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Jul 6, 2014

The River May Not Be Turned Aside

preached at the First Parish in Lexington, July 6, 2014

Have you ever played the “Race Game?” Unitarian Universalist theologian Thandeka describes it in her well known work “Learning to be White.” The game is straightforward. It has only one rule. For a whole week you use the ascriptive word white every time you refer to a European American. For example, when you go home today you tell a friend: “I went to church this morning. The guest preacher was an articulate young white man. He brought with him his seven-year old son. That little white boy sure is cute!”

I imagine that I just made some of you uncomfortable. Race is an emotionally charged subject. An honest discussion of the subject brings up shame, fear, and anger. Talking about race can also be revalatory, it can bring the hidden into sight. What the “Race Game” reveals is the extent to which most white people assume white culture to be normative. Thandeka writes, “Euro-Americans... have learned a pervasive racial language... in their racial lexicon, their own racial group becomes the great unsaid.” In her book, she reports that no white person she has ever challenged to play the game has managed to successfully complete it. In the late 1990s, when she was finishing her text, she repeatedly challenged her primarily white lecture and workshop audiences to play the game for a day and write her a letter or e-mail describing their experiences. She only ever received one letter. According to Thandeka, the white women who authored it, “wrote apologetically,” she could not complete the game, “though she hoped someday to have the courage to do so.”

Revelation can be frightening. The things that we have hidden from ourselves are often ugly. In the Christian New Testament, the book of Revelation is a book filled with horrors. The advent of God’s reign on earth is proceeded by bringing the work of Satan into plain light. It is only once the invisible has been made visible that it can be confronted. Thandeka’s work reveals how white people are racialized. It shows that whiteness is not natural, it is an artificial creation. Whiteness is something that white people learn, it is not something that we are born with. Race is a social construct, not a biological one. It is taught to children.

Thandeka recounts the stories of how many white people learned about race. Most of the stories follow the narrative of Nina Simone’s powerful 1967 song “Turning Point.” I do not have Nina’s voice so I cannot do the song justice. But the words are poetry:

See the little brown girl
She's as old as me
She looks just like chocolate
Oh mummy can't you see

We are both in first grade
She sits next to me
I took care of her mum
When she skinned her knee

She sang a song so pretty
On the Jungle Gym
When Jimmy tried to hurt her
I punched him in the chin

Mom, can she come over
To play dolls with me?
We could have such fun mum
Oh mum what'd you say

Why not? oh why not?
Oh... I... see...

It is chilling, when Nina sings that last line. She sings it as if it was a revelation. The “Why not? oh why not?” are offered in low confused tones. The “Oh... I... see...” are loud and clear. They suggest a transformation, and not one to be proud of.

I do not have particularly clear memories of learning to be white. Many people Thandeka describes in her book belong to my parents’ generation, the Baby Boomers. I grew up in a somewhat integrated neighborhood. One of my neighbors, I used to mow his lawn when I was in high school, was the Freedom Rider Rev. John Washington. My elementary school had children and faculty of many races.

I do not remember thinking about race until I was in my early teens. I was with my white parents. We were driving through Chicago, the city where my white father was born, when our car broke down across from Cabrini Green. Do you remember Cabrini Green? It was Chicago’s most notorious public housing project, with terrible living conditions and a horrible reputation for violence. My parents told us, their white children, not to get out of the car. I have a clear memory of my white father telling us, “this is a very dangerous neighborhood.” When I asked him what he meant by that he responded by saying he would tell me later. I do not think that he ever did. It was only once I reached adulthood that I realized phrases like “dangerous neighborhood” and “nice neighborhood” or “unsafe failing school” and “good school” contained a racial code.

This morning I do not wish to only stir up whatever feelings of shame, anger, and fear come up when we talk about race. I want to give you a note of hope. I want to talk about reparations for slavery, for Jim Crow, and for the continuing racial injustice in our society. Racism has been called America’s original sin. Like many Unitarian Universalists, I do not believe in original sin. I do not believe that we born racists or racialized. I believe racism and racialization is learned behavior. And just as the behavior has been learned, it can be unlearned. Those of us who are white can teach our white children differently than we have been taught. We can work to make things right.

