The acquittal of George Zimmerman for the murder of Trayvon Martin is just one very public example of our national brokenness around racial equality. As a people of faith, we mourn the loss of a young life as we recognize that justice has not been served. As a people who claim to affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person, we are called to recognize that, in the moment that George Zimmerman looked at Trayvon Martin--a young, unarmed man walking home from the store--and deemed him a threat to society, a life was devalued because of race. We are called to recognize that the acquittal of George Zimmerman by a jury of his peers was the latest in a long line of official endorsements of the notion that the life of a young, black man is worth less than the life of a white person in our country. This cannot go unremedied.
Michelle Alexander’s groundbreaking work The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness lets us know that this case does not exist in a vacuum. Day after day, in cases far less publicized than the Zimmerman trial, the lives of people of color are systematically devalued by our “justice” system. People of color--and especially Black men--are treated differently by our system, leading to their disproportionate disenfranchisement and subjecting them to legal discrimination against people with criminal records. Thanks to Alexander’s work, it has become quite clear that we have replaced overt laws that codified racial discrimination with inequities embedded in the very systems that are supposed to protect us. These systems have become a threat to our democratic society.
The threats to our democracy do not end with mass incarceration. In the recently-decided Shelby County, Alabama v. Holder, the United States Supreme Court struck down the section of the 1965 Voting Rights Act that required pre-clearance for election-related changes in areas with a history of racial discrimination in access to voting. This provision, which applied to jurisdictions around the country, including New York, Bronx and Kings Counties in New York, helped ensure that the votes of people of color were counted equally to those of white people in our country. And yet, the Supreme Court’s majority decided that the era of racial discrimination was over. We know better.
It is time we end discriminatory laws and practices. These include all “Stand Your Ground” laws, currently adopted, at least in part, by 35 states. Stand Your Ground, which is not applied equally across racial lines, encourages people to act from their basest fears, which we understand are fed by our society’s racism. It must be abolished. It includes the “Stop and Frisk” practice of the New York Police Department, among others, which creates a culture of fear in too many of our neighborhoods. Stop and Frisk, which is disproportionately imposed on young Black and Latino men, institutionalizes humiliation and degrades human dignity. It also includes opposing laws that seek to limit the access of those on the margins of our society to their right to vote by imposing difficult and discriminatory requirements on the voting process.
It is time we strengthened laws that protect our democracy and promote equality. It is time our congregations made a commitment to joining a national conversation about race--and a commitment to the actions that will come from that conversation. President Obama recently spoke of his own pain at having been racially profiled as a Black man in America in a way that deeply resonated through communities of color in our nation. Our growth as religious people happens when we engage with pain--our pain and the pain of others--in ways that help us expand compassion and a deep sense of our interconnectedness.
It is time that our communities of faith formed partnerships to do the work of affirming and promoting our first and fifth principles--our understanding of the inherent worth and dignity of every person and our commitment to the democratic process in our society. As Unitarian Universalists in the Metro NY District, let us join together with other faith communities for the 50th anniversary of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s 1963 March on Washington this August happening both in Washington, DC and in New York City. We can and must form and join multi-racial and multi-faith coalitions in our communities. It is only together that we bend the moral arc of the universe a little more toward justice.
As Unitarian Universalists, it is time to fulfill the promise of our faith.
-Sponsored by the Unitarian Universalist Metro NY District
Tracy Breneman, Director of Religious Exploration, UU Fellowship of Northern Westchester
Rev. Peggy Clarke, Racial and Social Justice Consultant, UU Metro NY District
Rev. Jude Geiger, Minister, UU Fellowship of Huntington
Rev. Susan Karlson, Disaster Response Coordiator, UU Metro NY District
Rev. Dr. Hope Johnson, Minister, UU Congregation of Central Nassau
Dr. Janice Marie Johnson, Multicultural Ministries and Leadership Director, UUA
Rev. Rosemary Bray McNatt, Minister, Fourth Universalist Church, NYC
Rev. Dr. Michael Tino, Minister, UU Fellowship of Northern Westchester