A sermon presented at the First Church of Boston, July 10, 2016
Introductory reading from Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
“…it was like she was asking me to awaken her from the most gorgeous dream. I have seen that dream all my life. It is perfect houses with nice lawns. It is Memorial Day cookouts, block associations, and driveways.
The Dream is treehouses and the Cub Scouts. The Dream smells like peppermint but tastes like strawberry shortcake.
And for so long I have wanted to escape into the Dream, to fold my country over my head like a blanket. But this has never been an option because the Dream rests on our backs, the bedding made from our bodies.
And knowing this, knowing that the Dream persists by warring with the known world, I was sad for the host, I was sad for all those families, I was sad for my country,
but above all, in that moment, I was sad for you. That was the week you learned that the killers of Michael Brown would go free. The men who had left his body in the street like some awesome declaration of their inviolable power would never be punished.
It was not my expectation that anyone would ever be punished. But you were young and still believed.
You stayed up till 11 PM that night, waiting for the announcement of an indictment, and when instead it was announced that there was none, you said, “I’ve got to go,”
And you went into your room, and I heard you crying. I came in five minutes after, and I didn’t hug you, and I didn’t comfort you, because I thought it would be wrong to comfort you.
I did not tell you that it would be okay, because I have never believed it would be okay.
UNISON: What I told you is what your grandparents tried to tell me: that this is your country, that this is your world, that this is your body, and you must find some way to live within the all of it.
For the past few years I’ve been on a pilgrimage of sorts that has to do with racial justice and with what it means to be an American, a white American and a Unitarian Universalist. We know that talking about race and racism is challenging. You may find yourself feeling anxiety, defensiveness, anger, or grief as we’re considering these issues together this morning. If you do, please know that you’re in good company. Some or all of those feelings are pretty universal when the subject is racism in the United States. If you do notice them, keep listening.
I loved my 4th grade history book. Its hard back cover was a little worn but its color was still blue, kind of the same blue as the field for the stars in the American flag. On the inside cover were 48 stars, one for each state. Yes this was some time ago when there were only 48 states!
Pennsylvania, my state, was the second star. I was proud of that. My state had been key in declaring independence and in the founding of my country. I believed that the United States of America was a beacon to oppressed people and I believed it was the best country in the world. It was the best because it was a democracy that had thrown off colonial tyranny because freedom and equality were primary values. It was also the best because it had finally, via the Civil War ended the practice of slavery. These were my beliefs in 1956.
I grew up very idealistic about my country, probably not unlike many of you. I had an understanding that in the “old world” in Europe, a working class family such as mine would probably not be able to send my brother and sister and I to college, as my blue collar parents planned to do and did. So my siblings and I grew up in the bubble of prosperity of the 1940s, 50s, and 60s in rural northwest Pennsylvania with little happening to jar my illusions. Our lives were filled with loving parents, a vital extended family, a pretty good school system, and music lessons.
Straight through high school I didn’t think about the contradiction of a country that supposedly valued freedom also engaging in slavery and genocide. I didn’t question the almost total lack of information in history books about the native american nations occupying North America before and after the Europeans arrived. I didn’t think about the brutality of slavery and I had only a fuzzy idea about the Civil Rights movement which, though ongoing at that very moment, seemed far away.
In my college years when the atrocities, death toll, and failures of the war in Viet Nam dominated the news and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated my thinking started to change. After college, here in Boston working as a public health and mental health nurse I began learning in a deep way that my childhood experience was far from universal and that many families were not supported by the public school system and other institutions as mine had been.
Also here in Boston I met my husband, an African American man by way of the Caribbean who had spent his childhood in the US Virgin Islands and who then attended high school in the Bronx. Our very different points of view resulted in many spirited dinner table conversations, then and now.
Also during my 20s I spent 1 year as the church organist at Old Cambridge Baptist Church. While there I became aware of 2 “elderly” retired women who were considered to be the radical fringe of the church membership. They had both retired early, probably around age 55 and had become social justice activists. I thought that was something to aspire to although I couldn’t imagine myself becoming “Elderly”. Well although I wasn’t able to retire at 55 it did work out at 64. And it was just about the time that I retired that Carole Chinman asked me to join her as co-chair of the Social Justice Committee here at First Church. How did Carole know my plan?
Then, almost exactly three years ago, the man who shot and killed Trayvon Martin was found “not guilty.” David Ruffin was a ministerial intern here at that time and preached the Sunday after the verdict. David reflected on his awareness that the verdict would likely have a different, more severe and long lasting, effect in black communities than it would for him. David was asking us to think about that difference and why it should be so predictable. Why were/are people divided along racial lines when it came/comes to issues of justice?
