Minimum Wage address to Tuscaloosa City Council

This was given to the Mayor and City Council on February 9, 2016.

I am here before you tonight because I am confused by the city’s legislative agenda as it pertains to item 16–Minimum Wage Legislation.

It reads: Minimum wage determination should be controlled on a state or federal level rather than the local government level. Local government determinations of minimum wage could lead to unintended consequences for those who are low to moderate income, as well as have negative economic development impacts for local government. 

In order to reduce the likelihood of poverty and keep wage rates current, the City supports adjustments of the minimum wage rate where there is a cost of living adjustment that is tied to the consumer price index. 

This legislative agenda was passed on January 26th

I am confused because when Mayor Maddox and a few members of the council met with the coalition on January 27th; we were told that the city wanted to study this issue by setting up a task force with Northport and the County.  Why would the council state that to us, when there is clear indication in the city’s agenda that the city has no intention to pursue what is in the best interests of the people of Tuscaloosa?

Consider the words of the Prophet Malachi:  I will draw near to you judgment; and I will be a swift witness … against those who swear falsely, and against those who oppress the wage earner in his wages, the widow and the orphan…” 

You serve the people of this city.  Now I am not a literalist when it comes to scriptures but I view the judgment as a metaphor of what is coming. Perhaps you are not seeing it as clearly as I do–before I became a minister I was a clinical specialist that examined behaviors.  In my opinion, the judgment comes in the way of a crisis for our citizens.

17,000 people are desperately trying to make ends meet on an hourly wage that does not cover the rent, does not cover childcare, does not put food on the table, does not give them access to preventative health care.  They are forced to seek public assistance in attempt to make ends meet; which in our culture is a shameful act.  The coalition has heard from these families and it breaks my heart, especially when there are city solutions that can be taken.

When people are in a desperate situation that boxes then into a corner they begin to choose options harmful to themselves and to the community.  They steal food.  They steal items to sell for cash.  They resort to violence.  Domestic violence occurs because they are frustrated and angry at themselves for not being able to provide for their families.  They get arrested.  Police are placed in situations where unarmed people are shot.  We have already seen this happen in Tuscaloosa.

A pastor recently said, we are one gunshot away from being another Ferguson. We have a crisis here.  The city agenda speaks of unintended consequences, consider the unintended consequences of passing the buck.  The unintended consequences of passing the buck is more people choosing behaviors that cause physical harm and possible loss of life.  These will continue if the city council refuses to do the right thing for its citizens. It is already escalating. Good people in desperate situations are choosing poor behaviors to address immediate basic needs like food and shelter.

You do have the authority given to you by the state or the state would not be seeking to prevent that authority to act on behalf of the citizens of this community.  You have been given studies that show that raising the minimum wage benefits the local economy with increased tax revenue because the working poor spend their resources locally.  That is increased revenue in  your city’s budget.  It is good for business becuse increased wages reduce staff turnover which any business owner can tell you, it is more expensive to train new staff than to keep staff.  Every single state and city that has done this has prospered.

Further, you have the backing of the US Department of Labor to act on behalf the citizens.

Not acting with your authority will result in increased suffering in this city, in your heart of hearts you know this.  I close with one more quote, this from Apostle James, the brother of Jesus: If anyone, then, knows the good they ought to do and doesn’t do it, it is sin for them. 

You are committing a grievous sin against your own conscience by refusing to do what your own words declare is right.

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Sabbath Day Rest

Labor Day, the first Monday in September, is a creation of the labor movement and is dedicated to the social and economic achievements of American workers. It constitutes a yearly national tribute to the contributions workers have made to the strength, prosperity, and well-being of our country.”  So begins the Department of Labor’s[i] website regarding the history of Labor Day.  It ends with this statement: The vital force of labor added materially to the highest standard of living and the greatest production the world has ever known and has brought us closer to the realization of our traditional ideals of economic and political democracy. It is appropriate, therefore, that the nation pay tribute on Labor Day to the creator of so much of the nation’s strength, freedom, and leadership — the American worker.”

Only a fraction of workers have Labor Day as a paid holiday.  In Tuscaloosa, over 200 establishments will be open this Labor Day.  In a 2013 survey[ii], 39% of employers nationwide will be requiring their employees to work Labor Day. The tribute offered by the nation becomes only a symbolic gesture; it is no longer a sincere offer of gratitude to the American worker.

I wonder if the life expectancy of Americans ranking 34th in the world, tied with Cuba, Columbia, Qatar, Costa Rica, and Nauru is in part because we do not honor the notion of a Sabbath.  Every nation that has surpassed our life expectancy by years—require employers to offer paid vacation and many of them also require paid holidays.  The US does not. Even Japan with its stricter work ethic than the US requires companies to offer 10 days of paid vacation leave. Their life expectancy is number one in the world at 84 years. Every single nation that excels in life expectancy over the US has a minimum of 10 days required paid leave in addition to paid holiday leave.  Most of these nations total between 25 and 35 days of paid leave a year.

Is there a correlation between paid leave and life expectancy?  I don’t know.  What has been studied is that there is a correlation between income and life expectancy.  An increase of $10K a year for someone who is in the bottom 25% of income does more to increase their life expectancy while a reduction of $10K for someone who is in the top tiers of income has little impact on their life expectancy.

According to National Employment Law Project, 60% of businesses are in favor of a $12 an hour minimum wage.  This wage would give the lowest paid wage earners in our country that $10K a year increase and have a positive impact on their health and life expectancy.

The average life expectancy in the US for males is 76 years of age.  The difference between expectancy between a male whose income is in the upper tiers of income versus the lower tiers of income is 6 years[iii].  The argument to make the poor wait for retirement benefits does not make sense when life expectancy improvement is concentrated in the wealthy.  Retirement should not be the only time we get to experience rest from our labors. My hunch is that we would enjoy more and longer retirement years if we are able to take paid leaves throughout our work lives.

The Center for Economic Policy report from 2013 found that 69% of small businesses in the US are less likely to offer paid vacation time.  Only 49% of low wage workers have paid vacation time versus 90% of high wage workers.  The ability to have time off should not be only reserved for those in high hourly wage or salaried positions. Time off is important for our general wellbeing, not only physical health but mental and spiritual health as well.

When I was executive director of a small non-profit, it was important to me that my employees had the ability to take paid time off from work—be it sick, vacation, or personal days regardless of hours worked.  It was pro-rated based on their hours worked.  The work was demanding and stressful enough to have to also worry about a sick child at home.  Every part time employee had a pro-rated equivalent of two weeks off their first year and it increased to four weeks after 5 years of employment.  Our turnover was low in part because of this ability to offer paid leave.  The philosophy I employed was that if the employer can assist in taking care of the basics for the employee then that will translate into increased productivity.  Having the ability to have time off when needed was a vital basic need.

We simply don’t do Sabbath well.  When I was growing up we had in New York State what was called the Blue Laws, there are versions of these elsewhere as well.  But when I was a child, one version of the Blue laws was that stores were closed on Sunday.  End of discussion.  It was meant to be a guaranteed day of rest.

Oliver Sacks describes his family’s Sabbath[iv]:  [The family] mingled outside the synagogue after the service — and we would usually walk to the house of my Auntie Florrie and her three children to say a Kiddush, accompanied by sweet red wine and honey cakes, just enough to stimulate our appetites for lunch. After a cold lunch at home — gefilte fish, poached salmon, beetroot jelly — Saturday afternoons … would be devoted to family visits. Uncles and aunts and cousins would visit us for tea, or we them; we all lived within walking distance of one another.

“Remember the Sabbath Day and keep it holy.” Yes, the blue laws of my childhood had its origins in the Jewish and Christian notions of the Sabbath.  But there are benefits of having a weekly Sabbath Rest and our society can’t even tolerate one day a year to be held distinct from all others for all its citizens.

Former Senator Joseph Lieberman wrote a book[v] on his practice of Sabbath as an observant Jew.  He writes:  “The benefits of the Sabbath, a Day of Rest, are many. One is just rest. As the Bible says, `Six days shalt thou labor and do all thy work: but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord, your God: in it thou shalt not do any work.’ It refreshes you physically and mentally. It gives you time.”

