Can Unitarian Universalism Speak To #Ferguson? (Thoughts One Month After)

With the news that the grand jury investigating whether charges should be levelled against Officer Wilson has been extended until January (not a good sign) and polls showing the wide chasm between how African Americans and whites view both the death of Michael Brown and the subsequent events in Ferguson has got me thinking.

Can Unitarian Universalism speak to #Ferguson? Or is Unitarian Universalism, as MLK said in his critique of liberal religion:

[I came to feel that liberalism had been] all too sentimental concerning human nature and that it leaned toward a false idealism. I also came to see that liberalism’s superficial optimism concerning human nature caused it to overlook the fact that reason is darkened by sin…

From the time of the Controversy, Unitarian Universalism has been tepid in its response to things racial. It’s not as if these issues haven’t presented themselves before. Let’s not forget that the reason that there is a “Journey Towards Wholeness” is because of asking people to dress in period dress at the Thomas Jefferson Ball at GA in Charlotte in 1993.

So…does Unitarian Universalist theology have anything of substance to say on the issues that have been laid bare by Ferguson? (assuming that you believe that there is something resembling Unitarian Universalist theology)

One Month Ago Today…..(#Ferguson)

…..a young man was shot, in the early afternoon, by an agent of the state and left to lay in the street for 4.5 hours.

The protests started almost immediately. And so did the disproportionate state response.

Now the story of Mike Brown and the protests in Ferguson are off the front pages of the newspaper and not at the top of the tv news (replaced by other disturbing news). Those of us who are local are hearing more details, including news of two more witnesses who have talked to the FBI.

Now that the story of Mike Brown and Ferguson are not talked about as often, will the willful blindness of the police state that African Americans live in set back in? Is the Mike Brown moment over?

The “Black Empowerment Controversy” and the Haunting of the UUA (#Ferguson)

If you’ve read this blog any length of time, you know that I am always looking at UU reactions to race and racial issues. My last post posed the question of why African American men have had such a hard time in the UU ministry. This one will look at that question through a new lens (at least for me).

A couple of months back I posited that modern Unitarian Universalism (at least from the aspect of WHERE Unitarian Universalism grew) was, consciously or unconsciously, the result of racial bias based on housing patterns. I will now go further. Modern Unitarian Universalism is haunted when it comes to issues of racial justice. Haunted by the ghosts of the “Black Empowerment Controversy.” No matter what one feels about the “controversy”, I believe that the post-Controversy UUA avoidance of making firmer statements on racial issues (plus taking a long time to make the statements in the first place) and UU congregations fleeing of center cities and inner-ring suburbs is the result of a conservative UU backlash to the events of the time. And this post-Controversy backlash has affected all aspects of UU-dom; from the rough time that so many ministers of color have had in UU congregations to the lackluster support/encouragement of congregations in areas comprised primarily of people of color to the spotty support for youth of color.

But this should really not come as a surprise to me. Because the Controversy was just another instance of Unitarians/Universalists/Unitarian Universalists being uncomfortable with the idea of having people of color in their midst. From the encounter that Rev. William Jackson had with the AUA back in the 1850s (Rev. Dan Harper has written about it) to the harassment of Ethelred Brown and the Harlem Unitarian Society, liberal religion has had a hard time letting itself be spread outside of a select group (it’s had a hard time class-wise too).

However, our cousins in the UCC have many ministers of color and congregations comprised primarily of people of color. So do the Disciples (yes, they are cousins too). So what has impeded Unitarian Universalism?

I guess I am wondering how long the Mike Brown and Ferguson moment will last amongst UUs, UU congregations, and the UUA now that it’s not on our tv screens or written about in our newspapers everyday. Or will this moment be like so many of the recent—and not-so-recent—past and fade away with the next sexy story? Will we see this only as something that is happening outside of our congregations and not look at the way that what is happening outside of our congregations is being played out in our congregations too?

The UUA and UUism is haunted. And nothing will change until we name the ghosts.

Why Have Black Men Had Such A Hard Time In The UU Ministry?…Broader Questions (#Ferguson)

While this seems to be a moment where UUs are willing to talk about race at more than a superficial level, before looking at the community outside of the congregation it might behoove us to have a conversation about race in our congregational communities.

Ask yourself this question….why have black men—in particular—had such a hard time in the UU ministry?

Why are most ministers of color Associate or Assistant Ministers?

Just how open are most UU congregations to having leadership from people of color?

So while there is talk of the broader issues in relation to Michael Brown’s death, let’s really bring that conversation home to our own congregations.

18-Year-Old Black Boys Must Be Perfect Or Their Killing By Police Is Justified…or Why #NoAngel Took Off Today (#Ferguson)

So…on the day that Ms. Leslie and Mr. Michael Sr. have to bury their son, the New York Times prints a profile of him that says that Michael Brown Jr. was “no angel”. (I’m not linking it. If you want to read it, you’ll have to go to the Times’ page yourself.)

According to the article, Mike Mike (as he was called by friends and family) had smoked some weed, drank alcohol, and listened to rap. And maybe shoplifted.

