Ijeoma Oluo, in her new book, “So You Want to Talk About Race,” says, “As a Black Woman, race, my race, has been one of the most defining forces in my life. But it is not something I always talked about, certainly not the way that I do now.” Lately, I too have been wanting to talk about race. I want to talk about how race is a defining force in my life, though I am still learning. Black Liberation theologian James Cone who died in April of this year said once,
“Malcolm X showed me how to be Black and Martin Luther King Jr., showed me how to be Christian.” I want to talk about race to discover how race can be a defining force for us as Unitarian Universalists, a quest that starts with the question, how has race been a defining force in your life?
Reading: from You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo
“We have to remember that racism was designed to support an economic and social system for those at the very top. This was never motivated by hatred of people of color, and the goal was never in and of itself simply the subjugation of people of color. The ultimate goal of racism was the profit and comfort of the white race, specifically, of rich white men. The oppression of people of color was an easy way to get this wealth and power, and racism was a good way to justify it. This is not about sentiment beyond the ways in which our sentiment is manipulated to maintain an unjust system of power.
And our emotions, ignorance, fear and hate have been easily manipulated to feed the system of White Supremacy. And we have to address all of this, our emotions, our ignorance, our fear, and our hate – but we cannot ignore the system that takes all of that, magnifies it, and uses it to crush the lives and liberty of people of color to enrich the most privileged of white society.
On January 18th, conservative journalist Jeff Jacoby declared in the Boston Globe, that in less than two generations the United States transformed itself from a larely racist society to a largely non-racist one. He goes on to say that racism “has lost its grip on America and is only a minor problem now, that we have overcome and arrived in the Promised Land Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King’s saw from the mountain top, that night before he was assassinated. Jeff’s proof? Survey data on changing American values that measure an increase in mixed white/black friendships and the fact that only 1% of white American’s said they would move today if an African American family moved in next door. Absent was any analysis of the institutional injustices that are impoverishing, displacing, imprisoning, deporting, and criminalizing Black lives.
Jeff Jacoby’s argument that racism has “mostly withered away” is one that the producers of racist ideas were working overtime to create that euphoric night in November 2008 when President Obama was elected. They started to take down the color-blind rhetoric of the Bill Clinton’s era, to construct something better, a portrait of an America that was no longer in need of any protective or affirmative civil rights laws and policies. An argument Forbes Magazine presented in their 2008 article with the declarative title “Racism in America is over.”
Ibram Kendi, scholar and author of a recent book that narrates the entire history of racist ideas beginning in 15th century Europe, tells us this post-racial argument is just the latest in a long-line of racist ideas that white people, mostly white men have used since the 15th century to manipulate policy and the hearts and minds of the people of this country and the world for just one reason, to make profit. Martin Luther King Jr, in his last book “Where do we go from here” talks about how racism is an ideology, a faith, grounded historically in the Christian missionaries that justified slavery, and he quotes a scholar of his time, George Kelsey who said racism has over all these many years “deepened in meaning beyond the historical structures and relations, to emerge with the meaning of human existence itself.”
To be an anti-racist, we have to extricate ourselves, again and again from this ideology that has woven itself so deeply into our human existence that is sometimes, maybe most of the time hard to see, hard to recognize. To help us see better, I offer you a color-coded narration that Ibram uses to help us understand what has been a 3 sided battle between racist and anti-racist ideas through time. Anti-racist ideas (hold up green card) are always pitted again two kinds of racist ideas, segregation (red) and assimilation (yellow). These two kinds of racist ideas (hold up red -segregation, and yellow -assimilation,) always try to make the anti-racist idea (green) seem unreasonable, illogical, or even evil.
Take a somewhat recent example, the 2013 exoneration of George Zimmerman for the murder of Trayvon Martin and the violent protests that followed. Segregationists (red) condemned the violent thugs, the anti- racists explained that institutional racism was the true cause of the violence (green), and the assimilationists did both, condemned the thugs, and cited the institutional racism as the cause of the violence. For the anti-racist poet, Alicia Garza, the acquittal of George Zimmerman punched her in the gut. Seeking relief, she pulled out her phone at an Oakland bar, and got more upset as she read racist messages on her Facebook newsfeed from Black people blaming black people “for our own conditions.” She wrote a love poem for her people, pleading with them to ensure “that black lives matter.” Her friend, Patrisse Cullors read her love note, and tacked a hashtag in the front, and her tech savvy friend Opal Temeti, built the online platform and #BlackLives Matter was born. Many UU’s and many in this congregation latched onto this anti-racist movement as a lifeline. But nationally our UU congregations including this one, grappled with the assimilation argument, yes but don’t all lives matter? And then there was the argument; Blue Lives are the lives that really matter.
