Our American Skin
Rev. Jeffrey Symynkywicz, September 30, 2001
The events of September 11th seemed to have changed so many things. (And yes, rest assured, someday there will be sermons again without inevitable references to that day and those events, but not yet. Not yet.) The events of September 11th changed so many things—about the ways we live our lives; how we look at the world; how we interact with one another.
They certainly changed this particular sermon, that’s for sure. Originally, I was going to speak with you this morning about racial profiling by the police. (By racial profiling, I mean the practice of deducing that certain people are guilty of certain illegal acts based upon some particular component of their background—their race or ethnicity, for instance.) In America today (at least before September 11th), the vast majority of racial profiling was aimed primarily against young African American males.
In particular, I was going to speak at length this morning about the case of Amadou Diallo, a 21-year-old West African immigrant in New York City who was killed by four New York police officers in February of 1999. The policemen were searching for a rape suspect, and fired 41 shots at Diallo. The police officers thought that Diallo was reaching for a gun; it turned out that he was trying to reach into his pocket to get his wallet to confirm his identity with the police.
Diallo’s death unleashed a torrent of anguish and protest, including a controversial song by that great American rock and roll legend, Bruce Springsteen. The original title of this sermon came from Springsteen’s song:
It ain't no secret/ No secret my friend/
You can get killed just for livin’
In your American skin…
Well, the title has changed a little, as you can see, and that change of pronoun—from “your American skin” to “our American skin”—reflects that the content of this sermon has changed quite a lot. This is simply, honestly, because I don’t believe that in the light of September 11th, and in the light of the immense heroism of the rescue workers of New York City (nearly 300 of whom gave their lives trying to save others, as you know), that this is an appropriate time to be leveling criticism at the New York Police Department.
None of this is to say that the question of racial profiling has “gone away”—nor that it has, all of a sudden, ceased to be an important component of the racial divide in our country. Consider some of these facts and figures:
There are severe questions of racism which American society needs to face.
But now, after September 11th, I think we all face them from somewhat different angle.
I think that the most blatant and pressing question of racial profiling we face now, at this particular moment, is that aimed against Arab Americans in the light of the September 11th attacks.
I’m sure that many of you saw this issue of the Boston Globe from last Friday, September 28th. (If you read the Herald rather than the Globe, you have my prayers; but don’t worry, the front page picture was the same, sp you’ll get the point):
Here is a clear face of evil: the photos, released by the FBI, of the nineteen suspects in the hijacking of the four planes on September 11th. One glance at their faces and at their names, and something we knew already is confirmed in a flash: They’re all men, of course. More particularly and more indicatively: They’re all Arabs.
“Couldn’t someone have seen this coming?” we might well ask. It seems like such an obvious pattern: 19 hijackers/ 19 Arabs. But the pattern isn’t that obvious. For you see-- and this is a very important point to remember-- that while all the hijackers on September 11th were Arabs, not all Arabs who fly are hijackers—or terrorists—or in any way sympathetic to Osama bin Laden or the Taliban. Indeed, only a very small minority of Arabs (not to mention Arab Americans) would in any way be any more capable than you or me of committing terrible crimes against humanity like those we saw on September 11th. That is the underlying fact we have to keep in mind, I think, as we consider applying racial profiling to our fellow Americans of Arab descent.
Every human being is unique—in our makeup, in our personal history, in our good, and in our evil. The poet Mary Oliver speaks of “the light that can shine out of a life”; we Unitarian Universalists speak of “the inherent worth and dignity of every person” (maybe at times like this we need to look more closely, too, at the potential for evil and mayhem in every person, but that’s a different subject).
Any form of prejudice is anathema to our Unitarian Universalist principles. As Anita Farber-Robinson has written:
What is racial profiling against Arab Americans, then, than a practice which singles certain people out, renders them more suspicious, less worthy of being trusted— somehow of less worth than the rest of us—based not upon who they are, or what they have done, but rather upon some external characteristic of race or nationality?
