The Color Blind Confusion

Rev. Douglas Taylor

February 27, 2022

Sermon video:

I understand the confusion, the color blind confusion. I do. Being color blind seems like the pinnacle of equality. Surely it is a good quality. Being color blind is about treating all people the same without regard for race or ethnicity. It is to say – I will not treat you differently simply because you have a different skin color than me. Our congregation’s bylaw document has that now-standard non-discrimination clause:

“… the full participation of persons … without regard to actual or perceived race, class, color, culture or national origin, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, or physical or mental challenge.”

Our Unitarian Universalist principles and values include the call for equity, for treating ALL people with inherent worth and dignity.

It is also one of the tenets of our American legal system that all are equal under the law. It was a central point of the 1960’s civil rights movement – that everyone be treated equally. Dr. King, in his landmark speech, said

“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

And it almost seems like all this focus on the color of our skin is the problem; wouldn’t it be better if we could all be color blind. King asked us to focus on the content of each other’s character instead of the color of each other’s skin. Even the great Dr. King wants us to all be color blind.

Except … to reach that conclusion, one must ignore the context of that famous quote. One must misunderstand the whole point of the speech and the rally and the moment in history that is the context of that quote by Dr. King.

The problem is that being color blind is a form of ignoring important aspects of a person’s identity and experience. Being color blind claims there are no race-based differences and in so claiming, ignores and refuses to deal with the reality of those differences. Being color blind is to pretend systemic racism does not exist which is essentially to be complacent and complicit with that racism.

What Dr. King was calling for was a change in the system. The context of that amazing quote from Dr. King is that he wanted the nation to pay attention to the problem of racism. He wanted the nation to live out the noble principles in its founding documents rather than keep acting terribly toward black people and other minorities. Fast forward a few decades and people have twisted King’s words into an excuse to pretend everything is equal now.

Pauli Murray was a civil rights activist, author, lawyer, poet, and priest. Her name is credited in our order of service for some of the worship elements. She earned degrees from Harvard, Yale, and Berkley. She came of age during World War I, raised by her maternal grandparents in North Carolina. Thurgood Marshall, when he was still chief counsel of the NAACP, “called Murray’s 1950 book, States’ Laws on Race and color, the “bible of the civil rights movement.” Murray was a co-founder of NOW – the National Organization of Women, a strong influence on Ruth Bader Ginsberg, and many now retroactively credit her with being non-binary and transgender long before such terms were in common use.

Pauli Murray was hugely influential in a multitude of human rights issues over the course of several decades and yet almost no one knows about her. There is a documentary about her life worth watching. Why has she been so forgotten?

Do you remember the landmark Supreme Court case Brown v Board of Education? It was meant to desegregate our schools, to give children access to opportunity without regard to race or color. Did it work? Decades after Brown v Board of education, our public schools are still effectively segregated because our neighborhoods are still effectively segregated. We can successfully predict more about a child’s upward mobility by their zip code than by their SAT score or if their parents read to them each day. It doesn’t take much to uncover the reality of inequality in our country. Why would we pretend there is not a racial component connected to that inequality?

It is necessary to look at what is going on with a critical lens. To challenge ideas that try to ignore real problems. Here is another example, we all know we abolished slavery in our country, right? The Thirteenth Amendment abolished slavery, right? Wrong. I was taught that it did. But when we read the language of the amendment, we find this:

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.

So, slavery is still permitted in our country under certain conditions. That’s not the same as saying slavery is abolished. Our mass incarceration system is a continuation of slavery. It says that in our constitution. And if we pretend that we are color blind, we’ll completely miss the racist implications of who is filling our prison cells. It is necessary to look at what is going on with a critical lens. To challenge ideas that try to ignore real problems.

These examples, Pauli Murray, Brown v Board of Education, and the 13th Amendment, they lead me to the topic of Critical Race Theory. Critical Race Theory, or CRT, became a hot button issue over the previous year, largely as a form of distraction to stir up a conservative base. A study showed that Fox News had mentioned Critical Race Theory almost 2,000 times in a 3-month period in the spring of 2021. That breaks down to about 20 times a day for 90 consecutive days.

