March/April 2000
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RACISM / by Tom Stites
Antiracism Primer


ntiracism, as used in the UUA's Journey toward Wholeness initiative, means a commitment to dismantling the structures of the status quo that build racism into our culture.

Thus, antiracism goes beyond tolerance, which is the passive acceptance of people who are different, beyond the wish for diversity, beyond proactive efforts at inclusion, beyond a nonracist stance that is neutral and thus does not challenge the status quo. Antiracism requires taking on the daunting challenge of reshaping society's structures so that justice is built into our culture in place of the racial oppression that has been part of it since Europeans began colonizing North America five centuries ago.

By focusing on antiracism as more than a personal matter, the definition used by the Journey toward Wholeness is more sweeping--and more abstract--than definitions, often used in workplace diversity trainings, that focus on personal attitudes and practices. Several other religious denominations are among the groups committed to structural antiracism.

Amending the US Constitution to outlaw slavery was structural change of the first order. So was the Supreme Court decision that outlawed official school segregation and the civil rights movement's successful fight for laws that ended official housing segregation and required equal opportunity in employment. Other examples include Congress's 1924 law that ended the ironic classification of Native Americans as "resident aliens" in favor of "people eligible for citizenship." But these changes did not end racism. In the words of the Rev. William R. Jones, an African American UU theologian, "racism mutates." Now that segregation is no longer sanctioned by the Constitution and in law, racism remains in less explicit forms that include substandard education for people of color, discriminatory lending by financial institutions, racial profiling by police, and discriminatory hiring and promotion in the workplace.

According to the Rev. Melvin A. Hoover, director of the UUA's Department for Faith in Action, racism is part of the core of all US institutions and expresses itself almost invisibly in status quo assumptions such as choices of language and symbolism. He says this is why the Unitarian Universalist Association has created and leads workshops whose goal is for participants to make a commitment to dismantling racism.

The UUA's trainings are based on the idea that people all have culturally assigned roles according to the groups they are born into, that the roles are held in place by racist social structures, and that the culture thus resists change. The trainings make the point that because of racist social structures, as white children grow up, they are socialized into a role that places them at the center of power relative to people from other racial groups; in the language of racism theorists, this is called unearned white privilege. Conversely, the culture assigns marginal roles to people of color.

"We insist on examining privilege," UUA President the Rev. John A. Buehrens says of the UUA's view. "Most of the other training models don't."

Hoover says the UUA's workshop for congregations--called Creating a Jubilee World after the biblical jubilee years when liberty was restored to the enslaved, debts were forgiven, and property was returned to its original owners--use this definition of racism: Race prejudice plus the misuse of systemic power equals racism. Thus, given white people's dominant role in the culture, racism cannot exist without whites' complicity, witting or unwitting. And it follows that racism cannot be removed from the culture without the active commitment of whites to use their power to this end.

In the UUA publication Creating a Jubilee World: Antiracism Resources, the Rev. Kurt Kuhwald, a member of the association's Jubilee Working Group, writes that its definition of racism "never lets us lose the critical awareness of the centrality of power in creating and maintaining racism."

The Journey toward Wholeness initiative addresses racism as only one of many forms of oppression. Others it strives to end are based on people's gender, class, sexual preference, and ability.

-- Tom Stites

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