a sermon given at First Parish Church in Billerica, Massachusetts on January 14, 2018
“In this country, American means white. Everybody else has to hyphenate.” - Toni Morrison
First Reading: Huckleberry Finn
I grew up in Illinois, in the next town up the Mississippi from Hannibal, Missouri, where Mark Twain grew up and where he set the novels Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn.
Twain continues to be a regional hero along that section of the river. Hannibal holds a Tom Sawyer Days festival each July, and you can tour a cave which is supposed to be the one in Tom Sawyer. If you just went to the festivals and never read the books, you might think Twain had written happy, nostalgic stories about pre-Civil-War Missouri. But in fact he portrayed his hometown fairly accurately, the good and bad alike. In particular, he didn’t sugarcoat the racism he grew up with, racism that was still echoing through that region more than a century later, when I grew up. For example: the belief that the suffering of black people doesn’t really count, because maybe they aren’t people at all.
In Chapter 32 of Huckleberry Finn, Huck is looking for his friend, the runaway slave Jim, when he wanders onto the farm of Tom Sawyer’s aunt and uncle, who haven’t seen Tom for years and mistake Huck for their nephew. Aunt Sally expects the boy to have arrived by steamboat and wonders why he hadn’t gotten there sooner, so Huck spins a story about the steam engine blowing a cylinder head.
“Good gracious!” Aunt Sally responds. “Anybody hurt?”
“No’m. Killed a nigger.”
“Well, it’s lucky, because sometimes people do get hurt.”
Second Reading: Interview with Chris Rock
The comedian Chris Rock was interviewed by Frank Rich in 2014. In this section of that interview, he attacks the idea that civil rights is a story of black progress.
I almost cry every day. I drop my kids off and watch them in the school with all these mostly white kids, and I got to tell you, I drill them every day: “Did anything happen today? Did anybody say anything?” They look at me like I am crazy.
… When we talk about race relations in America or racial progress, it’s all nonsense. There are no race relations. White people were crazy. Now they’re not as crazy. To say that black people have made progress would be to say they deserve what happened to them before.
So, to say Obama is [black] progress is saying that he’s the first black person that is qualified to be president. [Electing Obama isn’t] black progress. [It’s] white progress. There’s been black people qualified to be president for hundreds of years.
If you saw Tina Turner and Ike having a lovely breakfast over there, would you say their relationship’s improved? Some people would. But a smart person would go, “Oh, he stopped punching her in the face.”
It’s not up to her. Ike and Tina Turner’s relationship has nothing to do with Tina Turner[’s progress]. Nothing. It just doesn’t.
… My kids are smart, educated, beautiful, polite children. There have been smart, educated, beautiful, polite black children for hundreds of years. The advantage that my children have is that my children are encountering the nicest white people that America has ever produced.
Let’s hope America keeps producing nicer white people.
Tomorrow is the holiday that celebrates Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement in which he played such a central role. I am a white speaker addressing a mostly white congregation in a mostly white denomination. So what is a good and appropriate way for me to mark this occasion?
I have seen a lot of ways that I don’t want to do it. For example, some white politicians make MLK Day the celebration of a historical triumph, like Yorktown or D-Day. It marks the time, decades ago, when the civil rights movement for all practical purposes ended racism in America.
So that’s all over now, we don’t need to think or talk about it any more, and we can continue forward into our colorblind future. Thank you, Dr. King.
For other whites, MLK day is just another ethnic holiday, like Cinco de Mayo. Just as everybody is Irish on St. Patrick’s Day, everybody is black during the MLK weekend. So we should all eat soul food and sing the old slave spirituals, not because they mean anything, but because that’s just what you do. If you can sing “White Christmas” in Florida, then you can sing “Go Down Moses” on Wall Street or in Beverley Hills. Why not?
Some whites understand that the civil rights movement still has work to do, but they see it as a black thing that they don’t need to participate in. “You go, black people. Win your equality. We’ll stand here on the sidelines and cheer you on, because that’s the kind of socially conscious white folks we are.”
Some white speakers explain to blacks that we’d like to help you achieve justice, but you’re going about it all wrong, with your “Black Lives Matter” and kneeling during the national anthem and all that. “Let me give you the benefit of my Olympian white wisdom and explain what you ought to be doing. And when you start doing that, then I’ll pitch right in. You’re welcome.”
