2018-01-06

Centering 1: Darrick Jackson, "Othering and Belonging"

Rev. Meredith Garmon

This is the first in a series of reflections on the essays collected in Mitra Rahnema, editor, Centering: Navigating Race, Authenticity, and Power in Ministry (Skinner House, 2017). In this post, I reflect on Darrick Jackson, "Othering and Belonging."


The Stress of Being Black

Shortly before I began reading Centering, I heard a story on NPR's Morning Edition that brought home in a particularly poignant way one of the myriad effects of US racial prejudice. The Center for Disease Control has reported on the infant mortality rate per 1,000 live births in 2015. For white nonhispanic Americans, the rate was 4.8%. For Hispanics, it was 5.2%. For black nonhispanic Americans, it was 11.7% -- more than twice the rate for whites. OK, that's appalling. But why is it happening? Is it poverty? Is it genetics? NPR's Rhitu Chaterjee and Rebecca Davis reported:
"Scientists and doctors have spent decades trying to understand what makes African-American women so vulnerable to losing their babies. Now, there is growing consensus that racial discrimination experienced by black mothers during their lifetime makes them less likely to carry their babies to full term." ("How Racism May Cause Black Mothers To Suffer The Death Of Their Infants," Morning Edition, 2017 Dec 20)
The essence of the matter is stress on the mother. Stress causes early labor, thus premature births, thus higher infant mortality. This gives us a very concrete manifestation of the stress of being black in America.
"Even educated, middle-class African-American women were at a higher risk of having smaller, premature babies with a lower chance of survival....Black and white teenage mothers growing up in poor neighborhoods both have a higher risk of having smaller, premature babies. 'They both have something like a 13 percent chance of having a low birth weight baby.'...But in higher-income neighborhoods where women are likely to be slightly older and more educated, 'among white women, the risk of low birth weight drops dramatically to about half of that, whereas for African-American women, it only drops a little bit.' In fact, today, a college-educated black woman is more likely to give birth prematurely than a white woman with a high school degree....Some people suggested that the root cause may be genetics. But if genes are at play, then women from Africa would also have the same risks...[But] babies of immigrant women from West Africa...were more like white babies — they were bigger and more likely to be full term. So, it clearly isn't genetics....[Moreover,] the grandchildren of African immigrant women were born smaller than their mothers had been at birth. In other words, the grandchildren were more likely to be premature, like African-American babies....Meanwhile, the grandchildren of white European immigrant women were bigger than their mothers when they were born....'So, there was something about growing up black in the United States and then bearing a child that was associated with lower birth weight.'...What is different about growing up black in America is discrimination....'It's hard to find any aspect of life that's not impacted by racial discrimination, whether you're talking about applying for a job, or purchasing a new car, finding housing, getting education....' Higher education and income did not necessarily mean people experienced less discrimination....In 2004, David and Collins published a study...in which they reported the connection between a mother's experience of racism and preterm birth. They asked women about their housing, income, health habits and discrimination. 'It turned out that as a predictor of a very low birth weight outcome, these racial discrimination questions were more powerful than asking a woman whether or not she smoked cigarettes.'...Other studies have shown the same results. ("How Racism May Cause Black Mothers To Suffer The Death Of Their Infants," Morning Edition, 2017 Dec 20)
In what does this extra race-based stress consist? For some details, I looked at J.B.W. Tucker's "The Ultimate White Privilege Statistics and Data Post"." A few lowlights:

The stress of being black in America comes from the fact that Blacks are less than 13% of the populations, yet, as best we can tell since many police departments do not report, blacks are 31% of all fatal police shooting victims, and 39% of those killed by police when not attacking. Yes, it's worth remembering that 61% of the "killed by police when not attacking" category are not blacks. Still, the number that are is disproportionate.

The stress of being black in America comes from the fact that young black males, ages 15-19, are 21 times more likely to be to be shot and killed by the police than young white males. Between 2005 and 2008, 80% of NYPD stop-and-frisks were of blacks and Latinos. Only 10% of stops were of whites. 85% of those frisked were black; only 8% were white. Only 2.6% of all stops (1.6 million stops over 3.5 years) resulted in the discovery of contraband or a weapon. Whites were more likely to be found with contraband or a weapon.

The stress of being black in America comes from the fact that blacks (remember, 13% of the U.S. population) are 14% of regular drug users, but are 37% of those arrested for drug offenses, and 56% of those in state prisons for drug offenses.

The stress of being black in America comes from the fact that one in every 15 black men are currently incarcerated, while for white men the statistic is 1 in 106. Prison sentences of black men were nearly 20% longer than those of white men for similar crimes in recent years.

The stress of being black in America comes from the fact that whites are 78% more likely to be accepted to the same university as equally qualified people of color -- and that a black college student has the same chances of getting a job as a white high school dropout. For every dollar a white man makes, white women make 78¢, black men make 72¢, black women make 64¢.

