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Racism Re-Branded

Rev. Douglas Taylor

March 29, 2020

Welcome back to another episode of ‘The Preacher Is Angry at our Racist Criminal Justice System.’ Black Lives Matter. Yes, in the news this week we had another police-shooting of a black person, Jacob Blake. This was followed by protests in Kenosha, Wisconsin which then turned to riots. Things escalated to include White nationalists – basically white gangs pretending to be an organized and well-regulated militia – showing up with guns to terrorize the protestors. And then one white kid shot three protestors, killing two of them. Black Lives Matter. And I continue to be baffled by those who complain that the destruction of property is a bad response to a killing, yet more killing is seen as a justifiable response to the destruction of property. Black Lives Matter.

Last weekend I was invited to participate in an orientation activity for the incoming freshman at Binghamton University. The administration selected the book Just Mercy by Bryan Stephenson and the documentary 13th by Ava DuVernay as the basis of community building and bonding conversations. With this Covid-19 pandemic causing death and disruption across the country, causing considerable difficulty for education plans on college campuses, this school decided to host deep conversations about systemic racism and corruption in the justice system. They decided what these anxious, incoming students needed was to dig deep into the value of diversity and the need to speak out against systemic injustice. I applaud their initiative. As part of the BU Interfaith Counsel, I served as a facilitator for three rounds of these conversations.

In preparation I read the book and watched the documentary. 13th is available to watch for free on Youtube right now. The documentary was eye-opening. I highly recommend it. I plan to lead a book discussion on Just Mercy in October for us here in the congregation. For today, let me focus on the documentary, 13th and how it relates to current events and indeed our values as a faith community. The premise centers around the loophole written into the 13th amendment. Most people know the 13th amendment to the US Constitution as one that abolished slavery. But that’s not quite true. The essence of the amendment does say “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude … shall exist within the United States.”

But that’s not what it actually says. There’s a loophole in this 1865, post-Civil War amendment. Back a hundred and fifty-five years ago, congress worked in a way to continue slavery while officially abolishing it. The full text of the amendment reads: 

Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction. Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.

Involuntary servitude or slavery continues as an American institution through our prison system. And I hope no one is surprised by the statistics showing the rise from roughly 350,000 people incarcerated in 1970 to over 2.3 million in 2016. 2.3 million … that ‘point 3’ there is where we were about 50 years ago. And I trust no one is surprised by the statistics showing the prison population is 40% black, while they are only 13% of the US population. Whites also make up just under 40% of the prison population even though we are 64% of the US population. This is more than disproportionate. In the documentary 13th lines out the rise and the shift in politics and culture that brought us to this point.

One significant pivot point in the history is referred to in the reading this morning. Ibram Kendi mention’s the 1997 National Conversation on Race launched by then President Clinton. I was in Seminary at that time and I remember in the fall of 1997 at Meadville Lombard Theological School, we had significant conversations about race. Of course, National Conversations on topics like race tend to circle around unproductively, quickly locking into political lines and continued divisiveness because no one is really listening or showing up to learn anything. But a Conversation on Race happening at a seminary? That’s different. We had symposiums and special guest lecturers. We were all there to listen and contribute and learn.

That’s a significant distinction in how to have a conversation like this. Aim to have it among people you are willing to be real with, people you are willing to be uncomfortable with, people who are willing to open up with you. Aim to have such a conversation in an environment of growth and learning. One such place is a faith community.

I noticed last weekend when I was facilitating these conversations at the university with the freshman, we used what they called “guardrails” which I would say essentially functioned like a covenant. It was a set of ground rules about listening and being respectful and using “I-statements.” It was very much the sort of container we create in our congregation when we have difficult conversations. It is the sort of container that – when done well – allows us to have conflict and differences and disagreements without unravelling the bonds of our community.

Back in 2017 our congregation participated in a Teach-In about White Supremacy. We’d been doing a lot of work together around anti-racism and White Privilege. The conversation in 2017 focused on the term ‘White Supremacy,” and it was not easy or readily embraced by all of us. And our goal was not to get everyone on the same page. Our goal was not to indoctrinate. Our goal was to deepen the conversation together. It’s hard.

We keep pushing ourselves deeper into the conversation, getting more familiar with what is happening and what is means for different people. This is powerful work we are doing. And we always move a little bit with each encounter. I remember discovering Michelle Alexander’s book The New Jim Crow in 2012. Reading that book, I was amazed at how much I had figured out before even opening the book and yet again by how much I was not done learning. I’m still not.

Several years back, the phrase Black Lives Matter was a little contentious among us. We had to work through what the slogan did and did not mean. We had to work through how we were perceived in the community for putting that Black Lives Matter sign out on the side of our building. This past month at our Board Retreat, the idea of leaning in more strongly to Black Lives Matter issues was a touchstone for many Board members. It was talked about with a deep familiarity and agreement. I’m not saying everyone in this congregation today is 100% comfortable with being a full-throated, sign-carrying, hold-the banner-at-the-front-of-the-protest supporter of Black Lives Matter. But we have been in the conversation together long enough that we aren’t rehashing it every time it comes up.

