The Less Comfortable Diversity

Let me just start with the disclaimer that it is not the goal of this post to eliminate anti-racism as something all of us need to work on, both in our personal and public lives.  But while anti-racism needs to include seeing race as one dimension of power, it also needs to engage the opposite dynamic, of removing race to look at power more deeply.

Here is what some scientists have found by looking at a group which lacks power as conveyed through the medium of education:

Life Expectancy Shrinks for Less-Educated Whites in U.S.

Published: September 20, 2012 (New York Times)

The purpose of this blog is to comment on the religious institution in which I am an ordained minister, The Unitarian Universalist Association, using our basic principles as a corrective. This often leads me to attack our imbalanced emphasis on institutional educational excellence as a detriment to discovering what we call the inherent worth and dignity of every person. Usually I position that critique in the larger world of employment and education itself, and call for greater application of what we now know about the many ways of being intelligent. My challenge usually bemoans the few avenues for enough economic stability to nurture self-fulfillment for everyone in a family and community. This is certainly no lonely prophetic mission: our religious educators and UUs for a Just Economic Community are coworkers who educate and sustain what little I can say.

But too often, in making this effort, I feel thwarted by an over-emphasis in displaying the more comfortable diversity of anti-racism. And why is anti-racism “the more comfortable diversity” for us?

That’s because from 1900 to 1927, in the first era of corporate academic expansion, American Unitarian Association President Samuel Atkins Eliot undertook an active campaign to shut down less affluent congregations. Equating the association’s future stability with the environment in which he had grown up — Harvard University, of which his father was president and virtually everyone he knew was a professor and/or graduate — he actively closed out small congregations that eked out their livings on the bottom edges of prosperity.

There are certainly congregations that ought to be closed, all the time and in every faith community. But using economic criteria to find them was a mistake. And to some extent, it may have been a smoke screen. A green velvet curtain concealing the more humble reality that the folks in such congregations often live life differently: they have a higher degree of hands-on contribution than financial largesse. In one of my favorite passages from his speeches, Eliot praised the women of one now-departed congregation for the industriousness — but his measure was that they were putting on food sales and such to raise money.

When folks got together to do gardening, painting, patching… this he tended not to see. Like me, he had a scholarly temperament, and, in fact, I very much advocate that all of us pay more attention to his praise of the role of scholarship in religious self-definition. But let’s not go overboard, like he did. Let’s use the one gift we get from the passing of time — the wisdom of hindsight — to see the bell curve of his perspective. His generation can and should be praised for opening books to so many who had not had the opportunity to enjoy them (he was even a strong advocate of prison and post-prison rehabilitation education and ministries), but they attempted to universalize that definition of human excellence. This led him into the cultural cleansing of the Bureau of Indian Affairs and many of his peers into the horrid false science of eugenics, and the forced sterilization of folks with mental retardation or the social underdevelopment that results from generations of total deprivation.

Those are still the folks who make us uncomfortable, and race does not define them. They are not the objects of occasional charity, but neighbors who need consistent and unequal engagement from our best selves. Our growth will always keep us ahead of their growth. But if we do not connect with them — when we cut those social ties to local parish — we get what these scientists are describing: a group which is actively falling behind in the raw statistics of life and death.

I have written before that anti-racism — a laudable long-term value in Unitarianism and much of Universalism — served us as an internal unifier during the difficult years after Reverend Stephen H. Fritchman was removed from Unitarian (pre-merger) leadership for allegedly using the denominational publication to promote Communist Party goals. It was my privilege to serve as researcher for Reverend Charles Eddis’s comprehensive reexamination of this subject. Inevitably, as my wind-up reading delved into the fallout, I was stunned to see how the emerging Civil Rights movement allowed any former AUA Communists– who had been the strongest voice against racism — to carry on part of their conviction in harmony with mainstream Unitarianism and progressive national vision.

But let us never forget that the leader of the Civil Rights movement was DR. Martin Luther King. The ranks he led most effectively were folks who already had achieved the military and educational background — often over many generations — to enter the middle class from which they were being excluded. As Dr. King extended his reach to the more intractably underprivileged, his movement began to fall apart. We will never know what would have happened to that Poor People’s March on Washington if he hadn’t been assassinated — while crusading on behalf of garbage collectors.

But we do know what happened to the UUA. We lost the narrative of comprehensive progress and became fixated on the whiteness of our culture. Yet by doubling down against that whiteness, we remain stuck in the first stages of the Civil Rights movement, looking for people of color whose educational attainments bring them quickly and comfortably into the educational milieu Dr. Sam had laid out in an era which is rapidly passing into the dim dust of time.

There is no question that when you look at studies within every demographic community of this nation — from the Republican Party to African American leadership –you see the same dilemma. Every single group is stuck trying to figure out what to do for the folks in its ranks who have lost the education race. We are not alone in this, and we are not particularly guilty in this. It’s a national — indeed, an international problem.

But my particular group is a religion, and what little I know about religion tells me this: we will be judged guilty if we just walk by. We must quit looking past these people, rendering them invisible to what little privilege we retain — just because they happen to be the same race as ourselves and our far more privileged founders.

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4 thoughts on “The Less Comfortable Diversity

  1. How did Eliot decide affluence? By the overall Budget of the Congregation? What I mean was he shutting down modest congregations, or congregations with members of modest means? Either would be a bad measure of Congregational “health” but just curious.

    • Eliot did tend to look at balance sheets, so that if you were small but managing to balance your budget every year, he admired your initiative. This came out of the Harvard University dictum toward each of its several schools: “every tub on its own bottom” –and has been shown to militate badly against the Divinity and Education schools, whose alumniae do not earn enough money to give large gifts just as the final accounting comes due. In the congregational world, this also gives large donors undue influence.

      But what is more important to me is the mindset it creates in congregational culture, which is anti-entrepreneurial. There’s a reason we don’t have the money to give our div schools, and it’s because we refuse to participate in the well-known business statement: you’ve got to spend money to make money. I would prefer to see 2 -5 year accounting cycles, which in my view would support more assertive “planning for growth.” But what we are actually doing when we grow is serving larger numbers of people in ways that satisfy more of them, so in my mind, it is immoral not to put our religious selves out there. We could even start risking some product diversification beyond our minimal current offers of RE/Social Justice/Worship/Building Maintenance.

      However, to get back to Dr. Sam, his definition of affluence was more than just a balanced budget. He identified four ascending areas of society in which he wanted to see UU congregations established — and yes, we can say UU, because he was a major visionary for the merger and did good work to get it going. His four areas emphasized universities and suburbs — exactly the places where we find ourselves today.

      I’ll get back to you on the other two, but not very soon.

  2. Pingback: Another Way for Congregations To Strategize about Money « Politywonk

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