A round of racial provocations

Some are familiar with this story, but it bears retelling today.

A Jewish student had left Notre Dame because of the way his roommates had treated him. Word of his departure reached Father Theodore Hesburgh, CSC, who was the University president at the time. He called the remaining roommates to his office and told them to go to the Jewish student’s hometown along the East Coast and to bring him back. If they couldn’t persuade their former roommate to return to campus, Hesburgh said, then he didn’t want the two of them back either.

All three did return and all three graduated from Notre Dame.

The story speaks not only of Hesburgh’s leadership style but also of the character of the institution and the expectations for living here. And even though it comes from a different era, it’s a story that came to mind this past winter as Notre Dame went through a round of racial provocations that stirred campus dialogue and drew some national media attention.

Notre Dame has a nettlesome past helping African Americans feel at home, and recent campus flare-ups played against a national backdrop of rekindled racial polarization. In late fall vandalism and violence erupted in Ferguson, Missouri, New York City and elsewhere when grand juries did not indict white police officers in the deaths of unarmed black men.

The Staten Island victim’s final words, “I can’t breathe,” became a taunting chant for angry marchers and a slogan for T-shirts worn by some sports teams during pregame warmups — including the Notre Dame women’s basketball team on December 13, a public statement supported by athletic director Jack Swarbrick ’76 and coach Muffet McGraw. “You want students at your university to be passionate about things, to be engaged in conversations about social issues,” said Swarbrick. McGraw said, “I want to have strong, confident women who are not afraid to use their voice and take a stand.”

But many of their fans were upset and voiced their anger. Local law enforcement officials were also perturbed, although the players said the T-shirts were not intended to express anti-police sentiments but to show solidarity with the victims’ families. The rift led to meetings to sort out differences as well as a pregame ceremony December 21, in which local police and team members stood courtside together.

At the same time a six-week, one-credit-hour sociology course, White Privilege Seminar, became a lightning rod of racial heat. The class was designed to educate 10 students on the definitions, causes and effects of white privilege historically and in the 21st century in preparation for a March 2015 White Privilege Conference in Louisville, Kentucky. The course description also called for a “personal transformation,” in which students become “more aware of injustices and better equipped with tools to disrupt personal, institutional and worldwide systems of oppression.”

Senior Mark Gianfalla objected to the class, appeared on local TV and told The Daily Caller, a news publication started by a Fox News correspondent, “The problem I see with this course is that it is teaching a flawed and inherently racist sociological theory as fact. This isn’t education, it’s indoctrination.” Gianfalla also appeared on The O’Reilly Factor, and the course drew commentary from Fox News host Greta Van Susteren.

Iris Outlaw, an assistant professional specialist in sociology who teaches the course, said the class had been requested by a diverse group of students who had attended last year’s conference and returned “inspired, invigorated and more aware of the privileges they have,” whether related to race, gender or socioeconomic class. “It’s not that we were indoctrinating anyone, but we are just trying to make students more aware of the privileges they have had throughout life and the impact it has had on others and the impact it has had on themselves,” she said.

“Being an institution of higher education and one based on the foundations of social justice,” added Outlaw, who was the target of hate mail during the episode, “we are called to a higher moral [plane] in how we interact with people and how we view the world and how we are active participants in it.”

While the T-shirt and white privilege seminar were generating their own commotion, a few Notre Dame students took to a popular social media app called Yik Yak to post racist comments aimed at African-American students at Notre Dame.

When John Duffy, the O’Malley Director of the University Writing Program, heard that an African-American student was thinking of transferring because of racist remarks, he wrote an open letter to the student, signed by 150 faculty members and printed in The Observer in January.

“We were sickened,” the letter states, by the “racist” and “infuriating” messages. It then argues for the student to stay because “faculty and staff care about you,” because “you have allies among your fellow students,” because “you make Notre Dame a better place,” and because “you belong here.” It goes on to say that “your struggle is our struggle,” and adds, “Let the haters leave,” and we will “hope they someday learn to love others as God intended.”

Duffy, an associate professor of English, said Notre Dame is not immune to the world’s ugly tensions. He asked, “[W]ho are these anonymous posters making these kinds of comments at Notre Dame? This is the wrong place for that. Our community is dedicated to very different and very profound ideals of justice and love for one another. So I felt very sad, but it also made me angry.”

Most agree that effective steps have been taken in recent years to make Notre Dame more welcoming to everyone and that such incidents are exceptions, not the norm, and are certainly not consistent with the character of the place.

Kerry Temple is the editor of this magazine.

Originally published by Kerry Temple ’74 at magazine.nd.edu on April 06, 2015.