Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Respectfully Disagree

Dave Concepcion, states C*UUYAN's position in this sermon. I disagree wholeheartedly, but it is fair that the opposite viewpoint get shared.

Withouth further adou:

The reading I refer to is from "If White Kids Die: Memoris of a Civil Rights Movement Volunteer" by Dick J. Reavis, a white civil rights volunteeer in the mid -'60s. I'm including the reading here beacuse it was important to the sermon.

READING: "If White Kids Die: Memoris of a Civil Rights Movement Volunteer" by Dick J. Reavis.
"All civil rights workers, as far as I know, came to believe in something called 'The System.' Belief in the existence of the System became, I think, the key ideological point that held us together. The term was never defined in any formal way. It was not precisely the 'system of apartheid' that te South Africans talked about, but it wasn't distinguished from that either. It wasnt' precisely the 'capitalist system' of Marxist belief, but it wasn't distinguished from that. Each of us formed our idea of it only by piecing together things that we heard and saw; it was not an idea that came from texts or formal doctrine. The System was the rule of the people on top, all or most of these people being whites. In dozens of ways, the System profited by the oppression of blacks. Because blacks were disenfranchised, governments didn't face strong demands for wealth-sharing or welfare programs. Because the have-nots could not safely rally for democratic ends, society was run for the haves. The System thrived that way.

"The idea was that the United States was not a democracy. It was run by the System, not its people. This was, in essence, a revolutionary idea, swelling inside of an obstensibly non-revolutionary movement. In its latter years, when parts of the civil rights movement became known as the Black Liberation Movement, the idea of the System burst its reformist bonds, and the Movement became openly revolutionary. By then most whites had abandoned it, and the Movement's latter-day organizations, notably teh Black Panthers and the Republic of New Africa, were repressed. The first expressions of revolutionism from within the civil rights movement came from SNCC [Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee], making their debut in the mass media during the Meredith March.

"[Stokely] Carmichael and his allies began by pointing out that Southern blacks did not need sympathetic whites to lead them. If the role of whites had been to integrat the tally of missing and murdered civil right agitators, they argued, the need for that role was passing, despite the killings of two black Alabama civil rights workers during the year that followed the Selma march.

"Whites were needed, however to take the struggle where blacks couldn't go, into white communities. the people who ran the System were white: that was obvious from the state of things. But the System didn't exempt whites from oppression. In fact, it used most of the American people agaisnt their interests. White civil rigths workers perhaps couldn't do effective agitation in white communities like Demopolis [Alabama], because we would not have been accepted. But we could agitate for racial reform in our home towns, and even if we could not do that, we could agitate against the Vietnam War, which was drafting inordinate numbers of blacks and disadvantaged whites to senseless deaths. The point of arguments to exclude us was that we were needed more among whites, where racism was stronger and the System resided. The System could be fought almost anywhere, and most needed to be fought in the communities--white communities--where allegiance to it was strongest."


When I became a member of the First and Second Church of Boston, while we were on stage receiving our flowers and gifts, the senior minister had all everyone in the congregation read aloud the UU seven principles. It was actually a very powerful moment. While I am a life-long UU, I had never heard these principles before; they only really came into effect around 1992 and were not meant for the entire religion itself, rather a covenant for the UUA itself to work amongst themselves and the member congregations. But the principles had a powerful resonance with many member churches and congregants that it has given widespread meaning to the religion. I for one on that stage reading hearing them read aloud, felt that I had a clearer and better understanding of the religion I was born into. Almost immediately after us new members sat back down, a middle-aged white man in a navy blue suit got up, walked to the front of the sanctuary, and with the piano accompaniment began a rendition of “Ol’ Man River” – complete with broken, southern black speech pattern. Needless to say I was thrown back into confusion over our religion.

To me, this story illustrates why anti-racism work is so important for all UU congregations to examine, and it gives insight into how we as UUs can get in our own way of that work. First of all, while the story might seem innocuous and even oddly funny, the fact is it did hurt in some way. It hurts more so because unlike a visible (or blatant) wound, it isn't a discernible injury. I know that whatever feelings the event brought up for me at the time was all internal, it doesn't mean that it was no less real. Racism is like that. I once described to a friend how hard it is to explain to white people how certain actions can be racist. I said it was like trying to show someone a wolf that can change itself into a tree: I know it's a wolf, but all they see is a tree. Many people find it easy to label things racist when it is obvious—the KKK, Skinheads yelling “White Power,” hate fueled web sites. What people have trouble with is equating subtle, everyday actions, statements, etc. as potentially racist. I'm sure the church leaders thought the song at the membership service was appropriate and meaningful, and the singer is a great singer. But what if the church audience was of a different color? Would that have changed things? Would they have thought that the image of a white man singing song in a “black” dialect be appropriate? The problem is these questions never come to mind. While it may not be an overt act of racism, it is the fact that it might be hurtful never came to mind. If we want ours to truly be the beloved community, if we want to live out our principles, we need to work on making our UU community an anti-racist community.

