Race in America 2018

a sermon by the Rev. Paul Oakley
11:00 AM, Sunday, January 14, 2018

What a year! what a week behind us on this eve of Martin Luther King Jr. Day! Each year on this day, my aim in my sermon is to pause and think how things have changed concerning racial equity in America and ask the question of whether we’ve gotten closer to or farther from Dr. King’s dream in this past year. How many think we are closer? How many think we are farther?

This last week during bipartisan talks about immigration reform the President of the United States of America asked, “Why are we having all these people from dirty countries come here?” Okay, he didn’t use the word dirty, but maybe you’ve seen the news and don’t need to hear the word he actually used from my mouth on Sunday morning. A friend of mine who lives in Singers Glen said just the other day that he still hasn’t forgiven President Clinton for turning certain words into something his elderly grandmother would say in dinner table conversation. No, my mouth is not so clean that I’ve never said it. But my words this morning will not be lowered by repeating that word.

The countries the President was bad mouthing were Haiti and various African nations. He then suggested Norway as a country we would want to have immigrants from. Now, a lot of the people inclined to agree with his policy aims responded to the incensed answers given by Anderson Cooper and others by saying that the President was just telling the truth about the world. Haiti and the various African nations do have a lot of problems and weak economies, while Norway does not. And if that were all that was going on in the President’s words and in our nation, they might have had a point.

But the poor nations that the President spoke negatively about are not only countries whose citizens are majority Black, they are countries whose problems are the direct result of the history of the system of race-based chattel slavery and of European colonialism which stripped countries of natural wealth, destroyed social structures and belief systems, and, when colonialism finally failed, left artificially defined nations without internal supports. European and American racism and white supremacy are right at the core of why these countries are no match for Norway in wealth and privilege. The people of Haiti and the African nations Mr. Trump was talking about are not one iota less worthy and, on average, much more in need of the opportunity to immigrate, and not a bit less able to flourish and add to this country’s human capital and wealth. We have covenanted to affirm and promote their inherent worth and dignity.

Mr. Trump was not just talking about nations, which, in some settings might be taken as comments on their governments or their economies. Rather, he was specifically decrying immigrants from those countries. His statement was, unequivocally, that people from those places are not worthy of this country. And you know what the people he doesn’t want to immigrate have in common, right? What is it? That’s right. Their race. Wealthy Norway’s people that he wants to immigrate are white. The people of Haiti and the African nations in question are largely people of color. No matter whether you think immigration needs tighter controls or easier access, the issue here is equity.

The larger context of Mr. Trump’s presidency is highly racialized. In addition to his taking racially biased positions in his business life, his political career began in his very public and strident insistence that our nation’s first African American President was not even a citizen. He insisted on a different level of proof from President Obama than any white candidate or President was ever confronted with. And his campaign depended on racial and cultural stereotypes and antipathies. All of those aspects of the Mr. Trump’s candidacy and then Presidency emboldened the white-supremacist portion of his base that saw a Trump Presidency as theirs.

Just down the road from us, Charlottesville became known for one thing by people who know nothing else about the city. It became a preferred destination of protesters carrying tiki torches, Confederate battle flags, and Nazi flags while chanting Nazi, anti-Semitic and racist slogans in protest of the city council’s decision to remove Confederate memorials from a public park. These Nazis and White Supremacists were never once condemned by the President, who, when pressured, eventually spoke about the moral equivalency of those who were demonstrating for separation and discrimination and people demonstrating for human equity. Fascists and anti-fascists were, in our President’s statement, equal. But just as Mr. Trump’s inauguration brought feminist activists to the streets a year ago, the white supremacist and fascist protests in Charlottesville and around the country brought together counter-protestors, people committed to resistance, including some whose methods many of us were uncomfortable with. And many cities made a move to quietly or with fanfare remove Confederate memorials because they serve as rallying points for white supremacists.

