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First Parish Universalist Church
790 Washington Street, P. O. Box 284, Stoughton, Massachusetts 02072 
(781) 344-6800
Worship: 10:30 AM
Church School: 10:45 AM

Does It Matter If You’re Black or White?

Rev. Jeffrey Symynkywicz, September 27, 2009

            I thought that electing a black man as President was supposed to end the “race problem” in America , once and for all. No, I’m not really as naïve as all that. But the way some people spoke, that was the implication of that grand night in Grant Park, Chicago , back on November 4th of last year. “Change has come to America,” the handsome, young President-elect intoned, and as he stood there with his lovely, elegant wife and his two oh-so-photogenic, precocious daughters, we smiled (most of us—even more of us than the 53% who voted for him, I’d bet)—and a few wiped away tears—and we nodded, and agreed that, yes, this was a turning point in our nation’s history; that at least a few of the ghosts of the collective past had been exorcised, at last.


            Well, that was then, and this is now. And that President-elect is now the President; and his domestic agenda seems stalled in Congress; and there have been no great transformations on the international stage; and his popularity rating has fallen from stratospheric heights after the inauguration to only around 50%, give or take a couple of points, today.


            Why such a steep decline? It’s racism, some people say. The questions of race is like some kind of evil Jack in the Box, that pops up where and when we least expect it in our national life.


            So race is once again a subject we’re talking about and agonizing over in America today it seems (it didn’t “go away” for long, did it?). Three black men didn’t really “dominate” the news this summer—but they sure did get their share of attention:


            There was the President, of course. (Unless they’re in the closing weeks of lame duck administrations, Presidents, by default, get their share of attention.)


            Then there was Michael Jackson. A very talented, very complicated man, whose relationship to his own race was as complicated as his relationship to just about any other aspect of life, it seems. The man who gave us the immortal lyrics:


But, If
You're Thinkin'
About My Baby
It Don't Matter If You're
Black Or White…


The man who also sang, “I ain’t gonna spend my life bein’ a color…” And he didn’t certainly. But whether Michael Jackson spent his life being a prophetic figure when it comes to race relations, or simply something of an oddity, I’m not sure…


            Then, the third black man in the news this summer, and perhaps most tellingly and significantly, was Professor Henry Louis Gates of Harvard.


            Here’s what our friend, St. Wikipedia, says about Professor Gates:


Henry Louis Gates, Jr. (born September 16, 1950) is an American literary critic, educator, scholar, writer, editor and public intellectual. He was the first African American to receive the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Fellowship. He has received numerous honorary degrees and awards for his teaching, research, and development of academic institutions to study black culture. In 2002, Gates was selected to give the Jefferson Lecture, in recognition of his "distinguished intellectual achievement in the humanities."…


As the host of the 2006 and 2008 PBS television miniseries African American Lives, Gates explored the genealogy of prominent African Americans. Gates sits on the boards of many notable arts, cultural, and research institutions. He serves as the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor at Harvard University, where he is Director of the W. E. B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research. Michael Kinsley referred to him as "the nation's most famous black scholar."


Not famous enough, apparently, to be recognized by the police force of Cambridge, Massachusetts . (Cambridge, of all places; perhaps the leftist-leaning, most politically-correct enclave this side of  Berkeley; a place we would always refer to, back when I was a trolley conductor/ tour guide some years ago as “the People’s Republic of Cambridge”. “Welcome to the People’s Republic of Cambridge !” I would inevitably intone, as I drove across the Longfellow Bridge .)


On July 16, 2009, Gates returned home to Cambridge from a trip to China to find the door to his house jammed. His driver attempted to help him gain entrance. A neighbor called police reporting a possible break-in and a Cambridge police officer was dispatched. The resulting confrontation resulted in Gates being arrested in his own living room and charged with disorderly conduct.


