Eric and John and Michael and Kajieme and… (Five Years On)

I should be writing about El Paso and Dayton, but friends, I have written about this country’s idolatrous relationship with guns more than enough and I write about white supremacy all the time.

Anyway…
It started on July 17th.

Continued on August 5th.

And August 9th.

And August 20th.

For six weeks in 2014, the killing of Black men by agents of the state was all over screens.

It’s not as if Black people getting killed by agents of the state was a new phenomenon. It most definitely isn’t. What made these six weeks different was there was video (in most cases) that could be played on a loop.

The movement that started because of the August 9th killing has changed many things. Not enough things, but many.

Five years on, Black people are still killed by agents of the state for anything and everything.

Five years on, the agents of the state still do not (for the most part) face punishment.

Five years on, the families of those killed have to fight to set the record straight.

Five years on, law enforcement agencies still fight against changes in procedure.

In the aftermath of El Paso and Dayton, it is with a melancholy heart that I write about Eric and John and Mike and Kajieme. And think about the others. And see the connections between this and El Paso and Dayton.

The U.S. is so outside the norm when it comes to OECD countries. Especially around guns and mass shootings. And policing. And incarceration.

In no other OECD country is there the toxic brew of easy access to guns and white supremacy. This toxic brew plays itself out in many ways. It plays itself out in law enforcement (and others) having an unnatural fear of black/darker bodies, which causes people to want to arm up to alleviate the fear. Which, in turn, lets those who have other issues (like toxic misogyny, a thread through every mass shooting) create chaos.

It’s been five years. And the toxic brew of easy access to guns and white supremacy is still causing chaos. That’s all there really is to say.

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When They See Us

“So much of what we think we know about black history is actually white history. We’ve told the black story through a white lens, with whites as the main object of black experience and existence. The ‘unconventional’ story is the one blacks have lived themselves.”     -Peter Temin


General Assembly has been over for a couple of weeks now, and while there are many things I could write about, my mind is stuck in history and its connection to the present.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of two things that are loosely connected, even though they are seldom talked about together: the exodus from the UUA and the publication of James Cone’s “Black Theology and Black Power.” And it didn’t even occur to me that we don’t talk about them together until GA was over.

Dr. Cone said that the reason he wrote “Black Theology and Black Power” was he saw what was happening to Black people and the inability of traditional theology to speak to the conditions of those most marginalized.

The exodus from the UUA in 1969 happened for much the same reason; members of the Black Affairs Council (BAC) saw the same thing happening in the UUA.
[yes, I know money was part of the issue. but money is never the actual problem, money is a symptom of the problem]

Far too often UUs talk about the “controversy” as a money issue, when actually it was much deeper than that. I frequently wonder what would happen if UUs talked about that period in a different way; as a white backlash to African Americans saying they were not ancillary to the Unitarian Universalist project, but major players in it. Yet, since that period is still talked about in the former way, UUism is stuck.

So now I get to ask the question that’s been on my mind since Ministry Days: do UUs  know that liberation theology exists? Or did liberation theology pass UUism by? Because I think part of the reason UUism is stuck, theologically at least, is there doesn’t seem to be an active engagement with liberation theology at all. And that lack of engagement means that UU justice work can look spotty and ineffective.

What happens to UUism if/when the story about itself ever changes? When the focus isn’t on those who have been talked about ad nauseam?

What happens when they see us?

Black Love Is Forever…or, The Institutions We Build

When I was younger and choosing where to go to college, I knew I was going to go to a women’s college. Never a doubt in my mind.

Seminary was different. It happened through a series of coincidental events that ending up at Earlham seems like it was meant to be. Yet, much as Earlham seems like it was meant to be, one of my biggest regrets is that I did not try harder to get into Howard Divinity School.

Why?  Because I wouldn’t have had to fight as hard.

Don’t misunderstand; ESR was good for me in a lot of ways. I love the friends I have from there. I still keep in touch with some of my professors. But two people kept me from dropping out: Dr. James S. Logan (Earlham College professor who taught my intro to theology class at ESR), and Mr. Bob Hunter (who had been a national racial justice coordinator for Intervarsity). Two Black men who cared about me and for me while I was in Richmond. For all those two did for me, it would have been a different situation at Howard. There is a holistic-ness that Howard would have provided.