In Staunton, Augusta County, and Waynesboro, SAW activists who realized the potential for activism here have been involved, among other causes, in fighting racial bias, systemic racism and white supremacy. Chanda McGuffin and other members have held various types of community workshops on race, one of which she held here in this room. When the KKK placed recruiting flyers on cars in Staunton and Waynesboro, these neighbors and friends led the charge, and I and Rabbi Joe Blair with them, to ask the Waynesboro City Council to make a public statement that the KKK and other white supremacy groups are not welcome here. Mayor Dull in Staunton had immediately responded with a condemnation, but Waynesboro’s council would not exhibit the moral courage for something so easy as opposing the white supremacy of a well-known domestic terrorist organization. So we have fear or unwillingness among the council to speak out but great emerging leadership especially among women of the county.

2017 was the year when the Unitarian Universalist Association was put on notice that it would no longer be an open secret that the Association’s hiring practices favored the selection of white job candidates for higher positions. The president of the Association and others in top leadership resigned and were given severance packages that many found excessive. A triumvirate of African American UU leaders were then tapped to fill the empty position until the next presidential election at General Assembly in June. The year then saw three individuals of color leading an unofficial but compelling drive, on two occasions, to ask UU congregations to hold White Supremacy Teach-Ins in their Sunday worship. And more than 700 congregations answered this call and engaged in creative, important work. At the June UUA Board meeting, the Board approved a plan and signed an agreement that provided the mechanism for funding Black Lives of Unitarian Universalism to the tune of $5.3 million for BLUU to use at its discretion under the organization’s stated purposes: to expand the power and capacity of Black UUs within our faith, to provide support, information and resources for Black UUs, and justice-making and liberation through our faith. And Brad and Julie Bradburd, UUs for more than sixty years, donated $1 million to the Unitarian Universalist Association this past summer in support of the board’s $5.3 million commitment to Black Lives of UU.

It is hard to think of 2017 on a timeline. It just didn’t feel linear. Signs of hope and progress in human value were jumbled in with regression and inequity and dismantling and attempts to dismantle protections that had once been hard won.

When we think of Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech in 1963, each of us may have a favorite passage. Many cherish the hope that people of color finally may be judged only on the basis of the content of their character. There are so many quotable portions with rich imagery. But the President’s words about immigration in the context of this past year’s rollercoaster ride of highs and lows on the racism and racial justice chart and quick shifts between them cause my mind today to go to Dr. King’s words, echoed from the ancient prophet Isaiah:

I have a dream today … I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low. The rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight. And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.

Dr. King didn’t have anything against mountains. He used mountain imagery in multiple ways. He preached about mountaintops as places of closeness to purpose and meaning. “I’ve been to the mountaintop.” He preached of mountain heights as places from which the bell peals for equality can be heard across the land. “Let freedom ring.” And here he quoted Isaiah’s call for a leveling. Making the hills and mountains low is a call to eliminate inequity, as in our common phrase “level the playing field.” In our time, the gap between rich and poor, between CEOs and employees, is at an extreme level and widening. And the President’s extreme personal wealth, though it is not the cause of our society’s crisis, it is symptomatic of the failures of our society to demand economic equity and justice.

Dr. King fought for economic justice as well as racial justice and in 1968 organized the Poor People’s Campaign to fight for economic equity in a movement that was taken up in the months after his death. Racial inequity and economic inequity have been paired in an symphony of inequity orchestrated for the benefit of the rich and powerful, as a group, since near the beginning of the European enterprise in America. And so you can’t concern yourself with racial justice without also dealing with the economy. And Dr. King knew this. Our history makes sure of this. The Rev. William Barber II, who instituted Moral Mondays in North Carolina to show through demonstrations that the people were against various racist laws there, including laws that restricted voting, that same Rev. Barber started a New Poor People’s Campaign this past summer because oppressions and injustices cross and, at their points of crossing create intersectionally impacted injustices that are more powerful than one oppression alone. We have to fight on multiple fronts.

In his “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” Dr. King wrote:

I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizens Councillor or the Ku Klux Klanner but the white moderate who is more devoted to order than to justice… who constantly says, “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can’t agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically feels that he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom… Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will.

This is a time of ferment, of growth of new leadership, often leadership by people of color and women. Let us keep Dr. King’s famous words from jail in our hearts as we examine our own responses to all this stuff that keeps churning and challenging us. Let us not set timetables for others’ freedom or define the methods and strategies they may use, but learn and commit together to be allies for justice and equity.

Amen and Blessed Be.


© 2018 by Rev. Paul Oakley