"What Do You Mean, White Supremacy"
A sermon by Rev. Charles Blustein Ortman, delivered at the First Unitarian Church in Providence, RI, May 7, 2017
READINGS: ANCIENT & MODERN
Our ancient reading this morning is from Hebrew scripture, Chapter 3 of the Book of Ecclesiastes:
There is a time for everything, and a season for every purpose under heaven…a time to tear down and a time to build…
Our second reading is from Black Pioneers in a White Denomination. In it, African-American retired Unitarian Universalist minister and one of this year's Minns Lecturers, Mark Morris on-Reed, wrote:
The Unitarian Universalist church and others like it will remain largely segregated until there is a twofold transformation: one in society, the other within the church. First, on a societal level, it is essential that Unitarian Universalists and other liberal religionists never forget that political and economic freedoms are the mainstay of intellectual freedom, and that inequities and injustice subsequently undermine all freedom. This realization presses us to take seriously the cliché that until all of us are free, none of us is truly free. It is a “moral imperative,” then, that we commit ourselves to the establishment of a just society. The result of this endeavor will be the evolution of a society potentially more responsive to Unitarian Universalist values. Second, within the liberal church, the transformation would begin with the strengthening of our spirituality through an enriched story—a story that exposes our commitment to freedom, shakes up our class bias, sensitizes us to the needs of others, strengthens our sense of human connectedness, and, finally, inspires us to struggle with others for freedom.
Bishop Desmond Tutu once said, "Thank God I am black. White people [will] have a lot to answer for at the last judgment."
Many of you are aware of the recent and unfortunate resignations among key leaders in our Unitarian Universalist Association. Some of you are aware, to varying degrees, of the circumstances surrounding those resignations. A number of us struggle to understand how our UUA could be guilty of, or even complicit with, practices of racism. Most of us, I think, are quite offended by the use of labels being used to describe the events leading up to those resignations, labels like racist and White supremacist.
I don't really want to spend a lot of time this morning going through an account of the developments that led to the resignations. Those of you who are interested can read about them much faster on the web site uuworld.org. For the sake of you who may not be as familiar with these events, I'll briefly summarize. In a recent hire by the UUA for the position of a regional coordinator, a woman of color was initially told, after her interview, that she had all of the qualities being sought for that position. When a White man was later hired to fill it, the woman was then told that, in the end, she was not really “a good fit.” In a formal yet angry response by quite a number of ministers and religious educators, it was correctly noted that the entire upper echelon of UUA leadership, outside of our Hispanic president, is composed of White persons. It's impossible to say whether or not the particular hire of the regional coordinator was based in White supremacy or racism. Just the same, it's easy to determine that there is a long-standing pattern of an ongoing history of those dynamics within our UUA structure. You can read much more about it online.
What I do want to address this morning is a recent request by the UUA that we have as our theme a teach-in on White supremacy. Fully two thirds of our 1,018 UU congregations across the United States will be participating in response to this request – in many ways and on many levels. Here at First Unitarian, it is the theme this morning of our worship service, of our Children's Chapel, and of our youth group.
I would like at this point to say a direct word to Black persons or other persons of traditionally marginalized communities who are present with us here this morning. It's quite likely that you are far more qualified to speak on this topic than I. I'm guessing that you experience the gross and subtle effects of racism on a regular basis. Still, I suspect that you also know just how important it is that, as unqualified as I might be, if there is to be any hope for bringing the ravages of racism to an end, it is essential for the White community to do this work, to recognize that inaction is the equivalent of complicity.
There's another matter that I'd like to address here at the onset. I don't feel that calling people names is very productive in working through many, if any, difficult issues. It's not helpful to call anyone a racist or a White supremacist. I won't do that here or anywhere. The term White supremacy most often brings to mind images of the KKK or of neo-Nazis. Those are groups that are on the very extreme end of what we are talking about.
What I hope we'll be focusing on is something much closer to home. What I believe is important for us is to recognize that we live in a racist culture where whiteness has privilege and blackness is penalized. Racism and White supremacy are less about who we are and more about the social structures that are the foundation and the fabric of our society; they are a part of America and every institution in it, including our own Unitarian Universalist Association, including the First Unitarian Church of Providence.
