(c) Howard Tolley, The Gathering at Northern Hills, A Unitarian Universalist Community, All Rights Reserved
Where do we go from here? MLK asked that question in a 1967 book that he subtitled: “Chaos or Community?” With the police killings in Ohio of John Crawford III, 12 year old Tamir Rice in Cleveland, motorist Samuel Dubose in Cincinnati, and more Where do we go from here? The moment demands action, but what can we do?
Fifty years ago an LA police officer pulled over a black motorist for drunk driving in Watts, Los Angeles. For the next 6 days Watts was in flames – 34 dead and $40 million in property damage. Just 2 years later Newark, Detroit and 157 other cities experienced riots, including Avondale. A second riot in Avondale followed King’s assassination in 1968. Cincinnati exploded again in a 2001 rebellion after the police killing of Timothy Thomas. The 1968 Kerner Commission report identified police practices as the major factor in the urban upheaval and the Commission warned, “Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal.”
Cincinnati has clearly reached that point, as I have learned over the past 30 years living in exclusive white neighborhoods and attending cultural events that are largely all white or predominantly black. Despite the excellent reforms achieved with the collaborative agreement, local police continue to engage in the crime of extra judicial executions as defined by international human rights law. Samuel Dubose is the third victim who died at the hands of UC police.
Despite my outrage, I have reservations about agitating you today with provocative phrases such as summary executions, white privilege, and white supremacy. As an educator, a professional mediator, and a facilitator of the Beyond Civility Project, I much prefer compassionate, non-violent communication. Rather than giving this sermon the negative title of “anti racist,” I chose the positive “racial justice. “
UUs have become divided over the revolutionary rhetoric and radical strategies of the Black Lives Matter movement. As executive director of UU Justice Ohio, I publicized the confrontational street protests in Cleveland that protest police killings with tactics resulting in arrests. A UUJO board member objected that we should not be promoting radical demonstrations courting arrest that undermine collaborative reform efforts. Even though no one was arrested at General Assembly in Portland, some objected to a UU protest die in that briefly shut down an intersection and rail line. Cornell West agitated the GA delegates denouncing both white racism and President Obama’s failures. A UU minister in Ohio has expressed concerns about West ‘s partnership with a former leader of the revolutionary communist party in directing the national Stop Mass Incarceration Network. When justice activists at the Kent UU church sought a resolution endorsing BLM, members rejected the proposal, with some arguing that all lives matter. Adapting the words of Rodney King, another victim of the LA police, why can’t all UUs get along as we work for racial justice?
After nearly fifty years of my work for racial justice, primarily as an educator, the ongoing oppression of black Americans leads me this morning to speak more as an agitator. Last year I became a lay community minister in order to identify myself as UU clergy when speaking for UUJO at interfaith justice events. At a leadership training workshop for progressive Christian evangelical clergy that I attended, we were exhorted to become agitators –to stop serving as “Chaplains of Empire” and to become “Prophets of resistance.”
Resistance comes in a range of flavors — from the loving, non violent agitation of MLK who rejected the slogan “Black Power” to the black separatist militant embrace of force, an American intifada. At the UU GA in 1968, Rev. Frank Carpenter joined a walkout to protest UU reluctance to support the black power movement. At the 2015 GA in Portland delegates bitterly disagreed over wording of a youth caucus Black Lives Matter resolution calling for an end to all prisons. One speaker worried that 1968 walkout history would repeat. Following a compromise, the resolution passed, despite objections by young Black Lives UUs.
When commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Selma to Montgomery voting rights march last year, UUs indulged in some “virtue by association” with our two white civil rights martyrs who gave their lives — James Reeb and Viola Liuzzo. As a college student in 1965 I joined the final leg of the march, more animated by the deaths of white northern activists than by the earlier killing of the young, black Alabama activist Jimmy Lee Jackson. Last March I attended the three day UU civil rights commemoration in Birmingham that included the families of all 3 martyrs. I hope the event was more than “pious entertainment.” UUs too often engage in unseemly self congratulation over our good work for abolition of slavery and for civil rights. Too few acknowledge the profits our 18th century Boston co-religionists made from the slave trade and from southern slave plantations producing cotton for UU owned mills in New England.
