This paper was presented at the February 18, 2023, Convocation of the Unitarian Universalist Multiracial Unity Action Council. It can be viewed on YouTube here.
I was asked to talk about the different forms of antiracism. I have written many words about Asset-Based Anti-Racism vs. Guilt Based Anti-Racism over the past 13 years. (1) What I am presenting today is about the same realities from a different perspective. I am attempting to understand the thinking of people whose ideas I question.
Religions have ultimate concerns. In my analysis, antiracism is the ultimate concern for the current class of leaders of the Unitarian Universalist Association. Not just any approach to fighting racism. Not the approach proven most effective for fighting racism. Rather, an approach that has split many congregations and driven many out of the ministry.
It doesn’t have to be that way!
To understand what is going on with the todays UUA Antiracism Program, it helps to look at alternative ways racism and antiracism can be understood in general and how they have been understood in the UUA historically. A first and most basic question is, where is racism located? Is it located in policies and laws that need changing? Or is it located in people? A person can say that racism is located in both policies and people. However, antiracism projects tend to focus on only one of these choices.
Groups and individuals working in the tradition of Martin Luther King find racism in laws and policies that are objectively discriminatory. They identify goals, then organize people to assert enough pressure over short or long periods of time to change bad laws and policies. That is how the Civil Rights legislation of the 1960s was established. Black and white leaders who were committed to positive change marched together for voting rights, for open housing, for an end to employment discrimination, for educational reform, for better policing, and for many other causes.
The cost was steep. Both black and white Freedom Riders suffered life changing physical injuries at the Birmingham Greyhound Bus Station. (2) Both black and white people were murdered during the Selma to Montgomery march for voting rights. (3) Both black and white people continued to apply pressure until life-changing Civil Rights laws and policies were enacted. This is a key point I have made before and want to make again. All black and white people who supported the cause were considered assets to the cause. That’s true for many efforts utilizing the methods of Dr. King today including the Church Based Community Organizations in which many UUs participate.
And, lest we forget, both white and black people opposed the Civil Rights Movement. White people who opposed the movement are obvious. They identified as white supremacists. They utilized tactics including murder and mayhem. Murder and mayhem are still with us. Symbolic violence in the form of racist signs above freeways and racist slogans projected on buildings and sports stadiums have happened recently in many places including in my city, Jacksonville, Florida. Even more important, white supremacist racism lives in all too many well-funded, dog whistle style political campaigns.
Black people who opposed the Civil Rights Movement and its integrated tactics were located in the Black Power and Black Nationalist Movements of the 1960s and are still with us today in the Unitarian Universalist Association. John Lewis, writing in Walking With The Wind: A Memoir of the Movement, speaks very painfully of the split in SNCC, the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee, when white SNCC members were driven out of the organization. (4) This was the spring of 1966. The Black Power Movement insisted on re-segregation for the purpose of building up the black community without white interference.
At about the same time, a group called Black Unitarians for Radical Reform (BURR) was founded at the First Unitarian Church of Los Angeles. Mark Morrison-Reed shares many details about all the groups that formed during this time period in his very important work, Black Power and Unitarian Universalism: Revisiting the Empowerment Controversy. (5) Members of Black Unitarians for Radical Reform played key roles in this controversy. They were instrumental in the formation of the Black Unitarian Universalist Caucus (BUUUC) and the Black Affairs Council (BAC). All three of these organizations were segregated and dedicated to black self-determination.
Now we come to something that puzzled me for a long time. At the same General Assembly that voted to give $1,000,000 to the newly formed Black Affairs Council, the Black Unitarian Universalist Caucus adamantly opposed any funds being voted for the continuing integrated antiracism efforts of newly formed Black And White Action (BAWA) organization. (6) Why? Only three years earlier over 200 white UU clergy and many white UU laypersons had joined Dr. Martin Luther King in Selma. Two were killed. That integrated effort extended voting rights to black people for the first time. Why was segregation so important now?
Times were changing. In 1970, Heyward Henry, the leader and primary spokesperson for the Black Unitarian Universalist Caucus 1967 to 1970, became the first Chairman of the Congress of African People, a major Pan-African movement nationally. (7) In 1972, a faction of the Black Unitarian Universalist Caucus succeeded in changing the group’s name to the Black Humanist Fellowship. New bylaws did not mention the Unitarian Universalist Association. A lawsuit ensued between the new Black Humanist Fellowship and the Black Affairs Council over the money remaining from the funds given to the Black Action Council by the UUA in 1968, 1969 and 1970. The lawsuit wasn’t resolved before the funds were depleted. (8)
In keeping with traditions of Black Nationalism, Heyward Henry changed his name to Mtangulizi Sanyika. Closer to the present, he became a leader in Black Lives UU. Some of you may remember him from the speech he gave at the 2017 UUA General Assembly on black self-determination. (9) That speech was replayed in many UU congregations as a White Supremacy Culture teach in.
Why look at this history? Because it formed the basis of the UUA antiracism program today. White people were and are present in the UUA in overwhelming numbers. Given the commitment that black self-determination requires segregated spaces, the question arises, what do you do with the white people? The focus is no longer on reforming racist laws and policies. Rather, the focus is on reforming white people.
Looking at the current UUA Antiracism Program, it is easy to sum it up as guilt-based antiracism. Saying anything critical about the program is defined as HARM for which a person must apologize – or leave, or get kicked out of the organization. White Supremacy Culture is the assumed energy source for all white people. Decentering white people includes giving up the power to do good. If white people are any good at all, they will join in the chant to Defund The Police.
