Anti-Racist vs Non-Racist

I came across the following article today:  “I don’t trust white people, even the liberals, and science backs me up.”   It is a good article that exposes the difficulty white people have after 400 years of white supremacy immersion to behave in ways that are non-racist.  The good news is the science this author is citing is behavioral science and not science like the immutable laws of science, such as the law of gravity. This means that white people can change their behaviors and become non-racist.

Non-racist?  I do not see too many people in the anti-racism work talking about being non-racist.  They mostly use the term anti-racist.  So what is the difference?  Actually there is a huge difference.

My taking action as a white ally in a Black Lives Matter protest is an anti-racist action.  I am standing in solidarity against the racism that has been institutionalized in our criminal justice system. (If this statement is new to you; there is a whole body of work out there that documents our criminal justice system as racist, so I am not going to spend time here justifying that statement.)

My reading and researching about institutional racism in the United States of America is equipping me with information to bolster my ability to recognize racism as it has been displayed and continues to be displayed in this nation.  This reading and researching is anti-racism work.  But this work still does not make me non-racist.

As the article points out, there are still unconscious racist messages embedded into my culture that I practice without even batting an eye even as I proclaim anti-racist statements with my mouth and body. To be non-racist in my behaviors means I need to be willing to examine my behaviors in the context of racism. It means that I need to have a wider frame of reference in which to place my behaviors and decisions.

I will give an example.  And it is easier to look at someone else’s behavior than it is my own.  Alabama’s Governor Bentley recently made the decision to close down department of motor vehicles in the most rural counties of the state.  He stated this was for financial reasons because of shortfalls in the state budget. Governors have the unpopular task to make the hard decisions even though it will affect people’s lives. If state budget was the only factor behind this decision, this might seem like a difficult but reasonable decision to make.

However, in the wider context, this decision affects people of color in greater numbers than it does white people.  In the wider context, this decision was made after the state of Alabama passed the requirement that people have to have state issued photo IDs in order to vote in elections. In the wider context, this decision will force people to take time off from work to travel 3 or 4 hours away to wait in line for several hours to get their license and photo ID. In the wider context, the majority of people living and working in these counties do not have positions that pay for personal leave or sick time, so a day off from work is a day’s pay lost.  This may translate in not being able to make rent that month or place food on the table that week.  What first appeared as an unpopular and hard decision to balance a state budget, now begins to look like yet another means to oppress and disenfranchise the poor who also happen to be predominantly people of color.

Now Governor Bentley has stated this decision was not done for racist reasons. On the face of his statements, I believe him. But intention does not negate impact AND look at where he lives. He lives in a state whose state constitution of 1901 was created for the sole purpose to promote and sustain white supremacy. His actions are in line with 114 years of white supremacy codified into the Alabama constitution.

In order for Governor Bentley to be acting from a non-racist place, he needs first to be aware, consciously aware on a daily basis, how the constitution that he swore to uphold is first and foremost a racist document written in such a manner to prevent people of color to fully participate in the governmental process. He also needs to be aware, consciously aware on a daily basis, how his actions affect all of his constituents along racial lines. If he wants to truly be seen as non-racist, then he needs to change his behaviors when making decisions that will negatively impact people of color.

Let me attempt to give a more personal example to distinguish the two terms. I recently shared a sermon with my minister colleagues at our fall retreat entitled:  For Such a Time As This. It was the sermon I gave at the installation of another colleague. In it, I challenge our Unitarian Universalist denomination regarding racism within our faith.  Afterwards, one of my African American colleagues thanked me for stating things that he could not have stated then added ‘with such words comes great accountability.’ My sermon was anti-racist. My accountability to that sermon needs to be non-racist behavior.

It is easier to be anti-racist because that is merely pointing out the splinter in our neighbors’ eyes. The harder work, the aspirational work is to be non-racist, the plucking out the log within our own eye so we can see our own behaviors and change them to be increasingly non-racist. Undoing the ingrained behavior of a 400 year plus white supremacist culture will take concerted effort on all of our parts.

Those who are dedicated to this work need to be both anti-racist and non-racist. The willingness to stand in solidarity with people of color against racism and the willingness to do the hard soul-searching work to change our own behaviors so they no longer oppress others.

