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A local framework: A gap between belief and practice

| Tuesday, January 28, 2020

This Walk the Walk week, I had the chance to speak at a panel discussion hosted by the Kroc Institute of International Peace Studies — Reparations and Reconciliation at Notre Dame. What I loved so much about this panel is that it forces us to reckon with the contemporary implications of America’s past at the local level. Instead of asking “What can I do for my country?,” we posed the question: “What is my responsibility to my neighbor?”

When it comes to serving our neighbors, what we see in the case of Notre Dame is a need to attend to a gap between belief and practice. We proudly tout the principles of Catholic Social Teaching as the foundation of our academic mission, yet our deeds do not show solidarity or compassion for the poor and disenfranchised communities of South Bend. We have programs that are meant to serve communities all over the world, such as the International Summer Service Learning Program (ISSLP), and many research apprenticeships dedicated to studying inequality abroad. Yet we turn away from the disparity in the lives of our South Bend brothers and sisters, and even disparity on our own campus, within our own community.

We talk in theory about alleviating the world of the broad structural burdens of oppression, but fail to apply these frameworks in our relationship to South Bend. We turn a blind eye to the poverty and injustice that burdens the lives of many living right next door. Black and Indigenous communities across America have a right to pursue reparations. There is no exception in the Notre Dame-South Bend community. In fact, I argue that because of Notre Dame’s character as a Catholic and pro-life community, it has a responsibility to lead by example of how American institutions shall repair the damage caused by America’s transgressions against its Black and Brown communities.

It is built into America’s moral imagination, beginning with its Founding Fathers, to vary from the right rule of reason, to quit principles of human nature, to violate the moral law and commit crimes against fellow members of humanity in pursuit of capitalistic gains. And for every dollar earned, the moral debts have accumulated.

In the words of Black scholar and activist Ta-Nahesi Coates, “It is as though we have run up a credit card bill and, having pledged to change no more, remain befuddled that the balance does not disappear.”

The debt is accruing exponentially, day by day, and it is all around us. It is true that the lives of Black Americans are better than 50 years ago. There is no more humiliation of “Whites Only” signs. The rates of Black poverty have decreased. However, we are still only a half-step away from our long centuries of despoilment. Only a half-step away from the promise: “Never again.”

Over the past 50 years, the income gap between Black and white households has not changed. According to a study done by the Urban Institute in 2016, the median family wealth of a given Black family is $17,409 while that of a white family is $171,000. Regardless of income, Black people are less wealthy. When financial hardship falls, it falls hard. Medical emergencies, divorce and job loss sends Black Americans tumbling down the economic ladder, while for the average white American these are more often minor financial inconveniences.

In South Bend, there are multiple intersecting crises that keep Blacks at the bottom of the economic scale. You don’t have to drive far up Notre Dame Avenue before seeing the clear lines of distinction of who belongs where in this city.

Maybe the streets Napoleon Boulevard, Corby, St. Louis and Miner Street ring a bell. These are the roads we navigate routinely without regard to the violence of gentrification present in many of our surrounding neighborhoods — neighborhoods that not too long ago hosted a disadvantaged, but still vibrant Black and Brown South Bend community, and where dozens of homes have been evicted and are now vacant within 10 blocks of Angela and Twyckenham.

It was only 50 years ago that African Americans in South Bend could not buy a home, receive a loan or even live in certain neighborhoods. Inside of the Civil Rights Heritage Center downtown there are posters from the civil rights era, with covenants from local neighborhoods that say a home could only be bought or leased by a white person. Young people say, “Wow, I thought this had happened a lot longer ago than it did,” but even today, safe, affordable housing is a problem for many Black people across the city.

It is easy to place the problem of poverty in South Bend entirely on deindustrialization of the Midwest, but we cannot deny the truth that Notre Dame is incredibly responsible for pushing people in worse and worse situations. For example, several properties on all sides of campus have been bought by Notre Dame realtors to sell to students and tenured professors. In a report by the Eviction Lab, South Bend is ranked 18th on the top evicting large cities in the United States. On average in 2016, South Bend had three evictions a day and a 6.7% eviction rate.

With facts so pressing, one has to ask the question: what is holding Notre Dame back in exercising “the preferential option for the poor?”

Instead we contribute to these oppressive and classist structures. We should support reparations, submit our questions and concerns to study and then assess the proper methods. But Notre Dame is not interested. This is because it is Black and Indigenous people who are making these claims. Not only do we (as in America and Notre Dame) believe that reparations are impractical, the problem is much more existential. We conclude that the conditions in South Bend and Black America are not inexplicable but are instead precisely what you’d expect of a community that for centuries has lived under American oppression.

But we must not grow complacent with these struggles. We must acknowledge how white institutions contribute to Black disadvantage and commit to the appropriate remedies.

What do these appropriate remedies look like? It looks like calling gentrification what it is: classism. It looks like reversing these effects by actively creating affordable housing options in the community. It looks like eliminating the Notre Dame bubble, and establishing true kinship with the Black and Indigenous folks outside of our walls. It looks like taking our 13.8 billion dollar endowment out of this one mile radius, and sharing this wealth with the people Notre Dame has historically robbed of their right to a safe and secure life.

Savanna Morgan is a senior and can be reached at [email protected]

Show Some Skin is a student-run initiative committed to giving voice to unspoken narratives about identity and difference. Using the art of storytelling as a catalyst for positive social change across campus, we seek to make Notre Dame a more open and welcoming place for all. If you are interested in breaking the silence and getting involved with Show Some Skin, email [email protected]

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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