I think about historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) and the Black Church a lot. So when Robert Smith and his family pledged $40million to pay off the debt of the 396 graduates at Morehouse College this year, I couldn’t help but think about the institutions we build.

HBCUs and the Black Church are sustained out of love. It is a love born out of struggle and defined by hope. And, even with their issues, HBCUs and the Black Church offer a place where the diversity of the African diaspora can be seen its fullness and wholeness. Where people can see that different does not mean deficient.

I think of BLUU (Black Lives of Unitarian Universalism for my non-UU readers) the same way. Born out of struggle, defined by hope. Sustained out of love. And, hopefully, where Black UUs and UU-adjacent  people can see the diversity of the African diaspora reflected in its fullness and wholeness.

I’m writing this as my six-month-old cousin sleeps about three feet from where I’m typing. And I can’t help but be grateful for the love of those who established those HBCUs and Black churches all those years ago. Places that, when the time comes, can offer the baby a place where they can be fully themselves.

 

For a list of historically Black colleges and universities, you can find that list here.

 

Sometimes I Feel Like A Motherless Child (Thoughts on Black Maternity)

At the end of 2017, I did a series of posts about the Black maternal mortality rate. With the CDC’s releasing new numbers about the U.S. maternal mortality rate, it seems like a good time to revisit the subject.

According to the CDC, the maternal mortality rate for white women is 12.5 per 100,000 births.

For Black women, the maternal mortality rate is 42.8 per 100,000 births.  That’s three-and-a-half times higher. This is not a new phenomenon; the disparity has been known about for almost four decades.

Now…the U.S. has the highest maternal mortality rate of all the OECD countries, regardless of race. Also, the U.S. is the only OECD country where the maternal mortality rate is going up. But the Black maternal mortality rate is on par with many countries that are classified as “developing.”

What would it look like if the lives of pregnant Black people were taken seriously? Or if the country treated this as the healthcare crisis it actually is? (yes…I know about the two bills in Congress. you know what I mean.)

Mother’s Day is hard for a lot of people. And many preachers stumble over what to say from the pulpit on the day. If I may make a suggestion it would be to focus on this. There is no reason for the church to be silent in the face of people dying from things that, at least the data says, should be preventable. For those of us who are scripture-based, maternal mortality is a shadow throughout many of the stories of children and inheritance. For those who are less scripture-based, there are many stories of death in pregnancy/childbirth/post-partum that could be explored.

I can’t convey in words how important this is to me. Yet I know I will write about it again.

 

(to read more about the new CDC numbers, you can go here. for info about the two bills in Congress, you can go here. general info is here.)

 

 

History Is Here To Help…..(You Can’t Hit A Straight Lick With A Crooked Stick, pt.2)

This post should be about The Young and the Restless and the tribute they are paying to the late Kristoff St. John, who played Neil Winters for almost 30 years, but former Vice President Joe Biden decided to enter the Democratic Party presidential primary race. Thus, political scientist Kim must have a word.

There is this narrative around Joe Biden (and to a lesser extent Pete Buttigieg and Beto O’Rourke) among the political punditry class that he will be able to reach out white working class voters who have “abandoned” the Democratic Party over economic issues.

Deep sigh.

This is not the case. And, fortunately, history and political science are here to help.

So…let’s start with the basic fact…

The last Democratic presidential candidate to win the white vote was LBJ in 1964.

55 years ago. Before a whole lot of us were even a twinkle of a twinkle in somebody’s eye.

And…there is a good deal of data to point to why this happened.

CIVIL RIGHTS

Since LBJ, there has been a white running-away from the Democratic Party because of civil rights law. To go even further…if you look at voting data, white people, as a whole, have consistently voted for the most anti-civil rights presidential candidate in the race. [now…one could quibble about 1968, but Nixon and Wallace were two sides of the same coin in reality. Wallace just said the quiet part loud and Nixon just implied it]
And if one looks at 1992, the only reason Bill Clinton won was because the white vote was split three ways.

