Anti-racism is part of Catholic identity on these campuses

Catholic colleges and universities around the country are taking anti-oppression measures to heart.
Peace & Justice

On an October afternoon in Ohio, more than 100 University of Dayton students gathered on campus and virtually for an anti-racism march and rally. They talked about the racism they saw on their campus and around the country.

Jada Brown, secretary for the university’s Black student organization, Black Action Through Unity, was inspired to plan the rally after a summer spent protesting the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and others.

“I felt a personal responsibility to take action on a local level,” says Brown, a junior biology and psychology double major. “There’s a lot of racism ingrained into our own campus that often isn’t talked about.”

Brown believes there is a double standard in the way rules are enforced for students of color versus those who are white. During her time at UD, she has watched gatherings with Black students get broken up for noise violations, while larger parties nearby with students drinking alcohol were left alone.


“Our party will get shut down, but down the street people are drinking and destroying property and being drunk and obnoxious, and that’s normalized,” Brown says.

Luis Rogel, a civil engineering major, shared his experiences as a Mexican American on campus during the rally. Rogel works as a student engagement assistant for the university’s Multi-Ethnic Education and Engagement Center. In that role, he has heard stories in which students experienced racist behavior or hate speech without anyone ever being held accountable.

“UD preaches, ‘Hate has no home here.’ But whenever there’s a student who says a derogatory term or engages in a racist act, nothing happens,” Rogel says.

Brown and Rogel both believe that when left unchecked these microaggressions can lead to larger acts of discrimination.


“Even though the racism we experience looks different than in cases such as George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, that kind of injustice builds up and needs to be brought to attention,” Brown says. “I want to get to a point where students know the University of Dayton will not stand for that kind of language or behavior.”

Although the rally spoke to the concerns students of color have about UD, Brown and Rogel say they are only critical because they love their school. Both students are highly involved, with memberships in Greek life, Student Government Association, and other organizations.

“I want anyone who comes here who is multicultural to have the best experience without worrying about having to be the Black spokesperson or feeling uncomfortable because the class is talking about slavery and they’re the only Black student in the room,” Brown says. “I want the people who come after me not to have to worry about this: to just come to UD and not have to be an activist.”

UD President Eric Spina was among the speakers at the anti-racism rally. In recent months, he and other university leaders have been grappling with how to best support their students during what has become a national reckoning on racism.


I want anyone who comes here who is multicultural to have the best experience without having to be the Black spokesperson.

“The first message I put out after the death of George Floyd was words—good words, but just words,” Spina says. “What I heard from our students is that they wanted action.”

Together with his President’s Council, Spina met with students of color to better understand their perspectives. In June he used those findings as part of an open letter to the community with 11 action steps the university will take to become an “anti-racist university.”

“We recognize that UD is not immune to the kinds of racist systems and behaviors that perpetuate institutional racism,” the letter says. “Historically, this has created barriers and persistent disparities on campus and caused pain for our Black students, alumni, faculty, and staff. As a university community, we can—and must—do better.”


Spina is not the only university leader pledging to do better on issues of racial injustice. Across the country, many Catholic colleges and universities are reacting to the rising awareness of racial injustice with their own plans for increased equity and inclusion. For all of them, the efforts are a way to live out their Catholic identity.

Diversity counts

So how exactly do Catholic colleges and universities plan to address the complicated issue of racial justice? UD’s anti-racism plan provides a blueprint that other institutions could follow. Included in the plan are initiatives to provide diversity training for all employees; adjust the curriculum and scheduled programming to emphasize racial justice issues; diversify students, faculty, and staff; provide anti-bias training for the campus police force; and strengthen ties with Black alumni and the local Black community.


Two years ago, Spina says, the university developed the first of its initiatives to better diversify its campus. Since 2011 the number of students of color has increased by more than 86 percent, with 19 percent of incoming students currently identifying as minorities.

Those changes are important to students such as Brown. Yet she still worries about the lack of a Black support system.


“I’m really tired of being the only Black person in my biology classes,” she says. “I wonder how our department could be more inclusive and diverse. There are no Black staff or Black faculty and no extra resources to address topics such as race.”

Improving diversity among faculty, staff, and students has been a priority for several years at Marquette University in Milwaukee. A 2015 campus climate study reveals that 1 out of every 5 minority students experienced “marginalization, disconnection, and alienation” on campus, and 1 in 3 observed acts of bias.

Today, according to Provost Kimo Ah Yun, the university is home to its most diverse student body and faculty ever since its founding in 1881.

“We have not arrived, but we have made progress,” he says.


This past spring and summer, students called on Ah Yun and other Marquette leaders to respond to the continuous protests taking place around Milwaukee.

“Our students helped push us along,” Ah Yun says. “They don’t allow us to simply give them sugarcoated answers. They expect action and want us to be very clear about what we’re going to do, who’s responsible, and what’s the timeline.”

It’s great that so many people at Notre Dame identify as Catholic, but it all feels so white.

After meeting with the university’s Black Student Council, Marquette administration formed a racial justice council to prioritize diversity, equity, and inclusion. The efforts kicked off with the formation of 40 full-tuition scholarships for Black students.

