In the wake of political, social, and racial consciousness of last year between the insurrection and the George Floyd murder and the dramatic rightward shift of impending supreme court decisions, I began to wonder if there was a better way to help people from all walks of life think through the dynamics of inequity in this country. I’m challenging all of you to look at what’s happening today through the lens of humanity, which applies, not only to race, but to every form of inequity.
Think for a moment about humanity. By webster’s definition, humanity is compassionate, sympathetic, or generous behavior or disposition. It’s a trait that has been described in most religious works including the Bible, the Torah, the Koran and for the most part is universally recognized as a right and just approach for people to take in dealing with one another.
Let’s talk about humanity for a moment first in the context of family. One can’t mistake the look on most parent’s faces when they see their newborn infant or when they spend time with a dying relative. We see humanity in action. It’s very real and it is incredibly emotional and natural. We see it in how much pain we experience when a family member is going through issues or needs a helping hand. Our humanity typically comes through, there as well. I’ll never forget how both Senator Rob Portman and Secretary Dick Cheney were against homosexuality until the found out that their son or daughter was gay. It was then that their humanity began to surface. A similar stance is recognized in special education legislation because most legislators know a family that has been impacted by a child with special needs.
Now look at humanity in the context of a community. Communities can be a group of friends, an organization, a fraternity, a trade group, religious institution or even a group of people that see themselves as similar that share a common bond. As we are all human, frequently issues arise with a member or members of a community. Whether it be pedophilia, criminal activity, drug addiction or infidelity, we often find our humanity in finding ways to support people in our community. We don’t like their behavior, but we find a rationale to treat the members of the group in a humane way. Often, we excuse their behavior and find ways for them to have other opportunities to redeem themselves. In the Catholic Church, it was to pray for wayward chaplains and send them to another community to do better. In a rural community, it was to take a troubled team home to his parents rather than to the police station or jail. In many other situations, it was to protect a member of the group from the full consequences of their actions in a conscious display of humanity.
The challenge we all face is how to think about others outside of our community. I’ll never forget a lecture by Sol Gittleman, the former provost of Tufts University, at my 30th reunion. Sol talked about the founding of this country and how America has always been about whiteness. Our founding fathers, white protestants, always had a concern about “the other” and whether they fit into their community. Each group was challenged, the Irish, the Germans, the Jews, the Italians initially weren’t white enough to fit in and were frequently ostracized. Ultimately, most of these groups became accepted as part of the larger, albeit white community. Prior to their acceptance, they were not extended the humanity extended to the dominant group.
A different path was traveled by Africans that were brought to the country as slaves. Initially, Africans and European indentures often lived together on southern plantations, perhaps viewed as two similar labor pools. Bacon’s rebellion and similar events changed that approach. Bacon’s rebellion brought landowners and common whites together with aligned interests and focused on capitalizing on the slave trade. To that end, the Commonwealth of Virginia defined slaves as those of African descent. European indentured were placed in positions to assure that the slaves would never escape or revolt. European indentured became elevated in status. And arguably, the former indentured welcomed both the humanity and the conformity of the community to which they were welcomed and treated the slaves as “others;” essentially not human.
When you think of Africans that came to America as slaves, there was a deliberate attempt to prevent people from thinking about them as human. If slaves were human, then it might suggest that the treatment of slaves was inhumane. Instead, there was a very concerted public relations and communication strategy to paint slaves as animals or worse. This continued with the film, The Birth of a Nation, the propaganda effort to paint former slaves as violent savages who would rape white woman. Unfortunately, this wasn’t just an American thing. Similar approaches happened during the crusades and the Spanish Inquisition. It is much easier to destroy others if they are portrayed as inhumane rather than to view them as human.
All of that happened before any of us were born, so what does it have to do with the issues we’re facing today, one might ask? Without taking us back through US history, I’d like to ask you to think about the world today. According to scientists, we’re all part of one race whether we’re black or white, gay or straight, binary or non-binary, etc. Our commonality is that we’re all human species. And as we know, from religious teaching and most communal doctrines we are uniquely capable of showing humanity unlike many of the other animal species.
