White supremacy is maintained this way: An African-American family saves for years. They move into a nice apartment in a better part of town. Some white people are outraged. They threaten the family, they destroy their possessions, they torch the building, they riot in the streets. The message goes out far and wide: Don’t challenge white supremacy, black people. If you do, it will strike back with double force and worse.
Or it is maintained this way: Millions of black people leave Southern states for better opportunities than a sharecropper’s life permits. Some years later, one of the children of these families comes back to visit the ones who stayed behind. A white person makes a deadly accusation against him: he has addressed a white woman inappropriately. The mob doesn’t allow an inquiry, or ask the boy what he did, or heaven forbid consider that whistling at a woman is not actually a punishable offense, because the people in the mob are not concerned with the truth but with keeping black people in their place, and they know how to do that. They kill him, first torturing him to the point that his corpse is barely recognizable as a human body, to send the message: We say when you leave. We say when you come back. We say how you act. Dare to do otherwise, and we will punish you with every brutality the human mind can invent.
Or it is maintained this way: A bus full of Freedom Riders is attacked, and the police let it be known that not only will they not pursue the perpetrators, they’re on the side of the perpetrators. The white supremacists are the community’s police, firefighters, sheriffs, and judges. In seeking justice, African-Americans have no recourse but to appeal to the very people who committed the crimes. With the criminals as prosecution and defense, judge and jury, the reign of terror is complete.
Or this way: A white supremacist murders nine people in a historically black, historically resisting church, reportedly attempting to start a race war. Things have progressed to the point that the police arrest the perpetrator and charge him with murder. The story is told all over the country, and far from a race war, the overwhelming response from white people is sympathy for the victims and solidarity with their black neighbors. The president of the United States delivers the eulogy for the minister. The outrage against the symbol beloved by the killer, the Confederate flag, is so intense that the states of South Carolina and Alabama stop flying theirs, at least to some extent. The white supremacists cannot let this kind of resistance stand. Once again, they exert their power of intimidation and terror, this time burning black churches, one after another. In the span of ten days, it appears from initial investigation, at least half a dozen are torched.
The arsons we have been grieving are not a coincidence nor an isolated tragedy, and wringing our hands is not enough. They are the latest chapter of a long history of white supremacy wielding power through murder, rape, bombings, and burnings, and it will not change until white people change. If black people did not have to stand alone–if the wider community, especially the wider white community, stood with them against the powers of white supremacy, then the supremacists would eventually lose. But often, the wider white community has been complicit and cowardly.
In my congregation, we don’t hold special collections except on Christmas Eve. When an extraordinary disaster comes along, I simply send an e-mail encouraging the people to give to a relief fund such as is frequently set up by the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee. But these arsons demand a different response. It is past time for all of us, and especially a mostly-white church in a mostly-white denomination, to stand with historically black churches and the communities they serve. I asked our Finance Committee for a green light for an offering this Sunday devoted entirely to the rebuilding of these churches, and got an enthusiastic “Yes, please, thank you!” the very next time I checked my e-mail. I love these people.
If you won’t be at the service at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto, you can give directly to the Rebuilding Churches Fund. (At the time of this writing, UUCPA isn’t yet listed among the congregations holding special collections, no doubt because the web manager is overwhelmed with requests.) We’ll be taking other action as well–more on that later today.
We can change the sad story of white supremacy in our country–end it at last–by us non-black people responding as too few of us have done so far: linking arms with black communities and saying, fearlessly, unceasingly, if you want to beat them into submission, you’re going to have to fight us too.