The dream of white innocence

Picnic, © 2015 Brittney Leeanne Williams. Acrylic on paper, 12×15 inches. “Picnic” is from Chicago-based artist Williams’s series “Leisure and the Unseen,” which disrupts images of white American comfort with images of racist violence against blacks.

Unitarian Universalists were ready to redeem the American dream, to take our place in the revolution. What happened?

Image: Picnic, © 2015 Brittney Leeanne Williams. Acrylic on paper, 12×15 inches. Picnic is from Chicago-based artist Williams’s series “Leisure and the Unseen,” which disrupts images of white American comfort with images of racist violence against blacks. UU Worldeditor Christopher L. Walton writes about Williams’s paintings in his column.

© 2015 Brittney Leeanne Williams.


That was the week you learned that the killers of Michael Brown would go free. The men who had left his body in the street like some awesome declaration of their inviolable power would never be punished. It was not my expectation that anyone would ever be punished. But you were young and still believed. You stayed up till 11 p.m. that night, waiting for the announcement of an indictment, and when instead it was announced that there was none you said, “I’ve got to go,” and you went into your room, and I heard you crying. I came in five minutes after, and I didn’t hug you, and I didn’t comfort you, because I thought it would be wrong to comfort you. I did not tell you that it would be okay, because I have never believed it would be okay. What I told you is what your grandparents tried to tell me: that this is your country, that this is your world, that this is your body, and you must find some way to live within the all of it.

—Ta-Nehisi Coates, writing to his 15-year-old son (Between the World and Me, Spiegel & Grau, 2015)

This is our country—and this is our faith—and we must find some way to live within the all of it.

May 1966. I was in Hollywood, Florida, a youth leader attending my first Unitarian Universalist Asso­ciation General Assembly, on my way to the Ware Lecture. The doors of the elevator opened. And there he was, standing with his attendants.

“May I shake your hand, Dr. King? I am so honored to meet you.”

“What is your name?”

“Bill Sinkford.”

“Where are you from, son?”

“Cincinnati, Ohio, sir.”

“Well, there is work yet to do in Cincinnati.”We reached the ground floor and he moved off to the green room to prepare to preach.

And preach he did, a prophetic sermon urging our faith “not to sleep through the revolution”—“Stay woke,” as Black Lives Matter urges us today.

How can I describe it for those of you who were not even born then? It felt like we were in the midst of a revolution and that Unitarian Universalists were important actors in the revolutionary drama.

Dr. King called on the church to lead. “[W]hen the church is true to its nature,” he said, “it stands as a moral guardian of the community and of society.” He called on the church to be maladjusted to the structures of society that corrupt and oppress.

Every head in the audience nodded in affirmation.

The rhetoric was vintage MLK: “It may be true that the law cannot change the heart, but it can restrain the heartless. The law cannot make a [person] love me, but it can restrain [that person] from lynching me.” But Dr. King proclaimed that love was not only present in but at the heart of the revolution in which we were engaged.

Our faith community listened with rapt attention.

Dr. King ended with the vision of the Beloved Community, the dream his sermons made famous. “We will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of [unity] and speed up that day when all of God’s children . . . will be able to walk the earth as [siblings], and then we can sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual—‘Free at last, free at last, thank God almighty we are free at last.’” And thousands of Unitarian Universalists, many like me with tears streaming down their faces, rose in thunderous applause.

We were ready to redeem the American dream, ready to take our place in the revolution. What was our role to be?

James Baldwin, writing just three years before in The Fire Next Time, put it this way: “If we—and I mean the relatively conscious whites and the relatively conscious blacks, who must, like lovers, insist on, or create, the consciousness of others—do not falter in our duty now, we may be able, handful that we are, to end the racial nightmare, and achieve our country, and change the history of the world.”

Unitarian Universalists were more than ready to claim that role, as some of the conscious ones. Not “relatively conscious,” mind you. Most Unitarian Universalists listening to Dr. King believed that they were fully enlightened and up to the task of enlightening others. (Arrogance has been a spiritual issue for us for a long time.) And that black youth leader—me—well, I believed it, too, and I was filled with hope not only for our nation but also for our faith.

1966: Fifty years ago. So many dreams deferred and dreams denied.

