Seeing Race

On this Martin Luther King Day weekend, as we celebrate what would have been Dr. King’s 95th birthday, race-based distrust, prejudice, and bigotry continues to bedevil and rive our nation. Our world, too – but I must say especially our nation.

The first balm for the wounds of division is truth. The bandages of programs, the splints of institutions, and the sutures of social justice will all fail without the salve of truth: the awareness of what is so, shared knowledge of how things are. Let us begin with the truth about our history, for that will help us understand why racial harmony is so particularly difficult for this country. Some of us know the history in, at least, the broad outline that I will recount – but perhaps not all of us do. In these times when simply teaching African American history is being banned and restricted in some states, simply to tell this history is a subversive act. Come, let us be subversive together.

America did not invent prejudice, or discrimination against people that, in any physical way including skin color, looked different. Indeed, as I mentioned last week, anxiety about people who are different appears to be an innate condition in a certain percent of the population, and it can certainly be a learned condition in many more. What America did invent was the modern conception of race, and the racism based upon that conception.

The word “race” used to mean any other group of people. If you lived in northern France, the people a couple hundred miles south of you were a southerly race. Protestants referred to the Catholic race, and vice-versa. Nobles spoke of the peasant race. The emergence of the modern sense of race was a deliberate device of the wealthy landowners in the colonies in the 1600s. They invented racism as we know it in order to co-opt the poor whites into helping sustain slavery.

The first enslaved Africans on soil that became the US were brought along with Spanish exploring expeditions. They came and went from what is now the US starting in 1526. The first Africans held in slavery by settler colonialists in the English colonies were brought to Jamestown, Virginia in 1619 – one year before the Mayflower. They were brought on a ship called (ironically? aptly?) The White Lion.

By the middle and late 1600s, much of the manual agricultural labor of the colonies was being done by what we would now call white indentured servants. England’s anti-poverty program of the time was to make poverty a crime punishable by deportation to America essentially as slave, but with the provision for earning one’s freedom after 10 or 20 or sometimes as much as 30 years of labor. From what we can tell, when enslaved people from Africa appeared to work beside them in the field, the darker skin color aroused no particular animosity. Whether you had paler skin or darker skin, you were kept in separate quarters, supervised by an overseer, whipped as a means of “correction,” often underfed and underclothed, and stereotyped as vile and brutish and subhuman. The two groups, both despised objects of the contempt of the bourgeoisie, saw each other as sharing the same predicament. As historian Edmund Morgan notes:
“It was common, for example, for servants and slaves to run away together, steal hogs together, get drunk together. It was not uncommon for them to make love together.” (American Slavery, American Freedom: The Ordeal of Colonial Virginia, 1975, p. 327)
And sometimes European servants combined with enslaved Africans to rebel against the ruling elite.

In Colonial America of the 1600s, the main difference between indentured servants and enslaved ones was in the economics for the landowners. The workers that came from Africa cost more, but they paid off in the long run because the landowner didn’t have to release them after a certain period of time – and because any children of an enslaved woman were also enslaved. For that reason, the slave demand brought a steady increase through the 1600s in the population of enslaved African.

As time went by, the trend of increased numbers of African slaves combined with more and more of the indentured serving out their time and more and more European-born poor freedmen in the population. Only then did the landowners begin to draw the sort of race line that today is so familiar to us. They did it as a strategy against rebellion.

The freedmen were persons without house or land, rankled by unfair taxes, the greed of legislators who then, as now, were in the pockets of the wealthy, and land use regulations that made it very difficult for them to ever own land. Freedmen with “disappointed hopes” and enslaved people of “desperate hope” were joining forces to mount ever more virulent rebellions (Thandeka, Learning to Be White, p. 45). The landowners strategy was to invent American racism as we know it. Whereas previously the big divide was between the vile rabble over there and the landowners over here, the new way of grouping people encouraged the European-born part of the rabble to think of themselves as “white” – as sharing something crucial with the landowners which the African-born did not. Thus the freedmen were co-opted into betraying their own economic self-interest to support the landowners’ interests with which they identified by virtue of their shared whiteness.

It was a brilliant divide-and-keep-conquered strategy “to separate dangerous free whites from dangerous slave blacks by a screen of racial contempt” (Edmund Morgan, American Slavery, American Freedom: The Ordeal of Colonial Virginia, 1975, p. 327). The trick was accomplished by such means as passing new laws offering some protections to whites even while still indentured. As of 1705 in Virginia, any enslaved person of African descent could be given 30 lashes on the bare back, but it was forbidden to whip a Christian white servant naked. The whipping happened, but the extra indignity did not – which helped the indentured begin to learn to be white, to identify with their oppressors against the even more oppressed.