I think we are starting to experience that with the phrase “White Supremacy” as well. That phrase was uncomfortable to a lot of us when we started using it regularly 3 years ago. It’s still uncomfortable for some, but it is growing familiar.

Next in line will be the current rally cry to Defund the Police or in some cases it is a call to Abolish the Police. We haven’t talked a lot together about that, but we should. Did you know, the UUA President Susan Frederick-Gray issued a special President’s Column in the UU World magazine this past June, in which she outlined her support of the Abolish the Police movement. It is a more radical of a stance than most UUs are ready to take.

She wrote:

We must demilitarize and defund the police… The notion that these systems create safety is a lie of white supremacy, capitalism, and colonialism. Just as we witness in the commentary on the present uprisings, it has always been to protect wealth and property—not life, and certainly not Black lives. We can’t reform the current system of policing in America. We must find a new way to keep one another safe.

Let’s talk about this. What does that mean? Are we ready to talk about making pledges to not call the police? What are we prepared to do instead? I’m still at the beginning of this conversation. I know some of you have been here for a while already and others are stunned right now that I’m even suggesting it. I expect this will be one of our next big conversation together.

Racism has changed and grown and morphed over the decades in America. We still have a few corners in the country where the Ku Klux Klan wears white sheets, but mostly the racism in our country is systemic, rolling across us like something normal. In the 50’s police and politicians and regular folks would shout racial slurs and talk about segregation. That’s what racism looked like then. That’s what a lot pf people are still looking for in this conversation. But things have changed. As the years went on, we had President Reagan talking about “Cadillac-driving welfare queens” and everyone know he was talking about black women. We had Hillary Clinton in the 80’s talking about “Super-Predators” and everyone knew she was talking about black men.

These are political dog whistles, words that don’t literally say something racist but imply it at a very deep level. Trump’s rhetoric is practically non-stop dog whistles. “Good people on both sides,” “Chinese virus,” “They should go back to the countries they came from,” “We used to be a lot rougher with guys like that back in the day.” All of that is just coded dog whistles for todays racism.

When a presidential candidate talks about Law and Order, that’s a well-documented stand-in code for racism. The Law and Order always lands hardest on poor neighborhoods, on people of color, and on folks at the margins. Listen for these coded ways people, particularly politicians, talk. States’ rights and ‘stop-n-frisk’ laws, drug enforcement policies and use of the word ‘thug.’ Racism is not simply about individual acts of bigotry and prejudice; rather it is insidiously woven into the fabric of our culture and country.

Spend less energy on the one white kid with an AR-15 walking unmolested past the cops after murdering two people in front of dozens of witnesses. Spend more energy on what systems are supporting that scenario to take place. The big piece I keep coming back to is the systemic element in all of this.

I have heard many times over the years that liberals like myself are just crying out about our victimhood and how awful and racist we all are. That the whole point of anti-racism education is the make white people feel bad about themselves. I don’t know about that. I mean, yes there is good work to be done through education and self-reflection. But if the big thing folks come away with is just feeling guilty it seems we’ve just wasted a lot of time for nothing.

What is actually going to help? Changes in legislation will help. As Dr. king said:

It may be true that the law cannot change the heart, but it can restrain the heartless. The law cannot make a man love me, but it can restrain him from lynching me, and I think that’s pretty important also (Ware Lecture, 1966)

That’s essentially what the racists are doing in our country today – just in reverse. They are being pragmatic about it. They are pushing for legislation what has the impact without needing it to be specifically racist: drug policies, criminal justice initiatives, tax cuts.

What is going to help is if a whole lot of white people start taking this seriously and start asking questions. Get curious. Why are the policies always hurting people of color disproportionately? Why are the junkies always black and the terrorists always brown in the media? Why can we afford two tanks for the Binghamton police department but there’s no money for a grocery store in the first ward? Get curious. Why are the black men being shot in the street while the white men get their day in court?

The work is not to feel bad about yourself if you are white. That’s just a waste of energy. The work is to learn to recognize what is happening systemically and fight against that level of the racism. We are steeped in it. But we keep stepping up to the conversation. Egregious examples of the consequences are still playing out in front of us. But we keep showing up to point it out and demand better from our society. White supremacy is grasping for more power and sway over our lives. Complicity continues to be poured over us by our consumer-culture. But still we rise. But still we keep asking questions about what’s really going on. But still we insist on truth and nuance. But still be lean into the hard conversation. We keep showing up, we keep listening, we keep learning more, we keep insisting on change.

That long moral arc may very well be bending toward justice. But today we see most clearly that it is a long arc and we have been bending with it for a while now. And we will bend with it for a while longer. That’s what we do. That’s how we will get through. Black Lives Matter.

In a world without end

May it be so.