Sunday, July 10, 2016

Lost in a White Sea While Black Lives Matter

Alton Sterling. Philando Castle.  New names to memorize, to be added to the long scroll of indignation and grief.  Black men executed by police who were overcome by adrenaline, rage, and panic that the Black monster would harm them.  Rage. Despair. Bewilderment.  And then the news of five dead police officer, the litany of their names still emerging at this writing, and another dozen wounded in Dallas.  Tragedy on Tragedy.  Catastrophe upon catastrophe.  A terrible week.  In the wee hours of Friday morning I could only blurt out on a Facebook entry:
Louisiana , Minnesota. Now the perhaps inevitable violent eruption of pent-up rage and thirst for blind vengeance in Texas. Awaiting in dread another inevitable—the old White terror of the slave rebellion, of rampaging and raping Black masses—and the terrible reaction. Shall we sing that litanyNat Turner, the Texas Terror, Rosewood, Tulsa, Philadelphia MOVE, the Black Panthers…a few thousand lonely trees with their Strange Fruit, barbequed Negros, bullet ridden bodies dumped here and there. A building catastrophe. What did the man say? A fallen pebble become an avalanche? I am grieving for all. I am angry for all. I am incoherent and paralyzed when no human dare be paralyzed. Yes all lives matter. Yes Blue lives matter. But until Black Lives really do Matter in this country there will be no peace in our hearts or in our nation.
It is hours later now.  I have gathered my thoughts and feelings.  I have been counseled by those wiser and stronger than me and reminded of enduring truth.
The Rev. Lynn Unger, Minister of Life Time Learning with the Church of the Larger Fellowship (CLF), editor of their journal Quest, and author of an acclaimed poetry collection, Bread and Other Miracles wrote beautifully what I was mute to express.  This poem appeared on Quest for Meaning, a Unitarian Universalist spiritual blog hosted by
A Mathematics of Loss

There is no algebra for death.
No life lost cancels out another.
The idea that there is some other
side to the equation is a lie
perpetrated by centuries of war and revenge.
There is no other side. You cannot subtract
and equalize the equation.

There is an addition of loss,
Grief upon grief upon grief.
There is a multiplication of loss,
ripples of sorrow expanding
through families, friends, communities, nations.
Division is a choice.
Division is a choice.

—Lynn Ungar 7-8-16
But I have been reminded this was not about my grief or guilt.  A well deserved slap across the face to get over myself.  There are those for whom the arbitrary risks of death at the hands of the police are not just hypothetical.  Those with, you should pardon the expression, with real skin in the gameBlack Skin.  I have work to do, and likely so do you.  Work confronting racism not just out there, but in here where it has been planted deeply in the heart even if denied.  
I and others like me have been dared and challenged to put the words that come easily and cheaply to the test of meaningful action.  To become allies—effective allies and more than allies, comrades, in a common struggle.  That means taking real risks, fighting side by side, accepting the leadership of those with the targets on their backs, giving up the need to be right and heroic self-fantasies of being a savior.  Many of you reading this have heard the same call and challenge.  And we want to take it up.  But how?

It is not easy for anyone, but harder for some.  I live in McHenry County Illinois, a nice, safe Chicago Collar County enclave that according to the last census was 90.1% white, 2.5% Asian, 1.1% Black, 0.3% Native, 4.3% from other races, and 1.7% from two or more races.  Latinos, who may self-identify as White, Black, mixed race, or other, made up 11.4%.  In the years since 2010 those figures probably haven’t changed much, except for a steady grown of the Latino population.  Except for that, McHenry County is a sea of whiteness—and white privilege.
Like almost all religious bodies in the County, my church, the Tree of Life Unitarian Universalist Congregation in the City of McHenry is virtually all White.  It has no adult Black members and only a Black or mixed race child or two at a time.  we seem to mean well but are flummoxed and paralyzed about what to do.
                                                                                                                                                                         Good intentions, liberal guilt on one hand and smug satisfaction in “not seeing color” on the other, celebrating Martin Luther King Day once a year, and singing We Shall Overcome and Lift Every Voice and Sing do not come close to meeting the challenge.  In fact those things dodge it while giving us feel-good cover.
Rev. William Barber of the Moral Monday Movement addressed UUA General Assembly public witness event.  The GA affirmed commitment to the Black Lives Matter Movement.