That same year, 1705, horses, cattle, and hogs were confiscated from enslaved people and sold to benefit poor whites. Any white was given the right to whip a black servant. Land owners were urged to bar the people they enslaved from learning the skills of a trade in order to preserve that work for white artisans. In ways subtle and obvious, a dignity based on whiteness alone was created where nothing of the sort had been imagined 50 years before.
“The gap between the wealthy and poor widened as a result of slave productivity. Thus the sense that poor whites now shared status and dignity with their social betters was largely illusory.” (Thandeka, p. 47)
But that illusion was powerful. Being white meant despising blacks, which afforded this illusory dignity that kept poor whites from agitating for economic reform on their own behalf and instead adopting attitudes and behavior to assist the landowners in keeping the blacks down.

We carry that legacy today. Many of the whites among us, if we think back, would be able to tell a story of how we learned to be white. For me, it was on the school bus when I was in first-grade. A big third-grader, sophisticated and worldly-wise in my six-year-old eyes, asked me if I liked President Johnson. I shrugged. He said he didn’t like Johnson ‘cause he lets – and here he used the N word – go to our school. The look of contempt upon his face made me feel such a relief to not be the object of that contempt.

I learned to be white on that day. I was whited by a system invented in this country two and a half centuries before by landowners who wanted to suppress rebellion, a system that took on a life of its own and long outlived its original purpose.

If you are white, when did you learn that? If you are not, when was your earliest significant lesson about what your race was, and what it meant? We are all wounded by the race line that slashes across our psyches, whatever side of that line we may think we’re on.

Once the race line has been established, there’s a projection that occurs. Learning to be white means learning to project upon darker-skinned people everything in the white person that feels low, vile, or shameful. A constant, nagging sense of unworthiness is part of the deal. Here, you get to be white, like the rich folks, but you can’t help noticing that you’re still poor, so maybe you’re not really worthy of your whiteness. The more whites were made to feel unworthy, the more they projected unworthy qualities on the group they were allowed to, and told to, despise. The more whites internalized that message, “You’re white, so if you just work hard enough, you’re bound to be OK,” the more they projected upon blacks the laziness they feared in themselves.

White racism against blacks is always a version of self-disgust adopted in a desperate attempt to hold onto worth and dignity in the face of exclusion from the upper classes. This begins to explain a few mysteries. Martin Luther King brought his war on slums to Chicago for his 1966 campaign for open housing. He encountered greater hostility in Chicago than he had ever seen in Atlanta, growing up, or in Montgomery, leading the bus boycott, or anywhere. Rocks and bricks were thrown. As King marched, someone hurled a stone. It struck King on the head. Stunned, he fell to one knee for several seconds. As he rose, aides and bodyguards surrounded him to protect him from the rocks, bottles and firecrackers that rained down on the demonstrators. King was one of 30 people who were injured. The disturbance resulted in 40 arrests.

He later explained why he put himself at risk: "I have to do this--to expose myself--to bring this hate into the open." He had done that before, but Chicago was different. "I have seen many demonstrations in the South, but I have never seen anything so hostile and so hateful as I've seen here today," he said (Chicago Tribune).

What could account for this intensity of hostility from whites whose every economically-visible interest was unthreatened? Why were the lower and middle-class whites more virulently racist than the upper-class whose interests were more directly challenged? Because if worth and dignity didn’t come from whiteness, they just weren’t sure where it could come from.

Over and over, a substantial portion of white lower and middle-class voters vote against their own self-interest and in favor of wealthy interests. Why? Because learning to distance oneself from the interests blacks would have – even if, in reality, one shared those interests – was part of learning to be white. "White" has meant identifying with the wealthy, identifying with a shared paleness over and against shared economic needs.

Why is the US unable to enact a fairer, much more effective, and even cheaper health-care system – a single-payer government National Health Insurance – while Europe and Canada and Japan have this eminently sensible system? It's because the US's specific heritage of racism taught us to identify with the wealthy, and the wealthy don't need national health insurance.

Why is the US unable to provide adequate public schooling, affordable housing for all, and progressive taxation? It's because the US's specific heritage of racism taught us to identify with the wealthy, and the wealthy send their kids to private schools, aren't at risk of homelessness, and don't want to be progressively taxed.

Why is it that when Black men open-carried firearms as the Black Panthers did in the 1960s and 70s, gun control legislation passed, and when that perceived threat was gone and whites wanted to open carry, those controls were rolled back, and white people heavily armed in public are celebrated as patriotic and freedom loving? Why is it that the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 created much harsher penalties for possession of crack cocaine, used mostly by blacks, than for a quantity of powdered cocaine, used mostly by whites, that produced similar effects? It’s because the national psyche has developed the longstanding habit of projecting upon dark skin color everything it is scared of, and is unconsciously convinced that black people doing a dangerous activity is much, much more dangerous than white people doing the same thing.

