I have to confess to you that when I
began thinking about a Martin Luther King Day sermon, my initial reaction was a
yawn. What could I possibly say about
race and equality that I haven't already said and that you don't already
know. I had the same reaction when I
initially looked over my required reading list to become a fellowshipped UU
minister. I was required to read a long
list of books and confirm my ministerial fitness in 16 "competency
areas": theology, world religions, Hebrew and Christian scripture, church
history, UU history and polity, social theory and ethics, human development, my
personal spiritual development, religious education, worship, pastoral care,
leadership, administration, professional ethics, sexual justice, and the whole
area of anti-racism, anti-oppression, and multiculturalism. Leave it to Unitarians to compulsively cover
all the bases and then some. Now that I
am a credentialed UU minister, I am an official Know-It-All. Ask me anything about Unitarian Universalism,
and if I don't know the answer, I know how to sound like I know the
I'll make another confession: I thought
I knew a lot about ministry in all these areas, especially the topics of
anti-racism, anti-oppression, and multiculturalism, but the truth is that I
learned a lot through this credentialing process. I was guilty of thinking that we liberals
have dealt with our prejudice. We aren't
racists. Racism doesn't pertain to
us. It pertains to those snarling, Confederate
flag-waving protestors who will greet us tomorrow along the parade route for
King Day at the Dome. Racism pertains to
the Tea Party crowd, who openly brandish their guns at rallies, carry posters
depicting our first African American President as Hitler and as a monkey, and
spit on and shout racial slurs at Congressmen.
Racism doesn't pertain to us. It pertains to Right Wing bloviators, like
Bill O’Reilly, Rush Limbaugh, and Glenn Beck, who say things like, "President
Obama has a deep-seated hatred for white people and white culture"
(whatever that is). Racism pertains to
pandering politicians who will say anything to get elected while appealing to
the worst fears, prejudices, and stereotypes of voters. Like Newt Gingrich, who said recently that he
was willing to go before the NAACP and “urge black
people to demand paychecks, not food stamps" and who lambasts our African
American President as the "best food stamp President in American
history." Or like Rick Santorum,
who said recently that he did not want to “make black
people's lives better by giving them somebody else's money. I want to give them the opportunity to go out
and earn the money." Racism pertains to
these kinds of people, but not us.
But here is
what this liberal learned from his readings while preparing for his
credentialing examination: Racism is not
just about personal prejudice and interpersonal actions; it’s
also about institutional and systemic patterns that operate to the benefit of
white people and to the detriment of people of color all the time, no matter if
white racists or black people are present or absent. Racism is independent of you and me. Racism in endemic in our social, political, and
economic systems and institutions so that unequal wages, unequal treatment in
the legal system, and segregation in jobs, housing, and education continue no
matter how much prejudice we may have overcome or how color-blind we think we
may be. In fact, as long as we remain
focused only on our individual attitudes and actions and ignore institutional
patterns, we will leave the system of racism intact. Overcoming our personal prejudices is the
starting point, but it cannot the end point for ending racism. To use Biblical language, "we struggle
not against flesh and blood, but against principalities and powers that govern
this world" (Ephesians 6:12).
sophisticated types dissociate ourselves from working class whites –
rednecks, as we call them – because we prefer that they carry our
racism for us. We know we’re
not one of them. They are the ones who
use the N-word and belong to the Klan and use violent words and actions against
people of color, and we just don’t do those kinds of things. We forget that working class whites are among
the most powerless and vulnerable and scared members of our society, and people
without a voice often resort to violence to make themselves heard and to feel
powerful. We forget that more powerful
and well off people can simply move to segregated gated communities and send
their kids to segregated Christian academies and make corporate decisions that
are harder to see as racist. We forget
that wealthy white people control the media, the textbooks, the housing and job
markets, and the police. If we’re
not careful, we will scapegoat working class white people for being racist and
not see racism in its higher up hiding places.
We need to stay focused on
institutions, organizations, and systems more than on people. We need to remember with St. Paul that "we
struggle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities and powers
that govern this world," lest we fall prey to the manipulations of the
elite power brokers who want us to become preoccupied with our whiteness and
distracted from seeing the gross inequalities of class right under our noses. White is more than a color. It’s an identity and an ideology which
holds tremendous power over our lives, black and white. (By the way, let me apologize now to people
of color because I will be speaking today almost exclusively to the white people
present, and I will be doing so because too often in discussions about race, we
white people instruct black people about what we think they should be doing or
not doing. It’s past time for
white people to discuss with each other what we should be doing or not doing.)