Practices like that, I think, clearly go against our fundamental principles. If we support racial profiling, then we support prejudice. And if we do that, then we support the brokenness of the human race, rather than our deeper unity. That’s our choice. As Alice Walker has written:
I’m not say that any of this is easy. Especially now, especially in the face of the horrors our eyes have seen. Some of you might well ask how we can speak of high-sounding principles like “inherent worth and dignity” in the face of evil being like these hijackers. What about them? What about the Timothy McVeighs of this world? The Pol Pots? The Hitlers? The Osama bin Ladens?
Affirming our inherent worth and dignity has nothing to do with affirming evil and murder and mayhem and terrorism. Saying that there is a divine spark in the human soul says nothing to defend the actions of those (of any of us) for whom (for whatever reason) the spark has been extinguished. I’m not saying that all crimes should be instantly forgiven, explained away, rationalized as a logical outgrowth of American foreign policy. To look at these crimes this way is sheer nonsense.
To allow these crimes to go unpunished would be a lily-livered act of appeasement of Munich-like proportions.
I’m not urging foolhardiness, or that we not exercise caution to maintain our safety. But we need to exercise the human care we have in our hearts and in our minds to make sure that more and more innocent people are not made to suffer (whether here in America or in Afghanistan or wherever) for the crimes of madmen. That means not making the same mistake we did in World War Two, when all Japanese Americans on the West Coast were herded into internment camps. It means not making the same mistake we made in the Gulf War, when our bombing led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians. It means not making the same mistake that fools who engage in anti-Arab and anti-Sikh violence are making. It means not making the same mistake that passengers on airplanes who demand the removal of Arab passengers, or who refuse to fly with Arabs, or look askance at someone reading from the Koran are making.
We all ought to know better than that by now. We all ought to know better than to give in to the quick fix of racial profiling, which gives us some false sense of security, but costs us so much more besides. Racial profiling starts us, as individuals and as a society, on the slippery slope of racial stereotyping, and that leads to discrimination and prejudice, and tears the body politic of our culture asunder—so that we all, white and black, Arab and Jew, start looking at each other not as neighbors, not as fellow Americans, but as “us” and “them”. That’s the kind of slippery slope that lets fascist organizations like the Ku Klux Klan get footholds in communities like ours. Footholds which must (and will) be loosened—through the light of truth, and the warmth of love, and our holding firm a united front with all of our neighbors of goodwill and brotherhood and sisterhood.
This is a time of testing for America; a time when we can see what we are really made of. We must be careful. But we must also be just.
We are in the midst now of an upsurge of national unity, which has very little to do with the particular people or parties that happen to be in power right now. It is a strong national unity forged in fires hotter than those of partisanship or politics. This unity was forged in the fires of September 11th, the day we all learned, all of us—black and white, rich and poor, Protestant, Catholic, Jew, Muslim— the day we are all learned:
It ain't no secret/ No secret my friend/
We can get killed just for livin’
In our American skin…
That attack on September 11th wasn’t against American foreign policy—or against the American government—or against the American system—or against the American ruling class or against American capital. It was a direct attack against the American people—against all of us— and so, it requires a response from all of us:
To defend this deeply-flawed,
nonetheless true and humane and free land we love…
To spit in the eye of those who would slay
office clerks, janitors, waiters, firemen,
police, bond traders, corporate vice presidents, bus drivers--
all now our brothers and sisters, cherished comrades,
bound together now in a death too soon and bitter,
bound together in their precious humanity now squandered
for this epic evil folly…
It is now time to wear our American skin boldly and proudly—our black and white and brown and yellow and red skin—or red, white, and blue skin—and unite, and meet the challenge at hand.
Of course, saying this doesn’t mean that there won’t still be serious issues of racial injustice—and social injustice—and economic injustice—in this land of ours when the dust finally (literally) settles. We will still have tough questions to ask about our history and our relationships to many of the lands and people of the Earth. We still will look out upon a land where equal opportunity is still largely an unrealized vision, and the gates to power are locked against most Americans.
There will be plenty of work to do in the days ahead, certainly.
But for now, the dust still rises and reminds us how little time any of us have upon this earth. History sweeps through our houses, overturning our cots, waking us too soon from the easy bliss of complacency and sleep.
And as we awake, together, as a people, may we look into one another’s eyes and see, now more than ever, not a reflection of our fear, but a ray of the divine light that shines in each and every human soul.