Susan Leslie is the Director of the UUA Office for Congregational Advocacy & Witness.
I’m just back from the UU Allies for Racial Equity Conference at All Souls UU Church in Kansas City MO, held on March 13-15th. I feel profoundly grateful for the opportunity to gather with other white allies and ground myself in an understanding of what Rev. Rebecca Parker refers to in Soul Work as my social location. To continue to cultivate an awareness of how my white middle-class position affects my worldview, my assumptions, and the ways I interact in multi-racial coalitions and organizations.
I had the privilege to be invited to speak on a panel at the All Souls Forum on March 15th on the topic of Post Racial America?
Several people asked that I post my remarks from the Forum and so I have below.
Does the election of President Obama mean that we’ve entered a post-racial era?
NO. Not yet. My understanding is that we can’t say or claim that until we have eliminated all systemic inequities based on race. And that will be not only through eliminating policies that create inequity but by redressing existing inequities through pro-active measures to create equality such as reparations. That’s going to come from a persistent effort of addressing this through government policies, the private sector, civic society – which includes us in the religious community — and changing individual attitudes and behaviors.
To claim that we are already a post-racial society is to miss the real significance and opportunity of this moment. However, whether we are or not is not really the most important question right now. What’s crucial is to grasp that there has been a sea-change – that’s been a long time coming – and the moment is here to make huge strides in dismantling racism and oppression.
A new multicultural, multiracial coalition came into being that elected President Obama – a coalition of African American, Latino, whites and others – that became possible through the growth and political activation of communities of color and because enough whites have shifted in attitudes and political understandings.
This past December, I had the privilege to attend a gathering of 3,000 people from congregation-based community organizations, labor unions, and advocacy groups who came from all over the country to meet with President Obama’s Team and key congressional leaders. It was called Realizing the Promise. It was absolutely the most diverse gathering I have ever attended in terms of race, ethnicity, region, faith, class, and age. It was amazing!
The theme of the gathering was similar to the message that environmental justice leader Van Jones delivered to the UU General Assembly last year — that it’s time to learn to govern. The agenda called for universal health care, immigration reform, economic recovery, and new green jobs and asked for commitments from the White House staff and Congressional leaders – which we got. (See my report Faith-Based Community Organizations Prepare to Govern about this historic meeting and what the administration representatives said.)
We now have the opportunity to bring our visions and to make our voices heard in the White House and Congress and in the national conversation.
Dismantling racism needs to be done system by system at national policy levels and the local and grassroots level.
The new coalition that has emerged understands that we are all interconnected and that sound policy must reflect that.
To eliminate racism and oppression – to create equality – we need health care for all, more resources for schools that serve communities of color and low-income families; tax policies that DO redistribute income; immigration reform that keeps families together; trade policies that don’t drive people out of their native countries in order to escape extreme poverty; labor laws that protect workers and ensure a living wage; restorative justice not criminal justice; energy policies that create sustainability and jobs and that don’t dump toxins into the most vulnerable communities.
We now have a president that understands that the solutions to dismantling institutional oppression are interlocked and that institutional policies need to be changed in every sector – brick by brick. We have a president that models caring, compassion, and accountability, and wants to do that.
Our role is to keep lifting up and advocating for that vision, to offer solutions, and to deliver the grassroots (and grasstops), and to do that in a way that is accountable to and in solidarity with historically marginalized communities. That’s our piece of the partnership.
What does this partnership look like? It looks like the thousands who went to Phoenix a few weeks ago calling for an investigation into Sheriff Arpaio’s abusive treatment of immigrants. (The UUA and UUs from Arizona were very involved in the organizing and turnout.) And this week the Dept of Justice announced a full investigation and an overhaul of the 287g policies that authorize local enforcement of federal immigration law. We have some power here. That would not have happened 3 months ago!
This partnership looks like the passage of SCHIP (State Children’s Health Insurance Program) that just covered 10 million children (including 4 million immigrants – they were not left out) that the PICO National Network organized around the country and that President Obama signed into law — and like the movement now building for universal health care led by Health Care for America Now and others.
It looks like the network of educators that our partner Spirit in Action is bringing together to address the inequalities in education and to develop a report and proposal for delivery to the new Secretary of Education.
It looks like Van Jones being appointed this week as the administration’s Green Jobs Czar. Hilda Solis, daughter of immigrant union organizers, as Secretary of Labor. Melody Barnes, as Director of the Domestic Policy Council; Valerie Jarrett, White House Senior Advisor and Assistant to the President for Intergovernmental Relations and Public Liaison. Cecelia Muñoz, Senior Vice President of LaRaza’s Advocacy Office appointed as the administration’s Director of Intergovernmental Affairs!
We have an organizer in the White House! We have a huge organizing job in front of us now and we have partners in power!
To be successful we need to know the rules, we need to understand how systemic racism plays out and operates, and what we have to do to undo it. We need specific solutions and policies that are based on what the people most affected identify as needed, backed by the political power to institutionalize them.
Yes there will be struggle –- the socialism charge continues to rear its head –- ugly racial epithets –- and worse, burnings of black churches have occurred. It’s coming from those who feel they’re losing their power. We have to take it on -– we can’t ignore it or give it too much power –- we need to go after it swiftly — be savvy and contain it.
But to be alive and awake right now is to really grasp that we have an opportunity to transform society in a way that hasn’t existed for the past 40 years.
So– post-racial society? Not yet –- but I’m betting that a post-racial United States may be where my potential future grandchildren live.