Racism became comingled with classism with the institution
of slavery, when aristocratic plantation owners convinced poor dirt farmers
that people with darker skin were inferior to them and that therefore it was
permissible to buy and sell them on the auction block like livestock. Race was used, in other words, as a way to
pit poor whites against African slaves so that the two would not join forces
against a common enemy. Then the
plantation owners convinced the dirt farmers to fight a war to preserve a
privileged way of life that did not include them. When that war was lost, the dirt farmers were
told that it had been a noble lost cause and that they could preserve their
dignity by creating a segregated society that denigrated the dignity of former
slaves. When the plantation owners
became the mill owners and the dirt farmers became the mill workers, they were
told they could not form unions because black workers could not earn wages and
benefits equal to white workers.
And when it came time to win elections, the elite power
brokers created a “Southern strategy” of convincing
blue collar, working class whites to vote against their own economic interests
in order to maintain their supposed racial superiority. They were told, “You
may not receive an adequate education or livable wages; you may not have health
insurance or a pension; your children may not be promised a better future than
yours; you may work your fingers to the bone and never get ahead in this life;
but at least you’re not black.” People who have nothing will cling to
something if it gives them a sense of pride, even a false racial pride. By focusing on their whiteness, working class
whites have been misled to believe that they actually have more in common with
Donald Trump than fellow working class African Americans. White is more than a color; it’s
an identity and an ideology.
It would be hard to believe that
centuries-old attitudes and stereotypes brought to the shores of this new world
from the old disappeared overnight when the “Colored Only”
signs were taken down. We have inherited
a bias that associates positive qualities with white people and negative
qualities with people of color.
Actually, the bias goes deeper than that. We associate positive qualities with all
things white and negative qualities with everything dark. This is reflected by our language: blacklist, black market, blackmail, black
sheep, black magic, black hearted, black deed, Black Death, black lung, Black
Mass, dark clouds, dark days; white knight, white hope, a little white lie,
lily white, pure and white, clean and white, white as snow.
It goes deeper than our language to our
very way of thinking. Thanks to our
Greek heritage of either-or logic and to our Christian heritage of good vs.
evil, we in the West have a tendency to see reality in sets of opposites, in
black-and-white categories, figuratively and literally. I have listed some of these binary qualities
on the cover of our order of service. On
the left are what we typically regard as “dark” qualities, while
on the right are positive qualities associated with whiteness. No matter how color-blind we think we are, it
is nearly impossible to dissociate positive qualities with being white and
negative ones from people of color, whether you are a white person or a person
Whiteness is assumed to be the
norm. We typically assume white unless
otherwise noted, in the same way we usually assume people and animals are male
unless otherwise noted. Listen to these
walked into a room and immediately noticed her.”
new sitcom is about a middle-aged, middle class couple and their three children.”
average American drinks two cups of coffee a day.”
didn’t know if she would get into the college of her choice.”
have a friend with AIDS.”
won a medal in the Special Olympics.”
Didn’t you assume that all these people are
white? In fact, we white people are not
even used to thinking about being white.
We take it for granted.
To be white
is to be in the in-group, while everyone else is an outsider. In colonial times, only those with English
heritage were considered to be white.
The Irish and Spanish were considered darker races, sometimes even
black. The category of white was
gradually expanded to include northern and middle European immigrants, but it
took even longer for eastern and southern Europeans, like Italians, Poles,
Russians, and Greeks, to be counted as white.
From the beginning, the category of white has been fraught with
difficulty, and it’s been a category that has been constantly stretched,
redefined, and adopted to fit the agenda of the Europeans and Euro-Americans
who have used it. What to do with Native
Americans, Hispanics, and Jewish people?
Are they white? When
California became a state, the great debate was how to classify the Mexicans
and Chinese. Since there were still
Mexicans who were wealthy landowners and business partners with whites, they
were classified as white; whereas the Chinese, who were exclusively railroad and
agricultural workers, were lumped with blacks and Indians, without the right to
become a citizen, own land, or marry a white person.
has long been associated with purity, and around the world, from the United
States to Germany and South Africa, white people have been obsessed with
protecting the racial purity of the so-called "white race" from being
contaminated and defiled by non-whites.
Whether people of color, Native Americans, or Jews, non-whites have been
seen as dirty, and whiteness has been
protected from these impurities by ethnic cleansings, segregation,
anti-miscegenation laws, concentration camps, and genocide. White people have considered anyone with even
a "drop" of African- American, Native, or Jewish "blood" to
be impure and alien. I believe many of
our fears today of darker-skinned immigrants stem from this historic obsession
with racial purity.
has long been associated with Christianity.
