(Unspoken) racial subtexts to social issues in the U.S.

I recently read a book from 1995 called Racial Healing: Confronting the Fear Between Blacks and Whites, by Harlon L. Dalton. He is a professor of law at Yale and a good writer with an accessible voice. It was helpful to remember the context during which the book was written, in the midst of "welfare reform" and not long after then-President Clinton caved to pressure not to nominate Lani Guinier as assistant attorney general.

As an affordable housing advocate, I was struck by Dalton’s simple analysis of the usually unspoken, at times almost subconscious subtext to so much political debate on social issues in the United States:
As a nation we lack a consensus concerning how to deal with the problems that bedevil us most. We seem unable to take sustained action in any direction for very long. And we don’t trust anyone enoughto let them lead. We are, in short, politically paralyzed.

The reasons for this paralysis are several, but chief among them is our failure to engage eaach other openly and honestly around race. Think about the issues which sit atop the American agenda: crime; welfare reform; taxes; government spending; the plight of the middle class; family values; immigration; drug abuse; AIDS. Together they carry enough racial freight to sink a nation.

In the popular imagination, criminals are Black or Brown; crime victims White. Welfare cheats are dark of hue; the “forgotten middle class” is light. Governmental “taxing and spending” favors racial minorities and comes out of the hides of the White majority. Problem immigrants have yellow or brown skin; the citizens who foot the bill do not. Needless to say, I do not endorse these beliefs, or the skewed view of reality they project. My point is simply that our thinking about the nation’s most pressing social problems has become deeply “racialized”—saturated with attitudes, beliefs, and fears about race.

We tend to dance around this fact whenever we publicly debate social policy.
It’s helpful to be reminded of some of the fears underlying these issues. One of Dalton’s main points is that until we address these fears out in the open, they will continue to remain their poisonous, hidden or sometimes only half-hidden power.


Open Letter from Friends of Color to Pacific Yearly Meeting

An open letter from some Friends of color was published in "The Daily Miracle," the daily newsletter of Pacific Yearly Meeting's annual sessions, on 7/31/09. I reproduce it here in response to a comment from Linda to my post on the Yearly Meeting's epistle.

Open Letter to Pacific Yearly Meeting
from some Friends of Color, 7/31/2009

Dear Friends of Pacific Yearly Meeting,

Some Friend of Color came together during our annual sessions at Walker Creek Ranch on July 29th and 30th in Petaluma, CA. During our time together we identified common experiences from attending annual sessions. We have felt interracial tensions in our community. There have been times when we have felt isolated and not acknowledged in a manner that is consistent with our cultural traditions it is important to us that we are recognized as fully functioning, literate, spiritual persons of equal values as the friends that you already know here.

We request opportunities be provided for people of color to come together and get acquainted with Vanessa [Julye] as a facilitator next year. We would like for the Yearly Meeting’s Ministry and Oversight Committee to request that Friends General Conference have Vanessa Julye attend our annual sessions in 2010.

We would like to suggest that we all become conscious of the way in which new people are greeted in the following ways.
  1. Roll call can incorporate having new people identified so that we can welcome them and know who they are.

  2. We improve the way that we greet one another. Whenever we see someone we don’t know make sure that we look them directly in the eye and greet them with the intention of getting to know them better.
Also we request that a time be scheduled on a daily basis for youth and adults to come together for dialogue on topics of mutual concern. Our intention with this statement is that we seek out each other and affirm our gifts.


Pacific Yearly Meeting Middle School Epistle

Here is the Pacific Yearly Meeting Middle School 2009 epistle, thanks to Tom and Sandy Farley, who left this as a comment for me on Facebook! Eleven Year Old participated in this group, though I don't know if he had a role in writing this.

Epistle from Pacific Yearly Meeting Middle School Group, 2009

Close your eyes. Feel the energy pulse, spiraling around the circle. Some energy tingles, chaotic and argumentative, some flows calmly, agreeing and joining in a harmony. This is how we have been this week, sometimes flowing together in a simple harmony, sometimes falling into a dissonance which creates arguments and then subsides into a team of energy with one goal: capturing a flag where we invented new strategies to annoy the other team.