Honestly, had it been April 1st (and not July 16th) I might have thought it was an April Fool’s Day prank put on by those clever young folks at Harvard or MIT; or a run-through for a Saturday Night Live skit; or that someone had exchanged a copy of the satirical magazine The Onion for my copy of the Boston Globe that morning.


But it wasn’t funny. Most of all, not to black Americans, who have over the years gotten a bit too used to being pulled over, or questioned by police, or even (as in Dr. Gates’ case) arrested, for nothing more than “the crime of being black”.


It wasn’t funny. Most of all not to Dr. Gates (who was, for some strange reason, more than a bit put out by being interrogated, and having to show identification, and then having handcuffs slapped on him, inside his own home, in his very own living room.  (How unreasonable can these black folk be!)


No, after my initial incredulous laughter, I didn’t find it very funny at all. At first glance, and second, and third, this seemed to many of us like an obvious miscarriage of justice; it seemed like the scourge of racial profiling carried to its absurd extreme.


It didn’t seem very funny to the President. When asked at a press conference about Professor Gates’ arrest, President Obama acknowledged that Gates was “a friend, so I may be a little biased." The President stepped lightly regarding any role race may have played in the situation, saying that he was not there so could not be certain, however he did note that racial profiling has "a long history in this country." But then, the President added, almost as an aside, that the "Cambridge police acted stupidly in arresting somebody when there was already proof that they were in their own home."


Calling a policeman “stupid” just seemed beyond the bounds for many people. To some, the President had stepped over the line. Perhaps in the eyes of some, he was just getting a bit too uppity. (Of course, the President, man of conciliation and even temprement that he is, later apologized to the Cambridge police for his choice of words. He then invited Professor Gates and his arresting officer, Sgt. James Crowley, to the White House for a beer. There, the three men, joined by Vice-President Joe Biden, discussed matters of race in America (and probably sports teams, too; that’s what guys are supposed talk about over a beer, I guess). The President had a Bud Light; Crowley had a Blue Moon; Gates, perhaps seeing the symbolism of the moment, chose a Sam Adams (Sam Adams Light, interestingly). The Vice- President, who does not drink alcohol, had a Buckler, which is a non-alcoholic beer made by Heineken. (It’s probably good that no one chose a German weissbier, or white beer, which is made from wheat.)  At the White House, Gates and Crowley spoke amiably, shook hands, and seemed to get along well. "We hit it off right from the very beginning,” Gates said afterwards. “When he’s not arresting you, Sergeant Crowley is a really likable guy."


That it were so easy to deal with matters of race in America !                


But old ways die hard.


A U.S. Representative from South Carolina (the state which gave us the Civil War in the first place) shouts “You lie!” at the President as he addresses a joint session of Congress. The shout of a white Southerner addressed to an articulate black man gets transcribed in some ears as “You lie, boy!”—words that were used to taunt and harass and intimidate during the South’s long racist nightmare.


Which led Jimmy Carter, himself a man of the South, one who had experienced firsthand the racial turmoil of those years (and who had been something of a prophet as far as white southerners were concerned), to tell an audience at Emory University in Atlanta:


"When a radical fringe element of demonstrators and others begin to attack the President of the United States as an animal or as a reincarnation of Adolf Hitler or when they wave signs in the air that said we should have buried Obama with Kennedy, those kinds of things are beyond the bounds.


"I think people who are guilty of that kind of personal attack against Obama have been influenced to a major degree by a belief that he should not be president because he happens to be African American. It's a racist attitude, and my hope is and my expectation is that in the future both Democratic leaders and Republican leaders will take the initiative in condemning that kind of unprecedented attack on the president of the United States ," Carter said.


            Notice, St. Jimmy didn’t say (in spite of what paragons of truth like Glenn Beck and Rush Windbags have claimed)  that people oppose Obama’s policies because they’re racists; or that they don’t like particulars of his health insurance reform proposals because of racism—but that, to some people, members “of a radical fringe element”, Obama “should not be president because he happens to be African American”.