Marquette also promised to hire counselors of color for the university’s Counseling Center, conduct fundraising campaigns for Black student housing and emergency funds, provide anti-racism training for faculty and staff, increase mentorship opportunities, and adjust the curriculum.

“It all comes back to campus climate and numbers,” Ah Yun says. “How do we increase the number of Black students and then give them the resources to be successful?”

At the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana, university president and Congregation of the Holy Cross Father John Jenkins wrote about the importance of improving student, faculty, and staff diversity in an August letter to the university community. He also wrote about the need to improve the student experience for underrepresented groups while deepening conversations about race and justice.

“We must foster greater cultural, racial, and ethnic awareness among all of us,” he writes. “We must do this because only in this way can we live up to our Catholic mission, a mission that demands that we respect the dignity of every person, strive to build a community in which everyone can flourish and show regard for the most vulnerable.”


Eric Styles is the rector of Carroll Hall, the smallest of Notre Dame’s residence halls. As rector, Styles is a first line of response for student issues, including the trauma stirred up by recent cases of police brutality and racial violence.

At Notre Dame, Styles says, 80 to 83 percent of the undergraduate population is Catholic, but less than 4 percent of the undergraduate population is Black. Out of 34 rectors, Styles is one of only two who identify as Black. Although he is pleased the university is addressing race and racism, he is skeptical about what the scope of those changes will be. When it comes to controversial issues, he thinks that universities such as Notre Dame are slow to take a meaningful stand for fear of angering their alumni network or donor base.

“In order to be everything to everybody, [the university] ends up saying little to nothing of good consequence,” he says. “The concern is not offending anybody.”

Styles believes that Notre Dame should increase its population of Black and minority students for the same reason it recruits legacy students and those who are Catholic.

“The university is saying, ‘This is what we want to be and by building this kind of community, we can pass on who we are,’” he says.

One way to increase the Black student population, Styles says, would be to “create a pipeline for Black Catholics” by expanding outreach to minority students earlier in their high school careers and showing that “Notre Dame is a place they can aspire to.”

Styles also believes that the university should make room for celebrations of the faith that are traditionally linked to Black Catholics. This means making room for a piano and gospel music in liturgical celebrations and bringing in sacred art that is representative of diverse backgrounds.

“It matters that I can come to the Eucharist here, and it’s great that so many people at Notre Dame identify as Catholic, but it all feels so white,” Styles says. “It paints a picture that Catholicism and whiteness go hand in hand.”


The result, Styles says, is that students coming from Black parishes might not feel as comfortable celebrating their faith in a new setting. And students who are not Catholic might receive a message that the church looks only one way.

“If you’ve never seen anything else and you come here, you will think this is what Catholicism is,” Styles says. “Most of the priests are white, and they preach from their perspective. Who has the voice to speak about things of God?”

Start talking about race

One of the biggest obstacles to making organizational changes around race, according to Marquette’s Ah Yun, is that people are afraid to talk about the real issues. Some people won’t discuss systemic racism because they think it’s political.

“We stand above that,” he says. “Our job as a Catholic university is to respect, defend, and protect the dignity of all people. We know Catholicism at its best seeks to be inclusive, and we are trying to share our mission and speak the truth about God through our actions.”

Ah Yun believes Marquette needs to discuss racism because he has heard stories of students experiencing racism on campus. As a Black man, he can remember being pulled over by police for no discernable reason and having the officer look past him to his wife, who is white.

“He asked her if she was OK, because he couldn’t understand a world in which a person of color would be with someone who was not,” Ah Yun says.

When Ah Yun responded incredulously, the officer pulled him from his car and patted him down.

“After that my wife, who had never seen racism, had to confront it,” Ah Yun says. “From my vantage point, I know racism exists, and I’ve experienced it. Because I love Marquette so much, the fact that we were able to put into place even small programs that are part of this work gives me hope. If many people do their part, that’s how we will make a difference.”


Vincent Rougeau is dean of Boston College Law School in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts and the inaugural director of the newly formed Boston College Forum on Racial Justice in America, a university-wide initiative to address structural racism in the United States and explore anti-racism.

As a Black man, Rougeau says he felt a “deep sense of distress and pain and anger” last spring as he watched news coverage of case after case of racial injustice. He hopes the forum will provide a Catholic perspective on the evils of racism.

“Catholic social teaching, theology, and our position as a global faith tradition give us access to really deep critical thinking about the nature and dignity of the human person,” Rougeau says. “We can talk about that in a way that a lot of other institutions can’t.”

This fall, the forum hosted a prayer service for hope and reconciliation and a discussion addressing how the university could bring scholarship to bear on issues of racism. In the future, Rougeau hopes the forum will tackle topics such as environmental racism, justice and policing, and discrimination in fields such as education and social work.

One of the most difficult concepts for people to grasp, Rougeau says, is the difference between racism as an individual problem and as a societal one.

