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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Craving Salt in a Saltless Society

Reading:

Mark: 9-49-50:  For everyone will be salted with fire and every sacrifice will be salted with salt. Salt is good; but if salt has lost its saltiness, how can you restore its saltiness? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.

 

This is perhaps one of the most difficult passages in the Christian Scriptures to understand.  Theologians for literally hundreds of years have tried to ascertain what exactly did Jesus mean by these words. Salted with fire?  Salted with salt? Restore saltiness? Salt in yourselves? Be at peace?

I am sure that my words today will not unravel the mysterious meanings that others before me could not unravel.  But there are some things that others have explored that I believe, are important for us as Unitarian Universalists to grasp an understanding.

To put this passage in context, In the Mid-1800s German Theologians and later Methodist Theologians[i] recognized that this passage begins with the disciples arguing who is the greatest among them. Jesus’ response to them was whoever wants to be first must be last and servant to all.  Jesus uses the example of welcoming the child as one welcoming Jesus.  In other words, one was to give equal attention and affection to those without power as they might to someone, in authority, whose actions could benefit their standing in the world.  The passage continues with disciples telling Jesus that they stopped a stranger from exorcising demons in Jesus name, because the stranger was not a follower of Jesus.  Jesus said, whoever is not against us is for us.  In other words, just because a person does not look like us, does not mean they do not share the same values we share.  Jesus then goes into an exhortation of things that would lead a person to burn in hell: placing stumbling blocks in the way of those without power; Hands, feet, and eyes causing us to stumble. Would be better to chop off or pluck them out and enter the realm of heaven; than to have both hands, feet, and eyes and be thrown into hell where the fire is never quenched.

All of this context is placed directly before Jesus says, For everyone will be salted with fire and every sacrifice will be salted with salt.  Salt is good; but if salt has lost is saltiness, how can you restore it? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.

The passage comes full circle referring to the beginning when the disciples were arguing who was the greatest.

Most conservative Christians believe this salt passage refers to the fires of hell and damnation. Fire is all consuming, it destroys. Salt preserves, therefore will be a protective from the fires of hell.  If you do not have salt, ie belief, then you will perish in hell. The difficulty with this interpretation is the use of the word Everyone or literally in the Greek, All. Which may have a larger connotation than just people.

Some Roman Catholic theologians have believed this passage refers to the concept of purgatory because it says “everyone will be salted with fire.” Fire also is used as a means of purification. We have the phrase refining fire to refer to this process of purification. Fire is used to purify ore to extract the metal from it.  But this is also a difficult reading because if the person has lost their saltiness, how can they be purified?

The phrase every sacrifice will be salted with salt, refers directly to the Mosaic Law of salting the sacrifices before they are presented to God.  Salt was used as a preservative against decay and corruption. The salt of sacrifice refers to the covenant that was created between the people of Israel and God. The covenant between Israel and God was also considered “incorruptible, undecaying, indissoluble.”

When they sacrificed animals and birds, they would salt the carcass to draw out the blood before it was burned on the altar. This ritual made the sacrifice holy to God.  This salt of sacrifice declared the covenant holy, declared the people holy in relationship with their god, who is holy.  Be holy for I am holy. Salt symbolized this holiness with its character to preserve from decay and corruption. It also denoted the ability of salt to cleanse, to purify.   Salt has been used to cleanse wounds.  And today, sterile saline solution is used to irrigate wounds and kill infesting bacteria at the wound site[ii].

Salt, in the Middle East, has long been a symbol of friendship, harmony, and of covenant agreement. We also have the idiom of saying someone is the salt of the earth, which implies a person of integrity, of sound character.

A few years ago, while I was visiting family in Florida, we visited a restaurant that placed on the table a variety of different dishes of salt.  They were of different colors and each had a distinctively different salt taste. There was a Hawaiian sea salt which is red, and Himalayan salt which is pink, a grey sea salt and Portuguese sea salt which is a very fine grain white salt. There were others that I do not remember. We were told that certain salts would enhance the flavor of certain foods.

The last 70 days or so, our nation has seen some major saltless changes. Our president has created a cabinet that is majority white male. The executive orders he has signed has ended services for the poor, removed anti-discrimination protections for transgender youth in schools; LGBTQ in government employment; rounded up non-criminal immigrants; removed water protectors from Sioux lands; ended student loan forgiveness programs; removed funding at healthcare centers for women, and repealed anti-pollution regulations allowing for coal ash to once again defile our water supplies.

This was going to be the bulk of my sermon.  I was going to spend most of this sermon on how returning to 1930s invisibility of the broad diversity of people hurts our society. How our palate is better when we can taste the diversity of humanity and find ways to respect our individual and collective stories.

