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In 2012, the Bushmaster Rifle Company issued “man cards” to those men who answered a series of sexist questions such “Do you eat tofu? Can you change a tire? Have you ever watched figured skating “on purpose”? — but others are more challenging. One question gives you four possible options of how to respond if a car full of the rival team’s fans cuts you off on the way to the championship game. The correct answer, it turns out, is to commit arson: “Skip the game, find the other car in the parking lot, and render it unrecognizable with a conflagration of shoe polish and empty food containers.” (Salon.com) Upon answering these questions correctly the man was issued a “man card” which read “The bearer of this card has averted complete humiliation. Today he is a man. Duly entitled to all rights and privileges duly afforded. To belch without apology. To leave the toilet seat up without shame. The way is before you.” And with that Bushmaster gave you a coupon to buy a 223 Bushmaster Assault rifle, the very same rifle Adam Lanza would use weeks later to murder 27 children and adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School.
If this election has laid bare anything at all, it is that there is a disease much greater than Covid-19 eating away at the heart of America. This small example is the tip of millions Americans, mostly white men in the rural mid-west, south who believe that their manhood is in jeopardy. The fact that Americans own enough guns to arm every adult and child in America and that we own 48% of the world’s firearms is indicative not just of how scared we are of people of color, but of how twisted we have become in our understanding of our identity and the world in which we live in.
As Jonathon Metzel in his groundbreaking study Dying of Whiteness has shown, suicide and murder rates are astronomically higher in states where guns laws have made the carrying and use of guns easier than buying alcohol. Guns represent the fear that white men, especially, are losing their privileged status as the superior caste to people of color, immigrants and women. The owning and brandishing of firearms is the most extreme and blatant form of our collective racism and it has infected almost half of our country. White people, who have little or no contact with people of color, buy into the myth that their place in the caste system is being threatened. Barak Obama as the first African American President and the popular election of Hilary Clinton, are seen as signs that the so called natural order of the world is not as it should be. White people in largely segregated middle America see their world and their order slipping away and they will vote and fight for men and causes that work directly against their self-interests. In other words, their fear of color and the globalization in our world instills a contravening value system in middle America not unlike the darkest days of Jim Crow, even though it means passing laws that diminish their standard of living. Higher suicide rates and other deaths of despair, the repeal of Obama Care which is insuring more people in red states than anywhere else, and the loss of jobs, are all due to the election of those who claim to share their values. Understand this: the more they are told that Donald Trump is robbing them of health care and jobs, the more they take that contravening truth as a conspiracy to harm the values of their perceived fall from dominance. We are a racist country and this election has made clear just how deep this racism goes.
The election of Donald Trump and the razor thin margin by which he won in 2016 and by which he lost in 2020 is not an anomaly my friends. It is a symptom of a great red wound running through the heart of America, and we are in the midst of a moral failing as great as our nation has ever seen, or has the greater potential to become. What is at stake is not just our political fortunes but our children’s moral fortunes. Racism isn’t the only reason people voted for Donald Trump; fear and self interest are equal contenders. All of these reasons require healing. Healing is possible but it will take generations to recover.
And we here are by no means immune from this dis-ease of racism, violence and fear are we? I have felt this pull towards fear myself. Walking past a black man wearing a hoody and tensing up. Using language that supports my privileged place in the greater caste system. In fact, seeing poor white Americans as mis-guided and ignorant is itself a racist construct under the banner of education and enlightenment. Every white person in royal blue CT is dealing with this same dis-ease. I live these days along the beach in Lordship, a beach community in Stratford, and just living up to its name, I don’t see many people of color walking its quiet streets, this despite a plethora of Biden signs in recent days. I too am fighting this disease of racism and it’s not easy.
Resemaa Menakem a renowned trauma therapist wrote in his book My Grandmother’s Hands that we are all suffering from embodied trauma due to the dis-ease of racism. Black people know this trauma intimately, and experience it almost constantly especially in the presence of all white populations, even well-meaning populations such as our congregation. But white people embody this trauma as well culturally in our fear of black and poor people, and expressed as the Karen phenomena, when a woman in Central Park called the police on a black man who was bird watching because she felt afraid. And of course, the trauma affects the police white or black who have been trained to be angry and suspicious of the citizenry especially people of color. The unequal and deadly use of force by police so graphically demonstrated in the murder of George Floyd last spring is the expression of this trauma. The usual defense for a police officer charged in a killing of an African American, is “I was afraid for my life”, even with the vast and obvious differential in power, shooting unarmed children many times over.