Another event triggered by the verdict in the Trayvon Martin murder, this one with profound national significance was the beginning of the Black Lives Matter movement on social media after a young black woman, Alicia Garza, thinking about Trayvon, wondered, do black lives matter? The following summer Michael Brown was killed by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri.
Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote so movingly about the effect of the non-indictment of the police officer who shot and killed Michael Brown on his son. Since then there have been many incidents where unarmed black and brown people have been killed by members of police forces, so many that we can probably all ‘bring many names’ to mind. Not just Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown but also Freddie Gray in Baltimore, Eric Garner in Staten Island, Tamir Rice age 12 in Cleveland. And I must say the name of Sandra Bland, the young African American woman stopped by police on a Texas highway. Sandra Bland was man-handled by an angry officer after being pulled over for not using her turn signal when changing lanes and she was found dead a few days later in a police station cell. We also can name Rev. Clementa Pinckney, one of nine black people murdered during bible study at Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. This time the killer was a young white man who identified as a white supremacist. Now the Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church is a historical site of black resistance. Denmark Vessey in 1821was a free black man living in Charleston after buying his freedom around 1804, and was one of the founders of Mother Emanuel. In 1821 Denmark Vessey began to organize a slave rebellion but, word of the plan was leaked to authorities before it was carried out.
James Baldwin, the great American writer, activist, and public intellectual said this about history: “For history, as nearly no one seems to know, is not merely something to be read. And it does not refer merely, or even principally, to the past. On the contrary, the great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us, are unconsciously controlled by it in many ways, and history is literally present in all that we do. It could scarcely be otherwise, since it is to history that we owe our frames of reference, our identities, and our aspirations.”
This marvelous insight of Baldwin’s is key I think in guiding us to a deeper understanding of how racism continues to play out and undermine humane functioning of our institutions and perhaps even our ability to embody and uphold the seven principles of Unitarian Universalism.
You may have heard Professor Charles Ogletree on the PBS promo where he comments on the notion put forward by some commentators since the election of our first black President that the United States is now “post-racial”. Ogletree points out that what we want to become is “post-racist” not post-racial. His insight stands along side the knowledge that we’ve had for a long time now, at least since the 1950s, that race is a social reality but there is no biological basis for the concept. So we can define race as a social construct with no biological validity that divides people into distinct groups based on arbitrary elements of physical appearance, particularly skin color. So, the idea that there are different races has meant dividing people into groups based on skin color. Let’s keep this in mind.
Theodore Allen in his book The Invention of the White Race catches our attention when he states that, “When the first Africans arrived in Virginia in 1619, there were no ‘white’ people there; nor according to colonial records would there be for another 60 years.” Allen spent many years studying Virginia’s colonial records and found no instance of the use of the word ‘white’ to indicate social status until the year 1691. He explains that English people who had immigrated to the colony considered themselves English and considered their children English.
Allen’s thesis is that the colonial rulers invented the term “white race” and then used it to interrupt the emerging solidarity between the English indentured servants and the African people there. Professor Timothy Breen, a historian from Northwestern states that at least in the first 50 or 60 years of Virginia, people of African background and English background were able to work together in ways that, again, in later period of American history, were impossible. Bacon’s Rebellion, which occurred in 1676, demonstrated that poor whites and poor blacks could be united in a cause. This was a great fear of the colonial governors — what would prevent the poor from uniting to fight them? This fear then pushed forward the transition to racial slavery.
So, racial slavery and certain privileges for white working people were legally established by the English government in some of the colonies before the revolt by the thirteen colonies in 1776. Then it took about 85 years before economic, social, and political forces, including the Abolitionist movement resulted in the Civil War.
From the 1870s until the 1960s terrorism was practiced on black people in the South by the Klan with no government interference in it, no protection of the law existed for black people. These Democrats and former Confederates did everything they could to undo Reconstruction, and to restore white supremacy. Segregation governed life in the South through the middle of the 20th century. Baptist observes that the huge political power that southern politicians had accumulated along with huge wealth during slavery was not quickly dissipated, especially the political power. In the 1930s the white politicians of the former Confederate states refused to vote for any New Deal legislation that would decrease black poverty or decrease white domination. So, to get the legislation passed the compromise was that Social Security did not cover domestic workers or agricultural workers, the primary occupations open to black people in the South.
