This “S**t” is Real

It is very easy to put the entire conversation about race in air quotes. “Segregation,” “the Klan,” “Prison Industrial Complex,” and even now “Ferguson” are reference points for most people who discuss them and not real and tangible parts of their world. This is one of the most powerful manifestations of the Possessive Investment in Whiteness that underlies the entire premise of George Lipsitz’ book of the same name. Racially motivated systems, attitudes and social practices become theoretical; appropriation goes undetected; and exclusion is no longer the fault of the dominant culture but the “choice” of the excluded. But this investment and its legacy are front and center in some of the work I’m engaged in with Unitarian Universalism.

In 1947, the American Unitarian Association embarked on a growth project aimed broadly at bolstering its flagging numbers by encouraging smaller more independent, lay led congregations to grow in the burgeoning post WWII suburbs. Historically, Unitarian, and frequently Universal churches as well, had grown as large institutions, with expensive buildings in important cities and towns. One look at the state of Massachusetts and the rash of Unitarian churches that surround town “commons” or sit in stately splendor in the center of downtown areas and this history is clear. But with returning GI’s taking advantage of the GI Bill and cheap housing with land being available outside of these urban settings, this was fertile ground for real church growth at a time when large, institutional Unitarian and Universalist churches were struggling for survival. And so the Fellowship Movement was born. [1]

Between 1947 and 1967 (some extend this even as late as 1980) hundreds of small Unitarian “fellowships” sprang up/were planted. Many of these congregations eventually grew well beyond their original 50 person size to be full churches and the Fellowships are one reason that there are over 1000 UU churches nationwide today.[2] The program was by all accounts a success in that it kept the Unitarian denomination alive long enough to see the 1961 merger with the Universalist Church of America.

But these Fellowships generally had several elements in common that continue to haunt the denomination where race is concerned as a whole today. In her book, The Fellowship Movement, Holley Ulbrich refers to a “flat earth Humanism” and total rejection of God that Morrison-Reed in his book Selma Awakening highlights as antithetical to the Black American experience. Also, the small size of the original fellowships meant that they often functioned more like family units on very intimate and sometimes exclusionary levels. In addition, because they were founded as lay led gatherings, a strong anti-authoritarian sensibility was built into the character of the fellowships from the start. [3] All of these elements presented certain social barriers in terms of integration. However, one of them most powerful and lasting characteristics of the Fellowship Movement is location. Mark Morrison-Reed explains:

In 1954 all thirteen Unitarian congregations known to have more than five African-American members existed in urban settings. Meanwhile, the fellowship movement carried Unitarianism into suburbs, exurbs, and university communities in the Midwest, Southwest, West, and Northwest. Some congregations, like those in Hobart, Indiana; Decatur, Illinois; and Appleton, Wisconsin, were in “sundown towns” that forbade Negroes to spend the night—more than ten thousand towns enforced such ordinances, most located outside the South. Other fellowships, such as those in Walnut Creek, California, and Deerfield and Winnetka, Illinois, were founded in segregated suburbs; and some in the Southwest had substantial nearby populations of Native Americans and Mexican Americans but failed to attract members from those groups.  Other fellowships sprang up in states like Oregon, which forbade African Americans from living there until 1926, and until 1951 outlawed interracial marriage. White members would have been unaware of this, because it would not have affected them in any obvious way. Many congregations and individual UUs worked on open housing, but in reality the places where fellowships took root reinforced patterns of segregated housing and racial isolation. [4]

I was reminded of this history when reading passages in George Lipsitz’ book about the racial bias of post war FHA loans:

By channeling loans away from older inner-city city neighborhoods and toward white home buyers moving into segregated suburbs, the FHA and private lenders after World War II aided and abetted segregation in U.S. residential neighborhoods. [5]

As I read this and what Lipsitz then went on to write about the devastation that urban renewal (sometimes referred to as “urban removal” by housing advocates) wrought on urban communities of color through the 1950’s and 60’s, I had to reflect on the many stories that have been shared with me by older congregants of suburban UU churches who describe that they relocated from the urban centers when they started to have children, choosing a place with “good schools” or “safer streets.” This may have been very true, but the subtle and coded message is that those schools and streets were white. What I have gathered from my personal experience and research is that although many of these neighborhoods have increased in diversity, the churches have not. Despite messages of welcoming, and a desire to attract non-whites, many of the other characteristics that started in the fellowships continue to flourish (rigid Humanism, small inward facing community mentality, strong anti-authoritarianism) and they continue to be as unappealing to communities of color today as they were in 1957.

Unitarian Universalism struggles with racial diversity, but it is making some progress. My work is part of a growing trend specifically focused on expanding how the congregations engage on race, class and culture, but it is an up hill battle because so much of the foundational identity for the dominant suburban churches, many of which started as fellowships, is wrapped up in a sometimes unintentional investment in white identity.  In order to grow and thrive, some of the most important work we do will be reinvesting in a broader set of “identities.”


[1] – Ulbrich, H. The Second Radical Reformation: The Unitarian Fellowship Movement, 2001

[2] – Walton, C. Unitarian Universalist Congregations by State, 2011

[3] – Morrison-Reed, M. The Selma Awakening, 2014, Kindle Edition, Loc. 1043 of 5296

[4] -ibid. Loc. 1021 of 5296

[5] – Lipsitz, G. The Possessive Investment in Whiteness, 2006, Kindle Edition, Loc. 277 of 4354

One thought on “This “S**t” is Real

  1. Adam – thanks for this. It calls to mind Michael Omi’s notion of “inferential racism” (as opposed to “referential racism”) inasmuch as the formation of UU congregations in the U.S. reflects a covert practice of racial discrimination that is rendered commonsensical by dint of wider discrimination in the post-war housing market. This is how racial hegemony works so long as it goes unquestioned. Fortunately, your work of counter-memory here functions to provide an alternative rendering of history that reveals the hidden machinations of social practices that exclude while professing a philosophy of inclusion.

    Liked by 1 person

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