In a powerful NPR retrospective that aired this week from Little Rock, Arkansas, interviews with high school teenagers, teachers, and community leaders reflect both hope and the sobering realization that we still have a long way to go, when it comes to integration and building “beloved community” across the color line. As one senior puts it, “We’ve been desegregated since 1957, but we’re not integrated. Integration has to come from the heart, it’s not something people can tell you to do, you have to want it.” It’s an observation shared by my undergraduate students at Xavier.
Clearly a lot of very significant gains have been made in the last 50 years. My students take for granted a world of integrated movie theaters, classrooms, cafeterias, and dormitories. Many rejoiced in the election of an African American president. Yet they also perpetuate a great deal of self-segregation, on campus and off. It seems to me a reflection of how far we still have to go toward Dr. King’s dream of a truly integrated society when our young people still struggle to relate across racial lines, even in the most privileged or ideal of circumstances–such as a private, Jesuit Catholic university environment. In our churches, of course, sadly, most of us still seem to operate under the presumption that “separate but equal” is good enough. As the nation goes, as our cities and neighborhoods and schools go, so goes the church.
And yet…what a beautiful thing it is to see a group of young people come together and, given the opportunity and a safe space to do so, to speak, listen, and learn from each other about our nation’s racial heritage as it plays out today in their daily lives. That was the gift of my students to me last semester, in teaching “The Black Catholic Experience.” Hope sings, so beautiful, in the dreams, desires, and courage of our youngest generation.