My question to you is about your humanity. Not to your family. Not to your perceived communities. Your humanity to others is what I’d like you to think about today. In the hyper-partisan world that we live in today, we tend to think about us versus them. We create visual and emotional images of others that prevent us from seeing their humanity. We might even rationalize why others are where they are or allowed to be treated inhumanely because of some actions we blame on them as a whole or how they as a group came to earn their predicament. Yet, we are all human beings, each with our own individual story and pathway; many of their stories are very similar to our own stories. And, in fact when people get to know people that are not part of their group, they often treat them as individuals and exceptions to perceived norms and stereotypes.
Others outside of our community have similar wants, desires, needs and expectations for their family and their life. Really, they are no different than you or me. I ask you to look beyond your perception or the media or any stereotype to think for a moment about your humanity.
What’s the difference between when a cop stops an unarmed black man and murders him versus when a state trooper captures mass murderer Dylan Roof and takes him to the Burger King because he is hungry? Or what’s the difference between the police treatment of Black Lives Matter protestors and the rioters at the insurrection at the Capital on January 6th? Why is there a tepid response to taking migrant children away from their parents when they cross the border and putting them in cages? Why is it important to prevent transgendered youth from going to a bathroom where they won’t get beaten up by other children that don’t understand them? Our desire to put a box around those others so that we can rationalize why their circumstances are different than ours is when we lose sight of our humanity.
These are the simple and overt questions relating to humanity. There are a deeper set of questions that one could raise about wealth inequality, how communities of color were formed using federally mandated and regulated actions, how the New Deal and the GI Bill underwrote education and homeownership for whites only. Why countless studies demonstrate that the same resumes where the names were switched between black and white sounding names, yielded white sounding prison convicts receiving significantly more call backs for interviews than black sounding college graduates? Or why in 2021 is there still a wage gap between women and men in the workplace? Or why has the minimum wage remained the same for 30 years yet the wealth of the top .01% has grown exponentially.
Our collective reality is that we live in a space where treatment of people is not equal. We live in a place where we all acknowledge that we expect fairness and equality because after all, we’re human. In fact, from our own perspective, we believe that we live in that place because inequity was a thing of the past that shouldn’t be a burden to us today. History, however, is something that often repeats itself. And by not understanding the past, we are destined to repeat it.
During Reconstruction, Senators Hiram Revels and Blanche Bruce served as Black US Senators, along with 15 Black members of the US House of Representatives. What followed was the Jim Crow era where statues from Confederate Soldiers were erected and lynching, segregation, discriminatory practices, and voter suppression on people of color became the norm. Anyone who looks back at Germany, can see a similar approach and slow rise to power that impacted Jews throughout all of Europe. In each instance, humanity was suppressed by a need to feel like a part of a community. Roughly 30% were ardent supporters of Hitler. Unfortunately, most people were more comfortable fitting in with their perceived community than standing up for those who were not being treated with humanity. To quote Martin Luther King, Jr, “An individual has not started living until he can rise above the narrow confines of his individualistic concerns to the broader concerns of all humanity.”
Humanity is a trait that we can all have or aspire to in the right circumstances. Our partisan media and its unwillingness to overtly call out falsehoods, along with social media that provides echo chambers for people with a desire to misinform for their personal gain or to drive their political dogma, and very lax reporting requirements for political donations make our country more susceptible than ever to the heavy influences of agenda driven politics telling you how to think about the other. If you believe yourself to be purpose driven, I ask you to think about your humanity. Your goal should be to seek to understand others and to question your own humanity. Not whether you are human, but rather whether you are leading with your humanity in dealing with judging or interpreting current events, realities, and individuals. In religious practice, at the root of Christianity and other religions is how we treat others. It’s not how we treat others in our community, but how we treat all others. In self-reflection, I ask you to seek understanding of things you are being told, think you know or don’t know and look to prevent the ugliest parts of our history from repeating themselves. You’ll live a happier life, and the world will be a bigger, better place for everyone when we begin to value each other for what we share rather than what separates us.