Archive for December, 2014

We’re All in This Together

20141228 BlackLivesMatter sign(I preached this sermon at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Peninsula on December 28th 2014.)

Video: “Five Tips for Being an Ally” by Franchesca Ramsey

Franchesca Ramsey describes herself as an actress, a comedian, a graphic designer, a consultant and a natural hair geek, but not always in that order.  She is perhaps best known as a video blogger, and has two YouTube channels with over 150,000 subscribers and over 23 million views.  Chescaleigh, as she is better known on-line, published this video last month.

Sermon: “We’re All in This Together”

Since my daughter was very young, we’ve been teaching her that she doesn’t need to be afraid when she hears sirens.  Not that she’s exactly old now — she’ll be two-and-a-half in January — but her level of comprehension and articulation is much greater now than when we first started telling her that a siren meant that somebody was going to help someone.  “Help” was the operative word, back then when she could only say a word or two at a time.  “Help” was something that she understood, given that we had to help her do a number of things that she couldn’t do for herself at the time.

Nowadays, of course, my daughter’s an active, curious toddler who talks non-stop except when she’s asleep.  I’ve already apologized to our Director of Religious Education for what she’s likely to do during the children’s story once she starts coming here with me on Sunday mornings.  It does mean, though, that we can now talk about how an ambulance, for example, helps someone get to the hospital for the medicine they need.  She’s seen and even sat inside fire trucks a couple of different times, even though, in her mind, the main reason for being of a fire truck is to rescue cats that are stuck in trees.  And we’ve continued to reinforce the idea that police cars are there to help people.

But then, we’re the white parents of a white child.  If my daughter were not white, we know we’d be having a different conversation.  We’d be having a conversation much like New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and his wife have been having with their son.  As part of a speech about the Staten Island grand jury’s decision not to indict police officer Daniel Pantaleo for the death of Eric Garner, Mayor de Blasio said the following:

Chirlane and I have had to talk to Dante for years about the dangers that he may face.  A good young man, a law-abiding young man who would never think to do anything wrong.  And yet, because of a history that still hangs over us, the dangers he may face, we’ve had to literally train him — as families have all over this city for decades — in how to take special care in any encounter he has with the police officers who are there to protect him.

Now for most white American families, the idea that you’d need to warn your otherwise good, law-abiding children against the very people we know are also there to protect us from real criminals, well, that idea seems very foreign.  But the fact is that it is far from foreign for black American families.  I first heard about it following the death of Trayvon Martin, the advice that many African-American parents feel compelled to give their children, and their sons in particular, even before they become teenagers, advice that has been passed on for generations, advice that is often named “the talk”, as follows:

Pay attention to where you are and who is around you.  If you go into a store, lower the hood on your sweatshirt and keep your hands out of your pockets.  If you buy something, put it in a bag and be sure to get a receipt.  If you’re confronted by someone with a badge or a gun, don’t argue or run away or put your hands anywhere but up.  Always address them as “sir” or “ma’am”.  Do not make any sudden moves, even to reach for identification.  Do not raise your voice or resist or run.  As Dana Caneday, a senior editor at the New York Times, described it, it’s a “nausea-inducing discussion” to need to have with your eight-year-old child.

Remember Chescaleigh’s first two tips for being an ally?  (And I’m taking it as a given that we want to be allies, but I’ll come back to one big reason why — other than simple human decency — a little later.)  They were, first, understand your own privilege and, two, listen and do your homework.  Actually, it’s hard to do the first without doing the second, and that’s because privilege is almost always hidden to those who have it.  I’m not aware of my male privilege, for instance, until I hear from women about the ways that our society puts them at a disadvantage.  I’m not aware of my hetero privilege until I hear from lesbian, gay and bisexual people.  I’m not aware of my cis privilege — “cis” meaning that my gender identity as a man lines up with my anatomy as a male — until I hear from transgender people.  And I’m not aware of my white privilege until I hear from people of color about the ways that our society puts them at a disadvantage.  And when they tell me they have experienced disadvantage to the point of oppression, I need to listen to them and believe that that is what they have experienced, rather than automatically trying to explain it away or getting defensive as if I were singlehandedly to blame for the way our society is structured.