“People need to think about this problem in a more complex way,” Rougeau says. “When we’re talking about racism, I think so many white people feel that there’s this binary position of either ‘I’m not a racist’ or ‘I am one,’ and the only way they are racist is if they’re committing aggressive acts or actively seeking to suppress the actions of people of a different race.”

How are you men and women for others when people are being shot in the street?

“Quite frankly, that’s not what we’re struggling with as a country,” he says. “We’re struggling with centuries of a society that has been constructed with a basic understanding that there was a certain group of people who had to stay at the bottom— be it through slavery or Jim Crow laws or any of these policies and systems that have been in place.”


Whitney Maddox, assistant director of leadership development and racial justice initiatives at Georgetown University’s Center for Social Justice Research, Teaching & Service in Washington, D.C., is also a firm believer in talking about racism. When she started working for the center, Maddox was surprised by the lack of conversation surrounding the role of racism in social justice issues.

“Even within the center, we weren’t naming specifically how race impacts every other injustice in the world,” Maddox says.

Maddox started her own initiative, Start Talking about Race (STAR), in which she leads participants through a series of discussions about racial stereotypes, their own biases, and how racism shows up in the structures of society. So far, she has taught the STAR program to more than 500 people, including undergraduate and graduate students, Georgetown athletes, and the campus police department. Even though she has been teaching the STAR program for several years, it was only this summer that her work became popular.

“In a lot of ways, that’s the part I hate,” she says. “It’s like, ‘You all didn’t think this was happening before George Floyd?’ That’s where I feel like universities are missing it. They’re reacting to the injustice happening in the world when their whole mission is to be men and women for others. How are you men and women for others when people are being shot in the street?”

Maddox thinks that a big reason why universities haven’t been more vocal on race issues is because of their leadership—primarily white men who don’t always see the importance of making space for minority voices. She is inspired that more students are demanding change.

“No one wants to be called a racist, and no one wants to be the school that is last to address racial injustice,” Maddox says. “Students are now looking at how schools are addressing racial injustice and making choices about where they spend their money. Now, because universities are seeing that this literally impacts their pockets, they are making it a priority.”

Although her work tackling racial injustice is emotionally draining, Maddox feels hopeful for the future of Georgetown and universities like it.

“My hope is absolutely in our students because they want change,” she says. “When my students show up to say, ‘We’re not going to let things stay the same,’ it fuels more fire in me.”


Making wrongs right

Four days after the University of Dayton rally and almost 600 miles away, students at Seton Hall University in South Orange, New Jersey gathered for a vigil honoring Breonna Taylor and other victims of police brutality.

Senior Thanelie Bien-Aime, president of the university’s Black Student Union, helped organize the vigil with student athletes from the women’s basketball team. During the night, she led a discussion about police brutality and performed an original spoken word piece, “Numb to the Chaos.”

“During these times, when there are always tragedies and so many terrible things happening in the world, we can start to feel numb to the stories and it starts to become normal,” Bien-Aime says. “This vigil felt like a moment to get a diverse community together with students, administrators, and faculty so we could hear one another, listen to one another, and learn.”

In recent months, Bien-Aime has been listening and learning a lot at Seton Hall. She became the Black Student Union president last spring and helped the organization adjust to a new virtual learning environment due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Once the Black Lives Matter protests began last spring, Bien-Aime’s schedule blew up.

“Suddenly I had a lot of people from the university reaching out to me—students, administrators, and faculty,” she says. “It was definitely on-the-job training for how to delegate, how to communicate with these people while serving the community and what our Black students need during this time.”

University administrators such as Shawna Cooper-Gibson, vice president of student services, wanted to hear from Bien-Aime and other students of color about their expectations and needs from the university. Keeping those conversations in mind, Seton Hall is now working to improve equity and build “structures in which we can develop a sense of belonging for everyone on campus,” Cooper-Gibson says.

“We’re looking inward at ourselves as far as what we want the world to be, because we want to model that,” Cooper-Gibson says. “The university has a long history of celebrating diversity and inclusion, but these past few months have really accelerated our work because we’re collaborating with one another.”

Cooper-Gibson frequently speaks with Bien-Aime and other Black student leaders about goals they have and how to get there. As for Bien-Aime, she is grateful that her university is centering Black voices when it comes to racial justice.


“I think students should expect to be listened to and to be asked,” Bien-Aime says. “Especially when it comes to implementing different forums and initiatives, leaders need to go to the source, which is students. Hear what they need, and look at what their lives are like.”

As a senior, Bien-Aime knows she will likely have graduated by the time most of the initiatives Seton Hall is implementing start to show results. Still, she hopes the future students will be more people of color and more people who are actively committed to anti-racism.

“The experience I’ve had here, it’s been a good one, but part of my job is to make sure that others like me can also have a good experience and—hopefully—an even better one,” she says. “Slavery doesn’t exist anymore and neither do Jim Crow laws, but these racist systems are still alive and affecting people of color. There needs to be a continuous effort to make these wrongs right.”

This article also appears in the February issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 86, No. 2, page 10-16). Click here to subscribe to the magazine.

Image: COurtesy of the University of Dayton/Brigham Fisher