White Supremacy Culture
So… Until recently, I had planned this, my last Ploughshare article, to be, if not a completely fluffy, sentimental and affectionate goodbye, at least a bit lighter… a bit airier… And make no mistake - I will miss you all greatly, and I hope you know that of course I bear you a great deal of affection. But these are exceptional times, and I think they call for a different message.
Now, since the beginning of this strange new COVID world, many at First Unitarian have been having conversations about what the post-COVID world we want to emerge into might look like. Given the systemic inequity and racism and classism that COVID has exposed, what does real reform look like?
Well, it seems we’ve got our answer. Across our nation, we are beginning to see what real reform looks like. It is raw, and it is difficult, and it is messy. A recent sermon by another of your former interns, Rev. Jeannie Shero, talked about “threshold” moments. She talked about the transformation of caterpillars into butterflies: the total dissolution of the caterpillar into a “soup,” from which the butterfly is built. In the moment of change, we may mourn the destruction of the caterpillar in what looks like utter destruction. But we must also be mindful that this is a time of creativity and new beginnings. And as Mike preached a few months ago, those prophetic voices are coming in the form of Black women. And so in that spirit, I ask that you keep in mind a few things:
Please remember that we need all of you. Elders, we need your voices to tell us about what this struggle looked like in the civil rights era - how it was hard then, too, and how those who knew what was at stake came together anyway. And we need to hear, as I have from some of you, how not everyone loved Dr. King or the movement, and how the same disparaging remarks were leveled against him as are leveled against social justice activists and Black Lives Matter marchers today: that they hated America, that they were no more than ungrateful, uneducated thugs who wanted more than their fair share.
Parents and caregivers, we need your hearts. We need you to spend time having those difficult, age-appropriate discussions with your children about the history of racism and money in this country. I haven’t met an elementary-aged kid yet who doesn’t have a strongly-developed sense of fairness. Now is the time to start talking to your kids about how to build a more equitable, better, fairer world.
And youth and young (and older!) adults, we need your voices and your legs and your skills! Find where you fit in. Maybe it’s marching. Maybe it’s writing. Maybe it’s putting your carpentry or artistry or music skills in aid of Black lives. Maybe it’s writing your congresspeople, or running for office yourselves. If you don’t know what to do, contact a local Black-led organization to see how you can support them.
Take care of yourselves. Put bluntly, systems of oppression and power will respond with all necessary force to anything or anyone that tries to take that power back from them. Over the past week, we have seen brutal police attacks on peaceful protesters. That isn’t a fluke: that is the result of police forces that were not, as the narrative goes, created for the protection of the citizenry, but for protection of property both in the North (of shipping companies) and in the South (of slave owners). So be smart with your physical and emotional resources: put your energies where Black leaders tell you they will have the most impact. Stay in touch with organizers to know what is happening with police on the ground, and how they are responding. And remember to take the time to rest when you need to. This work, done correctly, can be exhausting, and you need to be intentional in attending to your spiritual, emotional, and physical nourishment if you wish to do it.
Prioritize life. A lot of property is going to be lost during this uprising. Property - money - stuff is what we’ve all been taught to value and protect in this society. That’s why the looting has become such a topic of national conversation, where the loss of Black lives up until now has not. And this implied tradeoff between property and Black lives - the idea that a Black life can be given a monetary value, and that that value is less than a storefront, or a restaurant, or a bank lobby - this isn’t new. On this continent, it began in 1619 when the first enslaved Africans stepped off of the White Lion near Jamestown, Virginia, and were bought “for victuals.” But it came to the New World with European imperialism - with Columbus; and over 530 years, this country has failed to come to terms with its imperialist past or to confront its continuing commodification of Black lives.
So in your conversations and in your actions, prioritize sacred, invaluable human lives over property. Resist the urge to turn conversations from police brutality or the inequity of systemic racism in this country, toward the destruction of property. And when you hear that diversionary tactic being employed by others, name it and resist it. Affirm that sacred Black life will always be infinitely more valuable than property.
Reimagine your world. In my last sermon to you, I quoted Naomi Klein: “Crisis blows open the sense of what’s possible.” In the same teach-in, she also talked about how people will seize on the solutions, during a crisis, that are already available to them. And so now is the time for us all to be exceedingly, repetitively, annoyingly vocal about those “radical” reforms that many of us have been advocating for over the last few years: abolishment of policing as we know it, end private prisons, reparations, universal healthcare, universal basic income… We need to be saying these things over and over until our friends, relatives, politicians, strangers on the bus are tired of hearing them. Make them mainstream. And again, take cues from Black organizers, many of whom have been countering violence and commodification of life for decades. (For alternatives to modern policing, this Rolling Stone article [https://www.rollingstone.com/politics/politics-news/police-brutality-cop-free-world-protest-199465/], as well as the links within it, is a pretty good place to start.)
First Unitarian, there has never been a more important time for your prophetic witness, your love, or your steadfast dedication to justice and action than right now. After spending the last 9 months with you, I have no doubt that your voices, dedicated to the unity that makes us one, will be among the most powerful in the coming struggle for Black liberation and for equity. I love you, and I’m proud of you. Go in peace and strength.