And when news reports describe the same pattern of events over and over again, and when the profit-driven media fails to report many similar events, too, then it’s clearly time to pay attention.  The conversation we’re now having about race is about much more than Ferguson.  Ferguson may have been the place where the conversation erupted, but while that was triggered by the death of Michael Brown, it was caused by the decades-long predation of the suburb itself on the majority black population, using the mostly white police department to gather much of the city’s revenue rather than going after, say, actual crime.  As Reuters reported, “Traffic fines are the St. Louis suburb’s second-largest source of revenue and just about the only one that is growing appreciably.  Municipal court fines, most of which arise from motor vehicle violations, accounted for 21 percent of general fund revenue and, at $2.63 million last year, were the equivalent of more than 81 percent of police salaries before overtime.”  With budget shortfalls following the recession, Ferguson is literally criminalizing its own residents in order to fund itself.  In 2013 alone, the municipal court issued an average of three warrants per household, raising an average of $321 in fines and fees, in a city where the crime rate is about the national average.

Then there’s the fact that some of the conversations about Michael Brown and Eric Garner have focused on how they were breaking the law and otherwise resisting arrest.  The case was made that police officer Darren Wilson was genuinely afraid for his life when he shot and killed Michael Brown, but that certainly wasn’t true for police officer Daniel Pantaleo when he put Eric Garner in a chokehold that is forbidden by his own police department.  And then there’s the question of how resisting arrest deserves being put to death on the spot.  Or, in other situations, not resisting arrest. Or not even having a chance to resist arrest.  A video shows that John Crawford III was fired upon just seconds after police encountered him; he had been holding an air rifle that was for sale by the Walmart in which he was shopping.  And then there was twelve-year-old Tamir Rice, who was shot within two seconds of police arriving at his location; he had been playing with a toy gun.

In these two cases, there was an obvious common factor, namely something that looked like a real gun.  But another common factor was the state in which those events happened.  John Crawford III was killed near Dayton and Tamir Rice was killed in Cleveland… and Ohio is a so-called “open carry” state, meaning it’s completely legal to openly carry a gun whether you have a license for it or not.  But during all the commotion over “open carry” in Starbucks and Target and other places, how many of those white people brandishing very real guns were killed?  How many of them were even charged with reckless endangerment for leaving their guns on shelves where anyone, including children, could get at them?  (What about the two white men who took guns off a Walmart’s shelves, loaded them and started shooting?)

But guns don’t need to be involved to show how differently people get treated on the basis of race.  Looking at some of the things that people have tweeted recently under two particular hashtags is quite illuminating.  Here are some examples of one of those hashtags.

What this says to me is that if you have a story about some interaction with law enforcement where nothing bad happened to you, and if you’re white, then your story doesn’t prove anything, because “nothing bad happening to you” is the norm for white people, even if they’ve been committing a crime.

Here, by contrast, are some examples of the other hashtag.

I worked with someone in Connecticut, a white woman who was married to a black man.  She had a number of stories where they were pulled over while out in their car — her husband in the driver’s seat, her in the passenger seat — and the first thing the police officer would do is ask her if she was okay.  In short, all of this is why African-American parents need to have “the talk” with their children.

And actually, being a police officer yourself is no protection if you’re black.

Reuters interviewed twenty-five African American male officers on the NYPD, fifteen of whom are retired and ten of whom are still serving.  All but one said that, when off duty and out of uniform, they had been victims of racial profiling, which refers to using race or ethnicity as grounds for suspecting someone of having committed a crime.  The officers said this included being pulled over for no reason, having their heads slammed against their cars, getting guns brandished in their faces, being thrown into prison vans and experiencing ‘stop and frisk’ while shopping.  The majority of the officers said they had been pulled over multiple times while driving.  Five had had guns pulled on them.

Then there’s the conversation I observed a couple of weeks ago on Facebook.  It started when someone who was a couple of years ahead of me in theological school posted a segment from The Daily Show where Jon Stewart expresses such disbelief over the grand jury decision not to indict Staten Island police officer Daniel Pantaleo, even when the video showed him putting Eric Garner in a forbidden chokehold, even when the coroner ruled Garner’s death a homicide, that, for once, Stewart couldn’t find the words.

Posting that video led to a conversation about the subject that was, for the most part, quite civil.  Now I don’t know most of the people involved in that conversation; I assume they are friends of my fellow seminarian, and I could see from their Facebook profile pictures that they are white.  I also have no reason to believe that they are anything other than “good” people who would never intentionally cause pain or suffering to another person.

