Public Policy and the Shaping of Modern Unitarian Universalism (thoughts on “The Case for Reparations”)

Shawna Foster, in responding to a post on Tom Schade’s blog, wrote the following:
I believe systems of oppression are perpetuated unintentionally, and that religion is one of the ways we can become aware of our intentions and what we really mean by our thoughts and actions. This is one of the major reasons why I belong to a religious institution, I feel it is one of the few places in society with this role. People can be quite educated, and intellectual, but unintentionally perpetuate harm because of a lack of experience that causes transformational change to a different behavior – something I hope religion does – something I think you are doing write now by writing about the societal situation. To me this is a bit different status quo than oppressive forces intentionally causing harm; it is always a few who do overt violence justified by the covert violence of the status quo.

I’m trying really hard to see how anybody, with even rudimentary  knowledge of United States history, could say that with a straight face. Really, I’m trying but I so want to call bullsh*t.

If you haven’t read Ta-Nehisi Coates’ breathtaking article in the newest issue of The Atlantic, “The Case for Reparations”, stop here and read it. Read it? Good. Now I can go on.

My thoughts start where TNC starts:

Two hundred fifty years of slavery. Ninety years of Jim Crow. Sixty years of separate but equal. Thirty-five years of racist housing policy.

Let’s be clear about this. To believe that “systems of oppression are perpetuated unintentionally” with the whole of U.S. history to look at means that one believes that slavery was some kind of unintended consequence in the foundation of the United States. It means that one believes that Jim Crow was unintentional. It means that one believes that the Supreme Court really wasn’t saying what it was saying in Plessy v. Ferguson. It means that one believes that when the New Deal was rolled out, the fact that African Americans (and Latinos for some programs) were almost universally shut out of participation was unintentional. It means that one believes that African American men being almost completely shut out of the GI Bill after WWII was just an overlook. It means that one believes that the FHA program saying that it would not subsidise neighborhoods that did not have restrictive covenants was some kind of bureaucratic overreach.

C’mon now. None of this was unintentional. The American experiment only worked (and works currently, if we look at the criminalization of 1/3 of all African American men and other measures)  because white liberals made (and make) an agreement with white conservatives that all whites will benefit in some way from the use/misuse/abuse of African American bodies and labor. Granted, who was/is considered white is malleable, but who is black is not; the “one drop rule” never applied to the Irish or eastern or southern Europeans. Race and racism in America is NOT unintentionally perpetuated oppression; it is the very heart and soul of the American experiment.

And in Unitarianism and Universalism, the treatment of people like Ethelred Brown and Lewis McGee and William Jackson or the Joseph Jordans show that religion is no sanctuary from oppression (perpetuated intentionally or unintentionally).

Now…the title of this post is Public Policy and the Shaping of Modern Unitarian Universalism. And it took me reading TNC’s article to make some connections that I had not been making.

Those of you who know me in the non-blogging world (or if you’ve read this blog for a long time) might remember that I’m not a big fan of all the nostalgia for the Fellowship Movement of the mid-20th century. There were many reasons I thought the nostalgia was unfounded. But I hadn’t connected the dots. The growth of Unitarianism happened in the post-WWII period that saw public policy shaping where we live. Since African Americans were shut out of the programs that made the suburbs and exurbs possible, is it any wonder that Unitarian Universalism is as non-diverse as it is.

Housing policy made modern Unitarian Universalism what it is. So the next time there is a wistful discussion about the Fellowship Movement, remember why it was made possible. Wherever you stand on the case for reparations, TNC’s article should be cause for a real discussion of how and why Unitarian Universalism looks the way it looks; and how hard it is to change that.


12 thoughts on “Public Policy and the Shaping of Modern Unitarian Universalism (thoughts on “The Case for Reparations”)

  1. I’m frankly a little confused by what Shawna is saying, but “I believe systems of oppression are perpetuated unintentionally” does not necessarily mean “I believe the only way systems of oppression are perpetuated is unintentionally.” This interpretation is borne out by the statement a little further on, “People can be quite educated, and intellectual, but unintentionally perpetuate harm.” True enough–which does not let them off the hook.

    I’m not terribly interested in the question of intention. Regardless of whether one intends to twist the knife in black America or not, white liberal attitudes frequently have that effect, and white liberals must take responsibility for it. The racism discussion has gotten bogged down in intention too long–as if not feeling like a racist is the important thing, instead of the truly important question being: do one’s choices perpetuate oppression?

    Fascinating connection between housing policy and the fellowship movement, Kim. And sure, UU congregations have followed white flight–under “unintentional” reasoning such as “We need to move closer to our members.”

