Does Saying I live in a White Supremacy Culture make me a White Supremacist?

The short answer is no.

But let’s put this into a much larger historical context.

In 1452, Pope Nicholas V authorized King Alfonso V of Portugal to place Muslims and pagans into “perpetual slavery,”  thus beginning the slave trade from Africa.  In 1455, he wrote King Alfonso authorizing Catholic nations to claim dominion over any “discovered lands” allowing for seizure of the lands and placing the non-Christian native peoples into slavery.  Then in 1493, Pope Alexander VI stated that one Catholic nation did not have claim to lands previously claimed by other Catholic nations. These papal bulls created what is now known as the Doctrine of Discovery. This doctrine opened the door for imperialism and heavily influenced the formation of Manifest Destiny which stated that the US had the divine right to expand its lands across the Americas. Doing so meant subduing the indigenous people and stealing their lands.  The American people, those in power, were white Northern Europeans (Eastern and Southern Europeans were not considered white until the mid- 20th century).

The Doctrine of Discovery and Manifest Destiny had in its core the belief that the white race was superior to any other culture or race. It is what justified the slave traders and the slave owners in the Americas. It is what justified the genocide during the forced removal of the indigenous people known as the Trail of Tears. Both of these policies reduced people of color and the indigenous people to objects, non-human status. This is White Supremacy Culture.

White Supremacy Culture was in the very backbone of the forming governments in the colonies. Benjamin Franklin wrote that only those of English descent were of the white race and specifically noted that Germans were of inferior stock. Jews were not considered white. Irish were not considered white. And as I mentioned earlier those of the Eastern and Southern European countries (Italy, Greece, Turkey, Armenia, Hungary, etc.) were not considered white.

Our national history is one of white supremacy.  The obvious examples are the violent subjugation of Blacks into slavery and the violent, often genocidal, removal of the Indigenous people from their lands to reservations. Their cultures were considered savage, their religions dismissed, and their languages denied expression. This is an understatement.  It is still happening today.  The violation of sacred burial lands of the indigenous people at Standing Rock in order to build a pipeline that was moved because it was too close to a white community is a flagrant example of white supremacy.  The needs of White people trumps the needs of any other group.

Two Supreme Court cases regarding immigrants being white occurred.  In 1922, The Naturalization Act of 1906 stated that those eligible for citizenship included “free white persons.”  Takao Ozawa and Takuji Yamashita, two Japanese immigrants filed for naturalization claiming that Japanese had white skin.  The Supreme Court ruled that the designation of white was reserved for caucasians only.  In 1923, Bhagat Singh Thind, a Sikh, being of Aryan descent in northern India and therefore caucasian applied for naturalization. The Supreme Court denied him because he did not fit the “common understanding” of what determined one to be caucasian.  Living in the United States means one is living in a White Supremacy Culture.

So, because I live in the White Supremacy Culture of the United States, does this mean I am a White Supremacist?

The Alabama State Constitution of 1901, still  in force today, was created specifically to establish a White Supremacist State. And while many of the worst aspects of the constitution were struck down by Supreme Court rulings in the 1950s and 60s, it is still a white supremacist document that ensures that people of color are oppressed. This is done through more subtle laws such as denial of home rule of municipalities. (One example is the recent law passed that nullified Birmingham’s minimum wage increase for its residents, harming its 74% majority Black community.) This is also done by gerrymandering districts to create white republican majorities. This is done through voter suppression laws in the state of Alabama. Shelby County v Holder removed the discrimination protection of voters in Alabama. Immediately after its removal, the very argument used to defeat it (Alabama learned its lesson over the last 50 years and will never suppress voters again), was shown to be false and voter suppression occurred. The State of Alabama is perhaps the clearest example of a white supremacy culture because the examples are so very stark and plain to see by any who examines even slightly what is beneath the surface of this constitution.

In 2011, then Senator Beason, was caught on wiretap as joking about the economic development of the residents of predominantly Black Greene County. He stated those running the Greenetrack Casino as being “aborigines.” Beason was looking to shut down this gambling site which was at the time the largest employer in Greene County. If you live in Alabama, you are living in a White Supremacy Culture. This is simply a fact codified in its constitution.

So, because I live in the White Supremacy Culture of Alabama, does this make me a White Supremacist?

There are active White Supremacy hate groups that advocate for the return of the Jim Crow era or worse.  In Alabama there is the League of the South, whose goal is to have Alabama and other southern states secede from the US, deport all people of color, and restore the south to its former White Supremacist glory to protect the purity of the white race. There are other hate groups as well like the KKK and neo-nazi nationalist groups who also advocate white supremacy. These individuals would indeed be supremacists because they sincerely believe their superiority over people of color and indigenous people. And they use violence against people of color to intimidate and to oppress.