Do you see how these last two responses diminish the power of Alicia, Opal, and Patrisse?
Unitarian Universalist Scholar and minister Mark Morrison Reed, in his 2017 Minns lecture said when you add “all lives matter, to the BLM hashtag “Black Lives Matter” you are signaling that you fail to see the difference between privilege and oppression.” I struggled with this and if you did too, please don’t get defensive. Most of us, in some way have been blinded by power and privilege. Even the people we tend to revere because of their beliefs about freedom and justice struggled with this. When asked about emancipation,
Thomas Jefferson said to Unitarian John Holmes “No man wants it
more than me, but no workable plan for compensating owners and colonizing the freed has been put forth.” He goes on to say, ““As it is”, we have the wolf by the ears, and we can neither hold him nor safely let him go”. What color code do you give Jefferson, clearly not an anti-racist, (green) is he (a yellow), an assimilationist, (or a red,) a segregationist? If you unsure, Ibram Kendi, tells us how he longed for the Louisiana territory so that enslaved Africans would be spread out over a greater distance and cease to become a national concern. He was in his heart of heart, a segregationist, (hold up red) with justice on one scale, and as a slave owner, self-preservation and profit on the other.
Take Abraham Lincoln, our great emancipator. He said, “the shepherd drives the wolf from the sheep’s throat, for which the sheep thanks the shepherd as a liberator, while the wolf denounces him for the same act as the destroyer of liberty, especially as the sheep was a black one.” In his metaphor, slave owners are the wolves, enslaved people are the sheep and he is the shepherd, the liberator. What do you think, green-antiracist, yellow assimilationist, or red-segregationist? Ibram Kendi, gives him a yellow, for like Frederick Douglass, Lincoln believed that black Americans had somehow been
damaged by slavery and that it was still up to the whites to save them. The reality is that most enslaved Americans were hardly sheep waiting on the Union shepherd to come free them. Most fought off or slipped away from the confederate wolves to find freedom on their own.
Given my racial and class identity, I know I am and have been the most manipulated by the assimilation argument. You know the arguments that say that with a little more education, or training, Black people will be equal. Or the one that sees one exemplary
Black person, and equates that with the uplift of the whole race, but then blames all those who fall short. Ibram describes how WEB Dubois started out as an assimilationist, and over the course of his 80 years, landed solidly as an anti-racist. If he can change, I like to think I can too, if I can bring to it the same commitment he did.
A few weeks ago, I attended a play called Barbershop Chronicles that showed African men in Barbershops in London, Johannesburg, Kampala, Uganda and Lagos, Nigeria. Throughout the play, the men shared their confessions, resolved conflicts, and coped with shifting cultures. Living in Boston, I regularly see men of color in crowded barbershops and I imagine they are doing the same thing. In the very last scene of the play, a young black man enters the shop in London, the elder barber is alone, his fragility so visible in his halted gate, and in the pause of narration, I feel the tension in my body build. I anticipate the young man, waiting in his chair nervously, will rob the elder. The thought was totally incongruent with the play’s message, and my brain tried to calm my increasingly tense body. Several long minutes later, the young boy sitting in the chair, talks about how he is an actor and he is on his way to an audition, but he won’t get the part he says because it’s for a strong black male, and he isn’t strong in that way. He and the elder talk about what is true strength and as he leaves the shop, he asks the elder, if he can come back tomorrow to just hang out and talk. Released from my tension, the young man, in his vulnerability, helps me to see clearly how unfounded my fear was and that it was a result of racist ideas that I have internalized over the span of a lifetime.
