Equal Treatment Under The Law

Speaker: Rev. Carolyn R. Brown

We Unitarian Universalists like to get together. We recharge our liberal religious batteries so we can go out into the world again with enough energy to keep working to promote justice, equity and compassion in human relations. We do this meeting in many different venues. Each Sunday morning, we gather in congregations to celebrate our faith and to gather wisdom to use in our lives.

Each spring and fall, our districts gather people from the congregations in the 23 or so districts for celebration, study and sharing of our liberal religious hopes and dreams.

Each June we meet someplace in the US or Canada for General Assembly, which is open to all who can get the time off and find the financing to attend an almost week long time for voting on Association business, on social action programs, on actions of immediate witness. Our leadership organizes hundreds of events including worship services, lectures, workshops, parties, concerts and dinners for thousands of UUs from all over the world. We Unitarian Universalists like to get together.

Two days before General Assembly begins, hundreds of our ministers gather for the annual meeting of the Unitarian Universalist Ministers’ Association. We call this Center Days. A few years ago, the day long workshop was about discrimination and its subtleties. The leader was excellent and the program moving. All of the ministers were gathered in a large meeting room, possibly 500 of us. He asked if all of us who had ever been stopped once by police while driving would stand. Almost all of us stood. Then he asked us to sit down. He asked how many had been stopped by police 5 times in our lives. About half of us stood up and then he asked us to sit down. Then he asked how many had been stopped more than a dozen times. Slowly a group of people stood. As I looked around, I saw that the men and women who were standing were all people of color, almost all of them African-American. Each of them a Unitarian Universalist minister, each of them citizens of our great nation which allegedly provides equal protection under the law. The only explanation for the “standing” of these ministers is racial profiling, defined as “the practice of a law enforcement officer or agency relying, as the sole factor, on race, ethnicity or national origin in selecting which individuals to subject to routine investigatory activities….”

Public television aired a documentary on Dr. Martin Luther King a few nights ago. I happened to turn it on in time to see the events which led up to his death, including his 39th and final birthday. The narrators, his colleagues from that time characterized him as tired. Driven to try to do everything in his power in the struggle against racism, but tired, unable to enjoy life, speaking of his awareness of the danger that threatened him, not with fear but rather with seeming resignation and acceptance.

That was 1968. The news films of the marches King took part in, the reaction of the white people, the severity of the hatred of Cicero, Illinois, still makes me feel helpless and hopeless. How can a human being be so hateful towards other human beings. How can religious people abandon the teachings of their scriptures to love your neighbor as yourself. And what about the golden rule? How can government leaders support the denial of equality at any level to anyone.

This is 2005 and we have come a long way. Our local city manager is black. Our police chief is black. People of color represent us at all levels of local and state government. Back in the 1950’s when members of this church were involved in sit-ins to integrate the YMCA, they may not have been aware of how much their work would affect the future of this city. Yet were they here today as a few of them may be, they would be appalled to learn that we still have so far to go.

Equal opportunity at the YMCA has been achieved, but equal law enforcement has sadly been left at the starting gate. Nationwide the problem of racial profiling continues to be at the heart of our deep seated racial divide, a wound that our country has done little to heal, a stain on our democracy, an embarrassment for those who propose justice for all, and an insult to citizens subjected to its blatant injustice.

We might say that providing equal education is a far more important issue to work on than racial profiling. We know there are differences in the resources available in different schools, sometimes the result of heavy parent involvement in the richer schools, but we also know that some children begin school on an unequal playing field. If we are to educate all our children in a way that prepares them to be successful members of our society, there may be extra help required for some. But what does being an educated black person mean if you are subject to being stopped at random by police because you are driving while black. How can any amount of acceptance in society, any amount of professional success, any amount of self-worth and self-image respond to living in a country where you do not have equal protection under the law, where you are subject to being treated differently than your neighbor because your skin is a darker shade of human.

Since most of us are not subject to being followed by police cars or to being stopped on flimsy grounds and asked to get out of the car and sit on the curb while the police search the car, we tend to be somewhat oblivious to what our neighbors and friends suffer. They don’t often speak of this part of their lives, possibly because it is embarrassing and adds to a certain hopelessness that can creep in to the hearts of an oppressed people. Yet this is happening in Kansas and most places in our country at an alarming rate, heightened after September 11, 2001 to include people of Eastern Europe and Arab heritage. Racial profiling was somewhat new to these people. But African-Americans live with it day after day.

