February 23, 2001
Black History Month Calls Us to Unite in Mind, Heart and Soul
This special month invites us to share culture and offers us an opportunity to listen and to learn. Everyone, regardless of race, should take something away from Black History Month, which presents so many ways to embrace our differences and gain new perspectives. Black History Month reminds us that inclusiveness can unlock our true potential as a community.
We've known this at Saint Louis University since 1944. In that year, SLU admitted five African-Americans amid overwhelming threats and controversy to become America's first integrated school of any level in a former confederate state. Under a steady stream of harsh criticism, Saint Louis University rose above the views of the times and reaped grand rewards in the process. Since then, SLU has been blessed and enriched with the contributions, knowledge and viewpoints from many races, cultures and creeds - all united in a common mission.
As a Catholic, Jesuit institution, Saint Louis University dedicates itself to developing women and men for others. Our approach requires a commitment to improving the world through education and applying that education to transforming society in the spirit of the Gospels. Through teaching, research and service, our students, faculty and staff have opportunities to actively address issues of social justice. So how can we apply social justice to race relations?
Justice is not served by ignoring the issue or turning away. Justice is not served through cold hearts and closed minds. Justice is not served through routine or fear. Servants of justice respect the dignities and freedom of every person while working toward social change. We must view the suffering of any person, regardless of race, as an affront. We must regard the strides of any person, regardless of creed, as an achievement. We must unite our minds, hearts and souls if we truly want to improve our community, our city, our society and our world.
During his visit to St. Louis in 1957, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. said: "You will notice that the extreme optimist and the extreme pessimist have at least one thing in common: They both agree that we must sit down and do nothing in the area of race relations. The extreme optimist says do nothing because integration is inevitable. The extreme pessimist says do nothing because integration is impossible. But there is a third position, there is another attitude that can be taken, and it is what I would like to call the realistic position. The realist in the area of race relations seeks to reconcile the truths of two opposites while avoiding the extremes of both."
Like Dr. King, I am a realist. While I am proud that many strides have been made, I realize so much more needs to be done. Saint Louis University will continue to make every effort to improve race relations in St. Louis through programs such as our Under-Represented Businesses Program, which reaches out to area businesses owned by minorities and women. Although programs like this help, it is regretful that they must operate at all. For in a perfect world, "under-represented" would not be part of our vocabulary.
I ask you to join me in becoming a realist. So many of us take the worst possible approach in promoting race relations: We do nothing. We take the side of the extreme optimist or the extreme pessimist and look to someone else to fix the problem. For true change to occur, every citizen must take up this cause. It is our responsibility to be a part of the solution, to work to abolish social injustice. We must respect and celebrate our differences. We must fight unconscious fears and prejudices in order to realize positive change.
Diversity makes St. Louis an exciting place to live. But so often we squander that opportunity. So often in St. Louis, we define ourselves by what we are not. But with each new layer of what we are not, our world and our lives become smaller. As evidenced by our suburban sprawl and cliquish neighborhoods, it's easy to categorize, to find our place, to find our niche, to settle into a lifestyle in an area where people look the same, talk the same and think the same. In this context, "race relations" is an oxymoron. The notion of "separate but equal" remains in many subversive ways, a reality we choose to forget or ignore.
As we celebrate Black History Month, let us all find the strength to challenge the status quo. Let us all observe this celebration of humanity in the hopes its message can expand and flourish beyond the boundaries of February. Let us all become part of the solution. It's a monumental task, so I ask you to join me in a short prayer.
Lord, teach us to witness your light and your truth. Help us contribute to unity among all people. Help us live our lives in the service of others without consideration to color, background or class. Move our St. Louis leaders to unite in your spirit to improve the lives of all citizens. Give us the courage and initiative for action, compassion and understanding in seeking interaction with those outside of our neighborhoods. Teach us to reach out and to embrace all of humanity, not just the segments with which we have become familiar and comfortable. This we ask in Jesus' name. Amen.
Lawrence Biondi, S.J., is president of Saint Louis University, a leading Catholic, Jesuit research institution ranked among the top 50 national, doctoral universities as a best value by U.S. News & World Report.
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