So here's a question for you: why ruin our time today talking about racism? It's a topic that we already struggle with daily; so why do we need to worry about it here at church? There are a few pertinent reasons to talk about it now. Right now the biggest one I can think of is at our recent Spring Business meeting, Reverend Hank suggested that we as a church need to work on our mission statement, and one of the ideas he threw out to us was being an anti-racist church. An absolutely very noble goal for us, to be sure. However I'm not sure we the congregation knows what dedicating ourselves to that task would entail. I am here today to, in my own way, lobby to make that a part of our mission as a church, but I am also here to explain what doing so within a UU context means, and illuminate some of the pitfalls we face.

The first thing to know is how the UU community is working on becoming an anti-racist community. The Journey Towards Wholeness program is our anti-racism effort to help transform the UUA and member congregations into an “anti-racist” community. The main thrust of it is to combat and dismantle institutional racism. This is the idea that while prejudice is a huge part of racism, it is when those prejudices are upheld by an infrastructure that supports the subjugation of another group of people based on arbitrary guideposts, that racism exists and thrives. The easiest explanation of that definition in that sense is racial prejudice + institutional power = racism. It is a guideline the Journey Towards Wholeness has been given by Crossroads Ministry, an outside interfaith consultancy group that deals with anti-racism efforts. So the mission is to dismantle racism from its base.

This is illustrated a bit in our reading from Dick Reavis' book “If White Kids Die.”He talks about “the System”that upholds racism itself. While it remains a little amorphous as to what the system actually is, it is what actually controls America, not the people and not democracy. If racism is to be defeated, what needs to come crashing down and be dismantles is this system that “prevents the have-nots” from safely rallying for democracy” leaving society to be “run for the haves.” Of course the big question is how do we do this. Unfortunately, there is not one definitive answer. In his book, Reavis points out that Civil Rights revolutionary Stokely Carmichael's philosophy was to take the struggle into the white communities, having whites agitate “where blacks could not go.” In fact the book's title “If White Kids Die” comes from Carmichael's comments to a group of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) volunteers in New York that if black people were to be killed for the civil rights struggle, whites would die with them. The idea was to use racism against itself in a way. If no one gave a damn about black people dying, they would care more when it started happening to white people.

Oddly this is evident even through our recent history. In the mid to late 1980s, Black and Latino inner-city schools were becoming battlegrounds and areas of violence. It got notice when large spurts of it happened at once, but generally people accepted it as what happens in public schools in the city. Then on April 20, 1999, two teens armed with automatic weapons slaughtered 12 people and took their own lives at Columbine high school in Littleton, Colorado. That's when white America started to demand “zero tolerance” policies to end the violence in our schools. Now this is not to say that solving violence in inner-city schools earlier would have prevented Columbine, but where was the huge outcry when it was happening there? As Civil Rights activist Ella Baker said “We who believe in freedom cannot rest until the killing of a black man, black mothers' sons, are as important to the killing of a white man, white mothers' sons.”

So yes, our mission is to take down the system itself. As such, this is a struggle that is ongoing. I know will never see such a day when racism as we know it (or even as we think we know it) will end, but it is important to take those first steps. This mission then becomes a generational one. It will not end with me or even my daughter, but each generation has to make sure each one has an easier time with the struggle than the one before it. We have made strides. We UUs have made strides.

We have a long history of having abolitionists among our ranks, including Ralph Waldo Emerson, and four of the “Secret Six”—men who funded John Brown’s famous raid on Harper’s Ferry—including Reverends Theodore Parker and Thomas Wentworth. During the Civil Rights era, Reverend James Reeb and Viola Liuzzo were killed fighting for the civil rights for southern blacks. The Unitarian Universalist Association started to work in earnest on anti-racism work in 1997, when the UUA resolved to “urge Unitarian Universalists to examine carefully their own conscious and unconscious racism as participants in a racist society and the effect that racism has on all our lives, regardless of color.” At this year’s GA, there was a resolution passed that congregations should “hold at least one program over the year to address racism or classism and to report on it at next year’s assembly.” We know that racism violates our first and seventh principle: affirming the inherent worth and dignity of every person; and respect for the interdependent web of all existence, of which we are a part. Even if they weren’t against those principles, we must say that we cannot have a strong and blessed community if part of that community is left out of full participation. This means, that yes, anti-racism work is spiritual work for us (and many other faiths) as well.