I was invited to meet with a group at Interfaith Ministries that has been working on this problem for about eight years. Citizens for Equal Law Enforcement has a bill they have written that will be introduced into the Kansas Senate this year by Senator Donald Betts. It provides for tracking traffic stops and identifying the race of those stopped. It provides for Citizen Review Boards to hear the complaints of those stopped with inadequate probable cause. This is a just starting point, and probably will not be funded if passed.

The City of Wichita has done surveys and reports that racial profiling does not exist here. It took them three years from the time of the collection of the data to report their findings. Of course, this survey and the report have severe problems leading to the conclusion that this was not a good faith effort.

Why do these conditions continue to exist? Why are members of the African-American community in Wichita subject to unwarranted harassment by our police officers, both white and black. What can we do to help in the fight for equal law enforcement? Why is this a concern for this church? Why is it still necessary to keep bringing topics like this to the light of day? Can’t we talk about something closer to home? Isn’t there ever going to be a time when the issue of race just isn’t an issue anymore? What does it have to do with me?

Since Dr. King was killed, I have been involved in every issue connected with racism. My adopted sons Brian and Joel are both racially mixed. They are subject to everything other people of color suffer. I feel it. Most of us have friends who may not talk about it, but who are subject to the ongoing problems related to racism and unfair treatment under the law. We feel it.

The first principle of Unitarian Universalists is that we covenant to affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person. We must do as much as we can to be aware of everything that interferes with the achievement of this principle. The mission statement of this church, which its members wrote and accepted, includes social action, action to face squarely problems in our community. Racial profiling is an issue for this church and its mission.

It is an issue for our nation. Twelve percent of our population is African-American. They are the most frequent victims of this offense. But now more and more people of color in other ethnic and racial groups are suffering from similar offenses.

Our sensibilities were shocked by the actions of some of our troops in the Abu Ghraib prison abuse revelations. Some of us do not believe these actions were merely the work of a “rogue” group of soldiers, but we are suspicious that responsibility lies up the chain of command somewhere. So it is with local law enforcement. It is not just a bunch of “bad cops” who are doing racial profiling without support of superior officers. Citizens for Equal Law Enforcement has information that indicates that these problems are coming from higher up in the chain of command in the police department.

We can help by being aware of what is happening in our community. Recently the Department of Justice said that the FBI has opened an investigation into the March 9, 2004 death of Curtis Webber, who died less than 48 hours after struggling with officers who stopped the car he was riding in. Why was this car stopped?

Monday night our local chapter of the ACLU will be working out a public forum on Racial Profiling to be presented in the next few months. We want to bring this topic out of the shadows and into the light of day once more where it may be acted upon. Perhaps we here at the church could also present a forum on this topic. Another way we could show our interest and support is by joining a group of citizens going to Topeka for hearings on Senator Betts’ bill on racial profiling on February 3 at 10:30 in Room 313 South. Buses will be going. Every body counts.

In 1965, The Rev. Howard Thurman, responding to the historic Voting Rights Act, following the March on Washington and the Public Accommodations Act, wrote “The Luminous Darkness.” In it he speaks of religion in relation to the healing of segregation which he identifies as a state of mind and mood of the human spirit. He writes that New Community must be built with symbolic and practical resources. I believe the new community will only be realized if we to develop equal law enforcement under guidelines that will prevent racial profiling. I close with a section of his writing in “The Luminous Darkness:

“There is a spirit abroad in life of which the Judaeo-Christian ethic is but one expression. It is a spirit that makes for wholeness and for community; it finds its way into the quiet solitude of a Supreme Court justice when he ponders the constitutionality of an act of Congress which guarantees civil rights to all its citizens; it settles in the pools of light in the face of a little girl as with her frailty she challenges the hard frightened heart of a police chief; it walks along the lonely road with the solitary protest marcher and settles over him with a benediction as he falls by the assassin’s bullet fired from ambush; it kindles the fires of unity in the heart of Jewish Rabbi, Catholic Priest, and Protestant Minister as they join arms together, giving witness to their God on behalf of a brotherhood that transcends creed, race, sex, and religion; it makes a path to Walden Pond and ignites the frame of nonviolence in the mind of a Thoreau and burns through his liquid words from the Atlantic to the Pacific; it broods over the demonstrators for justice and brings comfort to the desolate and forgotten who have no memory of what it is to feel the rhythm of belonging to the race of men; it knows no country and its allies are to be found wherever the heart is kind and the collective will and the private endeavor seek to make justice where injustice abounds, to make peace where chaos is rampant, and to make the voice heard on behalf of the helpless and the weak. It is the voice of God and the voice of …[humanity]; it is the meaning of all the strivings of the whole human race toward a world of friendly [people]… underneath a friendly sky.

May it be so.