How then can we, under these circumstances,  answer the challenge issued at the UUA General Assembly in Columbus just a couple of weeks ago to explicitly embrace and support the Black Lives Matter movement as attendees raised nearly $90,000 for the Black Lives of Unitarian Universalism organizing collective.  But even at the GA with its rallies led by the Moral Mondays movement’s Rev. William Barber, numerous workshops, impassioned floor debate, special worship sessions, frustrated young UUs of color had to admonish the delegates and attendees who were still overwhelmingly White: 
When UUs think that signing a check and throwing a bill in the offering means that we showed up for BLUU, and that accomplishing that means we’re done with this activism, this is not support
You live vicariously through us because we fight the system, but you are the same system.
You say ‘Black lives matter,’ but there are no black lives in some of your congregations. You are saying it to yourselves.
That last certainly applies to us.  So how do we proceed?  Here are some suggestions from the BLM movement along with some of my commentary.
Do the hard, internal anti-racism work of understanding White privilege, accepting it means you/me/us:  This is tough and painful.  Mention White privilege and most people react like you are accusing them of being bad people and become defensive and offended.  When the subject has been breached from our pulpit some people squirm uncomfortably in their seats.  Some folks scan the announced worship service announcements and avoid attending services where they think it might come up. 
But understand, White privilege is a condition of history and culture, not a character trait or flaw. It is the invisible sea White Americans swim in and colors our understanding of everything and everyone else.  It accepts this condition as normal, Whiteness as normal, and everything else a deviation to be judged by that standard.  It gives us the invisible leg up we don’t realize we get by holding down those who claim a crack at the same pie.  But when we educate ourselves to be aware of that privilege, we are liberated to challenge the assumptions in society.  The only character flaw would be coming to recognize White Privilege and devastating toll it takes on Blacks and other minorities and deciding you would rather maintain the benefits of supposed superiority than risk equality. 
But don’t expect a slap on the back, effusive congratulations, or sympathy for the pain of the process.  We are reminded that it is not a Black job to comfort fragile White egos.
The UUA has developed a raft of curricula and programs to help congregations like our deal with the issue.  We just have to be brave enough to face it.
Many UU Congregations have displayed Black Lives Matter banners.  Some like this one in Maryland, have been targeted by vandals.  Tree of Life has not been one of them.

Bear witness:  This is the simplest form of social justice activism yet we have lagged behind many UU congregations, including those in similarly white communities.  Scores of congregations have hung out Black Lives Matters banners or used their electronic message boards.  We have been intimidated by backlash in some communities charging Black Lives Matters as an attack on police or as reverse racism.  We have been cowed in fear of the vandalism that several congregations have experienced and fretted over the expense of replacing banners or risking damage to our shiny new message board sign.  We worry about losing pledges or about alienating the neighbors and threatening growth.  We have been deluged in yes buts and lacked leadership in forthrightly challenging them.
We have staged a single one hour Black Lives Matter vigil at an intersection near the church one Sunday after services a year and a half ago.  Even then, participants acted only as individuals and could not claim the sanction or approval of the congregation.  Less than a dozen people participated, three of them visiting from a small lay led Wisconsin Fellowship.  There have been no actions lately, even though BLM advises us of the importance to bring the message everywhere, including into the heart of White communities.
Part of this is due to a total breakdown of our social justice program since the former Peace and Justice Committee essentially dissolved for lack of leadership two years ago.  The idea at the time was that such committees were boring and that the congregation would organically come forward with new projects that were truly meaningful to it.  That hasn’t happened.  Certain on-going service projects and commitments have gone forward—support for the PADS rotating homeless shelter system, Compassion for Campers which feeds the homeless over the summer when the church shelters are closed, CASA volunteers monitoring juveniles in the court and foster care systems, jail visitations with the Committee for Detained Immigrants, and a few others.  Two or three individuals have participated in protests in Chicago on different issues.  We actively ally, support, and cheerlead the local Gay community, PFLAG, and have spoken up for the Transgender and gender fluid as individuals.  But we have initiated no new advocacy or activist programs.
No leadership spontaneously emerged to rally support for such efforts or to undertake the congregational education that would make them possible.  The time for reliance on magical thinking has come to an end with this crisis.  Ministerial and lay leadership is required.  A responsible agency must be empowered to undertake the necessary planning and organization and that agency, no matter what form or title it assumes must have the full and public backing of leadership.  Sometime leadership means steering the discussion and creating the conditions for action, not waiting for the most timid to catch up.
White allies can put their bodies where their Facebook memes are.

