A Rev. Bill Sermon: Reflections on Racism

As some of you may be aware, our UU denomination during the past year has been dominated by issues of race.  Racial issues were involved in the sudden resignations of our UUA President Peter Morales, its Chief Operating Officer, its Director of Congregational Life, and the President of the UU Minister’s Association.  The controversies had to do with the hiring practices of the UUA, our UUA Board’s decision to commit 5.3 million dollars to fund a group called BLUU, or Black Lives of Unitarian Universalism, and reactions to provocative phrases such as “white privilege”, and “white supremacist” when  applied to our UU culture and institutions, or you, or me.

The UU General Assembly in New Orleans that I attended last June was turned over entirely to these issues.  It has set us on the course of considering as a domination whether we will add an 8th Principle to our cherished 7 principles that are at the heart of our religion.  The proposed 8th principle reads:

We, the member congregations of the Unitarian Universalist Association, covenant to affirm and promote: journeying toward spiritual wholeness by working to build a diverse multicultural Beloved Community by our actions that accountably dismantle racism and other oppressions in ourselves and our institutions.

Last May the UUA asked all congregations to devote a Sunday service to what they called a White Supremacy teach-in.   Over 600 UU congregations did so participate.  We at KVUUC did not, and I as your minister did not advocate for it.   Last Fall, our newly elected UUA President, Rev. Susan Frederick-Gray, the first woman elected as our president, called on all congregations to again reflect on racism at a service this Winter and to take up a collection to support BLUU, thereby helping fulfill the financial commitment of our denomination to Black Lives of Unitarian Universalism.

This time our KVUUC board with my recommendation agreed to participate.  So here we are. And here I am.  For me this represents the product of long and sustained arguments with myself and others.  And we decided we need to speak more openly and honestly about this topic.   As to all things in which there is an intense reactivity, there is probably a reason we need to look at.

What I think I may have been doing is exploring what  a member of my extended family named Sarah calls “raggedy ideas.”  Raggedy is just when something is a little new and raw, not fully formed, a little kernel of truth that only gets sorted out when you talk it out.   I have evolved a lot but I still am not without some reservations which I don’t want to dwell upon right now, except to say I think they have more to do with the style of how the issues have been presented than they have to do with their underlying substance and truth.  And, I think we are a healthier denomination, a denomination I am prouder to be a part of, for being a leader in this debate, which we certainly have been.

It helps me to remind myself to look at the spiritual facets of the issue and see where we as a liberal religious community might find a connection.  And I see where it might be the case that I, and we, don’t honor the full worth and dignity of other persons.  That is, of course, the first principle of Unitarian Universalism—our most important spiritual and humanistic commitment.

I see my whiteness not as an original sin—we UU’s discarded that doctrine several hundred years ago.  It is not something that is irredeemable; it is a construct we have made up.  But the degree to which I am prisoner to that construct I fail to live by my deepest values.  The degree to which I have lived my life with an attitude that privileges the lives and values of white people over the lives and values of people of color, I abet a white supremacist culture and I dishonor myself and I don’t honor the full worth and dignity of others.

James Baldwin had one of the most challenging evaluations of whiteness I have ever come across.  You have heard me use this quote before.  He wrote in 1965:

People who imagine that history flatters them, as it does indeed since they wrote it, are impaled on their history like a butterfly on a pin and become incapable of seeing or changing themselves or the world.  I think most white Americans see themselves impaled.  They are dimly or vividly aware that the history they have fed themselves is mainly a lie but they do not know how to release themselves from it and suffer as a result from a personal incoherence.

What sort of stories were we taught about how great we are as a people and a country?  Whose story was not included?

As some of you know I had the opportunity earlier in my life to spend a good deal of time working in and around the deep South as a civil rights.  I saw and was inside many drafty old shacks still being occupied by people and being  used as all-black school houses.  I understood that often they were originally the slave quarters attached to Plantation Manors but relocated.  I also visited  large and elegant Plantation houses as some are open to the public.  Most of them were built by skilled slave labor.   They were frequently visited by classes of school children whom I’m sure saw a lifestyle they idealized.  But what they could not experience was the part of the Plantation that had been removed—the slave quarters.

I recall vividly a conversation I was a part of about 20 years ago with the owner of a cotton plantation mansion in Franklin, Mississippi.  Her family had owned the property for over 200 years and she still lived there; the picture of a Daughter of the Confederacy helping pay expenses by running it as a B & B, with an all-Black staff, of course, which was out of sight unless she summoned them with a little silver bell.  She had a little speech for her guests at breakfast that went something like this:   The “servants”, she called them, on their plantation, and on most of the plantations, had actually opposed emancipation, she said.  They knew they would be much worse off.  I couldn’t wait to get out of there.

