© Dr. Chris Schriner 2008
Mission Peak Unitarian Universalist Congregation
January 20, 2008

There is such a deep human hunger to be recognized, to be seen for who we are, to have others understand what it's like to be us. On Martin Luther King weekend, we think about the great American civil rights leader who pushed white America to recognize the existence of African Americans and other ethnic minorities and to understand the conditions under which they were living. The civil rights movement said: Don't put us at the back of the bus and then look cheerfully out the front as if we weren't even here! Martin helped us move forward in race relations, and millions of minority-group Americans have benefitted from his work. And so have white Americans because racism diminishes us all.

This morning we are putting race relations at the front of the bus, and the ideas I'll be sharing are simple and straightforward:

Race prejudice is a persistent and serious problem.
Unitarian Universalists today are serious about addressing this issue.
And we need to address it both in our personal lives and in the wider world.

Prejudice against those who seem different from us is as old as humanity, or older. 2500 years ago Heraclitus said, "Dogs bark at a person whom they do not know," and this was not just a comment on canine behavior. In the United States prejudice has been directed against Native Americans, African Americans, Jews, various Euro-Americans such as Irish or Italians, and those of Latin American or Middle Eastern heritage.

Bias against Middle Eastern Muslims is disturbingly similar to anti-Japanese prejudice during World War II. "Gen. John DeWitt - the Western Defense commander, who referred to Japanese as members of an 'enemy race' - ordered the removal of 120,000 ethnic Japanese from their homes along the West Coast and their placement in miserable internment camps in the desert [with only days] to sell their possessions and pack up. One columnist [wrote] '...let 'em be pinched, hurt, hungry ... let us have no patience with the enemy or with anyone who carry [sic] his blood." And he added, "Personally, I hate the Japanese.'[footnote 1] Raw prejudice, snarling like a mad dog. This writer had no sense of how ironic it was to talk of people carrying "bad blood" - just like Hitler was doing to justify killing the Jews.

Every year Jo Ann and I present music appreciation nights on the histories of jazz and rock and roll. Both of these musical genres were pioneered by African Americans and in my research on music I have been appalled at the blatant discrimination these artists encountered - and sometimes surmounted. Once when Blues singer Bessie Smith was "performing at a tent show in a Southern town, members of the Ku Klux Klan [wearing white sheets] surrounded the tent ... Smith stormed out and confronted them, shouting, 'You had better pick up them sheets and run!'" And they did! Bessie went back into the tent and sang some more.[footnote 2]

Jazz piano genius Oscar Peterson, who passed away recently, recalled the days of segregated restaurants, when Dizzy Gillespie walked into an all-whites diner. The waitress said, "I'm sorry, sir, but we don't serve Negroes here."

"I don't blame you; I don't eat 'em. I'll have a steak." And they brought him a steak. (Smithsonian, January, 2005, p. 59)

Those victories were wonderful but rare and risky. The story of Bessie Smith staring down Klansmen might have been the story of her death. And Dizzy may have told that joke in other restaurants only to be turned away.

For more on America's racist history read the remarkable article in the Winter 2007 issue of UU World magazine about "sundown towns" where no blacks were allowed after sunset. There were perhaps 3000 of these and "The overwhelming majority of sundown towns were in the North.[footnote 3] ... Every community in America founded after 1890 and before 1960 by a single developer or owner - kept out African Americans from its beginnings. ... [Until the 1960s the Federal Housing Administration] encouraged banks to [bar] black applicants [and probably other minorities] from obtaining loans for housing purchases.... After World War II, 98 percent of FHA and GI loans went to white buyers in all-white neighborhoods." (pp. 56-58) So up until fairly recently the United States, north and south, has been flagrantly racist.

