“The Pecking Order” – Mark W. Harris
January 11, 2015 – First Parish of Watertown
Call to Worship – Dreams by Langston Hughes (unison reading #488 in hymnal)
Hold fast to dreams
for if dreams die
life is a broken-winged bird
that cannot fly.
Hold fast to dreams
for when dreams go
life is a barren field
frozen with snow.
“Who but the Lord?” by Langston Hughes
I looked and I saw
That man they call the Law.
He was coming
Down the street at me!
I had visions in my head
Of being laid out cold and dead,
Or else murdered
By the third degree.
I said, O, Lord, if you can,
Save me from that man!
Don’t let him make a pulp out of me!
But the Lord he was not quick.
The Law raised up his stick
And beat the living hell
Out of me!
Now, I do not understand
Why God don’t protect a man
From police brutality.
Being poor and black,
I’ve no weapon to strike back
So who but the Lord
Can protect me?
“Poem for Flora” by Nikki Giovanni
when she was little
and colored and ugly with short
and a very pretty smile
she went to Sunday school to hear
’bout nebuchadnezzar the king
of the jews
and she would listen
shadrach, meshach and abednego in the fire
and she would learn
how god was neither north
nor south east or west
with no color but all
she remembered was that
Sheba was Black and comely
and she would think
i want to be
I have been thinking about this sermon for a long time, but that has not made it any easier to write. I have been angry, disappointed and frustrated by what has happened in our country over the past several months, and even though I knew I wanted to preach about racism, I had no clue what I wanted to say. I am a white minister serving a mostly white congregation, in a mostly white town. I was born white, but at some point I realized that I was bred white, too. I was made aware of color differences, and what group I belonged with, and who I should associate with, and furthermore, what those color differences meant. Many people presume that color doesn’t matter any more. After all didn’t we go through the civil rights movement, and didn’t we elect a black President? And don’t all those black basketball players make a ton of money? In fact my white son, who loves basketball sometimes intimates that he would love to be black because that would make him a great basketball player. Remember the movie, “White Men Can’t Jump”? Seems true doesn’t it? And some continuing racist truths have surfaced yet again in these past few months. Everyone makes assumptions about the characteristics of others. Perhaps no one of us will admit to being racist, and yet we have all absorbed stereotypes, that we somehow believe are inherent in people, but in fact, are not. Now it could be those silly ones that black people are loud, or can dance or are good at sports, and that we white folk have no rhythm, and couldn’t clap our hands to save our butts. These things are not inherent, but we continue to believe they are, even if we say we don’t. Women are not inherently gentle, or more emotional than men, but many of us have absorbed those stereotypes. And so when rating who is more dangerous or more violent, we have an ugly stereotype that is hard to overcome. It is alive and well in our society.
What’s useful about this stereotype is to remember that these accursed acts that have occurred over the past many months are not necessarily ones committed by some stereotyped racist bigot. We don’t have a Sheriff Bull Connor from Birmingham here shouting that black people are inferior to whites, and using attack dogs and fire hoses to keep “them” in their place. What we have mostly is police officers who are permitted to use deadly force when their safety is perceived to be in mortal danger. Part of me believes the police have been militarized in our country, given weapons to counter terrorism, and have an historic fear of young black men who are perceived as more likely to commit a crime. When I lived in Milton, which borders on Mattapan and Dorchester, and has more than 10% black population, we had police cars that I was told were parked by all the entrances to the town in order to see who dared enter our fictitious gated community. They were “guarding the bridges.” Even if we think the police should be equipped with body cameras, and have more anti-racist training, it still doesn’t end the racial hatred.
What is most noticeable in all these tragic deaths – from Trayvon Martin, to Michael Brown to Eric Garner, and Tamir Rice – is that the perpetrators were afraid. They didn’t help, they didn’t ask questions, they didn’t see that their victims were unarmed, they only saw that a petty crime was bring committed, or suspected a crime, and they acted swiftly and violently. Officers are trained to kill in response to “reasonable fear” for their lives. What does this kind of fear, born of stereotypes do to us as people? I grew up in am overtly racist household, where the “N” word was used indiscriminately, but in the civil rights era of the 1950’s and 1960’s, I could not help but absorb the terrible things that were occurring in Birmingham and Selma and all over the South. Yet even as I changed my own thinking, becoming a believer in equality for black Americans, I remember efforts to keep fear alive in the culture. There was the advent of Malcolm X and this strange religion called Black Muslim. We feared separatism and violence and racial war. Somehow Dr. King suddenly became more acceptable. Thinking of Chris’ comments on veterans, I recall how the army became an all volunteer army, and people feared the specter of only poor black men without jobs volunteering, thus resulting in the irony of an army of angry black men with guns protecting us white people. Even in the UUA when the Black Affairs Council was formed with the intention that black people needed an organization where they had some degree of power and control, the UUA board became scared of this perceived separatism, and demanded to have controlling authority. They were afraid of what they didn’t know. They were afraid of change. They wanted black members, but many wanted black members, not because they wanted relationships with black people, but because the idea of having black members would make them feel good about themselves. They didn’t want to change. They wanted the black people to change, and embrace how they did things.
