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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Anti-Racist vs Non-Racist

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

Comfortability

I admit it.  I was uncomfortable with the Black Lives Matter protest at Bernie Sanders’ rally in Seattle. I thought their point was made at the Netroots rally a few weeks before.  And I thought Bernie Sanders had taken steps to adjust his campaign to meet Black Lives Matter’s concerns.  And I felt uncomfortable when I began seeing posts that stated I should not be questioning the actions of Black Lives Matter–even if my questions were seeking to understand.  But I moved forward in my being uncomfortable.  I read more posts.  I sought out words from the organizers of that rally and began to understand the context of the protest. Context that is oft times lost in the mainstream media.

One of the goals of Black Lives Matter’s, as I currently understand, is to confront the bastions of privilege and racism where ever it may lodge.  And white liberals, and I am one, can easily hide behind the rhetoric of racism is a reality in this country and then return to business as usual feeling proud that we recognized that the issue exists, but having done nothing to break racism’s hold on the nation.  Black Lives Matter were stating that Seattle’s white progressives have been such people and have done nothing to end the racism that exists in Seattle other than a head nod in their general direction.  Head nods do not make a difference when lives are being lost. Such a stance rests in the protection of privilege. If we were to truly respond by doing something, it might mean losing the privilege.

Bernie Sander’s record on civil rights, better than most of our presidential hopefuls, does not mean anything if white progressives/liberals are not willing to step up to follow people of color’s lead to end racism in this nation.  Respectability politics is no longer the way to go when people are dying daily to racist policies enforced through our police forces, our city councils, our states and federal government.  Black Lives Matter placed white liberals and progressives on notice that knowledge about racism is not what makes an ally.  It is a piece towards the making of an ally, but it, and it alone, does not make an ally.  It never did.  Not today.  And not when Bernie Sanders was marching with Dr. King.  It is action.  It is the willingness to place our lives on the line to prevent one more life from being taken too soon by police or by denied access to Medicaid.

To hear that white progressives are not any better than confederate flag waving white supremacists is a hard pill to swallow.  It is uncomfortable.  It takes us aback.  And we might respond defensively… “but, but…” we begin to say and then add what ever pops into our defensive heads next. ‘I’ve always given money to black causes.’  ‘I’ve always signed petitions.’  ‘I always decry racists whenever I see their confederate flags.’  ‘I’ve got black friends who agree with me.’  Deflections, every one of them.  And when those deflections fail, we dismiss the person who stated such things to us and fall back into our white progressive slumber whereas the person of color must always keep their guard up because they are one traffic signal away from being shot.

When I was in seminary, I attended an anti-racist conference hosted by Meadville Lombard.  The seminary wanted to work towards becoming an anti-racist institution.  At that conference composed of a majority of white people, I stated that we (white folks) needed to develop the skill of comfortability.  I then defined the word as having the ability to be willing to embrace the feeling of being uncomfortable in situations.  In the context of being confronted on racism, it meant not being defensive in response but able to be held accountable to our complicity with white privilege and white supremacy and then using that skill of comfortability to change our behavior.  I was chided for suggesting this.  I was told by grammar elitists that comfortability was not a word.  Several people openly dismissed this notion and shifted the conversation.  Of course, it wasn’t a word, I just made up the portmanteau.

It is indeed a skill that needs to be developed.  Gyasi Ross writes in his editorial about the Bernie Sanders protest:  “Why shouldn’t the folks in the crowd have to talk about race—they consider themselves “progressives” or “liberals,” right? If they truly wish to be an effective ally, then they should WANT to feel the discomfort that we feel when we’re constantly confronted with questions of race. They should EARNESTLY DESIRE to feel the awkwardness of explaining to our children why our kids have different outcomes than white kids when they interact with law enforcement. [emphasis the author’s]”  He is writing about developing the skill comfortability.  White liberals, all whites regardless of political stripe, need to develop the ability to sit in discomfort and listen to how the system whites created serves to oppress, demean, and destroy Black Lives and other people of color. We need to recognize how we as white people continue to benefit from this system even when we put on the mantle of being progressive liberals with anti-racist rhetoric.  White privilege protects us from these feelings of discomfort.

We need this skill.  We need it yesterday.  Because if we do not develop the ability to listen with humility no matter how uncomfortable the charge of racism is, then our hearts will harden and we will find our selves siding with the supremacists who want ‘those agitators gone’ by any means necessary. Only we will do it in the white liberal progressive way by becoming increasingly silent and complicit when police kill a child for playing with a toy gun, or when a woman is pulled over for a traffic stop and is publicly finger-raped by police for an unsubstantiated drug search. Silence equals death. Complicity yields to consent.  I will no longer remain silent and I will no longer give consent even when I find my skill level in comfortability is lacking.