Then an announcement of a Unitarian Universalist Association Southern Regional Lead hire was made and they were not moving into the region. Then it surfaced that there was a qualified person of color within the region who was not hired.  There was talk about “best fit” which has been seen by people of color over the decades as code for “people who look like us.” Stories started to surface about the decades long pattern of favoring whites over people of color. Our denomination had made a commitment to become an anti-racist, anti-white supremacist organization and here was evidence that this was not happening.  There was a letter from our President, Peter Morales, a person of color, who used language in the letter that called those who were making the claim, hysterical. Again, terms that are traditionally used in a white supremacist culture.  People responded poorly to this letter.  And then on Thursday, Peter Morales, resigned from his office with only three months left to serve in his term.  He apologized for his insensitivity and stated that he no longer saw himself as the leader who could lead us forward through this process of reviewing hiring practices. You can find his letter on our congregation’s group Facebook page, as well as several other letters.

Everyone will be salted with fire and every sacrifice will be salted with salt.

With all that is happening on the national scene what happens in Boston might not seem like it is worth attention.  But it is precisely because of what is happening on the national scene that makes what is happening in our denomination take on a far more urgent status.  It is far more urgent because this congregation is a microcosm of the larger whole.  As Captain Obvious would say, this congregation is predominantly white.

As we see more and more people who had gained visibility and protections in our nation begin to lose those protections, what happens within our congregations becomes vital as a form of resistance. This nation is less safe today for people of color, women, and LGBTQ people than they were last year. How our denomination and our individual congregations responds to the national storm that is brewing is urgent.

As a congregation are we a safe place for people of color? We have a few people of color in this congregation but does that mean we are a safe place? There are people of color in our denomination who despite their vast accomplishments, despite their degrees, despite their standing in the community, despite their years as a Unitarian Universalist, still find their voices dismissed within their congregations. Members should not have to work at justifying their being one of us and valued for who they are. Their accomplishments, their degrees, their standing in the community, or their years as Unitarian Universalists should not even matter to their value to the congregation. Would we welcome a shift in culture if this congregation began to mirror the nation’s population?   Would they know they have a voice within these halls? Would their voice carry power? Or would they be met with a white centered culture and find their voice silenced and dismissed?

As a congregation are we a safe place for those who are struggling to make ends meet?  If they lose their federal or state assistance, SNAP, TANF, VA benefits, medical coverage, would they know they have a voice within these halls?  Would their voice carry power? Would they be able to invoke cultural change here to ensure that this place is safe for them? Or would we simply shake our heads and minimalize their experiences, their concerns dismissed, or worse tell them to raise themselves up by their bootstraps.

Rev. Sean Parker Dennison in response to Rev. Peter Morales letter wrote:  We must be constantly vigilant that our culture and practices are consistent with our core values and not overshadowed or coopted by other forces that have great cultural power. White supremacy, sexism, heteronormativity, ableism, and other forms of power-over are constantly disguising themselves. Our movement is rooted in BOTH the ideals of religious freedom and justice AND the culture of privilege and supremacy. To assert that there is an unassailable core that is immune from critique is just plain wrong and flirts with dogmatism. There is no more important work than the careful cycle of work and reflection … We must all be open and willing to reflect on our mistakes and the ways we have become complicit with injustice. If we do not do this, we risk all credibility when we tell others that our values call us to counter oppression and injustice[iii].

To be a congregation where everyone truly feels safe will mean that we will need to create an even more inclusive culture.  A culture where no one “cultural, ethnic, or racial group dominates the church’s style of ministry[iv]” in music, structure, or activities. It would mean that whiteness is not in the cultural center but off to the side to allow Black, Latino, Asian, and Indigenous people to rise as equal and strong pillars of the congregation. It will mean that we will need to examine where our stumbling blocks are that would hold others back from being fully embraced in community.  It will require more listening to others and holding their words, their experiences in our hearts and not responding with white fragility.  That uncomfortable feeling that somehow hearing about another’s experience is a personal affront that needs defending.

It is craving salt in a saltless society; the salt that each person uniquely and collectively brings to the table.  A desire to affirm the diversity and plurality of our many paths collectively. It is a reaffirmation of our covenantal faith, that we[v] walk together in the ways of truth and affection, as best we know them now or may learn them in days to come, that we and our children may be fulfilled, and that we may speak to the world, in words and in action, of peace and good will.