 

 

 

For Such A Time as This

The following is the sermon I gave on September 12, 2015, at the installation service of Rev. Lynn Hopkins, minister of the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Montgomery in Alabama.  May it help inform our faith and help us set the direction for the prophetic witness we are called to in such a time as this. 

Text: Esther 4:13-14

We have the story of Esther in the Hebrew Scriptures.  Born of lowly birth to a Jewish family, there was not much promise for her status in life.  She did have one thing in her favor. She was beautiful.  The king becomes enamored by her and marries her.  But the king also has an adviser who hates the Jews so much that he convinces the king to have them killed.  Esther feels distressed and also helpless in this situation since she is not the esteemed first wife of the king.  But her uncle, Mordecai says to her, “Do not think that because you are in the king’s house you alone of all the Jews will escape. For if you remain silent at this time, relief and deliverance for the Jews will arise from another place, but you and your father’s family will perish. And who knows but that you have come to your royal position for such a time as this?”

For such a time as this.  Haunting words for Esther to engage her destiny and find a way to entice the king to give her an audience and perhaps save her people.

And have we come to our royal position for such a time as this?  Our faith as Unitarian Universalists for nearly 300 years has enjoyed the royal position of privilege—white privilege, white supremacy, class privilege. Our spiritual ancestors not only helped create this nation of white supremacy and privilege but some even held the highest office in the land. Some have been seen as prophets—William Ellery Channing, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Theodore Parker; even as these individuals whose legacies revolutionized Unitarian faith they did so from the framework of white supremacy and white privilege of their day.

Their lives were imbued in class privilege, in white privilege, in white supremacy which continued to influence the direction the Unitarian faith was to follow.  And it is that unfortunate legacy that led later White Unitarians to view their liberalism and progressivism as holding them at a safe distance in an enclaved haven. They saw themselves as being that beacon on a hill, high above all the rest. While some deplored the injustices in society, Unitarians, for the most part, were content in their position of privilege.  They were arrogant and haughty.

This was evident in the decisions that our American Unitarian Association made regarding people of color who wanted to become ministers of our faith.  Examine the sometimes brutal responses the AUA gave to the vision of Rev. Elthered Brown who founded a Harlem based Unitarian Church and the subdued support to Rev. Lewis McGee and his congregation in Chicago. And it wasn’t just the Unitarians, examine the dismissive and arrogant regard the Universalists gave Rev. Joseph Jordan and then his daughter, Annie Willis in their work in providing an education to African Americans in Virginia.

Our history in standing on the side of love has not always been consistent in terms of dealing with our own complicity in racism.

Today, we like to proclaim that we were good in the early 1960’s when pointing the finger at those white supremacists during the Civil Rights movement but we would rather forget that we were not so good when Black Unitarian Universalists began to hold White Unitarian Universalists accountable to our own inbred racism in the late 1960s.  We have struggled as a faith denomination with coming to terms with our own white privilege and our propensity to use white supremacy to our advantages.   But the process to become not only anti-racist but non-racist in our heart of hearts is going to take an individual commitment of all of our members.

We have seen in recent years, how merely acknowledging the issue is not sufficient to uprooting the weeds of white supremacy in the field planted with Unitarian Universalism. We need to recognize how the wheat, oats, and barley that are also planted in the field support and aid the weeds to flourish.  If we are unable to own our complicity, individually and collectively, then we will continue to miss the mark of becoming the prophethood of all believers that we know can be our destiny. James Luther Adams knew this required “something like conversion, something more than an attitude.” People in our communities need to know that we are the people of the covenantal promise of love made real.

It means we have to become comfortable with confessing our own white privilege and feelings of white supremacy.  It is no longer good enough to have an intellectual understanding of white privilege and white supremacy as it is displayed in this nation.  It is no longer enough to declare we give money to black causes or declare our scorn at those who fly the confederate flag.  We need to have a heart understanding of what every black person in America already knows.   It means we are going to have to begin living our values in ways we have yet to imagine.  It may challenge us.  It may seem uncomfortable but when has deepening spiritual awareness and transformation of lives ever comfortable?

