Look, there’s lead in the water in Flint, Michigan. Various people, including at least one of the leading candidates for President of the US, have observed that the Flint water crisis would have been handled differently if it had happened in a white suburb outside of Detroit. Flint is a very poor community and it is 57 percent black. It’s called environmental racism: protecting the environments of predominantly white communities much more than we do predominantly black communities.
For example – close to home: Last September, Bedford, NY officials obtained water sample results with very slightly elevated lead levels. They took 20 samples and 4 samples had lead above the recommended allowable of 15 parts per billion. The highest sample had 19 parts per billion. The city sent out a mailer explaining how that happened, and that they would be dealing with this by very slightly increasing their water treatment dosages. Summary: a few samples exceeded health standards; the worst was 19 parts per billion, 1.27 times the safe level.
Meanwhile: Flint, Michigan. The US Public Health Service announced that 26 water samples – out of 4,000 samples -- had lead levels above 150 parts per billion: 10 times the safe level.Volunteer teams have found that at least a quarter of Flint households have levels of lead above the federal level of 15 parts per billion (ppb) and that in some homes, lead levels were at 13,200 ppb: more than 800 times the safe level.
We treat black lives as not mattering. Black lives do matter, and it must be said.
The Flint story is partly a class issue, but not all racial disparities collapse to class. As Ta-Nehisi Coates explains:
“We now know that for every dollar of wealth white families have, black families have a nickel. We know that being middle class does not immunize black families from exploitation in the way that it immunizes white families. We know that black families making $100,000 a year tend to live in the same kind of neighborhoods as white families making $30,000 a year. We know that in a city like Chicago, the wealthiest black neighborhood has an incarceration rate many times worse than the poorest white neighborhood. This is not a class divide, but a racist divide.”And in this country, black lives are treated as mattering less than white lives.
As best we can tell (many police departments do not report) blacks are less than 13% of the U.S. population, and yet they are 31% of all fatal police shooting victims, and 39% of those killed by police even though they weren't attacking. Between 2005 and 2008, 80% of NYPD stops were of blacks and Latinos. Only 10% of stops were of whites. 85% of those frisked were black; only 8% were white. Only 2.6% of all stops (1.6 million stops over 3.5 years) resulted in the discovery of contraband or a weapon. Whites were more likely to be found with contraband or a weapon.
A black college student has the same chances of getting a job as a white high school dropout. Voter ID laws are do not prevent voter fraud, but do disenfranchise millions of young people, minorities, and elderly, who disproportionately lack the necessary government IDs. African American children comprise 33.2% of missing children cases, but only 19.5% of cases reported in the media. Why is that? Why is it that a missing black child is much more likely to be deemed not worth reporting?
In 2009, bailed-out banks such as Wells Fargo and others were found to have pushed minority borrowers who qualified for prime loans into subprime loans, which can add as more than $100,000 in interest payments to a mortgage over the life of the loan. Among high-income borrowers in 2006, African Americans were three times as likely as whites to pay higher prices for mortgages: 32.1% compared to 10.5%. This kind of disparity has been going on for some time.
History presents us with windows of opportunity when a mass movement arises that can make change happen. The Civil Rights movements of the 50s and 60s was just such a window. And we are seeing that window again. Since Michael Brown died in Ferguson a year and a half ago, there’s a new awakening to the ways this country treats black lives as not mattering. We have a chance now to be a part of bringing about meaningful change.
Unitarian Universalists were there during the Civil Rights movement, standing up voting rights and civil rights. Five hundred Unitarian Universalists marched with with Dr. King in Selma to Montgomery, including over 140 Unitarian Universalist clergy -- 20 percent of all UU ministers in final fellowship at that time. We had a important role to play then, and we have an important role to play now.
We are a people of conscience. We are a people who stand for something other than our own comfortable complacency.
Many Unitarian Universalist congregations are actively making their neighbors uncomfortable. They are putting up banners that say “Black Lives Matter” on their property displayed to public view. They are doing this because if the idea that black lives matter makes a neighborhood uncomfortable, then making it uncomfortable is what we need to be doing. Many of the banners have been subject to vandalism, and theft. I listed a bunch of those incidents in my column a couple months ago. Just two days ago, Friday’s news included the story of our congregation in Reno, Nevada. They are now on their 9th Black Lives Matters banner, as each of the previous 8 has been stolen or vandalized.
Rev. Dan Schatz serves our Unitarian congregation in Warrington, Pennsylvania. One day he got a note from a neighbor:
“Good Evening: I am very upset at the signage that is outside of your church stating that “Black Lives Matter.” Since when has God chosen to see us by the color of our skin. The sign should be taken down and replaced with ALL LIVES MATTER. How will this nation of ours ever join together if we are constantly looking at everyone by their race. Unless you were actually there in Ferguson or in New York or Cleveland, you do not have all the facts. [signed:] A Bucks County Resident”No, we don’t have all the facts. Even if we were actually there, we never have all the facts. But we have ample facts illustrating that this country treats black lives as mattering less than white lives.
And of course all lives matter. But you don’t show up at a fundraiser for breast cancer patients and start objecting that all cancer patients matter. You address the problem that you can.
When I imagine a loving presence that pervades the universe, I do not imagine that presence would say: “since skin color doesn’t matter, I want you to ignore all the evidence of ways that your fellow humans use skin color to discriminate.”
This nation will not join together in justice by pretending that everything is fair and equal when it isn’t. This nation will not join together in justice unless real wrongs are acknowledged and addressed.
