The Jesuit Antiracism Sodality East
“Do not be overcome with evil, but overcome evil with good.” – Romans 12:21
I was a student at McQuaid Jesuit in Rochester from 2006 to 2011. When our sports teams traveled to city schools to compete, I was left with lingering questions. For example, why was our school’s team almost all white while the opposing team often all black? And why were nearly all the parents and faculty at city schools a different color than most of the parents and faculty at McQuaid Jesuit? In other words, why are Rochester schools undergoing de facto racial segregation? After all, the school was founded in 1954, the same year of the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling on the Brown v. Board of Education case, which explicitly outlawed racially motivated admissions policies.
Now back at McQuaid Jesuit as a scholastic, I discovered my awareness of racial disparity at sports games as a student was only the tip of the iceberg of racial inequality in Rochester. As I learn more about the structure of our city, the statistics become increasingly jarring. The ZIP Code 14608, in a majority black part of the city, has a median family income of about $20,000 and has an expected life span of ten years less than 14534, where I grew up. That suburban neighborhood is almost 90% white, and the median household income is over $100,000. As a Catholic and a Jesuit, I feel powerless to promote the God-given dignity of all human persons in Rochester when the current of racial inequality flows so strongly against it and into economic inequality, worse health care, and less educational opportunity.
The bare facts themselves cause desolation, but above all, the most desolate reality in my heart and mind comes after engaging with the history of redlining policy in the city. The systemic racial inequality today directly correlates to the redlined zones of Rochester dating back to the loan grant policies of the Federal Housing Administration in the 1930s. The effects of these policies that deliberately favored racial segregation for neighborhoods almost a century ago are still alive and well in the city we inhabit today. As a human community in Rochester, we inextricably hold responsibility for the unmistakable racial injustice of today.
McQuaid Jesuit strives to leverage its standing as a preeminent institution of Jesuit education ultimately to eliminate any barriers to opportunity based on race. The Anti-racist Curriculum Project based in Rochester and some stellar faculty have set up lessons to educate students on the history of redlining policy. They have explored the connections between the National Housing Act zoning policies, neighborhood poverty rates, and the racial makeup of the city of Rochester. Our Ignatian Formation cohorts for new staff also receive lessons on this history and how it affects our student population economically and racially. Additionally, our advancement and admissions teams have established scholarships and endowments to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars to support and encourage underprivileged students of color from the Nativity school and the city schools of Rochester.
Two seniors have begun a capstone project in the Service & Justice department to explore advocacy opportunities for housing justice with the Penfield Town Board. They have noted that the town of Penfield neighbors the city of Rochester, and its poverty rate of just 5% pales in comparison to that of the city at 47%, making the border between them one of the most segregated school district borders in the country. Their work, I expect, will continue the perennial task of unweaving commonly held assumptions that racial division and inequality are an undoable, de facto reality of the city.
Undoubtedly, local public schools of Monroe County face the same injustices as McQuaid Jesuit. But as a Jesuit institution, our responsibility and mission call us to a different response with precedents set by students competently educated in our history and consciously grounded in faith and compassion. These collaborators’ efforts in racial justice give me hope that change will come.
This month’s reflection was provided by Christian Verghese, SJ, of McQuaid Jesuit in Rochester, NY. If you would like to volunteer to provide next month’s reflection, please contact Sean: email@example.com.
The views and opinions expressed in this reflection do not necessarily reflect those of Jesuits USA East.