Donald Trump vs. Pope Francis: When It Comes to Social Justice, Words Matter

Pope Francis returned to Rome this week after a whirlwind visit to the United States. He visited only three cities (Washington D.C., New York and Philadelphia) but his presence was felt across the country. Even now - four days after his departure - the pope's kindness, inclusiveness and message of hope permeates. Whether you share the pope's religious beliefs or not, it is hard not to feel awash in the love he generously shared.

Even House Speaker John Boehner - not generally known for his cooperative spirit - said, after hearing from Pope Francis, "Let us all go forth with gratitude and reflect on how we can better serve one another."

Indeed, the Pope's inspiring words move us all to do better in the service of humanity.

Compare that then to the words of another man who has dominated the news cycle lately: Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump.

Instead of spreading love, inclusiveness and generosity of spirit, Trump has blared and blurted his every hateful thought, at times bombastically railing against women, Blacks, Latinos, Muslims, prisoners of war, China, refugees - and any other group or nation in which he finds fault.  And at other times, in response to criticism, evoking his love for the groups he marginalizes.

When some members of poor and marginalized communities in Baltimore erupted in protest after the April death of Freddie Gray at the hands of police, Trump took the opportunity to denigrate them and President Barack Obama. In a tweet, he wrote, "Our great African-American President hasn't exactly had a positive impact on the thugs who are so happily and openly destroying Baltimore!"

He has called Mexicans who try to enter the United States in search of a better life criminals and "rapists," despite the fact that, according to Politico, Latinos (17 percent of the U.S. population) accounted for 9 percent of documented sexual assaults in 2013, while whites (63 percent of the country's make-up) accounted for 71 percent of sexual assaults.

And Trump has amassed quite a following of supporters by declaring boldly that, if elected president, one of his first acts would be to build a literal wall around the edge of this nation - keeping others out.

"I will build a great wall -- and nobody builds walls better than me, believe me -- and I'll build them very inexpensively," Trump said. "I will build a great, great wall on our southern border, and I will make Mexico pay for that wall. Mark my words."

We are at a fascinating and frightening time in our nation's history. With the rise in popularity of social media, connecting communities and people like never before, we are all made more aware of injustice and inequality around the world. The knowledge moves some to understanding and prompts others to action. But it can also push many people deeper into their closed-off corners, segregating themselves even more from those who look or live differently than they do.

At the NUA, we have spent years shining a light on the ways that segregation, discrimination, poverty and persistent negative stereotypes conspire to hold Black and Brown students back from academic success and economic prosperity.

Several years ago, a tutor in an Indiana school district told me about a conversation he had with students who were about to take a standardized test.
"The newspaper says we're not going to pass the state test," they told him. When he asked if the students thought they would pass, a girl replied, "Well, they don't think we will, so we probably won't." And when the volunteer talked to students about college, a boy said: "Kids from the 'hood don't go to college."

Negative opinions are internalized. Expectations become self-fulfilling prophecies. Words matter.

That's why when Trump shouts about putting up walls to his 4.3 million Twitter followers, it is critical that we, who know better, repeat louder the counter-balancing words of "love-mongers" like Pope Francis.

"We must not be taken aback by their numbers," Francis said, about the crowds of refugees fleeing war-torn Syria. "But rather view them as persons, seeing their faces and listening to their stories, trying to respond as best we can to their situation."

Take down your walls, the pope is telling us. Open your arms and your heart. See people's faces. Understand their stories.

We at NUA couldn't have said it better ourselves. Poor children, Black and Brown children, children in underserved communities and schools - they are people with stories. They are people with dreams. The adults in their lives need help learning to respond to them, and not reject them.

Affirmation, high expectations, belief in a child's very humanity: These are things that can be taught - if we are hearing from the right teachers.

The pope espouses the Golden Rule. Donald Trump spreads the gospel of money and power. The pope lifts up Dorothy Day, co-founder of the Catholic Worker movement, who championed the cause of the oppressed and resisted injustice. Donald Trump lifts up ... Donald Trump.

Whose words are you listening to?

It is true that our educational system - indeed our nation - has many challenges. But hateful, divisive rhetoric won't bring us closer to social justice. It won't get us to solutions.

Pope Francis said many inspirational things while he was here embracing children, praying for the disabled, lifting up the poor and shining a light on injustice. But one quote in particular stands out, reminding me of another great teacher, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. 

"Hatred is not capable of doing away with difficulties," Pope Francis said. "A division of hearts cannot overcome difficulty. Only love is able to overcome."

Please mark those words, Mr. Trump.

The rest of us would do well to mark them too. 

Eric J. Cooper is the founder and president of the National Urban Alliance for Effective Education, a nonprofit professional development organization that provides student-focused professional development, advocacy and organizational guidance to accelerate student achievement. He can be reached at