It Goes without Saying, or Does It? Reflections on Racism in the U. S.

Amos 5:21-24, Matthew 7:21-25, James 2:8-9, 12-17

Rev. Doug Van Doren, Plymouth United Church of Christ, 1/18/15


I want to talk about racism this morning as part of what needs to be an ongoing conversation in the U. S., but more directly, in our lives. This will not be an extended treatise or analysis about racism for two reasons: 1. because it is much too complicated, especially for a sermon format, 2. because I don't want to obscure a couple basic points. I will also not spend a lot of time defining and delineating between racism, institutional racism, and prejudice which could also be a whole presentation. Let it suffice to say that racism is generally used to talk about institutionalized prejudice that results in systems of discrimination and devaluing people on the basis of color or ethnicity. Key to racism is power. It is the use of power, personal or institution, to limit or exclude another person or people. Therefore it doesn't have to be intentional-often it is not. The term "racism" is often used interchangeable with personal prejudice, which is not quite accurate for analysis sake, but in a practical sense it largely is accurate. That is because if you are white in the U. S., you have power. Our individual attitudes and behaviors have power over others. They have power to confirm or counter other's societal experience or expectations. Our individual attitudes, comments, and behaviors have power to define the institutions of which we are a part, especially negatively, if those attitudes, comments, or behaviors seem to reflect the same old societal bigotry that people of color have experienced their whole lives. Our individual attitudes and cultural competency or lack thereof, cannot be separated from power and institution.

I also know that white people tend to get very jumpy and defensive by the use of the term "racism or racist." Well, we need to get over that! We need to understand that racism is not so much an accusation as it is a description. It is a description of the place we have been led to, not generally by our own intention or conscious will, but over which we do have power to change.

On the one hand, it seems a little ridiculous to sermonize about anti-racism. That is not because seeing all people as children of God, and treating them justly isn't central to your theology, but precisely because it is! Everyone knows that prejudice and its power forms-discrimination and racism, is wrong! It goes without saying. And certainly most of us here don't see ourselves as racist, but quite the opposite. It goes without saying! Or does it?

No, it doesn't go without saying. Yes, certainly at Plymouth we deal with race and racism quite a lot, and intentionally. We do that in sermons and sermon illustrations, community participation and opportunities, support of institutions dealing directly with racism, celebrating African American History month, and for me, most importantly, by regularly using positive images of people of color as normative in quotes, sermon illustrations, and the like.

But even that isn't enough. It needs to continue to be said directly: Racial and ethnic prejudice and racism is wrong, flat out, clear and simple, it is wrong. It should not be tolerated in any form here at Plymouth, in our lives, our community, or our country. You know, it is easy to miss things that we assume are obvious to everyone. So again I want to say clearly and unequivocally. It is wrong.

Those of us who are white in the U. S. are racist, and are part of racist institutions, so to not work against racism is to perpetuate the sin. It needs to be clear to each of us and to all who come in our doors that racism is a sin. It is antithetical to our core belief in a God of all people, a God of justice, and a God who intends the world to reflect that reality. So it does need to be said, not just once, and not just in one way, but regularly, and in many ways - in word and in deed.

The killing of Trevon Martin and the exoneration of his killer, and the recent killing of young black men at the hands of police and their exonerations, has left us outraged. I think it has also left us feeling profoundly powerless and disappointed as well. We are so much against such senseless, racist killing. But how do we, in our little places, impact police institutions and practices, while we, at the same time, appreciate the danger and difficulty of their job? If we are honest, however, we realize that those events have also highlighted the bigotry and assumptions of white-that is dominant, society overall, and by extension our police officers- especially toward young black men.

