LSCHS Commentary on Race, Equity, and Justice
The following Summer 2020 letters from La Salle Administrators and Faculty and events from the Christian Brothers District of Eastern North America address current and continuing national and local issues of race, equity, and justice.
- Reflections on Race, Justice and Violence: Brother James Butler, FSC
- Reflections on Race, Justice and Violence: Mr. Michael A. O'Toole, '68
- Continuing Reflections on Race, Justice and Violence: Mr. Vernard Abrams
- The La Salle Curriculum: Mr. Nick Coggins
- Responding to Racism: A Lasallian Dialogue
Dear Alumni, Parents, Past Parents, Colleagues and Students,
I’ve never had a problem with finding the words. A statement would be all too easy. It’s almost a formula. Decry systemic racism, lament violence of all sorts, show concern for minority students, support freedom of expression, mix in a quote or two from the Catholic Bishops, documents of the Brothers of the Christian Schools, maybe even the Gospel of Jesus Christ. That’s a statement. Done. Check that box. La Salle’s status as a “woke” institution is assured.
Statements are easy. Understanding is what’s hard. You can write a passable statement in 45 minutes if you set your mind to it, and the phone doesn’t ring. Understanding takes time. The better part of a lifetime, probably. I’ve been stopped by a cop more than a few times. My reaction? It never went beyond a pithy “Oh, fuddle duddle,” as the first Prime Minister Trudeau once famously euphemized. I usually know after the first minute of that encounter whether I’m shortly to become a lot poorer, but I’ve never been afraid. Not for a moment. I just don’t understand the experience of a young African American male in this context. Members of the police force have been a steady and helpful support on the handful of occasions when I’ve asked them for help. It’s hard for me to understand an experience so radically different.
I’ve had a hard time breathing from time-to-time recently. It’s basically been because the material used to make a mask or two in my growing collection was a bit too heavy. It’s never been because another human being chose to use his power to cut off my life’s breath, as happened to George Floyd a week ago, over nine horrible minutes. I’ve met some cold and indifferent people, but I’ve never had someone reject my repeated cries for mercy. Should truth be told, I’ve never had to cry for mercy. Not even close.
I’ve never owned a business, either. I care about La Salle the way other people care about their businesses, but I’d never be so presumptuous as to say I “own” the place. I don’t know what it’s like to pour your heart and soul into a venture for years, enjoy prosperity, hang on with difficulty through the COVID-19 pandemic, only to have random strangers throw a trash can through my window, capriciously loot the inventory I’d painstakingly chosen and assembled, then set the place ablaze; all that remains of my life’s work, the way I support my family, reduced to rubbish on the curb.
Even the smaller scenes in our national tragedy are outside my understanding. I’ve never run from tear gas, pepper spray, or an enraged truck driver, never had someone throw stones, or Molotov cocktails, or bottles of urine at me while I’m doing the job I’m sworn to do. I can’t understand how someone can prefer jingoistic bravado to reasoned discourse as a way out of this impasse or how someone can torch a business that makes his life easier but which will never be re-opened, or how people can teach their own child to steal. I’ve never had an experience remotely like that of a woman in her eighties, not a party to any dispute, searching the Center City where she’s lived and strolled insouciantly for decades, unable to find a CVS within walking distance to fill her prescriptions that hasn’t been boarded up and abandoned. Both the doctrinairely progressive university student, fueled by a steady stream of Venmo from her parents, convinced that all the right is on one side, and the third-generation Fishtowner armed with his baseball bat, just as sure it’s on the other, are alien to me. Anarchists? I thought they went out of vogue after the assassinations of William McKinley and the Kaiserin Elisabeth of Austria, around 1900.
Bringing it home, I don’t know how many of our community would be surprised to learn that our oldest alumni still remember when the first African American student attended La Salle. Though they remember him with respect and affection, I think it would be impossible to understand what that experience was like for him. Even a quarter century after that time, I remember a young woman who was the only African American student in my graduating class at a southern Catholic high school. She endured daily mimicry and “wisecracks” that would easily get the sources expelled today. Endure she did and got the diploma. Still, I doubt any of the other 223 of us understand what life was like for her.