 

 

 

Changing Our Narrative

 by Rev. Fred L Hammond 7 October 2012 ©

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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Is there an American Ethnicity?

This question arose for me after reading this article by Ray Suarez:  “Red, Brown, and Blue:  How our definition of whiteness has changed with each new wave of immigration.” It is well documented that as immigrants came to the United States of America, our concept of whiteness changed as these groups assimilated into the dominant Anglo culture.  The Germans were not white, Irish were not white, the Italians were not white, the Jews were not white in America until they were assimilated into the culture and assumed their place of sharing power with the anglo culture. The article states there was a great loss and sacrifice these groups had to surrender in order to be called white in America.

Hold that thought.  The definition of the word ethnicity that I am using is the following: Identity with or membership in a particular racial, national, or cultural group and observance of that group’s customs, beliefs, and language.

In recent months, there is increased rhetoric about preserving  American values, American traditions, American culture.  This rhetoric has been used in relationship to immigration, specifically undocumented immigrants from Mexico and Central America;  to Religious freedom, specifically the Islamic faith and the building of Mosques on American soil.   So the context implies that what is really being talked about is White American values, White American Traditions, White American culture.  In order to be an American, one needs to be perceived as being white, as part of the dominant Anglo culture.  This dominant Anglo culture is embedded with the notion of white supremacy and white privilege.

Back to what was lost in order to be white in America. My family has been here for close to 400 years, we are not simply Dutch or French or Irish or Welsh or German or Jewish.  My family is all of these and a few more besides.  I can no longer claim as my ethnicity any of these ethnic groups since culturally they are distinctly foreign to me, 15 + generations away from immigrant status will do that.  If I tried to reclaim all the ethnicities that make up me, I would be accused of cultural mis-appropriation. In fact, I already have been when I sought to honor my Jewish roots, albeit four generations back.

So even though my ancestral heritage includes these various groups of people, I am not a member of  these groups.  I cannot authentically claim these ethnicities as mine since I have no observance of these groups beliefs, customs, or language.  So because the dominant Anglo culture has conflated being American with whiteness–an ideology that I reject as a person who strives to undo racism in my life and in my culture–and  because my family roots have been here for 400 years and assimilated into the dominant culture a dozen plus more generations ago losing its  ethnic identity;  I become invisible because I have no ethnicity that I can authentically claim.  Except for the possibility of claiming American as my ethnicity.

But this begs the original question. Is there an American Ethnicity that is uniquely American that has not been conflated by the Anglo dominated culture? In other words what would an American ethnicity look like if “whiteness” was not part of the criteria for being an American?

I looked at the traditions and foods handed down in my family to see if there was any inkling of something that was uniquely American that could be applied to all Americans as an ethnic marker.   Something that would not presume dominance over other ethnicities that are also present in America.

There are two family recipes that I have that go back several hundred years.  One is a cookie called “Delaware Crybabies.”  This cookie is a molasses cookie/cake that dates back to the 1700’s presumably to my dutch ancestors.  The other recipe is Tomato Butter, a condiment that dates back to the early 1800’s.  So these recipes originated here in America by my ancestors, whether it was my ancestors directly that created them or a community of folks from that time period.  They are not European based so again, I cannot say they represent my ethnic heritage from Europe.  They are American based and the ingredients of these recipes are connected with the Anglo dominant culture.  Molasses, Nutmeg, and Allspice were all made available because of the Atlantic Triangle Trade where these ingredients were brought up from the Caribbean to New England in exchange for rum and other manufactured goods which was then bartered to acquire slaves in Africa.  So while these recipes have the markings of something ethnic for my family, they are tainted with the Anglo Dominance of whiteness.  The best ethnic marker I can offer them is that of being Colonial American which would then separate them out from presuming dominance over any other form of cuisine present in America.

In terms of customs that my family celebrates that might be considered American would be Thanksgiving and 4th of July.  Thanksgiving takes precedence as a holiday over any other in my family.  It is a secular family holiday which has deep roots, a time to express gratefulness of another year being together.  My family has also used this holiday to remember our loved ones who have died in thanksgiving for the gifts they bestowed us with their lives.  But the origins  of this holiday is tainted with Anglo dominance.

I remember a few years ago after the events of September 11th this ad was aired. It showed the faces of Americans.  

I don’t have any answers as to what my ethnicity is, it has been lost to the oppressive dominant culture of whiteness.  But in order for me to claim American as my ethnicity, it would mean a concerted effort to continually separate out America from the whitewash (bad pun) of white supremacy and white privilege.  The America I see does not equal white and its time that that is explicitly stated. We do not have to reinforce the history of American racism by continuing the conflation of these terms for our present or future reality. We can create a different future where America means equality for all.