By Rev Richard Trudeau
Disagree and you’re racist. This was the tacit but unmistakable message sent by Unitarian Universalist Association leaders at the 1997 General Assembly in Phoenix, where “Journey Toward Wholeness” (the predecessor of today’s racial-justice effort — JTW for short) was up for consideration. The morning of the vote there was no debate; for hours the delegates heard one pro-JTW speaker after another, one of whom (a black seminarian) went so far as to imply that a vote against JTW would amount to a vote in favor of a return to slavery.
When the vote came, I stood to vote “no.” (I was not ready to “confess” my “complicity” in institutional racism.) It was a terrifying experience — I was halfway back in a ballroom with 2500 UUs, and no one in front of me was standing; I was afraid to turn around; my wife said there were a few others standing further back. After the result was announced (“passed overwhelmingly”) a white man I didn’t know came up to me and said, “I want you to know that lots of us are uncomfortable with this, but we don’t want to be seen as racist.” A black man I didn’t know came up to me and demanded I explain my vote, and I told him I approved of the goal but was uncomfortable with the means.
UUWorld, Now and Then
Today, UU World is in the tank. It is unashamedly a propaganda organ for today’s “dismantle our white supremacy culture” ideology. This has been the case for some time, but the editor’s column in the latest issue (Winter 2019) makes it undeniable. Here are the first two paragraphs.
Are you detecting changes in the UUA’s communications, including UU World? In the Summer issue I mentioned that the magazine was changing its editorial approach in response to the UUA’s commitment to center voices on the margins and focus on becoming a truly multicultural, antiracist faith movement.
The editors began moving in that direction in 2014, boosting the frequency and prominence of articles about racism in the United States. Since President Susan Frederick-Gray’s election in 2017, however, all UUA staff groups have been charged to examine how their work has privileged culturally dominant groups and perpetuated white supremacy culture. The administration has given the magazine and other UUA communications teams — especially the UUA website and its social media channels — a mandate to prioritize and serve historically marginalized people working to undo the legacy of white supremacy culture in the UUA and beyond.
But 20 years ago, UUWorld (then called simply World) was allowed to at least occasionally publish articles that dissented from the party line. Here is one I wrote. Re-reading it now, it seems to me that Critical Race Theory must have underlaid the official UU racial-justice ideology even then, though at the time I never heard anyone mention it. (For an introduction to Critical Race Theory, see Mel Pine’s The UU Crisis, Explained. For an analysis and refutation, see Daniel Subotnik’s What’s Wrong with Critical Race Theory: Reopening the Case for Middle-Class Values.)
My Racialization, by Richard Trudeau
(World, March/April 2000)
I’m white. In 1951, as I was about to enter first grade, my mother said, “There may be Negro children at school. Other children may call them ‘[N-word].’ Don’t ever say that. It hurts people’s feelings!” I was puzzled. Why would some children want to hurt other children’s feelings? “Because,” my mother explained, “some people don’t think Negroes are as good as other people.” “Is that true?” I asked. “Of course not,” she said.
Thus I learned about racism. The lesson continued through the 1950s and 1960s, as the civil rights movement unfolded on TV. I saw the firehoses and the dogs. And I felt: Racists are slimeballs. Even when I learned about more subtle forms of racism, that feeling never left me.
I therefore find it hard to keep listening to some in the UUA leadership when they solemnly assure me that, as a white, I can’t help but be some kind of racist. The term “racist,” no matter how prefixed with modifiers (like “institutional”), still feels like an insult. It’s as if they’re telling me, “Richard, we have a more advanced understanding of what it means to be a slimeball, and we’ve concluded that, in this more nuanced sense, you, Richard, are a slimeball.”
But there was more to that conversation with my parents back in 1951. If there might be Negroes in school, I asked, where did they live? Why had I never seen any? My father said, “They stick with their own kind.” That meant, of course, that we whites were also a kind, and that we stuck with our kind, too — though that was never said. (One of the rules of being white is that you never talk about it, except by indirection.) My father was teaching me about racial boundaries, and that it was important to respect them. I was being racialized.
My racialization has handicapped me all my life. Fifty years later, it still affects me. Whenever I’m getting to know a person of another race, for instance, I notice an extra awkwardness. I feel a conflict within me — between what I learned at age 5 (racial categories are important) and what I believe now (racial categories are meaningless).
