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An introduction to interconnections

By Fred Kammer, SJ

While planning for the Jesuit Social Research Institute preceded Hurricanes Katrina and Rita and the ensuing floods, the need for the Institute became increasingly apparent since this devastation of the Gulf Coast region. The images of children, women, and elderly people, mostly poor and black, left behind in New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina are indelibly etched on the conscience of our nation. They raise hard questions about how our churches, schools, communities, society, and governments have failed in our moral duty to protect, defend, and uplift our neighbors, the poor in our midst. In their own post-Katrina reflections, the Jesuits of the New Orleans Province realized that they too have failed in some ways to address important social concerns and the need to restore right relations and respond to the unjustly suffering and oppressed in the region. People of color, African Americans and Hispanics, bear disproportionate percentages of persistent and pervasive poverty in the South—a heritage of slavery, prejudice, and systemic inequality. Such chronic poverty contributes to and is influenced by higher rates of unemployment, illiteracy, illness, and incarceration among persons of color. JSRI aims to direct its efforts at research, education, and advocacy towards the alleviation of these conditions and their underlying causes.

This work necessarily must explore and come to understand more deeply the interconnections among the issues of race, poverty, and migration and their specific shape in the context of the Gulf South. Why are the jails and prisons composed largely of persons of color? Why are the death penalty and solitary confinement so widely used in the South and especially for persons of color? How is the use of the police power and the incarceration of Hispanics in immigration detention centers related to the use of the police power, the criminal justice system, and the incarceration of African-Americans in the region? How does the concentration of poverty among people of color continue to perpetuate racism and inequality, inadequate education, etc.?

The importance of interconnections has been brought home once again for the country and the Gulf South in the disparate impact of the 2020 Coronovirus epidemic on people who are poor and people of color. For example, in our report on The State of Working Mississippi, completed during the height of the pandemic, we highlighted how Mississippi’s social and economic realities led to the economic, social, and health devastation engulfing the people of the state. In addition, across the country, people who are poor, people of color, and rural populations tended to have least access to vaccinations when they began to be available.