What has the last few months reminded us of? It has been a painful reminder that our history of institutional racism has not gone away, and that too often we, and our police discriminate against, brutalize, and kill black Americans. Still. Black Americans have not been freed from systemic oppression. Martin Luther King would tell us that it takes a long time to get out of Egypt. The future is on our side, but we are not there yet. The election of Barack Obama was not the promised land. In fact, it has been a lesson that there is still a wilderness out there. A wilderness that we live in that infects each of us, that has damaged all our souls. The courts have failed us, with tough sentences to fight a mythical drug war built on white fear resulting in huge numbers of black men going to jail for non-violent crimes, with their lives ruined forever; locked away and out of sight. The political process has failed us when we see voting rights that were secured in the 1960’s being shattered by new laws in several states that require government issued voter id’s, thus targeting 25% of black Americans, who have no such id’s, and thus they are prevented from exercising a basic right. And the economic system has failed us when you consider the wealth gap between the rich and poor in the United States grew significantly during and after the Great Recession, so that the gap between whites and blacks nearly doubled during the recession, and whites now have 22 times as much household wealth as blacks. US Representative Keith Ellison said “Income inequality is an existential threat to the American Dream.” He said this in response to efforts by fast food workers to organize and raise the minimum wage. He went on, “In the richest country in the world, you should not be working full time and still be on food stamps.” George Orwell once famously said that all the animals are equal, but some are more equal than others. The events of the past few months have once again shown us the level of racism, classism, and inequality that exist in our country. What kind of pecking order remains?
The pecking order reflects back on a belief that there is a hierarchy of values that we apply to different kinds of creatures in the world. Historically the Great Chain of Being reflected a hierarchy of universal order with God at the top, then angels, and then humans and lower animals reflecting who was most worthy down to least worthy of all, perhaps an amoeba. Within humanity there was a hierarchy of greater and lesser as well – with white higher than black. So there were theological and philosophical underpinnings for the racial divide. Most of us learned vestiges of this color divide growing up, seeing the systemic ways in which whites were given advantages in life, but moreover how we should keep our distance from blacks. In her own research for the book, Learning to Be White, UU theologian Thandeka says that we should pay attention to the feelings we were taught to squelch as children. Among these is the story of a white family taking their young son on a tour of the “black ghetto,” so he can be prepared to see what a black person looks like, and thus will not stare out of his natural curiosity when he is in public and sees a black person for the first time, as he was about to do on a New York vacation. This is the tendency, she says, to learn not to see, just as Ralph Ellison once famously described himself as The Invisible Man. He is not worthy to be seen. This reminds me of my own first extensive relationships with black friends in college, where we experienced the longing among friends to look and see each other, and enter a deeper relationship. I remember we had a running back on the football team named Roscoe Lee, from Newark, New Jersey. During the first week of practice, he grabbed a fellow black teammate one day, and then together they grabbed a white teammate, and then proceeded to squeeze him between the two of them, and they shouted, look we made an Oreo. It struck me that this was an effort to emphasize their pride of color, but that together they made something whole through the coming together of white and black, and there was a learning and a deepening relationship through the hugging of the two.
Many of us learned the consequences of what occurs when white and black reach out to each other. My high school girl friend’s sister began dating a black man, who she eventually married. This was especially painful for the parents because they were Unitarians, and ostensibly strong civil rights supporters, but their support was more of an idea than a lived reality, especially when it came time to contemplate a black son-in-law, and what a relationship with him, his family, and eventually grandchildren might be. They implored her not to date him, but could not give a sufficient reason why, but it was clear that if she persisted in doing this, they would withdraw their love. And they did for a long time. Situations like this may tear us apart emotionally – what do we do, and can we trust our parent’s love for us, when clearly it can be withdrawn when we act in ways that violate racial gulfs between us. My father threatened me when I tried to assist with the opening of a fresh air camp in Athol, and my name was printed in the local paper as a rabble rouser, and my mother and I argued over my attendance at racial awareness high school conferences between youth groups from Orange and Springfield. Many of us learned to repress positive feeling we had towards black people, for if we chose to express this care, this desire to relate, we would suffer racial attacks ourselves from the adults in our lives who had been most important to us. They were responding to their own fears. But what does it do to us spiritually when we are asked to repress our feelings of understanding and friendship towards others? Equality might be good in theory as long as blacks don’t live near us, or come to our house, and we certainly don’t have “them” as friends or spouses. Did you learn that racial mixing was somehow a violation of the pecking order?