Because of that, it seems that anti-racism work is right up our alley. We should be a church that leads this fight. It seems like we are a church who should be in the forefront of anti-racism work. If we are on the forefront of the Gay marriage issue, another societal oppression, why would we not be on the forefront of fighting racial oppression?

However that effort to own up to our principles has had rough spots. If you notice in my listing of our credentials, you'll see many individual efforts, but not a lot of backing from the institutions. While preparing this sermon I checked out a timeline of anti-racism work among UUs in history. The only institutional action taken against slavery was a Universalist resolution in 1790 calling for the “gradual abolition of slavery.” At the General Assembly in 1969 in Boston, there was a famous walkout by black Unitarians after Black Affairs Council (BAC) after the previous commitment of $1 million to the group was reduced. In many ways we haven't recovered from that incident as far as African American membership. It is this institutional problem that threatens the work we do. It is what we need to work on the most. Yet while we are addressing it, we can find ourselves behind the curve in these efforts, in my honest opinion.

Now you can argue with me that these events were in the past, and occurred in times of great turmoil and struggle—times when not knowing the right actions to take can be excused. Certainly we've learned from them and are improving. Well I will address that with this example. In 1992, the UUA General Assembly asked the governing body to work on anti-racism within the UU community and formed the committee that would eventually become the Journey Towards Wholeness committee. The next year, 1993, the General Assembly was held in Charlotte, North Carolina—the Thomas Jefferson District. Since it was also the year of electing a new UUA president, they had an idea for a special event. Delegates were invited to a Jeffersonian-era ball in which everyone was asked to dress in period costumes. Sounds appropriate and fun agreed? Now ask yourselves this: if you were black, what would your period costume be? Many black delegates actually considered showing up to the ball in shackles. Needless to say there was a lot of controversy. Much like the choice of “Ol Man River” this was an idea done in good faith but one that had unintended consequences. And that's where the tough work of anti-racism comes in. It is the unconscious, ingrained learned behavior and beliefs that are the hardest to combat, yet are the ones that are not only the hardest to lose, they are often the most reinforced by societal forces. Accepting that violence will occur in inner city schools lead to abandonment of the schools themselves rather than making the efforts to solve the problems at their source. Failure to understand how the song “Ol Man River” fits in a historical context and how and who performs it, leads to misunderstandings at best. While we believe in polity of the congregations, the governing bodies of the whole church should also provide leadership. When they don’t, we lose direction of the religion as a whole. In the case of anti-racism work, there is often a disconnect between what individual members are doing and what the leadership does.

Yes, we have improved but often we are playing catch up. This most recent resolution from GA on racism and classism comes one year after an incident at the end of the Fort Worth General Assembly hurt many young people of color at that time. There are also many faiths out there that are working on anti-racism work and have been doing so for a longer time than we have been. The fact that we had to approach Crossroads Ministry, and Episcopal based group, for an anti-racism training and model says volumes about where we are in the struggle.

We also have other handicaps when it comes to anti-racism work, and a lot of those handicaps come from within. This is a very white religion, let's face it. Most of you suck at gospel, most of you don't dance, and you can't clap on the beat and/or in unison very well. Trust me. As such we don't have a large black population. At First and Second church, our historian told a group of us that the largest attendance of Black people in that church was 50 or 60 people, but this was in the year 1780. My response was “God help us if we have to rise to the challenge of the 1700s.” So is the answer to bring in more people of color? Many people believe that; I don't. It only provides “window dressing” and is just a form of tokenism, and like any token effort, it doesn't address the critical institutional racial problems within the religion, and it will cause people of color to never attend our services. An all white institution can be anti-racist. It is possible. And to do that shows us to be more sincere than trying to recruit Black members.

