“The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line.” With prophetic wisdom W. E. B. Du Bois made this statement in 1900 and it has proven to be so. It is interesting to note that Du Bois was the radical voice of the civil rights movement in the first part of this century contrasting to Booker T. Washington’s conservative views.
From segregation and Jim Crow to a dream of equitable rights for all races. From a black man at the end of a rope to a black man in the White House. The past century has been an era of great accomplishment for both African-Americans as individuals and for our nation as a whole. We have achieved significant progress in our quest to be a more just society and that has benefited us all.
I was uplifted recently by listening to the voice of an African-American elder, a voice imbued with pride and with glory. As she remarked about never expecting to see such a day in her lifetime, I glimpsed the profound significance this victory represents to African-Americans and people of African descent all over the world.
In a little more than a week we will inaugurate the first African-American as President of the United States. To say that this is historic is an understatement. To say it is a miracle comes closer.
Over the years we have witnessed the slow and incremental progress that has led to this laudatory event. We have seen that in spite of setbacks and failures, there has been advancement towards our nation’s lofty goal of equality and respect across racial divides. What sublime irony there is in that a nation which once enslaved people of African descent will now have a man of African descent as its president — “the leader of the free world.” It strikes me as a particularly appropriate illustration of both the worst and best of our nation’s character.
I know that as I gather with my colleagues and fellow students next week to watch the televised inauguration ceremony, there will be in all of our hearts a joy and hope for a nation and world more free of oppression. But I am wary of a self-congratulatory atmosphere I might encounter.
I am wary of members of an overwhelmingly white institution, with a somewhat checkered past in reference to issues of race, sanctifying ourselves with an over-inflated sense of our importance on such a momentous day.
I am wary that in Chicago’s Hyde Park, one of the most economically, social, and racially diverse neighborhoods and the home of the Obama family, I will encounter an overwhelming majority of white faces, with perhaps our two black faculty members in attendance, celebrating together.
In saying this I know I sound like a party-pooper at best. Despite what may seem like a curmudgeonly stance, I would never claim to be anything but proud of my school. Just as I would never claim to be anything but proud of Unitarian Universalism and our comparatively progressive stance toward the evils of racism.
As Unitarian Universalists we like to point to our record of abolitionism, civil rights advocacy, and anti-oppression work. We extol the virtues of individuals like Theodore Parker, A. Powell Davies and others like them.
I am reminded of the words of Theodore Parker, perhaps the greatest of all Unitarian abolitionists. Parker said: “The arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
Parker did not understand his or anyone’s role in this “bending” as passive. He was an agent of change in both word and action. Parker’s convictions toward the abolishment of slavery were such that — legend has it that he kept a loaded pistol in his desk in the event that he might have to defend himself or a fugitive slave from bodily attack.
A. Powell Davies was the minister of All Souls Unitarian Church in Washington DC from 1944 to 1957 during the formative years of the Civil Rights Movement. Citing him as one of America’s outstanding clergymen, Time magazine acclaimed him as an outstanding American clergyman and said that ‘in Washington, “where many talk but few listen … Davies is a man who is heard.’ “In the Washington Post he gained praise as being “militantly in the forefront of every assault upon intolerance and racial discrimination and injustice.”
Davies led the All Souls congregation in protesting segregation in restaurants and in sponsoring the city’s first racially integrated boys club. Like Parker he used his considerable rhetorical skill in the pursuit of racial equity.
There is a certain comfort in being able to look back over the long history of the civil rights movement and see how things have changed so dramatically just within my own lifetime. Significant court cases like Brown vs. the Board of Education in 1954 and important legislation like the Voting Rights Act of 1965 have been instrumental in upholding our great national promise of equality for all.
Organizations like the NAACP and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference have been dynamic organizations for change in an ongoing struggle for justice. Despite what some will try to tell us, affirmative action has changed many lives for the better.
Epithets, inflammatory rhetoric and hateful imagery have been virtually eliminated. That common and most degrading word – has evolved into the whispered “n word” and for the most part has vanished from public use. On the infrequent occasions when public figures do insult and degrade with “hate speech” they are rightfully chastised in the media and frequently punished.
Our societal consciousness has grown profoundly as we have learned and been sensitized to issues of race. As I have shared previously — art, music and in particular the writing of black women have sensitized me to the experiences of black people.
I recently expressed these feelings by saying that the books of Toni Morrison and Alice Walker had given me greater insight into the African-American experience. I was told (and rightfully so) that the African-American experience is not singular, that there is a vast body of African American experiences, plural!
I responded negatively to that critique at first, but now I see its meaning. At the time I wanted to dismiss that criticism as trivial, but it has nagged at me and I now willingly acknowledge my mistake, and I have tried to learn from it. What may seem to me to be such a subtlety of language so slight as to be imperceptible, may illuminate blind spots to my subconscious racism.
Often our first reaction to our subconscious racism is shame. And then anger toward those who have helped us to see those seemingly insignificant words and actions that breach our righteousness. These are hardly constructive responses – though they may be natural ones. What I now try to do and sometimes succeed in doing is challenge myself to respond to such criticism without defensiveness and learn from it.
Ridding ourselves of that defensiveness is no small task. It is the reason that so many of us are so unwilling to respond to the lasting legacy of American slavery.