If the same were said about an 18-yr-old white boy, would the Times have used the words “no angel” to describe him?

Since when has being “no angel” been cause to be shot at least 6 times?

Why are young black people only worthy of sympathy if they have no blemish in their background?

Both the writer of the article and the Times’ Public Editor have said that the “no angel” word choice was a misguided one. But the damage is done. By using the words “no angel” in describing Mike Brown, the implication that African Americans must be perfect in order to receive compassion or empathy or sympathy is reinforced.

This is making my head, and heart, ache. I will stop here.

 

Are We Trying To “Heal” Too Soon? (#Ferguson)

I know that as a minister I’m supposed to be all about healing (and hope and reconciliation and forgiveness and the like). Yet over the last few days hearing all this talk of “we need to start the healing process” has unnerved me as much as the death of Michael Brown has.

Too often in the U.S., black people and black communities are asked to start the healing (or reconciliation or forgiveness) process before our slaughtered are even buried. (and Michael Brown doesn’t get buried until tomorrow)

So what do these calls for “healing”, especially when it comes to Ferguson, mean? How long should a community have to grieve before there are calls for “healing”. And what does this “healing” look like?

4 black men have died at the hands of agents of the state in 4 weeks.

Eric Garner.

John Crawford.

Michael Brown, Jr.

Ezell Ford.

How can a community heal when a knife is stuck in their back 10 inches, brought back out, and then plunged in again?

The Road to Hell Is Paved By People with Good Intent…or White Ferguson Is Living Life As Usual (#Ferguson)

Unlike Plaidshoes, who has only been here in the St. Louis area for 20 yrs., I am a second generation native (both of my parents were born here, but none of my grandparents were).

When Brown v. Board came down in 1954, white North St. Louis City hightailed it out of the city and settled in North St. Louis County, in small cities like Ferguson. Once blacks were able to afford to move to North County, white North County hightailed it again; this time to way West St. Louis County and St. Charles County.

White Ferguson is living their life as if nothing has really changed all that much. Half of them were clueless to the situation of black Ferguson. They weren’t part of that 92% of police stops in Ferguson. They weren’t the ones who were going to municipal court on Tuesday nights to pay fines that support more than a quarter of the city’s budget. They get to walk down the street unimpeded.

So while I understand Plaidshoe’s wish that the ‘agitators’ (a loaded term) would stop stirring up things, from my side of the divide, without those agitators Michael Brown would have been just another black kid who got killed by the police for doing nothing other than being black in a public space.

#Ferguson In Light of Abraham, Sarah, Hagar, Ishmael, and Isaac

I got to preach at First Unitarian-St.Louis on August 3rd—six days before Mike Brown was killed.

Unless I just can’t find one that fits, I always have one of my readings from the Bible (preferably Hebrew scripture). So for that Sunday, I went to a story that has always fascinated me; Genesis 21:8-21.

8 The child grew, and was weaned; and Abraham made a great feast on the day that Isaac was weaned. 9But Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, whom she had borne to Abraham, playing with her son Isaac. 10So she said to Abraham, ‘Cast out this slave woman with her son; for the son of this slave woman shall not inherit along with my son Isaac.’ 11The matter was very distressing to Abraham on account of his son. 12But God said to Abraham, ‘Do not be distressed because of the boy and because of your slave woman; whatever Sarah says to you, do as she tells you, for it is through Isaac that offspring shall be named after you. 13As for the son of the slave woman, I will make a nation of him also, because he is your offspring.’ 14So Abraham rose early in the morning, and took bread and a skin of water, and gave it to Hagar, putting it on her shoulder, along with the child, and sent her away. And she departed, and wandered about in the wilderness of Beer-sheba.

15 When the water in the skin was gone, she cast the child under one of the bushes. 16Then she went and sat down opposite him a good way off, about the distance of a bowshot; for she said, ‘Do not let me look on the death of the child.’ And as she sat opposite him, she lifted up her voice and wept. 17And God heard the voice of the boy; and the angel of God called to Hagar from heaven, and said to her, ‘What troubles you, Hagar? Do not be afraid; for God has heard the voice of the boy where he is. 18Come, lift up the boy and hold him fast with your hand, for I will make a great nation of him.’ 19Then God opened her eyes, and she saw a well of water. She went, and filled the skin with water, and gave the boy a drink.

20 God was with the boy, and he grew up; he lived in the wilderness, and became an expert with the bow. 21He lived in the wilderness of Paran; and his mother got a wife for him from the land of Egypt.

I had picked this passage long before anything happened to Mike Brown. In fact, I had picked the passage before Eric Garner’s death at the hands of the NYPD (which is now going to go to the Grand Jury in Staten Island). I picked the passage because it seems to fit the American situation.

For the longest time, when the church has talked about Abraham sacrificing a child, they are talking about the story in Genesis 22–“the sacrifice of Isaac”. Yet far too often they ignore the story of Genesis 21, where Abraham sacrifices Ishmael. This doesn’t really surprise me; for the story of Abraham, Sarah, Hagar, Ishmael, and Isaac too closely mirrors America.