We need to develop a spiritual practice of comfortability. Comfortability is a portmanteau of two words combined to create a new word.  I define the word as having the ability to be willing to embrace the feeling of being uncomfortable in situations in order to confront a held bias or prejudice.  In the context of being confronted on racism, it means not being defensive or deflective in response but able to be held accountable to our complicity with white privilege and white supremacy and then using that skill to transform our hearts and change our behavior.

The spiritual practice of comfortability was recently described by another Unitarian Universalist, Annie Gonzalez Milliken in her blog post entitled, Spiritual Practices for White Discomfort.  She lists these possible steps towards the skill-set needed for comfortability.

Sit with the discomfort and acknowledge it with mindful meditation, the art of breathing in and breathing out.  Instead of judgment turn judgment into a curiosity.  “Where is my discomfort coming from and what can I learn about myself?”  In other words take some time for introspection. Read up on the subject—find out the social context for the action taken that caused our discomfort.  Process our emotions with other committed allies privately.  Focus on the big picture. Practice deep listening and keep quiet.  Unitarian Universalists love to share opinions but that is expressing our own sense of privilege and is not always helpful. In fact such sharing before we have fully processed our own stuff can result in deflection away from the focus of ending racism.  When people of color spend their energy answering white discomfort it can be ‘especially draining.’

White liberals, all whites regardless of political stripe, need to develop the ability to sit in discomfort of how the system whites created serves to oppress, demean, and destroy Black Lives and other people of color. White Liberals need to recognize how they continue to benefit from this system even when putting on the mantle of being progressives with anti-racist rhetoric. White privilege protects white liberals from these feelings of discomfort.

I have heard some white liberals declare their protestations when confronted with supporting the system of white privilege and white supremacy, to deflect ownership by stating their support of petitions, giving money, marching in unity marches, and having friendships with people of color.

All of these actions are good in and of themselves but these actions become distancing tactics meant to make ourselves feel good when confronted with our complicity. They mean very little if we are not also on the vanguard confronting the system that gives one group protection over and above another group.

We have hid behind our principles without living the spirit of our principles.  When Black Lives Matter banners are displayed, the cry from some of our Unitarian Universalist members point to our principle of inherent worth and dignity of every person therefore, the logic goes: all lives matter.  This is a deflection because All Lives Matter is the idealized dream but Black Lives Matter is the living reality that they should yet do not. It is a painful reminder that in our society today, we have the walking dead.  These are the people who are seen in society as already dead socially so when they die physically, there is no further loss felt.  How does a nation grieve the loss of someone who is already dead to society?

But it isn’t just Black lives that are socially dead.  The mentally ill are socially dead.  The elderly are socially dead. The poor are socially dead. The disabled are socially dead.  And now that our society has found the slaughtering of children bearable because our nation has placed 2nd amendment rights as more important than the lives of our children, our children are socially dead.

When the walking dead begin to resurrect and claim their voice; whites with privilege, whites with power, whites who bask in the benefits of white supremacy become nervous and uncomfortable. There is a scramble to enact laws to keep them dead.  Voting ID laws, gerrymandering voting districts, laws to prevent municipalities enacting minimum wage standards, laws to limit or destroy unions, welfare reforms, all are geared towards disenfranchisement and all to keep the socially dead, dead.  Don’t believe me?  Look where we slash our budgets on the state and federal levels?

Medicaid, Mental health services, Aid to families, education services, children services, food stamps. These cuts are allowed because these people are not valued, their lives do not matter.  When we are not outraged when a mentally ill person wielding a serving spoon is shot by police because the police officer feared for his life at a distance of 24 feet; when we are not outraged when a Black person is shot and killed at a simple traffic stop; when we are not outraged when Medicaid is cut and lives are lost then we declare these people already dead in society. We do not fund the dead.  The only thing left for them is to be buried.

What does our faith call us to do?  It certainly does not call us to huddle in our predominant white congregational havens where we can wag our fingers and heads at those outside these doors who shoot Black Lives with impunity.  No, our faith calls us to love mercifully, to act with justice, and to walk humbly in our place in the universe.  This is not a time to act all high and mighty and laud our liberal faith of acceptance yet do nothing to create substantive change.

