A Message on Racial Injustice
Dear Members of the University Community,
I write to you today both as president and as a Jesuit priest caring for this community. In the wake of the killings of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor – and too many others before them – I affirm the value and dignity of Black life and Black people. I am in solidarity with our Black students, faculty, staff, alumni and friends for whom these days are particularly painful. I honor your strength and cherish your voices. I offer my support and love to you in these traumatic times, and I ask everyone in our community to do the same.
At this moment in our nation, it is vital that the voices of white people (including mine) join with other voices to name the injustice we see and acknowledge the hurt, anger, and frustration felt in our community. As a Jesuit university, we are nothing without community, a “beloved community” as Dr. King framed it. Any harm or hurt to one of us impacts another for we are one body, to use an image from Scripture. We are all children of God, which makes us brothers and sisters, a family. The differences in our family – our diversity – is blessed, and a sure sign of God’s creativity. But when racism and other forms of bigotry create divisions and separations among us, that is sin, a tearing apart of the body – the most extreme form of which is the violent taking of life, in this case, Black lives. And Black lives do matter.
At Santa Clara University, we are committed to creating a community of generous encounter, a place where all feel respected, welcomed, and safe. As our most recent campus climate survey indicated, this is not always the case here for our students of color in particular, and together we must work towards a more inclusive community where each can thrive.
Over the weekend, I received a petition from students related to our relationship with the City of Santa Clara Police Department and its practices and training. I met with student leaders from the student group, Igwebuike, on Sunday night for a very honest and productive conversation, steeped in good will and shared concern. Joining me in the conversation were Jeanne Rosenberger, vice provost for student life; Margaret Russell, associate provost for diversity and inclusion; and Phil Beltran, chief of campus safety services. We agreed with the three substantive points of the petition and are setting a plan now to address the concerns, including meeting with the Santa Clara police chief and leveraging our influence as a university to ensure best practices in the department. We are committed to the highest degrees of professionalism for our own public safety officers. We are also committed to maintaining a campus community where all feel safe. We will review and, if needed, revise our bias incident reporting protocol to make the reporting of incidents more accessible.
We cannot change what we do not know or understand. This means that we must take responsibility to work through challenging issues, including the systemic causes of injustice and racism. As a University committed to excellence in teaching, learning, and research, we have the tools to understand the legacy of white supremacy. We can reckon with abuses of power that range from excessive use of force by police, to voter suppression, and to disparities in access to health care. At the same time, we can identify paths to transformation of cultures and systems, fueled by the inclusion of voices most impacted by marginalization and violence. When the news cycle moves on, Santa Clara will not.
As a Christian, I recognize that the path to transformation begins in the human heart. Change is not simply a political program: it is also, Dr. King reminded us, a spiritual one. I need to transform my own heart, with its reliance on privileges and biases that erode God-created goodness. We know that the problems we face are not solely about physical violence. There are moments in which slights, threats, and rejection pierce the hearts of our brothers and sisters. The racial aggression that Christian Cooper recently experienced in Central Park was emblematic of the systemic racism that people of color often experience and rarely get an opportunity to fully capture and share with others.
For those who have no lived experience of racism or bigotry, and may be struggling to understand the events and reactions of these last few days, let alone years, I urge you to listen and learn, and then add your voice. Michelle Obama posted this weekend, “But if we ever hope to move past [racism], it can’t just be on people of color to deal with it. It’s up to all of us—Black, white, everyone—no matter how well-meaning we think we might be, to do the honest, uncomfortable work of rooting it out.”
My heart breaks when, as over the last few days, I hear from our students who are tired, scared, or just fed up. When I was serving at Georgetown, we had a number of town halls in 2014 after the killings of Michael Brown and Eric Garner. I also served while the Georgetown community embarked on a process of connecting our contemporary context with the painful history of Jesuits and slavery. I now share your frustration that we seem to be having the same conversations again. We heard Eric Garner’s voice echo in George Floyd’s dying words: “I can’t breathe.” I remember a Georgetown sophomore sharing with me one night, “You know, Father, that could have been me.” Each Black life has a name.
Yesterday in the LA Times, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar wrote: “I don’t want to see stores looted or even buildings burn. But African Americans have been living in a burning building for many years, choking on the smoke as flames burn closer and closer. Racism in America is like dust in the air. It seems invisible — even if you’re choking on it — until you let the sun in. Then you see it’s everywhere. As long as we keep shining that light, we have a chance of cleaning it wherever it lands. But we have to stay vigilant, because it’s always still in the air.” Violence in any form has no place in the beloved community we want to build. Nor does silence in the face of injustice.
Education brings light. Faith brings light. Community brings light. These are our strengths as a Jesuit university. With this tradition and in this light, we will help clean the air and start the racial healing now. Through the efforts of Santa Clara students, staff, faculty, and alumni over the years, we have become a better university. But there is more work to do. Let us pray for strength and wisdom for our journey ahead.
In solidarity and hope,
Kevin F. O'Brien, S.J.