At this year’s virtual General Assembly the Commission on Institutional Change (COIC) released its final report entitled Widening the Circle of Concern. This report was commissioned by the UUA Board of Trustees in April 2017 when they declared that the UUA was based on white supremacy culture. Below is a review of that report by Rev. Richard Trudeau.
Today I got an email from the Rev. Susan Frederick-Gray, the President of the Unitarian Universalist Association, in which she said, “The UUA, at both the Board and staff level, will be making the implementation of the Report of the UUA Commission on Institutional Change, ‘Widening the Circle of Concern,’ a top priority. We must continue to do the work of dismantling historic, dehumanizing, and systemic racial injustice in our own communities.” The report she refers to was extravagantly praised at June’s UUA General Assembly; the attendees had mostly not read the report, but were enthusiastic about its goals. I was hopeful myself, but am now concerned. For those of you who haven’t seen my review, here it is.
A Review of Widening the Circle of Concern
I’m a Unitarian Universalist (UU) minister, and have read this report twice. At the beginning of my first reading I was hopeful, because I knew the report aimed to strengthen UU organizations and make them more welcoming to “Black people, Indigenous people, people of color, and also people who are gender-expansive or living with disabilities” (p. viii). (In the sequel I will for simplicity say only “Blacks”; while the report makes regular reference to the other categories, it speaks primarily of Blacks.)
By the end of my first reading I had suspicions that the report may not be well thought-out. For one thing, it endorses reparations for slavery (p. 73), without explaining why it rejects the disapproval of such prominent Black intellectuals as Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Barack Obama. For another, it explicitly considers an action’s impact to far outweigh the actor’s intentions (p. 140), without explaining what justifies thus ignoring more than 2000 years of ethical thinking.
I needed to read the report a second time because its language is numbingly bureaucratic—for example, “We used an action-based research methodology that involved collection of materials, analysis, and two outside consultants” (p. xxiii) instead of simply “We did research and used two consultants”—which makes the report longer than necessary (more than 200 pages). Also, its main narrative is regularly interrupted with other material, making the train of thought hard to follow.
The report makes three major assertions. The first is that UU organizations need Blacks. The very existence of UUism is at stake! (p. 5) One reason given is that the number of UUs is shrinking (p. 39). But if our attempts to attract our primary demographic (people who are “resourced, white, aging” [p. 4]) are inadequate, the report does not explain why we should expect better results attempting to attract a different demographic. A second reason given is that UU “integrity” requires that our numbers include Blacks in proportion to their presence in the general population. But the report does not consider the possibility that lower numbers of Blacks may be due to factors other than an unwelcoming reception. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said of his own congregation, “it is segregated but nor segregating; it would welcome whites” (Meet the Press,April 17, 1960).
The second assertion is that Blacks are regularly mistreated in UU organizations. But the question used to gather testimony was “In what ways have you or your group or community been hurt by current racist and culturally biased attitudes and practices within Unitarian Universalism?” (p. xxiv), which solicits only negative replies. The report does not give evidence that Blacks are mistreated in UU organizations to a greater extent than other people. The report does include testimonies of Blacks who have been treated rudely, but it assumes that the insensitivity and cluelessness that UUs share with other humans is particularly focused on Blacks.
The third assertion is that UU organizations must change. The suggested changes include: change in worship style and music; mandatory cultural sensitivity training for leaders; “centering” Black testimony and experience; financially supporting all-Black groups where Black UUs can support one another; “reduc[ing] the barriers to entry for those who seek to serve as religious professionals” (p. 82); and many others. The overall implication of these recommended changes is that Blacks are not warriors or survivors, but victims—so fragile and powerless that they are unable thrive without elaborate mechanisms of support. If I were a Black person, I would find this report condescending.
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