The salt of sacrifice is our willingness to uphold our covenants with one another as a sacred trust.  It is our striving to be holy as life is holy.  It is to have salt in ourselves so we may be healing balms to cleanse our wounded-ness and short comings, as preservatives of all that is just and right, and creating a covenant of relationship so that we may be at peace with one another.  May it be so. Blessed Be.

[i] The Methodist Quarterly Review, Volume 32; G. Lane and P.P. Sanford, 1850

[ii] http://woundcaresociety.org/salt-water-make-wounds-heal-faster

[iii] https://drive.google.com/file/d/0B5XxfpPKfHEkaU5jdm1uQi04Nkk/view

[iv] http://enrichmentjournal.ag.org/201201/201201_ejo_multicult_ch.cfm

[v] From UUCTuscaloosa’s Membership recognition service

Amendment 4 Does not Fix Racist Constitution

Tuscaloosa News does not seem to like my letters.  None of the letters I have written in the past 3 years have been published.  The newspaper seems more interested in publishing such pieces as “President is inviting the wrath of God”  which reduces this column to an entertainment section equivalent to the National Enquirer than serious debate.  After a week of waiting for a response or for publication, I am posting my letter in response to their editorial.

To the Editor:
The recent editorial supporting Amendment 4 (October 18) to the state constitution  does not seem to understand how racism works. Amendment 4 claims it will remove racist language from our constitution which was established in 1901 with the sole purpose of creating a White Supremacist State. Removing racist language is only a cosmetic touch as it does not and cannot fix the institutionalized racism that is still embedded in the constitution. The paragraphs that will not be removed by this amendment because they are not explicit in their racism are still racist. This particular section was written in the 1950’s when it was believed by the White majority that Blacks were not educable but merely trainable and that language remains. These terms, education and training refer to the alleged abilities that Whites versus Blacks had. The belief was Whites could be educated while Blacks could only be trained. The only way to fix our 1901 constitution is not by deleting phrases but by a complete rewriting of the constitution. Alabama Education Association Executive Secretary Henry Mabry is right when he states Amendment 4 removes the guaranteed right to an education. That is how institutionalized racism works. It is so embedded into our state constitution that to remove racist language actually restores racist policies. Cosmetic fixes are not enough, we need a new state constitution if we are indeed serious about undoing our racist heritage.
Fred L Hammond
Minister, Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Tuscaloosa

Postscript:  Since writing this letter, there have been  several conversations as to what the motivations or reasons are behind this amendment.  The author of the amendment claims it is purely to remove the stain of racism from the constitution.  Perhaps. One can never fully know what those intentions might be.

What is clear is this.  While removing racist language seems a laudable act;  this amendment REENACTS a provision that had previously been held unconstitutional that for racist reasons eliminated a right to public education. When actions to remove language is being undertaken within a document created specifically to create a white supremacist state then the whole constitution needs to be looked at to see where else racism is imbedded.  There are systemic aspects of racism  interwoven in the document that must be examined and rooted out.  For example; racism is also in the constitutional policies guiding the  actions of the governing body.  Removing racism demands not just a cosmetic touch but a full reworking from scratch in order to remove all forms of racial oppression.

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

Alabama Constitution Reform

Alabama’s Constitution is a document that is over 100 years old. While the most blatant racist articles in this constitution have been struck down by the US Supreme Court, it is still an institutionalized white supremacist document with its fist-ed control over minority-majority counties and cities.  The attempts in the past for constitution reform have been blocked repeatedly by special interest groups and the wealthy who enjoy the power this constitution privileges them.

The Unitarian Universalist Church of Birmingham passed  a resolution on September 16, 2010 declaring that congregation’s intention to seek constitution reform.   Having this unjust document be overhauled and modernized to meet the needs of the 21st century would be continuing towards the fulfillment of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s dream of equality and justice for all.  I encourage other Alabama congregations, Unitarian Universalist and others,  to pass their own resolutions urging for constitution reform and then to send these resolutions to their state representatives, state senators, and to Governor Bentley.   Here is the Unitarian Universalist Church of Birmingham’s resolution on Constitution reform.

