yet Jesuit institutions may not be able to show students the way out of the philosophical bottle if our institutions do not seek to understand how white cultural bias may blind us. The Jesuits’ 34th General Congregation (1995) perceived this reality well when it stated that justice will flourish “only when it involves the transformation of culture, since the roots of injustice are embedded in cultural attitudes as well as economic structures.”
The failure to address the fact that Jesuit institutions are predominantly white institutions is a major lacuna in the effort to live the magis. In the words of the 35th General Congregation, we are called to “engage the world through careful analysis of context, in dialogue with experience evaluated through reflection, for the sake of action, and with openness, always, to evaluation.”
The rationale for Jesuit institutions to develop bold initiatives for both diversity and racial equity are deeply rooted in Jesuit and Catholic values. Multicultural programming offers clear criteria that guide people about how to respect bodily autonomy, how to listen and validate diversity of opinion, free choice and self-determination. These principles are enshrined in a Catholic sense of respect for human dignity. This ought to be uncontroversial.
Yet respect is not enough. A common gap in multicultural programming is that it does not address the relationships between privilege and oppression that pervade society. Multicultural programs tend not to address the invisibility of white power and material dominance.
When multicultural practices avoid interrogation of white dominance, they perpetuate rather than alleviate racial hierarchies. Deep respect for human dignity in the full human diversity that reflects our common good in God’s love demands a love that yearns for and passionately pursues the dismantling of unearned racial privilege as an integral responsibility of Gospel love, justice and equality.
Because of Jesus’ practice of compassion and healing and his critique of unjust wealth and power, he chose to suffer with the despised, the forgotten, the poor. Suffering with and for the oppressed, articulated as solidarity in Catholic social teaching, defines Jesus’ practice of compassion.
Jesus clearly did not follow the norms of piety and respectability of the elite of his day; on the contrary, his practice of compassion threatened the economic, political and religious elites. Indeed, his practice of preferential love ultimately led to his crucifixion. The church recognizes this today when it states that those who “stand up against [racial] repression by certain powers” will “face scorn and imprisonment.”
Jesus’ ministry, suffering and death witness to God’s gratuitous, preferential love for the despised and shapes the transformative heart of Catholic social teaching. The way of preferential solidarity invites intellectual, moral and religious transformation to realize flourishing for all in human community.
As the 32nd Jesuit General Congregation announced in 1975, becoming a “companion of Jesus” means engaging “under the standard of the cross, in the crucial struggle of our time: the struggle for faith and that struggle for justice which it includes.” Constitutive of witnessing to the Gospel, then, are both denouncing unjust structures and announcing more just and life-giving ways of living together as children of one loving God. General Congregation 32 was clear that living in solidarity with the oppressed “cannot be the choice of a few Jesuits only. It should be a characteristic of the life of all of us as individuals and a characteristic of our communities and institutions as well.”
The “I can’t breathe” chant raises a critical question for Jesuit institutions: How do we claim that we celebrate the fullness of human diversity if we are not passionate advocates for racial equality? “I can’t breathe” alerts us to the individual struggle for life and the way societal conditions are created that prevent full human thriving. In other words, it is difficult to say that our institutions maintain a full commitment to diversity if they remain bystanders to the ways many of us participate in the reproduction of blatantly unfair outcomes in educational attainment.
Practicing diversity plus racial equity is a critical way that Jesuit institutions may more fully form men and women for others and celebrate the magis—the better way of proceeding—for the greater glory of God. Jesuit institutions need robust commitment to both diversity and racial equality.
Three shared Jesuit values and goals inform this argument. First, developing a common social analysis of white privilege, power and racism in the context of U.S. history goes to the heart of understanding “our place and composition” within our culture, society and world. The depth and breadth of racism in our culture demand the cultivation of shared insight and tools about the ways we participate in and can undo the biases that deform our institutions. Developing a common analysis of racism is a way that Jesuit institutions may more fully form students in what Father Kolvenbach termed a “well-educated solidarity.”
A second goal is transformation. We cannot free our students from received bias if our institutions do not acknowledge or understand how the broader structural and cultural context of our academies reflect and reproduce white privilege, power and racism. Becoming a dynamic living-learning institution open to social reality is fundamental to our mission and purpose. Some schools, like Fordham University and other institutions, have engaged in proactive, antiracist institutional training through Crossroads Ministry or the People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond, which offer training, resources and capacity-building to engage racial equity practices. The benefits of these practices include increasing workforce diversity; improving recruitment and retention of diverse administrators, faculty, students and staff; and developing a more healthy and dynamic climate for shared conversation and learning for all members of the community.
Liberation constitutes the third constitutive Jesuit value and goal for becoming institutions for diversity and racial equality. This is perhaps one of the most fundamental Jesuit values related to the very heart of education and the Gospel itself. Ultimately all of us are deformed intellectually, morally, humanly and spiritually from racism.
To borrow “I can’t breathe,” the clutches of racism literally take away the breath of individual life as they take life away from all of us. All of us need liberation from racism to become who we are called to be as brothers and sisters who reflect and celebrate the multicolored, multicultural face of God. All of us need to breathe the fresh air of liberation so that we may live authentically in solidarity for the magis—following the better way for the greater glory of God.