  2. I think all these go together, and occur under the guidance of finance capital and the white state structure. (I just spent an hour trying to think through the logic of a great and wealthy nation making the decision to stop investing in the housing stock of its great cities — without racism, none of it makes any sense.)
    Anyway, I think the UU abandonment of its center city churches (which didn’t occur everywhere, but was not uncommon) was probably justified on the grounds that it was the only way to preserve the capital that was in the building. Sell and get out while you can.
    Now the decision to take the fellowship movement to the suburbs — did anyone actually decide where to plant fellowships or did they just grow like weeds?
    I am always suspicious of “our people” arguments. I am beginning to think that it is a rationalization — our short term financial interests led us to the suburbs, and we rationalized it by saying “our people” (smart people) were there. It was a flattering justification, building on our pride, but also concluding that unfortunately, the urban residents (YNWIM) were just not smart enough for us.

  3. Thanks for the comment. I agree, that with overt racism and sexism prior to civil rights that those systems of oppression are and were 100% intentional. I feel you are taking my comment out of context, in which I was responding to Tom Schade’a post about a pervasive paranoia to oppress women, destroy the environment, and hurt minorities. I believe there is a small percentage that overtly espouses those values. Most, however, do covert oppression, where they do not realize why being “the nice guy” doesn’t entitle them to sex, how we are all caught up in a web a manufactured and exported misery that causes the depletion of resources, and why we all can’t just get along and treat everyone equally no matter what their race is in a colorblind fashion. I’ve yet to meet an oppressor who didn’t have their oppression justified in what, at first, seems to be reasonable. We are all participating in oppression as long as we are unintentional and ignorant of some very complicated dynamics. I agree with the rest of what you say, and hope you can see a bit more clearly how I said what I said with a straight face.

  4. I haven’t heard a lot of nostalgia for the Fellowship movement except for the fact that a lot of new churches sprung up. Fellowship culture and style was very white college come-outer in style, somethng most of us don’t care for today. However, I believe that most Fellowships were not in white suburbs but rather were in cities that had no group at all. It is true that there was “white flight” in some churches that moved with the white flight out of a large city, others stayed and tried to survive — some with success and some not. The Fellowship movement brought Unitarian churches back to the South where it nearly disappeared during the Civil War — except for Charleston and New Orleans where clergy were on board with the confederacy. A good many of those Fellowships were active in the Civil RIghts movement and people in them had their lives threatened. One of the ministers of a Fellowship in the south was shot by the Klan for the church’s stand. In another Fellowship the first integrated preschool in town was held and people stayed in the church all night to ward off people who had been phoning in bomb threats. In many of these towns, Fellowships were the place that white allies felt safe going to church and some were integrated, but the gulf between black church and the lecture/clarinet solo format of UU Fellowships was hard to cross. I don’t care for that kind of service either and wouldn’t have found a church home with the theology of most black churches or with the style of most 50’s Fellowships. The history is complicated. Like most things.

    • I do not presume to know how long you have been involved in UUism or what conversations you’ve heard, but on this I believe I am on firm ground. If you go back and look at the Societies that were founded in the post-WWII era, the vast majority of them WERE founded in the suburbs. North, South, Northeast, West does not matter in this instance.

      Goodness knows that I am not saying that there weren’t Societies that sprang up in places that had never had Unitarianism before. (a lot of those places had had Universalism…that’s a different story) However, that does not negate my thesis because if one looks at southern cities like Atlanta or Charlotte, it seems to fall right in line.

      I think on this we will have to agree to disagree.

  5. The fellowship movement started in 1948. White flight doesn’t begin until the mid-50s, and really gets rolling in the 1960s. The fellowship movement ended in 1967.

    Which is not to say that there was no entanglement. That would be implausible. But my own research into the fellowship I was part of, expecting to find some real ugliness, revealed a congregation formed in what was almost a sundown town, where the almost entirely white congregation (there were black members, who may have been almost the entire black population of the community at the time – refugees from a HUAC blacklisting) came out in favor of he Rumsford Act (CA’s predecessor to the federal fair housing act). It was their first political stance as a congregation, taking it was mildly divisive (a few people left, though it’s not clear if it was objecting to the position, or to the congregation taking any political position). They were the ONLY institution in town to come out in favor of it. And they took a lot of public hostility for it. One woman I interviewed recalled being spat on.

    The fellowship is one of two created in north San Diego in 1959. Both arose from the same meeting. 1st UU in San Diego was simply too far away for people to attend. They needed a local congregation.

    I think ascribing the fellowship movement to white flight is in error. Not that some fellowships weren’t a result of it, but the movement predates it.

  6. I have been involved as a UU since childhood and as a minister since 1980. My home state in the west had 2 churches before the Fellowship movement, added 6 during that time, 4 of which were established in previously unserved large cities and two of which were in other areas of the largest city but the downtown church grew and prospered and the large city Fellowships sat on the franchise. Downtown in this case was demographically diverse. Not a city with a lot of “white flight” like the more industrial and historic large cities.