I took Frederick Douglass’s “What to Slave is the Fourth of July?” as my text this morning because I knew that on this Sunday after July fourth I was occupy one of the great pulpits of the American Revolution. The Declaration of Independence was read here, as it is every year, on Friday. Let us invoke Douglass, one of the greatest abolitionists, the escaped slave who declaimed, “I shall see this day and its popular characteristics from the slave’s point of view.” Observed from thusly the holiday showed, in his words, “America is false to the past, false to the present, and solemnly binds herself to be false to the future.”

Douglass believed America was false to its past because European Americans pretended that the American Revolution was about freedom. The truth differed. The Revolution was about freedom for whites. For African Americans it heralded another ninety years of enslavement. For Native Americans, the indigenous people of this continent, it signaled the continuation and amplification of generations of land theft and genocide. Slavery was outlawed in England, but not the English colonies, in 1772. The English crown was more respectful of Native America nations than most European colonists wished. What to the Slave was the Fourth of July? A celebration of white freedom; a gala for African American slavery. Liberty and slavery were the conjoined twins of the American Revolution. High freedom for some, mostly white, and base oppression for others, mostly people of color, continues to be its legacy.

Do not let fact that the President of this country is black fool you; we continue to live in a society designed to benefit whites over others. Freedom and oppression continue to be conjoined. If you doubt this consider that the average wealth of a white family in this country is twenty times that of an African American family; consider that the unemployment and poverty rates for African Americans are twice those of whites; consider that African Americans are incarcerated at six times the rates of whites; consider that African Americans, on average, live four years less than whites; consider how hard it is to play Thandeka’s “Race Game.” The statistics for Native Americans are similarly depressing. The conclusion is inevitable: our society is structured to benefit white people at the expense of African Americans and most other people of color.

On this Sunday after July fourth it is appropriate to ask not “What to Slave is the Fourth of July?”--for legalized slavery has been largely ended--but: “What to anyone who cares about racial justice is the Fourth of July?”

Now, I suspect that at this point some of you are beginning to wonder what you have gotten yourself into. Peter has gone away for the summer and left your storied pulpit in hands of a lunatic radical. You might be thinking: we are ten minutes into the sermon and all we have from this maladjusted savant is a cringe worthy political oration. I might reply, in the words of Martin King, “There are some things in our social system to which all of us ought to be maladjusted.” We ought to be maladjusted to white supremacy. It is a grave threat, perhaps the gravest, to our souls.

By soul I mean, our essential essence, the core of our personality, that part of each us that animates us and makes us uniquely who we are. Our souls are social products. They are born from our interactions with ours. White supremacy lessens our souls. White, black, brown, white supremacy spreads the lie that some of us are more innately gifted, better than, others. For many European Americans, it creates illusion that we have earned what have not. For many people of color, it suggests that undeserved suffering is somehow a predestined punishment. It circumscribes the circles that we interact with, separates people and communities.

For those of you who are comfortable with traditional religious language, let me suggest that white supremacy is a sin. Paul Tillich, one of the great white Christian theologians of the twentieth century, helpfully described sin as “estrangement.” It can be cast as separation, and alienation, from the bulk of humanity, the natural world, and, if you identify as a theist, God. James Luther Adams, one of Tillich’s students and the greatest white Unitarian Universalist theologian of the second half of the twentieth century, believed that the cure for the estrangement of sin was intentional, voluntary association. We can create communities that overcome human separation. He wrote, “Human sinfulness expresses itself... in the indifference of the average citizen who is so impotent... [so] privatized... as not to exercise freedom of association for the sake of the general welfare and for the sake of becoming a responsible self.”

The Christian tradition offers a religious prescription for dealing with sin. First, confess than you have sinned. Second, do penance for your sin. First, admit that you are estranged. Second, try to overcome that estrangement. We might recast the prescription in terms of addiction. First, if you are white, admit that you are addicted to whiteness. Second, you try to overcome your addiction, step by small step. First, you admit that we, as a society, have a problem. Second, we try to address it.

