Violence of silence
Letter to the Editor | Thursday, June 4, 2020
In the past week, a 1964 black-and-white photograph of Martin Luther King Jr. linking arms with protestors including Fr. Theodore Hesburgh has been trotted out (again) to justify the University’s non-committal stance on the violent murders of black individuals by armed civilians. President John Jenkins’ 54-word statement on George Floyd’s murder included only 14 words addressing Floyd’s killing before reflecting on an included copy of the MLK-Hesburgh photograph and Hesburgh’s “Come Holy Spirit” prayer. At the Basilica of the Sacred Heart’s Pentecost Mass, less than one week after Floyd’s murder, the priest’s homily referenced the 1964 photograph and called those gathered virtually and in-person to pray for peace.
Nowhere in these platitudes was a call to act in any affirmative manner. The desire for real, tangible change remains unspoken. This statement of silence is a betrayal of Notre Dame’s Black faculty, staff and students. The University administration repeats the company line about Hesburgh as if his actions absolve the institution from new ones. Hesburgh’s work countering white supremacy 60 years ago has become a coverall for a University that needs to do more today. It is clear the administration is more concerned with the preservation of its image than with the preservation of the Black lives it claims to defend.
This truth was evident at the University’s official prayer service on June 1, marketed as a “Prayer for Unity, Walk for Justice.” When I arrived at the designated start location on Library Quad, the reflecting pool which has been empty for weeks was now full of water, ensuring a quality backdrop for photographs taken at this event. A stage with a podium bearing the University crest had been set up overnight (I had run past the library the day before when no stage was present). Photographers, drone cameras and video cameras were everywhere, documenting the crowd at all the best angles. During the service, the phrase “Black Lives Matter” did not cross anyone’s lips a single time, yet many times phrases like, “All life is sacred,” and, “All life is important,” were thrown about by the white speakers, minimizing the distinct struggle of Black and African American people in favor of a monolithic, abstract human rights issue. In what was perhaps the worst move, Jenkins and the chief of campus police led the procession to the Grotto rather than let the Black students they invited to speak lead the way. Looking at the University’s social media after the event, I saw only Jenkins’ words shared; the Black speakers who offered their own reflections were silenced in favor of a white man. It was a service that reeked of public relations recuperation and performative activism. Notre Dame’s students, especially Notre Dame’s Black students, deserve more. They deserve real, effective action that manifests lasting change.
During the walk to the Grotto, silence was again the modus operandi. We were not encouraged to talk, to give voice to the names of those killed or learn from our colleagues as we journeyed to our destination. We were told to reflect silently. The irony of what we were doing was only amplified by a sign carried next to me denouncing silence as complicity. At a time like this, silence only benefits the oppressor. Conversations between people need to happen. The uplifting of Black voices needs to happen. The University administration fails its community by gathering us only to be a silent backdrop for Jenkins’ publicity campaign. It fails us by not acknowledging or addressing the racist history of this campus. It fails us by routinely not protecting Black folx in our community. It fails us by not saying, with conviction, “Black Lives Matter.”
To stand on the periphery of this conflict and offer only thoughts and prayers gives power to perpetrators of racist violence. I acknowledge my own complacency and inaction towards issues of race that contribute to white supremacy on this campus and in the world. My own silence as a white man has turned me into an instrument of oppression, a conscious and unconscious supporter of white supremacist systems wherever I go. I want to do better and Notre Dame should, too. The complacency of the current administration in the fight to protect Black lives has become complicity in the perpetuation of white supremacy. It is high time the administration acts for itself instead of appropriating the actions of others.
class of 2018
The views expressed in this Letter to the Editor are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.