Amid the national reckoning surrounding police brutality, Yale Divinity School Dean Greg Sterling established an anti-racism task force that will explore YDS’s history of racism in hopes of implementing forward-thinking changes.
Sterling announced to the new body in an Aug. 17 letter to the divinity school community that he felt “aghast when [he] saw” George Floyd’s murder, a crime he said society has witnessed too many times. In the letter, he wrote that he felt it was necessary to update the community on administrative work and future plans regarding racism. He also announced that faculty, staff and students would make up the new task force, which will consider strategies for addressing racism against Black community members at YDS as well as Latinx, Asian and Indigenous individuals.
“[The task force brings] much needed consideration in the way white supremacy and the racial character of life in the West impact what we do in a university,” committee co-chair and theology professor Willie Jennings told the News. “The divinity school at one level wants to be a part of that and we see ourselves as crucial to that end. We want to understand as deeply and as carefully as possible the architecture of the problems we are inside of.”
Task force member Donyelle McCray — assistant professor of homiletics at the school — said that the group is still in its preliminary stages of work. Sterling said in the August letter that when the task force does convene for the first time next Friday, it will examine racism in a variety of settings that can occur in “thoughtless and subconscious” ways.
Jennings noted that in the months preceding the presidential election, society is seeing “the deep sickness” that composes the American social and political landscape. He added that Christian theologians have an obligation to respond to such injustices, given Christian institutions’ racist pasts.
“Racial condition grows out of Christianity. You don’t have to know a lot to understand that the current political situation shows forms of Christianity that are deeply entrenched in white supremacy; those of us involved in theological education feel an enormous responsibility to respond to that,” Jennings said. “We object strongly to the idea that Christianity can only be imagined inside conservative social agendas.”
Laura Nasrallah, who co-chairs the committee with Jennings, said that her academic work investigates Christian complicity in white supremacy and also looks at the potential utility of the faith for facilitating conversations around race.
As academics, Nasrallah said she and Jennings intend to conduct research to confront racism at the Divinity School and at the University at large.
Jennings added that he hopes to conduct what he termed a “serious audit” of Yale’s history of racism and its complicity with white supremacy. He said peer institutions have undertaken similar work. Jennings cited Princeton Theological Seminary’s project that analyzed how its school benefited from, was involved in, and, at times, expressed opposition to the institution of racism. Jennings said that he hopes Yale, like Princeton, will pursue a full audit of its history.
Before looking at such broad goals, Nasrallah said the task force must first meet and figure out the committee’s priorities. She said she hopes that they will be able to pursue long-term, rigorous work in lieu of “cosmetic fixes.”
“We do not imagine ourselves doing the regulatory work of implementing various things,” Jennings said. “My sense is that our recommendations will be taken very seriously and discussed extensively beyond this immediate season. The urgency of this moment can only be honored if we sustain the work beyond the next few months.”
The task force plans to convene for the first time on Sept. 18.