Race is a social construct, a collective sin. It requires institutions to maintain. Frederick Douglass, and other abolitionists, accused the churches of their day of siding with the slave masters against the enslaved. Douglass proclaimed, “the church of this country is not only indifferent to the wrongs of the slave, it actually sides with the oppressors.” Today most religious institutions, particularly most predominantly white religious institutions, maintain racial norms not out of malice but out of ignorance. Silence is the standard. But, as Audre Lorde said, “Your silence will not protect you.” If we are to overcome the sin of separation and save our souls then we must speak out. We must admit that our own Unitarian Universalist Association tends to continue to do social justice and theological work from primarily the perspective of the white middle class. We must call for, work towards, reparations.

You might know that this year at General Assembly we adopted a study action issue focusing on “Escalating Inequality.” It is a telling, and well intentioned, document. It document acknowledges the increasing inequality in our society but it makes no mention of race or racism. It makes no reference to the gross disparities in wealth between most people of color and most whites.

Racism and economic inequality are hopelessly intertwined. One is almost certainly the product of the other. The skin caste system in this country dates from the colonial period when it was intentional constructed to turn the African and European servants of the great plantation owners against each other. Whites were promised a modicum of privilege if they sided with the great landowners against African slaves. Poor whites gained a measure of freedom in exchange for enforcing the slavery of blacks. Whites who strayed, who sided with the African slaves, were ostracized, or worse.

If we are going to address inequality then we must seek reparations. And here’s where the hope comes in. Reparations may seem like an impossibility but they are a real possibility. There is a precedent. During World War II Japanese Americans were viewed as a threat to national security and forcibly relocated to internment camps. In 1988 the United States Congress passed a bill giving each living survivor of the camps redress. On the international level, Germany and German firms have paid various forms of reparations to both Israel and individual survivors of the Nazi concentration camps.

I do not know what form reparations will take but there are four concrete things that can be to move us towards them. First, those of us who are white can examine what it feels like to be white. We can play the “Race Game.” We can examine the ways in which we have learned to be white, and how we have benefited from and suffered under the racial caste system. We can end the denial that we live in a white supremacist society. Second, your congregation can pass a resolution making a public statement in favor of reparations. You celebrate your connection to the great abolitionist Theodore Parker. Honor his legacy. My home congregation, First Parish in Cambridge, has a banner on the front proclaiming its divestment from fossil fuels and challenging Harvard to do the same. How powerful would it be for the church on Lexington Common to hoist a banner each July fourth calling for reparations? Third, you can write the Board of Trustees of the Unitarian Universalist Association and challenge them to include language about reparations in the final version of the study action issue on inequality. Finally, call your white Congresswoman, Katherine Clark, and ask her to support Congressman John Conyers’s bill calling for the creation of a commission to study reparations. He has introduced it repeatedly. It does not commit the government to do anything beyond creating a commission to study reparations. That would be a first, necessary, step.

In “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” Douglass compares the country to a river. I find his description hopeful. Let me leave you with his words. “Great streams are not easily turned from channels... They may sometimes rise in quiet and stately majesty, and inundate the land, refreshing and fertilizing the earth with their mysterious properties. They may also rise in wrath and fury, and bear away, on their angry waves, the accumulated wealth of years of toil and hardship. They, however, gradually flow back to the same old channel... But, while the river may not be turned aside, it may dry up, and leave nothing behind but the withered branch...” Which is the river’s true channel? The legacy of liberty or slavery? Will your soul, or mine, be a withered branch or will it rise in stately majesty?

Amen, Ashe, and Blessed Be.

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Jul 5, 2014

Texts for July 6, 2014

Tomorrow I am preaching at First Parish in Lexington on reparations for slavery (services start at 10:30 a.m.). My sermon is titled "The River May Not Be Turned Aside." I am using two texts. The first is from Deuteronomy and the second is from Frederick Douglass's "What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?" 

