Something My Grandfather Seemed to Know About Race and Class

Rev. Josh Pawelek

I want to share with you some stories about my father’s father, Stanley J. Pawelek.  Grandad Pawelek seemed to know something about race and class that feels extraordinarily important for this moment in American history.

He was the oldest of nine children born and raised in Thorp, Wisconsin. He was the son of Polish Catholic immigrants who didn’t speak English. Thorp was a farm town, and the Paweleks were subsistence farmers. They owned two acres of land and some animals—mostly chickens. My father remembers visiting Thorp with his parents when he was young. He loved Thorp. He loved the land. He loved eating fresh eggs for breakfast. He says his extended family was lovely in the sense that they were tight-knit and still practiced Polish culture and traditions. I get the impression from my father they were ‘salt-of-the-earth’ people. When he was with them he was one of them. He belonged. He felt loved. But there was a shadow side. They were racist. Like so many European immigrants who would eventually lose their hyphens and become White Americans, the Paweleks very quickly picked up American racism towards Blacks and other people of color. In fact, picking up and expressing that racism was part of becoming White. My grandad was no exception. My father remembers him using racist jokes and slurs. He believed Blacks were inferior to Whites. He didn’t have much contact with Hispanics, Asians, Arabs and Native Americans; but I suspect if he had he would have held racist beliefs about them too.

My grandad also held deep admiration for what he called “the working man,” specifically people who worked with their hands. “A man doesn’t need a college degree to achieve the American dream,” he would often tell my father. A man could work with his hands—build things, manufacture things, repair things—and earn a good living, good enough to support a family, purchase a home and retire with enough savings to maintain a decent standard of living. He saw the working man as the proud, heroic heart of American society.

Oddly, he did not possess the gift of working with his hands, which may be why he developed a very specific vision for his life. He wanted to be the director of an industrial arts program for a major urban school system. He wanted to help train the next generation of working men. He knew this by the time he reached high school. He went to college to learn how to teach industrial arts and eventually earned a Ph.D. in vocational education from the University of Minnesota. In the early 1940s the Baltimore, MD board of education hired him as Supervisor for Industrial Arts, a job he held for over 30 years. He retired in the mid-70s for health reasons related to diabetes and died soon after that.

Baltimore desegregated its schools soon after the 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education Supreme Court decision. As was the case in many towns and cities, White parents boycotted. They kept their children home. Grandad Pawelek refused to participate in the boycott. He went to work and he sent his kids to school. My father has vivid memories of White parents lining the walkway to the school entrance, taunting and spitting at him and the small handful of White students whose parents weren’t boycotting. We aren’t sure what my grandfather thought about integration or the boycott. The message to my father was crystal clear: your education is more important than whatever I may think or say about Black people.

In the pre-segregation era when my father was in elementary school, he and my grandad had an interesting Saturday morning routine. They would visit the schools under Grandad’s supervision. They would drive first to a White school, get out of the car, enter the shop wing, remove the best tools and equipment, load up the car, drive it across the city to a Black school, and replace what my father calls the ‘crappy’ tools and equipment at the Black school with the high quality tools and equipment from the White school. While they did this, my grandad would talk to his son about the working man. He didn’t talk about the White working man. It was just the working man. As Supervisor for Industrial Arts for the City of Baltimore, he understood it was his job to insure that every student received an education that would enable them to take their place in that proud, heroic heart of American society. If the Black schools under his supervision did not have adequate tools to successfully educate Black students, it reflected poorly on his leadership and he would do what he could to make things fair.

What I find so fascinating and confusing about this story is that despite his racist beliefs, he behaved in a principled way. He believed Blacks were inferior to Whites, but somehow his racism did not eclipse his sense of obligation to every school, teacher and student under his supervision. His racism did not eclipse his commitment to equality of opportunity. His racism did not eclipse his vision of who America is for, who could enter the working class, get a good job, support a family, purchase a home. His principles were bigger than his racism. His America was bigger than his racism.