In his book Stupid White Men author and filmmaker Michael Moore says this: “The roots of most of our social ills can be traced straight back to this sick chapter of our history. African-Americans never got the same fair start the rest of us got. Their families were willfully destroyed. Their language and culture and religion were stripped from them. Their poverty was institutionalized so that our cotton could get picked, our wars could be fought, [and] our convenience stores could remain open all night.
The America we’ve come to know would never have come to pass if not for the millions of slaves who built it and created its booming economy. … Until we realize that, and accept that we do have a responsibility to correct an immoral act that still has repercussions today, we will never remove the single greatest stain on the soul of our country.”
When I, Scott, think about the incalculable wrongs perpetrated against African-Americans during the era of slavery and its legacy, I am outraged. And when a spiritual leader of the African American community is denounced for daring to utter the words “God Damn America!” because he can no longer abide the injustice of our nation, I cannot help but wonder if this “century of accomplishment” has done anything to ease the antipathy African-Americans can justifiably feel towards privileged whites.
A wise woman once said “How can any of us be free of racism when we live in a racist world.” I want to grow and develop in my love for all and in my understanding of human experiences. Being a small part of the movement to overcome racism and opposing oppression wherever I find it is a commitment I honor – but especially — when I find it within myself and the institutions I am a part of. Self reflection, both individually and collectively, is critical to living a religious life as well as for the betterment of our society.
When faced with the hard soul-searching work that confronting racism can be, there is a temptation to complacency – especially after a significant milestone has been reached. So many times in history significant achievements have been followed by a period of atrophy, I think specifically of the long struggle American women waged to gain the vote and the forty year dormancy that followed. The resurgence of feminism did not start until the publication of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique in 1963.
So too has it been with overcoming racial oppression. Its forward progress has ebbed and flowed within our lifetimes.
Barack Obama’s inauguration as the 44th President of the United States is an amazing milestone in our journey to abolish racism in America. It is indeed tempting to wax philosophical about the power of time and the ultimate, if protracted, evolution of justice. What stops me from such indulging is my understanding of the many privileges I enjoy as a white middle-class American male that I am less than anxious to relinquish. My perception of progress comes to me from a position of comfort – which is not the case for many others. My long-view perception is a result of my access to justice, power, wealth and education. In a different position I might feel less optimistic.
When the temptation to complacency threatens to capture me, I stop to remember my own personal experience of discrimination and my access points to social inequity. My one point of reference is the issue of marriage equity. Tony and I have much to be grateful for – but we periodically lament that our lives would be easier, if we were eligible for the same rights as legally married people.
In such instances I have bitterly quoted the words of the 19th century English Prime Minister, William Gladstone, who said: “Justice delayed is justice denied.” We know that the legal recognition of same-sex marriages is inevitable, but that eventuality does not help us now with health coverage.
We all have personal access points to understanding the power of racism. Some of us have experienced ageism, sexism, or homophobia. Some of us have known unfairness due to disabilities; physical or mental health. We all have faced challenges to our access to individual achievement or enjoyment of life that were unjust. Is there one among us who has not felt victimized by some form of prejudice in our lives? Of course not. As liberal religious people it is our duty to find those points of access and, coupled with deep empathy, gain some understanding of what life in a profoundly racist society might be like for a person of color.
Martin Luther King also cited those powerful words of Gladstone’s in his famous letter from a Birmingham jail. King wrote and addressed this letter to Alabama clergymen who issued a public statement that faulted Dr. King, his leadership and the non-violent demonstrations for civil rights.
In it, he also refutes the illusion of time itself as a healer, which some might misunderstand as the attitude implicit in Parker’s statement.
He wrote: “Such an attitude stems from a tragic misconception of time, from the strangely irrational notion that there is something in the very flow of time that will inevitably cure all ills.”
Actually, time itself is neutral; it can be used either destructively or constructively. More and more I feel that the people of ill will have used time much more effectively than have the people of good will. We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people, but for the appalling silence of the good people.
Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of [women and] men willing to be coworkers with God, and without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation.
We must use time creatively, in the knowledge that the time is always ripe to do right. Now is the time to make real the promise of democracy and transform our pending national elegy into a creative psalm of brotherhood. Now is the time to lift our national policy from the quicksand of racial injustice to the solid rock of human dignity.”
As we celebrate the glorious inauguration of our first African-American President, we cannot allow this monumental achievement to delude us into believing that we have overcome racism in this country. We need only remember the images of Hurricane Katrina and the racial inequities in access to wealth, power, justice, basic human needs and rights. Those calling voices and straining hands we saw on our television screens continue to haunt me. They remind me that in this land of the free and home of the brave where a black man can become president, there is still much, much arduous work to be done in ending racism.
I fear, as the first African American President in our history takes his place in the Oval Office, that some will seize the opportunity to convert a real milestone into a symbolic one. Some I fear, will try to use this victory as an indication that racism is over, when we know it to be alive and potent. I am not convinced that I will live to see true racial equity in this country. What I do hope to see is the continuation of the profound change that I have lived to see in my lifetime.
Scott Talbot Lewis, Consulting Minister
UU Congregation of Rock Valley, Rockton, IL
January 11, 2009
© 2009 Scott Talbot Lewis. All Rights Reserved.