Sometimes we calm ourselves, listening to a story, where we find hidden meaning, disguised under layers of words. We have danced and screamed, ridden in canoes over the pond where the lifeguards were kind and helpful. We learned to trust each other. We have woven rough edges into a piece of fabric: ripped in some places, maybe threadbare around the seams, but we now have a small piece of community.

The middle school program had a fun time all in all.


Vanessa Julye's visit to SF Friends Meeting

On Sunday, 8/2, Vanessa Julye spoke at San Francisco Friends Meeting about the new book she co-authored with Donna McDaniel, Fit for Freedom, Not for Friendship.

We had about 25 people from three Bay Area meetings present. There were also a few people who came not because they are Quakers but because of Vanessa, including a cousin of hers.

Besides being an opportunity for us to learn more about the content of the book, and the seven-year process that led to its publication, Vanessa signed copies of the book. We also had a few copies of the study guide available. I got one for our meeting. We're going to start a book group soon, and so it will come in handy. You can order it in looseleaf format or as a PDF download.

Here's the book's homepage: http://www.fgcquaker.org/fit-for-freedom

One person shared that her aging mother wants to become a Quaker, after 80 years as a Baptist. Her mother's friends said she shouldn't do that, because "Quakers don't accept African Americans." This is a sad commentary on the image of Quakers among people of African descent. I mean, it's not literally true, of course, and yet visiting many Quaker meetings you might not know that, depending on which meeting and what day you were there.

We were also blessed to have Helen Bayes visiting from Australia Yearly Meeting. She was on her way to Canada Yearly Meeting, where she will deliver the Sunderland P. Gardner Lecture. According to the CYM website, "the working title of Helen’s talk is ‘Prophetic Community’. Expect to be challenged by the depth of her thinking, knowledge and experience in international Quaker associations."


PacYM wrapup: The Epistle (long)

Well, Anthony Manousos, Western Friend magazine, and my good friend Robin Mohr all wrote about Pacific Yearly Meeting, so I don't feel the need to go further into great detail here.

I did clerk the epistle committee, which was only possible because Robin did attend the last two days of the session. I am grateful to our friends Erik, Jennifer, and Jason, who as it is watched my kids more than I watched theirs. The nice thing is, though, that all of our boys are getting big enough to wander around without much supervision. In fact, they spent most of their free time up in a big pine tree that was great for climbing.

As I said in my worship sharing group, "Go, primates!"

Anyway, this is what Pacific Yearly Meeting's Faith and Practice has to say about the epistle committee:
epistle committee (ad hoc): The Epistle Committee prepares a statement (epistle) expressing the spirit and concern of the annual session to be sent “To Friends Everywhere” when it has been accepted by the Yearly Meeting.

This committee is appointed by the Ministry and Oversight Committee and consists of three Friends who serve for the duration of the annual session. Their names are publicized at the beginning of the annual session so that Friends can contact them with suggestions. One member, who should have served the prior year, is appointed Clerk. A first draft of the Epistle is read at a plenary session prior to the final day. Then the committee may hold an open meeting for consideration and discussion of proposed changes. The revised Epistle is presented at the plenary session before the closing Meeting for worship.
Well, none of us had been on the epistle committee last year, and I ended up clerk, mostly because they asked me first.

So here is what we wrote:

Final as Presented to Plenary, 1st 8th Month 2009

To Friends everywhere:

Greetings of all peace and good to you, dear Friends!

We in Pacific Yearly Meeting carry you in our hearts here at our 2009 annual session, held 7/26 to 8/1 at Walker Creek Ranch in rural Marin County, California. We have heard epistles from other Yearly Meetings throughout the week, reminding us we are part of the larger body of the Religious Society of Friends.

