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Monday, June 1, 2020

Unitarian Universalism Needs the Eighth Principle


A few years ago I was recounting to a UU Humanist group about my experience during a course I'd traveled to take. I'd heard some pretty terrible stories from a black man about his experiences, and shared them with the group. The response was shocking to me. The people seated around the table, all of whom were white and over 60, were set in uproar. They shouted about how wrong I was, arguing that white supremacy isn't a problem in progressive circles. One woman explained that she couldn't be racist, because she was an activist in the civil rights era, had suffered at the hands of white men for her activism, and because she has multiracial grandchildren. Another, a historian, argued that blacks 'brought this on themselves' by participating in the slave trade, 'selling their own people to Europeans.'

It was a deeply disturbing, disheartening experience to witness white UUs, all of whom were ostensibly 'progressives,' deride any notion of white supremacy being an issue within our denomination or among other progressives. Those few minutes of horror gave me a glimpse of the depth of the problem within Unitarian Universalism.

People don't like the use of the term 'white supremacy,' as they say it conjures images of Jim Crow laws and burning crosses. Saying there is white supremacist culture in UUism is tantamount to calling us all bigots. Those who thing that way are wrong and right. They are wrong that white supremacy only applies to the KKK and their ilk. They are right that, in a sense, bigotry is a stain on our collective soul.

'White supremacy' simply means that whites are favored, set above people of color. The latter have to work harder, always maintain composure, and play ball according to the rules and values of the majority culture. White supremacy among UUs and other progressives reveals itself in the denial that majority culture in the United States is white culture. White supremacy culture says that "it's terrible that another black man was murdered by police, but people should never riot and destroy property," when they should instead be saying "it's terrible that there's rioting and property being destroyed, but the extrajudicial execution of people of color by the police has to stop."

As for racism in our midst, the problem is that white progressives tend to reduce everything to the personal, individual level. When we say that there is a systemic problem within UUism and the wider US society, we are not saying that each individual person is actively engaged in racist activities. We are saying that society and our denomination are so ordered as to favor white people over people of color. When an opening for regional minister opens up, the white man is chosen over the well-qualified woman of color. That doesn't make the white minister racist or evil, by any means. He's simply living in the system that has been built over centuries to exclude non-whites. When a minister in a congregation is subject to stricter standards and harsher censure than her white colleagues in the same congregation, there is clearly a problem, one that is usually furiously denied by the white people making the most noise against her. 

If the proposed Eighth Principle is adopted, as I believe it should be, it will most certainly only happen after prolonged, possibly acrimonious debate. We'll hear the usual offended tones about how "I'm not a racist" because "I have black friends/family" or because "march in protests and vote Democrat." Again, they make it about themselves individually, making me wonder if such people are only able to think about protecting their fragile egos. Following the debate, assuming it's approved, many churches will sign on because, of course, they "aren't racist." Others, however, may continue to object that this violates congregational autonomy, and refuse to agree to it. This is where we'll see if the UUA's covenant between congregations, expressed in the Principles, has any teeth. If it doesn't, life will go on and the dissenting congregations will still be formally a part of the association. If it does, we'll be saying goodbye to those congregations as they are cut loose.

One way or the other, the cancer of white supremacy must be isolated and removed from our organization, and there's no way that's happening overnight. We need to take serious, meaningful steps in the right direction to even begin to move the needle. The Eighth Principle is one part of that, perhaps a place to truly begin.