In order to educate and agitate today, I’ll try to minimize the risk of turning off those offended by analysis of white privilege and supremacy by offering personal reflections on my own life experience. Confession may be good for the soul, but guilt trips lead nowhere constructive, so here goes:
I was raised in Upper Montclair N.J. , thank you very much. Black kids from the poor end of town never crossed my path in school until we attended public high school together. My family employed women of color to do ironing and prepare special dinners. In college I had only one classmate of color. Then everything changed. I spent the first 16 years of my teaching career in all black institutions – the first two as a Peace Corps Volunteer teacher in Nigeria, then dodging the Vietnam draft for two years in central Harlem at a New York City middle school, and then for 12 years on the faculty at Ohio’s Wilberforce University, the oldest U.S. private African American college. In a failed effort at affirmative action, the director of a summer program at the U of Wisconsin admitted me, mistakenly assuming the Wilberforce faculty member he accepted was black. When I was hired by the all white, all male, UC political science department, the college administration mandated the affirmative action hire of a black woman at the same time.
Before moving to Cincinnati I lived in a middle class neighborhood of Yellow Springs created by a black developer. Over a third of the neighbors on our street were black, the village thoroughly integrated. When relocating, our Cincinnati realtor showed us homes in affluent white suburbs until we made clear our preference for an inter racial school district. We settled in Evendale to be in the integrated Princeton district, nationally recognized for excellence. What I just learned from a recent article in the Atlantic was how I benefited from white privilege resulting from Hamilton County’s discriminatory response to the incorporation of Lincoln Heights, a black suburb. The county approved Evendale’s incorporation first with a lucrative property tax base that should have been part of Lincoln Heights. The exclusive white suburb prospered, while the black community declined, unable to afford quality municipal services, apart from affiliation with Princeton schools.
When I moved later to be close to the University of Cincinnati and St John’s, I bought property in a predominantly white Clifton neighborhood of homes whose original deeds all barred re-sale, leasing and occupancy to non-Caucasians — with an exception for live in servants. In addition, only the affluent could afford to pay for the required 30,000 cubic feet homes with a basement, first and second floors, including servant’s quarters. When Mariemont was developed as an, economically diverse planned community in the early 1900s, all homes had restrictive racial covenants like mine, enforcing total residential segregation until a 1948 Supreme Court decision.
In the 1930s Reading became a sundown town like the white suburbs near Ferguson MO with a posted sign that said ““No Niggers After Dark.“ The ethnic cleansing worked when Reading’s black population of 59 dropped to 0 in the US census for 3 decades. In the 1980s a Reading police officer pulled over my wife Nina for driving while black. When the Mill Creek expressway displaced black homeowners, they were steered to communities that already had black residents, such as Avondale, exacerbating housing segregation that persists today. Post 1967 riot Development grants for the Avondale community provided more help for UC and the hospitals than for the black commercial district that remains devastated.
The book Witnessing Whiteness helped me understand for the first time the economic privilege I have enjoyed from living in exclusive Cincinnati neighborhoods. Those communities will not change in complexion simply by ending legal discrimination. Affirmative action is essential, and whites could benefit from the resulting racial diversity that I enjoyed in Yellow Spring. That book also made clear the legal supremacy enjoyed by whites in qualifying for US citizenship in ways that impacted immigrants from India prior to my wife Nina’s arrival –some Indians were judged white and became citizens, while others deemed non-white were denied. Well before the terrorism of 9/11, Nina’s brother, a bone surgeon, was subject to racial profiling by US airport security personnel in London. They conducted an unwarranted search and interrogation before personally escorting him onboard for the flight to attend a professional meeting in the U.S. where he had earned his medical degree.