Our 2009 annual session has provided us with many opportunities for worship in spirit and truth, as well as for learning, fellowship, and relaxation in the countryside. The setting, hemmed in by rolling, fog-enshrouded hills, reminded us of the musical “Brigadoon,” as we recreate once again this faith community.

This week we deepened our faith together, in community. A major topic before us was a proposal to create a Youth Program Coordinator as the yearly meeting’s only staff position. A year ago, Pacific Yearly Meeting approved the position in concept. An ad hoc subcommittee circulated a detailed proposal and gathered extensive feedback from meetings and individuals, compiled in 110 pages of appendices.

Wrestling with this proposal demanded the best of us. We were reminded to be faithful to our Quaker practice of meeting for worship with attention to business. We needed to step back from results, create space, and leave room for the Spirit to enter. We were not here for a product or goal, but to be faithful and uncover: What does God will for us? After lengthy and difficult discernment, we came to unity to try this three-year experiment. Friends were reminded we remain one community, bonded by love.

Opportunities for nurture and growth of our spiritual lives included extended worship every morning. The children participated for the first 20 minutes, with a lesson, and then retired to their programs. Vocal ministry reflected a grounding in Quaker faith and practice. The lengthened periods of worship created more space for the Spirit to breathe and allowed time to absorb each ministry.

Friends found inspiration through shared reflection and study, including Bible study and a series on transformative Quakers. Worship sharing in smaller groups explored the theme of community and our relationships with our meetings. Meeting for memorials was powerful as usual, offering Friends a chance to remember the departed. The presence of the entire yearly meeting community—babies, children, teens, adults, and elders—showed the full circle of life present among us. An intergenerational dance later that evening provided a vibrant celebration of life.

The clerk’s reminders and steady hand helped conduct business in good order. One notable example of improved process this year was the swift approval of the budget on second reading. Friends often reminded one another of the importance of our testimonies, including equality, integrity, and peace.

We approved a minute from Peace and Social Order Committee against the U.S. war in Afghanistan and supporting peacebuilding. Another minute on healthcare for all in the U.S. was adopted. We were concerned that the American Friends Service Committee reported a 50% budget reduction, a result of the economic recession. Other reports, interest groups, and a tabling fair provided opportunities for Friends to engage with numerous other organizations and concerns.

We engaged on the difficult topic of racism within the Society of Friends. Visitors Vanessa Julye and Janice Domanik, coordinator and former clerk respectively of the Friends General Conference Committee for Ministry on Racism, convened affinity groups and discussions. Vanessa also discussed the new book she co-authored, Fit for Freedom, Not for Friendship: Quakers, African Americans and the Myth of Racial Justice. Friends of color wrote an open letter to the community, naming a certain level of interracial tension, asked to be greeted, and asked the Yearly Meeting to support Vanessa’s return in 2010.

The natural beauty of Walker Creek Ranch provided encounters with wildlife, as well as opportunities for reflection on the environment. The Unity with Nature Committee has found new energy, fostering a dialogue held in monthly and quarterly meetings about an emergent testimony on harmony with nature.

We also made many efforts to “green” the annual session. In the past year 48 committee meetings were held by conference call, saving on travel impacts. Some Friends bicycled to our site from locations in the San Francisco Bay Area. Meals were primarily vegetarian, with as much locally grown food as possible. We also ate one meal of plain rice and beans in solidarity with the many people around the world who eat simply at every meal. A Friend [Rolene Walker] presented her Walk with Earth from San Diego, California, to Santiago, Chile. Over 380 people have walked part of the way, including many from our yearly meeting. She described the miracles that can open up when one faithfully follows one’s leading from God every day.

Children’s programs nurtured the children’s spirituality and their experience of our yearly meeting community through lessons, games, and outdoor activities like canoeing and swimming. Junior Yearly Meeting had a sizable turnout, and the teens created guidelines for participation and their own schedule. Their spirit and energy provided Light for all of us.

We send our loving greetings and our gratitude to you all and the larger world of Friends.

In peace and friendship,

On behalf of Pacific Yearly Meeting
Joe Franko, Clerk