Open for comment: is there a place for racism-theory dissent in the UUA?

The more I follow stories about race in the Unitarian Universalist Association — and particularly the alphabet soup of policy-making at the highest elected levels — the more I (1) wonder what the real, heart-felt motive is and (2) fear that the UUA is locked into a uniform Boomer-driven worldview — not only about race, but wealth, institutions and status — that I certainly do not share.

I’m 40, with gray hair and bad knees, and have been a Unitarian Universalist for a quarter-century, so it’s not I’m new to his, or young. Yet I wonder if the last Unitarian Universalist generation is the one before me. Have we hit Peak Neo-Liberal?

At every time I turn, established racism theory is either the trump card, the unspoken anxiety or magic formula for, well, everything. Forget art, education, cooperation, mission, prayer, appeals for sacrifice, merry-making or the host of other avenues once tried, or rather, it seems they have been forgotten. Indeed, tolerance, independence and the principled minority stand seem to be quite out of favor. Forget, too, that non-white newcomers might not want to be a party to a proxy culture war. Or that there’s a personal benefit (power, self-esteem) for those who continue to raise the flag and keep the cause going.

So back to my question in the incipit: is there a place for racism-theory dissent in the UUA? More than just Will Shetterly’s witness, too. And if not, how can the situation be changed?

About Scott Wells

Scott Wells, 45, is a Universalist Christian minister doing Universalist theology and church administration hacks in Washington, D.C.

11 thoughts on “Open for comment: is there a place for racism-theory dissent in the UUA?

  1. I don’t think UUism has quite sorted out its place in the world come globalization. We’re the most USAmerican of Religions so our Challange tougher than that faced by other Christian religions. (My Bretheran neigbor tells me there’s more Brethan at Church in Nigeria each Sunday than in the US; and he’s –the quitessential midwestner– quite at home in Africa).

    Too many of us falling back on language and frames from a few decades ago to make sense of it all, and that’s failing us badly. We look dated and sound dated.

    There may be a proposed AIW at GA calling for the US to stop wars in the “Muslim World”. So just what eactly is the Muslim World and what are we to make of people who divide up the world such between Muslim and whatever the rest of it may be?

    And what is a citzen of the “Muslim World” seeking to reconcile Sharia with Modernity to do, when a Church such as ours with a heritage of offering how to live a life of Faith in a Modern world, chucks that rich past and lacks the confidence to offer it to others as a choice they should consider?

    We’ve lost our confidence and it’s seen no more clearly than in our kean awarness of being so very different from so many others that we totally fail to see the common struggles we share with so many, and the solutions we’ve found to those shared human struggles.

  2. I find myself wondering how much room for dissent there is, from the standpoint that candidates for ministerial fellowship or credentialing as DRE’s are required (in some sense) to embody what is termed “anti-racism” and “anti-oppression”. I am not even very clear about what A-R/A-O is supposed to be, since it seems almost self-evident from observed reality that no human life is completely free from contributing towards the suffering of others. Thus the need for the galaxy of Buddhist and Christian spiritual practices designed to liberate persons from suffering in a reality that can never be 100% free of oppression.

    I can only say that as a gay man, I am not interested in anti-oppression. Most people (and especially polite bigots) think that what they do, does not oppress anybody. I know that my life can never be that pure. What I want to know, is what you DO stand for. Equal inheritence rights? Legal standing for GLBT couples in committed relationships? Protection from discrimination in housing and employment? Voting rights without regard to race? Economic self-determination for racial minorities? Etc..

    It seems to me that the Association is stacking its leadership deck (fellowshipped ministers and credentialed DRE’s) with those who do not strongly dissent from the A-R/A-O doctrine.

  3. Derek hits the heart of the objections of many people I’ve read: What does anti-racism theory actually promote? The answer seems to be a combination of self-blame and railing at others.

    Thandeka’s essay on why anti-racism will fail continues to seem pertinent to me. She says, “In our tradition, we are always active agents in our own salvation. This is core to our teaching as Unitarian Universalists. So why have we accepted a doctrine of race that indicts 95% of our congregants as helpless, passive sinners?”

    And because of my politics, I agree with Adolph Reed Jr.: “…of course racism persists, in all the disparate, often unrelated kinds of social relations and “attitudes” that are characteristically lumped together under that rubric, but from the standpoint of trying to figure out how to combat even what most of us would agree is racial inequality and injustice, that acknowledgement and $2.25 will get me a ride on the subway. It doesn’t lend itself to any particular action except more taxonomic argument about what counts as racism.”

  4. Scott – I don’t think one can say that anti-racism dissent is forbidden in Unitarian Universalist circles.

    The last time I checked, Thandeka is still on the faculty of a Unitarian Universalist seminary even though she is a prominent critic of current UUA antiracism work:

    http://www.meadville.edu/Ab_Fac_Thandeka.htm

    A well-known paper of hers is still available on the Meadville-Lombard web site:

    “Why Anti-Racism Will Fail”
    http://www.meadville.edu/journal/1999_thandeka_1_1.pdf

    In theory, the current denominational support for anti-racism work wasn’t something cooked up by an elite few … the support comes from an open and democratic business process through General Assembly and UUA Board voting:

    http://www.uua.org/leaders/idbm/multiculturalism/araomc/60588.shtml

    And yes … there are serious classism issues about who can afford to attend GA and most congregations don’t address this classism concern by paying for non-professional delegate travel (many do pay for minister and DRE travel).