However, there are also predominant white groups, organizations that may publicly disavow racism and yet have policies, both formal and informal, that inadvertently hold people of color back.  The recent hiring controversy that rocked the Unitarian Universalist Association, my faith, is an example of one such predominant white group. There has been pushback from white Unitarian Universalists regarding using the term White Supremacy Culture to describe the culture of Unitarian Universalism.

Let’s unpack the culture of Unitarian Universalism. Neither our Unitarian or Universalist ancestors have a squeaky clean history when it comes to interactions with people of color. In fact, the American Unitarian Association acted in very white supremacist ways. Mark Morrison-Reed in his book, Black Pioneers in a White Denomination writes: “In 1907 when [Ethelred] Brown wrote to inquire about theological school and financial aid, denominational officials discouraged him.  Unitarians feared that their system of belief might be corrupted if embraced by the mass of common men and women, much less by blacks.” White supremacy culture combined with class structures hindered our ability to support those people of color who wanted entrance into the Unitarian faith. Universalists were not any better. Recent research done by Ministerial Intern, Monica Dobbins, found that a white Universalist minister who felt a calling to reach out to the Black community in Birmingham in the early part of the 20th century was told by his Universalist headquarters to end his ministry.

In an out of print (2009) book entitled The Arc of the Universe is Long: Unitarian Universalists, Anti-Racism and the Journey from Calgary, we find the following history of White Supremacy Culture in Unitarian Universalism.

There was the Black Empowerment Controversy in 1969 following the successes of the civil rights movement involvement, Unitarian Universalism was unable to keep its commitments. Of this controversy, The Racial and Cultural Diversity Task Force reported: “How could we have known at the time that the model of racial assimilation and integration for which we had fought so long was inadequate to address the newly felt needs for empowerment?” 

An institutional racism audit was conducted in 1980/81. This audit defined racism as “attitudes, beliefs, norms, and values reflected in institutional policies, practices and procedures which deny to members of racial minority groups access to goods, services, and resources on the basis of race.” 

The following imperative was adopted by the UUA board in 1981: “Recognizing the fact that institutional racism is still embedded in American society in 1981, the Unitarian Universalist Association shall seek to eliminate racism in all its institutional structures, policies, practices, and patterns of behavior so that it will become a racially equitable institution and can make an effective contribution toward achieving a similarly equitable society.” 

There were thirty-two recommendations of which the board decided to implement twenty-five.  The top recommendation was affirmative action in staffing. This was placed as the highest priority and should have been visibly addressed by the start of the 21st century.

Rev. Joseph Santos-Lyon wrote in 2006:  “.. Imagine then our dismay to hear that when the questions of people of color and the ministry were at one time put before the Ministerial Fellowship Committee, a response was characterized with the following words: Do ‘they’ fit the mold? Are ‘their’ backgrounds, and experience typical of our usual placement requirements? Will we have to lower the standards?” 

This history points to a white supremacy culture that is long and deep in our heritage. Placing the current hiring controversy in the context of our Unitarian Universalist history, it becomes very clear that eleven years after Rev. Santos-Lyon wrote these words nothing has effectively changed. Stories have surfaced from former UUA staff of the history of discriminatory hiring practices at the UUA. In the 1980s and 90s we called it institutional racism. The definition of racism used in 1980 could also be used to define White Supremacy Culture.

Our denomination’s people of color organizations, Diverse & Revolutionary UU Multicultural Ministries (DRUUMM) and Black Lives of UU Organizing Collective (BLUU) have asked us to name these policies and procedures within the UUA as being part of “White Supremacy Culture” because the analysis of the history of the UUA and of congregations shows repeated shortcomings in the very areas that have been promised to be addressed, not just in recent years, but consistently promised over the 50 years since the civil rights movement. Our siblings of color continue to report the experiences of microaggressions and the informal and formal policies in our faith congregations and institutions as being on the continuum of White Supremacy Culture. They also are challenging us to reflect on how white privilege and racism has shaped our denomination and have kept us from living our principles as fully as we can.

In a position paper calling for an 8th principle; BLUU highlights the following:

  • If, as stated in the 1997 resolution, we are committed to “an ongoing process for the comprehensive institutionalization of anti-racism and multiculturalism” within our faith, where is the demonstrable commitment to explicitly dismantling white supremacist norms within our Association’s hiring practices? Within the culture of our member congregations? Within the hearts and minds of those who identify as Unitarian Universalists?
  • The 1997 resolution affirms that “all Unitarian Universalist leaders, including ministers, religious educators, leaders of associate and affiliate organizations, governing boards, Unitarian Universalist Association staff, theological schools, and future General Assemblies [are] to engage in ongoing anti-racism training, to examine basic assumptions, structures, and functions, and, in response to what is learned, develop action plans.” As such, where is the consistent and demonstrable effort on behalf of the Association to protect UUs of color especially from harm by moving beyond action plans into a demonstrable effort around dismantling white supremacy in the structure, culture and liturgy of our faith community?