Robin DiAngelo from the University of Washington, Seattle, talks about how most white people see racism as something that is about either being a good person or a bad person. If I’m a good, moral person then I’m not racist. And if I am a racist I’m a bad person. DiAngelo sees this idea as one of the most insidious ones in preventing white people from understanding what racism is and how we are all involved in it. Also, she has observed in her work with employee groups and others, that white people become very anxious in talking about race, not wanting to be judged negatively, i.e. judged to be a racist. She sees people tune out and stop talking, often very early in the conversation. DiAngelo and many others have noted that the upshot of the anxiety and confusion around talking about race has been an epidemic of white silence.
There are many reasons and rationalizations that we hear ourselves or others say when anxiety or defensiveness kicks in as we’re considering whether or not to talk about race. Detours change the subject away from talking about race and racial justice.
A common detour is the “I Don’t See Color” – the color blindness detour. Here the argument seems to be that people of color are just like me – I don’t see color or cultural differences and therefore I don’t need to make any effort to engage with other people’s experience of the world. But even if we as individuals could somehow be color blind, our society would still be what it is, we’d still have mass incarceration of black and brown people, poorer outcomes in health care for black and brown people, much higher rates of poverty and much lower rates of wealth and on and on. The “I don’t see racism” detour from talking about race is a vivid example of defining racism as only something that happens between individuals when much of the damage of racism is accomplished by institutions which have power over our lives. At the systemic level , operating between institutions, racism gains even more power. The drug war, real estate redlining, and gentrification are examples of systemic racism.
Education about unconscious bias has been proposed for our police departments but in fact, all of us can benefit from understanding how it works. Unconscious bias can result in behaviors we can observe in ourselves and others that suggest we are functioning according to a white supremacist script. For example, at the 2003 UU General Assembly here in Boston, UUs of color who attended were confronted with white UUs treating them as hotel staff and asking them to take their bags- this happened both at the curb and inside at the check-in desk.
More cringe-worthy examples of unconscious bias being meted out by white UUs to a black member of their congregation are bravely detailed in an article in this summer’s UU World magazine. A black church member who held 3 advanced degrees and was a graduate of the University of Chicago’s medical school was told by a another, white member that she was lucky that affirmative action policies were in place when she applied to medical school. And on another occasion she was asked by several parishioners to help integrate the church by inviting her friends to come. She notes that she understood they did not see their behavior as hurtful, but hurt it did. If they did not have people of color in their own friendship networks, “how did they imagine that she could single-handedly make the church more diverse.” I think this incident is especially revealing of how we white people can be more comfortable if we think of racism as an issue that belongs to black and brown people and therefore, is their problem to solve. So this black, highly educated person, someone who should have felt totally at home in UU culture, did not. She describes her 24 year history with the institution she still, remarkably, sees as her spiritual home as “joyous- AND often trying and exhausting dealing with recurring issues of institutional racism and unchecked race-based assumptions”.
As we might expect from hearing her experience she regularly considered leaving the church for an African American congregation. But she declares “my theology is here.” And she found that the congregation gradually became more open to looking at white privilege and that the “tenor of the church changed”. So in the end this is a heartening story of a white institution being able to change its culture. It is very important to note that none of the hurtful comments were made by “bad” people. They were made by people who lived their lives swimming in American culture, which is racist, and creates unconscious bias in all of us.
James Luther Adams is considered to have been the most prominent UU theologian of the 20th century. You may have been here the Sunday in May when Stephen reprised Adams’ talk “Five Smooth Stones.” Here, James Luther Adams is reflecting on the perilous relationship between the middle class and religion.
“We of the middle class are tempted, indeed almost fated to adopt the religion of the successful. This religion of the successful amounts to a systemic concealment of and separation from reality— a hiding of the plight of those who in one sense or another live on the other side of the tracks. In the end this concealment comes from a failure to identify correctly and to enter into combat with what St. Paul called ‘the principalities and powers of evil’. The religion of the successful turns out then to be a sham spirituality, a cultivated blindness, for it tends to reduce itself to personal kindliness and philanthropy costing little. Thus it betrays the world with a kiss.”
Whenever I read this in the context of thinking about the web of racism that persists in our country, I feel sick with a certain sense of recognition. Ta-Nehisi Coates’ description of the Dream which is built on the backs of black and brown people matches up too closely with James Luther Adams’ seeing “a systemic concealment of and separation from reality.” and “a cultivated blindness”.
So this is where the urgency comes in. How CAN we wake up? You know that feeling when you’re having a nightmare and you’re struggling to do something, whether it is finding the street where you live or getting away from someone who wants to kill you or whatever your most recent nightmare involved, but in the dream you just can’t accomplish it. Fortunately it IS a dream and you wake up. But, what can we do to get ourselves and our country to wake up from this societal nightmare?