The original title of this sermon was “What About All That Rage?” There are two underlying sources of White rage in the United States. The first is legitimate and the nation—including communities of faith—needs to address it: rage at rising economic inequality, economic neglect, the disappearance of traditional blue color jobs, a related deterioration of communities where those jobs were prevalent, and a prevailing sense of alienation, cynicism and loss in those communities. Though this rage is most closely associated in the public mind with White communities in the American rust belt—the declining manufacturing centers of Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan and Wisconsin—it exists everywhere in the country. It existed long before the 2016 presidential campaign, and people feel it across the political spectrum. Bernie Sanders spoke to this rage on the political left as much as Donald Trump on the right. During the party primaries it was fascinating to note a significant overlap among Sanders and Trump supporters. On the Democratic side in particular, often voters weren’t choosing between Sanders and Clinton. They were choosing between Sanders and Trump. In my sermon on the Sunday after the election I said if this election result was truly “a cry for economic renewal; if President-elect Trump and his supporters understand he has just been charged with dismantling the forces driving the nation’s industrial decline, driving the stark, immoral and unsustainable rise in income inequality, driving the erosion of workers’ rights, wages and dignity … that’s a movement I want to be in.”[1] Principle, not party.

But there’s a second source of White rage which dashes my hopes for this movement: the rage of White supremacy, White nationalism and xenophobia mingled with an alarming embrace of misogyny, homophobia and anti-Semitism. This rage is also not new, but it has been given new life with the election of Donald Trump to the presidency. I do not believe everyone who voted for Trump supports White supremacy. I am heartened when I see Trump voters, Republicans and conservatives trying to distance themselves from White supremacy and from Trump’s more egregious statements. Nevertheless, this rage is misguided, dangerous and un-American. It is a form of evil, and the nation—including communities of faith—need to counter it resolutely.

These two sources of White rage became entangled during the campaign. Trump’s rhetoric enabled the entanglement. Legitimate White rage over the effects of globalism, factory closures, job losses, workplace automation and income inequality became entangled with illegitimate racist calls for border walls, Muslim bans, law and order, stop and frisk policing and the continuing roll-back of voting rights. Illegitimate and immoral White American racism hijacked legitimate, moral anger at the nation’s economic condition. White American racism trumped America’s principles of fairness, justice and equality. It will be enormously important in the coming months and years to disentangle these two sources of White rage. The church must send us forth to engage with the rage for economic renewal, and to confront, challenge, and turn back the rage for White supremacy.

Grandad Pawelek said racist things and held racist beliefs. But from what we can tell, his racism didn’t become entangled with his vision of who could occupy that proud, heroic working class heart of America. While his racism was wrong, his understanding of the working class was right. Even before desegregation, even before the civil rights movement was in full gear, the American working class was never a purely White class. It has always been multiracial, multicultural, multi-ethnic. And it has always included women. It has always experienced racial tensions. It has its own history of racial and gender segregation, but it has always been a diverse class. It’s not that there’s no such thing as a White working class. There is. It has a history, culture, traditions, expectations. But when politicians and the media use this term to refer to a racially-identified group of voters with current and historic ties to American manufacturing, it gives a misleading impression of how diverse the working class really is. A brief glance at data from the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics reveals there are Black, Hispanic, Asian and women workers in virtually every type of working class job.[2] And a 2016 study by Valerie Wilson, [3] director of the Economic Policy Institute’s Program on Race, Ethnicity, and the Economy, estimates that the American working class will be majority people of color by 2032.[4]

I’m pointing this out because it’s not just White workers who are angry about the impacts of globalism and income inequality. People of color workers have been enraged about these problems far longer than White workers have. Industrial manufacturing jobs left cities first, decimated Black and Hispanic communities first.[5] The Movement for Black Lives economic justice demands call for economic renewal designed primarily to benefit Black people, but if implemented would actually benefit all working class people. They’re calling for, among other things, a progressive restructuring of the tax code, federal and state jobs programs that provide a living wage, the right for workers to organize, restoration of the Glass-Steagall Act to break up large banks, renegotiation of all trade agreements to prioritize the interests of workers and communities, and protections for workers in unregulated industries—domestic workers, farm workers, tipped workers and incarcerated workers.[6]