Dedicating a day of rest by making it different from every other day of the week is also a way to honor your own life and the lives of your loved ones.  It is a means to recognize that your life has inherent worth and dignity. It declares your life and the life of your loved ones are worthy of respect and love.  Senator Lieberman buys fresh flowers for his wife every Friday before the Sabbath, not because he is a romantic but because his observance of the Sabbath commands him to celebrate the love between him and his wife.  This simple act sets the day apart from the week.  The Sabbath, Senator Lieberman states, is meant to engage “the senses—sight, sound, taste, smell, and touch—with beautiful settings, soaring melodies, wonderful food and wine, and lots of love. It is a time to reconnect with family and friends—and, of course, with God, the Creator of everything we have time to ‘sense’ on the Sabbath.”

However, we have made it nearly impossible for families to have a Sabbath day rest.  Our low wage earners in order to make ends meet are forced to have multiple jobs.  According to information gathered by Engage Alabama in Birmingham, the poverty level for a single mom with two kids is $19,700 yet a full time position at minimum wage only pays her $15,080.  Keep in mind, 69% of small businesses do not offer paid leave of any kind.  She misses work she loses pay.

Even if she was able to secure full time employment at $8.50 an hour, she still remains in poverty with an annual income of $17,500.  She will still need a second part time job to bring her above the poverty level and the likelihood that position will offer paid leave is even less.  Full time employees should not find themselves living in poverty. They should be able to earn enough to meet their basic needs.

If she was earning $10.10 an hour, she would be making $21,000 a year and would be able to qualify for health insurance for $50 a month through the federal marketplace. If the minimum wage of $1.60 in 1968 had kept up with inflation, the minimum wage would be $10.90 today.

Franklin D. Roosevelt when he introduced his National Industry Recovery Act[vi]  in 1933, stated:  It seems to me to be equally plain that no business which depends for existence on paying less than living wages to its workers has any right to continue in this country. By “business” I mean the whole of commerce as well as the whole of industry; by workers I mean all workers, the white collar class as well as [those] in overalls; and by living wages I mean more than a bare subsistence level-I mean the wages of decent living.

When the minimum wage was first created nationally in 1938, it was meant to be a living wage.   But that is not how it has worked out.  Minimum wages have become stuck points in time.  In 2009, the current minimum wage of $7.25 an hour was set.  To purchase something that cost $7.25 in 2009, today would cost $8.07.  It simply does not have the same purchasing power that it had.

Birmingham earlier this year passed a minimum wage of $10.10 an hour that will go into effect in January 2017.  They added to that ordinance the mandate that every year after that, minimum wage would be adjusted for inflation every January 1st.  This is the common sense thing to do and should have been included in 1968 when the $1.60 minimum wage was set.

There are over 17,500 low wage workers in the top 25 occupations in Tuscaloosa. Imagine what a minimum wage of $10.10 an hour would do for these people who are working hard yet finding themselves stuck in poverty and needing public assistance.

Our single mom would be able to come off of public assistance, spend more time with her children, and have an increased quality of life. She would have more income to buy locally the things she needs for her family.  Raising local wages would put more money into the local economy which in turns generates increased revenue for local businesses.

With the ability to meet basic needs, our low wage workers would be able to take a much desired breath.  For every dollar raise they receive means an additional $150 per month after taxes.  A worker making $8 an hour, making $10.10 an hour would earn $300 more per month.  That $300 would make a huge difference in their lives.

It would ultimately result in lifting all wages in the community. And how does that support Sabbath rest?  If a low wage earner is able to reduce the number of jobs needed to support their family because their rate of pay has increased, it would allow them to have that time with their loved ones.  It would strengthen the family unit.  It would reduce the stress they face that threatens their health and potentially extend their life expectancy.

If we could then convince employers that it is in their best interests to have healthy happy employees by offering health benefits, by offering paid leave—vacation, sick, holidays, and personal days; then we can begin to see how a Sabbath rest, a day dedicated to nurturing our souls and our families souls can transform our society.

Those of us fortunate to have paid leave, or two days off a week, consider taking one day to set it aside for family and friends only.  Choose to not do chores that day so your attention can be focused on your loved ones. Couples, make that a date night.  Families make that a family day of activities that are not chores around the house. If you are fortunate to work for one of the 61% employers that are not requiring you to work Labor Day, then use tomorrow to rest, have that BBQ outside with family and friends.  Finish your shopping chores today so you won’t be shopping tomorrow. Let the other 39% realize that it cost them more money to stay open than closing to honor this day.

Oliver Sacks closed his Sabbath reflection with these words: what is meant by living a good and worthwhile life — achieving a sense of peace within oneself. I find my thoughts drifting to the Sabbath, the day of rest, the seventh day of the week, and perhaps the seventh day of one’s life as well, when one can feel that one’s work is done, and one may, in good conscience, rest.                                                                                

Oliver Sacks died a few days after writing these words for the New York Times.  May we choose to not wait til one’s last days on this earth to ponder what is living a good and worthwhile life—achieving a sense of peace within oneself but may we instead create that day to reflect, to ponder, to celebrate the life we have been given with our loved ones as part of our weekly practice. Blessed be.

[i] As found September 4 2015, http://www.nytimes.com/2015/08/16/opinion/sunday/oliver-sacks-sabbath.html?_r=0

[ii] Lieberman, The Gift of Rest, Howard Books, 2011

[iii] http://docs.fdrlibrary.marist.edu/ODNIRAST.HTML

[iv] http://www.dol.gov/laborday/history.htm

[v] As found on September 5, 2015, http://business.time.com/2013/08/30/this-labor-day-much-of-america-will-be-laboring/

[vi]http://www.realclearmarkets.com/articles/2012/10/24/life_expectancy_income_inequality_and_entitlements_why_the_connection_matters_99949.html

Coming out of the Shadows: Whole and Upright

I have been reflecting on The Book of Job recently.  In Stephen Mitchell’s introduction of the translation of this text he defines “The Hebrew … tam v’-yashar, which literally means ‘whole (blameless) and upright.’” Then later comments, “When Job is handed over to the good graces of the Accuser, he is turned into the opposite of what the words mean in their most physical sense.  He becomes not-whole: broken in body and spirit. He becomes not-upright: pulled down into the dust by the gravity of his anguish.” [Italics Mitchell’s]

Since the end of July, the No Papers No Fear: Ride to Justice have been crossing the country stopping in various communities where immigrant communities have been assaulted by SB 1070 copy cat laws or had families torn apart by the federal 287 (g) or Secure Communities provisions in immigration law.  I am beginning to see connections between Job and the undocumented and larger connections in how America views herself.

I believe it was Vice President Hubert Humphrey who said “… the moral test of government is how that government treats those who are in the dawn of life, the children; those who are in the twilight of life, the elderly; and those who are in the shadows of life, the sick, the needy and the handicapped.”  

One of the tags the No Papers No Fear group has been using is coming out of the shadows.  Their greatest gift to us as a nation is to come out of the shadows.  The average person does not think about where their food or clothing comes from.  Nor do we think about who is cleaning our hotel rooms or mowing our public lawns.  We simply expect that there is food and clothing, clean hotel rooms and manicured public lawns readily available and in ample supply.  These are the people in the shadows, whether they are in a poultry processing plant in Mississippi, a day laborer in Alabama, or a migrant farm worker in Immokalee, Florida; these are all people in the shadows in this country.  Their shadow supports the rest of us to be in the sun, without them all would be darkness.

When I worked in public education many years ago, I had students when asked where milk, eggs, and vegetables comes from, answered me ‘from the store’ with a look that stated what kind of question is this.  Telling them vegetables did not come from a can or a frozen box but were first grown in a field where people stooped over in the hot sun and hand picked them for pennies for a bushel was like telling them that Santa Claus was not the one who made their presents but some worker in China who works 15 hours a day did. It didn’t make sense to them.  These are the shadows we do not like to expose to the light of day. The truth behind our economy is one shadow we prefer to remain in the dark about.

