by Tim Kraus
Tim Kraus, a member of First Church, has been a community activist for many years.
Recently, much has been written about the hiring practices of the Unitarian Universalist Association, the umbrella organization that represents all Unitarian Universalist churches in the United States (see the summary article on this page). Critics charge that those practices have evolved from a culture of white supremacy within the denomination, and the UUA has acknowledged that the charges are largely true. Thus, the floodgates of change opened upon the world of Unitarian-Universalism and its adherents this spring. How the UUA and every American Unitarian Universalist respond will determine the future of our denomination.
This is not about whether people of color are, or will ever be a “good fit” as Unitarian-Universalists. This is about exposing and discarding an internal culture that even raises such a question. It is about each of our personal and spiritual lives. This is about how we conduct ourselves in every human relationship, the relationships we choose and the ones we avoid. It is even about how we think. I am learning to think in different ways and it is difficult. White supremacist culture is in the water we drink and the air we breathe. Many times in my life I benefited from the advantages of my skin color and culture, but the filtering process in these kinds of matters is so subtle and invisible that I have casually assumed that I made it through life on the merit of my ability. Clearly, I have not.
This has been hard for many UUs, including myself, to acknowledge, but airing the problem is vital. In such situations, metaphors can help. The Universalist Christian heritage that proclaims salvation and equality for all persons is a good starting point for making these changes. In that tradition, the parables of Jesus illuminate a path forward. In his Sermon on the Mount he proclaimed that the first shall be made last and the most exploited shall inherit the earth. In another parable the workers who came to the vineyards at the end of the day were paid the same as the workers who were present all day. And in another, the one lamb that was caught in the thicket was rescued at the expense of the rest of the herd because what good is that community if it willingly sacrifices the one who was separated? These metaphors speak directly about our need to create a just and inclusively loving community.
For me, our neglect of such principles is augmented by the American love affair with efficiency. We insist on ruthless efficiency in everything we do, unless of course, that efficiency disturbs the existing power relationships. That preoccupation draws straight lines between current and desired conditions, supposedly distributing damage equally on either side of that line. But we all know that only one side of that line will suffer the brunt of the damage. Decisions are made on the basis of scarcity not through a spirit of generosity and abundance. “I got mine, now you figure out how to get yours. Pay no attention to the fact that I created structures to make sure it will be difficult or impossible for you.” In these ways our social milieu is inherently racist. I see the results everywhere now.
When the interstate highways came through Cincinnati they destroyed or separated large swaths of poor and African American neighborhoods in the name of efficiency and progress. They destroyed the lives of the most powerless among us. And those people were never consulted or ever got to sit at that decision-making table. That is white supremacy in action.
I see how the non-laboring shareholders of Kroger and Wendy’s demand that every penny of the profits on tomatoes be given to them as the return on their investment while the people of color who actually do the labor of picking those tomatoes suffer with inadequate wages, dangerous working conditions, and no prospects for a better future. That is white supremacy in action.
And, perhaps worst of all, I see it in my church. And it’s nothing new. When tough UUA budgetary decisions had to be made in 1969, a white supremacist culture made sure that the cuts fell directly on the lives and work of the people of color inside the UUA, preserving the white structures and leadership that created the budget crisis in the first place. As a result, the Association lost a large number of its members, mostly people of color who felt betrayed by their denomination. That culture is at the root of the latest controversy over an equally qualified person of color who was bypassed by the UUA for a staff position because to hire that person would mean changing the culture of the organization. Therefore she was seen as “not a good fit.” That is white supremacy in action.
But her anguished cry of betrayal accompanied by the fury of her colleagues was heard throughout the UUA. In the way that significant social movements and institutional changes are frequently ignited by seemingly minor events, this single “personnel decision” has sparked major changes within our denomination, and new interest in the insidious nature of racism in America. At the recent annual meeting of UUA churches in New Orleans, I saw my denomination growing in awareness of its own racial bias and the reasons for it. I now have a denomination that is not telling me but showing me how to examine my own life. The first UU principle is belief “in the worth and dignity of every person.” It seems we are relearning what that means.