When I talk with white Unitarian Universalists, they are quick to acknowledge that they have white privilege.  They state that they are sometimes blind to how white privilege operates in their lives because they recognize that it is insipid in our culture. I have been told by these same white Unitarian Universalists that using the term White Supremacy Culture is offensive and will turn people off. That the term White Supremacy Culture labels white liberal Unitarian Universalists as supremacists.  A term that is often used to refer to the hate groups I mentioned above.

Where is white privilege grounded?  How have we come to receive the privilege of being white in our culture?  If we can recognize the pervasiveness of white privilege in this culture, then why can’t we recognize that white privilege is grounded in White Supremacy Culture?  How is that we cannot make the connection that white privilege is the benefit conferred to white people in a white supremacy culture without somehow being personally offended?

Yes, this is uncomfortable work. Yes, It is challenging our perception of who we are. But to acknowledge that the culture we live in is White Supremacy Culture does not mean that simply by living in this culture makes one a white supremacist.  Living in the Deep South means that I live in a Christian Culture.  Yet, that does not automatically make me a Christian.  If I lived in a Muslim Culture, it would not automatically make me Muslim. So how does recognizing that I am living in a White Supremacist Culture automatically translates into being a White Supremacist?

It doesn’t.  But it does imply that there may be white supremacist norms of behavior going on.  White privilege being one.  Having Whiteness be the default in my thinking is another. It also does not give me a free pass from my responsibility to do the work to dismantle the white supremacy culture that I see impacting my siblings of color. If I do not actively and with humility challenge myself to see how policies, formal and informal, hold my siblings of color from being fully embraced by this faith that has saved me, then I am complicit to holding the white cultural norms that have been established by our spiritual ancestors of this faith.

Why wouldn’t I want to reduce the pain our Sibling UUs of Color have experienced in our faith?  Why wouldn’t I want to decenter whiteness to enable our Siblings of Color to grow in this faith with the same enthusiasm as I have experienced?  Why would I want to hold on to a culture that inflicts such pain others?  How does that negative attitude embody our beloved principles?

When I read Ta-Nehisi Coates’ book Between the World and Me, Michele Alexander’s The New Jim Crow; Rev. William Barber’s The Third Reconstruction; I see plainly how White Supremacy Culture has manifested itself in our country in the 21st century. How can I then deny this is where I live and breathe?

We, White UUs, can easily say, well, we are not a part of the society that causes these levels of racism/ supremacy; and that might be very true. But we are a part of this culture where these things are happening, and therefore can either be part of the antidote or part of the ongoing infection that is causing pain. Our Sibling UUs of Color are asking us to see the log in our own eyes before we can effectively address that which we see in society. Our Sibling UUs of Color are not calling us supremacists.  They are calling us complicit in supporting the culture we live in. There in is the difference.

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Changing Our Narrative

 by Rev. Fred L Hammond 7 October 2012 ©

Last spring I delivered a sermon on the Doctrine of Discovery, a 550 year plus old document that set in motion the underlying narrative of the United States of America.  I talked about this doctrine then because our Unitarian Universalist Association was submitting a resolution to our Justice General Assembly in Phoenix to renounce this Doctrine of Discovery and request that all laws that reflect this papal decree be removed from our governing bodies. The resolution passed with an overwhelming majority of those congregational delegates present.

The story of this country is cast with this doctrine as a preamble to our history and the majority of our country’s actions have the spirit of this doctrine imbedded within them.  To remind us what the Doctrine of Discovery states, let me quote again Pope Nicholas V who in 1452 wrote:

” We grant to you (King of Portugal)  full and free power, through the Apostolic authority by this edict, to invade, conquer, fight, subjugate the Saracens (Muslims) and pagans, and other infidels and other enemies of Christ, and wherever established their Kingdoms, Duchies, Royal Palaces, Principalities and other dominions, lands, places, estates, camps and any other possessions, mobile and immobile goods found in all these places and held in whatever name, and held and possessed by the same […]and to lead their persons in perpetual servitude. [i]

Pope Nicholas V wrote another edict to protect Portugal from other Christian nations laying claim to lands already claimed by Portugal.  And in 1493, Pope Alexander XI expanded this edict to allow other Christian nations to also lay claim to lands not already claimed by Portugal and gave Christopher Columbus the right to lay claim to the lands he set foot on for Spain.

So the historical narrative of the United States essentially begins in 1492.  We know the poem entitled The History of the U.S[ii]. written in 1919, which begins with the stanza:

In fourteen hundred ninety-two,
Columbus sailed the ocean blue
And found this land, land of the Free,
Beloved by you, beloved by me.