This is not to say that it’s somehow “easier” to be an African American student in our context, our school today. Many peers and adults alike hold certain unspoken assumptions: you must be good at sports; you must be getting a lot of financial aid; you won’t be prepared academically, certainly not for the honors and AP curriculum. While everyone else sits simply with people whose company they enjoy in the Glaser Center, the presumption is that “something is wrong” if African American students sit together at lunch rather than distributing themselves one per table throughout the dining hall. Does the hidden curriculum reinforce the equation that success equals “acting white”? And what of the experience of those who truly “choose their own path,” become the only African American student doing debate, or musical theater, or tennis? Is it more likely you’ll be valorized for your individual pursuit of your bliss or become marginal in two micro-cultures?
Yes, a statement would have been much easier to write. But a statement would imply I have more certainties than questions. And I’m not there right now. Sure, I know institutional racism is a social sin we need to repent and reject. Likewise, murder: it’s the second sin, the first unoriginal one. You don’t need to get any further than Genesis, Chapter 4 in any bible you might have close at hand to see that. So, I just choose to reflect as a person whose reactions may change each time I sit down to watch or read the news, but whose responses require more time to make sense of and to ground in the experience of this school.
Statements change nothing. Perhaps reflections don’t either, even though Mr. O’Toole and I chose to take this more personal, more conversational approach. Understanding can make a difference. I’ll be the first to admit 400 years is an awfully long time not to “get” something. You really do have to work at it. But we will have to work even harder at understanding. We can use abstract nouns like diversity and inclusivity—and even brotherhood--rather glibly then pat ourselves on the back and go away self-satisfied. Or we can do the hard, earnest work of trying to understand the experience of other people, despite the blinders race, culture, class, age, and education (too little or too much) may have slipped on us over time. Add a bit of luck and a whole lot of Grace, then maybe, just maybe, understanding can become wisdom, and our country will never move so quickly from the envy of the world to its pity again.
As one school year ends and another is prepared for, please join in the slow but active work of understanding that is La Salle. Whether you are here in Philadelphia or far away, please support that work by your actions and prayers. La Salle is already known far and wide as a school where you can grow smart, grow strong, grow generous, grow into a man. Help La Salle grow into a school known as the place where we strive to understand, the spot to grow wise, a home where we are inspired to follow the example of Jesus, who understands the pain of who we are now and the potential of who we can be.
Brother James Butler, FSC
La Salle College High School
Dear La Salle Students, Parents, and Fellow Alumni:
I am joining with Brother James in our two communications affirming our hopes, dreams and wishes for our extended La Salle communities as we all face extraordinary challenges right now. I write about the brutal killing of George Floyd. I write on behalf of our young men, particularly our young men of color.
I write from what I know and what I feel.
For a number of years, I have featured my class year after my signature in school correspondence, following a rather typical La Salle custom. It is a sign of pride and connection with an institution which I have served for more than four decades, and more, importantly, a connection with its beliefs and values.
In June 1968, on this coming weekend to be exact, I graduated from La Salle College High School and was designated as a graduation speaker. I remember the event from the campus grotto vividly in part because it was my senior year and even more so because it was 1968.
On June 6, 1968, Robert Kennedy was assassinated in Los Angeles on the night of his victory in the California primary. I remember watching the assassination in real time. I also remember tearing up my rather pro-forma speech and re-writing it from scratch in one night so that I could convey all of my idealism, inspired and honed by my teachers at La Salle.
How could we not react to the killing of a prominent political leader? At my summer job at Ford Motor Company, supervisors and colleagues of every ideological stripe were stunned.
And there was a prologue to this killing. On April 4, 1968, Martin Luther King, Jr. was gunned down in Memphis. My father woke me from one of those late adolescent naps at dinnertime to tell me the news. In addressing my classmates and families that muggy June evening, I tried to lift up both Dr. King and Senator Kennedy as markers in our young lives.
