Racism and the Rigged System

a sermon by Rev. J. Mark Worth


Our Social Justice Ministries Council has been discussing Black Lives Matter and the book Waking Up White. Mark will talk about the rigged system that has helped maintain white privilege and has increased the racial divide.


  1. from the Jewish and Christian Scriptures, Micah 6:8
    He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and this is what the Lord requires of you: “See that justice is done, be compassionate, and walk humbly with your God.”
  2. from Debby Irving, Waking Up White – And Finding Myself in the Story of Race, Elephant Room Press, Cambridge, MA, 2014
    For much of American history, people who couldn’t pass for white lacked not only social acceptance but also access to citizenship, the legal status needed to reap the full rewards of the American dream. Individuals without citizenship couldn’t vote, run for public office, own land, or work in the higher-paying jobs of America’s economic machine. Whiteness didn’t just earn normalcy or a sense of belonging; whiteness was nothing short of a lifeline. … Though today skin color cannot be used to withhold citizenship, the legacy remains. … The removal of legal barriers that once separated the races has done little to change the distorted belief system that lives in the hearts and minds of millions of individuals. At this point, the only thing needed for racism to continue is for good people to do nothing.


The prophet Micah said that the essence of the religious life is to “see that justice is done, be compassionate, and walk humbly with your God.” Our Unitarian Universalist Principles affirm “the inherent worth and dignity of every person,” and “justice equity and compassion in human relations.” I know that this weekend many people are focusing on political events. But to me this is not a political sermon. This is a justice sermon.

My hometown is Detroit, Michigan, where I lived from birth to the age of 13. We were a lower middle class family. My Dad was a letter-carrier, my Mother a homemaker. We had one car, always a reliable used car. Our neighborhood, and my elementary school, were 100% white. The homes in our neighborhood were brick, well-built, not at all fancy or large, but nicely maintained.

We went to church in the neighborhood where my parents had lived when they were first married, an inner city neighborhood where the housing was older, and which had become 100% black. We attended an all-white church in that all-black neighborhood.

When I thought about it, which wasn’t very often, it did seem odd to me that one neighborhood was completely black, and another was completely white. The only black people we ever saw in our neighborhood were the men who came down the alley in a garbage truck to pick up the garbage.

Redlining ~

When my Dad changed careers and became a Methodist minister in 1961, we moved away. So I wasn’t there when Detroit went through the riots in the 1960s and started to become nearly all-black, and all poor. But my older brother Bill, who married a black woman, stayed. And he remained optimistic about the kind of city Detroit was and could be.

One memory especially stays with me. In 2000 Mickey and I saw a biographical movie about the abstract expressionist painter, Jackson Pollock. My brother was an art teacher and an artist, so I asked him on the phone one day whether he had seen the Jackson Pollock movie. With a tone of frustration, he asked, “Mark, where would I see it? There isn’t a single movie theater in the entire city of Detroit.” I had seen it in Ellsworth, Maine, population 6,000, which had two theaters. Detroit, a major city more than 100 times larger than Ellsworth, had no theaters. Not one. And, for all practical purposes, no supermarkets, either. What happened to my home city?

One thing that I didn’t know about as a child was the practice of redlining. “Redlining” refers to the practice of marking a red line on a map to delineate an area where banks would not make loans. Where wouldn’t they make loans? In the black neighborhoods.

Although racial discrimination had existed before, redlining came into its heyday with the National Housing Act of 1934 which created the Federal Housing Administration, the FHA. The FHA looked at communities to create “residential security maps” to indicate how secure it was to make bank loans in certain communities. Neighborhoods inhabited mostly by black people were outlined in red on housing maps. That meant they were “Hazardous” for investment. Banks would not make loans there at all, or if they did the loans were considered risky and so a higher rate was charged. Communities far from inner-city neighborhoods were outlined in green and noted as “Best.” Here in Harvard – or in Grosse Point, Michigan, outside of Detroit – you could get a home loan at a much better rate.

Blue-lined neighborhoods were “Still Desirable,” and yellow-lined were marked as “Declining.” In blue-lined neighborhoods, realtors would sometimes go door-t-door to promote the idea that black people from less desirable neighborhoods were coming, so you should sell now while you can still get a good price for your house. That’s called block-busting, a strategy of scaring white homeowners to sell quickly at reduced prices, so realtors could turn around the same house and sell it to a black family at a higher price – and now that black family had effectively just bought a house about to lose its value because it’s in a neighborhood about to become yellow-lined.