    In the first church I served in the South, was one of four Fellowships established in unserved cities in the state. There was a fifth group established in an already served area where the church there refused to integrate (and with UUA help folded). I don’t know the location nor if establishing an integrated church in an area in which the only church was not integrated could be considered “white flight”. I don’t believe any churches in that state currently pre-date the Fellowship Movement.

    I served two churches in a large state in the NE. That state had a lot of churches founded in the 19th and early 20th century and 10 during the Fellowship era. Two were in towns far from any large city. 5 were in well established towns or areas near the two largest cities, some with a diverse population some without. These were probably geographic expansion but aided by the job growth and especially high tech growth in what are both long established towns and have begun to become exurbs. The cities nearby did not loose UU churches. The other 3, I am uncertain about the provenance.

    I served in another large Southern state with 4 churches predating the Fellowship movement and more 16 groups during the Fellowship movement, none of which were suburbs.

    I am not sure what you mean about Atlanta. What I heard about Atlanta was that the old church was the only Georgia church that wouldn’t integrate so it died (with help) and they started another that was active in the Civil Rights movement.

    I can’t agree to disagree on something where you can look at data and see that most Fellowships weren’t suburban and therefore couldn’t have been about White flight in the sense we talk about it in the 50’s and 60’s. This is something where facts as to where the Fellowships were established are available as are historical data as to which urban churches closed and why and which suburbs were beneficiaries of white flight. Do you have actual data of some diverse states in which your thesis is supported by numbers?

    What we might agree on is that we have historically established new churches in areas in which the people who live there fit our white, college educated, preferred demographic rather than in places with more racial or economic diversity. Fellowships were more likely established in college towns, state capitals, etc. rather than factory towns or rural areas. This has been our overt and well-articulated policy. This was articulated as “picking the low-hanging fruit” in growth policy, but hasn’t been all that successful since the 80’s. Most UU’s are pretty open in their assumption that only “people like us” would find our churches meaningful and we have tended to make that a self fulfilling prophecy. We also have tended to see race in black and white terms and been rude and dismissive to the Latinos and Asian Americans in our midst.

  7. I’m with you Kim, and I think the data will bear you out, especially if you look at churches that moved within large municipalities that incorporate former inner-ring suburbs. (Still “in town” but barely so.)

    I’m thinking of a set of examples that key so closely to white-flight that it’s difficult to find an alternative answer. I’ll work on that later.

    But, like Elz, I think I read your blog less than I might because I can barely read it at all.

    • Of course the evidence bares you out if you only take the evidence that bares you out! If you take all the evidence it is more complicated!

  8. I don’t think it’s simple and I think there’s something there.

    I was wrong to call out white flight elsewhere. That is a later phenomenon. What was contemporaneous with the Fellowship Movement was deliberate housing policy to increase segregation. That’s where Shawna’s point comes in. Most of the white people who moved into neighborhoods segregated by policy weren’t consciously segregating. I don’t think most of the people moving into those neighborhoods today are consciously segregating. They’re just going with the flow and the flow is racist policy. They aren’t guilty but they are responsible.

    White flight is different. It came during white backlash and does often have an explicit racist component at the homeowner level.

    Our church was founded as a fellowship in 1950 and soon had a serious split over civil rights. The people in favor stayed. When the crisis came to a head in our city, our members were very active on the right side. But that comes with a small caveat that now seems larger to me (a newcomer).

    The first year of our crisis, in which segregation was broken in the high school, is well-known. Our president took a serious risk to his new medical practice signing (a requirement of the newspaper) an ad on behalf of the congregation supporting integration. That was gutsy and righteous.

    The second year is less well-known, when all the public schools were shut down city-wide in order to keep integration from advancing. Our members were active there, too, but that fight was specifically about reopening the schools and not about integration. That was a conscious tactical choice on the part of those excellent white ladies, in our congregation and outside it, who led and won that fight. The next crisis involved an attempt to purge the school system of staff who supported integration. That fight had a more biracial opposition but was, again, tactically aimed at saving those jobs.

    I can’t say they were wrong to make those tactical decisions. For one thing, they won. That wasn’t an obvious short-term outcome at the time. I wasn’t there at the time, either, so it’s hard for me to say they were wrong. I assume they had the best of intentions and they did the best they could.

    But there’s a price to these decisions.

    In our case, existing social segregation and policy-based residential segregation (which also meant school segregation) meant that white people and black people in common cause–allies, in the corrupt modern terminology–were fighting in parallel more than fighting together.

    This separation has continued to this day. I don’t know how to change it. Maybe how science advances, but method won’t finish in my lifetime.

    There’s more to say, but I think I’ll stop here.

    • I think she was talking about me and not about you, Scott.
      I sincerely hope that nobody would question your motives. I don’t particularly care if they question mine.

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