It was weird. Donald Trump kicked off his Presidential Campaign on June 16th, 2015, and even then I could sense the White working class rage he was channeling. Exactly one week prior to that I was arrested in Hartford at a Black Lives Matter action. I remember thinking, first, Donald Trump, you’re the 1% of the 1%–you don’t get to be angry. We’re angry. Black Lives Matter is Angry. Immigrants’ rights activists are angry. Voting rights activists are angry. You don’t get to be angry. But then as that legitimate White rage at globalism and “the rigged system” became more clear, I kept wondering, perhaps naively, why does the White working class like him? Why isn’t the White working class supporting the Black Lives Matter economic justice agenda? Why isn’t the White working class making the connection to all workers, to what’s happening in urban centers, on Indian reservations, to the environment, to militarism? Why can’t all of us who care about these things be angry together in a multifaceted movement for black liberation, gender justice, worker rights, immigration reform, environmental justice, demilitarization, criminal justice reform, gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender rights?

Why? Because, in this case, Donald Trump made racism bigger than America. He entangled legitimate White rage with White identity politics, with racist dog-whistles, with xenophobic fear mongering, with the degradation of women. He didn’t strengthen the White working class. He isolated the White working class from its natural allies. He played the White working class, and in so doing, he is now poised to reverse years of civil rights gains, years of environmental gains, years of gains for women’s rights, years of health care gains, and years of regulations intended to protect the very workers for whom he claims to speak. That’s how racism rolls. It’s also how the rich get richer.

In his farewell speech Tuesday, President Obama made the argument that there will not be economic progress for working people if working people remain divided along racial lines. He said “Blacks and other minority groups [need to tie] our own very real struggles for justice to the challenges that a lot of people in this country face—not only the refugee, or the immigrant, or the rural poor, or the transgender American, but also the middle-aged white guy who …has seen his world upended by economic and cultural and technological change…. White Americans [must acknowledge] that the effects of slavery and Jim Crow didn’t suddenly vanish in the ’60s, that when minority groups voice discontent, they’re not just engaging in reverse racism or practicing political correctness…. They’re not demanding special treatment but the equal treatment that our Founders promised….  Native-born Americans [must remember] that the stereotypes about immigrants today were said, almost word for word, about the Irish, and Italians, and Poles—[they] were going to destroy the fundamental character of America. And as it turned out, America wasn’t weakened by the presence of these newcomers; these newcomers embraced this nation’s creed, and this nation was strengthened.” [7]

Let’s take his words to heart. Let’s imagine an America for everyone. And let’s fight for it: in the streets, at the marches, in the legislative halls, in the schools, in the media, and maybe even on a Saturday morning when nobody’s looking and the good tools need to be moved. Let’s make America greater than its racism!

When my grandad died, our family made the trip to Baltimore to attend the funeral. I vaguely remember arriving late. And I vaguely remember for a moment thinking we were in the wrong church. Our white Pawelek family walked into a church filled with Black people. Most of them were the teachers and students who had worked with Stan Pawelek over the years. Working men and women. The proud, heroic heart of America had come to pay its respects.

His racism was real. His America was greater.

Amen and blessed be.

[1] Pawelek, Josh M., “Sending Forth: Six Reflections on the 2016 United States Presidential Election,” a sermon delivered to the Unitarian Universalist Society: East, Manchester, CT, November 13, 2016. See: http://revjoshpawelek.org/sending-forth/.

[2] See the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ “Labor Force Statistics from the Current Population Survey” at https://www.bls.gov/cps/cpsaat18.htm.

[3] See biographical information for Valerie Wilson at http://www.epi.org/people/valerie-wilson/.

[4] Wilson’s study is entitled “People of color will be a majority of the American working class in 2032: What this means for the effort to grow wages and reduce inequality.” It was published on June 9, 2016. View it here: http://www.epi.org/publication/the-changing-demographics-of-americas-working-class/.

[5] William Julius Wilson’s 1996 book, When Work Disappears: The World of the New Urban Poor (Vintage Books) is a definitive resource on this issue.

[6] Study the Movement for Black Lives economic justice platform here: https://policy.m4bl.org/economic-justice/.

[7] “President Obama’s Farwell Speech: Full Video and Text,” nytimes.com, January 10, 2017. See: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/01/10/us/politics/obama-farewell-address-speech.html?_r=0.

