Modern Testimonies for Antiracism

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The history of Friends and race is a very complicated one. We’re known for our early abolitionist efforts, but before that, many Quakers built great fortunes trading and exploiting slaves. Quakers were friendly to Native Americans and yet much of early American Quaker wealth was built from land that had been Indigenous only a generation earlier.

It’s well past time now that our “Quaker legacy” as it’s commonly understood and retold doesn’t just include the heroic abolitionists we’ve lionized for centuries, but also a significant number of Quaker families who enslaved other humans. Elizabeth Cazden digs into the historical record to find a surprising instance of Quakers behaving badly. In eighteenth-century Rhode Island, White Friends used the levers of state power to ban loud activities by their Indigenous and Black neighbors. It’s a long-forgotten anecdote, but tone policing—the question of just who is allowed to speak and who sets the rules—still comes up inside Quaker meetinghouses today.

Michael Soika, a Friend from Milwaukee, tells the fascinating recent story of a coalition-building project that brought together over 20 denominations and faiths to discuss issues of historic and ongoing racial segregation in his city. The effort was not entirely successful, but several lessons are worth taking away. I couldn’t help but think of divides I’ve seen between city, suburban, and rural Friends meetings when issues of race have come up.

Friends schools are often more diverse than the membership rolls of their nearby Friends meetings. Mauricio Torres, who graduated from and now teaches at Westtown School, tells of the way a new class quickly came together in response to the May 2020 death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minn., under the knee of a police officer.

Rodney Long is a Quaker attender in Ohio who asks uncomfortable questions about the depth of our commitment to racial justice. His personal history demonstrates that the struggles facing many in the Black community go beyond headline-grabbing videos of violent police interactions. The spiritual search that has brought him to Friends cautions us against viewing the Black Lives Matter movement with a patronizing victimhood lens. 

There are many other treats in this issue: Tim Gee gives us a delightful look at race in the Bible and what it means for White Christians today. Charlotte Basham profiles Mahala Dickerson, a groundbreaking Black lawyer who moved to Alaska in 1959 and became an important visionary for what became Alaska Friends Conference. 

Elizabeth Oppenheimer has a story that weaves together generations of her family’s story and sees where racism blocked opportunities. This leads to discussions of reparations. Similar stories could probably be unraveled in many well-off White Quaker families. What are our individual and collective responsibilities for making up for past injustices?

The work for racial justice can be tiring. Our advocacy often finds itself in repetitive loops. It’s hard to look at our personal and religious histories and reconcile the triumphs with the embarrassments. Friend Harold Weaver has recently published a forward-thinking Pendle Hill pamphlet that we’ve excerpted in this issue. Drawing from a previous study, he lifts up three elements that are common to successful programs: acknowledging our collective offenses, recommitting ourselves to truth telling, and making amends. To my ear, these sound like three modern testimonies to guide Friends’ work on antiracism.

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