It's easy to let this issue go "to the back of the bus," because we've heard about it so long and there are so many other social problems. But Mission Peak's Racial Awareness and Diversity task force has helped me move this topic back into the foreground, and I think I am more conscious of racism as a result. For example, I recently watched all three and half hours of "Gone With the Wind," and I saw how much the film glorified the South and romanticized slavery. It spoke favorably of the citizens' committees that opposed the alliance between newly freed slaves and northern "carpetbaggers" after the Civil War, and these committees often evolved into the Ku Klux Klan. A couple of days later, I saw a TV documentary on the KKK in Indiana during the 1920's, when the Klan had close allies at the highest levels of state government. At that time the Klan's national membership totaled four million!

So we need to remember that racism has been a huge problem for humanity in general and our country in particular. We also need to realize that working for racial justice is a major agenda item for contemporary Unitarian Universalism. This shouldn't be surprising if you know our Seven Principles. I'm going to read through those Principles so you can see how many of them tie in with racial issues. Our congregations affirm:

  1. The inherent worth and dignity of every person.
  2. Justice, equity, and compassion in human relations.
  3. Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations.
  4. A free and responsible search for truth and meaning.
  5. The right of conscience and the use of the Mdemocratic process within our congregations and in society at large.
  6. The goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all.
  7. Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part. (Italics added.)

The principle of the interdependent web refers partly to ecology but it also reminds me of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s statement that "We are tied together in a single garment of destiny, caught in an inescapable network of mutuality." "We must all learn to live together as brothers or we will all perish together as fools."

A Unitarian Universalist society is a good place to focus on racial justice because it ties in so closely with our values. And congregations of all denominations need to remember Dr. King's comment that Sunday morning is the most segregated hour in America. The Rev. Nancy Palmer Jones defines "a multiracial congregation as one where no one racial or ethnic group comprises 80 percent or more of the congregation.... Only three percent of Christian congregations in the United States ... meet that criterion."

Serving our Seven Principles means more than just reciting them with a noble look on our faces. If we want to get these high-flown ideas into our hearts and make them real through our actions, we need to take the time to be educated, challenged, and motivated. Did you know that all members of the Unitarian Universalist Association Board of Trustees now participate in anti-racism training? So does the UUA staff. And congregations that are looking for a new minister are asked to take part in a UUA workshop called Beyond Categorical Thinking, which helps them open up to the possibility that their next minister might not fit their standard stereotypes.

For some Unitarian Universalists, anti-racism work takes place on a very personal level. For example, the Rev. David Pettee became interested in genealogy and started researching his New England ancestors. He writes, "... the 1774 Rhode Island Census was searchable online. I typed in the name of an ancestor .... [and] I couldn't believe my eyes: four enslaved Africans were living in his household." Another relative was John Robinson who often went to Africa to trade rum for slaves and then sailed to Jamaica where he sold these Africans. Shocked by these discoveries, David followed up by locating and talking with descendants of slaves that his ancestors had owned. Someone asked him if this was "soul work." "Yes," he answered, "but most of the time it felt a lot more like root canal."[footnote 4]

Your own soul work may or may not be this dramatic, but a lot of what we need is just learning to see each other with eyes of the spirit, looking beyond categories such as ethnicity and skin color. Not long after I became your minister, I shared a marvelous idea from the Reverend Tony Larsen about how to empathize with other people, and this idea would help people of all races connect across ethnic lines. One morning Tony said to his congregation,

"I have a homework assignment for you today. ... Everyone you meet today ... I'd like you to imagine that you can see two things inside them. The two things that are inside every person are a bright light and a wound. Everyone has a bright light inside them - a goodness, a brightness ... And everyone also has a wound, which sometimes keeps them from shining as brightly as they otherwise might. ... It may be a physical wound, like cancer or AIDS; it may be something more invisible, like abuse or neglect ...

But when they do something annoying that ... tests your patience - remember that they really have a light inside. It's just their wound which keeps it from shining clearly....

"And remember also that you have a light ... and a wound."

In talking with people from various ethnic backgrounds it's easy to focus on skin color, style of dress, they way they talk, and so on. If we are prejudiced against some group we may also focus on seeming imperfections, or wounds. What connects us is to look for the light. Look for the creative, loving, positive, constructive aspects of every human being. Look for the sacred, the holy, the divine spark within.

