Father Jenkins, it’s not enough.
Letter to the Editor | Tuesday, June 2, 2020
On May 30, the University of Notre Dame published “Statement by Rev. John I. Jenkins, C.S.C., President, University of Notre Dame, on racial justice” on its official news site. Fr. Jenkins begins by stating that “George Floyd’s tragic death cries out for justice and a recommitment to fight racism.” He follows this by reminding us of the fact that Fr. Ted Hesburgh, a previous Notre Dame president, once marched alongside Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Lastly, Fr. Jenkins reminds us to pray for “justice, solidarity and a healing of divisions.”
And that’s all. Two sentences. Fifty-two words.
The statement is just barely longer than the caption of the photo it accompanies, one that Notre Dame students have become accustomed to seeing on campus: a picture of Fr. Hesburgh standing arm-in-arm with Dr. King. This image is consistently used as a means to pacify the black students and alumni of the University. It is plastered on the walls of the LaFortune Student Center, posted on banners during Black History Month and used for every statement Notre Dame makes about race. Jenkins’s statement manages to say nothing of substance, yet speaks volumes about how Notre Dame views its black students. Where was the solidarity when a black student was attacked by NDSP and racist students on campus in November? Where was the solidarity when students protested this and were threatened with expulsion? This statement is a slap to the face for all of us who were expecting some form of support or solidarity. Instead, we got a 60-year-old photo that pretends to take a stance but means nothing today.
Fr. Jenkins’s use of the memory of this isolated incident — preserved in a photo — enables the assumption that recalling the actions of a previous University president makes the current administration exempt from taking further action. So far, it seems as though Fr. Jenkins does not want to set an example; rather, he wants to unearth an example set by someone who looks like him and point at it from a distance. What is meant to be a statement on racial justice is instead a statement about the University’s refusal to effectively address anything that has taken place after 1964.
Prayers and memories of past actions are no substitute for active solidarity. There are many steps Notre Dame can take, on a national scale and to show support for black students and alumni. First, we must acknowledge the disturbing acts of violence committed by police officers and the white supremacy that plagues our justice system in America. Second, we must recognize that the same issues are prevalent on Notre Dame’s campus to this day, and take action to address these. We must create a safe and inclusive environment for our black and minority students, faculty and staff, working alongside these members of the community to meet the needs and demands that have been ignored for far too long.
If Fr. Jenkins is able to cite 1964 as a year that Notre Dame helped the nation make progress, then he should be able to acknowledge the following decades, in which the University has repeatedly failed its black students.
If Fr. Jenkins is able to cite the death of George Floyd — just one of a painfully long list — as a cry for justice, then he should be able to make specific promises to aid in the deliverance of this justice, both nationally and within the Notre Dame community.
If Fr. Jenkins is able to recycle a protest photo from one day that Notre Dame was on the right side of history in 1964, then he should be able to take a new protest photo — of Notre Dame being on the right side of history in 2020.
Joyce Tipe and Angelica Ketcham
The views expressed in this Letter to the Editor are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.