The year was 1963. My parents were just about 30 years old. My older sister, younger brother, baby sister, and I were driving across country with my parents in a small two door Renault Caravelle. This was one of those many trips we took on our way to another one of my father's assignments in the Air Force. We were driving some place in the South in a terrible rain storm. It became clear to my parents that it was dangerous to drive further. They began searching the highway for the nearest shelter. We finally found a motel after quite some time.
All of us kids went in with my parents. It was one of the first times I can remember being in a motel. I always thought we never stayed in them because we were in too much of a hurry to get to another Air Force base. While we children were all huddled together in a corner, my parents were attempting to negotiate a room. I use the world negotiate because that is exactly what they were doing. It turns out that the only motel for many miles around, during a dangerous storm, was one for whites only. I watched my father and mother plead with the clerk, then the manager for a place to sleep that night. They asked if there was a place away from guests where we could stay. My father appealed to the manager as one father to another. All was to no avail. No Negroes were allowed at that motel under any circumstance.
A white couple I judged to be a little older than my parents had entered the lobby at some point just before the final edict from the manager. They apparently lived in the area and had been there to visit someone they knew who was staying at the motel. They watched the negotiations for a time, then asked my parents to have our family as guests at their house that evening. Although absolutely stunned, my parents accepted their generous offer. Not long afterwards we children were tucked away on cots in a large family room. I drifted to sleep as my parents and those people stayed up to talk about adult things. The next morning we were treated to a pancake breakfast before we went on our way. I have never seen those people since then, but their act of compassion has been indelibly etched into my consciousness. Now, that I am older, I understand that I need to add courage to this list of virtues because their compassion and generosity probably came at some cost to them in the community where they lived.
This YouTube video is of the service Carol and I did at the Unitarian Universalist Church in San Mateo, CA on August 16, 2015. Paul Zawilski and I played the Brahms E Minor Cello Sonata. Then Carol and I played together. Then I did the "Compassion" Sermon.
Today, as Unitarian Universalists, we gather to highlight the second Unitarian principle: justice, equity, and compassion in human relations. Today I will address the dynamics of these concepts and how they relate to one another. My contention is that compassion leads to justice and justice leads to equity. Conversely, lack of compassion leads to injustice, which then leads to inequity. I believe that a society can measure itself on any issue by where it is on one of these two scales: the way of justice or the way of injustice.
Fifty years ago, while I was sleeping on a stranger's cot in their family room, I imagine two couples were discussing how their world must change from injustice to justice, then move on from inequity to equity. It was the countless acts of compassion, reaching back to the first day an African slave was brought to these American shores, that finally brought us as a nation to the "separate but equal" concept codified into law after the Plessey vs. Ferguson ruling in 1896. Some measure of justice was attained for African Americans as a result. Of course, injustice reigned supreme during the Jim Crow era. But, it was at the height of that era, in 1963, when my parents engaged that brave white couple in a miniature social experiment that tested the bounds of compassion. They were participating in the many other countless acts that moved us towards the laws dealing with voting rights and equal housing that became the fabric of justice in the mid 1960's. Other acts of compassion and bravery and sacrifice on public buses, lunch counters, churches, synagogues, and school hallways brought our society to the point where we buried the immoral and unjust Jim Crow laws of the South under the avalanche of new laws that sprang from the Brown vs. Topeka Supreme Court rulings.
So, where are we now as a society? How can we measure ourselves along the scale of justice... that continuum of compassion to justice to equity? Well, Jim Crow is dead, but not forgotten. That system lives in many memories. I have clear memories of it. In fact, I am to this day, affected by its powerful remnants.
We have made some progress towards our next step of ensuring equity in human relations. But I am afraid that we have faltered badly and are actually slipping backwards. Why do I say this? Because compassion and justice are just baby steps along the way towards equity. True equity is where the rubber meets the road. Equity means I am not simply tolerated, or thought of as a separate but valued team member, or maybe the local politician. Equity means I get to live in your apartment building, have a meal in your favorite restaurant, go to college and get a fine education, buy a house in your neighborhood, be paid the same as you are, and become your boss. And equity means I get to marry your children.
