The Work Continues
I come from a family of lifelong South Side Chicagoans — it’s something I’ve mentioned before and sort of a point of pride. It is a culture I adore. I love the neighborhoods, I love the accent — though mine has long since faded, I love the rough around the edges demeanor of the people.
There is a harshness to them that is still approachable and you know where you stand with them even when you’re not asking for their feedback. They are a people that speak volumes with just their facial expressions. There is also a deep territorial streak to South Side culture. You speculate about strangers, you wonder what they want, why they are bothering you, and what are they doing in your neighborhood?
As is the case with any neighborhood there were great pilgrimages to other parts of Chicago where these South Side families picked up their livelihoods and culture and plopped them down in the places to which they journeyed — in my case, my family settled in the western suburbs of Chicago.
I grew up confused by people that liked the Chicago Cubs, had a deep appreciation for Mayor Daley, and yes, I was taught that the name of our ballpark was always going to be Comiskey no matter what the sign said. But also, too, I grew up with that insular nature — that hostility toward outsiders.
Implicit in that hostility was something far more insidious than just being territorial. There was a distinction made between people that were “of our tribe” and those who were not. Often such a distinction was made between us and the growing black and hispanic populations in the town we moved to. As a child I had no name for this, as an adult I realize it was poorly veiled racism.
It was always us versus them, our problems were the result of those people, our neighborhoods were under attack, and we had to be watchful and fearful. I’m not saying all South Siders are explicit racists, but part of my family certainly was and our culture was being used to mask it. Whether you were a South Sider growing up or a Kentuckian or New Englander — I wonder, does this sound familiar? Were you in a family that openly or covertly had opinions about race that were not kind and loving?
I ask these things because, this is the story of not just my family, your family, or families across Lexington, Fayette County, and Kentucky, this is a story repeated time and time again –- this is a story for all of us and —- we often find ourselves wondering what on earth went wrong and what we could possibly do to return to wholeness and hope.
This country, as I was taught and I’m sure many of you were taught all through school, was founded on a great hope. A hope that saw brothers and sisters of various backgrounds, dreams, and creeds sitting down and joining in fellowship as they forged a new nation.
Everything was perfect, the hope was alive, and slowly but surely, as this country grew older, things weren’t quite what they seemed. We found our people torn apart by slavery in the Civil War, generations of women sought out the right to vote, the struggles faced by countless waves of immigrants, the civil rights era, and the continuance of the civil rights era today.
These are growing pains that have not gone away — their affects have been with us since Bull Run, Seneca Falls, Ellis Island, Selma, and now Ferguson, Baltimore, Lexington.
When the grand jury decision was announced in Ferguson, Missouri a year ago concerning the death of Michael Brown — a young black kid shot dead by a white police officer, I found myself staring in disbelief, listening to the awkward self-congratulating press conference, and I found myself experiencing a profound grief that has not gone away.
I mourned for Michael Brown and his parents — his life was cut far too short, I mourned for Ferguson and black communities across the nation — because this isn’t the first time this has happened, and I mourned for Darren Wilson — the police officer who proclaimed his conscience was clean…while a young man was still cold and buried because of another’s actions.
I also found I was arguing with myself. I don’t know about any of you, but, I truly want to believe that the system is just. I want to believe that due diligence was performed, that, yes, the process of reaching their determination was reasonable, and that we should all look to healing and moving beyond this.
I want to accept the idea that this is not a common occurrence — that black youth do not need to fear the people that are there to keep the peace. Most of all, I wanted to believe, more than anything, that blacks and whites and all the people that make up this nation could sit back down at the table of brother and sisterhood and reinvest in the dream that was America.
But when we are faced with a culture where 60% of those incarcerated are people of color, 4 million african-americans and latinos face housing discrimination each year, the unemployment rate for african-americans is consistently double that of white americans — and the data just keeps piling up. I cannot, in good conscience, believe in the dream of racial wholeness for America anymore.
In trying to come to terms with the events of Ferguson and what that means for our country, the words of the prophet Jeremiah ring true: “They have treated the wounds of my people carelessly, saying Peace, Peace, when there is no peace.”
There is an ugly truth to the events in Ferguson and so many cities since. It is a truth that does not even begin to touch upon the grief being felt by so many, it is a truth that sheds no tears at the deaths of young people of color by unnecessary violence, it is a truth that simply states: the system is working as intended.
Outside of the particularities of whether or not the prosecutor was doing his job right in Ferguson, whether the police should shoot to kill or shoot to disarm or shoot at all — I cannot help but realize that we are faced with a reality that puts minority populations at an automatic disadvantage when it comes to opportunity and justice. We are, of course, talking about the issue of privilege. That is a loaded word. And it is a word that requires me to speak of my own experience instead of filling in the blanks for you.
As a white man in the United States, I am afforded privileges that people of color have to fight for every single day. Beyond knowing that education and opportunity come more easily to someone like me, there are subtler privileges I am granted.
I hardly have to worry about being judged based on my clothing choices — and in the very least, people won’t deem me a “thug” or “trouble” because of them, people do not follow me when I walk into a store, I am never asked to speak on behalf of my entire race — no one ever gestures to me in conversation when the British Empire is mentioned, I am not awarded bizarre compliments such as:
“You are so articulate for someone like you” and I do not have to fear the justice system — and I definitely know that when I have children of my own, I will not have to fear for them when it comes to being thrown in jail, sentenced more harshly, or killed by law enforcement — unless they actually do commit a crime.
When I was first exposed to the idea of being a person of privilege — I laughed and outright rejected the notion. I came from a family that had nearly lost it all. I knew what scraping together pennies was like, I knew what it was like to be made fun of for being poor, and on top of it all, as an LGBT American, I knew the sting of oppression.
