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Saturday, July 16, 2005

Religion News Service on racial tensions at G.A.

Nancy Glass of the Religion News Service reports on the controversy around allegations of racist behavior at the General Assembly of the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations. The Charlotte [N.C.] Observer carries the story today under the headline "Unitarian Board Apologizes" (7.16.05).

There are two relevant on-line documents that the news story will probably make you want to read:

  • A July 6 letter from the UUA Board of Trustees expressing "deep sadness and regret" for incidents involving "apparently disrespectful and racist treatment of our youth by Fort Worth officials," other incidents in which "white UUs assumed that UU youth of color were hotel service people and asked them to carry luggage or park cars," and an altercation during the Closing Ceremony in which "some UU youth of color were made to feel that they were not welcome."

  • A letter from an usher in the Closing Ceremony who identifies herself as a person of color, says she witnessed the incident during the Closing Ceremony, and disputes the Board's characterization of it.

    Copyright © 2005 by Philocrites | Posted 16 July 2005 at 10:02 AM

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    July 16, 2005 01:04 PM | Permalink for this comment

    For what it's worth, Nancy Glass interviewed me for this story and this is what I told her.

    > 1.  How serious do you think the incidents at General Assembly were?

    Well, they are serious now.

    > 2.  Do they indicate a larger tension around race issues in the UUA?

    I'd say there are racial tensions everywhere.  We do have our own
    flavor, though.

    > 3.  If so, how does this tension tend to manifest itself?  If not, do you
    > think this was an isolated incident?

    We absolutely have racial tensions, but not in the sense that other
    churches do.  I lived down south for awhile and down there small towns
    have the "black Church of Christ" and the "white Church of Christ."
    As a reporter, I once was supposed to do an interview at the "black
    Church of Christ" and got lost.  People kept giving me directions to
    the white church, even when I asked for the other.

    Compared to those people, our race problems are quite minimal.

    But they feel significant because we have developed such a heightened
    sensitivity on these issues.  We want to be 100 percent non-oppressive
    and our youth have taken this to mean that being non-oppressive
    by any possible defintion is more important than being fair, presumably
    because white people can never be fair to people
    of color.  Not everyone feels this way, mind
    you, but some do, and those people are vocal.

    For example, I teach SAT prep classes at night sometimes and right now
    there's a discussion going on with the young UUs about when students
    of color misbehave in my classes.  The consensus seems to be that I
    shouldn't yell at them, or really discipline them at all, because I
    don't understand their background.

    In my view, the real oppressor is the student, whatever his/her color,
    who is distracting a bunch of other students who themselves are just
    trying to do better on a test that could give them a better life.

    UUs, like many religious groups in America, have a lot of respect for
    Dr. Martin Luther King.  King said ""I have a dream that my four
    little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be
    judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their

    I do feel that the current trend among young Unitarian Universalists
    is to encourage people to make different sets of judgement based on
    skin color such as "This person is African-American and has probably
    been tortured by white people her whole life, so it's really
    understandable that she keeps kicking the student in front of her and
    throwing balls of paper. I'll just ignore it and let her distract the
    other kids rather than making her stop and being one more oppressor."
    Dr. King and I would say that it's still wrong, though.

    > 4.  All of this discussion over race among Unitarian Universalists sort of
    > took me by surprise, given the denomination's reputation and history.  What
    > do you think might be fueling discussions on this matter?

    A few things. First of all, the people really enthused on this one
    are, by and large, teenagers.  We respect our teenagers a lot more
    than any other church I've ever seen.  We give them a big national
    organization.  But they, as teenagers do, think they can be such
    forces for peace as to eradicate racism even though they can't quite
    get along with adults.   UU adults want their kids to feel empowered
    to change the world, so they tolerate some things that other religions
    probably wouldn't.

    Secondly, the heightened sensitivity.  I will send along a copy of a
    first-person account of the incident from one of the ushers.  To say
    that no other church would have given this incident a second look is
    to put it mildly.

    Dudley M. Jones:

    July 17, 2005 06:22 PM | Permalink for this comment

    Dear Friends

    Racism is tough to deal with. Our UU congregation recently had an interactive presentation by Professor Susan Fiske of the Princeton Psychology Department. It was shocking - she led us through some association tests that clearly showed we had really nasty racist material inside our heads. I found it disturbing - maybe I should have know better.

    One conclusion: how about a little humility on this issue.

    best wishes

    Dudley Jones


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