Note: Articles of Faith is a regular column featuring social critiques from local members of diverse religious denominations.
by Marcus Harrison Green
(The following is the transcript from a speech delivered at Westside Unitarian Universalist Congregation on Sunday, September 28th. You can listen to an audio recording of it here.)
I always brag to my friends that Westside Unitarian has the largest black membership of any Unitarian Church in the state. One of them brought that up to me when I told him I was fretting over giving a sermon on racism here today. He asked me how large it actually was. When I told him five, he said: “Oh five percent! That’s not bad, especially in Washington.” I said, no – 5 people. He said: Marcus I know being agnostic, you’re kind of iffy on that whole “does God exist or not” thing, but if I were you I’d get down on my knees in some intense prayer to him.
No, race isn’t ever an easy subject to discuss. Today, before this sermon, I can’t tell you how many people told me to flee from this subject altogether. That I was bound to offend someone, and that I would anger more people than I could hope to inspire. Or, they said racism is just another “-ism” – what about about feminism, classism, idiotism. And yes, I understand that black lives matter, but so do white lives, and Asian lives and Native American lives. Marcus, all lives matter. Why muddy the waters with race?
I understand the reluctance to discuss it because in this country, race acts just as lewdly as any other four-letter obscenity, except unlike a curse word that assaults our sensibilities, it has the effect of making a more serious assault on the narratives we believe to be true about ourselves and our collective reality. It threatens to tear down the constructs of belief our world is built on. Worse yet, it challenges us personally, calling into question our positions in life as being driven exclusively by hard work, grit and determination, not at all by the good fortune of pigment.
Better not to speak of race, better not to collectively assess its prominence, because as Socrates knew, it’s easier to live in world that goes unexamined. That’s typically a necessity in making the revolting, normal, and the reprehensible, ordinary.
I don’t stand here in judgement of that mindset today, I stand here as someone who once held it.
Because I used to believe, I used to want to believe, that racism was nothing more than a personal prejudice relegated to a few ignorant rednecks who didn’t get the memo that the 21st century had arrived. I used to think as a society we had bigger fish to fry. It was how I was able to navigate being black in this country, because it became easier to suppress the experiences of myself and those who shared my complexion rather than to deal with the alternative.
For me, those experiences began at an early in life. As a 1st grader I remember being told that it was okay that I was stupid, because God didn’t intend to make people like me smart, not like my other classmates (all of them white). When I was 13, an officer stopped me for supposedly jaywalking so he could press my face down on the hood of his car whisper in my ear: “Nigger, I’ll rape your mother, and there’s nothing you can do about it.” While as kid in prep school, I was the only one to ever face any punishment after fights with my white school mates that I would never start, no matter whether you win or lose (for the record, I won most of them). I saw the same experience working at a hedge fund making a six figures salary yearly only to be told often “you’re one of the decent ones, Marcus, but don’t ever think we’re trying to bring any more of you in here, we don’t want to be confused with Harlem.”
For me it became easier to live in denial, and to latch onto the grand American gospel that says every ill you face can traced back to personal responsibility. That all of society’s blemishes are to be worn by you and you alone. And, had you just acted more politely, had you just not had a chip on your shoulder, had you just adapted to the circumstance, been more passive, not been so threatening, you would’ve been fine.
The mantra is repeated so often, and so loudly throughout the course of your life that you begin to absorb it as truth. And in doing so you become imprisoned by a belief that shackles you with self-hatred, and those become chains extended towards your own race.
Every single time a black body is shot down on the street you shamelessly join in the chorus of “if only they had pulled up their pants”. Every single time a black person speaks out of line about the injustices done them, or says that the president at the time doesn’t care about black people your rapid-fire response becomes the need to apologize for the entirety of Black America.
You find yourself walking on eggshells so as to not offend. You rush to distance yourself from anything that proves controversial that might call into question your acceptance by the dominant population. Everything said and done becomes measured and weighed in relation not to who you are, but to who you hope white people think you are.
My own thoughts, my own feelings, my own dissatisfaction with this world no longer mattered.
As I accepted at the time, there were no serious racial problems that either hadn’t been solved in the 1960’s, or couldn’t be, by joining together in a rousing rendition of Kumbaya.
It says something that I had so deeply internalized my own inferiority, my own lack of ultimate worth being black, that it also manifested itself in the dismissal of the cries of my own skin color, that it took a white person to rattle me from the myth I confused with reality.
I met her early in my career as a reporter for a story I was working on. She called herself an anti-racist organizer, which I took as a code word for white-guilt cheerleader. At the time she was organizing against the disproportionate numbers of black and brown youth incarcerated in King County’s juvenile justice system (they only made up a little less than 12 percent of the population, but made up 60% the population of youth incarcerated).
As jarring as this stat was to me, she explained it was not an aberration but belonged to a mode of racism that long ago had replaced the dominance of explicit racism in America. It was this system that harbored racial biases in its series of policies and practices. A legacy system that spat out racist outcomes with no need for input from racist people.