Here are some current numbers identifying the disadvantages associated with belonging to a racial minority that help clarify the privileges enjoyed by white Americans:
Education? Forty-two percent of black children are educated in high-poverty schools. Employment? The unemployment rate for black high-school dropouts is 47% (for white high-school dropouts it is 26%). Housing? Although black people make up just 13.2% of the US population, they account for 37% of the homeless. Voters’ rights? The Ohio Secretary of State has purged non=-voters from the rolls in ways that disproportionately disenfranchise African Americans. One in every 13 African Americans of voting age is disenfranchised because of a felony conviction – a rate more than four times greater than the rest of the U.S. population. African Americans now constitute nearly 1 million of the total 2.3 million jail population and are incarcerated nearly six times as often as white people. Despite the election of America’s first black president in 2008, those profound structural fissures remain.
UUs have engaged in the struggle for racial justice, and planning next steps must begin with an understanding of our past and current response. UUs from Dayton, Yellow Springs, and Cincinnati staged a die in at the Beavercreek WalMart where police killed John Crawford. On behalf of UUJO, I presented testimony and recommendations to the Ohio Community Police Relations task force.
1st UU has formally recognized the injustice committed by ministers of our churches in the 1930s when rejecting the black Unitarian minister W.H.G. Carter and his downtown congregation. Members from this Congregation joined for worship at an AME church here to show solidarity after the slaughter of 9 at the AME church in Charleston.
Our UU churches support the AMOS project that seeks a Pre School Promise tax levy to provide every 3 and 4 year old child with quality pre-school education. In collaboration with the Coalition for a Just Hamilton County, AMOS effectively protested the re-prosecution of Tracie Hunter and demanded that UC provide a fair settlement to the DeBose family.
Our Cincinnati Justice Congregations helped found UUJO in 2012, and our members fill key leadership positions, including former Co-Chair and Treasurer MJ Pierson. Following today’s service I’ll have UUJO Justice Advocate membership forms, as well as Standing on the Side of Love T shirts available. UUJO has made racial justice a priority and has organized a MeetUp4Racial Justice training workshop on Saturday April 9 at St. John’s. UUJO is co-sponsoring the racial justice public witness event at General Assembly in Columbus on Thursday June 23 and leading a workshop on Witnessing Race. Based on the moral movement launched by North Carolina NAACP President Rev. William Barber, the UUJO Witnessing Race initiative promotes “fusion politics” involving advocacy for racial justice in education, housing, criminal justice, economic, health care and the environment.
I still need help in determining where Howard goes from here. While I have concluded that education for racial justice has been so inadequate that the time has come for militant agitation, the path forward remains clouded. The books I am currently using as guides are listed in the insert. Rather than provide educational or other professional assistance to marginalized minorities and the disadvantaged, I feel a new responsibility to witness my whiteness with others of my own race in an effort to remedy systemic, institutionalized injustice that provided me/us with extraordinary, unrecognized advantage.
Showing Up for Racial Justice, SURJ, is organizing white allies of Black Lives Matter with local chapters in Ohio that many UUs have joined. White UUs have organized a group called Allies for Racial Equity to support DRUMM, a separate organization for UUs of color. Initially I found it troubling that the two groups held simultaneous annual conferences under the same roof with no joint programming except for shared meals. Black Lives UUs began organizing a new group last year. While I cannot join an exclusively black organization, and I refuse to be an ally of violent groups. I will support non violent civil disobedience organized by a new generation of black civil rights activists who want my generation to accept that MLK is not coming back. I also want to worship more often at black churches offering prophetic voices, such as Bishop Todd O’Neill’s at the House of Joy and Pastor Nelson Pierce’s at the Beloved Community Church.
Our second UU principle affirms “justice . . . in human relations” and the fourth “the goal of world community with peace, liberty and justice for all.” After 400 years of systematic white violence against black victims, this critical moment in American race relations cries out for more effective agitation by UUs to achieve racial justice. Where will you go from here? Time for talk back.
Closing Thoughts from “I Have a Dream”
With this faith, we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith, we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith, we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.
Let the service begin