White Supremacy, Gun Violence, and the Obligations of Education
(The scene outside the Tops Supermarket in Buffalo after the shooting on May 14, 2022 photo credit)
(Note: The text below is adapted from remarks I gave at the Trinity Commencement 2022. While the original emphasis of the text was on white supremacy in the wake of the Buffalo, NY shootings of Black Americans by a self-proclaimed white supremacist, shortly after the Buffalo horror a shooting massacre occured in the 4th grade classroom in Uvalde, Texas. While that latter shooting was not apparently racially motivated, the issues of gun violence and racial hatred are integrally linked as pathologies in the larger society that diminish human potential, destroy lives and communities, and betray our values as a nation and society.)
A great education comes with a steep price well beyond tuition. Our degrees demand that we pay attention to what is happening in this world. We cannot possibly look the other way, or stand aside as bystanders, curious observers unmoved by the daily headlines and images of hideous wars perpetrating so much evil on innocent victims. We see the shocking images of bodies strewn on the streets of cities leveled to dust in Ukraine by a power-mad dictator abroad. We see the even more appalling images of bodies in the aisles of supermarkets or pews of churches right here at home, victims gunned down in our own domestic war that is fueled by what President Biden rightfully called the “poison of white supremacy,” the terror of racial and ethnic hatred that courses like an electric pulse just under the skin of America. We see the bodies of children blown apart in the very classrooms where they had a right to feel safe, loved, protected from the brutal realities of this country’s thirst for weapons and blood.
Bishop Daniel Flores of Brownsville, Texas, summed up the issue in the sharpest way in this tweet:
Don’t tell me that guns aren’t the problem, people are. I’m sick of hearing it. The darkness first takes our children who then kill our children, using the guns that are easier to obtain than aspirin. We sacralize death’s instruments and then are surprised that death uses them.
— Amigo de Frodo (@bpdflores) May 25, 2022
We can hardly fix the world if we cannot purge the evil of racial and ethnic hatred, the impulse to murderous violence, out of the bones of our own nation. We will not stop the killing if we continue to “sacralize death’s instruments” in the most sacrilegious ways.
The evil of racial and ethnic hatred has plagued this nation since 1619, if not earlier. The evil is hiding in plain sight all around us. Anti-semitism. Attacks on Asians. Immigrants and refugees beaten and caged at the border. How is it possible that an 18 year old man could stalk his killing field for months on end in Buffalo, could write hundreds of pages of racist trash online confessing to the most homicidal thoughts and nobody saw it coming? Except we all should have seen it coming, if not this one, or the last one, then the next one. Buffalo or Laguna Hills or El Paso or Atlanta or Pittsburgh or Parkland or Orlando.
Now, Uvalde. The bloodthirsty underbelly of this nation fuels both racial hatred and gun violence with its rancid love affair with guns. How is it possible that another young man in Texas could walk into a gun store on his 18th birthday and buy two assault rifles and enough ammunition to mow down a classroom full of 4th graders and their teachers and nobody saw it coming?
Where will the next one happen? We may not know any specific cases, but we know what’s going down, we know the perp’s profile, we know the political corruption that enables the murders, we have seen this movie over and over again, we can recite the lines and hear the gunshots and the screams of victims and their loved ones and watch the mouths of politicians talking about “thoughts and prayers.”
We know the names of the politicians who make common cause with racists, saying that there are “very fine people on both sides” while actively doing all that they can to take away voting rights, to undermine election results, to disenfranchise Black voters. These are the same politicians who stay in office by pandering to the purveyors of weapons of human destruction, taking millions in campaign contributions while resisting any thought of legislation to stop the bloodshed. These are the same politicians who, while piously talking about “freedom” to keep guns do all in their power to block the freedom of women to make their own healthcare choices, whose corrupt manipulation of the appointment process has stacked the Supreme Court with justices whose high-minded words about impartiality are belied by their opinions condoning the rollback of once-hard-won-rights. We know the names of the talking heads on television and radio talk shows who lift up QAnon conspiracy theories about the Great Replacement, who spew lies about caravans and hordes at the border while raising up as folk heroes young men with long guns and evil in their hearts. We know the preachers who claim to be oh-so-pro-life while remaining silent on white supremacy, who condemn pro-choice advocates while remaining mute in the face of gun violence, who readily accept donations from dark money interests that are sowing the seeds of so much social unrest and hatred.
Enough with thoughts and prayers, enough with the silences and equivocations. We cannot think or pray our way out of this deeply American nightmare of racial hatred, white supremacy, the violence spawned by unlimited access to murderous weapons, turning back of so many clocks on civil rights and women’s rights and LGBTQ rights and America’s once bright promise for immigrants and refugees, the increasingly worrisome signs of the demise of democracy, itself. We cannot simply bar our doors and pray that the shadow of great evil will pass over us on this night or all the nights to come. We are called to act.
What are we called to do?