How did we get from “I Have a Dream” to the New Jim Crow? Fifty years on, how did Unitarian Universal­ism get from that commitment to redeem the American dream to discovering the need to hang Black Lives Matter banners on our churches?

Did we fall asleep at the switch?

Well, that is hard to argue when marriage equality is now the law of the land, when greater opportunity for women and girls is real, when the Americans with Disabilities Act is now in place. None of that progress is complete—but we Unitarian Universalists have been hard at work. We’ve marched, we’ve petitioned, we’ve protested, many of us.

There is a reason that our nation hastened to embrace that warm and fuzzy dream of an Amer­ican welcome table, where exceptional individuals can transcend their circumstances. That dream allowed us all, but especially white Americans, to maintain a belief in their own innocence.

But the racial nightmare has not been ended. Religious bigotry, xenophobia, and homophobia are still used to justify hatred. And we’ve found more excuses to keep us divided than most of us imagined fifty years ago.

Did we somehow take our eyes off the prize?

Or did Dr. King’s dream provide a flawed lens that prevented us from seeing all that we needed to see? Dr. King, some of you will remember, continued to expand that dream, addressing militarism, income inequality, and immigrant workers. I wonder if he would be so revered if he had not been killed.

Americans insisted on embracing not his expanding and challenging vision of the Beloved Community—embracing more and more of us—but the far more comfortable dream of equal opportunity and the vision of innocent children sitting together at the American table, or at least in the American schoolroom, the dream centered on love not struggle.

I wonder what Dr. King would preach to us today. I am sure he would have built gender equality and women’s reproductive rights into his vision. He would affirm sexual orientation and gender identity, absolutely. “People of color” would be his language, not just black and white. All of those things, but more.

I think he would condemn the War on Drugs just as he condemned the Vietnam War—and for the same reason: both are waged on the backs of the poor and people of color. I think he would call income inequality a moral failure, not just an economic reality. He would rail against religious bigotry, against the building of walls on our borders, against talk of banning all Muslims. He would call people of faith to be divinely dissatisfied with the world as it is, just as he was divinely dissatisfied with the world as it was when he lived.

Coming up:

Gather with other black Unitarian Universalists at the Black Lives of UU Convening, March 9–12, 2017, in New Orleans.

Black Lives of UU Convening

But he would also be asking why corporations and entertainers pull out of states that try to roll back LGBTQ rights, but not when states roll back voting rights. For all our progress on other issues, he would be insistent that the Beloved Community will be always incomplete, flawed, its very foundation compromised, until the racial nightmare is ended.

Dr. King is not with us now. And so it falls to us to find and hold a dream for the Beloved Com­munity. That is our religious work. Our work, not just my work.

Like most people of color in progressive communities, I’ve been trying to “fix” this problem all my life. And in Unitarian Universalism, I’ve been trying to help us move toward wholeness on the issue of race for decades. If I had the solution, if I had a magic wand, some answer that could transform us and our world, we would have been living in the Beloved Community for years.

I don’t pretend to have that answer, but I do have a message. There are some things that I think I know. There is a reason that our nation hastened to embrace that warm and fuzzy dream of an Amer­ican welcome table, where exceptional individuals can transcend their circumstances. That dream allowed us all, but especially white Americans, to maintain a belief in their own innocence.

Innocence. I hear it all the time. “I never owned any slaves.” “I didn’t create the War on Drugs.” “Some of my best friends are Muslim . . . Mexican . . . gay.” “I’m not a bigot.” Most of us understand the flaws in that logic.

Ta-Nehisi Coates argues in Between the World and Me that it is exactly that American dream of white innocence from which we most need to awaken. “[T]he process of washing the disparate tribes white, the elevation of the belief in being white, was not achieved through wine tastings and ice cream socials,” he writes, “but rather through the pillaging of life, liberty, labor, and land . . .”

[These new white people] have forgotten the scale of theft that enriched them. . . . They have forgotten, because to remember would tumble them out of the beautiful Dream and force them to live down here with us, down here in the world. . . . In the Dream they are Buck Rogers, Prince Aragorn, an entire race of Skywalkers. To awaken them is to reveal that they are merely an empire of humans.

This American Dream, this new white identity, requires a “vivid performance of innocence,” as Teju Cole describes it, despite the truth that there is no actual innocence and never was.