But there is good news. There is always good news. The potential to heal from this dis-ease of racism and fear is here among us. And it starts in freedom. Freedom is a critical concept in both politics and race theory. There are two kinds of freedom. “Freedom from” external constraints that allow us to live our lives as we see fit; this is often referred to as negative freedom. “Freedom to” do something allows us to express our lives without constraint; this is often referred to as positive freedom. Every one of us values freedom in these two senses to a varying degree. We want to be free from want and poverty so that we can be free to enjoy life as we see fit.
The problem with healing our deep dis-ease of fear and racism is that we too often misappropriate freedom under the name of liberty as a national and personal value. In ruby red America, the Tea Party espouses an ideal that we should be as free as possible from governmental restraints. Yes, the right to bear arms, to worship as we see fit and to entertain conspiracy theories such as Qanon, is an expression of liberty as a freedom from that leads to a freedom to live as I please. The problem comes when that freedom comes into direct contact with those who are lower down our caste system. (see Caste by Isabel Wilkerson) If my freedom from gun restrictions leads to a freedom to own an assault rifle, I may see the expression of others rights such as affirmative action as an assault on my freedom, leading to any number of mass shootings in this country. And when the government not only restricts my freedom so that I will not hurt others as Adam Lanza did, but then puts policies in place that helped those systemically disadvantaged with jobs programs and election reform, those in power see this as assault on liberty.
The old militaristic jab that “freedom isn’t free” is true but not in the way that most racists mean it. Freedom in this country by virtue of its moral values actually means that the freedom for some, in this case marginalized communities of color, must come at the expense of dominant white culture that see this as a zero sum game; if African Americans are getting ahead of me economically, then my freedom is threatened.
But it’s not threatened. That is the red mirage. That is where the lie of racism has led us. Fannie Lou Hammer’s prophetic words that “no one is free until everyone is free”, is where our ultimate healing is possible. The bombastic appeal to the racial divide that our current president has engendered has led to a collective moral neurosis. Until we can understand that what is good for all and I mean all, is good for us individually, we will remain wounded by this racial dis-ease.
This is where we come in a Unitarian Universalists. We believe in Free Will; the right of our conscience and community to work for the liberation of all. We must first see our own racism for what it is. This is why we have started our Racial Justice Council, not just so that we can advance the cause of racial justice, a freedom from racism and freedom to enjoy equal rights, but also for us in this congregation and in partnership with others in our communities to understand this insipient dis-ease of racism and how we can heal from it and be part of the healing of our country towards its highest moral potential under the divinity of our better humanity. We are partnering with Temple Israel and other congregations to learn about how we can heal this divide in a series of Tuesday night meetings starting next week. I will be a group leader among other colleagues. We are offering films and poetry slam featuring African American artists. We will be offering the IDI for everyone in our community so that we can learn just where this dis-ease is in us.
We can follow the lead of our denomination in Siding with Love, Allies for Racial Justice, and locally through the Council of Churches of Greater Bridgeport and other anti-racists acts of healing over the years ahead. This was always much larger than whoever is President. This is the work for all of us.
Adrienne Marie Brown has challenged me to think in terms of both restorative and transformative justice. We need a restoration of that which was taken from our African American citizens through enslavement, Jim Crow and the New Jim Crow of mass incarceration. We need to tear down those prisons, built literally on top of the brutal slave plantations of the South. Changing laws is a start but it’s not the end. Reparations and recognition of the fear of white people will need to be yoked towards a new world much as the Germans did after the Nazis. And then, then we will be on the path of true healing, in the freedom of our promise. As Brown put it: “It requires us to acknowledge both the parts of our society that we need to heal and the parts of ourselves that we need to heal, too… In healing from trauma …. we must do a more purposeful job of enriching our relationship to activism.” (from Brown’s Emergent Strategy, 2017)
We shall overcome my friends. We shall together one day overcome.