And finally there are the speakers I hesitate to criticize, because they’re right as far as they go. They talk about real, important issues: voting rights, mass incarceration, police who act more like an occupying army than like defenders of the community. They point to the growing acceptance of white supremacists in our national conversation, to the increasingly bold nostalgia for the Confederacy, and the slavery that defined it.
They observe how our leaders yell “Terrorism!” when a Muslim young man is influenced by jihadist propaganda on the internet and shoots up a nightclub in Orlando. But when a white young man is influenced by white supremacist propaganda on the internet and shoots up a black church in Charleston, that’s just mental illness. It doesn’t require any change in policy.
They point out how our president can describe whites chanting “Sieg Heil!” in Charlottesville as “very fine people”. But if you’re African, then he says you come from “a shithole country” and we don’t want you.
That’s all happening. It’s all real. There’s a serious political and social battle going on out there, and we do need to be part of it.
But if that’s all you say, you leave the unstated implication that the battle out there is the only important one. Good is fighting Evil out there somewhere, and all we need to do is pick the right side. If we vote for the right candidates, go to the right demonstrations, send the right letters to our representatives, and like the right pages on Facebook, then we’re OK. We’re the good white people, not the bad white people.
I don’t want to talk you out of any of those actions. There is a battle out there, and I do want you to be on the right side of it. And if you use Martin Luther King weekend as a time to re-energize and re-dedicate yourself to that struggle, that’s a fine thing to do.
But I think the reason to have this discussion inside a church rather than at a political rally is to recognize that the fight against racism, like any battle of Good and Evil, is not just something that happens out there. The struggle against racism also has to happen inside every individual — inside me, inside you. Because living in a culture of white supremacy — a culture that enslaved millions of people, that tolerated Jim Crow, and that continues to accept that the races have an education gap and an achievement gap and a power gap and a wealth gap — living in that culture has consequences. It has imprinted itself on all of us in all kinds of ways. If we don’t try to root that out, if we never introspect and take a critical look at our habits of thought and word and deed, then our instinctive responses will inevitably undermine our conscious intentions.
There can be no clearer example of this truth than the Unitarian Universalist Association. For the last several decades, you would have been hard pressed to find white people with better conscious intentions than the ones who were decision-makers at the UUA. And yet, last year a crisis erupted over the fact that the people the UUA hires, especially at the highest levels, are disproportionately white. That white dominance was not a goal that anyone set out to achieve. And yet it happened.
I feel particularly well qualified to lead a service on internalized racism, because the racism inside me is not that hard to find. Sometimes I hear young ministers who were brought up UU in the 1990s delve deep to give examples of their internal racism, and I confess that those talks can make me envious. “Really? That’s all you found?”
I was brought up racist. It got in there deep. It shaped some of the fundamental ways I perceive the world, and I’ve been trying to overcome it most of my life.
Whenever you make a confession like that in front of other white people, somebody is bound to ask, “Well, what do you mean by racism?” And whatever answer you give, they’ll tell you that you’ve got it wrong. Because that’s one of the primary ways whites distract ourselves from introspecting about racism: We argue endlessly about what the word ought to mean, and never get around to applying whatever definition we come up with.
I wrote a column in the Fall issue of UU World called “Of Course I’m Racist”. Not long after it came out, I was at my church in Bedford when one of the other parishioners came up to me and started a conversation by very authoritatively declaring, “You’re not racist.” I wanted to respond with something flip, like: “Thank you for clearing that up for me.” But instead I listened to his definition of racism and why it would leave me out.
I got various other odd reactions through social media. In the article, I had talked about growing up racist in a white working class neighborhood of that river town in the Midwest. I did my best to talk about myself and my own experiences. But some readers interpreted every adjective I used as a blanket indictment of the corresponding class of people: small towns, the working class, the Midwest, whites. In making my own confession, I apparently had accused them of something, and they felt offended. Because that’s another way whites divert the discussion and avoid examining ourselves: we take offense. “How dare anybody mention racism to me? I don’t hate black people. I never lynched anybody. I’m against the KKK. I’ve had friends who weren’t white. I even voted for Obama.”
Well, me too. That kind of stuff is not what I’m talking about. So what exactly am I confessing to? What do I mean when I apply the word racist to myself?
I mean this: In the environment that shaped me, people implicitly meant white people. (To this day, if a joke starts “A guy walks into a bar …” I picture a white guy. I don’t know what color his hair is, or whether he’s tall or short, fat or skinny, but I’m sure he’s white.)