Watching the current news about the brutal killing of George Floyd and the ensuring turbulence jolted me back to 1968. I have lived in many of the Philadelphia neighborhoods now on fire or destroyed: Northeast Philadelphia as a child; West Philadelphia as a young husband and graduate student, and Germantown as a young teacher at La Salle.
I was advised by a teacher of mine at La Salle: “Write about what you know.” So, I am doing just that.
I have not been a shopkeeper so I cannot begin to feel the pain of the destruction of inventory and livelihood. I have not been a police officer--a close uncle was--so I cannot feel the danger of confronting angry crowds.
But I have been a teacher of young men for more than four decades. I do know how fear plays out in young lives. Our young men will experience uncertainty, confusion and fear as they witness the news on their cell phone feeds. And the news of the brutal death of George Floyd, falls particularly hard on our students and families of color, wherever they may live in the Philadelphia area. As we do at school, through prayer, thoughtfulness, conversation, and simple support, I ask everyone to reach out to friends and acquaintances in need right now.
La Salle strives to create an environment where differences in background are accepted and understood, where every member of our community is valued and respected, where our graduates continue to light the way in a world that is increasingly interconnected. And a community that affirms respect for all persons and a striving for social justice.
As we all continue to work though the complexities of our times, let us pray for peace, work for justice, and comfort those in need.
Michael A. O’Toole ‘68
Congruent with the mission of our founder, St. John Baptist De La Salle, our administration, faculty, and staff are committed to ensuring that every member of the community is valued, respected, and included. We promise to direct efforts toward the tangible creation of a world in which every human is granted equal rights, opportunities, and quality of life.
--Mr. Vernard Abrams, LSCHS Director of Diversity and Inclusion
Summer Commentaries from the LSCHS Offices of Diversity, Curriculum, and Mission
Racism, misuse of position in society or power, deliberate acts to deprive other people of rights and privileges are not only blatantly wrong but also clearly sinful. And these are not wrongs that go away so easily as evidenced by the crises in American cities from the 1960's and right now.
As a school, La Salle's first responses to the killings of Ahmad Aubrey, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd were personal reflections and personal conversations—looking within ourselves and looking towards our students. We are also looking at what and how we teach, and where and how we serve the larger community in the diverse and complex society that is the Philadelphia metropolitan area. Building on the reflections of Brother James and Mr. O'Toole on June 2, we will be offering three commentaries this summer from the school offices of Diversity, Curriculum, and Mission, each a key area where we enact our mission of developing "academic excellence, service, and leadership" for "young men of varied backgrounds." This week, we focus on our office of Diversity and Inclusion. During the weeks of July 6 and July 27, respectively, we will offer updates on how our curriculum and how our internal and external programs in Mission and Ministry tackle the issues of race, justice, and equity.
Programs in Diversity and Inclusion
The Office of Diversity and Inclusion builds on La Salle's quarter century of focused efforts to engage a more diverse community, particularly within the City of Philadelphia. One key program within the Office is the academic support and preparation program, The St. Katherine Drexel Program, which strives to place the possibility of a La Salle education on the radar of diverse families and students. The Diversity Office, now being refurbished on the second floor of McLean Hall, in the heart of La Salle's academic wing, is available as a place for students and staff to meet, study, and converse. Recent African-American alumni have described the office as a "special place," "a comfortable place." Mr. Vernard Abrams, Director of Diversity, sees the mission of the office this way:
Diversity and Inclusion efforts are ongoing and ever evolving. We will work endlessly to equip each student with the tools required to be leaders for all people in a world that is increasingly interconnected and global-minded. The foundational steps to breaking the cycle of racism, injustice, and inequality begins with conversation and education.
The Diversity Office hosts semi-annual gatherings for families to support and celebrate their sons. For students, we plan to annually attend youth conferences that empower student leadership within the topic of diversity and inclusivity in secondary institutions.
