The Legacy of Slavery Is Alive and Well

I am caught up in two difficult and painful struggles. Our nation is facing the most serious political crisis since the 1960s Vietnam War crisis, and my religious organization, The Unitarian Universalist Association (the UUA), is struggling once again with its own internal racial isolation.

Our national turmoil is the result of a profound division within us, the division between those who believe that the core of life involves power and property and those who believe that the core of life involves compassion and connection. This division can be creative and constructive when each side has respect for the other. However, this mutual respect has been evaporating since the 1980s and has now all but disappeared.

Our current President is the embodiment of the power and property view. He, his administration, and much of his political base have nothing but contempt for compassion and see connection and relationship as weakness. And since contempt on one side births contempt in the other, we are now in a downward spiral of division, suspicion, anger, and cynicism. (The word “contempt” comes from a Latin word that means “to despise.”)

The turmoil within the UUA is the result of increasingly powerful calls for us to understand how it is that our organization embodies structures, processes, policies, and procedures that incarnate the idea that Euro-American culture is superior to non-Euro-American culture. This consistent and unrecognized favoring of Euro-American culture is the essence of systemic white supremacism.

Unfortunately there is no bright line that divides structures, processes, policies, and procedures on the one hand from specific actions taken by specific people on the other. As a result, when someone points to, say, a procedure that embodies white supremacism, others assume that they are being called white supremacists, thus missing the point entirely. The result is that, rather than moving toward resolution and reconciliation, more often we move toward anger and even deeper division.

This confusion is what stands behind the defensiveness that one often encounters when procedures and policies are called into question. It may be that all of this is both inevitable and necessary, but in the meantime, hearts are breaking. It remains true, though, that the work of deepening racial reconciliation is difficult, painful work that cannot be engaged without hearts breaking.

These two conflicts that seem, at first blush, very different, share a common ancestor. Both are aspects of the legacy of slavery within the United States. Writers such as Douglas Blackmon and Edward Baptist have documented how slavery in one form or another was at the heart of American industrialization. It is a moot question whether or not our industrialization required slavery. The fact is that it actually was based on cotton, and that cotton was grown by enslaved labor.

The influence of industrialization was so pervasive that every institution in the new nation benefited from it and therefore also benefitted from slavery. As a result every institution, sometimes consciously and sometimes unconsciously, was organized in ways that reflected that benefit. This was true of our government, and it was true of our religious institutions.

At the national level, consider. It is a small step from thinking that power generates worth to the idea that those without power are worth nothing except as property and as generators of wealth. And this is the essence of slavery. The enslaved, having no power, are but property and properly so. Thus was slavery justified. On the other hand, compassion and respect for relationship and human connection are what motivated the Abolitionists, even though they rarely grasped the true breadth and power of this idea. Some say there was no reconciliation of this divide until the Civil War. I would argue that in fact it has never been reconciled. Not even the election of an African American President illustrated reconciliation. Quite the contrary.

At the religious level, consider. Unitarianism and Universalism arose in the United States when the Industrial Revolution was either nascent or exploding across the land. Fortunes were made by the Industrial Revolution, and some of the scions of industry and the economic endeavors it required were attracted to Unitarianism or Universalism. Thus it was that fortunes generated either directly or indirectly by enslaved labor fueled the rise both religious movements.

Our parent organizations, The American Unitarian Association and the Universalist Church of America, were not exceptions. They too benefitted from slavery. And therein lies our turmoil. There is a conflict lying at the heart of the UUA. On the one hand two of our most cherished ideals are the inherent worth and dignity of every person and the interdependence of all beings. And yet the UUA is descended from older structures that embodied slavery and the Association has inherited, albeit unwittingly, a considerable amount of that embodiment. And we are loath to acknowledge that fact. Thus the conflict.

So here we have it, two very different power struggles, one governmental and one religious. At least on the surface they may appear to be completely unrelated. And yet they both have roots in the same soil, the soil of American slavery. The lesson I take from this is that the legacy of slavery, though very well hidden, lives and breaths its poison into the soul of America at nearly every level. If we have any hope at all of solving these problems, we must address these roots, honestly, humbly, and compassionately. For, as William Faulkner told us, the past is not over; it is not even past.


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