By the Rev. Barbara Threet
Well, it’s been quite a week for confronting racism in our country!
On Tuesday, June 15, a moderate won a close election to become the next President of the Southern Baptist church. The candidates disagreed on several issues, including racial reconciliation and gender roles. Some controversy had to do with the denomination’s adoption in 2019 of critical race theory as one way to address racial inequities. The more conservative wing hoped to overturn that action, but the moderate wing passed a resolution to reaffirm the church’s position on racial reconciliation and condemn racism.
On Wednesday, June 16, JP Morgan proposed legislation to outlaw race-based appraisal bias. A Brookings Institution study found that black-owned homes were assessed an average of 23% less than white-owned homes. “Discrimination and bias in appraisals contribute to inequity in housing values and adversely affect a critical source of wealth accumulation for minority families,” Michael Hsu, acting Comptroller of the Currency, said Tuesday, “The impact is large and cannot be ignored.”
On Thursday, June 17 the US Senate voted – unanimously! – in support of creating a new national holiday to observe Juneteenth and it passed overwhelmingly in the Senate. On Saturday many spontaneous Juneteenth celebrations arose as well as many long-planned ones.
This week, Emory University School of Medicine apologized to Dr. Marion Gerald Hood for refusing him admission in 1959: the letter he received at the time said, “we are not authorized to consider for admission a member of the Negro race.” Emory didn’t desegregate until 1962, when the Georgia Supreme Court sided with the university in its challenge to state laws that denied tax-exempt status to schools that racially integrated. Hood, after his rejection, attended medical school at Loyola instead.
And on Sunday, June 20, CNN reported that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimated that 38,680 people died in motor vehicle crashes in 2020, despite a 13.2% decrease in miles traveled from the prior year. When broken down along racial lines, white pedestrian deaths grew 4%, American Indian fatalities grew 11%, and Asian and Pacific Islander deaths declined 29%. But NHTSA found the largest increase in deaths — 23% — among Black people in what appears to be a stark illustration of which populations could and could not afford to stay home [and off the roads] throughout the pandemic.
I do not know what it is to be Black in this country: I was born with white skin. I’ve read a lot, lived for many years in multi-racial neighborhoods and even for a time been part of a mostly-Black family. I’ve had conversations, attended discussions, listened, watched, and tried to learn. But I will never live everyday with the reality of simply having dark skin, with all that skin color brings in our country. Some of what I’ve read has been particularly helpful: I strongly recommend Ibram Kendi’s “Stamped From the Beginning”, Mark Morrison-Reed’s “Black Pioneers in a White Denomination” or “Darkening the Doorways: Black Trailblazers and Missed Opportunities in Unitarian Universalism”, or Richard Rothstein’s “The Color of Law”, a book I can’t recommend highly enough. There are hundreds of other possibilities, some more widely read or lauded than others.
I know there are many approaches to addressing and dismantling racism, as there have been for centuries. Within my lifetime (and those of most of you), they include sit-ins and Freedom Rides in the early 1960s, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act in 1964, the emergence of the Black Power movement and the creation of Black Studies programs in colleges in the late 1960s, the development of critical race theory in the 1970s, the emergence of womanist theology in the 1980s, the establishment of the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute in 1992, the founding of Color of Change in 2005 in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, or the New York Time’s 1619 Project, released in August of 2019. The list could go on for a very long time.
Despite all these efforts, the harsh truth is that having dark skin in America still affects every area of one’s life. Not every day, not in every interaction. We are all of us – black, white, and every other race, nationality or skin color – human, first of all. But being black is immediately identifiable, and racism means that being black is in many ways determinative, often in ways that are painful, unwarranted and unavoidable.
I know what it is to be female in America. For the most part, it’s a non-issue, but when I go into an auto parts store and someone asks condescendingly whether I need help in putting on a new wiper blade, I suspect the words may be rooted in sexism. When someone learns that my daughter has a contractor’s license and they react, enthusiastically, “Well, good for her!” I wonder what the reaction would have been had I said my son was a contractor. And repeatedly in my travels, I’ve been asked with some suspicion why my husband isn’t with me or whether he approves of my traveling, the assumption being that as a woman, my actions are certainly controlled by and accountable to my husband. I cannot ever set down being female (nor would I ever want to, actually). It’s visible and audible. And at times, that means I confront a whole set of assumptions about what it means to be a woman, and even attempts at limitations, whether they’re fair or accurate or not.
I do not know what it is to be black, though, no matter how much I learn. I know skin color cannot be set down, and I know that racism can affect anyone who’s skin is dark at any time, in ways ranging from minor insensitivities or insults up through police action or disparate treatment in tremendously important ways. It does not occur to me when I apply for a mortgage or go for medical care that the color of my skin will quite likely affect the services I receive – and I know the same is not true for all persons. And I know that until the color of one’s skin is no more of a limiting factor than the color of one’s hair, there is much work to be done.
There are many, many ways to do it. Some people or organizations focus on education and dialogue, some on creating or providing services, and some on activism and even confrontation. Some address racism as it affects access to health care, or legal reform, or police practices, or which authors to emphasize, or policies about how school kids (and even employees) must wear their hair. All of them matter, each in their own way.
A year ago at this time, people were taking to the streets to protest the deaths of George Floyd, and Brianna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbury, and so many others. There have been significant changes as a result. And there is still much work to be done. There’s controversy too: which statues should be removed, and why, and what should be done with them; should the teaching of the 1619 Project or the use of Critical Race Theory be mandated or banned; should policing be reformed and if so how, and the list goes on. There will continue to be differences of opinion. What is undeniable to me is that racism exists, that it impacts people of color in ways I cannot fully know and will never fully experience, and that as a member of the human race – and as a Unitarian Universalist who really does believe in the worth and connectedness of every person – I need to put my energies to learning, listening, and doing what I can. Perhaps, this summer, as we all take a breath of freedom, we can renew our commitment to be sure that all people can breathe.
And two other things, on a completely unrelated note. The first: I will be on vacation for the entire month of July, and on study leave for August. During that time, I check email regularly for any communications from the new Board President (Xanath Bailey) or from the new VP (Rich Myette). If there’s an emergency of any sort, please go through one of those people: I really do try to decouple from church during this time, which means decreasing my email access as I catch my breath and regain some balance. The second: I very much look forward to seeing all of you in September, hopefully in person! May this summer be a time of renewal and revitalization, for all of us!
Shalom and Salaam,