It implies that prior to 1492 this land was uninhabited, unknown to anyone, per se.  Columbus found it and introduced to this land European civility—or so we were taught in school.  Yet, there were people already here with a culture that was long established.  Howard Zinn[iii] writes in A People’s History of the United States: 1492 to Present   “These Arawaks of the Bahama Islands were much like Indians on the mainland, who were remarkable (European observers were to say again and again) for their hospitality, their belief in sharing. These traits did not stand out in the Europe of the Renaissance, dominated as it was by the religion of popes, the government of kings, the frenzy for money that marked Western civilization and its first messenger to the Americas, Christopher Columbus.”

Another poem entitled In 1492 by Jean Marzollo first published in 1948 about Christopher Columbus contain these closing stanzas

The Arakawa natives were very nice;
They gave the sailors food and spice.

Columbus sailed on to find some gold
To bring back home, as he’d been told.

He made the trip again and again,
Trading gold to bring to Spain.

The first American?  No, not quite.
But Columbus was brave, and he was bright.

This isn’t exactly what happened after Columbus landed in the Caribbean but it is what we teach our children.  Some histories will make mention that the encounter of Columbus and his crew with the native peoples of the island went according to Columbus’ plan of enslavement and genocide but this mention is equivalent to a footnote.  While these histories do not deny the atrocities they do not make it central to Columbus’ mission. Columbus wrote the following to Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand[iv],

I took by force six of the Indians from the first island, and intend to carry them to Spain in order to learn our language and return, unless your Highnesses should choose instead to have them all transported to Spain, or held captive on the island. These people are very simple in matters of war… I could conquer the whole of them with fifty men, and govern them as I pleased… They are very clever and honest, display great liberality, and will give whatever they possess for a trifle or for nothing at all… Whether there exists any such thing as private property among them I have not been able to ascertain… As they appear to have no religion, I believe they would very readily become Christians… They would make good servants… They are fit to be ordered about and made to work, to sow, and do aught else that may be needed, …

To sum up the great profits of this voyage, I am able to promise, for a trifling assistance from your Majesties, any quantity of gold, drugs, cotton, mastic, aloe, and as many slaves for maritime service as your Majesties may stand in need of.”

In the short time after Columbus’ arrival the population of what is now known as Haiti, Dominican Republic, and Cuba was reduced from 3 million to 60,000.  The people of these islands died; some to European diseases like small pox and others through genocidal killing and suicide for not being able to secure the gold amounts desired.

Howard Zinn in his text writes[v], To emphasize the heroism of Columbus and his successors as navigators and discoverers, and to deemphasize their genocide, is not a technical necessity but an ideological choice. It serves—unwittingly—to justify what was done.”

And this has been our stance in the Americas ever since. We called it by many names; Doctrine of Discovery, Manifest Destiny, the Monroe Doctrine, and today American Exceptionalism. It is a part of our narrative that covers up or hides many sins that we have committed as a nation.  And it is this narrative that we teach our children in schools.  America is best.  America is the greatest.  America is the home of the brave and land of the free.  America can do wrong in its eyes.

Of course the question arises, who is this America.  From the earliest days of this republic it was white men who were America. This is a White supremacist narrative that is presented to the world.

Congress in 1790 enacted this law:  All free white persons who have, or shall migrate into the United States, and shall give satisfactory proof, before a magistrate, by oath, that they intend to reside therein, and shall take an oath of allegiance, and shall have resided in the United States for one whole year, shall be entitled to all the rights of citizenship.[vi]

Now in 1790 all the rights of citizenship only pertained to white men who owned property, white women were not granted all the rights of citizenship. And in many states Jews and Catholics were also not granted all the rights of citizenship.  The definition of who was white in America was narrowly determined. Benjamin Franklin gives a definition of whiteness in 1751:  “[vii]That the Number of purely   white People in the World is proportionably very small. All Africa is   black or tawny. Asia chiefly tawny. America (exclusive of the new Comers) wholly so. And in Europe, the Spaniards, Italians,   French, Russians and Swedes, are generally of what we call   a swarthy Complexion; as are the Germans also, the Saxons only   excepted, who with the English, make the principal Body of White People   on the Face of the Earth. I could wish their Numbers were increased.”

Today there are texts written entitled How Jews became White Folks and How the Irish became White.  Our narrative as a nation was told from the perspective of Whites as the only sanctioned narrative.  To go against this narrative is considered sedition. That is a strong statement but it is a true statement nonetheless.