Let Us Not Turn Away: Some Reflections on Justice General Assembly

Rachel Naomi Remen says “There is in life a suffering so unspeakable, a vulnerability so extreme that it goes far beyond words, beyond explanations and even beyond healing. In the face of such suffering all we can do is bear witness so no one need suffer alone.”[1] This statement, for me, begins to name the heart of what it means to be a religious witness. When someone is suffering, let us in the very least not turn away, not move on to the next agenda item, not think of the next thing we need to say. When someone is suffering, let us stay present to their pain; let us keep our focus on what has happened to them. When someone is suffering, let us stay with them, sit by their side, listen to their story, support them, encourage them. When we act as religious witnesses, we make suffering visible so that it cannot be ignored, denied or downplayed by anyone. When we act as religious witnesses we say to those who suffer, “you do not have to endure this alone.” When someone is suffering, in the very least, let us not turn away.

Our ministry theme for July is witness. We selected this theme in part as a way to reflect further on the actions of the Unitarian Universalist Association’s Justice General Assembly[2] or “Justice GA” in Phoenix last month. I will do that, but I first want to speak more generally about what it means to be a religious witness, and in particular what it means to be a liberal religious witness. Witness can and has for some of us become one of those haunting theological words we associate with traditional or conservative religion. When a preacher asks, “Can I get a witness?” we know they want someone to testify about how God is making a difference in their life, how God is making their life better in some way, how God is great.

Liberal religious people in general, and Unitarian Universalists in particular don’t bear witness that way. This is a basic theological difference between liberal and conservative religious understandings of the Sacred. In a conservative religious context, if the preacher asks, “Can I get a witness?” and someone starts testifying about God’s greatness, everyone says “Amen!” “Hallelujah.” Everyone has, more or less, the same concept of God. But liberal religion allows for and encourages doubt, skepticism, questioning and wondering. If the liberal religious preacher were to ask, “Can I get a witness?” and someone were to start testifying about God’s greatness, you might hear “Amen, Hallelujah!” but it’s not likely.  You’d be more likely to hear someone ask (maybe at coffee hour), “What do you mean by God?”  We’d start debating the existence of God and there’d be as many opinions in the room as there are people. We don’t just join the amen chorus. We don’t all have the same concept of God. We don’t all believe in God.  We’re comfortable acknowledging we don’t really know. We ask questions.  We express doubt.

Having said that, I don’t want to sell us theologically short. While liberal religious people don’t typically bear witness to the traditional, conservative idea of God, there are many ways we experience the sacredness of life and many things to which we ascribe sacred meaning or ultimate worth: Human Beings, Family, Community, Learning, Growth, Evolution, Nature, Earth, Cosmos, Ancestors, Spirit, Breath and, for some, Gods and Goddesses. All of this works in our lives. All of this impacts our lives in positive ways. All of this is great. This is what our worship and our congregational life is all about. We do testify. All the time. We do bear witness. All the time. We just do it differently.  We use different language. “Can I get a witness?” doesn’t roll off our tongues the way it does in more conservative churches; but that doesn’t mean the Sacred is absent from our lives. It’s quite the opposite.

That’s the bedrock definition of what it means to be a religious witness—proclaiming the power of the Sacred in one’s life. But where liberal religious people are more comfortable using the word witness is in our response to suffering, especially suffering created by social, political, economic, or environmental injustices.  At the Justice GA in Phoenix the language of witness was pervasive. To bear witness was the reason we went to Phoenix. Reminder: the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) holds its General Assembly every June in a different city. We don’t typically get as deeply involved in local or state issues during GA as we did in Phoenix, but Phoenix was different.

