Saint John Paul II described social justice as concerning the social, political, and economic aspects and, above all, the structural dimension of problems and their respective solutions. Creating a socially just society, therefore, requires critical analyses of the structures of our society to determine if they perpetuate inequity or enhance justice. In the United States, levels of justice vary greatly between and among regions and states.
In the Gulf South states–Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida–policy and programmatic decisions historically have perpetuated inequity and left the poor, immigrants, and racial minorities without the ability to meet their basic human needs. Although some progress has been made, the history of injustice in the Gulf South states continues to manifest itself in contemporary social, political, and economic systems. [emphasis mine]
This is the introduction of the 2016 JustSouth Index, a first-of-its-kind publication from the Jesuit Social Research Institute at Loyola University New Orleans. The JSRI was established in 2007 as a partnership between the Jesuits and Loyola. The organization’s progressive values include “Faith that leads to justice, Love of neighbor that leads to solidarity., [and] Scholarship that leads to action.”
Sadly yet unsurprisingly, Louisiana ranks last in America on the study’s social justice index as measured by a variety of inputs related to poverty, racial disparity, and immigrant exclusion. In particular, the Bayou State struggles with limited opportunities for families to overcome poverty, segregated public schools, and a minority unemployment rate that’s more than twice that of white workers. The two states that ranked slightly better than us were our neighbors, Texas and Mississippi, again unsurprisingly.
Of course, Louisiana is smack dab in the middle of the Bible Belt, a fact that’s hard to forget anywhere outside of New Orleans. I was raised in the Southern Baptist Church in rural Central Louisiana. In fact, my father is a retired preacher, so I’m well-steeped in the tradition of Southern evangelical Protestantism.
What I don’t understand is how a state filled with people who profess to be so religious can also be a place where poverty and racism are tolerated, immigrants aren’t supported, and refugees aren’t welcome. How can a culture in which religion is paramount also be one of hard-hearted individualism when it comes to our politics? When Christians celebrate Easter this Sunday – the ultimate sacrifice of our Lord for all our sins – will they view that as an example to follow or just the ultimate act of grace for which there is no appropriate reaction? Really – how can a Christian state be last on social justice?
If we believe, are we to follow Jesus’ example by sacrificing for our fellow man (sharing our “blessings” to ensure no one is hungry or without a home or proper medical care or any of the other privileges of living in a wealthy, developed nation)? Or will we (continue to) support leaders and policies that say the poor deserve their lot in life, immigrants shouldn’t be allowed in, and healthcare is a privilege for those who can afford it? From my experience growing up in church, there never seemed to be much time for such complex questions of humanity. In this way, generally and quite cynically speaking, Louisiana politics and religion have something in common: they’re both only interested in dealing with immediate problems (Is the budget balanced today? Is your soul saved today?). The future will take care of itself (I guess).
I don’t have any answers to the existential questions. But God bless the Jesuits: they are action-oriented! Each section of the JustSouth report includes suggestions for policy changes and other actions that can be taken to ameliorate the problems and challenges identified. They are thoughtful and supported with data, just as they should be. Unfortunately (for the Jesuits, and for all of us, really), many of the recommendations would be dismissed in most corners of conservative Louisiana as liberal heresy – ideas like raising the minimum wage, expanding Medicaid, increasing the EITC and welfare funds, and encouraging affirmative action in hiring. (After all, even the Pope is a liberal today – and he’s a Jesuit, too, so it figures.) And thus the cycle continues. Any bets on where we land in next year’s report?
While not very encouraging, this report and the conversations it spurs are important if we are to improve as a state – here’s the link again. The Jesuits and Loyola University deserve our thanks for this vital work and their tireless advocacy for social justice.