And it wasn’t the first time, that I noticed this fear. Years ago, as chaplain in training, I was in a peer group of fellow seminarians with whom we shared all our family heartbreaks. We were close. Nevertheless, one day, I opened the door to the chaplain office only to bump into Darnell, on his way out. He was wearing reflection sunglasses and his beautiful brown eyes that always lit up his beautiful brown face, were hidden from me. I felt a rush of fear flow through my body, linger for a moment between us, unnamed, but mutually recognized. I was embarrassed. That moment was a wakeup
call for me to understand my fear. I learned, that like many European Immigrants my grandparents and then my parents learned how to be white. I discovered a small autograph book, dated 1940 in which my mom’s 2nd grade classmate Esther from Milwaukee, wished my mom good fortune in a poetic ditty that used the n-word, and ended with “ God forgot to make them white.” Whitefish Bay, the town in Wisconsin in which I Iived for 6 years was a Sundown town, referred sometimes to as Whiteface bay. Like DuBois, I decided I needed to learn my way out of racism. And just like he documented the horrific conditions for Blacks in the late 19th Century, I racked up the data, about inequities in the SS bill, the GI Bill, the Federal Home Loan Program, and the complicit red lining by banks and realtors, to understand why in Boston the net worth of a white person is $247,000 dollars, and the net worth of a Black Person is $8 dollars. To understand why the average life span of a white person in Back Bay is 30 years more than the average life span of an African American only a few blocks away.* Dubois, had once believed the racism was simply a matter of stupidity, that both Black and Whites could be educated out of racism. Later in life, he realized that racism was never about disliking people of color but about the comfort and profit of the white race, specifically of rich white men, who know both how horrific it is and how it is an easy way to get keep their wealth and power.
To be an anti-racist means discovering time and time again what legendary Black lesbian poet, Audre Lord, described as “the pattern for relating across our human differences as equal.” When we do, well-being blossoms in everyone’s life. Ibram says that apart from the very wealthy white men, it’s a myth that we all need to sacrifice our economic comfort. But creating patterns for relating across differences as equals does ask us as Unitarian Universalists to reconcile the part of our theology that affirms on one hand, the supreme worth of every being, with the part of our theology that, on the other hand, says god is love. To be an-antiracist faith, says Mark Morrison Reed, we need to worship a supreme love that will help us knows the difference between privilege and oppression. A love says Mark, “that affirms me as a Black man with all my particularities and invites me to share my suffering as MLK did, until both the oppressor and the oppressed are free.”
A love that guides you as a white man, you a white woman, you a man of color, you a woman of color, gay or straight, cigendered or queer, and of what ever class, to be present to power and patterns of oppression. To hear the suffering, and then change what you have the power to change. Only then is God love. Oliver Wendell Holmes, said it this way “For simplicity on this side of complexity, I would not give a fig. For simplicity on the other side of complexity, for that I would give my life.”
This is the road before us. A road that begins, as King said in his 1968 speech in Chicago, by the recognition on the part of everybody that America is still a racist country. That all of us, even when blinded by fear, and racial myths must address our ignorance and the act to bring down the institutions of power that are displacing, imprisoning, deporting, criminalizing, killing, and crushing the liberties of our kin in our communities, our schools, our workplaces, and our streets. In our heartbreak, and in our sorrow, and in our power, we pray today and all days that we will face the forces of sickness, and violence, and hear above the racist discord, the wisdom of the prophets of our time. May we have the strength, the courage, and the conviction, to discern their message and do what must be done so that all our kin know justice, abundance, health, safety, and peace – so help us God.
Closing Words- Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, “Against Vietnam”
Now let us begin. Now let us rededicate ourselves to the long and bitter, but beautiful, struggle for a new world. This is the calling of the sons and daughters of God, and our brothers and sisters wait eagerly for our response. Shall we say the odds are too great? Shall we tell them the struggle is too hard? Will our message be that the forces of American life militate against their arrival as full people, and we send our deepest regrets? Or will there be another message—of longing, of hope, of solidarity with their yearnings, of commitment to their cause, whatever the cost? The choice is ours, and though we might prefer it otherwise, we must choose in this crucial moment of human history.
Benediction: Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Lord (of many names and beyond naming,)
We thank you for your church, founded upon your Word, that challenges us to do more than sing and pray, but go out and work as though the very answer to our prayers depended on us and not upon you. Help us to realize that humanity was created to shine like the stars and live on through all eternity. Keep us, we pray, in perfect peace. Help us to walk together, pray together, sing together, and live together until that day rejoice in one common band of humanity.
- Ibram Kendi, Stamped from the Beginning
- Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America
- Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Where Do You Go From Here?