But being whole and upright is what we Americans like to proclaim on the mountain tops.  We have bought the lie just like Job’s friends that if all is well with us, then we are blessed and favored by God. All is well is defined as being able to have multiple safety nets below us that will catch us and keep us from harm. This is the privilege that many in America–White America especially–have come to expect to be here as if it is a natural law like gravity.   We do not need to look down from the trapeze wire to see the scattered bodies of those who fell before us because we have the nets to catch us and bounce us back up to the wire.  But many are discovering too late that the net, without our notice, has suddenly disappeared until we slip and fall.

Melissa Harris-Perry spoke passionately about this recently: “What in the world is riskier than being a poor person in America? I live in a neighborhood where people are shot on my street corner. I live in a neighborhood where people have to figure out how to get their kid into school because maybe it will be a good school and maybe it won’t. I’m sick of the idea that being wealthy is risky. No, there’s a huge safety net, that whenever you fail, we’ll catch you, and catch you, and catch you. Being poor is what is risky. We have to create a safety net for poor people and when we won’t because they happen to look different from us, it is the pervasive ugliness. We cannot do that.”

When you are wealthy in America one can ignore the poor, the undocumented, the sick, the elderly, and the disabled, all of the pervasive issues of our day because we can shove them inside the shadows where they cannot be seen.  The middle class is expected to follow suit and ignore these people as well and when we cannot any longer we pass laws to oppress them back into the shadows.  The middle class is taught in this mobile class society to always keep our gaze on the wealthy because maybe, just maybe, we could be one of the elite.  But this upward gazing is equivalent to navel gazing and keeps us from looking where we need to step. Now many are finding our footing slipping, the upstairs climb has become covered in the oil of greed which dictates mine first and the rest be damned to the shadows. We desire a scapegoat to allow us to keep  casting long shadows to hide our failings as a society.

Jon Stewart pointed out an interesting aspect to America recently: If we are successful, then we built it, if we fail, it is the government’s fault.  I would add this twist… if a poor person, Black or Latino especially,  is successful in America it is because of a hand out from the government; if they are not then they are simply lazy and deserve their lot in life.  Our nation is certainly contradictory in describing itself.  Eric Fleischauer writes about the Cruelty of Kind Alabamians but this trait is not limited to Alabama but extends to all Americans when discussing how we treat those in the shadows.

Job was whole and upright until disaster befell him and pulled him down to be not whole but broken, not upright but immoral and defiled.  If only he kept his mouth shut.  If he only kept silent and accepted his fate as just the way things are but No, he had to state he was still whole and upright.  He had to declare he was still a human being and not something to be tossed aside as worthless trash to be,  at best, composted.  And so, too, are the people on the No Paper No Fear: Ride to Justice Tour declaring their inherent worth and dignity and the brightness of their truth stings our eyes.  They are bringing America’s shadow into the light and we can do something about it once our eyes adjust from leaving Plato’s cave.

When we begin to realize that safety nets for the poor in this country will keep all safety nets intact and ready to catch us, at any level, then we will be able to truly be the class act we proclaim ourselves to be.  The poor includes all of the poor; the franchised and disenfranchised, the employed and unemployed, the abled and disabled, and the documented and undocumented.  If we can bring the poor out of the shadows then we truly will be whole and upright living in the noon day light of love.

Is The Republican Platform Compatible with Unitarian Universalism?

Republicans traditionally have been a minority in our Unitarian Universalist congregations.  I have generally sought to be tolerant of republican ideology because my grandfather and great grandfather were both republican politicians having served as Town Supervisor and Mayor. Their achievements in these roles are ones I have been proud of and continue to be so.  However, what I have been observing in the  political arena of late is not my Great Grandfather’s or even my Grandfather’s Republican Party, the party of Lincoln.

This has been a very difficult year politically. In a spirit of full disclosure, I am currently a registered Democrat.  I am moving my affiliation to Independent because the values I am also seeing expressed in the Democratic Party are also not my values. However, I am even more uncomfortable with the values I am seeing expressed by the Republican Party.  My discomforts in these two parties lie in my convictions to embody Unitarian Universalist values.

We all  come to this faith from some place on the political spectrum, even those who are born into this faith have a socially constructed political framework in which they operate.  However, if we are serious in engaging our faith as Unitarian Universalists, I do not believe we can stay in the same place we were in when came to this faith. We must engage our political framework with the same fervor that one might engage one’s privilege or racism, as the  political framework in this country is tied into the matrix that supports privilege and racism.  Ours is a transformative faith if we allow it to be so.  While on the one hand, I would want to create a space to allow republican ideals, such as my grandfather and great grandfather expressed them, within our congregation; I am on the other hand increasingly concerned that the platform of the Republican Party is not compatible with our faith values and is in fact dangerous in our desire to dismantle privilege  and racism.

The Democrat party also has its play in seeking to maintain privilege and racism in our country, so  I am not ignoring the incompatible values of this party.  It seems current and past administrations have adopted the policy of democratizing the world by force and ironically are punitive when democracy is spontaneously expressed here at home.  Democracy is one of our Unitarian Universalist principles but it has a caveat attached to it; the right of conscience.  This speaks to me of the freedom for a people to choose their own democracy structure even when it does not support American corporate interests.  American foreign policies have been based on privilege, on a belief of American supremacy, and on the false assumption that America is God’s chosen nation to police the world.  An example of this is the Joint Special Operations Command, or JSOC, the secretive force that assassinated Osama Bin Laden.  Regardless of America’s ethical justification about this particular mission, the JSOC operates through out the world with little to no accountability, not even to the Commander in Chief[i].  This stance of our nation is antithetical to Unitarian Universalist values as I understand them. Both parties are guilty in adhering to values that represent ultimately in sustaining America’s shadows.

However, The Republican Party has expressed an agenda that is anti-woman, anti-worker,  anti- immigrant, anti-religious freedom, anti-elderly, and racist.  I do not understand how any Unitarian Universalist, who is seeking to honor the principles of inherent worth and dignity of every person; Justice, equity, and compassion in human relations; and the right of conscience and the use of the democratic process can in good conscience continue to support a party that is actively working to devolve American society back to a repressive and oppressive era, more reminiscent of 1812 rather than 2012.

Recent laws that have been passed or proposed in our country by our Republican leaders support my thesis.   Several states have passed or are in the process of passing a personhood amendment, where the rights of personhood are conferred at the moment of conception.   This law would make abortions for any reason—be they economic, life preserving, or rape induced–illegal.  It would make many contraceptives illegal because these contraceptives work in preventing the fertilized egg from attaching to the uterine wall and thereby aborting the pregnancy.  Virginia’s republican leaders just passed a bill that would force women who are considering an abortion to have a transvaginal ultrasound[ii], a very intrusive forced procedure.  The republican governor has stated he will sign the bill into law.  In this sense, the Republican Party is legitimizing rape by forcing women to an intrusive, medically unwarranted probe procedure against her will.

The current brouhaha by republicans over health plans requiring contraceptive coverage is being called an attack on religious freedom; however, these proposed laws are an attack on religious freedom by forcing non-believers to adhere to another’s faith dogmas.

Further, a recent hearing on the contraceptive insurance issue[iii] excluded women from testifying on the issue that directly affects them, further proof that the current Republican party is anti-woman.  To quote a banner from an earlier time in our history, “No self -respecting woman should wish nor work for the success of a party that ignores her sex.[iv]

The Republican Congress majority just voted to not reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act because it has provisions that offer “protections for LGBT individuals, undocumented immigrants who are victims of domestic abuse and the authority of Native American tribes to prosecute crimes.”[v] This stance by the Republican Party is against the Unitarian Universalist principle of justice, equity, and compassion in human relations. These laws are incompatible with Unitarian Universalist principles.  These laws are an attempt to return women to an era of bare-foot and pregnant, and therefore to a subservient status of a previous century in order to curtail their freedom and growing power.

In Indiana, the republican senators have introduced a bill  to empower that state to withdraw from Medicare and Medicaid,thereby leaving the elderly, disabled, and the poor who need these services for their own quality of life.   This is an act of war on the marginalized in our country.  This is not a political party that has the interests of its constituents at heart but rather interested in maintaining the privilege of the elite.  This action does not reflect the values of Unitarian Universalism.

