Harvard Scholar: On Race, Jesus, the Truth, Sets Us Free
The fight for racial justice isn’t over — but Jesus Christ shows the way forward, and it’s a way of truth and love.
That was the message of Dr. Jacqueline Rivers at Benedictine College in Atchison, Kansas, on Martin Luther King Day, Jan. 16.
Rivers is a doctoral fellow at Harvard’s Kennedy School and a graduate research fellow at the National Science Foundation. She and her husband, Rev. Gene Rivers, run the Seymour Institute on Black Church and Policy Studies in Boston. While neither is Catholic, they have spoken at Catholic events from the Napa Institute in California to the Vatican.
Benedictine College Black Student Union leader Soloman Wallace introduced Rivers, honoring her 30 years service. “Dr. Rivers works with leaders in the ecumenical black church to promote philosophical, political and theological frameworks for the pro-life, pro-family movement,” he said.
Rivers addressed students, staff and faculty after the Martin Luther King Day March in Atchison. She reminded everyone that Jesus, himself, is the truth incarnate and she reminded everyone that we don’t need a fairly tale like the 2022 movie Wakanda to find wonders in African history, citing great kingdoms at the height of civilization and monuments and activities that showed a mastery of art, science and engineering.
“Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. scored a victory for the United States. He was a dedicated leader. He faced danger, hostility and jail, but he did not give up,” she said. “He fought for racial justice because he recognized the difficulties black people faced.”
Nonetheless, she acknowledged King’s flaws and sins as a man, and said we have to do the same thing about America.
“Jesus is calling us to tell the truth about U.S. history, the good, the bad and the ugly,” she said. “He is calling us not just to tell the truth, but to make sure that our schools teach the truth, to make sure that our children understand what really happened. And that they can see the consequences. They can see that this persists. And that together, we can change it.”
Rivers has spoken frequently at Benedictine College. She was the college’s Convocation Speaker in 2018 and most recently, this past summer she and her husband spoke at the college’s Family Week, organized by Benedictine’s Center for Family Life.
“Jesus promises us that the truth will set us free, and that we will have a victory,” she said at the MLK Day event. “Let us tell the truth!”
Then, Rivers addressed a number of ongoing myths about race in America: Genetic myths, myths about criminality, and economic myths.
One Human Race
“There is no clear biological marker to differentiate the races,” Rivers said. “There are no genetic characteristics possessed by all blacks, but not by non-blacks. Similarly, there is no gene or cluster of genes common to all whites, but not non-whites.”
She said 9% of genes account for the visible characteristics associated with race like skin color, hair type and facial features.
“But that doesn’t affect intelligence, morality, criminality, and other things we so often connect with ideas of race,” she said.
Another point Rivers made was that in Jamaica, Brazil, countries in Central America and other places, there are numerous delineations of race within what is considered in the United States to be black. “Race is arbitrarily decided,” she said. “You might not have been black in the Dominican Republic or in Jamaica, but you’re black in the United States.”
She went on to talk about perceptions of black people as being violent and threatening, stereotypes that are difficult to overcome and are suffered on a daily basis.
She shared stories about her husband, the Rev. Gene Rivers. “He’s not a big threatening guy and he wears these little round horn-rim glasses,” she said. “He’d always have books under his arms and we would see women scurry away from this perfectly non-threatening figure. We were in Paris getting into an elevator and we saw people not getting the elevator when they saw him, on the assumption is that if you’re black and male you’re violent.”
She mentioned that F.D.R.’s New Deal discriminated against blacks by denying social security benefits and unemployment insurance to farm laborers and domestic workers, two industries that heavily employed blacks. She also mentioned that blacks were systematically denied benefits under the GI Bill, refused home loans and denied access to colleges, especially in the South.
She explained that this allowed white veterans an opportunity to build wealth through home ownership and higher education while these opportunities were denied to blacks.
“At no other time in American history has so much money and so many resources been put at the service of a generation completing education, entering the workforce and forming families,” said Rivers. “Yet comparatively little of this largess was available to black veterans.”
In a similar way, Rivers told how the Federal Housing Authority further denied access to home loans to blacks as the suburbs began to grow in the 1950s.
“Blacks couldn’t get mortgages, they couldn’t get loans to repair homes, they couldn’t build equity in their homes,” she said. To this day, Rivers said there is still a racial divide in net worth. Those who purchased homes during the New Deal of the 1930s or during the suburban expansion of the 1950s built tremendous equity, while those who were excluded were held back and remained less successful.
As the home-ownership revolution fueled economic ascendancy, blacks whose families were left out from the start found themselves falling further and further behind, she said, leading to inequity today.
Rivers then reminded everyone that there is also good history. America ended slavery through the Civil War. There was a Civil Rights Movement. Segregation was ended.
“These are real accomplishments in American history, but we have to tell the whole truth,” she said. “We have to recognize the role of slavery in the Civil War. We have to recognize that racism affects black people in employment and where they live and makes a difference in their lives. And we have to recognize that the government has played a role in creating disadvantages for blacks.”
“But all is not lost,” she continued. “There has been great progress.” She pointed out that not only did America elect its first black president, but that before that the nation saw its first the first black secretaries of state, Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice.
Racism is not a given. “Together we can change it,” she said.
The Transforming Culture in America plan at Benedictine College in Atchison, Kansas, declares that, “The global Catholic Church which embraces the world’s races and cultures is our model for diversity. The college will develop initiatives to attract students, faculty, and staff from all backgrounds and cultures who can benefit from and contribute to its mission.”
The plan launched the Freedom Fellows program that provides full tuition scholarships to first generation students, usually black and minority students. The program was developed in conjunction with Danielle Brown, who helps lead the U.S. bishops’ anti-Racism effort, as well as Dr. Rivers and her husband Rev. Eugene.
Father Ryan Richardson, a Benedictine College chaplain, thanked Rivers for her talk and said, “It’s a testament to our values here at Benedictine and our commitment that we keep growing and educating ourselves” on race issues.
He closed with a prayer.
“In his letter from a Birmingham Jail, Dr. King wrote that ‘Injustice anywhere is a threat to Justice everywhere.’” Lord convict us tonight to fight against Injustice in all its forms but especially against the Injustice of racism,” Father Richardson prayed. “Lord, send us out from this auditorium as messengers and protagonists of your Gospel message to be true ambassadors of light and hope for our world.”