So the conversation meandered as Facebook comment threads tend to do, and somewhere along the way one person — I’ll call him Mark — expressed concern that there wasn’t enough appreciation for the challenges and dangers of being a police officer.  At that, another person wrote: “Mark, I agree that cops are badly compensated and have a super tough job, but you can quit being a cop.  You can’t quit being a person of color.”  And to that, Mark responded with this:

Yes, I agree you can quit being a cop, but can’t you also quit being perceived as a target for racism?  The one consistent theme I see in all of these events, is not one of the victims were dressed in button-down shirts or slacks with the appearance of self-respect or responsibility.  […]  If you don’t want to be a target of racism, don’t LET yourself be a target for racism.  […]  All I saw from many of these recent events, were people who were complacent, and downright comfortable being the victim.

There’s something called Poe’s Law that, applied in particular to discussions that take place via the Internet, says that without a clear indication of the author’s intent, it’s difficult or even impossible to distinguish between a sincere expression of an outrageous opinion and a parody of such an opinion.  Unfortunately, from the rest of the conversation, which soon went downhill from there, I’m pretty sure that Mark was being sincere.  But let me get this straight, the reason Eric Garner died was because he wasn’t dressed in a button-down shirt and slacks?  Because he didn’t try hard enough not to be a victim of racism?  Really?  How is that any different from saying that the reason any woman who was raped got raped was because of what she was wearing?  Talk about blaming the victim!

It’s not surprising that most of the conversation about these events has been labeled with the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter.  The fact is that a black man, woman or child is killed every twenty-eight hours by police officers or self-appointed law enforcement.  It’s also not surprising that there’s been backlash against #BlackLivesMatter.  Some otherwise well-meaning people have said that it would be better to use the hashtag #AllLivesMatter.  Well, yes, all lives ought to matter.  But unfortunately, that’s not what our society looks like to all those parents who know they need to have “the talk” with their children.  The ever-growing list of names — Jordan Baker, Donitre Hamilton, Yvette Smith, Pearlie Golden, Eric Garner, John Crawford III, Tyree Woodson, Michael Brown, Ezell Ford, Dante Parker, Victor White III, Akai Gurley, Tamir Rice, and that’s just some of them from 2014 alone — those names prove that our society values black lives less than others.  So insisting that #BlackLivesMatter be replaced by #AllLivesMatter is like, as others have said, crashing somebody else’s funeral and insisting that the mourners put your loss before their own.  Or, to look at it another way, taking offense at #BlackLivesMatter is like being offended that people are working on a cure for diabetes when there are other diseases out there, too.

Of course, it got a whole lot harder to have a reasonable conversation about this when two New York City police officers, Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos, were killed last week by a man who had that morning bragged on Instagram about avenging the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner.  Without wasting any time, people who had been critical of the #BlackLivesMatter movement claimed that the deaths of officers Liu and Ramos were the direct fault of those calling for racial justice, or that New York Mayor de Blasio was to blame for disrespecting the police, or that it was President Obama’s fault, just because.  Needless to say, though, many groups under the #BlackLivesMatter banner have condemned the killings of the New York police officers, and have recommitted themselves to a non-violent movement for change.  The fact is that Asian police officer Liu and Latino police officer Ramos, in being killed by a black man who shot his black ex-girlfriend, Air Force reservist Shaneka Thompson, earlier that day, the fact is that they were just as much victims of institutional racism as any of the black men and women killed by their fellow police officers.

Because that’s the thing.  Racism isn’t personal.  It’s certainly not rational.  It’s not about who your friends are or who you’d be willing to share a drink with, because in those situations you have time to stop and think.  And most of us, when we have time to stop and think, can remember that we believe that most people are pretty much the same as us, and so we’d do our best to respect their inherent worth and dignity just as we’d hope they’d offer us the same courtesy.  But Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson didn’t have time to stop and think.  He was afraid for his life, and a combination of police training, human instinct and cultural conditioning kicked in, and he shot Michael Brown without stopping to think about it.  And that’s the point.  When we don’t stop to think about it, then our higher cognitive functions don’t have a chance to overrule the much greater part of our brain that otherwise runs on training, instinct and conditioning.

To demonstrate this, there’s something called an Implicit Association Test, which measures the strength of associations between concepts and evaluations.  One version of the test has you first sort descriptive words into categories such as good or bad and then sort pictures of faces into categories such as African American or European American.  Then it mixes them up so that you’re sorting both words and pictures at the same time.  By running different combinations, the test can determine if you have subconscious preferences one way or the other.  As hosted by Harvard University, more than seven hundred thousand people took the Implicit Association Test with pictures of African American and European American faces over a six-year period, and more than half showed either a moderate or a strong automatic preference for white people compared to black people.  And while the majority of white people who took the test showed an implicit preference for white people, so did about half of the black people who took the test.  Again, this is not about what happens when we stop to think, because the test doesn’t give you time to think.  It’s about how we’ve been conditioned by our culture, by our training, by our upbringing.