Michael Benefiel from the Cedar Lane UU congregation in Maryland-tells us how UUs woke up in the 1960s. Here is the story he tells of that time.
Fifty years ago, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., sent President Dana Greeley of the UUA a telegram, asking this white ally of black voting rights and the empowerment of African-American leadership to come to Selma, Alabama, and to bring a cloud of UU witnesses. King’s Sunday nonviolent, orderly march had met with armed resistance and brutal violence by the Alabama police authorities and a white posse. King and Greeley hoped to show that fear, intimidation, and police violence—which all the nation had witnessed in the news footage of Bloody Sunday–would not prevail.
Why did Dr. King ask, and why did President Dana Greeley say yes—and gather hundreds of UU ministers, seminarians, and lay leaders for the work of racial justice? Martin Luther King, Jr., had given the Ware Lecture at the General Assembly of the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations in 1964. He and President Greeley had a personal relationship that created mutual expectations for equity and justice in human relationships. As religious leaders, they shared a prophetic vision for justice and as organizers for social change they lived in a tradition of bending the moral arc of the universe toward justice by organizing communities to collaborate in order to achieve common purposes.
We today can look back on that period as a time when 100s of Unitarian Universalists added their voices to the demand of black people for an end to racist brutality and segregation and the beginning of full voting rights. In telling this story Benefiel highlights the network of relationships as key in obtaining the goal of civil and voting rights. And he asks the question who are we in relationship with now?
After centuries of being divided by race, we have an opportunity now to work to close that division with a strong racial justice movement. Without a strong racial justice movement that involves white America, it is doubtless that certain criminal justice and police reforms will be enacted only to disappear by the next iteration of white supremacist policies, which we, because our lives are not involved in a deep and caring way with black and brown families and neighborhoods, will only realize has happened after the damage is done.
James Luther Adams pointed out that an important part of our UU tradition, one of his 5 smooth stones, is the belief that new ideas and understandings are still being revealed, that revelation is still happening. I think that anti-racism as it is currently being articulated and developed is a new revelation and one that is essential to preventing us from following in the American tradition of white hypocrisy and inhumanity that is racism.
There are many resources all around us here in Boston. Two of our FCB social justice partners, the UU Urban Ministry and UU Mass Action have recently formed groups focusing specifically on racial justice. We have Community Change here on Beacon Hill offering the “White People Challenging Racism” workshop (which I took- thank you everybody in the workshop who may be listening on the radio for helping me to make this action plan of preaching a sermon a reality!), the Showing Up for Racial Justice group SURJ, the Black Lives Matter movement and the NAACP, to name a few more groups who we can support or be supported by in doing racial justice work.
Dan Zanes is an anti-racist and a musician who lives in New York who suggests that a key thing white people can do to ‘wake up’ is ‘change up your liberal media diet- “the NYTimes and NPR are often called liberal media but for the most part they are white liberal media. He recommends The Root, an online source for news, culture, and lifestyle from a black perspective. Nancy Atwood and I both enjoy the WGBH program Basic Black which does news and culture with a focus on black issues here in the Boston area. Lately I’ve been really wishing I could hear the Basic Black panel talk about the Boston Latin School racism issue that is in the news because I never feel that I’m getting a thorough discussion of what has happened there from a black perspective. Zanes also advises “don’t ask your black friends to explain racism to you, that would be exhausting for them.” He is a member of a white affinity group – white people interested in examining race, power, and privilege. I am lucky to have the Outreach to White Communities group in my local peace organization which is a place I can share whatever I want to about race and which helps keep me growing and grounded in becoming an anti-racist.
Alicia Garza of Black Lives Matter was recently interviewed on the occasion of the 3 year anniversary of the founding of the group. She was asked if she was discouraged by the lack of indictments of police men involved in killing unarmed black people. She said that of course it is important to have our justice system work for black people but she noted that indictments and convictions don’t transform policing and this is what is needed. Garza believes that there is a cultural shift moving through the country and that a cultural shift is the requirement for real change. She hears a richer conversation about race and a recognition on the part of many that right now black lives do not, and for a long time have not, mattered.
Who was it who said that Americans will eventually do the right thing after trying every other option? Let us resolve to become a part of the cultural shift that Alicia Garza envisions and in so doing become a church and a society that welcomes and celebrates all colors and cultures and insists that black lives do matter, finally.
Rosemary Kean is a member of Massachusetts Peace Action’s board of directors.