I know that we all enter this conversation and this work from widely differing levels of awareness and from significantly different degrees of discomfort. Like we used to say back in the 1960s, "If you're not part of the solution, you're part of the problem." And so despite what we may know or not know, despite our personal discomforts, we are called as Unitarian Universalists, as persons of integrity, to be a part of the solution. As I thought about how I might engage you, where you might be on your own personal journey toward wholeness, I thought of an experience I had a number of years ago that served as a jarring awakening for me.
It was actually on the opposite end of my ministerial career, when I stood before the Ministerial Fellowship Committee of the Unitarian Universalist Association. This is the body within the UUA that is responsible for accepting or rejecting candidates for the UU ministry. Our own John Simmonds sits on that panel. It's usually an experience of high anxiety for the candidates facing the MFC; it was no different for me. There's a lot on the line.
During the course of the interview one of the panelists, Winnie Norman, an elderly Black woman well known within UU circles, asked me how I dealt with the issue of racism. I breathed a sigh of relief; I could relax, at least for this part of the interview. Racism was not a dilemma for me! I had already dealt with it in my life. After all, I'd worked as a social worker for years in Uptown Chicago—the melting pot of the world. I had co-workers and friends of every race. "Racism?" I said. "Not a problem."
"But what are you doing about it?" Dr. Norman asked.
"Doing?" I said. "I've really already done what I need to do. I Love people—all people. I'm not some kind of a racist person."
"Oh," she said rather despairingly. "Then you don't need to do anything about racism!?"
"Right," I said. But she knew I wasn’t right, that I was missing something very essential. In retrospect I came to know I couldn't have been more wrong. This interchange was probably the poorest moment of my MFC interview. It's a wonder that I passed at all. But then, I really was passing into a predominantly White institution, wasn't I?
It was another couple of years before I would come to have a better understanding of racism and of my part in it. The late Rev. Dr. William Jones had a great deal to do with my education on that matter. Some of you here may remember Bill. He was an African-American minister who served this congregation as an assistant minister, early in his career, back in 1958 through 1960. He also served as President of the American Humanist Society and was very active in the antiracism work of the Unitarian Universalist Association.
Close to three decades ago I was in attendance when Bill led over 1000 UUs, at General Assembly, through a series of workshops that were really quite life-changing for me. He began by holding up an object like this (an empty paper towel tube) and asking, "What is this?" People hollered out all kinds of responses. I'll ask you. What would you say that it is?
Then Bill asked us, "If this is something, and it clearly is, who gets to say what it is? The definition of oppression or racism," he went on, "is the power of one group of people to do the naming, to name the experience of another group."
If we think about this in the context of our recent UUA experience, we see that, even after years of earnest and determined efforts to the contrary, we continue to have a dominant culture, which at least from time to time, engages in naming the experience of a subculture. What I came to realize in Bill's workshops all those years ago, is that it's not possible for any one person to have handled it. Racism is an intricate and insidious cultural structure that calls out for social deconstruction. And in it, in racism, there are more apparent and less apparent victims.
James Baldwin wrote: “... let people not forget the effects of racism on both victim and perpetrator: it is a terrible and inexorable law, that one cannot deny the humanity of another without diminishing one's own; in the face of one's victim, one sees oneself.”
We don’t often spend much time looking at the toll racism takes on the White culture. If we are going to be serious about undoing racism though, we need to be honest about the privilege that it bestows upon the dominant culture, and many of us here and throughout our UUA will need to be prepared to forfeit that unfair privilege, in order to lift us all up together. We’re really not going to go anywhere in dealing with racism, unless we take an account of its costs.
Dr. Janet Helms, a White professor of psychology at the University of Maryland – College Park, writes in her book, A Race Is a Nice Thing to Have, "For racism to disappear in the United States, White people must take the responsibility for ending it. For them to assume that responsibility, they must become aware of how racism hurts White people and consequently, how ending it serves White people's best interest. Moreover, this awareness not only must be accompanied by enhanced abilities to recognize the many faces of racism, but also by the discovery of options to replace it."