What does this mean for 2020?

First, the likelihood of the Democratic candidate winning the white vote is slim-to-none. Because, as much as white moderates/liberals/progressive don’t want to acknowledge, most white people vote in the interests of whiteness/white supremacy. [again, history and political science are here to help] And…as the last post shows, white people become more conservative if they think that people of color may gain something.

Two, as vulnerable as the current occupant of the presidential office may look, he does have the incumbency advantage. There are 4 Presidents since the turn of the 20th century who have lost re-election. [Taft, Harding, Carter, Bush the elder; Ford does not count because 1976 wasn’t re-election for him]

It is not my place to say whether Joe Biden (or Pete Buttigieg or Beto O’Rourke) is the right person to be the Democratic nominee for President.

It is my place to say that if Joe Biden is chosen as a way to reach out to supposedly “gettable” white voters, that is a losing cause. In the best case scenario, the ceiling for any Democratic candidate when it comes to the white vote is 45%. Because, as history and political science show, there is a white aversion to civil rights in practice, if not in theory.

 

You Can’t Hit A Straight Lick With A Crooked Stick

For those of you who only know me through this blog or post-college, it might surprise you to know that I came to religion late. Don’t misunderstand, I grew up in the church. I love the church (and that is why I critique it so passionately). But I came to the academic study of religion later. And I came to it because I wanted to reconcile some things.

My life before the study of religion was in political science and sociology. (and yes, that has served me well in studying religion and theology). So the last few weeks have been interesting. And the political scientist in me has been sitting back and biting my tongue. Then yesterday happened.

Yesterday, Sen. Elizabeth Warren presented a proposal to address the student debt crisis (I am neither praising nor condemning the proposal, it is the reaction to the proposal that is intriguing to my mind). A part of the proposal that hasn’t been talked about as much, but I think is the much more interesting part of the proposal politically, is the fund for HBCUs and MSIs. This is where political science comes in.

Sidebar: the United States is the most conservative OECD country by every measure. (you will see why I give you this sidebar in a moment)

Political psychology research shows that white people, regardless of level of education/ income/socioeconomic class, become MORE conservative about social welfare policy/programs when/if they believe that people of color, PARTICULARLY BLACK PEOPLE, may in some way benefit from said policy/program. You can see this throughout Reconstruction and post-Reconstruction U.S. history.

Now…let’s apply this to Sen. Warren’s HBUC/MSI fund proposal.

In a society that becomes more conservative about social welfare policy/programs when the majority thinks that a certain group in the minority may gain anything, what does it do for proposals like Sen. Warren’s HBCU/MSI fund? Would this even be politically feasible in the United States?

As I said in the sidebar, the U.S. is the most conservative of the OECD countries by any measure. A good deal of that conservatism can be explained by how much Calvinism plays a role in U.S. politics. But it doesn’t explain it all.

Race and racism warp the U.S political imagination, just as they warp the theological imagination. That warped thinking limits what we see as possible.

I don’t know what will change this. It would take something radical.

His Name Is NOT “Killmonger” (Thoughts on Names and Naming)

With the Oscars happening two days ago, there has been an increase in thought pieces about the movies that nominated for Best Picture*.

Because I’m always looking at what people are saying about Black Panther, it seems to be a good time to point out something that continues to occur.

Many pieces, when they talk about the anti-hero of the film, call him “Erik Killmonger” or just “Killmonger”. I HATE IT!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

The anti-hero of Black Panther has a name. His name, the one his mother gave him, is Erik Stevens. The name his father gave him is N’Jadaka. In talking about him, it is important to note that.

Killmonger is Erik Stevens’ colonizer nickname. It’s important to point that out too. Because that nickname means something, and it is nothing good.

But this points to a larger issue. In these last days of Black History Month, it is a good time to think about the history of misnaming people of African descent. Or not giving Black people the honorifics that they have earned.

If I weren’t writing a different essay for the book on theology and Black Panther, I would write about the theology of naming. Partly because talking about naming would allow me to use part of my favorite story in Hebrew Scripture; Hagar naming G-d in Genesis 16. But also because I think it is important to look at how some names catch on and others don’t. And finally because I think this would allow for a broader discussion on the power of names and who gets to name.