It is not just "out there," it is in here as well. It is in us, but often we don't realize it, and when we do it can be a slap in the face! Just the other day I met an African American woman whom I know quite well in the Kentwood Post Office. I have worked with for the past few years on the Rosa Parks writing contest. She is a retired college English professor. For some reason I was surprised to see her there and I asked her what brought her to the Kentwood post office. Did she live near here? No, she replied, she didn't; she lived in Caledonia, but was going by on her way to her church on the near south side of town. Did I simply assume that an African American would (should) live closer to town rather than in Caledonia? Evidently I did. By contrast, I would not have been surprised to see one of the older white men I work with on the committee at the Kentwood Post Office or to learn that he lived in Caledonia. No, in that instance my stereotyping did not do her any harm. But it did limit her in my mind, and it did reveal a whole set of potentially damaging assumptions, especially if I were a police officer and her grandson was driving in Caledonia to visit her!

I think the other thing that Ferguson and the other incidences have evoked in us is a profound disappointment. We have, indeed, seen great progress in dismantling statutory discrimination and prejudice on many fronts. I think with the election of a President who is identified as "Black" many thought that we had turned a corner on our long nightmare with racial discrimination and prejudice. White folks, and many people of Color, have not wanted to label slights or injustices as racist. We wanted to be in a new place.

I have shared with you before one of the most poignant situations I have experienced in dealing with racism. A group of African American parents of Kentwood students met at Plymouth Church after some racist incidents there a few years ago. I met with them. They lamented bitterly that it turned out they had not equipped their children to deal with racist attitudes and behaviors as their parents had equipped them. The reason was that they did not want to prejudice their children to look for, or interpret, perceived slights as based on their color. They wanted the nightmare to be over for their children and they tried to act like it was over. But they discovered it was not! Not only that, their hopeful attitude had left their children ill equipped to deal with the reality of racism. Maybe we are in the same boat-our hopeful attitude and assumptions of great progress have lulled us into inactivity and ignorance.

Yes, the election of a Black president highlighted the progress but it also highlighted the bigotry built into psyches and the racism built into institutions. What it did, is bring out the racism and fear of so many in society, especially those who feel like their long and undisputed place of privilege is threatened! It also revealed that those of us who seek a more perfect union, one not based on the color line, have been asleep at the wheel. Our silence, inactivity, and poor turnout at the voting booth have been complicit in allowing racism, and the disparity between people, to grow.

I know that it is easy to feel like there is not a lot we can do and that jousting at windmills doesn't help. I know that we also feel put upon by a society that is so entrenched and has taught us its prejudice so well. But there is a lot we can and must do.

That is why the Plymouth Church Council has talked to Partners for a Racism Free Community about becoming part of their program to do an institutional audit, looking at our policies, practices and communications, as well developing a program and opportunities for training and practice in anti-racism and cultural competence for each and all of us in the congregation.

You see, just because we know racism is wrong, doesn't mean that we are competent to recognize it, let alone deal with it in ourselves and society. Indeed, being people of good will helps, but it does not give us cultural competence. That is, to be aware and appreciative of other's culture, as well as to be aware of, and dealing with, our assumptions and stereotyping. It means to be aware of, and dealing with, the things we say and do-our attitudes, actions, expressions that cause hurt or exclusion to people of color and send a clear signal that we just don't get it! Nice folks, but clueless.

This is not something that is learned in a single program or weekend workshop. It is ongoing work that will require our institutional and congregational commitment. And if you think you have it figured out and this is other people's problem, think again. All need to do this work. There is no room for smugness or finger pointing.

Again, dealing authentically with the debilitating reality of racism in the U. S. is not a "one and done" deal for any institution or any individual. It is an ongoing activity that needs to be built into the fabric of our lives, families, church, and other institutions. In that regard, it is like dealing with any other sin. It is always there, lurking, occupying a room in our home, ready to snag us at any moment. So we need to learn its lure and tactics. We need to learn where it has taken up residence so we can recognize, resist, and counter it.

Ah, my friends, but we do have the distinct advantage of being called by a faith that believes in conversion, not only in individuals, but in systems. We do have a clear theology that all are children of God, valued, precious, and unique, with differences that are necessary gifts for the whole of God's people and God's realm. We have myriad gifted guides and worthy comrades for the journey. We have, I believe, the moving and guiding of the Holy Spirit, and as Dr. King put it, we have "The grand urgency of now."

May it be so.