Deuteronomy 15:12-15

If your brother, a Hebrew man or a Hebrew woman, is sold to you, he shall serve you for six years, and in the seventh year you shall send him forth free from you. And when you send him forth free from you, you shall not send him forth empty-handed. You shall surely provide him from your flock, from your threshing floor, and from your vat, you shall give him from what the Lord, your God, has blessed you. And you shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord, your God, redeemed you; therefore, I am commanding you this thing today.

from “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?”

What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer; a day that reveals to him, more than all the other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciation of tyrants, brass fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade and solemnity, are, to Him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy--not a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages. There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices more shocking and bloody than are the people of the United States, at this very hour.

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Jul 4, 2014

The Case for Reparations

This coming Sunday I am preaching at the First Parish in Lexington. The fact that I am preaching in that particular historic pulpit has prompted me to reflect on Frederick Douglass's "What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?" My sermon, "The River May Not Be Turned Aside," responds to Douglass and Ta-Nehisi Coates's recent piece in the Atlantic Monthly calling for reparations. In doing so, I take up the call for reparations and challenge Unitarian Universalists, and European Americans, to commit to them. In preparing for preaching I dug up a sermon I preached in 2006 "The Case for Reparations." Reading, I can really see how far I have come as preacher. My sermon on Sunday will have quite a different structure and sensibility. The message, however, will be more-or-less the same.

The Case for Reparations
preached at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Long, January 15, 2006

I was born eight years after Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. Despite this he has been a powerful presence in my life. My parents are both veterans of the sixties civil rights movement and I grew up hearing stories about King, Stokely Carmichael, Rosa Parks and numerous others. Dr. King and his philosophy of non-violence were held as an example of the best that the human race could achieve by not only my mother and father but by my schoolteachers and church community.

I have an early memory of hearing Rosa Parks speak at my church. I was probably about ten or twelve and the details are a bit fuzzy. What I remember of her speech is this: She was very small. She emphasized her ordinariness. And everyone in the church thought she was very important.

Rosa Parks died last year. Her passing received the sort of national attention normally reserved for presidents. Her casket was placed in the capital rotunda, a first for a woman, and the nation's flags were ordered at half-mast. Her death was an opportunity for many, especially those in the establishment, to celebrate how far the country has come since the days when Parks and King fought Jim Crow and led the Montgomery bus boycott.

Today is King's birthday and tomorrow people will celebrate a federal holiday in his honor. Right now churches around the country are remembering King and Parks. In the twenty years since King's birthday became an official holiday I have been to many services that have lionized him. Most of these have focused on his non-violent philosophy and position as the leader of the civil rights movement. In much of popular culture he has become such a symbol of the civil rights movement that he has acquired an almost god-like status. As a result the broader civil rights movement and the work of many of his predecessors and contemporaries has been obscured.

King's birthday is one of the few times of the year that people in America are willing to talk openly about racism as a problem. Usually, though not always, racism is described in the past tense and King's work is presented as either mostly done or complete. I am afraid that many people have replaced celebrating King with his continuing his work. In fact for some, the fact that King can be the subject of a national holiday is in of itself enough to demonstrate that racism no longer exists. In this way the celebration of King's birthday risks becoming a type of tokenism.

There's a cartoon from an eighties labor journal that captures this problem. In the first panel two people ask President Ronald Reagan: "What do you say to charges that your policies encourage racism?" He replies in the next two panels: "Happy Birthday to You! Happy Birthday to You! Happy Birthday Dear Martin! Happy Birthday to You!" The final panel has Reagan scratching his head and thinking to himself: "How could I ever have opposed this holiday?"

King’s birthday has become both an opportunity to celebrate the heroes and veterans of the Civil Rights movement and, for some, a chance to pretend the oppressive systems that Dr. King fought to change no longer exist. After all today both the Republican and Democratic parties have prominent members who are African American. Condoleeza Rice claims that if was not for Rosa Parks she never would have been able to become Secretary of State. The implication is that the appointment of an extreme right-wing African American woman to the third highest position in the executive branch is the culmination of the civil rights movement. The accomplishments of a few African Americans like Rice leads to the claim that racism is largely defeated and obscures the continual oppression of the majority.