Put your body where you mouth is:  This may be the most complicated part of the business here in McHenry County.  Unlike Chicagoans we can’t hop on an L train or bus at the drop of a hat to join the BLM street marches and other direct action demonstrations at the drop of hat.  For me it would require an hour and a half trip into town on a Metra commuter train plus walks to the station in Woodstock or Crystal Lake and another hike to the action.   That kind of thing requires plenty of time and no little planning. 
On the other hand there is little likelihood of a militant demonstration breaking out in these parts.  Unless, of course, there is a local outrage.  That isn’t totally impossible.  The very scarcity of Black faces around here means that they attract extra, unwanted attention when they are seen.  Driving while Black police stops are regular occurrences with all of the risks of going deadly wrong that we have seen so often.  Outside of the three or four biggest towns in the County largely part time officers are not well trained in general.  Even in larger professional forces there is scant training in racial sensitivities and a lot of hyper-militarized, hyper macho training.  As in that all White suburb of Minneapolis a fatal encounter is always possible.
But unless that happens, those of us from around here will have to actively plan to join actions.  This can be done.  We can connect with and monitor groups who are regionally active and plan to join scheduled action.  The Unitarian Universalist Advocacy Network of Illinois (UUANI), a state-wide organization of UU congregations and individuals has helped make these connections and facilitated cooperation on multiple issues.  Monitoring the social media accounts of recognized BLM groups can help keep us in the loop.  

Providing safe space:  The Black Lives of UU Organizing Collective (BLUUOC) has suggested that even congregations with few, if any Black members can offer a tremendous supporting service by offering safe space at no cost to the Black community in times of distress and emergency:
In the wake the murder of Alton Sterling — yet another unarmed Black man — in Baton Rouge, many Black activists, organizers, and community members need places to be in community with each other. Many organizers are seeking spaces to hold and support each other, especially after media outlets have replayed the video over and over again, causing more trauma.
As the BLUU Organizing Collective, we know that many Unitarian Universalist congregations may be wondering how they can support in times like this. Consider this statement a call to action for UU churches across the continent to open up your doors to Black community organizers free of charge to offer an explicitly Black space.
At first glance the tiny percentage of Blacks living in McHenry County would seem to preclude this as an alternative.  In fact, it may mean that the need is even greater locally.  Black residents are spread across the county and outside of a few blocks of old summer cottages in Carpentersville and a couple of apartment complexes that take section 8 vouchers they have not achieved the critical mass to establish functional communities. 
There is also a considerable diversity of class and status.  There are a handful of successful professionals, business people and athletes who have chosen to live in the most expensive McMansion subdivisions or the leafy enclaves of position and privilege like Barrington Hills or Bull Valley where their income and achievement gives them some entrĂ©e.  On the other hand the most rapidly growing numbers a poor blacks who have been relocated from the city as the Chicago Housing Authority tries to comply with desegregation orders by disbursing former residents of massive housing complexes throughout the region.  These folks often experience culture shock and isolation made worse by a barely functioning public transportation system which makes commuting to work, shopping, getting to school, and staying in contact with loved ones a near impossible challenge.  A lot of these people will flee back to the city as soon as circumstances permit.
Then there are the bi-racial couples.  The minority half finds him or her self living in the white half’s culture, another isolating experience.  One of the largest pools of black residents come from what has been called cradle integration—Black children living with their White single parents or grandparents and Black children in foster care or who have been adopted by white families.  These children are often the only Blacks in their school classes.
The combined factors of a low density, widely distributed population and the social difference have made forming a cohesive local Black community almost impossible.  Almost none of the recognized community institutions exist.  There is only one Black church in the county, Trinity Baptist in Crystal Lake which draws its membership from a wide area of the North and Northwest suburbs and serves mostly successful middle class families.  There are no Black restaurants, bars, or social clubs, no barber or beauty shops, none of the usual community gathering spots.

Under the circumstances, making space available in our church home, could provide the only possibility for gatherings.  The trick, of course, is finding a way to reach out to this small but diverse population to make the offer.

Are we up for these challenges?


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