Stealth-Like Learnings: “Sexism”, “Racism” and Institutions

There were many other events and relationships, locally, nationally, that continued my lessons about racism. The chronology of when each happened is hard to recall; to place them in any logical sequence is not my task here.

“Sexism” as twin oppression to “racism” came slowly to my attention while in my Conference staff position. My work was in Christian Education, and brought me into close contact with women who were often the people charged with a similar responsibility in the local congregations. I became good friends with many, and again as trust developed, they began to tell stories of the disrespect they often felt both from clergy and lay persons with whom they worked. My eyes were opened enough to see the same things happening as male members of our Conference staff were treated with a regard which was not exercised for women who came onto our program staff.

Disparate systemic treatment of women became gradually clear. Often when I visited a local parish I looked at the church budget, noted the pay differential between ordained male clergy and staff women, even when training and degrees were similar. I noted that percentage salary increases usually added to the disparity rather than closing it. I began to understand that what was wrong exceeded the personal but politely framed indignities.

On the Conference staff I was assigned a liaison relationship to the Blue Hill Christian Center, in Roxbury, and at first I was pleased. Then I began to wonder about my role as staff confidant who was to advise each year what the Conference should budget as a contribution to the Center. I began to feel very uncomfortable with the power that role gave me, and I began to challenge the assumptions that it was good and proper for me, a white guy, not of the black community, really knowing very little about its needs, to be in the position to say how much money should be allocated for the Center. My staff colleagues knew even less than I, and yet they could easily override my suggestions. My lessons about institutional power were just beginning! Reason was unable to articulate my discomfort; the heart was learning “dis-ease”.

There on Conference staff I also learned about informal power in the institutional setting. After a few years I learned that when a certain group of three or four men went into the office to meet with our Conference Minister (a kind of CEO), important decisions were going to be made. It did not matter what their formally designated positions were; what mattered was the camaraderie of like minds that prevailed in their relationships. I then recognized that staff discussions about some matters really did not matter, because decisions had already been made in more informal, sometimes social settings. There was a kind of select “club” with a small constituency, where real power was exercised. The “club” was isolated from people who could have saved them from decisions which were sometimes uninformed, sometimes discriminatory. In the next years I was to develop a heightened sense of how the “white male club” functions, and one day came to see that I am a part of that club, constantly in danger of making the same errors.

Class played a role in the hiring process of the Conference. A fine woman who served as my assistant was designated as “secretary”, while it was clear to both her and me that her role was as vital as the role of other women in other offices, who were called Administrative Assistants, and paid proportionately more than she. The difference was that she did not have the same educational degrees as the others, did not dress with a consciousness of “style” which others could afford better than she, and did not show some of the social graces that others knew. My attempts to gain for her more recognition and equitable pay were rebuked. In the eyes of higher executives she simply did not “merit”. It became clear to me that Melba was the same “square peg” in a round hole that I had been at Amherst.

Boston’s black community had identified what eventually was acknowledged in court as intentional segregation of its students in schools of poor quality. At one point Vernon Carter, a black-native minister, stationed himself in a van in a small parking lot across from our Conferences offices on Beacon Street, and close to the Boston School Committee office. His was a protest of over a month, and sometimes I walked with him as he paced his protest, with appropriate signs.

Then came a period when members of the black community occupied the offices of the School Committee, sitting in, refusing to leave. One other staff member, Myron Fowell, joined me, as we awkwardly tried to show solidarity for a cause we only vaguely understood, but knew was right.

Myron was the Conference designated Social Action staff member, and I believe now that he sensed and nourished in me some commitments for social justice which I had yet to learn. It was Myron Fowell who taught me some of the distinctions between social welfare and social action. He gave me concrete illustrations in the world around me of the contradictions between the lives of moral men and immoral systems, giving life to a puzzled seminary grappling with studies in Reinhold Niebuhr. In my studies Niebuhr’s Moral Man and Immoral Society (?) was a brilliant description of what I was coming to experience as hard reality which implicated my life.

Myron regularly had coffee one morning each week with Luther McNair, head of the Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts. On a couple of occasions they invited me to join them, and I remember especially their discussions of the threat which Senator Joseph McCarthy represented, as he pursued his wild charges about Communists in Washington. One week, when Myron was unable to meet with him, Mr. McNair invited me to coffee with him. I well remember his tribute to the work for justice which Myron was doing. Luther said that he thought Myron had done more than any other person to bring about the demise of the mad Senator. Undoubtedly a bit of hyperbole, but it was rooted in an admiration of Myron which I soon came to share. At the time I thought only a little about that conversation, but now I realize that it came in the context of a relationship in which I was being pointed toward a more active life in the cause of justice. It became increasingly impossible to deny dawning “dis-ease” with the status quo.

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