Especially if you listen to some of the conservative voices in this country going against the narrative is indeed seditious.  The narrative of America as told is being destroyed by having a Black president.  Te-Nehisi Coates[viii] in his article in Atlantic Monthly proposes that the furor over whether Obama has an American Birth Certificate or proclaiming him to be a Muslim is a means to maintain the white narrative of America.  If Obama is not an American or is a Muslim then he is not really the president of the USA and the white narrative of America is preserved.  There is a photo going around FaceBook of a poster at a Koch Brothers sponsored protest against Occupy New York that reads, “I’m dreaming of a White President just like the ones we use to have…”

Preserve the narrative of America at all costs.  Obey our laws, obey our cultural norms.  Do not disrupt the 550 plus years of white narrative that declares whites as superior over all others.   In 1635[ix], a native person allegedly killed an Englishman in Maryland. The English demanded the native be handed over to them for punishment under English law.  The chief answered how they would handle the native and refused, saying “you are here strangers, and come into our country, you should rather conform yourselves to the customs of our country, than impose yours upon us.”   But to do that would have made the doctrine of discovery invalid.  It would have changed the narrative of supremacy.

Arizona HB2281 which was signed into law and into effect December 2011 banned the teaching of ethnic studies in Arizona schools.  The ethnic studies specifically banned were Latino ethnic studies.  This law states that “School[s] in this state shall not include in its program of instruction any courses or classes that include any of the following:

  1. 1.    Promote the overthrow of the United States Government.
  2. 2.    Promote resentment toward a race or class of people
  3. 3.    Are designed primarily for pupils of a particular ethnic group.
  4. Advocate ethnic solidarity instead of the treatment of pupils as individuals.”

At the heart of this ban is a course of studies that were taught at the public schools in Tucson, AZ. Tucson is a community of about 47% Anglo, 42% Latino and the remaining 11% being Black, Native American, or Asian.  In the public school district the demographics change because many whites attend private or charter schools making Latinos to account for 62% of the student population.

The Mexican American Studies program was considered seditious because it taught the history of the indigenous people of the America’s from the perspective of the indigenous people.  History of the indigenous people did not begin in Europe with the Greco and Roman empires but rather with the Aztec’s and Mayan’s.  Columbus’ arrival was not the heroic event that unfurled the ability of Europeans seeking to breathe free but rather as the beginning of an invasion that destroyed civilizations and enslaved and ransacked human and natural resources. It placed the context of the land of Arizona in its thousands of year old histories of a proud people who lived in this land and had its resources taken away from them, first by the Mexican government and then by the United States government. The bumper sticker of the immigrant rights movement, ‘we didn’t cross the border the border crossed us’ is not just a sound bite it is an historic fact of a people living in the southwest.

Theirs is a narrative that highlighted the values of community that holds itself together. The sharing and generosity that Columbus found in the Taino tribe of the Arawak people is not seen as a weakness but as a strength of their heritage.    Yet, it is this ethnic solidarity in a community value that was made illegal by the Arizona law in favor of the strident American individualism. American individualism where the pursuit of capital gain is not to uplift the society but only to increase the privilege and power of the one receiving the gain.  This is not the society that neither Columbus nor any of the Europeans encountered when they arrived on these shores.  Europeans encountered the culture of Iroquois Chief Hiawatha, who said, [x]We bind ourselves together by taking hold of each other’s hands so firmly and forming a circle so strong that if a tree should fall upon it, it could not shake nor break it, so that our people and grandchildren shall remain in the circle in security, peace and happiness.” A Jesuit priest who encountered the Iroquois wrote, [xi]No poorhouses are needed among them, because they are neither mendicants nor paupers… their kindness, humanity and courtesy not only makes them liberal with what they have, but causes them to possess hardly anything except in common…”

And while I am not so naïve to think that the native cultures of the America’s was idyllic, these are narratives that need to be incorporated into the American narrative as a whole in order to sort out and sift the wheat from the chaff.  There are aspects of cultures found right here in these lands that could aid in the redemption of the American narrative that has spawned centuries of white supremacy and violent racism against others.

The Mexican American Studies program was one of those programs that sought American redemption through the telling of a history from the perspective of the native people’s point of view.  These students have the potential to contribute to our society if they are given the tools to understand where they fit in the narrative of this country.  They get to begin to rewrite that narrative to include their achievements, their cultural contributions.

The high school drop out rate of Latino’s nationally hovers around 56%.  The Tucson school district after implementing their Mexican American Studies program found the drop out rate decrease to 2.5% in the school district. Tucson students who attended this program did better in state exams as compared to their peers in other schools.  The students found that they found a reason why education was important for them to pursue. They discovered that education was relevant to their life experiences.

Clergy in Tucson[xii] wrote a letter in support of the Mexican American Studies program.  They wrote:

“As people of faith, we recognize how important our history and stories are to us. Scriptures are nothing more than the passed down stories of people who wanted their children and their children’s children to remember the ways in which God had moved within their lives and in the course of human history to bring forth freedom from slavery, forgiveness from retribution, love from hate, and grace from sin. The history of the people of faith within sacred scripture has never been the dominant history; our history is not the history of Egypt but the history of the Hebrew slaves, not the history of Babylon but the history of those carried away into captivity, not the history of Herod but the history of a refugee family who had to flee to Egypt, not the history of Rome but the history of a peasant named Jesus and his followers.” The same is true of the Mexican American Studies program; it is a history of a conquered people, the indigenous people of these lands.

