The 8th Principle: A Propositional Statement

I do not usually (ever?) respond to UUFP posts, but I felt compelled to do so after reading Alan Sheeler’s thoughtful post opposing the adoption of the 8th Principle. I think he and I would at the very least agree that the current wording has problems. Like Alan, I cannot attend the upcoming meeting on the topic. Like him, I felt compelled to voice my thoughts in print now. Yet, in contrast to his letter calling for members to vote against the 8th Principle, I write this as a proposition for a framework out from which to view the 8th Principle however one chooses to ultimately vote. I thank Alan very much for presenting his views here because I think he articulates the points so clearly that it provides a great opportunity to address his main questions (which I believe many others may share with him both within and beyond the UUFP).

First, I do not see racism as “evil” (a conceptual legacy from our Christian Church predecessors). I believe that framing it as such can make it harder to both understand and constructively address. Applying the idea of “bad” and “evil” to something so ubiquitous invariably means that we will shift into states of denial when it applies to us. Who among us wants to both say “racism is evil” and “racism has profoundly shaped my life and continues to inadvertently shape my attitudes and decisions in daily life”? And so this state of denial seems to permeate everything from societal and UU institutions down to individuals. (For the record, the 8th Principle does describe racism as an oppression—a factual observation—but does not describe it in terms of a moral evaluation such as “bad” or “evil.”)

Secondly, why, Alan asked, would we want to view racism as “more evil than war, or greed, or denying women’s reproductive rights, or not providing universal health-care, or political corruption, or suffrage rights, or gun violence, or defiling the environment of all for the personal gains of a few, etc.?” I find this an interesting list because one might actually find a parallel to racism in war, and I would personally support a 9th Principle that explicitly opposed war and the war industry. Yet, as the UU currently has members, even ministers, in the military, UUs remain a far cry from, for example, the radical peace work and anti-militarism of the Catholic Worker Movement. Yet, if Alan wants to work for a Peace Principle, I’d support it. Maybe one could have a Principle on greed too, yet, as one of the “seven deadly sins” (alongside gluttony, lust, and wrath), it seems to focus more on personal moral “flaws” and possibly “salvation” than helping us tend to social justice and fundamental structural change (inside and out). Many of the others such as women’s reproductive rights, universal health-care, suffrage, gun rights, and environmentalism address important issues, for sure, but they lack key elements that seems to pertain to racism. Subsequently, I propose a framework in which we ask a corresponding set of questions to highlight these key elements:

  • Do I feel an uncomfortable tension between, on one hand, my public views and conscious feelings about voting rights, guns, women’s reproductive rights, universal health-care, or environmentalism and, on the other hand, my personal behavior, choices, or life circumstances? (For example, if I advocate the banning of handguns but own stock in handgun manufacturers).
  • Have such questions justified and helped create the basis for a colonial order which, to this day, sustains unequal societal arrangements that affect entire peoples differently (economically, socially, ecologically, educationally, and physiologically)?
  • If yes, do I find myself on the “advantaged” side of that colonial order?
  • Do such questions affect internal inequalities within the UUA and the UUFP? Do they help keep certain groups and social classes in power at the expense of other members within our shared community?

It seems to me that racism elicits a “yes” to all of these questions. However, I do not see it as either/or. If we apply this framework and answer “yes” in regard to other issues, then maybe those issues (whether universal health care or environmentalism) also warrant their own new principle. Yet, right now, we only have one fundamental issue before us: racism.

Third, I can understand why racism seems like simply one of many issues that we struggle with. Had I not happened to take a Countering White Supremacy workshop in the 90s or developed a long-term relationship with people from MOVE, I may not have engaged with incarcerated people of color and anti-racism work and, as a result, I may likely have viewed racism as simply one of many issues. (In the 90s, I found myself on the other side of the debate, as I argued with the editors of the journal Race Traitor: Treason to Whiteness is Loyalty to Humanity who viewed as race as the key to genuine social change. Central, yes, I argued. Alone in the center? No).