I preached about the difference in June;[3] I’ll explain it briefly for those who missed it. In April, 2010 Arizona became the first state in a string of states to pass a harsh, anti-immigration statute, known as SB1070. It gave local and state police unprecedented—and mostly unconstitutional— powers to enforce federal immigration law. It essentially made racial profiling legal (though its supporters deny this). When Arizona Governor Jan Brewer signed SB1070, civil and migrant rights organizations in Arizona called for a boycott
of the state. At that point, the UUA had to make a decision about whether to go ahead with our GA scheduled to take place in Phoenix in June, 2012. It was a hard decision, but in the end we decided to go to Phoenix, primarily because the civil and migrant rights organizations that were calling for the boycott invited us to come. “But don’t come and conduct business is usual,” they said. “If  you’re going to come, come and bear witness to the suffering of Latino and migrant communities in Arizona. Come, bear witness against an inhumane, unjust law. Come, bear witness against abusive, unjust county prisons. Come, bear witness against a blatantly racist sheriff’s department. Come, but don’t turn away from the suffering and injustice taking place in Phoenix. Come, bear witness.

Phoenix is in Maricopa County, whose Sheriff Joe Arpaio is one of the most ruthless anti-immigrant law enforcement officers in the country, proudly identifying himself as “America’s toughest Sheriff.”[4] County residents, especially in the Latino and migrant communities, have complained bitterly about conditions in his jails for decades, especially his infamous Tent City Jail on Durango Street, where prisoners are confined to army surplus canvass tents. The Sheriff himself has measured the temperature in those tents at over 140 degrees on hot days. Those are good days to deny water to prisoners. In 1997 Amnesty International issued a report citing a long list of human rights abuses and condemning the practices at many of the Maricopa County prisons.[5] This past May, the US Department of Justice filed suit against Sheriff Arpaio and the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office, alleging that it discriminates against Latinos, uses excessive force, runs its jail unconstitutionally and has taken illegal action to silence critics.[6]

At the Justice GA we heard from a woman named Isabel Chairez from the Neighborhood Defense Committee (Comites de Defensa del Barrio) of Tonatierra, an indigenous peoples’ cultural organization dedicated to community ecology and self-determination.[7] Tonatierra was one of the organizations with whom we partnered to create Justice GA. Ms. Chairez told her story of being incarcerated at Estrella, Sheriff Arpaio’s jail for women next to Tent City. She said: “Last year, for working to feed my family, I was arrested at my home and my 3-year-old daughter witnessed the police handcuffing me and taking me away. I suffered the horrible conditions at Estrella … where I spent 3 long miserable months. At the time, I was 4 months pregnant and I did not receive adequate care and treatment. We were only fed twice a day … in the morning and late afternoon …. I ate what was given to us; even then I only gained 4 pounds by the time I was six months pregnant.

“I witnessed many ugly things inside that jail. The guards yelled at the women that didn’t speak or understand English. Verbal abuse happened all the time…. In December of 2011, women sued the county for this mistreatment…. One of the hardest things for me was that I was not allowed to walk around when I started feeling uncomfortable with my pregnancy. I was confined to the bed just like all the other women.

“One of my biggest concerns with the arrests, detention, and deportation is how parents are treated like criminals in front of their children. Think of all the children that are being separated from their mothers. My daughter is traumatized from seeing me arrested and taken away. Every time there is a knock on the door, she runs and holds on to me saying ‘Is it the police? I don’t want them to take you away.’”[8]

Rachel Naomi Remen tells us: “There is in life a suffering so unspeakable, a vulnerability so extreme that it goes far beyond words, beyond explanations and even beyond healing. In the face of such suffering all we can do is bear witness so no one need suffer alone.” On Saturday evening, June 23rd, more than 2000 Justice GA attendees boarded busses that took them to the front gates of Sheriff Arpaio’s Tent City Jail. It was a peaceful witness. We did not attempt to block jail access. We did not engage in civil disobedience. We did not confront the Sheriff or his deputies. We did not confront the small band of counter-protestors—a few of them carrying guns—expressing support for the Sheriff.  We held candles. We chanted. We sang. Our leaders and our partners spoke about the human rights abuses and suffering taking place inside Tent City. They spoke about the culture of fear and cruelty the Sheriff’s Department has established in the county. They spoke about the backwardness and injustice of SB1070. They spoke about the need for comprehensive national immigration reform that upholds the worth and dignity of all people.[9]  This was our witness. More than 2,000 UUs—most of them wearing yellow “Standing on the Side of Love” t-shirts—doing our part to draw national and global attention to suffering and injustice, lending our collective voice and power to our partners in Phoenix, doing our part to “make what is invisible, visible …. what is deniable, undeniable ….  what is unseen, seen.”[10] That night on Durango St. there was no place else in the world I would rather have been. That night I was deeply proud to be a Unitarian Universalist and inspired to be part of movement to end mass incarceration and deportation; to build a more just and loving society.