Everything I learned about people — how to treat them, what to expect from them, what rights they have — was a lesson about whites. Black people might as well have been a different species entirely.
Of course I learned that all people are created equal … but black people? It didn’t follow; the question was still up for discussion. Of course the Golden Rule told me to treat others as I want to be treated. But what if the others were black? The answer was not obvious.
That’s why I shake my head at the whites who respond to “Black lives matter” not with “Yes, they do”, but with “All lives matter.” Yes, all lives matter. But do black lives matter? Because that logical deduction hasn’t always worked in America. Jefferson wrote “All men are created equal” and then went home to his slave plantation. That’s our history. We say “all” and then we leave blacks out of it.
So that upbringing created a racial distinction not just in my thoughts and opinions, but in my perceptions and instincts. I learned to see and respond to people and black people differently.
That’s what’s going on in that Huck Finn reading. The steamboat accident Huck tells about kills a black man, but no people. And Aunt Sally, who doesn’t know Huck is making the whole thing up, says that was lucky, because sometimes people get hurt.
That kind of talk wasn’t quite so explicit when I was growing up in the next century. But you could still hear echoes of it in the jokes we told.
I want to do an aside here about ethnic jokes. When I was growing up, almost everyone — even comedians performing in public — told ethnic jokes. And a lot of whites my age and older remember them as harmless fun that we can’t have any more in this humorless era of political correctness.
There is a sense in which that’s true, because a lot of the jokes weren’t really about the people they seemed to be about. To a large extent, the ethnic stereotypes were really just exaggerations of human failings we all share. Most of us, I think, understood that. An ethnic joke was a way of laughing at our own human weaknesses while also saying “Well, at least I’m not that bad.”
So if you heard a group of men joking about drunken Irishmen, you knew that probably all of them had gotten drunk at one time or another and had done something embarrassing. Even as you made fun of stereotypically greedy Jews or dumb Polocks, you knew that everybody is greedy sometimes and everybody does dumb things.
To a certain extent, what went around came around. Whatever group you belonged to, there were jokes about you too. The stereotype of my people, the Germans, was that you don’t dare put us in charge of anything, because then our inner Nazi will come out. One joke asked if you’d been to the new German-Chinese restaurant; the food tastes great, it said, but an hour later you’re hungry for power.
Some of the jokes acknowledged stereotypic strengths as well as weaknesses. One joke had it that in Heaven the Italians are the cooks, the Germans are the engineers, and the English are the police. But in Hell, the English are the cooks, the Italians are the engineers, and the Germans are the police. That kind of stuff really is mostly harmless fun.
But the jokes we told about blacks were different. A lot of them didn’t point to our common humanity, but instead relied on the idea that blacks were subhuman, so you didn’t have to have compassion for them. Their suffering didn’t count. In a joke about blacks, very often the surprise in the punch line was that something horrific was happening, something the set-up of the joke hadn’t led you to expect. So what we were laughing at wasn’t some universal human flaw that we had projected onto blacks and understood that we shared with them. Instead, we were laughing at our own cruelty, which it was OK to express, as long we were joking and the victim was black.
I debated long and hard about whether I need to tell such a joke this morning just to establish that I’m not exaggerating. You’ll probably be relieved to hear that I decided not to.
But I remembered those jokes when I heard about Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old black man arrested on a minor charge by Baltimore police in 2015. Witnesses described him being roughed up during the arrest. He was then thrown into a paddy wagon and not belted in properly. By some accounts, the police gave him what is called a “rough ride”, bouncing the van around intentionally. By the time the van arrived, he was in a coma. A few days later, he died.
I don’t know what really happened that day. I don’t know any of those policemen, or what any of them were thinking at the time. But I when I heard about Gray’s death, I had to wonder if, as the police were giving him his “rough ride”, they thought it was hilarious. One curse of my upbringing is that I can easily imagine how they might.
So where does that leave me? As I said already, the most extreme definitions of racism don’t apply to me. I don’t hate people of color. I don’t consciously seek to do them harm. Politically, I am on their side. I don’t see racial progress as something we must wait for blacks to achieve. It is a goal for our society, for our nation, and we all must do our part to bring it about.
In my personal life, I haven’t told racist jokes for many years. I don’t intentionally discriminate against anybody. Consciously, I try not to do anything that will make American racism worse.
And yet … still, now and then, when I look back on something I’ve just done or said or felt, particularly when I have reacted instinctively, without thinking about it, I realize that I’ve been racist.
