Their Lives Still Matter

by BC

Our reading today comes to us from the poet, Audette Fulbright Fulson, titled “We Are Not Done.

I’m often considered a rather aggressive driver.  It comes as a shock to many, outside of my general sarcastic nature, and sometimes boisterousness, most people assume I’m rather quiet, reserved, and calm.

This is not true when I’m in a car, though I assure you I’ve calmed down significantly in the past two years.  But know this bit about me, it wouldn’t surprise you that I’ve received traffic tickets a couple times in the past.  Until my dying day, I will dispute all of them.

Sadly no one cares about such protests, and honestly it doesn’t really matter to me much anyway.  Except for one.  There is one instance of me getting a ticket that I will never forget.

It was in college sometime, back when I drove a temperamental Ford Focus – it was an awful shade of beige because that model was the cheapest, I think they called it Burnt Nevada or something like that.  Anyway, a carful of theology students were driving back to campus after visiting a Mennonite church on Sunday.

This is how theology students had a good time in college – we went to church.  We were talking about god-knows-what, and sitting in traffic, barely moving, and suddenly a song popped on the radio that caused my friend Jessica to shout out, “Oh my god!  It’s my song!”

She turned up the radio, drowned us out, and started dancing in the passenger seat.    Halfway through her dancing and our laughing, sitting there in that slow moving traffic – I think there was construction or something – the traffic broke and we went on our way, only to immediately see flashing police lights behind us.

We pulled over.  The lights followed us.  We looked around confused, was a tail light out?  Was the trunk open and we didn’t know?  We knew we hadn’t been speeding, we had just started to move again.  I turned off the car and radio and rolled down the window.

The police officer came up to the side of the car, I said hello and asked him what was wrong.  The officer looked in the passenger seat, then in the back seat, looked at me and then proceeded to scream at us for the next few minutes.

We were so shocked we weren’t sure what to do.  He took my license, issued a ticket for speeding, yelled at us some more, and went on his way.  We slowly drove back to campus shocked.  In the middle of that final leg home, my friend Jessica said to me, “You just got caught driving while black.”

I snorted dismissed it.  She insisted.  Jessica was, you see, a black woman from Gary, Indiana.  She went into a long list of all the times she had been pulled over for no good reason in white suburban Chicago.  She talked about her relatives having the same experiences, sometimes worse.

I was a rather naïve college kid at the time.  I didn’t buy it.  I was white, I was driving, how could her race affect how the police officer reacted to me?  Looking back at this story often, I realize now that I very well could have been speeding or doing something wrong.

I realize that our worries and theories about why the police officer was so awful to us could be absolutely wrong.  Perhaps he had a bad day.  But what remains from that story beyond all of those ands-ifs-buts is the reality that for my friend, her daily experience was steeped in the fear of her being treated differently – by strangers, by friends, and by those who are there to protect us – in every moment of her life.

We would talk about what happened that day some years later.  She still believed it was because she was in the car.  It had happened to her and her family several times since that day.  On top of it, our discussion was marred by the several violent deaths of unarmed black men that were making the headlines.

In that follow-up discussion, I had gained a little more awareness of who I was as a white male in the United States and the privileges that it afforded me.  I believed her now, when she told me she was always afraid the police would pull her over.  Or that employees in stores would follow her.

Or that her fiancé might get mistaken for a criminal when he’s just walking down the street.  Or that well-meaning white friends would go out of their way to tell her or her family just how articulate they were.  I believed her then.  And I believe her now.

Black Lives Matter is a phrase we are still hearing and seeing if we are paying attention.  And if you are unfamiliar with this terminology, don’t worry, a lot of white folks still are unfamiliar.  The Black Lives Matter movement emerged from the shootings and deaths of several unarmed black men and women over the past few years.

It arose as Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, Michael Brown, Sandra Black, Walter Scott, Freddie Gray, Eric Garner, and so many others had their lives snuffed out for inconsequential crimes or, in many cases, just for walking down the street.  It’s a movement that I would not say was founded, because the black community has wanted their lives to matter for generations, but was instead finally noticed.

It’s a movement whose mission is stated clearly and decisively: “Rooted in the experiences of Black people in this country who actively resist our dehumanization, Black Lives Matter is a call to action and a response to the virulent anti-Black racism that permeates our society.”

It continues, “When we say Black Lives Matter, we are broadening the conversation around state violence to include all of the ways in which Black people are intentionally left powerless at the hands of the state.  We are talking about the ways in which Black lives are deprived of our basic human rights and dignity.”

If any of those words from their mission statement made you feel uncomfortable, it means they certainly needed to be said.  The goal of Black Lives Matter is to shine a glaring light on the clear discrepancies faced by our black brothers and sisters in the United States.

It’s there to tell us that we cannot just hope for a just system when the system is part of the problem.  It’s there to tell well-meaning white allies who say All Lives Matter that that language robs black Americans of the opportunity to have the injustices they face recognized and affirmed.  It’s there to echo the words of Martin Luther King Jr. when he said that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

This movement is one that causes a lot of white folks to shift uneasily.  For many of us, we will proclaim that we do not see race, or we thought the Civil Rights movement took care of this.  We’ll point out how we had a black president, we watch Blackish on TV, and we have a black friend.

Many of these things we say are just fine and good, but saying we do not see race is aspirational and not based in current reality, and the rest of the points are centered in our experience, not the black experience.  And the two are not the same.

Just as women earning 78 cents on the dollar compared to their male colleagues illustrates gender inequality in our nation there are swathes of data that highlight just why people are saying Black Lives Matter. Here’s just a few points of data – and instead of memorizing it, just let it sink in, because no matter how many times you hear it, it should unnerve you that this data exists because of skin color.