    But the votes supporting anti-racism do come from an imperfect but still democratic process. We can and should find better ways to do this work. But it would be improper for the UUA to simply ignore a GA vote because we don’t like the results.

    I would propose that when looking at the multitude of things that divide and limit us (race, sexual orientation, physical ability, economic class, age, etc) that we keep in mind that nearly all of them are accidents of birth.

    And there is no reason to feel guilty about differences in power and privilege that one might have because they are simply accidents of birth (e.g. there’s no need to beat one’s self up for being white like Thandeka described in her paper referenced above). There differences are not voluntarily chosen.

    But we have to be mindful that they exist when working with others (and mindful in a way that doesn’t paralyze us with guilt).

  5. Steve, I’ve noticed that statements like “we keep in mind that nearly all of them are accidents of birth” are often offered by anti-racist theorists, even though those of us who disagree with AR theory completely agree with that observation. Indeed, I’m currently in a kerfuffle with a science fiction community in which the AR theorists are merrily implying that the people who disagree with them feel threatened by black folks or are somehow more racist than their “white allies”.

    Given AR theory, it’s understandable why they do that, but still, depending on your personality or mood, it’s very insulting or very amusing.

  6. Usually when something doesn’t work, one tries to figure out why and try to come up with something that does.
    Some of the research had been done, but we (UUA) don’t seem to want to try something new – it’s as if, if it hasn’t worked, it’s because we haven’t tried the stuff that’s not working hard enough.
    Steve C- What’s the percentage of UUA congregations that attend GA? and what percentage of those vote on delegates, or discuss (or vote) on
    GA agenda? And since over 50% of UUA congregations are considered ‘small” (if I recall rightly), how does this affect my questions?

  7. Steven Rowe wrote:
    -snip-
    “What’s the percentage of UUA congregations that attend GA? and what percentage of those vote on delegates, or discuss (or vote) on
    GA agenda? And since over 50% of UUA congregations are considered ’small’ (if I recall rightly), how does this affect my questions?”

    Steven,

    I never said it was a perfect democratic process (I used the phrase “an imperfect but still democratic process”).

    I don’t have the answer for you but I think we can make an educated guess from the recently reported Welcoming Congregation statistics:

    We have 650 Welcoming Congregations out of 1,041 UUA member congregations (62%).

    Most of these Welcoming Congregations are larger than the average (for example, there are only 3 UUA congregations with a membership over 300 that haven’t done the Welcoming Congregation process).

    In terms of individuals, 62% of our congregations that is weighted towards the large size contains 80% of the UU individuals.

    This suggests to me that most of our members belong to larger congregations and this may reduce the concern that GA is less democratic because large congregations are “over-represented” at GA.

    If the large congregations have more individual members and the bulk of our UU numbers are contained within them, maybe they should be “over-represented” at GA?

    Sources:
    http://www.uua.org/aboutus/index.shtml

    http://www.uua.org/documents/obgltc/welcoming_districtstats.pdf

    http://www.uua.org/documents/uua/100623_staff_report.pdf

  8. Has anyone blogged about the novel “The Antiracism Trainings” by David Reich? Strikes me as a moderately accurate portrayal of why critique and dissent have had such a small role in the antiracism discourse…even though the book is “fictionalized.”

  9. Rev Anon:
    Hah! I didn’t know that former UU World editor had written a fictional account of his time at the UUA. But I checked it out on Amazon – and plonked down $22 right away. Thanks for the tip!

  10. I don’t know if this is true UU wide or not, but it seems like there’s a generational gap with this anti-racism stuff, because the folks my age in the congregation (I’m 28) don’t really seem to, well, care about it, and the youth @ my congregation don’t really care either – they’ve moved beyond it. I hope the UUA won’t be locked into this Anti-Racist worldview for an extended period of time; I hope it will change as those who grew up in the civil rights era transition out and those who grew up in the post-civil rights era transition in.

    This whole debate on the Phoenix resolution has the potential to get uuuuuugly, and seeing arguments out there in the UU blog world about the Phoenix resolution writing from an Anti-Racist perspective have me perplexed (as in, ‘do people really think that way?”)

    I will say, I’m getting kinda tired of being made to feel less of a person because I happen to be white. There’s a lot of holier than thou stuff I’ve seen, and some of the Anti-Racist stuff (by being white, you are a racist even if you don’t realize it yet) just seems more on the reverse racist side than the anti-racist side.

    A random thought popped in my head as I read the comments on our democratic process – I wonder what percentage of delegates annually are repeat delegates, and what percentage are first timers. I’m a first time delegate, but the other delegates from my congregation have been going to GAs for…a long time. Is anything going to change when its the same delegates every year? Its going to take making GA more open and accessible for folks who can’t afford it, or can’t take the time off work, for there to be a change like this. (Heck, if it weren’t for a dead grandma’s inheritance, I wouldn’t be able to afford going this year.)

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