It has been said, the greatest threat to any nation is not the threat from abroad but rather the threat from within.  The Republican Party has been active in promoting that this threat exists.  They have chosen to give this threat a name:  the illegal immigrant.  However, factions within the Republican Party have expanded this threat to the immigrant, with or with out documentation[vi].   The laws that have been passed against immigrants, while claiming to be racially unbiased have in fact used race and foreign language usage to be criteria for asking for documentation.  Proof of racism by the Republican Party is in the response of republican legislators in Alabama who refused to see constituents who were Latino at a recent lobbying day sponsored by Alabama Coalition for Immigrant Justice.  White constituents were allowed in to see their legislators but when the white constituents wanted to include their Latino friends, the Latinos were denied access[vii].  There have been republican attempts to pass legislation to prove presidential nominees are birthright[viii] American citizens which is a racist response to the Obama presidency. No amount of legitimizing the concern can convince me that these legislative moves are not racially motivated.

The Republican Party is anti-LGBT.  The Republican Party has publicly endorsed their opposition to same gender[ix] marriage[x], gays in the military[xi], adoption by gay parents[xii], and support for protecting anti-gay bullies,[xiii] and support for the discrimination against gays.[xiv]  The Unitarian Universalist Association has since 1970[xv] fought for the inclusion of sexual minorities in the citizenship of this country.  This anti-gay stance by the Republican Party is in direct opposition to Unitarian Universalist values of inherent worth and dignity of every person.

The Republican Party is anti-worker.  Unitarian Universalists since our consolidation of our two denominations have made strong resolutions for worker rights and economic justice[xvi].  The Republican Party however has opposed worker [xvii]rights and worker [xviii]organization by passing bills[xix] that diminish [xx] labor[xxi] protections  and the worker’s ability to survive economically.  Again, these measures by the Republican Party go fully against the positions that Unitarian Universalists have consistently made at General Assemblies for the past 50 plus years.  Passing legislation that would create and enforce an extreme power imbalance between worker’s rights and corporate interests flies in the face of our principle for justice, equity, and compassion in human relations.

For these reasons, I have concluded that the Republican Party platform as it stands now is antithetical to being Unitarian Universalist.  One simply cannot live Unitarian Universalist values and remain to be a Republican in this day and age.  I realize this will be seen as an offensive statement to those who identify as Unitarian Universalist Republicans but if you are still reading, I would encourage you to contrast your values to the values of the Republican Platform.  The number of  incompatible positions by the Republican Party are far too many to overlook to enable Unitarian Universalists to assent to its platform.   I recognize that there are some aspects of the Republican Platform that a Unitarian Universalist could easily assent to but in my mind they have become too few in order for a Unitarian Universalist engaged in embodying our principles to live in harmony with Republican values.


Collective Bargaining is a Human Right

Article 23 of the Universal Human Rights Declaration adopted by the United Nations in 1948 reads:

  • (1) Everyone has the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favourable conditions of work and to protection against unemployment.
  • (2) Everyone, without any discrimination, has the right to equal pay for equal work.
  • (3) Everyone who works has the right to just and favourable remuneration ensuring for himself and his family an existence worthy of human dignity, and supplemented, if necessary, by other means of social protection.
  • (4) Everyone has the right to form and to join trade unions for the protection of his interests.

What we are seeing in Wisconsin and in Indiana is the attempt not to balance a budget but rather the attempt of elected officials to do the bidding of the corporations to strip the fundamental right of workers to form and to join trade unions for the protection of their interests.  This is a violation of their human rights under the UN’s declaration of Human Rights.

In June of 2007, the Supreme Court of Canada  ruled:

“The right to bargain collectively with an employer enhances the human dignity, liberty and autonomy of workers by giving them the opportunity to influence the establishment of workplace rules and thereby gain some control over a major aspect of their lives, namely their work… Collective bargaining is not simply an instrument for pursuing external ends…rather [it] is intrinsically valuable as an experience in self-government… Collective bargaining permits workers to achieve a form of workplace democracy and to ensure the rule of law in the workplace. Workers gain a voice to influence the establishment of rules that control a major aspect of their lives.”

While Canada’s Supreme Court has no jurisdiction over the US, what its ruling does do is affirm  emphatically that the right to unionize and to have collective bargaining is indeed a fundamental right as declared in the UN’s Declaration of Human Rights.  It is part of what a democracy looks like for its people.

Wisconsin and Indiana are not the first states to attempt to rid collective bargaining nor would they be the first states to not have collective bargaining for their public workers, including teachers.  There are five states that explicitly make collective bargaining illegal in their state for their public sector employees.  There are additional states where restrictions apply to the bargaining process.   Many more states prohibit teachers and other public employees from striking should collective bargaining efforts fail.  Again, all of these violate the fundamental right of workers to have unions to protect their best interests.  If a union is unable to negotiate with an employer on basic work conditions or to use non-violent strategies such as a strike to bring resolution to the issues at hand, their rights are being violated.

In my state of Alabama, which does not allow public employees to have collective bargaining, David Stout the president of the Alabama Education Association which is not union, recently stated, “I don’t think people in Alabama are ready for collecting bargaining laws.”   This attitude that people need to be ready is a slap in the face of workers dignity.  Similar statements have been made before regarding groups of people needing to be ready to have the vote, needing to be ready to have democracy, needing to be ready to have equality.  The fact that it comes from the organization that is supposedly best equipped to support the interests of teachers reveals just how far the AEA is from representing their constituents.  Instead comments like these represents the state’s and corporate  interests  just like the false trade unions in corrupt corporations in Mexico.

The essential right for the workers in Indiana and in Wisconsin to be able to sit down in negotiation with their employers is about reclaiming and resurrecting our most treasured American values of democracy.  We have seen in the last 40 years such a deterioration of democracy in this nation while we pandered to the wishes of corporations as if they are people under the law with rights and privileges inherent in their being.   Our nation has stripped away through this pandering all avenues of upward mobility for the poorest of the poor in this country and for the middle class.  The divide between 90 % of the people and the top 1% has never been greater.  The average income for the bottom 90 % is $31, 244.  The average income for the top 1 % is 1, 137, 684.  The average income for the top 1/100th percent is $27, 342, 212.   Further the income of the bottom 90% has decreased significantly per year over the last decade while the top ten percent have seen astronomical gains in income.   Stripping the right to collective bargaining from employees will ensure this trend not only continues but accelerates at an alarming speed because unlike a democracy, it places an imbalance of power into the hands of the government and corporations.

The Corporations are not people.  They are only a vehicle towards sustaining our lives in what hopefully will be one with a certain level of quality of life.  If they no longer serve the people towards the advancement of a quality life for all who work for them, then corporations and governments should be held accountable for their actions against human rights.  Our elected officials must represent the people and not the corporations who line their pockets.  If they do not then they must be removed from office and replaced with elected officials that will represent the best interests of the people.

This is one of many moral issues facing our nation today.  It is essential that we stand with our workers in this fight because the survival of our democracy depends on it.

My Brother’s Keeper

Several months ago, I responded to a relative of mine who sent me one of those viral emails about the state of affairs in America.  I had grown tired of receiving the tirade of complaints against what immigrants have done to this country, what Muslims are wanting to do to this country, and how disastrous “a foreign born Muslim” [sic] President Obama was for this country.  So I responded and stated that in this country we believe in the American Dream where everyone can grow up to become President, where everyone has the opportunity to forge their own destiny.  I further stated that since we held these ideals and values that we needed to do everything in our power to ensure that those opportunities continued to exist for everyone and if they were thwarted in anyway, we had the responsibility and the obligation to right that wrong.

The response I received was that my relative was not his brother’s keeper.  In short if he could not have it, then his brother could not either.  And the only way to keep his brother from having it was to ensure that laws were passed that were restrictive, punitive against the other from receiving what allegedly was kept from him.