As the recent events in New Orleans demonstrate racism is alive and well. The fact that a majority of those left behind in Katrina's path were African Americans was no accident. Forty years after the high water mark of the civil rights movement—the passage of the 1964 civil rights and the 1965 voting rights acts—the majority of African Americans still live in poverty. During Katrina they were primarily the ones who lacked the resources to flee the hurricane. The federal, state and city governments did little to compensate for this and offer them help. Neither adequate shelter from the storm nor buses to leave the city were provided.

The majority of European Americans have chosen to ignore or forgotten the conditions that many African American poor live. Katrina uncovered the desperate multigenerational poverty that many African Americans continue to live in and forced them into the public eye again. This type of poverty is not limited to New Orleans and can be seen many places if one chooses to look for it. A trip to parts of Long Beach or nearby South Central Los Angles will reveal the poverty that is an ever-present reality for many African Americans.

This poverty is often the result of the structural changes in the economy that have made high paying blue-collar jobs harder and harder to find. The nation’s inner cities have been intentionally starved of the material resources necessary to provide good education and opportunities for economic development. It is not a coincidence that the most resource starved urban areas are populated largely by people of color. Without access to higher education many African Americans are unable to obtain more than low-wage jobs in the service sector and provide adequate resources for their children to escape the cycle of poverty.

African Americans continue to suffer from structural racism in other ways. They make up a disproportionate number of the prison population and are often targeted by police for crimes they did not commit. It has been repeatedly demonstrated that African Americans are more likely to receive harsher sentences than European Americans who commit similar crimes. The phrase driving while black is not just a colloquialism. It is an adequate description of the racial profiling and discrimination that many African Americans face from police.

The civil rights era won an end to the legal discrimination of individuals based on the color of their skin. It is now illegal to refuse to hire someone or admit them to a university because they are African American. What the civil rights movement did not eliminate was the structural, economic and civic, forms of oppression that are directed at whole populations but that individuals can escape. It is still legal to discriminate against whole populations by not providing adequate resources for education, housing and economic development. A comparison of the conditions many of the nation’s inner cities and suburbs demonstrates this. And, as the 2000 election in Florida and the 2004 election in Ohio prove, legal or not it is still acceptable to create obstacles for large groups of African Americans to vote. Today the forces of racism are subtler than those King and Parks fought but they are just as damaging and pervasive.

It is my contention that the best way to erase this structural racism is through a re-configuration of society's institutions. The United States was founded by slaveholders and much of its economic wealth was generated by enslaved Africans. While the institution of slavery was abolished in 1865 much of the country’s economic and social structure continues to reflect its legacy. Today the majority of African Americans live at or near the poverty level and continue to work undesirable and low-paying jobs. Working people without unions, whether African, European or Mexican American, are paid subsistence wages while an extremely small number of people control the majority of the country’s resources. The vast majority of those who are lucky enough to find themselves in the 1% of the populace that control 90% of the nation’s resources are European Americans.

Reparations for slavery are a necessary step to transform this system. After the Civil War few, if any, freedmen and freedwomen received redress for their enslavement. While there was talk of giving every liberated man forty acres and a mule little redistribution of wealth actually occurred. The European Americans who built their fortunes exploiting others were able to keep them and many African Americans, lacking material resources, were forced to go back and work for their former masters as sharecroppers. This system remained in place until the 1960s. Until that time many African American families were unable to accumulate the material resources necessary to escape the cycle of poverty.

Congressman John Conyers has repeatedly introduced a bill into the House of Representatives calling for the creation of a commission to study reparations. The passage of his bill would do four things:

1. It would acknowledge the fundamental injustice and inhumanity of slavery,
2. It would establish a commission to study slavery, its subsequent racial and economic discrimination against freed slaves;
3. It would study the impact of those forces on today’s living African Americans; and
4. The commission would then make recommendations to Congress on appropriate remedies for the study of issue of reparations. We might all engage in a similar study.