Being a "good Christian," being moral, virtuous, hard-working,
saved, civilized, decent, or God-fearing is synonymous with being white. When someone refers to a Christian school, a
Christian academy, a Christian camp, a Christian home, a Christian family, or a
Christian anything, you can be sure that it's white. Even the Christian God and Jesus are white,
even though the historical Jesus must have surely been dark-skinned since he
was from the Middle East. I'm not sure
what color the Holy Ghost is, but if he resembles Casper, then he must be
white, too. Throughout the centuries, the
white Christian God has sanctioned violence in the form of inquisitions, pogroms,
crusades, and holy wars to save the souls of "uncivilized" and
"godless" people, usually at the expense of their very lives. Whether they have been Native American "pagans,"
Jewish "heathens," or Muslim "infidels," the victims of
Christian violence have been, almost without exception, non-white.
long been associated with Americanism.
To be patriotic or all-American is synonymous with being white. Every immigrant group that has come to this country has
been willing to give up its unique history, language, accent, dress, family
name, and culture in order to assimilate, and everyone who could has tried to
pass as white in order to be accepted as a full-fledged American. To be regarded as non-white has been to be
regarded as less than American, as un-American, and sometimes even as anti-
American. It was no
accident that during World War II, U.S. citizens of Japanese heritage were sent
to internment camps, while U.S. citizens of German heritage were not. And it is no accident today that some members
of the Tea Party are still demanding the birth certificate of our
President. They just cannot accept this
African American President as a real American.
White is more than a color; it’s an identity
and an ideology, and any white person who has dared to challenge that racist
identity and ideology has had his or her own whiteness called into question. As many of you know, labels such as "nigger
lover," "race traitor," "un-American,"
"unchristian," "Communist," and "socialist" have
been used to discredit one's credentials as a white person and alienate one
from the white community. And as some of
you know all too well, behind the names and labels lies the threat of
violence. UU theologian Thandeka has
discovered in her extensive interviews with white people that shame is used to
keep us in the white fold. As a part of
growing up, many of us were humiliated by the very people who loved us and
ostracized from very the community that nurtured us if we did not indulge in
white prejudice or if we allowed ourselves to feel empathy for the victims of
white prejudice. Shame is a powerful
method of control because once shame is instilled in you, you no longer need an
external "shamer" to keep you in line.
I remember very clearly how racial
shaming works. When I was a little boy, before
starting school, I was kept each day while my parents were at work by my great
aunt, who lived on a farm out in the country.
Adjacent to their farm was the farm of a black family with a little girl
my age. Kay and I became daily
companions, digging holes and building forts in the field between our houses
and exploring the deep, dark woods that lay behind both houses. In the morning with dew still on the ground,
we would burst outside and yell for each other across the field, and we would
run to meet each other half way. When my
father discovered that Kay and I were friends, he teased me to no end. It wasn't just that I was playing with a girl
but that I was playing with a black girl.
When I started my all-white school, my white socialization continued so
that I understood without ever having to be explicitly told that
"they" were different and that "they" could never be our
friends. When I was in the fourth grade,
integration began, and lo and behold, Kay and I ended up in the same
class. We had not seen each other for
four years. I wanted to speak to her,
but instead I turned my head and pretended not to see her. I don't remember ever speaking to her.
If you are white and don't uphold the white
code, you can be kicked out of the white club.
Many of us Southern liberals lost our membership in the white club a
long time ago. I am sure that I am not
the only white person in this room who feels more at home among people of color
than among most white people we know. To
be a Southern white liberal is to be an alien in your own land and an outcast
in your own family. Perhaps this is why so
many of us here finally feel at home in this predominantly white liberal
denomination and in this predominantly white liberal congregation.
At one time,
racial differences were thought to be scientifically important. The old classification system of Caucasian,
Negroid, and Mongoloid was invented by white Europeans, and guess what, they
decided that people who looked like them were genetically superior to Negroids
and Mongoloids. They even assumed that
skull sizes varied according to one’s race. Today we know better. Today we know that race is not a valid
category and that genetic differences among humans don’t correspond to
skin color or any other physical characteristic. In fact, skin color doesn’t
tell you much of anything about a person – nothing about their country of origin,
their culture, or their character.
Nevertheless, we still attach moral qualities and moral judgments to
skin color. We can’t help it. These biases are hundreds of years old. They have been a part of our culture from the
beginning and have been passed down to us from parents, schools, churches,
literature, TV, and movies. For anyone
to claim to be unaffected by these biases is like a fish thinking it can swim
above the water.
afford benefits to being white. Now I
realize that talk about white benefits rings hollow to many middle class and
certainly to many working class whites who are struggling to make ends meet and
don’t feel that they are enjoying any benefits.
Just because we may not enjoy the economic privileges of those with more
money doesn’t mean they we haven’t enjoyed some of
the benefits of being white. No matter
your economic condition or level of education, if you are white you enjoy the
benefits of being white in this society.
But that will be the topic of a later sermon to be delivered,
appropriately enough, on Lincoln's birthday.
Rev. Dr. Neal Jones