Why is it that the percentage of African Americans who are incarcerated is nearly five times higher than the percentage of European Americans who are? Why is it that otherwise identical resumes yield a 50 percent greater chance of being invited for an interview if the applicant’s name is stereotypically white than if the name is stereotypically black? Why is it that black renters learn about 11 percent fewer rental units and black homebuyers are shown about one-fifth fewer homes? Why is it that blacks and whites use illegal drugs at the same rate, but a 2016 study found African Americans are arrested on drug charges at a nearly three times higher rate? Why is it that from 2010 to 2012, according to a study analyzing data of that period, a young black male, age 15 to 19, was 21 times more likely to be shot by police than his white counterpart? Well, we know why.

And what is the Unitarian Universalist history, along with the race history in this country? We should know, too, how our Unitarian Universalist story intertwines with the American story, because we need to know what we inherit if we are to know who we are.

Unitarian Universalists have struggled with the legacy of racism created in Colonial America as a way to co-opt indentured servants and minimize rebellion. On one hand, yes, Unitarians were among the leaders in the movement for abolition of slavery. Unitarian minister Joseph Priestly, then in England, preached a sermon denouncing the slave trade as early as 1788, and continued to preach against it after coming to America. Unitarian minister Rev. Charles Follen was a leading abolitionist in the 1830s. (This, by the way, is the same Rev. Charles Follen that I mentioned in the Christmas Eve service as having brought the Christmas tree tradition to America.)

On the other hand, monied interests in the North supported the slavery in the South – and Unitarians have been well-represented among monied interests. So Rev. Follen’s abolitionism led to his dismissal from the New York City congregation now called All Soul’s Unitarian. When Follen died in 1840, pro-slavery members of William Ellery Channing’s Boston congregation refused Channing’s request to host a memorial service for Follen.

In 1836, Rev. William Henry Furness, minister of First Unitarian Church of Philadelphia preached an abolitionist sermon to his congregation. Reverend Furness had begun serving that congregation when he was 22-years-old, and had been serving it for 12 years the day he stepped into their pulpit to preach abolition. He knew it would be divisive. One of his most prominent members held 300 people enslaved. Furness’s stance split the congregation in half. Membership plummeted. Furness thereafter had armed guards at his side as he preached. Later, Unitarian minister Theodore Parker encountered considerable controversy when he also began speaking against slavery and became a leading figure in the abolition movement. Parker took to keeping a pistol in his pulpit for his protection.

Many Unitarians – clergy and layfolk – committed their lives and fortunes to the cause of abolition. Yes, Unitarians were rancorously divided over the issue of slavery. Yet we were at least divided: while some other churches of the time were unified in support of slavery, many Unitarians were leading this denomination and this country toward a new moral awareness. We can be proud of that -- a little.

A century later, many of us were likewise in the forefront of the civil rights movement. Among the 30,000 who marched with Dr. King in Selma in 1965 were
“about 500 UU lay people and about 250 UU ministers. The ministers who went to Selma represented a quarter to a third of all UU ministers in full fellowship. Add to that the dozens who spent time with the Mississippi Summer Project, the Delta Ministry Project, and other efforts in the South afterward; those who led their communities’ response; and the dozen ministers who participated in the UU presence in Selma through the summer of 1965. It isn’t a stretch to estimate that half of the 710 UU ministers in full fellowship were actively engaged in this struggle.” (Rev. Mark Morrison-Reed, “Selma’s Challenge,” UUWorld, 2014 Winter)
We can be proud of that, too. Yet let us also grieve that our moral awareness was not greater sooner.

In the 1920s the first two African American Unitarian ministers, Rev. Ethelred Brown and Rev. Lewis McGee both encountered continual discouragement and resistance from the denominational leaders at the time who saw no place for a black man in the pulpits of their predominantly white congregations.

In 1968, the year of Martin Luther King’s assassination, and just three years after so many UUs had transformative experiences in Selma, our General Assembly was torn apart over race issues.

And so, another half century on, Unitarian Universalists, and America generally, today continue our stumbling struggle to heal the hobbling wounds imposed on us by 17th-century wealthy landowners. As we celebrate the birthday of the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King, junior, may we renew our commitment to find a path toward healing. Knowing that a better future requires an honest acknowledging of our past, and that history itself is a subversive activity, may we attend to our histories that we not perpetuate the worst in them. That would be the birthday present that is due to the memory of Martin Luther King – and that is due to all of us. May it be so.

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