The American bishops pastoral letter Open Wide Our Hearts lists discrimination in educational opportunities as one of the ongoing unjust manifestations of systemic racism in the United States. Historically, slave owners in the Southern states made every effort to keep their slaves illiterate, even imposing stiff penalties on any white persons teaching slaves to read. By the time the Thirteenth Amendment officially abolished slavery in 1865, only some 4% of enslaved persons could read or write.
After reconstruction that ended in 1877, the Confederate states passed restrictive “Black Codes” that legalized segregation and denied African American citizens the right to attend public schools. In the infamous 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson decision, the Supreme Court declared that the protections of the 14th Amendment apply to political and civil rights but not to “social rights” like sitting in the railroad car of one’s choice or attending a school of choice. This ruling effectively enshrined the “separate but equal” justification for segregating public schools.
African Americans in the south did their best to create their own school systems, severely hampered by a lack of funds and a limited pool of trained teachers. In this regard, the bishops pastoral letter raised up the outstanding example of Sister Katherine Drexel (1858-1955), the first saint born a U.S. citizen, who founded 50 schools for African American students, including Xavier University of Louisiana, the first and only Catholic university in the U.S. specifically for black citizens. It was Drexel’s admonition to “open wide our hearts” in serving others that provided the title for the bishop’s pastoral letter.
In the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education case, the Supreme Court overturned the Plessy decision by declaring that segregating students in public schools on the basis of race was unconstitutional. The subsequent attempts to desegregate public schools through busing were extremely controversial and in most cases ineffective. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 did help the process by making it easier to file law suits against discriminatory practices and by providing funds for local school boards to assist their desegregation efforts.
Various studies show that black students have made progress educationally but still lag behind white students. For example, a Pew Research Study reported that in 1993 14% more white teenagers had a high school diploma than black teenagers and by 2017 that gap was cut in half with 94% of white students graduating from high school and 87% of black students. During that same span the black college graduation rate doubled from 12 to 24% but still lagged behind the rate for white students which went from 24% to 33% during that time.
The bishops’ pastoral letter reminds us that Christ’s command to love our neighbor impels us to work for justice. There are various ways of applying this moral imperative to helping racial minority students in disadvantaged schools. For example: tutor a student in reading who does not receive that education at home; donate school supplies to needy students in inner city grade schools; participate in a program to help struggling students finish high school; mentor a student who wants to be the first in the family to attend college; and support local efforts to establish prekindergarten programs that are absolutely crucial for long term academic success of racial minority students.
What would it mean for me personally to “open wide my heart” to my black brothers and sisters seeking educational justice?
About the Author
Fr. James J. Bacik has served as a priest of the Diocese of Toledo since his ordination in 1962. He is a widely regarded theologian, writer, lecturer and pastor who served as campus minister and adjunct professor of humanities at the University of Toledo for more than 30 years. Fr. Bacik is an AUSCP member. Visit his website at frjimbacik.org.