The gifts and hazards of race discourse A professor’s response to “A white-washed Jesuit education”

By: Dr. Christopher Pramuk

As the unnamed “white professor” whom Taylor Zachary takes to task in his editorial, “A whitewashed Jesuit education,” I’d like to respond directly to Taylor, if I may, I hope in a spirit of respectful dialogue.

1Taylor, first I want to affirm your courage in giving voice to a “Black perspective often ignored and overshadowed by the enduring solidarity of white students, white faculty and white administrators.” I expect your example and your voice may give others the courage to speak up about their experiences and perspectives. I hope so.

The offense at the heart of your editorial appears to be my question put to you, during the Q and A following a panel on racial justice on Jan. 17, as to why you chose to attend Xavier instead of an historically Black college or university (HBCU).

Clearly you perceived the question not as a question intended to draw forth something more about your story in the context of the “Xavier Bubble,” but as a preformed judgment, evidence of “flawed reasoning” and “the purest form of victim blaming.”

I admit that I was frankly astonished and unsettled by the gap between how you heard my question for example, the message that you should “go to a school where more people look like you” and the question I asked, or intended to ask. I apologize if my intention wasn’t clear or if the question felt inappropriately invasive in the context of the forum. I can see now how it may have been so.

At the same time, Taylor, my question about HBCUs did not drop out of the sky. It arose, as I recall, from the substance of our “brief back and forth,” and more broadly in the context of my earlier remarks during the panel, which anticipated some of the same concerns you raised about the Xavier Bubble. My initial response to your comments, you may remember, was to affirm your critical concerns.

Still, I admit that following with such a personal question, in such an impersonal space, was a risk. I took the risk, I believe, because I trusted that your comments and question to me during the Q and A session were posed in an authentic spirit of dialogue.

You write that “answering a question with a question is simply rude discourse.” I disagree. Sometimes responding to a person’s question with another question can be an attempt toward deepening understanding and empathy. Often in the classroom, before I respond to a serious question from a student, I want to know more about the person asking the question. What is the human experience and social history from which the question arises?

1
Dr. Christopher Pramuk is a theology professor who specializes in systematic theology. His article is a rebuttal to Taylor Zachary’s “A white-washed Jesuit education.”

To be sure, if we don’t find ways to create spaces of active listening, vulnerable give and take, a disciplined desire on all sides for mutual understanding, it’s difficult for me to put much hope in “conversations about race.” We all need room to speak and to misspeak, to ask questions and risk being misunderstood, to learn new ways and to unlearn old ways, if we are going to imagine together and build something new, a world community that takes delight in our beautiful, mosaic differences. If we can’t find ways to initiate such processes at a Jesuit Catholic university, where will we learn to do so?

Finally, you ask for more “course material organized around Black and/or Ethnic Studies.” I strongly agree. I don’t know if the “six Black courses” that you mention that Xavier now offers include my own courses on “The Black Catholic Experience” and “Black Literature and Faith,” two of the most personally rewarding classes that I teach at Xavier.

I daresay you’d find the substance of these classes heartening. How about we talk in person? I’m in Hinkle 317. Even better, I’d love to see you in a future class.

Postscript: The day before this piece went to press, Taylor and I met in my office for some two hours and had what I feel was a very open and constructive conversation. We ended with a commitment to keep the dialogue going and to try to open it up in some fruitful way for other students, faculty and staff. What form such a conversation might take, and when it might happen, is yet to be determined.

1 Comment

  1. WHO IS RACIST?

    To call somebody a racist should be a very serious matter. A racist is a person who believes that one race is inherently superior or inferior to another. It’s not intelligence or goodness that determines an individual’s worth, it’s the color of their skin. To say that racism is foolish and stupid – not to mention evil – is to understate the case. But, according to many of their critics, conservatives are that stupid and that evil.

    But with few exceptions, conservatives are neither.

    So why is the charge even made? The answer is primarily political, i.e. to maintain black support for liberals and liberal policies.

    To back up this charge, the accusers point to conservative policies. So let’s examine some conservative policies to see if they are, indeed, racist.

    THE LONG-STANDING CONSERVATIVE OPPOSITION TO AFFIRMATIVE ACTION:

    This is a good place to start. It was Democratic President John F. Kennedy who first used the term “affirmative action” in 1961. But affirmative action, in the way that we think of it now, wasn’t implemented until 1970, during the administration of a Republican president, Richard Nixon. The theory was that, because of historical discrimination, blacks were at a competitive disadvantage to other races and ethnicities. To erase that disadvantage, standards that most Blacks presumably couldn’t meet had to be lowered. Some might make the case that this policy had some utility when this policy was first put in place. But that was a long time ago. The conservative position is that Blacks have repeatedly proven that they can compete with anyone without the benefits – the demeaning benefits, I might add – of lower standards. There are countless examples of Black success in every field at every level. The policy is no longer necessary.

    But the conservative argument goes further. Study after study shows that, in the case of college admissions, affirmative action actually hurts many Blacks. By lowering standards for Blacks and some other minority students, colleges set many of these students up for failure. They get placed in schools for which they’re not prepared. And high Black drop-out rates confirm this view. So does common sense. If white students with mediocre SAT scores were admitted to Ivy League schools, they too would be set up to fail.

    Let’s do the math. Conservatives believe that Blacks and other minorities are ever bit as capable as whites of succeeding as policemen, firemen, businessmen, lawyers, doctors, politicians and college students.

    Yet for this belief, conservatives are called “racist”.

    The irony, of course, is that those who accuse conservatives of being racist believe that Blacks and other minorities are not as capable as whites of succeeding and therefore still need affirmative action almost a half-century after it was first implemented.

    Let’s look at another issue where this contrast between conservatives and those who accuse them of being racist is even more starkly drawn: voter ID.

    Conservatives say that America should require that every voter present an ID when he or she votes, just as European countries do in order to keep their elections honest. Are all of these democracies racist? Of course not. Yet the accusers say the conservatives who support voter ID laws are racist. Why do they say this? Because, they argue, it’s really a ruse to prevent Blacks and other minorities from voting since many of them just aren’t capable of acquiring an ID.

    Can you get more condescending than that?

    Let’s be real. You need an ID to drive, to fly, to buy a beer, even to purchase some cold medicines. Whites can do it but blacks can’t?

    Tell me who the racists are again?

    One more example. It’s conservatives who push for school vouchers which would allow all parents, not just wealthy ones, to choose their childrens’ school. It’s the other side that doesn’t trust minority parents to select an appropriate school for their children. Why aren’t the people who compel black children to stay in terrible schools the racists?

    At some point, maybe you’ll start asking yourself, as I did, who really is obsessed with race, and whose policies really hurt blacks and minorities?

    Maybe it’s not who you think it is.

    Derryck Green,
    Founder of Project 21, and a Black Conservative

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