Howard Zinn recalls a statement he once read that stated, [xiii]The cry of the poor is not always just, but if you don’t listen to it, you will never know what justice is.”

Yes, the story the Mexican American Studies program tells is counter to the narrative of this nation but it’s aim is not to raise up people with seditious acts but rather to honor the lives of those lost.  To glean from their stories the richness of their lives and the lessons their lives still have to offer us.

It may come as a bit of surprise to folks that tomorrow has two names as the holiday.  It is Columbus Day, a day in which Alabama anyway, seeks to honor those of Italian heritage. It is also American Indian Heritage Day, a day to honor the contributions of the native peoples from these lands.  It may seem odd that Alabama is only one of a few states and municipalities that honor the native people of this land officially. I hope Alabama gets why honoring Native Americans tomorrow is so important in our country.

This state also continues to honor Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, and Confederate Memorial Day.  And I think I now get why it is important for Alabama to honor and remember these people from a painful time in our nation’s history when ideologies clashed so brutally.

In order to fully live up to our potential as a people we need to understand our story as a nation. We need to change our narrative to include the fullness of our story; the good, bad, and ugly truths of our story.  It would be easy and it has been easy for parts of our history to fade away because they are too shameful, to painful to face.  We have done this in America.  We have tried to forget the Japanese Interment camps during World War Two. We have tried to forget the turmoil and unrest of the Civil Rights era.  We have tried to forget the brutal murders of sexual minorities like Matthew Shepard and the thousands who commit suicide because their sexual orientation is not viewed acceptable by society. And I am sure there are some of us who would prefer that the Undocumented remain in the shadows of America.

But if this country is to live up to its most sacred creed, then we must do its work to undo white supremacy and white privilege where ever it is established. It does not serve us well, it never ever did.

[i] http://unamsanctamcatholicam.blogspot.com/2011/02/dum-diversas-english-translation.html

[ii] http://www.straightdope.com/columns/read/2274/where-does-that-1492-ocean-blue-thing-about-columbus-come-from  Poem written by Winifred Sackville Stoner, Jr.

[iii] A People’s History of the United States: 1492 to Present (Howard Zinn)- Highlight Loc. 72-75  | Added on Wednesday, October 03, 2012, 04:41 PM

[iv] http://red-coral.net/Columb.html  from the poem Columbus in the Bay of Pigs by John Curl

[v] A People’s History of the United States: 1492 to Present (Howard Zinn)- Highlight Loc. 214-16  | Added on Friday, October 05, 2012, 01:02 PM

[vi] As found in the article “Fear of a Black President” by Ta-Nehisi Coates http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2012/09/fear-of-a-black-president/309064/?single_page=true

[vii] http://www.dialoginternational.com/dialog_international/2008/02/ben-franklin-on.html

[viii] “Fear of a Black President” by Ta-Nehisi Coates http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2012/09/fear-of-a-black-president/309064/?single_page=true

[ix] A People’s History of the United States: 1492 to Present (Howard Zinn) – Highlight Loc. 456-60  | Added on Friday, October 05, 2012, 01:39 PM

[x] A People’s History of the United States: 1492 to Present (Howard Zinn)-Highlight Loc 426-31

[xi] A People’s History of the United States: 1492 to Present (Howard Zinn)-Highlight Loc 431-35

[xii] http://www.tucsonweekly.com/TheRange/archives/2011/06/21/faith-leaders-ethnic-studies-program-is-a-valuable-educational-program

[xiii] A People’s History of the United States: 1492 to Present (Howard Zinn)- Highlight Loc. 252-53  | Added on Friday, October 05, 2012, 01:09 PM

Doctrine of Discovery

Sermon given on May 6 2012 © Rev. Fred L Hammond to the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Tuscaloosa.

It seems appropriate that we should be talking about this Doctrine of Discovery in light of this past weeks events because the two are directly related to how we, as people of the United States are conducting our policies towards immigrants here in Alabama and in the nation.

The Doctrine of Discovery also called the Doctrine of Christian Discovery is founded on a series of papal bulls or edicts written between 1452 and 1493.  The first was from Pope Nicholas V in 1452 called the Dum Diversas. It states the following:

” We grant to you (King of Portugal)  full and free power, through the Apostolic authority by this edict, to invade, conquer, fight, subjugate the Saracens (Muslims) and pagans, and other infidels and other enemies of Christ, and wherever established their Kingdoms, Duchies, Royal Palaces, Principalities and other dominions, lands, places, estates, camps and any other possessions, mobile and immobile goods found in all these places and held in whatever name, and held and possessed by the same […]and to lead their persons in perpetual servitude. [i]

This edict gave sanction for Portugal to invade Africa, take its resources, and begin what was to be called the African Slave Trade.