The next day there was a man on the sidewalk outside the convention center with a sign that read “UUs: What Have You Done?” which I took to mean your presence here in Phoenix has changed nothing. You have accomplished nothing. On one hand he’s right. Justice GA did not end mass incarceration and deportation.  It did not shut down Tent City. It did not arrest Arpaio. We left Phoenix much the way we found it, and many communities there still live in fear of the sheriff’s department. Some have asked what good a nonviolent witness does in the face of this kind of power. Don’t we need to take more extreme Measures?

That’s a conversation worth having, but I see three things that happened at Justice GA that the man with the sign didn’t see. First, the historically, racially white Unitarian Universalist congregations in Arizona, and the historically, racially white Unitarian Universalist Association built solid, lasting, accountable, relationships with people of color civil rights and migrant rights organizations on the ground in Arizona: Puente Human Rights Movement, National Day Laborers Organizing Network, Mi Familia Vota, Arizona Worker Rights Center; Arizona Advocacy Network, National Council of La Raza, Somos Arizona, Tonatierra, Tierra y Libertad Organization and more.[11] None of these organizations can achieve its vision of a more just and loving society alone. Relationships are essential. Relationships are the essence of successful movements. This kind of relationship-based participation in a national, multicultural, multilingual, multiracial and antiracist movement for social justice is new for Unitarian Universalists. It marks a level of growth in our faith we could barely imagine a decade ago. Justice GA is over, but the truth is we haven’t left Arizona. We are still there through the power of our relationships. The justice movement our partners started is now stronger.

Second, the man with the sign does not understand that 4,000 UUs came to Phoenix and realized that the kinds of injustices that exist there could happen anywhere. It’s called Arizonafication.  4,000 UUs, myself included, left Phoenix determined to build partnerships and coalitions in our own states, determined to halt Arizonafication in our own states, determined to bear witness to suffering and injustice in our own states. The movement for a more just and loving United States of America just grew stronger.

Finally, the man with the sign missed this: Our yellow t-shirts say “Standing on the Side of Love.” It’s not rhetoric. It’s not a cheap platitude. We really mean it. And while I’m sure Sheriff Arpaio and his deputies, and the counter-protestors with guns, and Governor Jan Brewer are capable of great love—loving their families and friends, loving their jobs, their mission, their state, their country—it is not a loving act to tear a mother from her child in the middle of the night. It is not a loving act to put a prisoner in a tent in the desert where the temperature rises to 140 degrees and then deny that prisoner water. It is not a loving act to confine a pregnant woman to a cot when she needs to walk. It is not a loving act to terrorize whole communities who want nothing more than to live in peace.  It is not a loving act to take pride in one’s ability to conduct racial profiling. It is not a loving heart that enjoys mass incarceration and deportation, even if it is legal. When we bear witness to all these atrocities and we say we are standing on the side of love, we mean it. Love matters. A loving heart matters. A loving community matters. A loving nation matters. If you ask me, maybe not now, maybe not next year, but some day, love wins. I believe it. What did we do in Phoenix? We did not turn away. We bore witness to love. It made all the difference.

Amen and Blessed be.



[1] Remen, Rachel Naomi, “Bearing Witness,” My Grandfather’s Blessings (New York: Riverhead Books, 2000) p. 105.

[2] For footage and text from the UUA’s Justice General Assembly, see: http://www.uua.org/ga/2012/index.shtml.

[8] Ms. Chairez’ testimony at Justice GA is at: http://www.uua.org/ga/2012/business/200226.shtml.

[9] Video footage and the fully text of the speeches at the Tent City witness are at: http://www.uua.org/immigration/re/ga/200252.shtml

[10] This language comes from a litany called “Why We Witness,” which was art of the Saturday evening worship at Justice GA, prior to the Tent City Witness. See: http://www.uua.org/ga/2012/worship/200328.shtml.

[11] The list of our Justice GA partners is at: http://www.uua.org/ga/2012/185401.shtml