All lives do matter, and in order to live in a world that better recognizes that, we need to attend to where lives are most treated as not mattering. That black lives do matter is what needs affirming in the current social context. "Black lives matter" challenges current presumptions that they don't. "All lives matter" is not nearly as challenging. It could be. But in the current social climate, "all lives matter" functions primarily to assert that the disregard of black lives requires no particular attention. The current disregard of black lives should just be left alone to continue.
Last summer, at the Unitarian Universalist General Assembly 2015, the delegates adopted an Action of Immediate Witness that proclaimed:
WHEREAS, Unitarian Universalists strive for justice, equity and compassion in human relations;Black lives matter. It must be said.
WHEREAS, Unitarian Universalists have a goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all;
WHEREAS, allowing injustice to go unchallenged violates our principles;
WHEREAS, the Black Lives Matter movement has gained powerful traction in conjunction with recent tragic events involving, in particular, police brutality and institutionalized racism that target the black community;
WHEREAS, Tanisha Anderson, Rekia Boyd, Michael Brown, Miriam Carey, Michelle Cusseaux, Shelly Frey, Eric Garner, Freddie Gray, Trayvon Martin, Kayla Moore, Tamir Rice, and Tony Robinson are just a few names of people who were recently killed by the racism that exists in the United States today;
WHEREAS, people of all ages and races are killed by law enforcement, yet black people ages 20-24 are seven times more likely to be killed by law enforcement;
WHEREAS, mass incarceration fueled by for-profit prisons and racially biased police practices drive the disproportionate imprisonment of black and brown Americans;
WHEREAS, the school-to-prison pipeline is an urgent concern because 40% of students expelled from U.S. public schools are black and one out of three black men is incarcerated during his lifetime; and
WHEREAS, we must continue to support the Black Lives Matter movement and Black-led racial justice organizations;
THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED that the 2015 General Assembly of the Unitarian Universalist Association calls member congregations to action, to become closer to a just world community, and to prevent future incidents of this nature;
BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that the 2015 General Assembly urges member congregations to engage in intentional learning spaces to organize for racial justice with recognition of the interconnected nature of racism coupled with systems of oppression that impact people based on class, gender identity, sexual orientation, ability and language;
BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that the 2015 General Assembly encourages member congregations and all Unitarian Universalists to work toward police reform and prison abolition (which seeks to replace the current prison system with a system that is more just and equitable); and
BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that the 2015 General Assembly recognizes that the fight for civil rights and equality is as real today as it was decades ago and urges member congregations to take initiative in collaboration with local and national organizations fighting for racial justice against the harsh racist practices to which many black people are exposed.
Finally, let me add that Community Unitarian Church (now Community Unitarian Universalist Congregation) has a long history of annoying our neighbors. My predecessor, the Rev. Clifford Vessey, who served our congregation from 1942 to 1964 prepared an address called "The Story of the White Plains Community Church, Unitarian (A Profile of its Early Years, 1909-1942)" (1963). Rev. Vesey reports:
"There was one occasion when the very announcement of an invited speaker incurred the wrath of McCarthyites in White Plains and Scarsdale in 1921. John Haynes Holmes was to speak on 'The Religious Training of Children.' Dr. Holmes was known to have had a few kind things to say about the Russian people and their revolution. He was also a pacifist, a conscientious objector to war. This was enough to make him guilty by association and the very announcement of his forthcoming visit to White Plains brought forth a protest meeting in the White Plains High School, sponsored by the American Legion, which was attended, according to the paper, by over 800 people. The banner headline of the Daily Reporter read: 'Crowded meeting greets Dr. Holmes' name with derision.' The front page editorial included this statement: 'Dr. Holmes will find the atmosphere in White Plains decidedly chilly if he carries out his idea of speaking at Community Church. No man should be invited to this community to speak unless he is known to be 100% true American.'"Rev. Vessey then quotes from what he calls "one of the most cherished documents of our Church": the reply of our Board of Trustees, written by Albert Whitney, chair. Whitney's letter declares:
"Our speakers are men and women who are thinking and doing worth-while things in the life of the world. In inviting them to speak to us we hope that they will give us the spiritual aspects of those things that they have most at heart and unto which they have set their hands...You may say that the men and women that we get to speak to us on Sundays are not speaking the truth. Very well; let us say that they are right only half the time; but even fifty percent of truth from a man or woman who is doing and thinking things that are worth while is worth having. And as to the untruth -- we have no fear of that as long as it is in the open....Now, Mr. Editor, in your opposition to the activities of our organization I venture to say that you have done your full duty by the community in warning them not to attend our meetings. That is within your right. When you go beyond this point, however, and incite the community to deprive our speakers of their right to be heard, you are venturing on exceedingly dangerous ground. The right of free speech is sacred; it is guaranteed by the Constitution. When you tamper with that right you have undertaken something more serious than a fight with our Church; you have stepped into a larger arena. We have no right either to the credit or the distinction of being the defenders of the right of free speech, and I beg that you will not force us into accepting this too honorable position...We should prefer a more normal and slower development of our Church to a development under religious persecution. But whatever happens we shall stand unalterably upon our right to seek the truth wherever it may be found, for it is the truth that shall set us all free."We stood by our principles, even when 800 of our neighbors gathered to protest against us, and the local paper castigated us. We stood ready to face what persecution might come.
I am but newly a White Plains Unitarian Universalist, but I am proud to be part of a people made of such stern and good stuff -- a people who stand for what needs to be stood for, who will say what must be said, whether it irks the neighbors or not.