The second edict Romanus Pontifex  also written by Pope Nicholas V in 1455 followed up on the first papal bull confirming Portugal’s right to dominion over all lands discovered and / or conquered from the Saracens and pagans and it reaffirmed the enslavement of these people.  This edict was written to prevent other Christian nations from colonizing lands that Portugal laid claim.  The third edict Inter caetera written by Pope Alexander VI in 1493 gave the right for explorers and nations to lay claim on lands unknown to Christians. It added a clause requiring the proselytizing of the inhabitants to Christianity.   It also gave permission for Christopher Columbus  in 1493 to lay claim to the lands he set foot on for Spain.

It is this Doctrine of Christian Discovery based on these three papal bulls that became the basis for the United States claim to the Americas. The assumption here was that once the Europeans were no longer the rulers, the authority to subjugate new lands in the Americas fell on the emerging nation.

The US Supreme court in 1823, in Johnson v McIntosh used the doctrine to state that Johnson had no claim to the land he purchased directly from the native peoples because the land already belonged to the US government.  This ruling meant that the indigenous people only had the right of occupancy so long as the US government allowed it and could at anytime revoke the right of occupancy.  This was upheld in the US Supreme Court ruling of 1831; Cherokee Nation v Georgia.  Justice Marshall wrote that “the relationship of the tribes to the United States resembles that of a ‘ward to its guardian’.[ii]”  This resulted in the trail of tears when Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Muscogee-Creek, and Seminole were moved to “Indian Territory” known as present day Oklahoma.

We see this doctrine in the footprint of Manifest Destiny, the belief that the United States should expand from coast to coast.  Historian William E. Weeks suggested three themes were in the concept of Manifest Destiny:  1) The virtue of American Institutions; 2) the mission to spread these institutions thereby redeeming and remaking the world in the image of the US; and 3) The Destiny under God to do this work. [iii]

The first of these themes is today heard in the concept of American Exceptionalism, the belief that America has not only a unique role to play but a divine calling in spreading liberty and democracy in the world.  It is American Exceptionalism that feeds the erroneous belief that America is the greatest country ever, that might makes right, and that we have the right to be the police unto the nations and thereby interfere in the internal and external affairs of nations, even to intervene with force the over throw of governments we no longer approve of, regardless of whether they were democratically elected or not.  America in playing out this exceptionalism interfered with the governments in Latin and South America through out the 20th century and with governments in the Middle East contributing to the current crisis that is ongoing.  All of these policies are grounded in the papal bulls that were written over 550 years ago by Popes of the Roman Catholic Church.

And we recently saw the Doctrine of Discovery in Candidate Newt Gingrich’s vision of a Moon colony that would then become a state of the United States. While many people scoffed at his vision, it is rooted firmly in this Doctrine of Discovery; we plant our flag, we claim it by colonization then it is rightly ours and ours alone to exploit as we choose. And if there really is a man in the moon, then he must be enslaved to the invading forces.

In a sermon recently given by Rev. Matt Alspough[iv], he states, “So we’ve based a significant part of our American political practice on the Doctrine of Discovery, that small act of political expediency enacted by the Catholic Church. We’ve seen that American acceptance of this Doctrine opened Pandora’s Box out of which poured many of our society’s ills: the slavery of Africans as economic practice, our most tragic war over that practice, and the morass of racism that continues to this day. It framed our treatment of indigenous peoples in our country, a history of forced relocation and genocide, imposing on them western religion and practices, sometimes taking their children from them. It has influenced our confusion about immigration, particularly the migration of indigenous peoples in the Americas, many of whom are on the move because United States policies in Latin America have limited economic opportunities for these people.”

This brings us right up to our present day, doesn’t it?  This is the reason why it is important to understand our history, even history that is over 500 years old still has an impact on the decisions, on the values, on the culture we express today. And the people who make these decisions in places of authority might not even have a clue as to what they are reinforcing because to them it seems so natural, so logical, so matter of fact that of course this is the way it must be. Surely the pilgrims and the puritans who came to these shores would have repudiated anything that came from Catholicism had they fully understood the source of their alleged superior dominionist attitude.  Well, perhaps not, since such an attitude benefited them in their forging their way on these shores. But the reason as to why we do something a certain way in this country may not be because we consciously chose to do it that way but rather because some racist, Christian supremacist declared it to be the will of god and it steam rolled across the ages and became part of our cultural DNA.

So here we are 560 years later, still immersed in cultural norms and mores and in laws that seek to place dominion over another people. We still have a belief in this country that we can do whatever we want with the earth, ravage its minerals, its lumber, its water to serve our purposes and to hell to everyone else.