The year is 2015. There is a war going on. Like any other time when a war rages we drop pretenses about loving each other. The other is different. Even if we don’t want to, we consider the other group, and their culture, as an enemy one. Exceptions must be made for the sake of our survival. We give ourselves, and those who protect us, license to kill.
Here are the brutal statistics. At least 197 black people have been killed by police in the U.S. in 2015. Sam Sinyangwe is a researcher and activist who started the Mapping Police Violence project. He writes: “In the aftermath of Ferguson, there was this big question 'Is this a pattern, is this an isolated incident?' What my data shows is that Ferguson is everywhere. All over the country you're seeing black people being killed by police." The youngest recorded was 12, the oldest 65. More than 100 were unarmed.
"Black people are three times more likely to be killed by police in the United States than white people. More unarmed black people were killed by police than unarmed white people last year. And that's taking into account the fact that black people are only 14% of the population here.”, says Sinyangwe.
I believe that we see these results because of a well proven and terrible bias that police have that implicitly links blacks to crime. Of course, this bias affects police actions. But it has been shown that the bias runs deep in the roots of our entire society. The original “Shoot, Don't Shoot” studies from 2002 have a subject sitting in front a computer monitor and photos pop up very quickly, showing either a white or black man. That man either has a gun in his hand or a neutral object like a cell phone. The subject is told “if you see a threat, hit the 'shoot' key and if you don't see a threat, hit the 'don't shoot' key”. In most of these studies everyday citizens - not just police officers - are quicker to “shoot” an unarmed black man than an unarmed white man.
What is happening these days? Well, I would say nothing has just started happening. It has already happened. IT happened a long time ago, when Richard Nixon’s administration instituted the policy of “Benign Neglect”, in which a lack of investment is allowed in the belief that it will improve, or at least not hurt, the interests of the "neglected" group. Benign neglect is also used as to mean divestment from under-served communities, with the implication that resources will be diverted to preferred communities, usually suburbs. IT happened when urban decay rotted away the resources and job base of previously functioning cities and their ethnic communities. IT happened when inner-city property values declined and economically disadvantaged populations moved in. The new inner-city poor were often African-Americans that migrated from the South. As they moved into traditional white neighborhoods, ethnic frictions served to accelerate flight to the suburbs. IT has been happening for many years. According to Wikipedia, Traditional racism towards African Americans consists of beliefs about African American intelligence, ambition, honesty and other stereotyped characteristics, as well as support for segregation and support for acts of open discrimination.
Research done by Dana Mastro, on racial bias in the United States reveals persistent racial prejudice among Caucasians, regarding the characterization of African Americans as violent and aggressive. These beliefs have been found to manifest in a heightened fear among whites of victimization at the hands of racial minorities, specifically African American males. Both theory and empirical evidence indicate that media exposure contributes to the construction and perpetuation of these perceptions by disproportionately depicting racial/ethnic minorities as criminal suspects and whites as victims in television news. Further consuming these messages has been shown to provoke prejudicial responses among white viewers. Do you still wonder why Black people are being killed? Do you understand now why these police killings will not stop anytime soon?
Why do I say we have faltered on our road towards equity? Because the indications are around us all the time. Lack of equity is the big cultural divide. It is the holy grail of justice. People are confused about equity. They point to a Barack Obama, Ben Carson, or Colin Powell and say "See, in America you can succeed if you just work hard. Those people have achieved equity." We can say we have achieved a state of equity in America when we don't need to point to Barack Obama, Ben Carson, or Colin Powell as the exceptions. We will have achieved equity when it is a forgone conclusion... something as natural as breathing air.
The three components of the second Unitarian Universalist principle represent spiritual challenges. Compassion is a supremely human emotion. It springs from our natural affinity towards others who suffer in some manner. We can relate, at least for a few brief seconds, to one another as fellow human beings. Compassion allows us to bridge gaps of race, creed, and society that might otherwise stop us. Compassion can be a momentary event, or it may be the spiritual basis for an entire lifetime of other-centered action.