It is a time to speak up boldly on behalf of those who have lost their voice or are having their voices constricted.  It is a time to stand on the side of love not just along the side of the road in picket line formation but in the office, in the park, in the grocery store, in the daily interactions we have with everyone we meet. Our being in covenantal relationship does not end once we leave these hallowed halls.  Rather it begins. It is time to be an anti-racist anti-oppression faith, not just in the ideal pretty words on a page, but in the hard daily reality.

It comes to this.  Our faith does not require that we all believe in the same God or in any God.  Our faith does not require that we profess a creed of doctrines that would enable us to enter the gates of heaven.  Our faith does require us to love one another as we love ourselves in the here and now.  Our faith does require us to be stubbornly determined in loving life into society’s socially dead—because black lives matter.

That is our resurrection miracle.   Lazarus, a black man, raised from the dead is now seen as crucial to the prosperity and general welfare of the entire community.  To remove the blindness from the eyes of those who would oppress to suddenly see Lazarus’s inherent worth and dignity as vitally connected to their own inherent worth.   Lazarus’s resurrection and liberation is tied into our liberation and resurrection. We cannot be fully alive and liberated without the liberation of Black Lives.

These are the times in which we are found. Do not think that because you are in a white liberal and progressive faith, that you alone of white liberals will be protected from being held accountable. For if you remain silent in the crisis facing Black Lives, relief and deliverance for liberation will arise from another place, but this faith will be found irrelevant and will vanish from society.  And who knows if you have come to this faith for such a time as this?

What’s a Mother to Do?

Toya Graham, mother of six, sees son on the Baltimore news throwing rocks at police cars, tracks him down, and smacks him several times in the head for his behavior. A bystander videotaped this altercation and it went viral on social media and picked up on national TV.

Many praised her actions as Mother of the year for teaching her son that rioting is wrong. But to hear her say it, the real motivation was “That’s my only son, and at the end of the day, I don’t want him to be a Freddie Gray. ”

Freddie Gray is the young man whose spinal cord was severed while being transported by police after an arrest. Gray died a few days later. His death sparked protests and riots in several sections of Baltimore’s poorest neighborhoods. For a mother to live with fear that her son may end up dead like Freddie Gray at the hands of the police, is a fear that no mother should have to live with in her daily life.

What’s a mother to do? About a year ago, she heard gun shots outside her West Baltimore house and found a person who had been shot and left for dead. Her neighborhood is filled with violence. She reports she tries to keep him home but now that he is 16, she knows she can’t do that as often any longer.

West Baltimore is a poor area of the city. The per capita median income is 35% less than the Baltimore average and 56% less than the state’s average. 24% of the Black population is living in poverty. Unemployment is in the double digits and while it is down this past month to 11.5%, unemployment rate among black youth is at 16.1%, triple the national average. 60% of those over age 25 do not have a highschool diploma or GED. Life expectancy is 20 years less than other neighborhoods in Baltimore. A third of the properties are vacant or abandoned. This is the reality that she and her family face every day. This is the larger context to the Black Lives Matter movement. It isn’t just the police shootings of unarmed black men, it is the whole picture of the social landscape in which they breathe and have their being.

The New York Times has been publishing online a series of short documentaries entitled Conversations. There are two that I want to mention here. The first one I watched was about growing up Black. It focused on Black male youth sharing their experiences of racism. The youngest was 10 the oldest was in their 20s. One youth tells the story of walking down the street with his white friend and seeing a group of black teens walking towards them, the white friend suggests crossing over to the other side of the street. Another youth states that he will cross the street if he notices white people having a terror in their eyes as he approaches them. One wife describes all male teens and adults as potentially being seen by whites as a large scary black man. Her husband interrupts; I am not a large scary black man. One young man spoke about attending his school that was in two buildings and being stopped by police while walking to class from one building to the other. He expressed his shame and embarrassment he felt as his white student peers would walk pass him. This was not a onetime event, but one that happened several times. He was told the police were there to make him feel safe. He asks, “How can I feel safe when I feel like I am being hunted?”

