On Becoming Allies & Antiracists

Sermon by Kirk Witzberger
June 14, 2020

A transcript of this sermon follows the video.

Part 1

Let me begin by stating why I changed the previously announced topic of “co-creating a culture of belonging” to “On Becoming Allies and Antiracists.” First, like most of the world by now, I watched the news that showed police officer Derek Chauvin kneeling on George Floyd’s neck, killing him, while Floyd was handcuffed, lying face down in the street, begging for his life and repeatedly saying “I can’t breathe.” 

I actually never watched the full 8:46 — I feel too sickened, too disgusted. But I watched what the news channel showed, and for some reason I immediately asked myself what I would do if George Floyd was a member of my family. What if this officer were killing my wife, daughter, brother, or sister? I think I would have taken direct action, risking harm or arrest, to intervene and do everything I could to prevent their murder. Then wondered what I would do if it were a friend; then an acquaintance; then a stranger. 

As I became less certain that I would take direct action, I felt more ashamed, more like a coward. Am I just another “moderate white” that would gravely disappoint Martin Luther King, Jr.?

In the days that followed George Floyd’s death I was finalizing my preparations for today’s service. I was planning to talk about some of the tension we’ve experienced between theists and atheists here at UUS, and discuss some things we could do so that all of us could feel even more like this is a home where we fully belong. [show Maslow hierarchy slide] 

Then I thought about Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Belonging is a basic need right in the middle of this hierarchy. But each layer going up builds on what’s below. Look at the very bottom left. The very bottom. Below the phrase “Physiological needs.” “Breathing.” With “I can’t breathe” seared into my psyche, I could not imagine a better example of white privilege than to go on with the service about belonging when we have brothers and sisters having much more basic needs, like breathing, taken away from them.

Our first reading from Martin Luther King, Jr. (an excerpt from “Letter from Birmingham Jail” focusing on his disappointment with white moderates) was from 57 years ago. Our second reading from Ibram X. Kendi (an excerpt from the essay “American Nightmare” in which he concludes: “There are only two choices: racist or anti-racist.”) was from 13 days ago. Both written by black men in their mid 30s. Both decrying police brutality inflicted on people that looked like them. 

Has enough changed in those 57 years? “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” MLK is known for this quote, but he was quoting Theodore Parker from 1853. Parker, Unitarian minister, abolitionist and prominent American Transcendentalist, followed that quote with “Things refuse to be mismanaged long. Jefferson trembled when he thought of slavery and remembered that God is just. Ere long all America will tremble.” 

167 years after Parker’s sermons this America is still trembling. So how long is this arc? In 1619 slaves were brought to Virginia. In 1853 Theodore Parker said that the arc was longer than his eye could see. In 1963, Martin Luther King, Jr. restated that the arc is long but said that time alone won’t change this arc; that time is neutral and that men of ill will were using it more effectively than men of good will. He asked for white moderates to be silent no longer. 

And now, in 2020, Ibram X. Kendi reminds us that racist power and policy and ideas have made the black experience the American nightmare for 400 years. How long is this arc? Without direct action by people of good will, too long. Are enough Americans calling for a revolution about how black people are treated, especially but not only the police? Are enough Americans saying enough is enough?

Part 2

I am asking for your forgiveness, more than once. First, I am a white male baby-boomer, talking about “black people.” I should be listening, not talking. Because of recent events and decisions, the change in this topic was made a few days ago, it seemed too late to change the schedule. I chose to take this on, and I am who you got. I know that I am not your ideal speaker for this moment.

Second, I usually don’t like talking about “black people” because it is often followed by some stereotyped statement about the diverse individuals that make up this group. And I think it creates an us/them relationship. “Black people” — us, or them, depending on who you are, as if black people are all the same, and “white people” — us, or them, depending on who you are, as if white people are all the same, and different from them, or us. 

Toni Morrison, in “The Origin of Others,” points out that we are one human race, not a black race or white race or any other race. She reminded us that the human genome project proved this. But as real and true as our oneness is, I still have learned implicit biases that create a separation, and too many “white people” with guns, some wearing police uniforms, have stronger biases, and they don’t see individuals or people of the same human race, they see “black people” that they don’t like, or fear, or both. That creates a socially constructed reality where “black people,” in Minneapolis for instance, are treated like a separate race that they are not, and are 13 times more likely to be killed by the police than White people. 

