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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