The other short film was about parents having the “conversation” with their Black son. In white families, the ‘conversation’ usually refers to sexual behavior and responsibility but in these families the conversation is about how to act when, emphasis on when, police stop you. A father tells the story of placing and keeping his hands on the steering wheel in order to keep the police from becoming nervous about him and realizing that same action made his children in the back seat nervous and scared. A mother states, “It’s maddening that I have to prepare my kids for something that they are not responsible for.” Another parent instructs her children, “Under no circumstances are you to talk/ask questions to a police officer if stopped.”

To have this conversation be the norm in African American families is a terrifying prospect to fully grasp. It counters the white experience in this nation where whites are taught that the police are your friends and if ever in trouble, a police officer can help. Because whites typically do not have this experience with police, many are incredulous when they hear this reality for Blacks.

This is not a new phenomenon in America. This is not something that only began happening when Michael Brown was shot or Eric Garner was strangled. The Black Lives Matter movement is not reflecting on a new never before heard of act of aggression by police. Unfortunately this is a generational issue that dates back hundreds of years.

The issues faced by the black community in the 1870s after the civil war, in the early 1900s, and the 1960s are the same issues that are being faced today in 2015. In the 1870s and early 1900s, the police and vigilantes used lynchings to send a message to the black community; today we use the police and excessive force to the point of death to do the same. And when they are killed there is an immediate vilification and demonization of the victim to convince the public that somehow this death was justified. That somehow in this instance, the police officer had no choice but to shoot, or to hold the person in a choke hold, or slam the person to the ground and kneeing them in the back preventing them to breathe.

The riots that broke out in Ferguson and Baltimore as heinous as they are in their destruction of property and people’s livelihood; they too have a context in which they develop. Martin Luther King, Jr. gave that context:

It is not enough for me to stand before you tonight and condemn riots. It would be morally irresponsible for me to do that without, at the same time, condemning the contingent, intolerable conditions that exist in our society. These conditions are the things that cause individuals to feel that they have no other alternative than to engage in violent rebellions to get attention. And I must say tonight that a riot is the language of the unheard.

I stated earlier the conditions of Toya Graham’s neighborhood of West Baltimore; the high unemployment rate, the high poverty rate, the violence that is already rampant in the streets. These factors have the effect of keeping people trapped in poverty. It does not help to have a system in place to also keep them there.

Alabama State Senator Smitherman stated recently in a public hearing that Alabama is one shooting away from making Baltimore look like a kindergarten outing. The issue of racism and excessive force by police is not just in cities like Baltimore, New York, and Ferguson but also throughout the south.

Here in the south we have statues and schools commemorating civil war leaders who fought to keep the slave economy intact. The statues around the Capitol building commemorates confederate soldiers. It must be painful to be reminded that this state wanted to keep African Americans in shackles. Imagine being a black youth attending a school named for Jefferson Davis or Robert E. Lee. How must it feel to know that the school you are attending is honoring someone who wanted your family to remain uneducated and in slavery? Or to have the Alabama history lessons still honor Jefferson Davis as a great statesman and to honor his treason with a state holiday?

It does not help that Former President Jimmy Carter, a southerner, along with Congress officially pardoned him and restored him to full citizenship in 1978 posthumously. Davis had the opportunity for a pardon while he was alive if he applied for one, but is quoted to have said, to ask for a pardon would require repentance, and he hadn’t repented. There is no reconciliation for a person who did not see they had done anything wrong or immoral. Slavery is immoral. And to exonerate Jefferson Davis sends the message that it was okay after all.

Using excessive force against an unarmed person, especially when they are being compliant to police requests, is immoral. There was a recent video where the young black man under his own volition is in the process of getting down on the ground and a police officer runs up and kicks him in the face, breaking his jaw. This was not justified behavior, even if the person had run away from the cop moments before, it is not justified nor is it moral.

There were two commemorations happening in Selma this year. Bloody Sunday was 50 years ago at the height of the civil rights movement and the Battle of Selma, 150 years ago with the reenactment of that battle on the heels of the Bloody Sunday commemoration. At the reenactment, the KKK and other white supremacist groups were out in full number. Imagine how the predominantly black community of Selma felt to have the KKK once again at their doorsteps proudly waving their confederate flags for an era that while it must not be forgotten, needs to be placed into a new narrative of creating justice and liberty for all Alabama’s citizens. Instead it glorifies the confederacy and its rebellion against the Federal government.