In How to be an Antiracist, Kendi says “what a powerful construction race is — powerful enough to consume us…  Race is a mirage but one that humanity has organized itself around in very real ways. Imagining away the existence of races in a racist world is as conserving and harmful as imagining away classes in a capitalistic world—it allows the ruling races and classes to keep on ruling… if we stop using racial categories, then we will not be able to identify racial inequity. If we cannot identify racial inequity, then we will not be able to identify racist policies. If we cannot identify racist policies, then we cannot challenge racist policies. If we cannot challenge racist policies, then racist power’s final solution will be achieved: a world of inequity none of us can see, let alone resist. Terminating racial categories is potentially the last, not the first, step in the antiracist struggle.” 

So I’ve learned that my not wanting to draw this distinction in the past has been harmful, and again I ask your forgiveness.

Now… I ended my first message asking if enough Americans are saying enough is enough? If enough Americans are calling for a revolution? And I ended our “Call to Gather” by stating that we are called to awaken, and not sleep through this revolution.

“Don’t Sleep Through the Revolution” was the title of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Ware Lecture at the UUA General Assembly in 1966. He said “Most revolutions in the past have been based on hope and hate, with the rising expectations of the revolutionaries implemented by hate for the perpetrators of the unjust system in the old order.” 

He asked for UUs to join him, to be what we today we call “allies,” to speak up and take direct action that would likely make us uncomfortable against an unjust system. He asked us to not sleep through the revolution that was taking us to the promised land of racial justice, a revolution based on hope and love. 

In our second reading, Ibram X. Kendi, ended his article stating that “history is calling the future from the streets of protest. What choice will we make? What world will we create? What will we be? There are only two choices: racist or anti-racist.” 

In his book, How to be an Antiracist, he makes a compelling argument that anyone who claims to not be a racist has not told us something useful, or accurate. You are either a racist or an antiracist. There are people, black, white, brown people, who do not personally engage in racist behavior, but they willingly live in a system, some with blind acceptance of privilege, some with hate, some with resignation, but who willingly live in the system without taking action to change it. Living with and accepting this system is racist. 

He calls on white people to be more than allies, but to be active antiracists. He calls on all people to take the kind of actions that will dismantle a broken system, to be antiracists. What does that mean? He says it means breaking free from assimilationist AND segregationist policies, both of which are racist. 

Segregationists express the racist idea that a permanently inferior racial group can never be developed and support policy that segregates away that racial group. (I’m guessing this doesn’t describe those of us involved in this virtual service.) 

Assimilationists support cultural or behavioral enrichment programs to develop a racial group (I have been guilty of this; another need for forgiveness), but supporting these enrichment programs expresses the racist idea that a racial group is culturally or behaviorally inferior.  Antiracists express the idea that racial groups are equals and none needs developing, and they support policy that reduces racial inequity. 

Kendi asks us to be antiracists, and an antiracist focuses on policies, not people. These are a few of the things he says antiracists do:

  • View the inequities between all racialized ethnic groups as a problem of policy.
  • Recognize and express the idea that the races are meaningfully the same in their biology and there are no genetic racial differences.
  • Treat and remember individuals as individuals.
  • Focus on ending the racism that shapes the mirages, and don’t ignore the mirages that shape peoples’ lives.
  • View national and transnational ethnic groups as equal in all their differences. 
  • Challenge the racist policies that plague racialized ethnic groups across the world.
  • Support antiracist policy through actions, and express antiracist ideas.

There is so much more. I encourage you to read “How to Be an Antiracist” and other works by black and brown people that will help all of us learn how to reduce racial inequity. 

A revolution is happening in the streets, ignited by the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery, but fueled by over 400 years of oppression. The America of our dreams, not our nightmares, needs as many people taking direct action as possible. Some of this is happening, and perhaps it is different this time. More white people get it. It wasn’t that long ago, just a couple of years, when the hashtag before #BlackLivesMatter was followed by a question mark — “Don’t all lives matter?” Today the hashtag before #BlackLivesMatter is followed by an exclamation point! 

It may also be different because, if we focus on policy and policymakers, we have a deadline — we vote on November 3. John Lewis said, just a few days ago in the June 8, 2020 New York magazine, that “the vote is the most powerful nonviolent tool we have in a democratic society.” 

Last November we at UUS wrote a vision that said we will confront racial injustice. Let’s do that. Let’s be the best antiracists that we are capable of being, get behind black-led protests and movements, and help sustain this movement at least until November 3 — a huge undertaking. 

Let’s not sleep through this revolution.