In this city in 1963, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke of his dream for a nation where people would not be judged by the color of their skin, but the content of their character. Last year Pope Francis, in Fratelli Tutti, asked us to dream of living as one human family, each with a distinct voice, sharing a common home.
In the decades between we have witnessed too many acts of racism, epitomized by the May 2020 killing of George Floyd. His death displayed the dangerous assumptions we may make about people different from ourselves, and the harm that institutions built on such assumptions can do.
It is time to make real the dreams of Dr. King and Pope Francis. The Sister Thea Bowman Committee Report will help us do this in a campus community that is committed to racial justice. It outlines ways in which we, as a Catholic community, can use our particular gifts to build a culture of love for our neighbors.
“Racism occurs because a person ignores the fundamental truth that, because all humans share a common origin, they are all brothers and sisters, all equally made in the image of God,” the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops wrote in their 2018 pastoral letter, Open Wide Our Hearts. “Every racist act — every such comment, every joke, every disparaging look as a reaction to the color of skin, ethnicity, or place of origin — is a failure to acknowledge another person as a brother or sister, created in the image of God.”
The bishops explained how personal sins can infect the institutions we build, generating forms of discrimination that may appear impersonal in their application, but are painfully personal in their impact: “The cumulative effects of personal sins of racism have led to social structures of injustice and violence that makes us all accomplices in racism.”
Sister Thea Bowman, now a candidate for sainthood, was an alumna of Catholic University (M.A. 1969, Ph.D. 1972) who used her gifts for oratory, music, and theology to call Catholics into a celebration of interracial solidarity. She taught the University’s first class on Black literature.
The proposals in the Sister Thea Bowman Committee Report build on her efforts, calling us to identify structures of injustice and sin, and encouraging understanding and reconciliation. Much work remains.
In fall 2020 I took part in a Zoom “civility dialogue” that our Center for Cultural Engagement sponsored, with the Black Student Alliance, about the experience of being a Black college student. One of the juniors on the call shared what it was like to be in her fifth semester of college without ever having had a Black professor.
As I listened, I reflected on how that must feel. Reflection should lead to action, and ultimately to change. That was our goal in forming the Bowman Committee. It will continue to be our goal as we work to address the recommendations — with a commitment to continue listening and reflecting.
I want to express my gratitude to the committee that labored over the past year to produce this report. And I invite you to read it with minds and hearts open to dream, and a commitment to making that dream a reality.