A Letter from Bishop Sean: Committing Ourselves to Holy Change

Dear People of God in Western New York and Northwestern Pennsylvania:

In May, I wrote to you in the wake of the killing of George Floyd by police officers and the protests that followed. I called for primarily white churches such as ours to examine ourselves and acknowledge the ways in which we benefit from an entrenched system of racism in this country, to repent and to seek reconciliation.

I have corresponded with many of you in response to that letter, and I thank all those who reached out to me for their interest and their candor. As we continue these essential conversations, I invite all of you across our partnership dioceses, and especially those of us who are white, to join me in taking an early step in this long journey by participating in The Episcopal Church’s Sacred Ground program. Leaders of the Diocese of Western New York’s Commission to Dismantle Racism and the diocesan Mission Strategy Advisory Group have agreed to co-sponsor the program, beginning July 16 with preview sessions beginning this Sunday. Learn more about Sacred Ground and register online. In addition, the Commission has committed to spending the next several months formulating specific ways that we can advocate for anti-racist policies and structures as a tangible way to express what we will learn through Sacred Ground.

Some of the questions I have heard from white members of our partnership dioceses are ones that Sacred Ground will help us explore together, but I want to share some responses and thoughts with you now. For example, some of you have asked how I can assume that white people have benefitted from white supremacy and structural racism when many white families have experienced all manner of struggles and oppression, and when we ourselves are not “white supremacists.” Similarly, some have wondered how I can refer to a church that is experiencing financial and numeric decline in many places as “privileged.” I do not deny the hardships experienced in either case. White people can and do suffer from lack of economic privilege and other societal benefits. However, the undeniable truth is that our Black colleagues, neighbors and siblings in Christ nearly always suffer more, and the odds against their economic and educational success are far greater than the odds facing most white people.

In any sector you measure, whether it is access to health care, education, financial credit or experiences with the criminal justice system, Black Americans fare worse than whites, and the differences cannot be explained solely by differing levels of wealth or education. The Centers for Disease Control’s data on infant mortality tells us that white women with high school educations are more likely to have their babies survive than Black women with advanced degrees. And the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth demonstrates that children from the wealthiest Black families in the country are almost as likely to be imprisoned as children from the poorest white families.

This pervasive inequality has deep and durable roots. I have heard white people argue that because their families arrived in this country after the Civil War, they have not benefitted from the institution of slavery. But the booming economy that drew immigrants from around the globe was founded, in significant measure, on the labor of enslaved Africans, and it is impossible to imagine what American finance, agriculture, manufacturing and trade would have been like without the theft of their labor and their lives.

And while it is tempting to think that we have put the worst of our racial history behind us, we cannot forget that Black Americans have been excluded from many programs that have allowed white families to build wealth. Redlining practices, perfectly legal until 1968, made it impossible for Black families to buy homes in all but the poorest areas of our cities, thus ensuring they would not build much equity, and that their children would attend the poorest performing schools. You can find the redlining map of Buffalo online here, and the redlining map of Erie online here.

While many white families joined the middle class in the post-World War II years thanks to the educational benefits of the G.I. Bill, bureaucratic regulations excluded many Black veterans from that program. Trymaine Lee wrote in The New York Times Magazine’s 1619 Project, “Today’s racial wealth gap is perhaps the most glaring legacy of American slavery and the violent economic dispossession that followed.”

Evidence of that gap is all around us today. The COVID-19 pandemic has thrown it into stark relief. Black Americans have been dying at about 2.4 times the rate of white Americans. Black Americans are more likely to be infected and more likely to die once the infection sets in. At the same time, the federal Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans, intended to allow small businesses to keep workers on their payrolls during the COVID-19 pandemic, have been largely inaccessible to Black-owned businesses.

The structures that result in this kind of death-dealing systemic racism have been in place for a long time and are an embedded part of our national history, and many of the people who benefit from these lethal inequalities are committed to preserving them. Since the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a key provision of the Voting Rights Act in 2013, states whose voting practices were previously under federal review have closed almost 1,700 polling places, most of them in majority Black neighborhoods. According to a study by the Brennan Center, Black voters, on average, wait 45 percent longer to vote than white voters.

The Episcopal Church, too, benefits from a history of privilege. It is no accident that struggling white churches and dioceses often have endowments to fall back on, while struggling Black churches do not. Nor is it a coincidence that churches were planted in white-flight suburbs in the post-war era, while churches in Black neighborhoods languished or disappeared—or were never founded at all.

We are called to help dismantle these oppressive structures. In doing so, we are not claiming that all white people are personally bigoted, or that white people do not face challenges or difficult times in this economy and society. But I want us to recognize injustice against Black Americans in our country and our church when we see it, to acknowledge that this injustice is rooted not in personal failings, but in systemic discrimination, and to take action to rectify this situation. The work of racial justice and reconciliation, at its core, is about embracing our shared value as human beings, which is rooted in the love of God. This is Gospel work.

I ask those of us who are white to set about this Gospel work by doing two things. First, read the brief paper “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack,” and especially the list of “the daily effects of white privilege” that begins on its second page. These advantages that whiteness confers are rooted in the structures of white supremacy, and they benefit all white people no matter when our families arrived in this country or whether we ourselves hold racist beliefs. Second, join us for the Sacred Ground program, so we can learn more about and acknowledge our racist history as a country and as a church and commit ourselves to advocate for policy and systemic changes that need to be made now.

Together, we can do the work of repenting of white supremacy and racism, committing ourselves to holy change and the peace of God which passes all understanding.