Slavery created a dynamic in this country that not enough people want to recognize. Just like Hagar and Ishmael there is the misuse and abuse of black bodies and then the discarding of them as if they were the problem.

America, like Abraham, sacrificed one child for another. And just like Abraham, America has to live with the consequences of that decision.

A Second Step In Not Being An Ostrich? Stop Talking About “Black-on-Black Crime”. It’s A Distraction. (#Ferguson)

Why is it that crimes committed by black people against each other got a name?

Have you ever heard the term “white-on-white crime”? Nope.

Have you heard of “Latino-on-Latino crime”? Doubt it.

“Asian-on-Asian crime”? hmmmm.

Reality is that most crime is INTRA-group. But only “black-on-black crime” got a name. There’s a reason for that. It’s to make it look like we are more violent and less caring about crimes in our communities. It’s to distract people from whatever issue people are really talking about (in this case, state action against an unarmed black person).

So a second step to not being an ostrich? Don’t fall for the distractions. Until “white-on-white crime” is talked about the same way as “black-on-black crime”, stop talking about “black-on-black crime”.

The First Step In Not Being An Ostrich? Stop Dehumanizing Black Children (#Ferguson)

The following is a press release by the American Psychological Association from February:

Black boys as young as 10 may not be viewed in the same light of childhood innocence as their white peers, but are instead more likely to be mistaken as older, be perceived as guilty and face police violence if accused of a crime, according to new research published by the American Psychological Association.

Children in most societies are considered to be in a distinct group with characteristics such as innocence and the need for protection. Our research found that black boys can be seen as responsible for their actions at an age when white boys still benefit from the assumption that children are essentially innocent,” said author Phillip Atiba Goff, PhD, of the University of California, Los Angeles. The study was published online in APA’s Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

Researchers tested 176 police officers, mostly white males, average age 37, in large urban areas, to determine their levels of two distinct types of bias—prejudice and unconscious dehumanization of black people by comparing them to apes. To test for prejudice, researchers had officers complete a widely used psychological questionnaire with statements such as “It is likely that blacks will bring violence to neighborhoods when they move in.” To determine officers’ dehumanization of blacks, the researchers gave them a psychological task in which they paired blacks and whites with large cats, such as lions, or with apes. Researchers reviewed police officers’ personnel records to determine use of force while on duty and found that those who dehumanized blacks were more likely to have used force against a black child in custody than officers who did not dehumanize blacks. The study described use of force as takedown or wrist lock; kicking or punching; striking with a blunt object; using a police dog, restraints or hobbling; or using tear gas, electric shock, or killing. Only dehumanization and not police officers’ prejudice against blacks—conscious or not—was linked to violent encounters with black children in custody, according to the study.

The authors noted that police officers’ unconscious dehumanization of black could have been the result of negative interactions with black children, rather than the cause of using force with black children. “We found evidence that overestimating age and culpability based on racial difference was a link to dehumanizing stereotypes, but future research should try to clarify the relationship between dehumanization and racial disparities in police use of force,” Goff said.

The study also involved 264 mostly white, female undergraduate students from large public U.S. Universities. In one experiment, students rated the innocence of people ranging from infants to 25-year-olds who were black, white or an unidentified race. The students judged children up to 9-years-old as equally innocent regardless of race, but considered black children significantly less innocent than other children in every age group beginning at age 10, the researchers found.

The students were also shown photographs alongside descriptions of various crimes and asked to assess the age and innocence of white, black, or Latino boys ages 10 to 17. The students overestimated the age of blacks by an average of 4.5 years and found them more culpable than whites or Latinos, particularly when the boys were matched with serious crimes, the study found. Researchers used questionnaires to assess the participants’ prejudice and dehumanization of blacks. They found that participants who implicitly associated black with apes thought the black children were older and less innocent.

In another experiment, students first viewed either a photo of an ape or a large cat and then rated black and white youngsters in terms of perceived innocence and need for protection as children. Those who looked at the ape photo gave black children lower ratings and estimated that black children were significantly older than their actual ages, particularly if the child had been accused of a felony rather than a misdemeanor.

The evidence shows that perceptions of the essential nature of children can be affected by race, and for black children, this can mean they lose the protection afforded by assumed childhood innocence well before they become adults,” said co-author Matthew Jackson, PhD, also of UCLA. “With the average age overestimation for black boys exceeding four-and-a-half years, in some cases, black children may be viewed as adults when they are just 13 years old.”

(If you watched Melissa Harris-Perry this morning you saw Dr. Goff sitting at the table for most of the show. The article is here.)

I’m sitting here reading the UU blog reaction to the events in Ferguson and am trying to figure out what is different. Why was it Michael Brown’s death that caused the angst? Was it Michael Brown’s death that caused it? Or was it the pictures and film of journalists getting detained/arrested and tear-gassed?

Because, in fact, there was no UU blog reaction to the death of Eric Garner at the hands of the NYPD last month. And it was on video.

How long will this awakening last? The cynic in me is saying that there is going to be the same “how did I not see this?” reaction NEXT month when another unarmed black person gets killed at the hands of law enforcement. And the next month. And the next month.

James Baldwin wrote, “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.” Think on that.