Justice springs from compassion. It is society's attempt to redress wrongs caused by lack of compassion and its associated injustices. Justice seeks to make our life experiences as fair as possible. On a spiritual level, justice forces us to see through another's eyes. We cannot understand what compels some towards acts of violence, but the system of justice holds out the hope that people can be redeemed, that they can pay their debts to society, and that they can be restored to that society. We expect that justice will be dispensed fairly and equitably. We hope that more money does not equal more justice.
Equity offers the greatest spiritual challenge. Although not worded so, it is the final component in a chronology of the second principle. Equity causes us to tear our hair out. It goes against our competitive, consumer-oriented, capitalistic bones. Too often we equate equity with having to give up something we own or are privileged to enjoy. A desire for equity is the basis for much of how modern societies operate. Taxes are collected, schools are built, and social services are provided because of the desire to achieve some level of equity for citizens in a society. In essence, we are required to give up something of value so another person can receive benefit of an education, a place to live, or food to eat. We do this because we understand that inequity breeds contempt and hatred, and it contributes to the rapid decline of a civilization.
Lack of compassion, injustice, and inequity - what I call the "path of injustice" - is easier to follow than we probably like to contemplate. History is replete with examples of civilizations that have gone down that path with disastrous results. We fought a Civil War, mostly over the issue of slavery. Now we are fighting what I call an Uncivil War. It is a largely unconscious war fought to keep a dark menace at bay. It seeks to perpetuate the pervasive discrimination that is no longer politically correct, but that lies still seething in the seams of our cultural clothing.
Michelle Alexander explains this eloquently in her book, “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness”. She states that the U.S. criminal justice system uses the War on Drugs as a primary tool for enforcing traditional, as well as new, modes of discrimination and repression. These new modes of racism have led to not only the highest rate of incarceration in the world, but also an even greater imprisonment of African American men. I agree with Alexander when she makes the obvious point that the resultant emergence of a racial caste system is a direct response to the Civil Rights Movement.
The spiritual dynamic at work here is rather simple... we cannot truly value ourselves unless we value others equally. Compassion, justice, and equity arise from this spiritual dynamic. They find expression at different levels of our experience as human beings. Ask yourself the following questions: "Do I have any compassion for this group of people? Can I imagine being in their situation? Is there anything in my life that can serve as an analog to understanding them? Do I feel threatened by laws enacted to protect or aid this group? Do I regard the complaints of discrimination and lack of opportunity among members of this group to be valid? Would I have a personal or intimate relationship with someone of this group? Would I desire a deep friendship with someone of this group?"
You must ask yourself these questions about people who are gay, people of various ethnicities and cultures, people who are disabled or handicapped, people from other religious backgrounds, and even people with different political views from your own. We are all tested, more often than we probably realize.
The spiritual and social yardstick regarding valuing others as yourself is, indeed, very high. Unitarian Universalists have been called to a very high standard. It is not necessarily the mandate to love others as you do yourself. Love is not a simple passive act. We have a much broader, more powerful requirement. We are asked to go beyond love towards activism.
There are places in this world where people are oppressed. Human beings do that to one another for reasons that seem incredibly silly and strange through the lens of time. As regards to race relations in this nation, we have come a very long way. Martin Luther King's dream of having his children judged by the content of their character is partially realized. True equity is something we are still working on.
Over fifty years ago on a moonless and stormy night I felt the transformative power of compassion. I felt a warmth that the blankets surrounding me did not provide. I experienced a selfless and courageous act of kindness by strangers that will impress me for the rest of my life. That experience informs me that on my personal journey, and our collective journeys towards justice, there are allies along the way.
This world is populated by beautiful people who are filled with compassion, who are passionate about justice, and who have a burning desire to seek equity for all human beings. I know many of them as Unitarian Universalists and I am honored to take my place among the same people who so passionately sought freedom for my ancestors. I will continue the struggle for justice, compassion, and equity for all people. And I will proudly call myself a Unitarian Universalist.
About this blog.
This blog is a place where many of the confluences of my life can be shared. I am, at the core, a creative person. I approach everything from that basis... whether composing symphonies, playing the cello, being a serial entrepreneur, writing sermons and essays, flying airplanes, or creating software apps. I am deeply passionate about creativity, issues of social justice, and spiritual enrichment. These are fundamental to everything I do. Welcome to my journey!