Race and Faith (abridged)

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Race and Faith – A First Gen Journey: a keynote talk by José Santos Woss to Intermountain Yearly Meeting, June 18, 2021

[The following text was drawn from a complete manuscript of José Santos Woss’s keynote talk, which is published at: https://westernfriend.org/media/race-and-faith-unabridged]

I’m a Black, Latino Quaker. Those parts of my identity shape who I am. My story is an illustration of race in America through my varied intersections: a college educated, Black, male, Latino, first generation American. Driving a car could be a death sentence for me. A cop could take my life because my Black skin could terrify him into believing his life is threatened, so he pulls that trigger. Yes, it is that simple.

I grew up at the northern tip of Manhattan. I used to joke that I was born right outside of the Bronx, the birthplace of Hip Hop. So close to being cool. My neighborhood was probably 80% Dominican, 10% other Hispanic, and 10% White. I was in the majority.

I didn’t grow up seeing positive images of the beauty, power, resilience, grace, and excellence that exist in Blackness. I did, however, have a steady diet of images on the evening news of Black criminality presented as the norm in the 1980s and 90s. We weren’t Presidents then. This warped my reality and devastated my sense of self. Black was wrong. But – I had an escape.

I was Latino. I identified as Dominican first. “Yo soy Dominicano!” At home we speak Spanish. I was able to disassociate from Blackness. But of course, I wasn’t White.

My fiancée is a strong Black woman who’s never been and never perceived herself to be less than excellent. But this excellence, too, has its problems. Blacks shouldn’t have to be exceptional to exist. We should have the right to the same White male mediocrity that always seems to rise to the top. Blacks shouldn’t have to be exceptions to Whites’ expectations of our ills.

OK, I’ll admit that was heavy. But to truly understand the history of America – and of course its present – you need to descend into an understanding of race and racism that is ugly, I’m sorry to say. 

My faith: I was baptized Catholic at one year old. I was raised in a religious environment with a respect for the sacraments and a fear of God. 

One of my friends from the neighborhood mocked me about this once. He said that one day I’ll realize that it’s all a lie.  I never listened to that friend, until I learned about the child sexual abuse scandal involving Catholic priests. It was devastating. My faith started to wane, but it didn’t die quite yet. 

When I moved to New Jersey, it was a culture shock. I saw a lot more White people. Then I made my first Muslim friend. Her name was Neamat, and I had such a crush on her. She is Palestinian, and she is also first-generation American just like me. Then I made my first gay friend in college. Let’s call him Carlos. He was such a vibrant person, loving, charismatic, funny. He was just like me save for two differences – he loved men and he wore contacts. 

The word of God – as written in the Bible – taught me that the only way to eternal salvation was through Jesus Christ and that being gay was a sin. But I couldn’t reconcile the idea of two good people like Neamat and Carlos going to hell just because they didn’t believe or live like I do. I didn’t know at the time that the Bible has contradictions in it. So, I abandoned faith altogether. 

I spent the next several years mainly trying to do good works. I was a social worker for refugees and asylees, a translator for survivors of torture, and an advocate for people living with HIV or AIDS. 

Then someone invited me to attend a Unitarian church in 2014. It was like a breath of fresh air. Unfortunately, the church was having leadership conflicts, and again, I left a faith that failed to meet the ideal it preached.

All the while, I was discovering the Religious Society of Friends. I had a fellowship at the American Friends Service Committee. My big turning point came when I travelled to Philadelphia Yearly Meeting in 2016. I saw Friends moved to tears in difficult conversations centered on racism. I had never seen a faith so involved in addressing the difficult questions of race that exist within it. That annual session was difficult, but I left it very appreciative of Friends for tackling these most difficult questions.

Today, I work at Friends Committee on National Legislation (FCNL), fortunate to have my dream job – expanding voting rights, getting money out of politics, and dismantling the prison-industrial complex. I want to talk now about some of that work – about a few discreet manifestations of systemic racism and some solutions we’re promoting at FCNL. 

Voting Rights: Maybe you have heard stories of Black people being forced to count the bubbles on a bar of soap in order to be able to vote. Today, voter suppression hurdles are taking new and more hidden forms, to make them appear legitimate. Nevertheless, public officials are still trying to make it more difficult for Black and brown people to register to vote and to cast their ballots. 

Voter suppression today can take the shape of strict voter ID requirements – especially in historically poor, Black, or rural communities, where people don’t have easy access to government-issued ID. Public officials are also closing polling locations in largely Black population centers. 

Money and Politics:  It’s not just voter suppression that is a problem. It’s also the suppression of voices in our democracy because so few are able to run. 

It takes an enormous sum of money to run for federal office. The average cost of a Senate race in 2018 was around $15 million for a six-year term. For the House, the average amount was $2 million for a two-year term. When you’re raising millions of dollars a year just to stay in a very challenging, complicated, and demanding job. . . You end up making choices. Not just choices about votes, processes, and floor speeches, but also: What meetings are you taking? What issues will you prioritize?

Either explicitly or implicitly, people cutting thousand-dollar checks will have a megaphone, and regular working people, especially Black and brown communities, might manage to have a whisper. 

To confront both problems – voter suppression and money in politics – FCNL supports the For The People Act. The House passed this as HR1, and it currently stands in the Senate as S1. This act would expand the list of documents that count as voter ID, make election day a federal holiday, expand voting hours, and many other similar improvements. Additionally, S1 would implement a small-donor campaign financing system to elevate the voices of regular people in our electoral process and free politicians from perpetual fundraising. 

The Prison-Industrial Complex: We fear certain people, so we punish them through excessive prison sentences, and through the squalor and violence of our prisons. We also subject many to nearly perpetual punishment after they leave prison, through collateral consequences like denying them access to crucial anti-poverty programs.

Besides such injustices in sentencing, the entryway into our criminal legal system is also hideously unjust. Police reform is a big focus for FCNL.

Police take the lives of a thousand people in the U.S. every year. Tamir Rice was a small boy, only twelve years old, playing outside with a toy gun on November 22, 2014. He was shot down by a Cleveland police officer within seconds of arriving on the scene. The officer murdered him because he saw Tamir as dangerous because of the color of his skin. 

It still baffles me how so many can go about their days while a thousand people die like this at the hands of police every year. As a Black, Latino Quaker, this isn’t just something I’m passionate about. It’s my reality.

Congress is looking at one remedy for this epidemic of killing Black people. The George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, or the JPA, has a number of provisions that FCNL sees as promising. These include: limitations on the transfer of military equipment to local law enforcement; stricter use-of-force standards and training requirements; bans on chokeholds and no-knock warrants; and reforms to “qualified immunity” policies, so aggrieved families can seek damages from police departments more reasonably.

Finally, we come to possibly the height of immorality by our government – the death penalty. A system that disproportionately ensnares Black and brown bodies also sentences them to death. Often innocent people. This is state-sanctioned murder in all our names. We call on the President to reinstate a moratorium on the federal death penalty and to dismantle the federal death chamber.

The most important aspect of everything I have said today is care. Care enough to remain engaged in the struggle for liberation, to discuss White supremacy in your circles, to support FCNL, and to engage with activists to change local laws. 

Racism doesn’t look like bubbles on a bar of soap anymore. Its pernicious arms stretch across governments, laws, and institutions. We need you to remain committed to dismantling these systems. Together I know that we can.  ~~~

José Santos Woss is the Director for Justice Reform at the Friends Committee on National Legislation.

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