Talking about names and naming also allows for a broader discussion of transgender, gender non-conforming, and non-binary people and the issues they face in living into their true selves.

I might preach on this soon. And I will write about it; after I finish the essay for the book.

 

*—in case you didn’t know it, “Green Book” is a lie.

 

Beyond Anti-Racism 101?…or, Black Theology for Religious Liberals

Between being utterly stupefied with the enduring white fascination with blackface and adjusting to having a 2-month-old around*, I’ve been thinking about the end of the Whose Faith Is It Anyway conversation where we were asked about books/authors or artists we would recommend to people.

So often in doing this work liberal religious groups get stuck. Stuck in Anti-Racism 101; introducing basic concepts of critical race theory and U.S. racial history to those who don’t have a clue. Don’t get me wrong, that is noble work. But it is exhausting and soul depleting. And I think that part of the reason it is soul depleting is because the things we read are about things outside the congregation; the powers and principalities (including denominations). What liberal religious folk don’t do enough is talk about spiritual liberation; the theologies and practices from marginalized communities that helped sustained them. Liberal religious congregations might talk about the Black church vaguely when they mangle King, and they might pull out Howard Thurman’s “The Work of Christmas”, but a sustained engagement with Black theology (much less any other liberation theology)….yeah no.

What would it take for liberal religious communities to take liberation theology seriously? Engage with it? Is that even possible?

Can liberal religious communities move beyond Anti-Racism 101?

 

(*–I have not had a baby. It’s my newest cousin.)

Strange Fruit…or, Why We Are Still Having To Deal With Blackface

Anthony Pinn wrote, “Black bodies are complex signs that represent something both appealing and repulsive for the society in which we dwell.”

The beginning of Black History Month has been a doozy, I tell ya.

If you have followed this blog for any time at all you will know that I stand firm in my belief that the South won the Civil War, even though the North won the military engagement. This past week shows why.

The week starts out with Jussie Smollett, one of the stars of Empire, surviving a racist and homophobic attack that involved a hood, a noose, and bleach.

The week ended with pictures of Virginia governor Ralph Northam in his medical school yearbook either in blackface or in a Klan robe and hood. (if you don’t think he is one of those men in that picture, I have swamp land in Arizona to sell you)  And yesterday, Gov. Northam said that he wasn’t in the picture BUT he did go blackface a little later in the year in a Michael Jackson imitation contest. He also said that he knew the problems with using shoe polish to do the blackface. (did you catch that?)

I’ve been meditating on Dr. Pinn’s quote a lot this week. Because the U.S. still doesn’t know how to deal with Black/black bodies. The need to control/mimic Black/black bodies is a constant.

This is the strange fruit of the United States.

Every few hours/days/weeks/months some outrageously racist action takes over the news cycle. And those of us who know the history of racism in this country have to point out that there is nothing new in any of these actions. Those who have been in denial act as if it is surprising that none of this is new. The cycle repeats.

And all of this keeps us from having the real discussion about racist policy and practice. Don’t misunderstand me, the racist actions need to be talked about. However, until we get to the harder conversation about policy and practice, little will change.

Who We Learn

I should be writing about the attack on Jussie Smollett, but all I can see is that noose around his neck. So I won’t write about that

I have a question for the religious professionals reading this.

Were you required in seminary (or whatever educational institution one went) to take a class in theologies of people who are not white? Pastoral care with non-white people? Youth ministry with youth of color? Faith development in marginalized communities? History of ethnic churches/denominations?

One thing we who have theological education don’t talk about enough is how seminary/theological school curricula assume that the person in the pew is going to be a particular type of person. Namely white. [this, of course, is not true for non-PWIs*] Hence, because most whites do not have to read authors or scholars of color in order to be considered educated, the wealth of writing and research that has been done by people of color usually only gets read by those who go out searching for it.

Who we learn is just as important as who we learn from. Dismantling white supremacy in our religious institutions means actually reading and learning from those from the margins.

Who did you learn?

 

[*PWIs—primarily white institutions, in education-speak]