When President Bush nominated Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court, I was concerned about his lack of qualifications even before Anita Hill went public with her accusation of sexual harassment. Only later did it occur to me that I had also known nothing about the qualifications of Bush’s previous nominee, David Souter. It just hadn’t bothered me.
You see, I often have an instinctive reaction of generosity, to make an exception and give the new guy a chance. But it rarely applies to anybody other than white men. If I don’t consciously correct for that, I will discriminate.
Over the decades, I’ve developed a long list of things I have to consciously correct for. A few years ago, I was staying at a hotel in Washington, D.C. that wasn’t near any obvious Metro station. So when I hit the lobby that morning, I was wondering how I was going to get where I was going. Next to the door, a tall black man in a very proper dark suit was standing in a very erect posture, and I thought, “Oh, the doorman.” So I asked him where the cab stand was.
He turned out to be a diplomat from an African country. So I had to make another rule for myself: Don’t be so quick to assume that black people are there to serve you.
That’s how my life has been. I pile rules on top of rules to make sure that I don’t discriminate or insult anyone or embarrass myself. But no matter how many rules I make, I never get to the heart of the problem: Instinctively, I see white people and black people differently. No conscious insight or decision has ever been able to change that.
So to this day, getting cut off in traffic by a black driver makes me angrier than if I’d been cut off by a white driver. If I get bad service from a white clerk or waitress, I might cut her some slack: It’s a hard job, it wears a person down. But if I get bad service from a black, I’m more likely to frame the problem as some moral failing like laziness or resentment. Most of the time, I see what I’m doing, and I catch myself before I respond in some way I’ll regret.
Most of the time.
You’ve all been very patient with me this morning. In settings other than a sermon, I seldom get this far into a description of my own racism. Other whites usually don’t want to hear it. “What is the point,” they want to know, “of talking about stuff like this? Are we supposed to feel guilty? What good does that do anybody?”
Usually that’s a rhetorical question. It’s meant to shut the conversation down. But actually it’s not a bad question to take seriously: What is the point of doing this kind of introspection? If you find racism in yourself and feel guilty about it, what good does that do?
So my final point is that when I consider those instinctive responses that were impressed into my mind in childhood, the ones that I have tried all my life to correct, and only succeeded up to a point, I don’t feel guilty. I feel damaged. Something about myself that I don’t know how to fix causes me to keep screwing up.
Guilt is a proper response to things that we say or do that hurt other people. It motivates us to make amends, and to correct our behavior in the future. So when some instinctive racist response slips past my rules and manifests as behavior, then yes, I do feel guilty. I try to correct myself and make amends.
But damage isn’t something to feel guilty about. It is something to recognize and work around. Recognized damage that you deal with strategically is far less likely to cause trouble for you or for others than unacknowledged damage that constantly has to be covered up or explained away.
Finding your own racism is like any other kind of self-knowledge: It isn’t always pleasant. But the point isn’t to feel guilty about it or to punish yourself for it. The point of knowing about it is that it’s real. Understanding it better equips you to deal with the reality of your own life.
If you do introspect about your own racism, I don’t know what you’ll find. You might find less than I do, or more, or maybe nothing at all. But I do think that given the culture we are all immersed in, it’s worth taking a look at least once a year.
So happy Martin Luther King Day.
The closing words come from President Lyndon Johnson, as he was introducing the Voting Rights Act to a joint session of Congress in 1965. If you’ve never seen the video, look it up; it’s worth watching.
Johnson was not a great public speaker. He was clearly reading this speech, and most of the time his eyes looked down at his text on the podium. He read slowly and carefully, in a Texas drawl that could be painfully slow even when he wasn’t trying to be careful. And yet, somehow, all those imperfections combined to make the speech even more effective. Here’s part of what he said:
Rarely in any time does an issue lay bare the secret heart of America itself. Rarely are we met with a challenge, not to our growth or abundance, or our welfare or our security, but rather to the values and the purposes and the meaning of our beloved nation.The issue of equal rights for American Negroes is such an issue.
And should we defeat every enemy, and should we double our wealth and conquer the stars, and still be unequal to this issue, then we will have failed as a people and as a nation. For, with a country as with a person, “What is man profited if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?”
There is no Negro problem. There is no Southern problem. There is no Northern problem. There is only an American problem. … It is not just Negroes, but really it is all of us who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice.
And we shall overcome.