In the meantime, because banks wouldn’t make loans in red-lined neighborhoods, you couldn’t get a home-improvement loan, or build a new house on an existing lot in a black inner-city neighborhood. This made it inevitable that such neighborhoods would decline. Blacks took a triple hit – they couldn’t buy a home where they were renting, or get loans to improve their neighborhoods, and faced discriminatory policies that prevented them from moving into better neighborhoods.

In the mid-1960s white-flight, blockbusting and panic-selling turned my old neighborhood in Detroit from blue-lined “still desirable” to yellow-lined, and all-black. At the end of the ’60s, the Fair Housing Act of 1968 officially outlawed such practices, but President Nixon did not provide presidential support. He described his policy as “benign neglect.” He declared that government could not force suburban desegregation or racial integration. In doing so, he secured many suburban votes but worsened the issue of housing inequality by not supporting enforcement, or subsidized housing programs to help desegregation.

The relegation of African-Americans to certain contained neighborhoods continues today. The cycle of neighborhood disinvestment followed by gentrification and dislocation of the minority has made it more difficult for African-Americans to establish themselves, build equity, and try to break out into suburban neighborhoods.

In Detroit not only did white people move out, so did the auto industry. Jobs went out to the suburbs, or to the South, or to Mexico. The tax base collapsed. Supermarkets and Downtown shopping disappeared or moved to the suburbs. The City of Detroit couldn’t afford to maintain schools, parks, street lighting, or streets. The residents of Detroit, mostly black, were trapped in a city with declining services, and the city didn’t even have the money to bulldoze abandoned buildings that became the centers of drug use and gang activity.

Discrimination under the GI Bill ~

And this was only one part of systemic racism. Another was the GI Bill. The “Servicemen’s Readjustment Act,” or GI Bill, was signed in 1944 by Franklin D. Roosevelt, and gave veterans education and training opportunities, guaranteed loans for home, farm, or business, and job finding assistance. Although the G.I. Bill did not specifically advocate discrimination, it was interpreted differently for blacks than for whites. Because the programs were directed by local, white officials, many black veterans did not benefit. For instance, of the first 67,000 mortgages insured by the G.I. Bill, fewer than 100 were issued to non-whites.

By 1946, only one fifth of the 100,000 blacks who had applied for educational benefits had been admitted and registered in college. White colleges and universities regularly turned down black applicants, and historically black colleges, which were generally the poorest colleges, were overwhelmed and had to turn away 20,000 applicants. The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), in close alliance with the all-white American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW), became a formidable foe to many blacks in search of an education because it had the power to grant or deny the claims of black G.I.s.

Both redlining, and discrimination through the GI Bill, relegated most African Americans to a concentrated area within the city, so the declining property values and the higher crime rates could be kept in a contained area. The relegation of African-Americans to the neighborhoods that were receiving no support due to redlining practices was a self-fulfilling prophecy that created the high crime slums that the city was afraid of.

White skin, the “ epidural gold card” ~

In her book, Waking Up White, Debby Irving notes that her father went to Williams College and Harvard Law School with support from the GI Bill, and they received a home mortgage in a green- lined Boston suburb with the same GI Bill. She writes, “I thought about the house I live in now, partly paid for with money my parents accumulated through their GI Bill-subsidized education and purchase of ‘Best’ white real estate. I thought of how the leg-up the government gave my family had compounded into wealth my parents had passed on to me… The game, it turns out, offers different rules and different starting points for different people. It’s a drastically uneven contest in which I am among the more advantaged players. Advantage in the game can take several forms: male trumps female, straight trumps LGBT, able-bodied trumps disabled … But nowhere, as far as I can see, is there any advantage as hard-hitting and enduring as skin color. My white skin, an epidural gold card, has greased the skids for a life full of opportunities and rewards…”

And yes, here’s the thing. Those of us who have advantages don’t see the advantages. You’ve heard the saying, “you don’t miss the water ’till the well runs dry.” Those of us who gain advantages from our white skin, that epidural gold card, don’t see it.

When I go shopping, I’m not followed around the store to see if I’m going to shoplift. I can wear a hoodie without being mistaken for a criminal. If I swear, use poor grammar, or put on ratty- looking blue jeans, people don’t attribute those things to the poverty or illiteracy of my race. I’ve never been stopped by the police for “driving while white,” or for walking down the street in a white neighborhood. I’ve never been denied an apartment based on the color of my skin. I am never asked to speak for all of the people of my racial group. When I go to the bank, or use a check, credit card, or cash, I can count on my skin color to not work against the appearance of my financial reliability.