Barack Hussein Obama is not “one of us”, these people infer (or come right out and say). He’s too different from us. He’s too exotic. He’s too uppity. He has risen above his raising. Just look at the way he talks; all that fancy language he uses; look at how cool and calm and impeccably attired he is. He’s a threat, a foreigner, “not one of us”.


That’s the reason the President gets thirty death threats a day, according to the Secret Service; which is four and a half times more death threats than any other President in history (some of whom weren’t exactly loved, either). That’s why all that nonsense about his not having a birth certificate is just so much right wing hot air. (Not only is there a birth certificate [and here’s a copy of it], there are also hard copies of notices of the birth announcements from the two leading newspapers in Honolulu at the time in 1960, announcing the birth to “Mr. and Mrs. Barack H. Obama, 6055 Kalanisnaele Hwy, [a] son, August 4.”


Now, it’s one thing to attack the policies of a particular President (I have done it myself, on occasion. I will do it again; maybe even this President; he’s just so darned moderate sometimes, for my taste.) But it is beyond the pale, entirely, to question the legitimacy of his having been born here—the genuineness of his “Americanism”—even, subtly, as when people like Obama to Hitler, or his wife to a gorilla, of his very humanness.


If that isn’t racism, then what is it?


Does it matter if you’re black or white? Apparently, to some people, it still does matter.


Which ignores the historical truth that race as a construct, as a way of dividing up our human family, does not not stretch back to the immemorial glow of the first sunrise, back to the vague years of pre-history, back to the pages of the book of Genesis.  No, the very idea of race is a concept that goes back only about four hundred years. Before that, people were labeled according to where they lived, the customs they practiced, and the religion in which they believed. Skin tone seemed to have no more to do with identifying people than the color of their eyes.


Race is just a chimera, after all. When you boil it down, skin color is just a matter of pigmentation, which should objectively have no more social import than, say, hair color does. But questions of race are great diversions which are used to distract us from questions of class (which are real, hard questions with real economic and political ramifications).


If we are going to progress, then there is a need for us to look beneath the veneer of race, and it is just a veneer, and to grasp our deeper, shared humanity and the deeper issues involved in the world in which we live today. And these predomunant issues are much more about wealth and privilege than they are about race and skin color.


They are issues that remind us that about 83 percent of the wealth in this country is owned by less than 20 percent of the population. The top 1% owns 47% of the wealth. (The top three wealthiest people in the world own assets in excess of the total gross domestic product of the 48 poorest countries.) The average CEO in America today makes 418 times more than the average worker. (The comparable figure for Germany is 20 times more; for Japan , it's only 8 times more.) These facts describe an American oligarchy that rules not out of race, but out of class. They remind us, whether we’re black or white or yellow or brown or red, that all of us have a lot more in common with people at the bottom of the ladder than with that tiny elite at the top.


We are in this together, and until we realize that fact, there will be no hope for us. So, what can we do?


In her book, Learning to Be White, Thandeka, a Unitarian Universalist minister and scholar, offers three suggestions:


First, Dr. Thandeka says, we nee to read. We need to become infirmed. "Discover what white Americans have in common with other people of color and work on a new vocabulary of race" that sees us as comrades in a common endeavor.


Second, we need to empathize: "Learn to replace moral judgment with loving compassion." Realize that we have all been crippled by racism, and that we need to find new rituals, new communities, to help to heal one another.


And third, Thandeka implores us, we have to act. We have to do something to redress the balance and make our communities better. We don't just need to talk about it. We need to do something!


"We have the power to transform America through such work," Thandeka writes. "All we need is the moral courage to practice what we preach... about the value, dignity, and worth of us all."


Or, as someone else has said it:


"When we dream alone, we have only a dream. But when we dare to dream together, we take the first step in creating a new reality."


A reality that sees beyond color at last, to the deeper wellsprings of our humanity.


A reality where ebony and ivory, if not in perfect harmony, are at least united, together, creating a strong and irresistible Song of Life.



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