Another issue: because we are focused on institutional racism, we get too caught up in that fight and can sometimes have blinders on for any other model that doesn't include institutional power analysis (which is too large a concept to get into here now). Oddly this is a very UU problem. I have often spoken on the need to reach both the head and the heart with worship and spirituality or lose both. We can't stop at only fighting personal prejudices; but while institutional racism supports the entire structure, it is the personal prejudices that help feed the institutional side. They both feed off each other. In anti-racism circles, they talk about getting the proper diagnosis to treat the disease correctly. And yes racism is a disease, a cancer. But if to ignore the suffering of the patient from the subsequent illnesses while fighting the tumor, the doctor is only doing half the job; and vice versa. If we are a religion that can house so many different spiritual paths, surely we should be able to harbor different models of fighting racism.

Another uniquely UU problem is where our fascination with semantics rears its ugly head. I have heard personally from people (a majority of whom are white) who say that it is wrong for us to be anti-racist because we as UUs shouldn’t be “anti” anything; we need to be pro something—though I’m not sure they know what the something would be. Some of these people aren't just congregants; ministers and administrators have also stated this as well. This is one thing that drives me crazy and crazy enough to voice my opinion about it. As a Latino, as a Black man, as a person of color, I need white people to be anti-racist. Racism is something that is ever present in my life and in all facets of society that I deal with. As such it is impossible to be pro-something else until racism is taken out of my way. In my opinion, asking a person of color to try and focus on a positive is like telling someone living in a locked from the outside basement apartment with no windows to look at the sky. If you can help me out of the basement, only then will I be willing to think more positively. Malcolm X was famously asked by a young white student what can a non-racist white person do to help his struggle. His answer was, “You can do nothing”—an answer he said was one of his biggest mistakes. Later he said he would have asked her to go tell white people to stop hating black people. This echoes what Stokely Carmichael eventually said as I recounted earlier.

This leads me to probably the biggest problem in dealing with anti-racism in UU circles: how we stumble over the concept of white privilege. The reading from Reavis' book is probably the clearest explanation of white privilege that I've heard the six years of anti-racism work that I've been involved with. However we never explain it this way. Part of it I think comes from the model we use. Like I said Crossroads is an Episcopal based group; Episcopals believe in the concept of Original Sin. Therefore white privilege is explained with, again in my opinion, all the guilt and mea culpa of dealing with Original Sin. Since UUs don't believe in sin much less Original Sin, we have a ridiculously hard time with the concept of white privilege as explained to us in the model and therefore we resent being made to feel guilty for being white. If that's the way it's to be explained, we will be losing any opportunity to get people to fight against institutional racism, which is necessary. If we can explain it in the way Malcolm X wanted to, or even in a uniquely UU way—possibly either that if white people are to help maintain the strength of the beloved community, they need to be willing to give up power in order ensure equality among all members; or that maintaining the interdependent web means to ensure that all the links need to be of a base strength in order for it to stay intact—we would have a better chance of fighting a unified front against racism.

The problems seem insurmountable. We have individuals who are active in the fight but the institution can be lacking or at least stumbles. There is no short term solution; it is an ongoing fight that has no end in sight, or at least has no end that we have been able to definitively discern. So why talk about racism today? Why do it? Why fight it? Because it is a necessary and worhthy fight. These various stumbling blocks are the growing pains to fully live out our religion's potential. Yes, racism affects every strata of our society including our spiritual lives. As such the need has arisen to think about anti-racism work as spiritual work. How can we be connected to each other if some of those we are connected to are being held back? How can we not feel it if one we are connected to is being held back? And how can we allow this to happen and not act, when our principles tell us that this is what we struggle for. If our principles are to mean anything, this is a mission, a life mission that needs to be undertaken. We have covenanted these principles among us, and now it is time to do so for the entire human community.

African American writer/philosopher Richard Wright wrote in his 12 Million Black Voices “We black folk, our history and our present being, are a mirror of all the manifold experiences of America. What we want, what we represent, what we endure is what America is. If we black folk perish, America will perish. If America has forgotten her past, then let her look into the mirror of our consciousness and she will see the living past living in the present, for our memories go back, through our black folk of today, through the recollections of our black parents and through the tales of slavery told by our black grandparents, to the time when none of us, black or white, lived in this fertile land. The differences between black folk and white folk are not blood or color, and the ties that bind are deeper than those that separate us. The common road of hope which we all traveled has brought us into a stronger kinship than any words, laws, or legal claims.” We have a long road ahead of us. If this is to be the mission of our church, let us do it with eyes wide open. Let us do it with sincerity. Let us fight with ferocity, let us learn humbly from one another, and let us look forward to a day when sermons like this will be completely unnecessary.

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