The Biblical story where the brother’s keeper is mentioned is a painful story where two brothers, the sons of Adam and Eve, were at odds.  Everything that Abel did was pleasing in the eyes of God.  Everything that Cain did was displeasing and so Cain grew angry at God and angry that his brother always got what he did not get.  Cain surmised if he couldn’t get what he desired then his brother should not have it either.  And so in this story, Cain kills Abel.  When confronted by God as to where Abel was, Cain responds, “Am I my brother’s keeper?”   God exiles Cain and in order for him to  survive he will need to depend on the kindness of strangers, in short other brothers will be his keeper.  The answer to this question is yes and so are we all.

A recent article on alternet.org regarding the protests against the Wisconsin Governor’s  proposal to do away with collective bargaining of the unions, ends the article with this quote: “The Right has made great political progress getting Americans to ask the question: “How come that guy’s getting what I don’t have?” It’s the crux of the politics of grievance. Progressives need to get Americans to ask a different question: “What’s keeping me from getting what that guy has?”

It is a good question but the question does not go far enough.  It is not enough to know that white privilege is rampant in America and is used to keep others from the good life.  It is not enough to know that continued tax cuts for the top 2% income earners keeps the financial burden of government on the poor.  It is not enough to know that our corporations have moved factories and jobs to other countries where they do not have to comply to our labor laws or environmental regulations. It is not enough to know that cutting spending on health care, human services, education will keep people in poverty.  Many people know these things keep them from the same opportunities  that the other guy had to fill his coffers.

What they are not doing is demanding a government that lives up to its ideals of being of, for, and by the people.  Where the basic needs of the people are met.  They have not realized that when we seek for our brothers and sisters to thrive we are seeking for ourselves to thrive as well.  When corporations begin to take care of their employees’ basic needs such as a living wage, health care, pensions, life insurance, sufficient vacation and sick time;  the incentive for the employee to be loyal, to be productive, to be innovative increases which benefits the corporations. Ensuring the best for our brother helps ensure the best for us as well. 

It is time the people begin speaking up on what kind of government we want here in America.  Will it be one that only benefits the rich and powerful or one that fulfills our American Creed so that everyone has the opportunity of having life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness?  We are not living Abraham Lincoln’s dream of being a government of, by, and for the people.  We have moved far from that dream to being a plutocracy of corporations whose only use of the people is enslavement to sell their products and to line their pockets with gold.  And if you think these words are too harsh, look at the work conditions in the countries where these corporations have set up shop to produce products.   Those conditions would be here if they could get away with it.  There are already some states that want to do away with child labor laws.

What we are seeing in Wisconsin is only the tip of the iceberg of what needs to happen across this nation. We need to send a strong message that in order for America to fulfill its creed of equality, that we need to begin by supporting the least of these in our nation; the children and the infirmed,  the workers and the laborers, the poor and the immigrant.  They are our brothers and sisters.  To paraphrase Jesus of Nazareth, what you do to the least of  my brethren, that you do also to all of us.

Where fools rush in…

Mississippi state legislature is rushing to pass SB 2179, a copy cat law of the controversial SB 1070 that went into effect in Arizona on July 29, 2010.  Rushing to pass legislation is a huge red flag that something is amiss in this proposed law.  Good legislation does not need to be rushed through.  Good legislation can take its time to bear up under the scrutiny of debate and democratic process.

It is only bad legislation that needs to be passed quickly in order to squelch the questions that are raised regarding it.  And this bill has all the earmarks of an unjust law that will cause unnecessary  heartache and economic disaster for Mississippi.   Lt. Governor Bryant has already stated publicly that he wants to “scare Latinos out of Mississippi.”  He has not minced words on how racist his opinion is about Latinos.   This law will indeed scare Latinos.   Latinos who are here legally will be negatively impacted by this law.

And for those who argue that if a person does not break the law,  they have nothing to worry about,  is in denial of Mississippi’s own racist treatment of African Americans in years past.  Law abiding African Americans also should have had nothing to fear in the mid-20th century but they were harassed and falsely arrested and accused at every turn.   Here the proposed law states if it is “reasonably believed”  that the person may have committed an act that would cause their deportation they can be arrested without warrant.  What might constitute reasonable belief?  Speaking Spanish?  Participating in day labor because unemployment rates are high and this is the only paying gig in town?

Arizona’s economy has suffered a serious blow after its passage of SB 1070 and not because of any boycott but that estimate alone is $141 million in just four months after the law passed.  Latino’s have left that state taking with them disposable income that supported apartment complexes, restaurants, mom & pop stores, and a host of other businesses have failed since they passed their racist law.   Arizona’s Latinos purchasing power in 2009 was $30.9 billion annually.  Latino owned businesses in Arizona had sales and receipts totally $4.3 Billion.

Mississippi cannot afford to turn away businesses in the state.  They need the revenue.  They cannot afford to close down businesses that are caught hiring undocumented citizens.  Imagine the devastating economic  impact if the Howard Industries ICE raid were to happen after the passage this bill.

Immigration is a complex issue.  There needs to be rational discussion on how to address it.  To rush in and pass this bill is to repeat the shameful behavior that Mississippi participated in the past.  This bill does not serve the good people of Mississippi well.  It needs to be defeated.

A Dream Deferred

A Dream Deferred

Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Tuscaloosa

16 January 2011 ©  Rev. Fred L Hammond

Langston Hughes poem was first published under the title “Harlem” in 1951.  Sixty years ago.  Oh how things have changed since then and yet, oh, how things have remained the same.   In many ways, the dreams of people in America remain deferred.

When Langston Hughes wrote this poem, Martin Luther King, Jr. was not yet a household name. Brown vs the Board of Education had not yet been ruled on by the US Supreme Court.  His dream for equality was not yet vocalized to the masses.  Voting rights were denied.  Jim Crow laws were in full force in the south and the slick-smile- to-the-face-and-quiet-stab-in–the-back racism was in the north.  Dreams were deferred and they were drying up like a raisin in the sun and they were festering like a sore and they were crusting over like a syrupy sweet and sagging like a heavy load.  They were about to explode.

Martin Luther King came on the scene and for the first time gave real hope and real promise to African Americans not only of freedom but freedom to achieve the American Dream; where their children would have opportunities of education, of employment, of a life that was unimaginable to their parents.   After years of struggle laws were passed that removed the Jim Crow laws, restored voting rights, and desegregated schools.  Affirmative Action was put into place to remove the institutional barriers to opportunities for African Americans and other minorities.

But something happened along the way.  After King’s assassination, a new despair began to seep into our country. We began to see the destruction of many of the programs that lifted us out of the depression of the 1930’s.  And the gap between the wealthiest and the poorest of us at its narrowest in 1968, the year of King’s assassination, doubled in width by 2009.[i]

Yet America’s productivity has grown during that same time period.  The gains of productivity have gone towards corporate earnings and profits instead of the employees who labored.  So who are the people who have suffered during this widening gap?  The top 20% of Americans earn 50% of the income generated in America. The fastest growing income segment are those in the top .01% of Americans with 22% of the income generated in America[ii]. The bottom 20% of Americans earn 3.4% of the income generated.   These individuals who are earning the least amount of income tend to be those without a high school diploma.  They tend to be people who live in rural areas of the country[iii].

Edward Wolff of New York University when looking at net worth of people in America discovered that 20% of Americans own about 85% of the wealth and 40% of Americans own near zero percent and in fact have a negative net wealth[iv].   I don’t know about you, but I certainly fall into that 40% category.

Martin Luther King’s dream went beyond the abolishment of racism, he saw the abolishment of poverty.  Towards the end of his life, life, poverty became an important piece of his message. He saw the programs against poverty that were in place in 1968 and their current versions 40 years later as being uncoordinated piecemeal efforts.  Housing programs, educational reform, welfare assistance all being done in piece meal fashion and all fluctuate at the whims of legislative bodies.   We saw what the well intended deregulated housing programs have wrought in 2008. It was thought that home ownership was one of the factors that would lift America out of poverty.  The largest mortgage default in American history that nearly collapsed our economy continues at record rates as we enter the New Year.

Martin Luther King stated the simplest solution to abolish poverty would be a guaranteed income.  He stated there are two groups of people in America who currently have a guaranteed income, the wealthiest with their security portfolios and the poor with their welfare assistance.