Maybe you’ve heard the joke: Two young fish are swimming toward an older, larger fish. When they meet the old fish he says, “Good morning! How’s the water?” and swims on. And when he’s gone by, one young fish says to the other, “What’s water?”

Racial advantage is like water. Those of us who are white swim in a sea of advantage, and because our advantage is there all of the time, we never even see it.

Black lives matter, or all lives matter?

Our Social Justice Ministries Council has been discussing putting a banner that would say “Black Lives Matter, Let’s Talk About It” on our meeting house. I’ve heard at least one person say, “I don’t understand the delay – we should just do it,” and heard another say, “One of my relatives is a police officer. I want to know that this isn’t anti-police.”

The Social Justice team doesn’t want to just spring this on the congregation and the town, and so they are inviting conversation before we decide whether to take such a step.

Last summer, while visiting family in Michigan, my brother-in-law (who enjoys arguing politics) brought up the topic of “Black Lives Matter.” He dismissed the movement saying, “They just want special treatment. All lives matter.” “Of course all lives matter,” I said. “But imagine you go to the doctor with a broken arm. The doctor tells you, ‘All bones matter, so we will treat all of your bones the same. We can put you in a full body cast, or give you no cast at all.’ That’s nonsense,” you say. “I don’t need a full body cast. I just want you do deal with the bone that is broken.”

Or if your house was on fire, you would want the fire department to come to put out the fire. But what if they took the attitude that “all houses matter,” so they aren’t going to give you burning house any special attention? Let’s pour an equal amount of water on every house in the city, or no water at all. Sure, your house is on fire. That’s a shame. But don’t all houses matter equally?

So yes, of course all lives matter. But in many ways our nation has been behaving as if some lives don’t matter as much as others. Last year a string of deaths of black people by white hands shocked our nation. Some of those who were killed were Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Freddie Gray, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Philando Castile, Alton Sterling, and nine black people who were shot and killed by a white man, Dylan Roof, during a Bible study group at Mother Emanuel Church.

These killings, which have happened with frightening regularity, are just a symptom of the problem. Frankly, I had expected that after the Civil Rights laws of the 1960s we would become a nation where black and white people had the same educational and economic opportunities. Sadly, that has not happened, and many of us are just starting to learn why that is.

Donald Trump was right when he said we have a rigged system. It has been rigged in his favor ever since he was born white, straight, male, and rich. His father gave him millions and bailed him out every time he failed. He benefits every day from the rigged system, and yet he probably thinks he earned everything he has. That’s because it’s so easy to not see privilege when you’re the one receiving it. I don’t mean this as a political comment, because the election is over, but we’re faced with a justice issue. The system is rigged. I just don’t think Mr. Trump understands how it is rigged, or who benefits, or why. Those of us who benefit don’t see our privilege.

We’ve mentioned Debby Irving’s book, Waking Up White. Debby, a white woman, was taking a graduate-school class titled “Racial and Cultural Identity.” In one class they watched a film from Diane Sawyer’s TV show, Primetime Live. Diane Sawyer sent out two men, both in their mid-twenties, equal age, education, clothing and so on – to St. Louis for two weeks. John (who is white) and Glenn (black) are given the charge to “begin a new life.” They set our separately with hidden cameras to buy clothes, find an apartment, buy a used car, and find a job.

The contrast in treatment at every turn is stunning. John, the white guy, is given hearty handshakes, welcomed to the community, invited into stores, encouraged by the employment office, offered a car for less money than Glenn, and offered an apartment. Conversely, Glenn, the black guy, is ignored in stores, harassed on the street by a car full of white guys, warned at the employment office to not screw up, charged more for the same car, and turned away from the same apartment that John ended up getting, after Glenn had been told it was no longer available.

When the film ended Debby said, “But that was in 1991. It must be better now.” The people of color in the class quickly set her straight. One said, “Debby, I don’t even feel like I can go out to get the paper on my front lawn in my bathrobe. There’s so much scrutiny around me all the time. This is no secret in my circle of friends.”

Those of us who are white are able to ignore the systemic racism in our country. In fact, we often don’t even see it. That’s part of white privilege. I believe it is time to look at it and understand it.

I want to end the sermon as I began. The prophet Micah said that the essence of the religious life is to “see that justice is done, be compassionate, and walk humbly with your God.” Our Unitarian Universalist Principles affirm “the inherent worth and dignity of every person,” and “justice equity and compassion in human relations.” As religious people, and as a religious community, this is our mandate. I hope that today, and in the weeks to come, we will consider our response.