Politics Magazine

Public Policy and the Shaping of Modern Unitarian Universalism (thoughts on “The Case for Reparations”)

Posted on the 28 May 2014 by Eastofmidnight

Shawna Foster, in responding to a post on Tom Schade’s blog, wrote the following:
I believe systems of oppression are perpetuated unintentionally, and that religion is one of the ways we can become aware of our intentions and what we really mean by our thoughts and actions. This is one of the major reasons why I belong to a religious institution, I feel it is one of the few places in society with this role. People can be quite educated, and intellectual, but unintentionally perpetuate harm because of a lack of experience that causes transformational change to a different behavior – something I hope religion does – something I think you are doing write now by writing about the societal situation. To me this is a bit different status quo than oppressive forces intentionally causing harm; it is always a few who do overt violence justified by the covert violence of the status quo.

I’m trying really hard to see how anybody, with even rudimentary  knowledge of United States history, could say that with a straight face. Really, I’m trying but I so want to call bullsh*t.

If you haven’t read Ta-Nehisi Coates’ breathtaking article in the newest issue of The Atlantic, “The Case for Reparations”, stop here and read it. Read it? Good. Now I can go on.

My thoughts start where TNC starts:

Two hundred fifty years of slavery. Ninety years of Jim Crow. Sixty years of separate but equal. Thirty-five years of racist housing policy.

Let’s be clear about this. To believe that “systems of oppression are perpetuated unintentionally” with the whole of U.S. history to look at means that one believes that slavery was some kind of unintended consequence in the foundation of the United States. It means that one believes that Jim Crow was unintentional. It means that one believes that the Supreme Court really wasn’t saying what it was saying in Plessy v. Ferguson. It means that one believes that when the New Deal was rolled out, the fact that African Americans (and Latinos for some programs) were almost universally shut out of participation was unintentional. It means that one believes that African American men being almost completely shut out of the GI Bill after WWII was just an overlook. It means that one believes that the FHA program saying that it would not subsidise neighborhoods that did not have restrictive covenants was some kind of bureaucratic overreach.

C’mon now. None of this was unintentional. The American experiment only worked (and works currently, if we look at the criminalization of 1/3 of all African American men and other measures)  because white liberals made (and make) an agreement with white conservatives that all whites will benefit in some way from the use/misuse/abuse of African American bodies and labor. Granted, who was/is considered white is malleable, but who is black is not; the “one drop rule” never applied to the Irish or eastern or southern Europeans. Race and racism in America is NOT unintentionally perpetuated oppression; it is the very heart and soul of the American experiment.

And in Unitarianism and Universalism, the treatment of people like Ethelred Brown and Lewis McGee and William Jackson or the Joseph Jordans show that religion is no sanctuary from oppression (perpetuated intentionally or unintentionally).

Now…the title of this post is Public Policy and the Shaping of Modern Unitarian Universalism. And it took me reading TNC’s article to make some connections that I had not been making.

Those of you who know me in the non-blogging world (or if you’ve read this blog for a long time) might remember that I’m not a big fan of all the nostalgia for the Fellowship Movement of the mid-20th century. There were many reasons I thought the nostalgia was unfounded. But I hadn’t connected the dots. The growth of Unitarianism happened in the post-WWII period that saw public policy shaping where we live. Since African Americans were shut out of the programs that made the suburbs and exurbs possible, is it any wonder that Unitarian Universalism is as non-diverse as it is.

Housing policy made modern Unitarian Universalism what it is. So the next time there is a wistful discussion about the Fellowship Movement, remember why it was made possible. Wherever you stand on the case for reparations, TNC’s article should be cause for a real discussion of how and why Unitarian Universalism looks the way it looks; and how hard it is to change that.


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