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Wednesday, September 16, 2020

Learnings & Lessons From the UU Black Empowerment Controversy

There are, I think, both learnings and lessons to be taken from the Black Empowerment Controversy that took place in the Unitarian Universalist Association in the late 1960s and early 1970s. While there must be numerous learnings that could be identified, here are a couple I can see, to begin.

First, kicking the can down the road is a terrible idea. Leadership pre-consolidation in both traditions didn’t really want to take the bull by the horns, and I doubt many even understood that the bull existed. The assumption was and remains that BIPOC folks need to be integrated into white society, rather than that they should be empowered and provided space to engage in self-determination. The desire was for one big happy family under existing standards, without grasping the truth that ‘community’ and ‘family’ are two different realities. When the 1960s arrived the white liberals were willing to show up for civil rights, but that was as far as they would go, with their integrationist mindset. When the topic of empowerment came up, it seems that many fell back into “I can’t be a racist” talk. By failing to listen for so many years, and by avoiding doing anything directly to begin addressing concerns, the frustration only increased into fury.

Second, I think it can also be learned from the events around this controversy, and it what followed in the decades after, that the white establishment found it far easier to deal with feminist and LGBTQ concerns. It could be that this is because both impacted white people directly. White women and the white folks in the LGBTQ community were family and friends, and so of course their concerns had to be taken into account. Weak ties to BIPOC folks meant that their concerns were deprioritized and dismissed, largely.

If I wanted to make a short, quippy answer to the question of what lesson there is to be learned, I might say “don’t write checks that can’t be cashed.” Under Dana Greeley spending was out of control, and both the board of the UUA and the General Assembly enabled it. I’ve wondered at times, while attending GA, if the delegates understand that there isn’t a bottomless well of money for everything. People focus on specific areas of concern rather than spreading themselves thin over every social justice issue out there, but I suspect this can also make our view myopic when it comes to getting the big picture and accounting for expenditures. The optimism often found at GA can also make people a bit giddy, I suppose. The impact of not having the money for BAC under the agreed terms was enormous.

What should they have done? Having made the promise, I think they should have rearranged the entire budget to prioritize paying it under the original terms of four years at $250,000 each. This would have meant cutting a lot of programs and staff, but it would have been the honorable, just, and current course of action, in my opinion. The austerity also might have served as a helpful reality check to the board and the association as a whole concerning money. It could be that during that time they would learn how to be more effective at raising funds and keeping their word, exiting the four years of pain a bit wiser and even a little stronger. Or, it could have broken the association. The congregations weren’t going anywhere, but the national and district levels could have been wiped out. Who knows? Maybe a clean slate would have been better.

What remains to be done is insistence on anti-racist education at all levels within the association, and particularly at the congregational level. The current soul-searching about how our structure supports white supremacy culture is good, and needs to continue to bear fruit in changes to how we operate and interact with one another. Funds promised to the current organizations representing the interests of black, indigenous, and people of color need to continue to flow, without interference as to how those funds will be used. Of course I think there should be financial transparency, but it should never be a topic on the table that some sort of strings would be attached, or approval external to those organizations required. It’s either autonomy and self-determination, or it’s just more of the same.
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