Understanding what it means to be white in this context is helpful, because we often see ourselves, those of us who are white, as the liberals who believe in equality and want to reach out to our black brothers and sisters, but the desire is sometimes made in a paternalistic manner. But here we are not only seeing ourselves from a place of privilege where we have the advantages of education, money and class power. We also see how we are hurt by this insidious system, so it is not only understanding black suffering, but also what a system like this does to us, too.. It is not liberal white guilt. It is white emptiness and longing to be whole again. By not seeing or feeling the truth of our desired relationships with blacks, we have learned to deny our whole self. This is not to deny white privilege, or the horrible effects of racism, but it may also help us see that racism can be born from what we have learned about self-hatred and repression of our feelings. How can we fix our own brokenness? These events of the past few months have reminded us that we do not see blacks as full citizens, or even as full persons. Look at Michael Brown laying in the street for four hours, or young Tamir Rice, shot and the officer does nothing to help. Decades ago Langston Hughes wrote of police brutality, but it seems this lament could have been written again only yesterday. Hughes implies that there must be some degree of religious understanding of one other. There must be a deeper, divine protectiveness, because the law is not working, and still fails to do so.
At the end of November there was a column in the Boston Globe by Michael Jeffries called “Ferguson must force us to face anti-blackness.” Racism, he says cuts deeper than hating or penalizing black people. He says there is a human debasement of black people as exemplified in the Brown and Rice killings. We let the bodies lie there as if they didn’t matter. The word black is more closely allied with strong stereotypes and negative emotions than the more proper African American. Blackness, he says evokes disdain in a more visceral way than even the word racism, and so he suggests we talk about anti-blackness because it more accurately captures the dehumanization and constant physical danger black people face. It is why white people don’t look. Black equals bad. Look at all the connotations of the word itself, like blackmail, that we say without thinking. So I believe progress on racial issues, like the election of a black President results in a kind of what I call a white blacklash. Jeffries says we must name this anti-blackness. You and I, if we are white, can never know what it is like to be disdained or hated in this way, not even for a minute of our lives can we know the cumulative effect of constant threats, constant harassment, and constant fear. Some of what I call, this “blacklash” is an acting out of white rage against the progress we have made. Black codes were enforced during reconstruction after the progress of abolition, and black imprisonment is made mandatory in the new Jim Crow, after the progress of the civil rights movement. The recent events have produced a series of slogans to name the debasement of black Americans recently including, “Black Lives Matter.” The time has come in our communities to address this anti-blackness that has surfaced in recent months, and I hope some of you will participate in local programs.
Nikki Giovanni’s poem about Flora reminds us of what strong supportive images can do for us; how they can reinforce our own sense of power and beauty and identification with people who are whole and full of grace. This is clearly something she would have missed otherwise in her understanding of herself as ugly. This is why we need to remind ourselves that Black lives matter, matter as much as any life, but in the context of their experience have a unique history of suffering and travail that is like no other. Those of us who are white have often experienced great privilege because we are white – in jobs, in education, in our freedom to go everywhere we wish without fear of harassment or suspicion that we are violent or criminal. But we have also lost out by never knowing the embrace or understanding or deep friendship of a black person, perhaps partly because the family or culture we grew up in forced us to stay away, and thus prevented us from knowing the beauty of such relationships. We can feel sad, too, for what we have lost.
Today I am interpreting the children’s book, little blue and little yellow as a kind of metaphorical journey through color and race. Blue and yellow can be black and white for us. Blue has a family and friends, including a best friend yellow. They play together, and go to school. One day blue left his home in search of yellow. He looked and found him, and they embraced. They became green. Not a melting pot, but a true friendship. Each was changed by this love for the other. But the parents initially were not able to see or affirm the change in them, or perhaps like one of our parents, feared that change. They both cried and cried, until their parents believed them, And in the believing the parents opened up, too, and they became green. They opened themselves up to change. And they shared the good news. Just as we can. The good news is that the hate and fear and sadness we feel can be changed with love and compassion. It is hard work, but freedom is a long journey, and we are on our way.
Closing Words – “A Candle for Michael Brown, et al “ by Chip Roush (adapted)
I light a candle for Michael Brown
shot down in the street
and left to die without comfort.
I light a candle for Officer Darren Wilson
whose tragic mistake killed Brown.
I light a candle for Michael’s mother, and all the black mothers whose sons were taken too early.
I light a candle for all the people
Whose lives are lived in fear,
Whose first instinct
Is to load a weapon.
I light a candle for human cousins
In whom fear, or shame,
Or guilt or anger
Have built walls
Which separate us.
I light a candle
For the chasm of grief
That stretches between us
And I light a candle
For all our human cousins
Who keep hope alive,
Who are laboring right now, at this very moment –
To build a bridge
Across the separation
And into other human hearts.
I light a candle for all those who breathe in suffering.
And for all those who breathe out compassion.
May the light of these candles, these millions of candles guide us in all the days to come.