Defund the police? Where did that idea come from? It is part of the total system change that is going to come about by changing peoples’ consciousness. Or so they think.
I was confused when I heard a speaker at the 2020 General Assembly refer to the 1960s Civil Rights Movement in a derogatory way as “incrementalism.” The speaker explained the goal of the UUA antiracism program as creating the “beloved community.” That meant ending systemic racism in its totality. How was this to be accomplished? I felt the need then, and still feel the need, to understand where they are coming from, what they are thinking.
It is informative to listen to Rev. Joseph Barndt. Rev. Barndt has had a long career as head of Crossroads Ministry for 18 years, then with the People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond. Both of these organizations played big roles in shaping the UUA antiracism program.
Rev. Barndt’s latest book is co-authored with Barbara Crain Major. Both are community organizers. Crain Major is black. Barndt is white. They explain, “… racism is a deeply spiritual issue. Yes, it is also an economic, sociological, and psychological issue … But we believe that at its very deepest, racism is a spiritual disease, a sickness of the spirit of a people, a relational condition that affects the stability of our common lives and our very ability to be in community.” (10)
If racism is a spiritual disease, doesn’t it follow that we need a spiritual answer, a spiritual antidote? Spiritual things happen in people’s consciousness. Barndt and Major call for “an organized anti-racism movement” that “can uproot racism in the systems of this nation.” They elaborate, “The United States of America was constructed with the conscious and intentional ideology of racist white superiority, and we can consciously and intentionally deconstruct race and reconstruct anti-racism within every system in this nation.” (11)
Did you hear the bravado, the confidence in that last sentence? “… we can consciously and intentionally deconstruct race and reconstruct anti-racism within every system in this nation.” These words, this formulation of the issues, helps me to understand what leaders of the Critical Race Theory based antiracism movement are thinking. They think they can bring about total change in our society by changing people’s consciousness. I suppose if you could change everyone’s consciousness you could do that. If we ask, how has that worked out recently, the picture isn’t pretty. For instance in the 2022 elections, a focus on the phrase “Defund the Police” in campaign ads helped elect many politicians who want the police to have unlimited money and power. I think we can agree that the attempt by many adherents of Critical Race Theory to change everyone’s consciousness about race by convicting all white people of their guilt has backfired royally in the political systems of this county.
We really do need to learn about bad things that have happened in the past and are happening now to successfully make changes that bring about greater justice. The question is, can we look at the facts and the issues together, set common goals, then work together to change what we can change? That is a good description of Policy Based Antiracism, otherwise known as Asset-Based Anti-Racism – Anti-Racism where every supporter is seen as an asset regardless of racial or ethnic or gender identification.
The opposite approach is to imagine that we can bring a total end to racism, total systemic change, by changing white people’s consciousness. To change consciousness, you first need to convict people of the need for change. As an Evangelical preacher might say, first you must convict them of their sin, then show them the path to salvation. With Consciousness Based Antiracism as with the Evangelical message about sin, we are talking about the assignment of guilt. And it just doesn’t work out as advertised.
Much more needs to be said, but I am stopping here for today.
1 My presentations at UUMUAC meetings in 2010 and 2017 and other writings have been published in various issues of the UUMUAC ARROW newsletter available at https://www.uumuac.org/mac-arrows.
2 John Lewis, Walking With The Wind: A Memoir of the Movement (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1998) pp. 128-172.
3 Lewis, pp 328-330 (Jimmie Lee Jackson), 350-352 (James Reeb). Also Mark Morrison-Reed, The Selma Awakening (Boston: Skinner House Books, 2014) pp. 97-98 (Jimmie Lee Jackson); 104-125 (James Reeb); 138 (Viola Liuzzo).
4 Lewis, pp. 381-383.
5 Mark Morrison-Reed, Black Power and Unitarian Universalism: Revisiting the Empowerment Controversy (Boston: Skinner House Books, 2018). There is also a documentary film about these events titled The Wilderness Journey on YouTube at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LK86pRn3b-4&t=1s. It features footage from the 1968 General Assembly and interviews with actors on both sides of the controversy thirty years later. It was produced by Ronald M. Cordes and the Mass Bay District Racial Justice Coordinating Council.
6 Morrison-Reed writes, “BAC and BAWA each felt that the other was blocking it, and so frustration and anger grew. BAC felt BAWA was “insincere” and was spreading negative and untrue claims about BAC, misinformation it then had to counter. BAWA felt BAC was not honoring the Unitarian Universalist pluralism it had appealed to in establishing its own legitimacy. Moreover, BAWA felt that injustice had prevailed after it was politically outmaneuvered in Cleveland. Finding itself shut out of Unitarian Universalist Association committees verified for BAWA [members] BAC’s undemocratic tendencies and validated its mistrust. Each felt called to defend its principles against an adversary that was making false claims to delegitimize its position. As the battle continued, the inflated rhetoric left each feeling that its integrity and goodness were being impugned.” Ibid. pp. 128-129.
7 Komozi Woodward, A Nation within a Nation: Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones) and Black Power Politics (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1999) p. 164.
8 Morrison-Reed, pp. 292-301.
9 Sanyika’s 2017 General Assembly speech can be viewed at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3DG1A-rjvik.
10 Crain Major, Barbara and Barndt, Joseph. Deconstructing Racism (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2023, Kindle Edition) p. 32.
11 Ibid, pp 21-22.
Copyright (c) Kenneth Christiansen 2023