If the UUA leadership would like to help me, they can stop calling me a rarefied racist and advise me instead on how to deal with my racialization. (How can I minimize its effects? How can I avoid transmitting it to younger people?) That, it seems to me, would also promote the UUA’s announced goal of “dismantling racism.”
Racialization is the more fundamental evil, in that it makes racism possible. Eliminate racialization, and racism, in all its forms, will evaporate.
“Fulfilling the Promise”
“Fulfilling the Promise” was a UUA initiative, around 2000, whose central purpose (in my opinion) was to persuade congregations to agree that it was OK with them if going forward the UUA called the shots on social-justice priorities. It was well-funded, with lots of publicity and even a book sent to every congregation (The Arc of the Universe is Long: Unitarian Universalists, Anti-Racism, and the Journey from Calgary by Leslie Takahashi Morris, Chip Roush, and Leon Spencer). The initiative sank like a stone when congregational conversations led by appointed facilitators met with resounding rejection.
I believe the UUA’s experience with “Fulfilling the Promise” is an important reason why today the “dismantle our white supremacy culture” ideology is being imposed top-down. National leaders — at the UUA, in our seminaries, and in the UU Ministers Association — learned not to ask for congregational input.
A few years ago the UUA Board declared that the UUA is an anti-racist, anti-oppression, and multicultural organization (or words to that effect—ARAOM for short). This has encouraged many UU social-justice activists to conclude that ARAOM work was now mandated to constitute the principal focus of every congregation’s life. I don’t think that’s what the Board intended, or — if I’m wrong and it is what they intended — I don’t think they had the right to mandate any such thing. The UUA is the creation of its congregations and exists to serve them (primarily by certifying ministers, creating RE curricula, and publicizing UUism), not to lead them.
In the spring of 2018 I received a letter of censure from the Board of Trustees of the UU Ministers Association. For some time I had been posting to the UU ministers’ group (“UUMA Colleagues”) on Facebook and speaking at UUMA chapter meetings about my concerns with the UU racial-justice orthodoxy. The precipitating event seems to have been the following post (March 2018).
A PLACE TO DISCUSS? I have reservations about current UU racial-justice ideology, and would like to find a place to discuss them with colleagues (of all races). I can’t imagine that our moderators would allow such a discussion here. Can anyone suggest a place?
Not intending to discuss my reservations now, but so readers will know the kind of thing I’m talking about, here are brief statements of some of them:
(1) We use a non-standard definition of “racism” (racial prejudice + power) that, while emphasizing the crucial factor of relative power, tends to make anti-white racial prejudice invisible.
(2) Some UU people of color who are not African-American, whose ethnic group has not suffered anything like what African-Americans have suffered, appear to be appropriating the moral authority of African-Americans.
(3) Much of our eagerness to attract African-Americans to our congregations seems motivated by white guilt.
(4) The Commission on Institutional Change has called on congregations (2/10/18) to “answer the call to fund BLUU [Black Lives of Unitarian Universalism] as an act of reparation for the denial of opportunities over centuries.” As someone who in 1969 was present at a demonstration at the headquarters of the NY Catholic archdiocese demanding that such “reparation” be paid to African-American organizations, and who later decided it was a terrible idea, alarm bells are going off in my head.
The letter of censure was sent to me and six other people — the Executive Committee and Good Officers of my chapter of the UUMA. It said that the UUMA Board was taking this action “as a result of complaints made against you on Facebook and in your chapter meetings. We hope that in receiving this admonishment from your fellow ministers you may take time to reflect upon how your words have been harmful to colleagues….” I understand the UUMA Board’s claim to be that my questioning had caused “harm” to UU ministers of color — though no minister of color, or white minister for that matter, had ever expressed to me any such thing.
In response, I eventually wrote three letters to the UUMA Board. In the third, sent five months after receiving the letter of censure, and frustrated that the first two had not been responded to or even acknowledged, I told them that their letter of censure…
…undercuts a foundational Unitarian Universalist value, viz.: each person’s right to ask questions. This value is what historically distinguished the Unitarian and Universalist denominations from other sects, and enabled them eventually to combine. It is not an aspect of “white supremacy culture.” It is not an aspect of UU culture that is transient—to use Theodore Parker’s terms—but an aspect that is permanent. It is non-negotiable. If it is compromised, we cease to be who we are.
The right to ask questions is our version of U.S. civil society’s “freedom of speech”; and, just as the purpose of the latter is not to protect speech that is popular or approved by national leaders—such speech needs no protection—the purpose of the right to ask questions in UUism is not to protect questions that are popular or approved by denominational leaders.