In recent years a prominent black lawyer in New Orleans bought, restored and opened what is called the Whitney Plantation.  It presents ante-Bellum life in a different way—from the perspective of slaves.   I regret now that Frances and I chose to go bird watching instead of visiting it especially after I heard my colleague, Jon Luopa’s, description of what he found there, which I will summarize.

Someone there has attempted to research the identities of all the slaves that were at the Whitney Plantation.  But the places they came from have mostly been obliterated and their given names were stolen and replaced with false names.  The average length of life of a slave brought to the plantation was 10 years.  That is, if you were brought there at age 12, you might be expected to survive until age 22.   Your sole purpose in life was to labor under brutal conditions to enrich your master.  One building on the plantation housed the torture instruments used on slaves that dared to try to escape or were unruly.  There are head screws.  There were bars that were tied to arms with sharp points that dug into the flesh on the slightest movement causing the person to slowly bleed to death.  What would it have been like to have been a mother and father there knowing that all your daughters would be raped.  And once your son reached 12 years of age he could be sold and never see his family again.

This was all the words and intellectual talk at our general assembly made flesh.  One cannot help but be ashamed that human beings could treat each other in so brutal and vicious a way.  The slaves were against emancipation?  Really?

Yes, the 13th and 14th Amendments freeing the slaves passed.  But for another 100 years slavery was replaced by the share cropper system which ensured dependency to the landowners for worker family food and housing through a system of perpetual debt.   Instead of the torture room, white control was maintained by the practice of mob lynchings.  One of the main speakers at the New Orleans General Assembly was Byran Stevenson, who, among other things has started a project to memorialize 4,384 known victims of lynching.  The memorial in Montgomery, Alabama, will include 816 suspended columns, each representing a U.S. county in which lynchings have been documented with the names of the victims inscribed on the columns.  The counties in 20 states, including Utah and California, are being challenged to come and claim theirs—a takeaway memorial to erect at home.  The hope is that one day, the perimeter of the monument will be empty.

Stevenson said that the point of all this is the need for truth and reconciliation in America.   “But truth and reconciliation are sequential”, he said.   “You can’t get reconciliation until you first tell the truth.”

Moving forward to around the start of my life; post-World War II, it has been extensively documented how a great, white middle class, and non-white underclass, were created in America by federal programs such as FHA home mortgage support that went almost exclusively to white families, and often only went to housing developments that excluded people of color.  Then, there were programs like the GI Bill that afforded millions a college education.  The problem was that the vast majority of people of color never had the educational background that made them eligible for college.  I was fortunate to land in that great, white middle class with parents who were college educated and owned a home with an FHA mortgage.

Then came the Civil Rights Movement of the 60’s and 70’s that I proudly participated in and we thought we really had wrought deep changes.  We did enact some new laws but I am depressed about how much out there in the real world hasn’t really changed:  The disparate allocation of resources, the mass incarceration of people of color, the continued hindrances to full voting rights, etc.

And now, and now, the chickens have really come home to roost haven’t they?  It is sometimes said that our President has no real ideology, which is not true—his ideology is white supremacy.  He wasn’t elected just by a bunch of rednecks whose jobs were shipped overseas.  Trump won white women and white men; he won whites making over $100,000 and whites making less than $50,000; he won whites with college degrees and whites with only high school or no degrees.  He won whites in their 20’s and in their 60’s.  And he did this even though he was pronounced morally and temperamentally unfit by many respected conservatives.

This is why we must spend some time confronting the realities and the injustice summarized by words like “white supremacy” and not just reacting to their shock value, which is intentional.

In the words of James Baldwin I have been “dimly aware of the lies I was living” and I “suffer as a result from a personal incoherence.”  I, personally have, indeed, suppressed the full import of those lies and taken refuge in my white enclaves.

So one thing we can do is work on understanding and changing the narratives, the stories that sustain inequality and injustices.  Can we redeem the past by rewriting the story in a way that doesn’t just protect the powerful.  Another thing that some of us who are in a position to do so can do is to go out and get hands on and proximate with those weighed down by our dominant narrative about race.  If you care to ask I’ll tell you after the service what Frances and I are doing in that regard. I know that affirmative action is out of style but maybe it’s more justified to balance the scales of justice than I might have thought.  And, when a group that shares our basic principles and values, such as Black Lives UU comes calling for help in dismantling racism, perhaps we can have the faith to respond.  We must hold onto hope.

I close with another James Baldwin quote.  It’s from “Words of a Native Son” published in 1964.

I am not interested in someone else’s guilt.  Guilt is a luxery we can no longer afford.  I didn’t do it and you didn’t do it either, but I am responsible for it because I am a man and a citizen of this country and your are responsible for it for the very same reasons.  Anyone who is conscious must begin to dismiss the vocabulary we have used so long to cover up this issue, to lie about the way things are.