So I shall dwell a bit on why racism, in contrast to the other issues, deserves a resounding “yes” to the last question listed above (the one about internal inequalities within the UUA and the UUFP). I’ll spare readers the exposé required to demonstrate how racism permeates all aspects of society, but suffice to say, research has affirmed the impact of racism within law/incarceration rates, health and health care, and exposure to environmental toxins. So if we discuss voting rights, the environment, or guns with any sense that it directly impacts the lives of a predominantly white UU fellowship, it impacts people of color considerably more. This seems to make racism a sort of “meta-issue” (like class and gender) both beyond and interwoven with other issues.

While researching racism among UUs, I felt shocked to hear when Kenny Wiley (then editor at UU World) told me how “dozens” of UUs had written to him (some in explicitly racist terms), opposing his involvement in Black Lives Matter. How could something as seemingly self-evident as Black Lives Matter evoke such a visceral rejection from so many UUs? That truly baffled me.

It seems to me that racism deeply affects the content, structure, effectiveness, mission, and quality of UU communities in ways very different from that of women’s reproductive rights, guns, or even environmentalism. It even affects how UUs depict, frame, and view ourselves and UU history. African Americans have a long history with UUism yet, as Mark Morrison-Reed wrote, we don’t know this history:

“Why would we, when in the context of Unitarian Universalism, and across the entire American milieu, black lives don’t matter? […] African Americans were invisible in our scholarship. Their absence reflected the belief—and contributed to the belief—that there was no story to tell. Yet African Americans had been founding members of Universalist, Unitarian, and UU congregations as early as 1785, when Gloster Dalton was a signatory at the founding of John Murray’s Universalist congregation. […] In 1892 Joseph Jordan founded a Universalist congregation in Norfolk, Virginia. 

Thomas Wise founded others in Suffolk and Ocean View, Virginia, in 1894 and 1902. […] Jordan traveled around the Northeast in 1911–1912 raising money, but in the end raised less than $1,500. To put this in context, in April 1890, the Universalists began a mission in Japan. The Japanese mission was given at least $6,000 a year, often more, eventually totaling more than $275,000. During the same years the Universalists could not raise $6,000 for their ‘Mission to the Colored People.’ What does it suggest? Black lives don’t matter. […] 

Are you confused? This faith that you love has said over and over, sometimes in word but more often in deed: black lives don’t matter.”

I wonder how familiar the names Joseph Fletcher Jordan and Thomas Wise sound to the ears of Virginia UUs. My guess: not very. (I’d love to have assumed wrong though.) And I know many of us want simple, easy actions we can take to “make things right” (such as putting their images on the wall or adding African Americans to UU scholarship). However, it seems to me that to fulfill the aim, such piecemeal approaches would need a fuller appreciation for the systemic and comprehensive means by which racism affects virtually all aspects of daily social, economic, political, and congregational life. I grew up in a highly segregated Newport News, struggling to desegregate, and yet the Newport News I see today remains highly segregated. The 23607 area remains a far more polluted and toxic environment to grow up in than 23602 (home of the UUFP) or 23606 (where I grew up). I see it permeate, disturb, impede, and sabotage to some degree every organization with which I have ever gotten involved (both in the US and Sweden). Addressing such deep-seated issues seems to call for strategies and approaches quite different than the conventional campaigns and organizing we might employ for voting rights or habitat protection.

Alan suggested that the 7 Principles already “eloquently” address resistance to racism. Of course, the 7 Principles do not currently mention racism at all but nearly all of the Principles seem to imply resistance to racism (by affirming justice, equity, inherent worth, etc.). This depiction, however, seems to overlook the pernicious power of racism to disguise itself in, for example, unconscious and colorblind racism. We can just look at how some Republicans have invoked MLK, Jr., in their calls to dismantle Affirmative Action in the name of “equality.” Many of these Republicans may genuinely and emphatically oppose racism. Yet personal and vocal opposition to racism does not hinder colorblind racism from leading to racist policies, attitudes, decisions, and structures. The very nature of colorblind racism means that we need others—specifically those on the receiving end—to help us see that which remains hidden from our own eyes. It means that we can both reject racism with our head and heart, even while our feet and hands remain more than occasionally committed to performing the labor of sustaining racist and unequal social relations.