A system where birth heavily charts your life’s course. A system that allows black infant babies to die at twice the rate of white infants, that expels them from school if they become black children at 5 times the rate of white ones, their youthful behavior being met with punishment and expulsion, while their counterparts are more often met with counseling and second chances. A system where, when they become teenagers, they are more likely to die than graduate from college – their lives being taken at 21 times that of whites – and for those teens who survive, it cages them as men in greater numbers than were enslaved during slavery, as they make up more than half of America’s prison population.
A system where punishment is more severe, opportunities more scarce, and apathy to their plight more pronounced for those whose pigment touches ebony. It is a pernicious system where your skin marks you either more or less deserving for the mechanisms that propel our society.
As a Harvard political scientist recently noted, the probability of America’s black citizens having this level of discrepancy in health, education, wealth and criminal justice is in line with being struck by lightning, twice, in the same year, on the same day, in the same hour.
It didn’t take too long after my discussion with her to be dislodged from the illusions I had harbored. The ones that I thought kept me safe in this society, kept me from being seen as just an angry black man with a gripe.
But the thing is, I am angry, and I am mad, and I do not apologize for that.
My question to you today is why aren’t you? Why aren’t you mad at this world we inhabit? Why are we willing to accept its condemnation of a subsection of this human race to conditions that are substandard, inhumane – and why, oh why, are we willing to continue with a lie?
And that lie is that all lives matter in this country, because in this world where my religious friends believe God created us all equal, it is man who continually refuses to acknowledge this fact.
All lives do not matter in this country, and rarely have they ever. And it is absurd to state otherwise.
And I know that some are of the opinion that to spotlight the plights of one race is to dismiss those of another.
And I am truly sorry for you if you feel that way, because I would hope you would not think that speaking of The Holocaust would somehow reduce the impact of the genocide done to Native Americans. I would hope you wouldn’t think speaking about the persecution and mass bombings of Muslim mosques takes away from the shooting and hate crimes done to Jewish synagogues. I hope you would not paint mentioning the plights of migrant workers in our own country, as diminishing those of migrants traveling for their survival in Europe.
I hope that your capacity for empathy does not have such a narrow scope as to allow room for only a condensed crisis.
Because to say “Black Lives Matter” is not to promote superiority. Is is to give voice to skin that continues to struggle to be heard and seen in this country as equal. Which is why it must shout, it most interrupt, and it must inconvenience, so it can say that I am here too, and I am dying, but I am trying so desperately hard to live.
To cloak these problems with all others is to be as foolish, and as delirious, as to deny medical attention to an irregularly beating heart because your kidneys and lungs also ail.
These problems belong to the whole body, to this collective body of humanity. And their failure to be resolved harms us all.
We see this in poor whites who routinely vote against minor tweaks in our social safety net, even as they grow in number amongst those living off of two dollars a day, they are so swept up in a blaze of hatred for blacks and people of color that it consumes their own compassion for themselves. And that is the sadness of it all, because to continually deny someone’s humanity, someone’s suffering, is to eventually deny your own humanity, and to invite suffering on yourself.
To quote one of the last lines of Shakespeare’s most famous play, about two families unable to unify their grievances: All are punished. all are punished.
If all are punished, then all must be held responsible.
I’ve heard the things that often follow that statement, that I did not own slaves, that I did not kill anyone, I have never been prejudiced against anyone, and I have no room to feel guilty.
And you would be right. You did not own slaves, you did not pull a trigger, your guilt does not translate into vicarious redemption of the past.
Because no, you are not responsible for being born into a country which exterminated Native Americans for land, enslaved Africans for work, exploited Asians, Mexicans and Irish for labor, treated women as second-class citizens, and outlawed marriage for homosexuals.
No, it is no fault of your own that you have come into this world as it is, but it is your fault if you leave it that exact way when you go.
What you are responsible for is the same exact thing that I and everyone here is responsible for, and that is each other, and that is the world as it can exist.
It is our fault if we allow a world to go on that disproportionately punishes, pillages and destroys the lives of black folks. It is our fault if we continue to live in a world that offers life rafts to some of us while leaving others to drown. It is our fault if we allow a world that affords privileges as a happenstance of birth without demanding the same be afforded to everyone. It is our fault if we keep intact a system that is not fair, is not equitable, is not humane, without destroying it and erecting a new one that registers equity and empathy.
It is our fault if we refuse to look inside ourselves, refuse to extend our consciousness of our society beyond our own individual lives, or individual faults, and refuse to acknowledge that we oftentimes confuse the road we’ve traveled with the road open to all others.
I know how hard that will be. I know that there is pain found in acknowledging racism. I know its acknowledgment requires good intentions to be balanced by patience and deference. I know that requires silence at times in letting others speak. I know it requires self-examination that can take you to places you never wished to tread, internally. I know that requires the fortitude to be willing to be offended, to be called out, to feel uneasy – and to seek understanding through that uneasiness.
I also know that’s a lot to ask, but what I’ve discovered in my more than 30 years of life, is that that is how you articulate love in a way that actually matters.
And it’s on that day in this country, when that very thing is articulated by our hearts, and our actions and institutions, there will be no need to ever utter the words “All Lives Matter”, because on that day it will be self-evident. And that day, cannot come soon enough, for all of us.