A Diversity Council was established in 2018 to assist with and broaden the reach of the Diversity Office. Six members of the faculty and administration, themselves representing diverse racial, ethnic, and national backgrounds, meet monthly to develop ways to offer and evaluate academic, personal, and social support for La Salle students. The Council has also deepened its knowledge of issues of race, class, and social justice, sponsoring a 2019 talk for area diversity directors by Dr. Sonya Douglass Horsford of Teachers College Columbia University, author of Learning in a Burning House, who presented insights on education, race, and American history. The Council members participated in training sessions of the Multi-Cultural Resource Center of Association for Delaware Valley Independent Schools in October of 2019 to enhance and deepen their own education about crucial issues.
Right after the killing of George Floyd, the Director and the Council planned and carried out conversations offering support for African-American students at La Salle. Under Mr. Abrams' leadership, the Council hosted a focused Zoom gathering of African-American Alumni on June 17, with graduates from 2001 through 2020 to listen and reflect on their experiences at La Salle. In response to advice from the alumni, the Council will continue these online conversations on a periodic basis throughout this summer and will revive career and mentoring lunches and opportunities for current students to meet with African-American alumni during the school year.
The Council is also developing plans for diversity training for faculty and staff at La Salle throughout the 2020-21 academic year. In conclusion, Mr. Abrams shares the following thoughts:
The current state of our country offers an opportunity for us to be what is right in the world. We stand firmly against social and racial injustice. It is our duty as a school community to do our part to foster empathy and kindness in one another. We will educate our community and continue to support all our families who may be affected by injustices. We pray that the Lord may continue to guide our steps toward a world free from hate and discrimination. We are committed to educating our students on our America's journey towards the ideals of true liberty and justice for all.
How you see will always determine what is possible. If we dare to imagine the presence and power of God in creation, we will deepen our advocacy for the most vulnerable among us. For us, as it was for Jesus, it is not only about taking the right stand on issues – it is about standing in the right place. This is our vision: Compelled by pressing needs, enlightened by the Gospel, inspired by our living memory, we transform lives through quality education for all. We will stand…especially with the young who have had their dignity and rights stolen by violence. We will stand with the young, who increasingly live in diverse cultural, religious, and ethnic settings. We will provide meaningful spaces for mutual learning, sharing and enrichment so that they can hear the loving voice within.
"Touching hearts and teaching minds" succinctly captures our Lasallian Mission, a charge that has inspired Lasallian educators for over 360 years. Today, in light of tragic recent events, most notably the murder of George Floyd, and a turbulent aftermath, we pledge to reexamine what we can do to get our hearts to beat in unison, inspired by Gospel values – the antithesis of hate. We pledge to reexamine how our minds can be enlightened to see the realities and obstacles that can prevent us all from being people of the Gospel, united in peace, working in solidarity to bring about justice, accompanying one another in genuine concern, and acknowledging our interconnectedness through our shared humanity.
What a school chooses to teach and not to teach really matters. Our curriculum includes ample opportunities for learning about justice issues and race primarily through topics of study, research, book assignments and individual class lessons from social justice topics in Religion through the study of culture and society in World Languages.
We know that skilled guidance of class discussion, those "teachable moments," makes a crucial difference and that has been the case with issues of race, class, equity, and justice. Rising juniors in U. S. History this year will confront the naivete of many of the signers of the Declaration of Independence that slavery would somehow "soon die away" in their summer reading, The American Revolution: A History. Students in AP English Literature have critiqued the validity of fictions about contemporary Nigeria (Edna O'Brien, Girl) and the realities of multi-racial Philadelphia in the nineteenth century (Ta-Nehisi Coates, The Water Dancer) and London in the twenty-first (Zadie Smith, NW). Byron Stevenson's Just Mercy, the 2018 La Salle "one-book" prompted a year-long series of assignments, discussions, assemblies and debates about the shape and scope of incarceration in the U. S. All juniors learn and research the Seven Themes of Catholic Social Teaching.
However, this moment in our nation's history prompts us to seek for ways to improve our curriculum to ensure the inclusion of diverse perspectives, the exploration of urgent societal issues, and the honoring and celebrating of the voices of marginalized and vulnerable peoples.