I wrote about the topic of racism and UUs as part of my doctoral dissertation and, during that process, came across a story of how white Unitarians grappled with the question of desegregation in 1948. At the time, segregation appeared in most congregations in the US through either law, choice, or custom. Among these: the First Unitarian Society of Chicago, where Unitarians had their whites-only church located in a largely African American neighborhood. Not by happenstance did they remain white: according to its by-laws, only whites could join. White theologian James Luther Adams had set out to change that. Originally told by Jessica York and posted by Lynn Ungar in Quest, I share this story because it has stuck with me throughout the years as an example of what internal UU struggle can sometimes both look and feel like even today more than 70 years later.

The day came when many members began to believe they needed to take action against racism if they really wanted to live their values and principles. The minister, the Reverend Leslie Pennington, ...and James Luther Adams proposed a change in the church’s by-laws to desegregate the church and welcome people whatever the color of their skin. They saw this as a way to put their love into action. When the congregation’s board of directors considered the desegregation proposal, most of them supported it. However, one member of the board objected. ‘Your new program is making desegregation into a creed,’ he said. ‘You are asking everyone in our church to say they believe desegregating, or inviting, even recruiting people of color to attend church here is a good way to tackle racism. What if some members don’t believe this?’[...]

The debate went on in the board of directors’ meeting until the early hours of the morning. Everyone was exhausted and frustrated. Finally, James Luther Adams [...] asked the person who had voiced the strongest objection, ‘What do you say is the purpose of this church?’ [...]

The board member who opposed opening the church to people of color finally replied. ‘Okay, Jim. The purpose of this church is to get hold of people like me and change them.’

The First Unitarian Society of Chicago successfully desegregated.”

[To that I would add: eventually the First Unitarian Society of Chicago would also later serve as spiritual home to Mark Morrison-Reed throughout his childhood.]

The dissenting member quite reasonably argued that enshrining anti-racism into the by-laws amounted to a sort of creed. Yet, presumably opposed to racism himself, he somehow managed to overlook the “whites-only” as a form of creed. Perhaps, more significantly, he had initially failed to recognize, however, that as a white person socially “paid” to overlook racial violence in general, this too amounted to a sort of credo: one written in habit, law, custom, convention, worldview, language, history, norms, networks, and institutional structures rather than a written text of formal “principles.” Even if he never came to recognize that, he did acknowledge that the practice of segregation ran counter to the spirit of Unitarianism.

Fourth, I agree with Alan: we have no clear path or idea as to what it means to “accountably dismantle racism” in ourselves, yet I understand that it directs itself inward rather outward (“more encompassing”). But, however we vote on the 8th Principle, we can begin that process by learning about colorblind racism, how it affects all of us, how its thinking and policies commonly dominate liberal institutions, and how it might plausibly have contributed to the fact that the demographics of the UUFP does not reflect the demographics of the Peninsula in which it resides. I suggest that we have this work before us regardless of whether the 8th Principle passes or not.

A little footnote regarding the question of wording: support for the 8th Principle seems to amount to a vote for placing this question at the forefront of UU work. If it follows UU history, wording will eventually change (the 4th Principle, for example, has changed wording at least 3 times since first adopted by Unitarians in 1944. One cannot easily vote on a change of wording until one has agreed on the principle to which the Principle claims to represent).

I wish I could have summarized this post as concisely as Alan did so effectively and generously with his. However, I do not know how else to both emphasize and clarify what I see as deeply complex and difficult responses to his questions. Right or wrong (or both or neither), after listening intently to people of color and researching the question over several decades, I have come to the conclusion that racism constitutes one of the most central issues for us to address as people, societies, and congregations in part because virtually all of us ostensibly oppose it, and yet it continues to dominate our lives—some much more violently so than others. I submit that we have yet to scratch the surface in terms of understanding that which all of us seem to oppose. 8th Principle or not, I hope we continue that quest in practice as well as spirit.


Sources:

Morrison-Reed, Mark. “The black hole in the white UU psyche.” UU World (2017). https://www.uuworld.org/articles/black-hole-white-uu-psyche

Sheeler, Alan. “The 8th Principle Vote—An Opposition Statement.” UUFP E-Flame. 18 May (2022). https://uufp.org/the-8th-principle-vote-an-opposition-statement

Ungar, Lynn. “REsources for Living.” Quest 68, no. 8 (2013). https://www.questformeaning.org/spiritual-themes/resources-for-living-september-2013/

 

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