I would also suggest that we watch out for seemingly minor examples of racism, because many small putdowns can add up and do lots of harm. The African American opera singer Marion Anderson said something insightful about these little slights: "Sometimes, it's like a hair across your cheek. You can't see it, you can't find it with your fingers, but you keep brushing at it because the feel of it is irritating."[footnote 5]

Some subtle but irritating racism is just a matter of attitude - whites acting cocky, without even realizing it, like they ought to be top dog. I still catch myself doing that. Caucasians are used to being dominant and it's tempting to assume that one has a right to one's privileges. And within ethnic groups there may be a pecking order based on skin color, social class, the region where one's ancestors lived, and so on. If you happen to be at the top of that pecking order, you may tend to believe that you deserve to be on top. If you're born on third base it's easy to go through life thinking that you've hit a triple.[footnote 6]

I've been talking mostly on the personal level, but anti-racism work also needs to focus on the wider world. Don't just skip past news articles on race - like the recent study of hospital visits for painful kidney stones, showing that whites got narcotics for pain relief 72 percent of the time, Hispanics got them 68 percent of the time, Asians 67 percent and blacks 56 percent. Now that is discrimination where it really hurts![footnote 7]

So racism is a persistent problem on both the individual level and the societal level, and many Unitarian Universalists are serious about grappling with this issue. In our own congregation, the most obvious opportunity to do this is the new curriculum called "Building the World We Dream About" which we are now field testing. The class just got started, but you are still quite welcome to join. Please speak with the course's teachers, Karen Sindelar or Jodie Xiao.

I want to close with some remarks by Dr. King about anti-racism as soul work. On April 18, 1959, he said, "Whatever career you may choose for yourself - doctor, lawyer, teacher - let me propose an avocation to be pursued along with it. Become a dedicated fighter for civil rights. Make it a central part of your life. It will make you a better doctor, a better lawyer, a better teacher. ... It will give you that rare sense of nobility that can only spring from love and selflessly helping your fellow man. Make a career of humanity. Commit yourself to the noble struggle for human rights. You will make a greater person of yourself, a greater nation of your country, and a finer world..." Blessed be the words and the memory of Martin Luther King, Jr.

After the sermon: Meditation on seeing the light and wound in people you know. Include at least one person of your own ethnic group and at least one from another ethnic group.

Footnote 1. Steven Greenhut, writing in the Conservative Orange County Register. He added: "Those imprisoned there lived in long dormitories, with little privacy and few protections from the dust, winds, snow and rain that seeped in through the cracks in the shoddy buildings. ... most of these people were second-generation Americans or Nisei, 'American born, American-educated and American in heart and mind.' ... Many of those agitating for the removal of the Japanese from the West Coast were local business owners, farmers and residents who coveted the Japanese-Americans' property. Reason magazine reports that the interned Japanese were deprived of $150 million in property losses alone, in 1940s dollars, and that eventual compensation amounted to a pittance." (Quoted in The Argus, November 25, 2007, Local p. 4) (back to sermon)

Footnote 2. From Albertson, Chris. Bessie. London: Barrie and Jenkins, 1972, page 25. Quoted in Empress of the Blues: Bessie Smith. (back to sermon)

Footnote 3. The author, Dan Carter, also wrote, "By the 1880s, white support for black rights faded even as new and more virulent forms of racism emerged across the nation. This new racism was directed across a broad range of 'lesser breeds,' including the new immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe (particularly Jews)." (p. 57) (back to sermon)

Footnote 4. See Quest October 2007 issue, page 2. (back to sermon)

Footnote 5. Ladies' Home Journal, September 1960. (back to sermon)

Footnote 6. Anonymous, paraphrased. Quoted by Jon Winokur, Funny Times, November 2007, p. 18. (back to sermon)

Footnote 7. Carla K. Johnson, The Argus, News p. 3, around January 1, 2008. (back to sermon)

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