King wrote that John Kenneth Galbraith, considered one of the most influential economists of the 20th century, estimated that $20 billion a year would effect a guaranteed income, which Galbraith describes as “not much more than we will spend the next fiscal year to rescue freedom and democracy and religious liberty as these are defined by ‘experts’ in Vietnam.”  If my calculations adjusting for inflation are correct, $125 Billion a year in 2010 dollars would effect a guaranteed income which is less than 1/3rd what the war in Afghanistan[v] is costing Americans and 16 % of what the alleged post war costs in Iraq are slated for this budget year.

King believed that such a guaranteed income needed to be placed in the median income of Americans, to place it at the floor level would only continue the stagnation that welfare recipients currently experience.  He believed this guaranteed income needed to be dynamic and be adjusted annually with the productivity of the nation’s total income.

King wrote that a “a host of positive psychological changes inevitably will result from widespread economic security. The dignity of the individual will flourish when the decisions concerning his/her life are in his/her own hands, when [s]he has the assurance that [her]his income is stable and certain, and when [s]he knows that [s]he has the means to seek self-improvement. Personal conflicts between husband, wife and children will diminish when the unjust measurement of human worth on a scale of dollars is eliminated.[vi]

Today we see marriage in decline in the United States as people struggle to develop economic viability.  The number of married couples dropped to a record low of 52 % in 2009 as compared to 57% in the year 2000.  And this does not include those marriages that are staying together only because they cannot afford to divorce at this time[vii]. King is suggesting that couples esteem would increase if economic woes did not define who we are as human beings.

King writes: “The contemporary tendency in our society is to base our distribution on scarcity, which has vanished, and to compress our abundance into the overfed mouths of the middle and upper classes until they gag with superfluity. If democracy is to have breadth of meaning, it is necessary to adjust this inequity. It is not only moral, but it is also intelligent. We are wasting and degrading human life by clinging to archaic thinking.

“The curse of poverty has no justification in our age. It is socially as cruel and blind as the practice of cannibalism at the dawn of civilization, when men ate each other because they had not yet learned to take food from the soil or to consume the abundant animal life around them. The time has come for us to civilize ourselves by the total, direct and immediate abolition of poverty.[viii]

In a survey done by Michael Norton and Dan Ariely on income equity in the United States, they found “a large majority of every group … surveyed — from the poorest to the richest, from the most conservative to the most liberal — agreed that the current level of wealth inequality was too high and wanted a more equitable distribution of wealth. In fact, Americans reported wanting to live in a country that looks more like Sweden than the United States.”[ix]

The last time such huge disparity between the wealthy and the poor existed in America was during what was called the Gilded Age, the period towards the end of the 19th century.  It was met with labor unrest and political agitation and it was toppled by the second worst depression in American history.  The current time in our society is being called the second gilded age.

American Conservative magazine suggests: “In the course of the 20th century, there were several eras of growing economic inequality. On a few occasions, they came to an end in a relatively gentle way, with democratic elections and more egalitarian legislation. More often, however, they were ended by a catastrophe, such as the Great Depression, a violent social revolution, or a world war. When the rich went out, it seems, they normally did so with a bang, and not with a whimper. The way things are now going, it is likely to be so in the future[x].”

So here we have King’s dream of a society that has not only abolished racism but also abolished poverty.  He believed it was not only doable but achievable in his lifetime.  Forty years after his death, we appear to be further away from either part of his dream from being fulfilled.  We have the gap between the wealthy and the poor growing to widths that were pre-cursers to some of the most heinous governments in our world’s history.  We have scapegoated our economic woes on the backs of immigrants and Muslims.

I spoke with [a member] on Friday.  I told her I was doing this sermon and wanted to know her thoughts about Martin Luther King.  [She] said something to me that made me stand up and take notice.  She said her mother used to ask why Martin Luther King couldn’t just write his words and not show up for these events.  Her mother was aware of the physical danger King faced every time he made a public appearance somewhere. As we now know, it was his appearance for the sanitation workers strike in Memphis that culminated in his assassination.  Why not just write and not show up.

Could King have had the same effect if he simply wrote his views and not shown up in Selma, not shown up in Birmingham, and not shown up in Montgomery?  Would his “I Have a Dream” speech be remembered if he had not shown up to deliver it at the March on Washington but merely had it published in the Atlantic Monthly?

Dreams do not come true if we choose not to show up in our pursuit of them.  If we stand back, nod our heads in agreement, but do not show up to place our words into living action, then what have we accomplished?  It is easy to do arm chair justice.  We can sign all the petitions on MoveOn.com or rant all we want about injustice on the Tuscaloosa News Forum but if we hide behind the comfort of our screen name, what have we really accomplished?  We remain unseen.  We remain voiceless.  We remain without strength to make a difference.

Now I do not know if King’s economic justice dream of guaranteed income can be easily applied given our current political tension.  There will be shouts of socialism or worse.  It could be seen as reparations for slavery even though it would benefit everyone.  But imagine knowing that regardless of the work you are doing, you would receive at least a base pay of say $40,000.   Additional salary would be based on the performance of the company producing whatever it is they produce.  For some of us that amount of salary would answer many problems.

But this sort of dream can never come true if people do not show up to advocate for it.  The majority of people in America want some form of equalization of income, so says the survey.  The survey indicates the ideal they want is Sweden.  According to the CIA Fact book, Sweden has achieved an enviable standard of living under a mixed system of high-tech capitalism and extensive welfare benefits. It has a modern distribution system, excellent internal and external communications, and a skilled labor force.[xi] Sweden does not have a poverty level ranking in the CIA Fact book; it is listed as not applicable.

We are called to show up in the pursuit of our dreams, in the pursuit of a just and equitable world.  Mahatma Gandhi is oft quoted as saying, “be the change you want to see in the world.”  In President Obama’s closing words at the memorial for those who were killed in Tucson last week, he said, “I want us to live up to [Christina Taylor Green’s] expectations. I want our democracy to be as good as she imagined it. All of us – we should do everything we can to make sure this country lives up to our children’s expectations.[xii]” If we seek to do that we will be fulfilling Martin Luther King’s dream for all of us.  Blessed Be.

[i] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/09/28/income-gap-widens-census-_n_741386.html

[ii] http://www.pbs.org/moyers/journal/06132008/profile2.html

[iii] This information is based on this report: http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/business/july-dec10/income_09-28.html

[iv] http://www.post-gazette.com/pg/10318/1102841-109.stm

[v] based on military budget figures found at http://www.fas.org/sgp/crs/natsec/RL33110.pdf

[vi] Martin Luther King  “Where do we go from here?”  as found in the text The essential writings and speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr. edited by James M. Washington.

[vii] http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/03/21/AR2010032103139.html

[viii] Martin Luther King  “Where do we go from here?”  as found in the text The essential writings and speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr. edited by James M. Washington.

[ix] Read more: http://www.post-gazette.com/pg/10318/1102841-109.stm#ixzz1B8foXmFG

[x] as found at : http://www.pbs.org/moyers/journal/06132008/profile2.html

[xi] https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/sw.html

[xii] http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-503544_162-20028366-503544.html

Published in: on January 17, 2011 at 4:21 pm  Comments Off on A Dream Deferred  
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Institutionalized Racism

Institutionalized Racism

by Rev. Fred L Hammond

Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Tuscaloosa

12 December 2010 ©

Reading: “In a rational, logical world,”  From the The Anniston Star Editorial Board November 5 2010

In a rational, logical world, Anniston would be able to resume paying for college scholarships for graduates of the city’s public high school.

It’s a case of local people having a say in what their city does — or should do, at least. In Tuesday’s election, Anniston residents voted overwhelmingly in favor of using city money to send eligible Anniston teens to college. The tally wasn’t close, 63.6 percent to 36.4 percent.

But this isn’t a rational, logical world.

Thanks to the state’s archaic 1901 Constitution, voters in Anniston and Calhoun County both had to approve the local amendment, even though people who don’t live in Anniston have no dog in the fight over how Anniston’s City Council writes the city’s checks.

Anniston residents passed the amendment.