This is the context in which the black community lives and breathes. To say racism is dead or is diminishing because we have elected to the highest office in the land an African American contrasts the vast unevenness of civil rights in this country.

So what is a mother to do? Julia Ward Howe in 1870 called on mothers around the globe to unite for peace and to help prevent the sending of our children to war. That declaration became the advent of Mother’s Day. Somehow the protest, the anger, and grief over the loss of young lives that gave birth to Mother’s Day has been reformed into a quaint hallmark card and flowers.

However, yesterday Julia Ward Howe’s proclamation was again brought to the forefront. Valerie Bell , who lost her son, Sean, on his wedding day, when police fired 50 shots into his car because they thought the occupants had guns but none of them did, joined Mothers for Justice United; a group of women and family members who have lost young men and women to police violence. She writes:

This year we are taking back the original intention of Mother’s Day: a day founded for mothers to stand up together to make collective demands. After the Civil War and the economic turmoil that followed, American abolitionist Julia Ward Howe, horrified by the wars and devastation of her time, penned a proclamation to mothers everywhere:  “Our husbands will not come to us, reeking with carnage, for caresses and applause,” she wrote. “Our sons shall not be taken from us to unlearn all that we have been able to teach them of charity, mercy and patience… From the bosom of the devastated earth a voice goes up with our own. It says: Disarm, disarm!”

Howe called on women to “promote the alliance of the different nationalities, the amicable settlement of international questions, the great and general interests of peace.”
It’s now a century after the founding of Mother’s Day, and our sons are still being taken from us. Society has not disarmed, but militarized to the teeth. Mothers’ sons everywhere are still killing and being killed. We have had enough.

Yesterday Valerie Bell and other mothers of slain young black men marched in DC to bring attention to their grief and loss. It is not just the few that have made the headlines in recent months that they were protesting. The numbers are staggering.

Between 2010 and 2012, black teens were 21 times more likely to be shot and killed by police than white teens. In order for white teens to be of equal risk, it would require an additional 185 young white teens to be killed during that same time period or 1 additional death a week. The disparity does not stop there. Drug use among whites and blacks are about the same percentage. However, blacks in 2013 data collected by the FBI were 4 times more likely to be arrested for drug use than whites.

For me to stand here and tell you that the system is broken and needs fixing does not bring justice to this American tragedy. It is safe for me to speak. It is safe for me because I am at a distance from this reality. And many of you are also at a distance from this reality that is the nature of our social placement in society as Unitarian Universalists. We are considered a white liberal faith that can safely protest within our four walls, maybe sign a few petitions, and if we are brave, maybe join a rally to shake our fists in the air. But many of us won’t even do that much, we will shake our heads at this sad state of affairs and when this service is over return to our lives, celebrate Mother’s Day with our wives, mothers, and children and have a nice dinner.

But until we decide to listen and honor the first hand stories of people of color in our congregations and in our communities, our in-house actions are meaningless. Our declaring only to each other that we are white allies is really a vapid experience with no ability to make a difference other than to claim separation from those racists. We need to find a way to have heart awareness, a deep empathy that will call us to action, to speak up when our white co-workers proclaim that Freddie Gray got what he deserved or that Michael Brown was guilty or that young 12 year old Tamir Rice should have known better than to be black and playing with a toy gun on his property. Or when our white co-workers mention Brian Moore and other police officers shot and killed in the line of duty as a defense of police actions, we need to stand up and say the death of an officer does not justify the deaths of unarmed black men. This is not quid pro quo killings.

We must begin applying pressure on the system to create change so the deaths in the process of arresting someone ends. There is no call for police to kick a person in the face breaking his jaw. There is no need to shoot a shopper in Walmart because he picked up a toy gun. We need to have as much passion as Toya Graham who would go out in the middle of a raging riot and grab her son by the neck to pull him to safety. What would a mother do to save her children from harm?

What would you do, if you lived in her shoes?

Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Tuscaloosa
10 May 2015 © Rev Fred L Hammond