The stress of being black in America comes from Voter ID laws, which do not prevent voter fraud, but do disenfranchise millions of young people, minorities, and elderly, who disproportionately lack the necessary government IDs.

The stress of being black in America comes from news reporting that regards black lives as less significant. African American children comprise 33.2% of missing children cases, but only 19.5% of cases reported in the media.

The stress of being black in America comes from knowing that financial institutions expect to be able to exploit you and take advantage of you. In 2009, bailed-out banks such as Wells Fargo and others were found to have pushed minority borrowers who qualified for prime loans into subprime loans, which can add more than $100,000 in interest payments to a mortgage over the life of the loan. Among high-income borrowers in 2006, African Americans were three times as likely as whites to pay higher prices for mortgages: 32.1% compared to 10.5%. Black car buyers are charged $700 more on average than white car buyers of the same car.

The stress of being black in America comes from consciously or unconsciously racist real estate agents. When looking for a home, black clients looking to buy are shown 17.7% fewer houses for sale, and black renters learn about 11 percent fewer rental units.

The stress of being black in America comes from facing hiring discrimination. In one study thousands of identical resumes were mailed to prospective employers -- identical except only for the name. A black sounding name – say, Daunte Williams instead of David Williams – was 50% less likely to be called back. Fifty percent.

The stress of being black in America comes from a medical establishment and a political establishment that doesn't care about you as much as it does for white folks. Doctors did not inform black patients as often as white ones about the option of an important heart catheterization procedure. White legislators – in both political parties -- did not respond as frequently to constituents with black sounding names.

"The Ultimate White Privilege Statistics and Data Post" has a lot more data . If you don't know it, take a look.

Darrick's Dilemma

It's a good idea to have this reality clearly in mind as one begins reading Centering. Were it not for this reality, then Rev. Derrick Jackson's essay, "Othering and Belonging," which opens the book might seem to be merely Rev. Jackson's statement that his preferences in worship style differ from most other UUs.

Rev. Jackson was raised in the AME Church. When he says, "I often ache for the music that makes my heart soar," he means the kind of music he was used to growing up. Whether Jackson also thinks that this music is objectively better, more heart-soaring, regardless of one's upbringing, isn't entirely clear. That is, is typical UU worship music different from AME worship music because UUs find a different style of music makes their hearts soar, or because UUs prefer not to have their hearts soar in worship? I don't know what Jackson would say, but sometimes he seems to imply the latter:
"Music can evoke a deep spiritual strength in me that helps me transcend the issues and concerns in my life. In worship, it can help me connect with the theme for the service in a visceral way. But most UU hymns feel like vehicles for the words, not for an experience of the holy." (4-5)
The point seems to be more than just that Jackson personally doesn't experience the holy in UU hymns, but that UUs have opted for hymns in which human beings generally will not experience the holy.

The same goes for sermons. UUs "look for sermons that make them think and find sermons that stir the heart lacking" (5). Again: is it that other UUs find their hearts stirred by a different kind of sermon from the kind that stirs Jackson's heart? Or do UUs prefer sermons that don't stir their hearts? Jackson's implication seems to be the latter. When he says "I want to touch the heart, to nurture the soul," he implies that "the intellectual sermon" typical of UUs doesn't do those things.

I suspect Jackson is mostly right about that, but that that's not the whole story. Suppose we grant that  typical UU sermons touch UU worshipers' hearts less than AME sermons touch AME worshipers' hearts. Even so, those UU sermons do touch the hearts and nurture the souls of many listeners more than they do Jackson's -- and a more AME-styled sermon would touch their hearts less than it would  Jackson's.

It's possible, I think, to be both intellectual and heart-stirring. A. Powell Davies' sermons made worshipers think and also quickened their pulses, fortified their spirits, and expanded their souls. Granted, even Davies wasn't universally appealing -- even in his time, and even among worshipers theologically aligned with Davies, some worshipers found the thinking getting in the way of the feeling and would have preferred more feeling. For the great bulk of preachers less gifted than Rev. Davies, the either/or of mind OR emotion/body/spirit is transcended less far and less often. The practical reality is that one side or the other will be emphasized. Sunday after Sunday, the average UU minister leans more to the intellectual than the average AME minister, and the average UU worshiper is less heart-stirred and more mind-stimulated than the average AME worshiper. Is that a bad thing? Or are both groups pretty much getting what they want and what feeds them?

Here's why it's a problem. At the first level, people want both their theological preferences and their worship-style preferences satisfied. If worship-style preferences were the only dividing line among US congregations then having different congregations with different worship styles would be all we needed. But Americans also fall into different theological groupings. People who, like Jackson, have a theology that is liberal but a worship-style preference that is body-experiential and emotive currently have no very satisfactory home. I do believe that Unitarian Universalism must make itself into a more satisfactory home for people like Jackson -- or Unitarian Universalism will (and will deserve to) whither and die.