And yet again, this past week there was another egregious slaying of an innocent Black youth, this time 15-year-old honor student Jordan Edwards in Dallas, TX. These shootings happen so devastatingly often. It's easy for us to see the victim hood of the slaughtered innocents. The system is out of whack, way out of whack. And when the victims of this system are those we know and possibly love, we cry out in despair. I think that's what much of our pain over the recent events in our UUA has been about – despair over the costs of racism, costs created by a system that is so hideously out of whack.
An opportunity that worship makes available is the invitation to be transformed through engagement with life's issues. Worship provides us the space in which we can seek our reckonings. No one else can direct that transformation. But others can help us to engage in it. The transformation is left to us, to our own minds and hearts, to our determination and our spirits. We are talking about our UUA here this morning, but we are talking about more than that. We are also talking about First Unitarian Church, and each of us in it. Racism, White supremacy, is indeed a part of our entire cultural fabric. And so it is a part of the life of this congregation and a part of each of our lives. The question is – are we paying attention? Are we attempting to discern our own benefits from it and our compliance with it? Are we doing what we can to make things better?
Too many decades ago, W.E.B. Du Bois accurately identified our nation’s largest internal issue. “The problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color-line.” We're now well into the 21st Century and, as much as we might wish this “problem” had already reached resolution, racism, White supremacy, will become a thing of the past only when – we are no longer able or willing to predict the length of a person’s life, their economic potential, their health status, their participation in criminal activity or the penal system, or their level of education – based upon racial demographics. When the same groups are continually at the bottom of the list, the cards have been unfairly stacked, something is gravely amiss, someone is naming another's experience in ways that do not serve anyone well.
Our religious values call on us to recognize, not to deny, that racism, White supremacy, is rampant all about us. They call upon us to do something about it. Our religious community offers us a venue for this venture in justice – making by enabling us to seek wholeness through our cooperative work in making the world more whole.
Over the years, our UUA has done so much good, hard work toward undoing the ravages of oppression. The thing is though, we really do live in a culture that is way out of whack. There is no direct course to the finish line. We might get a lot right, a lot of the time. But we get a lot wrong too. When we recognize that we’ve got things wrong, we have to do what we can to right them. That's what this most recent chapter in our UU history reminds us – that we will fumble; we will fall. It reminds us that it is our religious duty to get up, to carry on, to pay attention, to do better, to let us each do our own naming, to listen to each other carefully, to hold one another lovingly.
How might we want to prepare ourselves for continuing on this journey? Perhaps the next step is to further open our eyes, our minds, and our hearts. Such an opening will continue to be an essential element in every aspect of this work. We need to keep this conversation going. We need to keep our closest scrutiny in focus and in operation.
While conversation is critical to the progress of undoing racism, that’s not enough on its own. If we want our next generation to have the new tools they will need to carry on this fight, we will need to be about forging and hammering out the tools we will want to pass on to them. So we will need to walk together, to talk together, to be together. And we will need to work together in the creation of structures that will promote racial justice, equity and compassion, structures that will destroy racial hatred, bigotry, and oppression.
And if we do pay attention, if we do recognize, not if but when we err, if we do what we can to right what is wrong, if we let go of our self-righteousness and hold on to a vision of what is better, we have every reason for hope. Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes reminds us of what can happen should we fail to hold that vision, hold fast to dreams, for if dreams die, life is a broken-winged bird that cannot fly.
Late Czech philosopher and political activist Vaclav Havel noted, "Hope is an orientation of spirit, an orientation of the heart. It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out."
Singer Ella Fitzgerald reminded us, "Just don’t give up what you’re trying to do. Where there is love and inspiration, I don’t think you can go wrong."
And Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. sought to remind us of who we are in the mix of things, "The hope of a secure and livable world lies with disciplined nonconformists who are dedicated to justice, peace and brotherhood." Discipline suggests, I trust, that, when we stumble and fall, our next step is to get back up and to rejoin in our common journey toward wholeness.
There is a time for everything, a time to build up and a time to tear down.
Let us then be co-authors of the "… story that exposes our commitment to freedom, shakes up our class bias, sensitizes us to the needs of others, strengthens our sense of human connectedness, and, finally, inspires us to struggle with others for freedom." (Morrison-Reed)