The price of our education is the demand that we use our intellectual power to oppose, resist, confront and supplant the forces that are destroying so many lives. Our education imposes a moral and ethical obligation to speak out to confront the lies that are warping communities and fueling murderous rampages. Having spoken out, we must work tirelessly to construct a system of laws and policies that protect and honor all human lives, that ensure justice and freedom for all; that will make it possible, someday, for the United States and its towns and communities to live in peace and safety once more.
We must be courageous in the face of deeply authoritarian political forces that seek to silence the truth about American history and the ways in which white supremacy and racial animus have infected the foundation of our politics, our laws and policies, our institutions, our economy, our community structures.
We academic leaders, in particular, must vigorously oppose politicians now waging a direct assault on knowledge, seeking to ban books and spy on teachers and create a ministry of newspeak worthy of George Orwell. If we do not defend the freedom of citizens to read what they want, the freedom of teachers to teach what they must, we will have nothing left to defend as Democracy, itself, withers to dust.
We must be unafraid in confronting and denouncing white supremacy wherever and whenever it rears its monstrous head. We must teach our children how to live well and in peace in the most diverse nation in the world as it approaches a time at mid-century when a multi-racial majority of citizens will be reality. We must insist on curricula that promote inclusive excellence, respect and human dignity, and accurate knowledge of history, sociology, culture, language, religion and the essential framework for sustaining a good society. We must teach the vital skills of peacebuilding, conflict resolution and servant leadership.
We must exercise the power of our advocacy to insist that executives and legislators at the federal, state and local levels fulfill their duties to protect all citizens by enacting laws and policies that effectively reduce the volume of gun violence that plagues are nation. No public official should remain in office who repeatedly refuses to act in ways that will improve the health, welfare and safety of everyone in the community. And we must demand an end to the twisting the meaning of the Second Amendment which was never a guarantee of unlimited weaponry for individual citizens to commit mayhem.
Cardinal Blase Cupich of Chicago said it well in his statement after Uvalde: “The Second Amendment did not come down from Sinai. The right to bear arms will never be more important than human life. Our children have rights too. And our elected officials have a moral duty to protect them.”
Cardinal Joseph Tobin of Newark, NJ was even more direct: “Cynically short-sighted solutions that facilely propose turning schools, grocery stores and shopping malls into armed camps must be rejected. This nation cannot flourish by permitting the unregulated sale of weapons designed to kill. There is no convincing argument to justify the sale or possession of automatic rifles, oversize magazines, folding stocks, and other weapons that are used in an ever-growing number of massacres. New laws alone will not change hearts. We need civil conversations around all the forms of violence that are tolerated, even celebrated in our culture. The role of social media, especially its indiscriminate use by young people, needs to be questioned. We adults must examine how our speech and slogans and our resignation and apathy contribute to violent death and the disintegration of our communities.”
We must not shrink from the hard work of purging the obvious corruption that has so twisted our political institutions and processes that the will of the majority of citizens is largely ignored while special interests opposed to the common good seize control of legislative processes and now even manipulate appointments to the Supreme Court in ways once unfathomable. The disgrace and the danger of the Supreme Court appointment process across the last ten years may well be one of the largest threats yet to the ability of this nation to ensure its promise of justice for all.
For all Trinity graduates — especially the Classes of 2022 and 2021 and 2020 who have endured and triumphed through these perilous times — our great education comes with a very specific call to action from the mission we have received thanks to the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur. 125 years ago, a few very brave women risked their reputations, their time and energy, even their standing in the Church to raise up this great institution. In 1897, they saw that women were excluded from then-new Catholic University and they said that was wrong (then-Cardinal Gibbons agreed, calling it “an embarrassment”). Great opposition arose to their plans for Trinity among some rightwing clerics who denounced the project as part of a heresy called “Americanism.” But Sisters Julia McGroarty and Mary Euphrasia Taylor persisted, at last securing approval from their religious superior and even from the Pope, and on August 20, 1897, Trinity received its articles of incorporation.
From the start, the commitment of the Sisters of Notre Dame to social justice was a central tenet of Trinity’s mission, as in their own congregational mission. Their extraordinary example of courageous advocacy for women and women’s education inspires us today as Trinity welcomes ever-wider populations of students to powerful engagement with this great educational mission. Trinity today is both a Predominantly Black and Hispanic Serving Institution, with a specific commitment to work for racial equity as stated in Trinity DARE: Driving Actions for Racial Equity.
As the SNDs were in 1897, Trinity and her graduates in 2022 and beyond must be unafraid and courageous in confronting social conditions that limit human potential wherever we find them. We must be willing to risk our own comforts, our own reputations and desires, to work for justice for those who have suffered egregiously in a nation whose deeds are falling far short of its once-bright promise.
Remember the Buffalo victims:
Remember the Uvalde victims:
I have written about gun violence, racism and white supremacy many times (TOO many times), see
Raging Against the Dying Light, August 4, 2019 after Dayton and El Paso
Evil Will Not Triumph, March 2019 after the white supremacist massacre in ChristChurch, New Zealand
Who We Really Are, January 7, 2021 after the Capital insurrection
Accountability and Justice, April 2021 after the conviction of Derek Chauvin in the murder of George Floyd
Hypocrisy on Life, December 2021 after the Oxford High shooting