Consequently, we will intensify a review of what we are currently teaching and learning and how we are creating community to ensure that we have those "meaningful spaces" where productive and respectful dialogue can lead to understanding. Concurrently, we will look at course placement and registration protocols to ensure the broadest opportunities to value, affirm, and encourage all our students as they build their academic rosters.
- Our Religion Department is committed to including, at each grade level next year, new lessons and updating current lessons to bring practical applications of moral thinking about injustices-- race in particular--to the forefront. The department members will revisit and renew the emphasis on social justice espoused by Church documents, by the tenets of Catholic Social Teaching, and particularly through the Lasallian focal point. The evils of discrimination, mass incarceration, and racism, to name a few, are already major topics in the junior year course in Christian Morality. The recently revised senior year course, Living the Lasallian Mission, provides an exceptional chance to create a foundation for action.
- In recent weeks, the Social Studies department has already begun to rethink its philosophy of teaching its core area of history. Within the curriculum at present are found issues of modernism and colonialism (e.g., Nigerian culture and politics, geographic movements of population), economic, social and moral issues concerning the enslavement of African-Americans as well as the inclusion of original points of view from the nineteenth century (Freedom's Journal, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass) and the twentieth (Harlem Renaissance, Autobiography of Malcolm X). The department members will seek stronger historical insights into what has led to current conditions in America, particularly for African-Americans, with insights from law and civil rights, income inequality, voting access, and economic opportunity, among others. The department seeks as well as to celebrate more intentionally the accomplishments and contributions of diverse peoples throughout history.
- The continuation of a formal strategic review of the curriculum in English will offer opportunities to more closely critique the scope and sequence of literature and rhetoric assigned in the department A new elective in African-American Literature will be offered to seniors in the coming year, providing opportunities for a more intensive exploration of the heart of American literature. Current curricula in English include representative works by Charles Chestnutt, James Weldon Johnson, Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin, and Toni Morrison. Looking forward, at each grade level, we will reinforce and broaden our students' engagement with authors of more diverse backgrounds, beginning with the ninth grade introduction to genre, with particular emphasis in the tenth grade American Literature course, and with broader and more inclusive choices in the eleventh grade rhetoric course and the twelfth grade Classical and World Literature/Expository Writing course.
- The study of World Languages is not complete without explorations of culture and ethnicity. The Department will double-down on its goals of creating students who honor differences in people and seek similarities at the same time, stand for respect of all, are curious to learn about and from others, and develop a cultural competency that will guide them well throughout life. At each level of each language, the Department will revisit how to most effectively promote an over-arching theme and specific lessons to achieve these goals.
- For the past three years, a La Salle Social Justice Subcommittee has been responsible for the selection of the summer La Salle One Book and for generating supplemental resources, experiences, and recommendations for tie-ins of the themes of the book to our curriculum. The Subcommittee has vetted and prepared for future consideration What the Eyes Don't See by Mona Hanna-Attisha, an examination of the intersecting issues of racism, discrimination, and environmental injustice throughout the Flint, Michigan water crisis.
The American writer and civil rights activist, Maya Angelou said, "Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better." As a nation, we now know better and must do better. Here at La Salle, we will listen better, design our learning better, teach better, support one another better, strive for empathy better. We will now work to reignite our Lasallian imaginations, with open hearts and minds, relying on the presence and power of God and standing alongside any among us who are suffering, particularly African-Americans in our community and country right now, who are in need, or who are vulnerable. That is what a Lasallian community does: it responds, standing strong and walking forward together in solidarity.
In response to the call for racial justice on our campuses and in our world today following the killing of George Floyd, this dialogue is an initiative of the Lasallian Association of Colleges and Universities (LACU) in collaboration with the Office for Lasallian Education at Christian Brothers Conference and three of the Districts in the Lasallian Region of North America (RELAN): District of Eastern North America, Midwest District and District of San Francisco New Orleans.
Watch the recording here: https://lasallian.info/responding-to-racism/