Calhoun County residents didn’t.

Thus, Anniston can’t resume its worthwhile college scholarship program because state law foolishly requires that such amendments be passed both by the city and the county — even though only Anniston money would have gone to the scholarships. It’s an Anniston deal, for Anniston students, and people who don’t live in Anniston barred its rebirth.

Thanks a lot, 1901 Constitution.

Institutionalized Racism

The tale of Anniston not getting to decide what to do with Anniston money is not a unique tale in Alabama.  It isn’t just some quirky archaic law left over from a bygone era that no one pays attention to anymore like it being illegal in the State of Alabama to impersonate Clergy[1].  By the way, impersonating clergy comes with a very hefty penalty, $500 fine and/or up to one year in the county jail.  I know you all are just itching to break that law so I am keeping my eyes on you.   The law that kept Anniston, a community that demographically is about 50% black is codified in our constitution so that Calhoun County, which is 77% white can keep them in check.

No one ever states it quite like that but that is how the Alabama constitution is written and for that purpose.  In the convention hearings of 1901, there was expressed fear of “negro domination” and the response was to “establish White Supremacy in this state[2]” of Alabama.  The state legislature was to hold the power over local communities to prevent them from directing their own local destiny. This was done in two ways. The entire state had to vote on an issue occurring in a county of the state or the county had to vote on an issue occurring in one of its municipalities, even though the rest of the state or the rest of the county could care less about a new sewage treatment plant being built that would be paid for by the residents of the specific community.  The Alabama constitution is a prime example of what institutionalized racism looks like in America.

Someone could say, but Fred, all those laws in the constitution that were directed against blacks were made null and void by the federal civil rights act in 1964.  In fact, this is the rebuttal by “Citizens Against Constitutional Reform” to the “Alabama Citizens for Constitution Reform’s” claim that the 1901 Constitutional Convention “disenfranchised poor whites and Blacks in that memorable document.”   The Citizens Against Constitutional Reform state, “No one in Alabama is disenfranchised from full participation in today’s society or prosperity[3].”   Not true. In fact there is still on the books a section of the constitution that legalizes segregation of schools. While Brown v. the Board of Education made the law unconstitutional, it still remains active on the books. The offending words that are still active in the constitution are “Separate schools shall be provided for white and colored children, and no child of either race shall be permitted to attend a school of the other race.[4]

An amendment to repeal this amendment of racial segregation failed.  “Nearly all organizations opposing the repeal of the segregation measure pointed to a provision stating that the state did not provide a right to a state financed education. Groups opposing the repeal of this amendment claimed that repeal would lead to court decisions requiring the state to raise taxes.[5]

This defeat happened, not in 1954 when Brown v Board of Education decision was made, not in 1964 when the Civil Rights Act was passed but in 2004.  Fifty years after the ruling that unequivocally determined that separate but equal was only separate and certainly not equal. This repeal was defeated because there was a fear of taxation, not because people didn’t abhor segregation, not because they didn’t see this section of the constitution as wrong but because they feared an increase in taxation.  I’ll come back to taxation and how it plays its part in racism later.

The constitution of 1901 was written with the sole purpose of disenfranchising the Blacks. In the late 1800’s and early 1900’s there was a lot of voting fraud happening.  People would appear to have voted who didn’t show up to vote. Ballots would be stuffed. So when the vote came regarding the question to hold a constitutional convention and to the vote to ratify the new constitution, a curious thing happened according to the press.

The majority of the state of Alabama, where the majority of white voters lived, the question to ratify the constitution was defeated, 76K to 72K against.  But in the region where the majority of Black voters lived in Alabama, ironically known as the Black belt for its black top soil, Blacks apparently, or so we have been told, voted for the new constitution knowing that the outcome of this new constitution would disenfranchise them.  In Hale, Dade, and Wilcox Counties the vote was 18,000 for ratification and 500 against.  The White population in these three counties alone was only 5600 and the Black population was 12,400.  Anyone doing the math on this?  It was the vote in the Black Belt that swung the majority of votes to ratify a new constitution to create a white supremacist state.

The headlines of the day read, “Negroes not interested; in many places voted the Democratic Ticket.[6]”  With widespread stealing of the votes as the practice of the day, it is most likely that these votes were stolen.  Even in the records of the convention the stealing of votes was publicly acknowledged.  “But if we would have white supremacy, we must establish it by law–not by force or fraud. If you teach your boy that it is right to buy a vote, it is an easy step for him to learn to use money to bribe or corrupt officials or trustees of any class. If you teach your boy that it is right to steal votes, it is an easy step for him to believe that it is right to steal whatever he may need or greatly desire.[7]

Now again, the right to vote was restored with the Civil Rights Act of 1964.  The poll tax and the literacy requirements to vote were struck from the state constitution. Therefore, the constitution is no longer a racist document, right?  Wrong.

This is the thing with institutionalization of any premise.  Once something is institutionalized it is in the fabric of how we do things to the point of not recognizing why we are doing them or who they may be affecting and hurting.  It simply is so.  For example, on a much smaller scale, when I asked my mother why she scraped the pork chops before cooking them, she replied because her mother did it.  Why did Grandma do it, because great grandma did it.  Why did Great grandma do it; because when she got the pork chops from the butcher they often had bone chips in the meat so she was scraping them out.  The behavior of scraping the pork chops was institutionalized into how my family prepared pork chops.  Now there is no harm in this small illustration of institutionalizing behavior.

But let me ask you why do we have the residents of this state vote on a matter that only pertains to one small locale?  And why is it important for that matter to become an amendment to the constitution?  The answer to both of these questions is because at one point in time, these actions maintained white supremacy rule.  To have the white majority of the state vote on whether a predominantly black community can offer educational scholarships becomes a very important question for the state seeking to maintain white supremacy.  Education presented a risk to the White majority.  And it still does today in Anniston, AL where the White Calhoun County voted no to Anniston offering scholarships to their almost 50% black, 50% white student population.   But today, we have no reason to continue this practice that was institutionalized over 100 years ago.

The definition of institutionalized racism is patterns in societal structures, such as those found within governmental institutions that result in imposing oppressive or negative conditions on identifiable groups of people on the basis of race or ethnicity[8].  So while the laws that blatantly oppress people of color in the constitution have for the most part been removed, the very structure of the constitution remains to uphold institutionalized racism.

The Anniston example given earlier is an example of this institutionalized racism.  It is the perhaps the hardest to eradicate because the patterns have become so common place, so everyday, that people do not see its impact racially.  While the vote in Calhoun County to deny Anniston the right to spend their money as they see fit might be argued as not being racist, but when looking at who is going to be disproportionately impacted by not having Anniston scholarship money available to them, it is people of color.

The process from conception to amendment to ratification vote by the people in the state can take several years because the bill can get bogged down in committee or not get passed in the house and the senate within the given session.  So even though the local government has passed this ordinance or resolution they are barred from implementing it because the state was not able to get the amendment ready for the ballot.  The wheels turn ever so slowly when seeking to control the destiny of other people deemed unable to determine their fate.

These structures were put into place to maintain white supremacy of Alabama. But it isn’t only this structure; the constitution also has set the tax codes as a means to maintain white supremacy of the wealthy.  Constitutions generally should not be setting the tax code.  Constitutions should authorize the state legislature to levy taxes but not be the holder of the tax code.  However, Alabama was reacting to re-constructionists and the carpetbagger’s who sought their fortune and built railroads and public schools through hefty property taxes. So in the constitution of 1901, income and property taxes were given set limits which resulted in sales taxes as being the only other source of revenue that could be levied with less restriction.  Alabama’s sales tax codes are the most regressive in the nation because they adversely affect the poorest of the poor while benefiting the wealthiest of citizens and special interest groups.

Alabama further altered the way property taxes are applied allowing for exemption of taxes to special interest groups who can assert that their property has an agricultural use. The loss in revenue to the state through these special interest group exemptions is estimated to be $40 million annually[9].  This is money that would have been used to fund rural public schools in the state making them among the poorest in their ability to offer a quality education.  The most affected by this institutionalized structure are the poor in the state increasing the chances for their remaining oppressed.