Resolution on Constitutional Reform, Endorsed by the UUCB Board

September 16, 2010

TO WHOM IT MAY CONCERN:

Whereas, as Unitarian Universalists, we envision a more caring, just, productive, and prosperous Alabama, governed under a new constitution that promotes a better life for all Alabamians, and

Whereas, the chief agenda item of the Alabama State Constitutional Convention of 1901, as articulated by John. B. Knox, in his presidential address to the convention, was, quote: “And what is it that we want to do? Why it is within the limits imposed by the Federal Constitution, to establish white supremacy in this state…But if we would have white supremacy, we must establish it by law—not by force or fraud.  These provisions are justified in law and in morals, because the negro is not discriminated against on account of his race, but on account of his intellectual and moral condition.  There is in the white man an inherited capacity for government, which is wholly wanting in the negro.” (Official Proceedings of the Constitutional Convention of the State of Alabama, May 21, 1901 to September 3, 1901, 1:538-42), and

Whereas, the 1901 constitution’s provisions to enshrine Alabama’s large rural land-owners and large sector operating in Alabama, and

Whereas, Alabama’s constitution is the oldest, longest, and most complex in the nation, with 827 amendments (compared to the national average of 116), with more amendments pending each year, as Alabama’s governance continues to become more complex, and

Whereas, Alabama’s state government is so restricted it cannot meet the needs of modern society, as shown by studies published jointly in 1999 and 2001 by Governing magazine and the Maxwell School of Syracuse University, ranking Alabama’s governmental performance last among the 50 states, and

Whereas, Alabama’s constitution demonstrates profound distrust of democracy and self-reliance, failing to enable counties to plan for their own economic development and growth, imposing severe restrictions on municipal home rule, disallowing use of the gas tax to support public transit, and causing half the legislative agenda to be focused on issues of strictly local interest, so that more than 70 percent of our constitutional amendments apply to a single city or county, and

Whereas, Alabama’s constitution enshrines an unfair and ineffective tax system, ranking it among the bottom three states in its unfairness to our poorest citizens (Governing magazine, Feb. 2003), forcing local governments and school boards to rely on fickle and regressive sales taxes because of constitutional restrictions on property and income taxes, and requiring nearly 90 percent of state funds to be earmarked for specific uses (higher than any other state), thereby destroying fiscal flexibility, and

Whereas, oligarchical control continues to prevail not only in Alabama’s government but also through its corporatist interlinkages with the business sector, resulting in a prime regional location for anti-union corporations, very poor educational resources, increasingly changing and dangerous climatic conditions, a deeply polluted environment, and large numbers of people being driven from the state in search of better economic opportunity and more friendly places, and

Whereas, a modern corporations in the position of oligarchical white supremacy over all aspects of governance are well documented by Wayne Flynt, Bailey Thomson, Harvey H. Jackson III, and in Melanie Jeffcoat’s film for the ACCR, entitled, Open Secret, which reenacts portions of the 1901 constitutional convention, and

Whereas, redrafting of the Alabama constitution must begin with frank recognition of the oligarchical and racist provisions of the 1901 document, in order to support mutual trust and the successful collaboration of all constitutional convention delegates in reformulating those provisions, and

Whereas, a reformed Constitution based on democracy is necessary for the proper discharge of governmental responsibilities, and for the assurance of broad social benefit generated by the business constitution for Alabama would, by contrast, establish broad principles for governmental operations without imposing restrictions on good lawmaking, recognize that local and metropolitan problems need to be solved at home and not in Montgomery, organize government into efficient branches, protect citizens rights, authorize appropriate types of taxation rather than imposing a state-wide tax code (extending to the level of motor vehicle assessments), encourage the people’s aspirations for democratic instead of oligarchical control of government and the business sector,  encourage people to become well-educated, collaborative, and productive citizens, and

Whereas, past attempts at constitutional reform in Alabama have been blocked by organized special interests whose unique privileges, wealth, and political power corrupt both the democratic exercise of governmental responsibilities and the conduct of business in Alabama, and

Whereas, there is an Alabama-wide grassroots movement calling for a constitutional convention of democratically elected citizen delegates from each House legislative district, as evidenced by newspaper editorials and a statewide petition drive, signed by approximately 75,000 citizens throughout the state of Alabama, calling for such a Constitutional Convention, and

NOW, THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED, that the Unitarian Universalist Church of Birmingham, through its ordained and lay leaders, members, and friends, will actively seek, educate, support, and advocate on behalf of a Citizen’s Constitutional Convention for the purpose of writing Alabama’s 7th Constitution, and

BE IT RESOLVED, IN ADDITION, that the Unitarian Universalist Church of Birmingham will seek to enroll the other Unitarian Universalist Churches throughout the state of Alabama in support of this resolution, or similar resolutions, according to their individual preferences, and

FURTHER BE IT RESOLVED, that the Unitarian Universalist Church of Birmingham strongly urges action by the members of the State Legislature, the Governor, and other elected officials of the State of Alabama to support and pass the enabling legislation, which will be introduced in the House and Senate in the 2011 session, that will allow the people of Alabama to vote on whether they desire a Citizen’s Constitutional Convention to be called.

Published in: on November 17, 2010 at 11:33 am  Comments Off on Alabama Constitution Reform  
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