At the top of his lecture, “The Dream Still Lives: 50 Years after Martin Luther King Jr.,” the Rt. Rev. Eugene Sutton warned the audience that they should “prepare to get angry.”
“There’s no need to walk out,” he said. “I just want you to stew where you are.”
As the third speaker in the Week Nine Interfaith Lecture Series, “Exploring Race, Religion, and Culture,” Sutton suggested how to move forward from a present plagued by social injustice and outlined the “the gap between where we are and where we want to be,” at 2 p.m. Wednesday in the Hall of Philosophy. Addressing “his white brothers and sisters,” the 14th and current Episcopal Bishop of Maryland detailed the results of a Pew Research Center study that found that a majority of Americans think that race relations in the United States are “bad.”
After a brief musical interlude to sing “Age of Aquarius,” he recalled the generation of young people who attended Woodstock and crusaded for civil rights in the streets. What happened to that promised era of peace and harmony?
Born to parents “escaping the worst of segregation,” Sutton grew up in Washington, D.C., where he attended Mt. Bethel Baptist Church.
“In church, we could hold our head up high,” Sutton said. “We could be somebody there. Because a lot of the rest of the week, we were nobodies.”
His family eventually moved to a different part of D.C., becoming the only black family living in that area. Sutton and his brother played with the neighborhood children, until, within two years, all of them moved away.
“When I speak today … I’m speaking as one who had to overcome what a society was telling him and all of his friends,” Sutton said. “Where are we now, 50 years after King? Are we better now than we were when I was growing up?”
In many ways, he acknowledged, the nation has pursued racial justice in concrete ways: There are no more “White Only” signs, there are more black individuals on television and film and “the president has a black person in his administration.”
“There are fewer instances of, ‘She or he is the first black person to,’ and you fill in the blank,” said Sutton, who himself is the first black person to serve as Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland.
“Forty years earlier, at the time of Martin Luther King Jr., I, with my dark, black, beautiful skin, would not be welcome as a worshipper in more than half of the churches in my diocese,” he said.
While celebrating the struggles of those who forced a greater commitment to racial equity in the United States, Sutton also recognized the “millions of descendants of slaves who are entrapped, this day, in a pernicious circle of hopelessness, poverty and rage” due to segregation, redlining and inferior schools.
“The widespread assumption that everyone and anyone can pull themselves up by their own bootstraps is a lie,” he said, citing statistics proving racial biases in drug arrests and stop-and-frisks, as well as widespread reported anti-black sentiment. Everyone has implicit biases, Sutton contended, especially those who claim the opposite.
“I would love for a candidate to say something like, ‘You know, I was raised like you and everybody else — in a racist society,’ ” Sutton said. “ ‘I have to struggle against that racism in my own life every day.’ … We can’t be honest about what we’re struggling with. We know, if you’ve been to any of the other talks this week, a good case has been made that, basically, we swim, all of us, in an ocean of racism. (We are) just like a fish in the water who doesn’t know it’s wet.”
He referenced a sleep analysis study that found that doctors exhibit “more racist attitudes” toward their patients when they are sleep-deprived.
“Here’s what I want you to know, my white brothers and sisters: I am very invested in your getting to sleep,” he said. “I know some of you are going to begin right now. Rest up, people.”
Debunking the belief that a younger, more accepting generation will eradicate racism — “I’ve heard that for the last 50 years” — Sutton described a systematic structure that produces complicit citizens. He offered four suggestions for those interested in tangible, anti-racist actions.
The first is to commit to “civil conversations” — in other words, “no more name calling.” Sutton lives in Baltimore — the target of President Donald Trump’s July Twitter tirade about a population of rodents apparently overwhelming the city — and wrote a letter to Trump that every major Christian leader in Maryland signed unanimously.
“When you say ‘vermin infested,’ we know what you mean,” Sutton said. “Human beings don’t live there. It’s only said about brown and black communities. … We need to have civil conversations, but if we’re going to do that, stop calling names and stop that language.”
Sutton’s second suggestion is to “remind ourselves that social critique of our nation’s history and present life is both healthy and patriotic.” He cited his friend William Sloane Coffin, a chaplain and activist, who claimed that there were three types of patriotism, two bad and one good. Patriotism, according to Coffin, in the form of “a loveless criticism” or “uncritical love” is unproductive and harmful to democracy.
“The only chance that a liberal democracy such as ours (has to) succeed is if there is an informed populace deeply in love with their country, who love it enough to challenge, critique and protest when the nation does not live up to its ideals,” Sutton said. “The nation’s founders knew that dissent in a democracy is not a synonym for disloyalty. In fact, what is really unpatriotic is blind subservience.”
It is best, Sutton maintained, to participate in an extended “lovers quarrel” with the United States — a necessarily contentious relationship he connected to that of God’s love of the world.
“I can’t think of a more narcissistic, self-centered religion than, ‘It’s all about me going to heaven, and my God,’ ” he said. “What kind of religion is that?”
His third suggestion revolved around “(calling) out the perniciousness of racist language and behaviors.”
He explained how cognitive dissonance enables individuals to hold contradictory ideas in their minds simultaneously. For example: “I voted for Trump,” “I am not racist,” and “Trump made a racist comment.”
“Don’t leave it to black and brown people to say, ‘That’s racist,’ ” he said. “You, a Republican Trump supporter, you need to be the first out there to say that, but, sadly, where is that leadership?”
Sutton’s fourth and final suggestion is for financial reparations, a word that literally means “to repair what has been broken.” The act, he testified, is not “throwing money at the problem of racism,” but it would help heal centuries of the “denial of humanity, jobs, education and any reasonable chance of wealth and livelihood in this nation.” This history of racism has “left a scar not just on black persons, but on the souls of white persons.”
“I learned something in Sunday school, at Mt. Bethel Baptist Church,” he said. “I learned that if you steal something from someone, you got to pay it back.”
Descendants of slaves are among “the most loyal group of Americans you’ll find,” Sutton argued, and black Americans are “not leaving.”
“We built this country,” he said. “We’re here. We’re going to stick around. Part of our thing is to make America squirm as much as we possibly can until she lives up to her soaring creeds about freedom and justice for all. You’re welcome.”
Reparations is not a transfer of money from individual white people to individual black people, he clarified. He himself would “pay to repair this damage” because “this is the mess we have inherited.”
“Now if you want to help me buy a house in Chautauqua…” he said. “We could GoFund this. That’s not reparations.”
He proposed $500 billion, half of one year’s worth of deficit, and contrasted it with the $6 trillion the U.S. government has spent on wars since 2001. That money could be allocated to schools, job training, housing, environmental sustainability and nursing homes.
“How do you repay 450 years of abject degradation?” Sutton asked. “But unless we do something, we are in a moral ditch. That’s the problem between whites and blacks. Every encounter, there’s a background facade. It’s, ‘You stole from my people,’ or, ‘I know that my people did, or our nation did, but I am not willing to do anything about it.’ ”
Concluding with Micah 6:8 — a verse that asks, “What does the Lord require of you?” — Sutton urged the Hall of Philosophy audience to love kindness, do justice and “walk humbly before your God.”
“Nobody has all the answers,” he said. “But I have a feeling that if we can just be kind enough and committed enough to justice, the answers will come.”