At the second and deeper level, my phrase "worship-style preference" must now be exposed as misleading. There are worship needs at stake that are not mere preferences. And Jackson's experience cannot be reduced (as, so far, I have been doing -- in order to now expose its reductiveness) to the experience of finding UU worship different from the worship to which he happened to have grown up accustomed. What's at issue isn't just a fond nostalgia for childhood church experiences.

Race is fundamental to all our experience (though whites find this easier to ignore -- that's part of our privilege), and Jackson's experience as a black American is fundamental to his. This is why I began this post with an extended account of the stresses of being black in America. The music and preaching of AME worship is not accidental. Such worship emerged and was sustained because it responded to the needs (not "preferences") of a community under tremendous stress.

Nor is the music and preaching of historically-typical UU worship accidental. It is a response to the needs of people whose bodies are not at risk, who have sufficient physical security to indulge the luxury of philosophical exploration. They -- let me say, we -- may, indeed, find our hearts stirred and souls cultivated (interestingly distinct from "nurtured," isn't it?) by these explorations because we can take for granted a certain basic belongingness. Our experience of alienation and partiality (i.e., not feeling whole) is based more in ideas than in direct threats to our bodies, so our path of healing depends more on engaging with ideas. It's not that the ideas we explore in worship don't touch our hearts and lift our spirits -- for our predominantly white, middle-class congregations, they often do. But (a) they don't do much to touch Darrick Jackson's heart or lift his spirit, and (b) folks like Jackson won't find their hearts much touched or spirits much lifted in worship unless that worship addresses the fundamental stresses to which their lives are subjected.

How Can This Change?

If belongingness is the, or at least a, fundamental psychospiritual need of corporate worship, the belongingness that UU worship has tended to provide for its predominantly white, well-educated congregations is reassurance of a place within the structures of white privilege. Our community-building provides networking for mostly whites. Our pastoral sermons have often assured congregants "you're OK" within a system of unjust privilege.  Our social action has flowed at least partly from an attempt to conscientiously deploy our privileges to "do good" -- and thereby make ourselves feel that we deserve to have these privileges, and are "at home" with them. In short, the belongingness our worship and our congregations have offered is belongingness within white power. (Yes, we have occasionally been able to extend that belongingness to a few people of color -- but this is because the structures of white power themselves admit a few exceptional people of color.)

The challenge is to proffer a different kind of belongingness. At first, we would offer it mostly to white people because those are currently most of the people in our congregations. The new ground of belongingness that I have in mind depends on identifying with -- not just sympathizing or even empathizing with -- the sufferings and stresses of all people. Their suffering is apprehended as my suffering; their stress is understood as my stress.
"All the pains, the joys, the sufferings, the cries of everyone in the universe are as such my own pain, my joy, my suffering, my cry....A straightforward look at our present world as it is will manifest the state of suffering of countless living beings, those suffering in the midst of dehumanizing poverty, where malnourished babies die every minute, and where many continue to die victims of violence both individual and structural. All this is my very own suffering, and my body is racked with pain from all sides. And I cannot remain complacent and unconcerned; I am literally inspired by an inner dynamism to be involved in the alleviation of this pain and suffering, in whatever capacity I am able." (Ruben Habito)
Darrick Jackson observes that UUs tend to find "sermons that stir the heart lacking." Even if we are allowed the qualification that we love sermons that stir our hearts, it's true that we haven't much cared for the kind of worship that is healing for people who live under much greater social stresses than middle-class whites. If we are to become a people who appreciate, who yearn for, who need the kind of worship that theologically liberal American blacks like Rev. Jackson appreciate, yearn for, and need, then we need a theology that takes on the stresses blacks face as our very own. Care, of course, must be taken not to do this appropriatively, and not to claim any of the moral high ground that comes from being a voice of the oppressed. We can't speak or act or judge as, for, or on behalf of the oppressed. We can simply take in the pain and grasp it as our own.

We can revise one of our hymns -- Sarah Dan Jones' "Meditation on Breathing," which goes:
When I breathe in, I breathe in peace.
When I breathe out, I breathe out love
We can replace this with something more like tonglen practice, in which we take in the suffering of ourselves and others on the in-breath, and on the out-breath send back compassion to ourselves and all who suffer. A single word change yields:
When I breathe in, I breathe in pain.
When I breath out, I breathe out love.
After about 10 minutes of chanting that, even white UUs with PhDs might be ready and eager for the most joyful, emotive, embodied, lively, shouting and dancing worship that Darrick Jackson could imagine.

And if not, well, it would still be a start.

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