This doctrine influences our water access in the southwest.  We know we absolutely know that the rain that falls in the Rocky Mountains and enters the Colorado River supports life through out the desert on its route to the Gulf of California.  But our laws state that if the water falls on United States then it belongs to United States and so we seek to trap it in the desert with major dams across the Colorado River. We then catch the overflow by other avenues so that we can water the non native grasses and water hungry potato farms and supply water to swimming pools in communities like Phoenix, Scottsdale, and Tucson.

We are not being sensible when it comes to water in the southwest, yet because of this ingrained doctrine of domination over the land and its native peoples we take what we want for our own greedy purposes and privilege. All of these actions are to the detriment of the indigenous peoples and species that live along the border and dependent on the spring runoffs for their survival.   The waters of the Colorado River never make it to the Delta in the Gulf of California causing extinction fears of the rare indigenous species that live in the gulf.

The people who live in Sonora were part of a nomadic tribe that traveled north into Arizona and back south again, a pattern they followed for 10,000 years.  Now the border walls prevent these people from their nomadic customs over land that has been theirs.  The chant that I heard when I was in Arizona for the day of non-compliance was “I didn’t cross the border, the border crossed me.” This is a very real statement.  Two countries, Mexico and the United States, developed borders without regard to the indigenous peoples that lived there.The Doctrine of Discovery was in operation through out the Americas.

As we come to better understand the ancient peoples of this land, we discover that the Aztec’s realm extended far into Georgia.  Many of our immigrants from Latin America today are descendants of the Aztec and Mayan people as well as other indigenous peoples.  So in some ways it could be said that immigrants from Latin America are coming home.

The state of Alabama is playing the Doctrine of Discovery by insisting that it has the right to determine who shall live within our state borders. This is currently constitutional under Johnson v McIntosh but should it be when so many of the immigrants are in fact indigenous people of these lands.  The question really becomes can we continue to tell native peoples where they can and cannot live, when it is the descendants of Europeans who are the non-natives here?

Bruce Knotts, Director of the UUA United Nations Office[v], writes: The Doctrine of Discovery violates human rights on its face.  It states that any Christian discovery of non-Christian people, gives the Christian nation the right to claim the land and enslave the people, which many European nations did all over the world.  The vestiges of these terrible crimes remain with us today.  We have imposed relatively modern borders onto ancient indigenous nations.  These newly established colonial boarders divide indigenous nations.  Families are cut off from each other.  Nowhere is this as bad as it is in our American Southwest, where some families and nations of indigenous people are on one or the other side of the American/Mexican border.  The American government makes no provision for people of one indigenous nation (which may have existed for over a thousand years as a cohesive people) are divided by a border established less than two hundred years ago.  Our immigration authorities make visits and commerce within one indigenous nation divided by the American border nearly impossible to achieve.  The Doctrine of Discovery, purports to give us the right to do what we never should have had the right to do; which is steal the land of others and to enslave the owners of the land we have stolen.  The hard work of restoring justice in this world must begin with a total and complete repudiation of the doctrine of discovery.

We have been asked by our national partners in the fight for true immigration reform to join the Roman Catholic Church in revoking this doctrine.  The Holy See in April 27 of 2010 confirms that the Papal Bull of 1493 Inter Coetera “has been revoked and considers it without any legal or doctrinal value.[vi]” Further the Episcopalians and the Quakers have also passed resolutions repudiating this doctrine.

So while we are in Phoenix for our General Assembly, the UUA has proposed a resolution for us to repudiate the Doctrine of Discovery and to urge the Federal government to fully endorse and implement without qualification the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples passed by 144 countries with four votes against. The four votes against this resolution included Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and the United States.  These four countries have large indigenous populations within their borders.

The action of civil disobedience that I performed this past week is brought into even finer focus with the Doctrine of Discovery as the context in which HB 56 and its revision bills are placed.  Tupac Acosta from Arizona speaks frequently about the connection of SB 1070 and the Doctrine of Discovery.  He says, “the purpose of SB1070 was to consolidate the perceptions of some white Americans around the idea of an America that is white in a continent that belongs to them.[vii]

I would suggest that this is what is happening in Alabama as well.   It is time for us to put an end to our domination culture.  It is time for us to live up to our higher ideals and values of loving our neighbors.  As I recently wrote in a blog in response to Governor Bentley’s comment about the bible stating one must always obey the law, I quoted another verse from the chapter he referred to:  Love does no harm to a neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law. May we strive to always fulfill the law.


[iv] Sermon: Doctrine of Discovery – Rev Matt Alspaugh, Unitarian Universalist Church, Youngstown, OH as found at http://www.rd-ad.org/Index.html

[v] Human Rights Violation – Bruce Knotts, Director UUA United Nations Office as found at http://www.rd-ad.org/Index.html