By its letter of censure the Board has sided with the vocal people on Facebook who choose to interpret every questioning of their ideas as a personal attack that justifies the silencing and ostracism of the questioner.
The UU movement is losing its way! It needs its national leaders, perhaps as never before. In particular, the UU movement needs the UUMA Board to help guide it back onto the right path. Instead, by attacking one of UUism’s foundational values, the Board is leading the UU movement further astray.
This letter also received no acknowledgment or response.
Todd Eklof Censured
In August 2019, the UUMA Board of Trustees sent Rev Todd Eklof a letter of censure which, unlike mine, was also sent to the approximately 1700 members of the UUMA. It said, in part,
As the leadership of the Unitarian Universalist Ministers Association, we are writing this letter of censure regarding the content and the manner of distribution (at the 2019 General Assembly) of your book, The Gadfly Papers. We hope this action will be received as an invitation into awareness, acknowledgment of the hurt that has been caused, and an opportunity for restoration, reconciliation, and engagement in the ongoing work of the UUMA, not as an attempted resolution of an “issue.” The content of your book has caused great psychological, spiritual, and emotional damage for many individuals and communities within our faith. Because of the widespread impact, we are making this censure public and distributing it to all members of the UUMA.
As the continental leadership of the UUMA, our responsibility is to uphold our values and our covenant. We believe you have broken covenant. We write this letter to ask you to seek understanding of the harm that has been done and to work toward restoration. We would welcome the opportunity to help guide and support a public process of restoration, which we expect would foster widespread learning about what it means to be a covenantal faith.
We understand from your book that you want to encourage robust and reasoned debate about the direction of our faith. However, we cannot ignore the fact that logic has often been employed in white supremacy culture to stifle dissent, minimize expressions of harm, and to require those who suffer to prove the harm by that culture’s standards.
In November 2019, a letter signed by more than 60 UUMA members (including me) was sent to the UUMA Board protesting their action. It said, in part,
We believe your actions violate our freedom of the pulpit, a freedom we believe extends to our writings. Those who initiated this letter find no violation of our covenant in Todd’s book, only ideas which challenge particular approaches to anti-oppression currently in favor with may colleagues. All signatories believe that the changes you are making to our norms of ministerial collegiality and freedom of the pulpit are creating a deep divide amongst UUs and are resulting in at atmosphere of fear and distrust.
The UUMA Board responded to this letter on November 25. Its response to the above charge boiled down to this:
We, too, value the free pulpit. However … With freedom comes responsibility.
Free Thought and Expression
The Fourth of the UU Principles is: “We, the member congregations of the Unitarian Universalist Association, covenant to affirm and promote … A free and responsible search for truth and meaning.” The Fifth Principle begins by affirming and promoting “The right of conscience ….” To younger UUs the Seven Principles have always been there, and younger UUs consequently tend to think that here is the basis for the UU commitment to free thought and expression, leaving these UUs open to being silenced by leaders — like the UUMA Board — who claim to have a superior understanding of what is “responsible.”
But the Seven Principles date only to the mid-1980s. At their American beginnings in the early 1800s, Unitarians spoke of “the right of private judgment”; even earlier, in the late 1700s, American Universalists spoke of “soul liberty.” Both groups were referring to the right of free thought and expression. And while it was well understood that not all speech is proper — famously, one cannot shout “Fire!” in a crowded theater — our founders thought it best not to include a qualifier, like “responsible,” that could be used to stifle speech.
Ministers of my generation — in seminary 30 years ago — were required by the UUA to learn about Unitarian history from A History of Unitarianism by Earl Morse Wilbur, which held that the essence of Unitarianism was Freedom, Reason, and Tolerance. By Freedom, Wilbur meant the absolute right of each person to decide religious matters for themselves; by Reason, the use of reason in religious discourse; and by Tolerance, tolerance of those with differing points of view. The Universalists held those values too. In their censure of Todd Eklof, the UUMA Board has violated all three! According to my training, therefore, these national “leaders” have left the denomination.
Will Rogers said, “If you’re ridin’ ahead of the herd, take a look back every now and then to make sure it’s still there.” While the UUMA Board may have succeeded in intimidating most of our ministers, I hope that soon the UUMA Board will look back and see that the important people — the people in the pews — are not following.
Copyright 2019 © Richard Trudeau