There are also schools in the state that use sales taxes to fund their services.  The problem is sales taxes are dependent on economy ebbs and flows more so than the other two.  When the state is in a recession, like it has been, people tend to purchase less and therefore sales tax revenue drops.

It is hard to fathom people understanding that their increased sales tax on the purchase of Doritos is going to keep little Johnnie and Mary in school.  Whereas it is easier for people to understand that their local property tax will ensure their children receiving a quality education.  But who are the people who pay the most in sales taxes?  By percentage it is people who are poor pay more of a percentage of their income on sales tax than people who are wealthy.  The wealthy tend to spend their money on services which are not taxable.

There is a need to rewrite the constitution so that 1) local governments have a greater ability to serve the needs of their community and 2) so that the tax code can be adjusted to be equitable to the abilities of its citizens.  For example tax codes that offer sizable exemptions to the paper mills vast forests from property taxes increases the burden on the rural residents of those counties to raise the needed funds to support the education of their children.

What can we do?  Our sister congregation in Birmingham has passed a resolution that will be sent to legislators in the state endorsing the idea of constitution reform.  We can write and pass a similar resolution to join with theirs.  We can write our state representatives and state senators and tell them that constitution reform is not just about home rule and taxes but also undoing the structures that maintain the institutional racism embedded in the current document. It will reduce the cost of government by having local resolutions, local ordinances, local revenues kept to the local level.  Reform will free up those resources so that our state reps can deal with state issues like job creation, transportation infrastructure, and improving our public education.

We can help create a better Alabama where all people benefit from the resources that are available and lifted up to reach their full potential as citizens.  So may it be.


[1] Acts 1965, 1st Ex. Sess., No. 273, p. 381; Code 1975, §13-4-99

[5] Ibid.

[6] as found in the video, It’s a Thick Book  http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=4332178818631634021#

[8] Based on definition offered by About.com for institutional racism

Immigration: A Complicated Onion

Immigration is a very complicated onion to peel.  There are many facets and nuances to the issue that it is easy to see how people can become conflicted and emotionally bound in the issue.  No one solution is going to be the umbrella solution that solves every problem that immigration causes us in the United States.  It may take several smaller components that when layered together will form the onion.

Arizona last month passed not one but three bills into law that reflected a dramatic shift in their approach to immigration.  We need to look at all three laws together to see the potential motivation and the impact of these laws on the citizens of Arizona and those who are living there with out documentation of legal status. Included in this mix is also the response that other states have made in reaction to these laws.  As I am writing this there are seven states that are considering similar or even more draconian laws than Arizona’s.

Arizona’s governor claims that her state is under siege by immigrants crossing the border and bringing with them a host of problems; including drug and human sex trafficking, violent crimes,  and child prostitution.  All of these are serious problems and need to be addressed with effective laws.  The question is what effective laws will address them?  Arizona’s argument is that since the Federal government has not acted and these issues appear to be growing–despite documented evidence of a marked decrease in these particular crimes since the 1990’s (http://articles.latimes.com/2010/may/03/nation/la-na-arizona-crime-20100503) — and endangering the welfare of Arizona’s citizens then they must act.

I was under the impression that police could already ask for identification papers on people they are investigating for criminal activity.  A friend of mine that works in law enforcement told  me that was not the case only INS enforcers could ask for identification papers. This law gives police the ability to ask those who are already suspected of other criminal activity their citizenship status. My friend insisted the law is intended towards people who are already under investigation of other criminal activity and not just someone walking down the street. Perhaps, but I have my doubts…

But if racism and racial profiling is not being promoted by Arizona’s laws, then what pray tell, is the purpose behind the second law that Arizona passed that same week—banning ethnic studies from public schools and banning teachers who speak with an accent from teaching English?    The reason given for banning the courses is because they “promote the overthrow of the U.S. government, promote resentment of a particular race or class of people, are designed primarily for students of a particular ethnic group or advocate ethnic solidarity instead of the treatment of pupils as individuals.”

Do they really? This country was founded on the principle of overthrowing an oppressive government; it is written into our Declaration of Independence.  We generally have done this by getting rid of oppressive laws such as the Jim Crow Laws of the south, rather than by overthrowing the entire government.   But it is a people’s right to change the government that is oppressive to the liberties that are fundamentally endowed to us.

Ethnic solidarity over individualism is a cultural moré of many Latino cultures therefore to ban a course that might emphasize community is a direct attack on a people’s heritage.  One of the stages towards genocide (according to Genocide Watch) includes discouraging any attempts of creating sympathy or simpatico with the ostracized group and to break the family and ethnic bonds that hold that group together.

The teachers who teach English but speak with accents–allegedly any accent but a Spanish accent is the target– many of them were initially hired as part of Arizona’s bi-lingual education program which ended in 2000.  Since they could not get rid of the teachers they transferred them to teach English and now the law to ban teachers who speak with accents. Sure there is a need to ensure that English teachers have a proficiency in English grammar but there are other ways to ensure this without targeting teachers with ‘accents.’  It is a discriminatory way to remove Latino diversity from the public schools and increase hostility towards a specific population.

Arizona also passed a law, which was immediately repealed, to require presidential candidates to produce a birth certificate proving birth in the United States in order to be eligible to be placed on the ballot in Arizona. In and of itself this law would be no big deal, but in the context of the birther movement that still insists that President Obama was not born in the State of Hawaii and yet does not seem to care that Arizona’s own Senator McCain who ran against Obama, was born in Panama to American parents stationed there.  If this law were in place in 2008, McCain could not run for President in his own state as an American citizen born on foreign soil. This law, albeit repealed immediately, is a racially motivated law.

These three laws combined seem to me to be a reaction to the fact that a specific population is becoming the majority and the way to stop their growing power is to profile them in negative lights through police harassment, through removal of their educational influence, and by denying the ability to honor their ethnic and cultural diversity. This is a state that is shifting ever closer to seeking extraordinary means in order to retain white supremacy / power in the state.  Arizona is not the only state that is making this shift.  There are at least seven states that are making similar overtures.

And it is this shift in attitude towards people who are different from Anglo America that is the alarm that many feel as they witness Arizona pass draconian legislation that potentially could result in racial profiling.  These three laws combined signal the potential of actions that we will regret in the not so distant future.

Immigrants are not taking jobs away from us.  This is a myth.  Immigrants generally find employment in fields that we Americans do not want such as migrant workers, or domestic help, or unskilled laborers.  We tend to look at these positions with disdain and yet they are vital to our economy.  This is work that needs to be done in order for our high standard of living to thrive but that we deemed undignified.

“So often we overlook the work and the significance of those who are not in professional jobs, of those who are not in the so-called big jobs. But … whenever you are engaged in work that serves humanity and is for the building of humanity, it has dignity and it has worth.” –Martin Luther King, Jr.   But this is work that our society has deemed unworthy and it is this work that our immigrants, those here legally and those here illegally have sought as employment.

Whatever the solution for illegal immigration, the one that needs to be found is one that will honor and respect the individuals who come here.  We can seal our borders.  We can strengthen our employment laws.  We can enhance our legal immigration system so that those who enter through legal channels are welcomed with open arms and are protected by the laws that seek to protect all of us.

The laws that Arizona passed will not do this for those who are here legally.  The laws that Arizona passed will create hardship and injustice for them.  Arizona is creating an atmosphere that will be hostile to anyone who is non-white, specifically the Hispanic, Latino, and the Native American.  This is not what we hold dear about America.  We can still fulfill our American Creed.

This onion called immigration is a multi-layered and complex issue.  It touches on issues that we do not want to admit exists and yet we must confess and deal with them.  Issues that were never so clearly revealed than in Arizona this past month.  Blessings,

CLARIFICATION: One of the three bills has been signed into law and that is the law allowing police to request citizenship status. The bill that bans ethnic studies and bans teachers who speak with an accent from teaching English is on the governor’s desk awaiting her signature or veto. The bill dubbed the “Birther Bill” that would require presidential candidates to produce their birth certificate to prove their birth in United States passed the state’s house but was not forwarded to the senate because it is believed there is not enough support for it.