We should encourage the Unitarian Universalist Association, our churches and elected officials to engage in a similar course of study. The city councils of Detroit, Cleveland, Chicago and Atlanta have passed resolutions calling for the study of reparations. I believe the city of Long Beach and the state of California should take a similar course.

My call for reparations may sound radical but a precedent for them already exists. During World War II Japanese Americans were viewed as a threat to national security and forced to relocate to internment camps. Many suffered and lost their property as a result. After the war there were a series of bills passed to compensate former detainees and in 1988 the United States Congress passed a bill giving each living survivor of the camps $20,000 in redress. In addition Presidents Ford, Reagan and Bush senior have all issued formal government apologies for the camps.

There is also a precedent on the international level. In the last few decades Germany and German firms has had to pay various forms of reparations to both Israel and individual survivors of the Nazi concentration camps.

The movement for reparations is international in scope. Slavery was part of a larger pattern of colonialism that has created the world we live in today. The sad state of countries in Africa, Latin America and elsewhere in the world is a direct result the colonial period. As the anti-colonialist and psychotherapist Frantz Fanon wrote in his masterpiece The Wretched of the Earth:

“Europe is literarily the creation of the Third World. The wealth which smothers her is that which was stolen from the under-developed peoples. The ports of Holland, the docks of Bordeaux and Liverpool were specialized in the Negro slave-trade, and owe their renown to millions of deported slaves.”

Today many of these countries are demanding some form of reparations from their former colonial masters.

It is wrong to think colonialism is entirely in the past. Colonialism is essentially the transfer of wealth from the colonial country to the colonizers country. Today many former colonies are saddled with huge debts to the developed world that they must pay before they provide services for their own people. The outsourcing of manufacturing jobs from communities in the developed world with strong unions to countries in the developing world where unions are illegal or impossible to form is another example of how colonialism continues. The conditions under which people have to work coupled with the few economic and political freedoms they enjoy is a continuation of the pattern exploitation of the local populace by the colonists. The people who make many of the goods we enjoy lack the resources to use them themselves. They spend their energies creating goods for the developed world to consume. Instead they would be better off manufacturing goods that would better their countries. And so the overall pattern of the transfer of resources from the developing world to the developed one continues unabated.

Colonialism continues in another, more violent, form as well. During the Cold War former colonies served as places where the proxy wars of the two superpowers were fought out. The countries where these proxy wars have taken place have been devastated and left politically and socially unstable.

One example of a country where a proxy war was fought is Afghanistan. In this country the United States helped organize an insurgency, primarily composed of Islamic fundamentalists, against a secular Soviet backed state. Our government gave these insurgents military training and resources. In exchange the insurgents fought what was purported to be a common enemy, a communist government. After of the Soviet backed government was toppled the United States abandoned Afghanistan to feuding warlords. Eventually the Taliban took power and began to support a movement against what its members viewed as imperialism. The name of this movement was, of course, al-Qaida and many of its members, including its infamous leader Osama bin Laden, received training from the Central Intelligence Agency and other U.S. governmental agencies.

In 2001, days before September 11th, the United Nations sponsored the World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance in Durban, South Africa. As the name suggests the focus of this conference was how to end the global and local systems of oppression and racism that continue to ruin the lives of some many people across the planet. At this conference almost all of those present, including many European countries, agreed that the developed world owed the former colonies reparations. The delegation from the United States walked out in response.

While I believe that reparations are necessary to correct past wrongs I also believe that they will, indirectly, benefit those who gain from structural racism. In order for colonialism and racism to continue those of us who benefit from them must dehumanize the people that we exploit. By treating other human beings as less than human we too fall short of realizing our own full human potential. A part of ourselves becomes numb and dies by ignoring the suffering that we have caused. Enacting reparations will allow us remove the emotional blinders that we wear to ignore the suffering around us and the suffering that we cause.

Parks, King and the civil rights movement managed to end legal discrimination and segregation. It is now time for us to continue their work and struggle to end structural racism by demanding reparations for African Americans. In doing so we will be building the sort of world that they dreamed of. One in which all women and men can meet together as sisters and brothers.

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