And that’s why it’s necessary to be active in addressing it.  Racism isn’t just going to go away if we stop talking about.  That’s not taking the moral high ground; that’s being complicit in a system of oppression.  So it’s entirely appropriate to demand that police departments adopt policies that end racial profiling and prevent the criminalization of people of color, as well as to be much more transparent and accountable when someone is killed.  Some have said that demanding accountability in police actions is anti-police, but that’s like saying that calling for faulty brakes to be fixed is anti-car.  If anything, we should hold something to a higher standard when we value it, and a police force made up of our fellow citizens — and police officers are citizens just like us — who have agreed, on our behalf, to all the risk and danger that goes with the enforcement of the laws that we, the people, have passed in order to protect ourselves, well, that’s something we should value greatly and thus hold to a very high standard.

Of course, the case can also be made that nothing is broken, and that the system is working just the way it was intended ever since Nat Turner’s Rebellion, which took place not far from here in Southampton County, and in the aftermath of which racism was, if not invented, then at least applied as never before in support of class privilege.  But I’d like to think we can do better.  The “Universalism” part of Unitarian Universalism originally meant the belief that all souls would finally reach heaven.  Today, it usually means the belief that heaven on Earth is possible, that salvation can be reached in this life, that the Beloved Community can be brought into existence, that a universal commonwealth of love and justice is attainable.  But here’s the catch: none of that is possible on an individual basis.  It can’t be done piecemeal.  It’s all or nothing, everybody or nobody.  So if entire groups of people are systematically oppressed to the point that their lives are altogether too much like hell, then there’s no heaven for anyone else.  After all, there’s no privilege in heaven.  Until black lives matter as much as white lives, then nobody gets to say that all lives matter.

And that’s why we should want to be allies, because our own salvation, our own wholeness, our own well-being is inextricably connected to everybody else’s.  Some of us may be part of particular struggles already, given one or more identities that mean that the very structure of our society puts us at a disadvantage, but if our other identities mean that we are privileged in other ways, then we have a responsibility to use that privilege to support and empower those whom our society judges as less worthy.  So men can be allies to women by understanding their own male privilege.  Heterosexual and cisgender people can be allies by listening to and taking seriously the lived experiences of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.  And white people can be allies by speaking up in support of people of color, not speaking over them or taking the megaphone from them, but learning to take a supporting rather than leading role for once.  As Chescaleigh explained, we’ll make mistakes in trying to be good allies, and it’s important to apologize when we do make mistakes, because it’s not our intent that matters, but our impact.  And, then there’s the fifth of her five tips: we need to remember that ally is a verb, which means doing something.

So to that end, outside the Sanctuary this morning, there are a couple of copies of what is known as the Birmingham Pledge.  This was created sixteen years ago by an attorney in Birmingham, Alabama, to express a grassroots commitment to combating racism and racial prejudice, and it has since been used in anti-racism programs in all fifty states.  I would ask you to take a look at it and, if you are willing to make that commitment, and then live it to the best of your ability, to sign it as well.  Here’s what it says:

“I believe that every person has worth as an individual.  I believe that every person is entitled to dignity and respect, regardless of race or color.  I believe that every thought and every act of racial prejudice is harmful; if it is my thought or act, then it is harmful to me as well as to others.  Therefore, from this day forward: I will strive daily to eliminate racial prejudice from my thoughts and actions; I will discourage racial prejudice by others at every opportunity; I will treat all people with dignity and respect; and I will strive daily to honor this pledge, knowing that the world will be a better place because of my effort.”

May it be so.

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Lighting the Windows of Our Lives

Changing the World @ the UUFP

For all that is our life! by Rev. Andrew Clive Millard

My favorite part of any Christmas Eve service — and, I suspect, the favorite part for most Unitarian Universalist ministers — is the ceremony of passing the flame. With a single candle lit from the chalice, the flame is silently passed along the rows, and from each row to the one behind. Standing at the pulpit, I can see the tongues of fire multiplying as they spread, until soft light shines in every face and the whole Sanctuary is aglow. Then, each of us holding our candles, we sing “Silent Night”, adding another dimension to the warmth and beauty that fills the room.

Christmas Eve photograph by Rosalee Pfister

There are many ways to understand the symbolism of this ceremony. The individual flame can represent hope or love or wisdom or kindness, something that we all have, something that we all…

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