Even progressive religious folks, even Unitarian Universalists have to give up our innocence.

Despite the fact that we were ready to sign on to Dr. King’s dream, we soon pulled back as a faith community when it became clear that the passage of a few laws was not going to save us. Some of us remember the late 1960s and early ’70s. It was a time when dreams of integration were challenged by demands for black empowerment, days when it got too hard and painful for our congregations to stay involved. It is called the Black Empowerment Controversy, but I always experienced it more as a White Entitlement Fit. You can read about that period if you did not live it, but the short version is that Unitarian Universalists withdrew.

And when our faith withdrew from the racial justice conversation, more than a few people of color withdrew, too. Feeling betrayed, we left UUism. I was one of them, but there were many others. I could call some of their names, but you do not know them because they are not here today. They did not find their way back to this faith like I did. And we will never know what this faith might look like or be like today if they could have remained.

Our faith looked away. We didn’t “stay woke.” Whether we feel guilt for that or shame, and even if we denied it, the truth is that we, all of us, are complicit. We did not prevent the racial nightmare from continuing—just as we have not ended homophobia, for all of our work and witness. There is no innocence left, for any of us.

And there is one more thing.

Ta-Nehisi Coates tells his son: “Here is what I want you to know: In America, it is traditional to destroy the black body—it is heritage.”

Coates’s son needs to know that his body is at risk, that he can be killed with impunity. Just as my son and grandsons need to know that. Just as even I know it every time I drive on rural roads at night or am stopped on city streets. In America, it is traditional to destroy the black body and the gay body and the immigrant body—it is heritage. These are hard words, but they explain so much. Ferguson and Tamir Rice make sense. The New Jim Crow, racial profiling, violence on the border, even the massacre at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando. It is of a piece.

The tragedy of Orlando called us to demolish the walls around our vision and claim that fundamental Universalist truth that we are all children of God, each and every one.

And I’ve known these things all my life. On these issues I consider myself to be one of the conscious ones. But Coates forced even me to confront truths that I would rather avoid. Because I would rather believe in the power of love—you know I would, and so would you.

What I know is this: We are being given another chance. The racial justice and just-plain justice Black Lives Matter movement that emerged out of the tragedies on the streets of Ferguson and Cleveland and Baltimore—and Portland, Oregon, where I serve—that movement is offering us the chance to claim a fuller and ultimately a more hopeful dream.

And the response to the massacre in Orlando in June is also helping to point the way. How many of you stood vigil in your community? Joined with others? Held a candle and said a prayer? Those vigils are where I am finding hope. The rainbow flags were most easily seen. But if you looked more closely, you saw all of us present: young and old, queer and straight, cisgender and transgender, Mus­lim men and Muslim women with their heads covered, Christians, Jews, and Unitarian Universalists, Latinas and Anglos, black and brown and many shades of beige. The tragedy of Orlando called us to demolish the walls around our vision and claim that fundamental Universalist truth that we are all children of God, each and every one.

The vigils called us to stand in solidarity in our grief and to stand as a community of resistance to the hate and the bigotry and the fear. We were communities of resistance that gathered.

Perhaps that is how we need to begin to understand ourselves: Not as the already conscious leaders waiting for the deluded dreamers to awaken, but as one community of resistance, struggling to stay awake and aware ourselves, one community of resistance to the hate and the violence, ready to partner with other communities of resistance—climate activists showing up at Black Lives Matter demonstrations, and Black Lives Matter banners marching in pride parades—communities of resistance willing to build a more embracing dream together.

Because resistance is what love looks like in the face of hate. Resistance is what love looks like in the face of violence.

Are we willing to live as if the Beloved Community is not just an idle dream? Are we willing to love this faith and love ourselves enough not to settle for the world as it is, but to build and inhabit the world we dream about? Will we trust this faith, this faith that does believe in the power of love, trust this faith enough to help us find a new way—a way out of no way? Because it is only together that we can find the will not to look away this time.

Adapted from the sermon preached at the 2016 Service of the Living Tradition at the UUA General Assembly in Columbus, Ohio, June 23. This sermon and other major General Assembly addresses are available in Assembled 2016 (Skinner House, 2016; forthcoming,

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The Rev. William G. Sinkford preaches at the 2016 Service of the Living Tradition (YouTube;

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