I mentioned that white women make 78 cents on the dollar compared to their male colleagues.  Black men make 72 cents on the dollar.  60% of the prison population consists of people of color when they only make up 30% of our nation’s population,

white students are 78% more likely to be admitted to colleges and universities compared to equally qualified students of color, a white high school dropout has equal chances of getting a job as a college educated person of color,

4 million incidents of housing discrimination based on race occur each year, and let’s not even get into voter suppression of minority populations.  And this is just the data I can stand up here in a pulpit and rattle off without getting too angry to function, and this is only the beginning.

So, yes, in our majority white religious tradition, many of us get uncomfortable when we talk about race, but I contend that discomfort should be at facing the enormity of the problem before us and not because we want to hold on to a color blind aspiration.

Black people in the United States do not get the option to be color blind, they are reminded of their color every single day. And yet in the face of all of this data – and let’s be honest, Unitarians love data.  We love percentages and fractions and volumes of research.

Okay maybe not all of us, but a good deal of us do.  But with all of this information, many of us would rather such a topic never be spoken of.  And many ministers fear bringing it up.

Could you believe that in a Unitarian Universalist congregation, a minister would fear affirming the Black Lives Matter movement?  I know I have my own doubts about speaking to a mostly white room about racism.  And I wonder where that fear comes from.

Since when did Unitarian Universalists – who were amongst the first white allies to fill up buses to go march in Civil Rights movement, whose martyrs were lost on the streets of Selma, whose principles affirm the worth and dignity and right to justice for all human beings, shy away from talking about race?

I ask this question in as broad a way as possible.  It would be unfair to single only us out, but, still, we need to be singled out.  We need to examine our relationship with race on a very real molecular level.  And we can begin doing that here.

Church is at once an experiment and a place where we can encounter parts of our lives or parts of the world that we would rather not look at, but do so in a supportive community.

The theologian Reinhold Niebuhr once said that the purpose of church is to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.”  My hope is that we can hold that tension here and be afflicted for justice.

And holding that tension means having honest conversations about how we express our feelings about race in this church.  Do we find ourselves still expecting people of color to come in here and speak endlessly on their experience?  Do we find ourselves getting upset when minority communities tell us to go away, because in that moment that’s what they need?

Do we find ourselves asking where the diversity is in this church without first recognizing the diversity we have amongst us already but also asking what have we individually done to bring about that diversity we keep wondering about?

These are but a few of the many questions a mostly white religious tradition such as ours needs to be asking, and they are being asked in several of our churches, and many of you are asking them as well.  It also requires of us the savvy to understand the intersectionality of all of this.

The grim news is that when you intersect being black with nearly any other identity, you aren’t going to like what you see.  Are you a black single mother?  Your homelessness rate just went up significantly.  Black and transgender? The likelihood of you being murdered is terrifying and no one hears about it.

Black and disabled?  Your access to care starts to disappear.  Again, the list could go on.  But here’s the good news with intersectionality and here’s another reason why it should matter to Unitarian Universalists.

The liberation of one people certainly leads to greater liberation for another.  The liberation of our gay, lesbian, transgender, female, disabled, Hispanic, Latino, Muslim, refugee, foreign, and black neighbors leads to a more harmonious and benevolent society.

This work matters.  Knowing this matters.  Black lives matter.  Because so long as this discrepancy exists, our work in this faith, given our history, given that our martyrs died for racial justice, we cannot ignore it.  We cannot distract ourselves with false equivalencies.  Yes, police lives matter, but last I checked, you can take the uniform off, you can’t take off your skin color.

My colleague Kenny Wiley, an African American Unitarian Universalist, sums up this call to liberation, he says:

Guided by that principle—that enduring, unfulfilled promise of the belief in the inherent worth and dignity of every person–ours is a faith that has said, or worked to say to those who have been marginalized:

You are a woman, and your life matters just the same.
You are gay or lesbian, and your life matters just the same.
You are transgender, and your life matters just the same.
You are bisexual, and your life matters just the same.
You have a disability, and your life matters just the same.
You were not loved as a child, and your life matters just the same.
You struggle with depression, and your life matters just the same.

Right now we are being called—by our ancestors, by our principles, by young black activists across the country—to promote and affirm:
You are young and black, and your life matters just the same.
You stole something, and your life matters just the same.
I have been taught to fear you, and your life matters just the same.
The police are releasing your criminal record, and your life matters just the same.
They are calling you a thug, and your life matters just the same.

So, what can we do?  We can continue the discussion.  And I don’t mean talking about how we become more diverse, that is the wrong question to ask.  I mean examining our own places of privilege, examining how we can be good allies – even if that means being told to keep out, and leveraging our privileges to call out systems of injustice and work for their dismantling.

That all sounds easy, doesn’t it?  But practically, we can all, in this room, begin engaging with the national black lives matter movement.  We can engage with the Black Lives of UU movement as well.

And all of this will be posted on our website.  Being effective and aware allies begins with being aware.  Educate yourselves.  Talk with those around you about this.  Church is where this conversation begins, not where it ends.

At the end of the day, we need to take a long hard look at our principles, those lofty aspirations that we print in our bulletins, our hymnals, hang on our walls, and find comfort in at times.

We need to look at them and think about the ancestors of this faith, some of whom died because our principles called them to speak truth to power and fight endlessly for justice.  And while not all of us should lay down our lives to uphold the call of this tradition, we still must be ready to, as the prophet Micah once said, seek justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God.

This movement is not going away.  It’s been with us since the slave ships were loaded up and people were brought here against their will.  Black Lives Matter is just the name of the current movement.  But for our black neighbors, it has been a movement spanning the generations.

The questions we need to ask ourselves are:  Will we be at the ready to promote justice – even if it makes us uncomfortable?  Will we join the cause for liberation?  Do black lives matter to us?