How dare someone tell me I was privileged. But eventually disbelief turned into reflection. I thought long and hard on who I am and how society treats me. I thought about all of the times I was welcomed, all the times I found opportunity just waiting for me to show up.
But to tackle this, it required me to step back from my own life for a moment and reach out to those close to me. I had to look at how my friends of color were treated. I had to listen to their stories, hear their pain, acknowledge that while I live in a world that would rather be colorblind, the world they face every single waking moment is one with sharp racial divides.
Those divides have been with all of us for a very long time. In realizing that, yes, I was a part of a system in this country that overwhelmingly favors white Americans — I found my heart breaking in a million different places. This problem we face is so much a part of our culture. It’s as American as apple pie.
So how does someone even begin to engage this? As Unitarian Universalists we are often accused of being a faith that hands out rose colored glasses upon becoming a member. I don’t particularly mind most of the time.
We hope for a better world, we strive to protect our environment, we see the goodness and potential in most people, and we feel deep down that our faith has an important place in our communities and an impact that is transformative. But one thing Unitarian Universalists are also quite good at is the act of minimization when it comes to diversity.
How many times have you heard the phrase, “Well, we’re all just so white anyway,” or “How will we get more diversity here — we have none!” or “I try not to see color. We’re all human beings, there really isn’t race in my mind.” Do those sound familiar to you? That is minimization.
I do not point this out as if I am enlightened — I have done that and still catch myself doing it among other forms of minimizing. While the intentions of such viewpoints are good natured, their affect on how we are as a faith community and, more broadly — beyond Unitarian Universalism — the effect it has on racial dialogue, action, and justice is catastrophic.
It is hard to see the problems overwhelmingly faced by people of color when we deny the very skin they live in. I don’t know about you, but I want the world to move beyond racial discrimination, damnation, and destruction — but we are generations away from such a vision. So how does one confront privilege and minimization?
I would challenge all of us to also look at the diversity we have in this very room. It sounds far too simple but it is an important start. Each encounter we have is an opportunity to learn something, to expand our appreciation of the differences in ourselves and others.
By doing so — we become acutely aware of these sharp divides that still exist. If all encounters are seen as opportunities to engage diversity, then the gulf between white and black, rich and poor, gay and straight, citizen and visitor will be imaginary. The hope is that we will find ourselves more willing to speak up for those that are suffering, as communities of color are suffering.
This is our work — to add to the chorus of voices that acknowledge the grief that so many communities are experiencing. To use the privileges we are given to be a resounding voice. And it is needed. It brings me hope to see the Black Lives Matter movement still being acknowledged — but it is hardly enough and hardly acknowledging the profound anger and grief that fuels it.
More often than not, the discussion focuses on a separation between Black Lives Matter and all law enforcement. It becomes an either/or situation instead of a both/and. What I hear is you are either for BLM or against the police and the other way around as well. I contend that you can be both for BLM and for law enforcement.
This is the compassionate way. This is the way change is effected. To recognize that there are good and righteous police officers just as there are good and righteous whites, blacks, and so on and so forth — it’s a way of saying that the people can be good, but the system is surely broken and we are all a part of it.
I grieve with and support the people who are justly putting their lives on the line for the benefit and protection of our communities. I also grieve for those in the justice system that are participants in systemic racism — but it goes beyond that. I grieve for myself, for all South Side Chicagoans, for Midwesterners, Southerners, all Americans — because the work ahead of us is monumental in order to encourage wholeness and restoration around race and privilege.
These are not just “issues” that must be left to discussion — they have flesh and blood consequences. Michael Brown. Flesh and blood and gone forever. Tamir Rice. Flesh and blood and gone forever. Trayvon Martin, Eric Harris, Walter Scott, Sandra Bland, Freddie Gray — flesh and blood and gone forever. And hundreds of other names just in the past few years. Gone forever — taken too soon.
When will it stop? When will the prisons no longer be overflowing with people of color, when will the morgues stop being filled with their children, when will we realize it’s not us vs. them but us, all of us — white, black, police, minister, lawyer, etc — vs. a system we’ve been swept up in to?
As Unitarian Universalists, we have a great and enduring legacy. A legacy of answering the call to transform our world, a legacy of marching, fighting, and loving the oppressed…and the oppressors. We cannot let such a legacy that echoes back through our history to be snuffed out by indifference.
It is difficult work. It can be heartbreaking work. We may find ourselves a little worse for wear — struggling to face such an immense problem in our culture — but know that we are always beloved in the good that we strive to do. And this is just in beginning to engage this vast racial and cultural divide.
It will take generations to see the pain of Ferguson fully healed and the dream of Selma fully realized. There is no denying that we may not see a world where restoration is actualized. And I cannot say that I have it all figured out — I am not here as someone that knows the all of the answers. I am working on this. It will take time.
And it requires all of us, not just as Unitarian Universalists, but as people hoping for a better life for all people. The result of such work is an abiding delight that transforms one life at a time. It opens up the way for diversity to be celebrated, even if just in this room.
In the days ahead, let us look more closely at the diversity in this room — in each and every encounter in our daily lives. Let us be reminded that multiculturalism and racial justice are fundamental to Unitarian Universalism — and may we be inspired from our inward reflection on such crucial things to make it known that we unite with the suffering and that, yes, Black Lives Matter.
All that is left to us is to take the next step. Will we engage this more deeply as a congregation? Will be take a risk and put a Black Lives Matter sign outside, will we wear a button in public, will we educate ourselves and others about just how crucial this is for our culture and why it matters? While we cannot solve systemic racism ourselves, we can remember the names of those who’ve died because of who they were. May their memory — their faces — be our guide. Blessed Be. Amen.