But with all that hype, most people did not really know what CRT actually was. Simply put, Critical Race Theory legal theory related to constitutional law and other related law issues. More specifically, it states that our societal institutions have had racism baked into how they function. It focuses on the legal aspects of institutional racism. Our criminal justice system, education system, labor market, housing market, and healthcare system are all “laced with racism embedded in laws, regulations, rules, and procedures that lead to differential outcomes by race.”

Critical Race Theory is a legal concept. It started with legal scholars Derrick Bell, Kimberlé Crenshaw, and others in the 1970’s talking about the need to look critically at our legal system in terms of race.

Are the purportedly race-neutral documents and laws actually race-neutral? Were they ever meant to be? Is their impact such? Do our U.S. laws alleviate or perpetuate racism? Rather than accept the legal stance of race-neutrality at face-value, CRT asks us to think critically about it.

Let’s pause for a minute and notice the big cultural argument about CRT is whether or not it should be taught to our children in our public schools. The sensational claim was that our children were being indoctrinated with CRT, that white kids were being taught to hate themselves. Which is just so wildly inaccurate as to be obvious fear-mongering. And yet, people bought into the fear. 

Again, CRT is about legal theory related to constitutional law. CRT per se is not taught in our K-12 public school systems. Not really. But critical thinking is. And the word ‘Critical’ is the key because it is used the same in CRT and when we are talking about ‘critical thinking.’

Our Unitarian Universalist values do indeed call us to treat ALL people with inherent worth and dignity, to promote equity in human relations. And … Our faith calls us to promote justice and liberty and truth. Never forget that one about truth. A key value for us is the free and responsible search for truth and meaning.

When we look at a religious text, we weigh it against our experiences and against reality as we know it. When we read, for example, in the Koran: “The heavens, We have built them with power. And verily, We are expanding it” (51:47); that can sound pretty cool and rather modern. But we also recognize that when the Koran was written, the scientific concept of an expanding universe was not a viable theory yet. But it does provide an opening between our modern scientific understanding of the universe and Islamic faith today.

When we read, for example, in Christian scripture about how Jesus calls Peter the “rock on which I build my church” (Matt 16); yet we know there was no Christian church at that point, we can recognize this as an addition by a later editor – something that evidently happened quite a bit to Christian Scripture as it took shape.

We don’t take such texts at face value. We interpret them through their context. We weigh them based on who the original hearers were, what was the historic situation, did the author have an agenda they were trying to convey?

And Unitarian Universalists promote these same values in the public sphere, not just in our religious explorations. Critical thinking is a value we strive to bring when we are taking in the news and current affairs, not just ancient religious texts.

When presented with the issue of being color blind, for example, we can acknowledge the noble goal of equality; but we are not let off the hook by the ideal. We are drawn to ask:

Who benefits from presenting an issue this way or that way? Does a particular law or practice actually accomplish what it was created to accomplish? Who is included in this version of our community and who is left behind when we pretend to not consider a person’s skin color?

As people of faith, this is important to us. It is important for us to engage in a free and responsible search for truth and meaning. The ‘critical’ part of Critical Race Theory is a key piece of how we engage with the world. 

Shifting gears and digging in a little more, the conservative argument against CRT is against an applied version of CRT in our schools. The applied version takes the basic tenets of the theory and applies them to history and education. Central to this, as I’ve already stated, is the idea of institutional racism and white supremacy. The conservative argument goes on to say the implication is that all white people, and white children of course, are taught that they are oppressors while all black people, and black children of course, are taught that they are victims.

I have said before and think it bears repeating – if your anti-racism work centers around making white people feel bad then you’re doing it wrong. I may feel bad, that may still happen; but it’s not the goal. I may feel bad as a white person, as an American, when I learn about the Tulsa race massacre or about the prevalence of lynching – but that’s not the point of the work. The point of the work is for us to grapple with the atrocities so we may be bold in making changes for a better society.

The people banning Critical Race Theory make it sound like the goal is to make all white people feel bad about themselves. That’s simply not true. I believe that is a cipher, a coded way to stir up the conservative base. The real goal of CRT is to fix the structures in our society that continue to disadvantage and harm people of color.

As Unitarian Universalists we are committed to building a more just and beautiful world together. We are committed to not being color blind so much as color celebrating – to celebrating our differences, leaning in to the unique ways we each experience this life. We are committed to grappling with injustices, sifting through discomfort for the sake of a better world together.

In a world without end,

May it be so.