Episcopal bishops get an F on racism at Sewanee

By | March 14, 2023
Sewanee, where racism runs rampant

The Episcopal Church is just clueless when it comes to racism, structural or otherwise. And its handling of racist behavior at Sewanee, the church university in Tennessee, proves it.

Those of us old enough to remember the civil rights movement also recall the egregious behavior in opposition to it.

These antics include:

  • The murder of Freedom Summer volunteers.
  • “Massive resistance.”
  • The creation of “private” schools across large swaths of the south to avoid integration.
  • Church burnings.
  • Lynchings.
  • And much, much more.

And sitting atop this hot mess is the Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education, which in part struck down Plessy v. Ferguson, which had upheld “separate but equal.”

Unfortunately, the Brown court set forth no remedy, and when Brown v. Board of Education II came up four years later, in 1955, it infamously ordered the states to desegregate with “all deliberate speed.”

That phrase, notorious among civil rights advocates, was the court’s attempt to have its cake and eat it too — to decry segregation, even as it did nothing to actually address the issue. And it is a dog whistle that lives on in the minds of those who push for inclusion, a symptom of an American society that talks a good game, even as it far too often tolerates hatred with a wink and a nod.

And so it was shocking in the extreme when the bishops of Province IV, sometimes called the “Sewanee” province, resorted to the dog whistle of “all deliberate speed” in its condemnation of racist incidents at Sewanee. In fact, it was one of those moments where you think, “Did I read that right?,” and quickly hit the Internet to seek confirmation that:

  1. The Episcopal bishops said something so profoundly stupid.
  2. Not a single person raised the alarm and said, “What the HELL do you think you are doing?” After all, a joint statement of this sort must have crossed dozens of desks, and no one spotted the issue? Either folks are profoundly naïve, or they didn’t want to speak up. In the Episcopal church—imagine that.

Nor did Anglican Watch get any meaningful response when we questioned the relevant bishops. All offered tepid responses like, “I agree racism at the school needs to end.”

Before we go further, it should come as no surprise that racism is alive and well at Sewanee. Founded by several slave-owning Episcopal bishops, including the Rt. Rev. Stephen Elliott, the first Bishop of Georgia, who described slavery in a sermon as “a sacred trust from God.”

Nor is the campus exactly conducive to racial reconciliation. By its own admission, the campus has numerous buildings and artifacts named after slaveholders, supporters of Jim Crow, and more. Perhaps as a result, only 3 percent of Sewanee students are Black.

So where does that leave us?

Anglican Watch suspects the use of the phrase was an attempt to sound, well, like bishops. It probably wasn’t intended as a wink-and-a-nod towards racism.

That said, the investigation into racist incidents at a Sewanee lacrosse game and racist conduct directed at the school’s Black vice chancellor, Ambassador Reuben E. Brigety II, was hardly a model of investigatory prowess. Indeed, to our knowledge it turned up no instigators.

Really? Not one single person?

As to claims floating about that the students thought their behavior was funny, spare us. That might have worked in 1955. It doesn’t work today. And it ignores the ongoing misconduct directed at Brigety.

Nor are the bishops falling all over themselves to fix the issue with their use of language. Use of the dog whistle from Brown v. Board of Education is just one step shy of using the N word, referring to female students as “pickaninnies,” or having Friday evening story hour with Uncle Remus talking about de tar baby.

After all, that is the phrase that effectively green-lighted Jim Crow, even as the court decried systemic racism. It it the wink and the nod from on high from a court unwilling to push too hard.

Yet as far as the bishops are concerned, their use of the phrase is just a minor issue involving diction — which shows just how profoundly clueless the Episcopal Church and its bishops are. In fact, in many ways the last bastion of racism is the Episcopal Church, Black presiding bishop notwithstanding. After all, we can’t be racist, because we say we’re not racist.

As for those who conclude Anglican Watch is nitpicking, we commend to you an article written by Suwanee student Peggy Owusu-Ansah, found here. We are reprinting it below to make sure it doesn’t disappear, as unpleasant things often do in the church.

And we note that Owusu-Ansah’s comments are not only spot-on, but they extend to the entire denomination.

Dear Sewanee, save your tears

As a person of color on this campus, more specifically a Black person, I do not want your tears. I do not want your sadness, and I especially don’t want your naivete. I just want you to listen at this moment.

On the one year anniversary of Breonna Taylor’s death, a woman that was unjustly killed in her sleep; whose life was proven in court to matter less than the property damage that was perpetrated by police, members of this community verbally assaulted lacrosse players from Emmanuel College with racist remarks. I do not care if they thought it was funny, and you cannot convince me that they did not know better.

These next few days will be full of “How do we reconcile?” “We are here for you!” “I cannot believe that this happened here!” “The actions of a few DO NOT represent this community.” But they do. The Vice Chancellor of this community, along with his home and his family, have been attacked by students since last semester; and the next week, we walked around like nothing happened. That’s appalling.

When student leaders rallied together to create a call to action condemning the attacks against the Vice-Chancellor, it took days to get 700 signatures. When a gathering size petition was made, it got over 1000 signatures in less than a day. Certain priorities have been made very clear on this campus.

If it is outside of your comfort, you do not want it. If it does not directly affect you, you do not want it. If you feel as though attacks were somehow warranted, you do not want it.

After this weekend, or maybe even following these last six weeks have you felt embarrassed? Upset? Degraded? Worried for your safety? Try feeling that everyday. The lacrosse game is not the “proof” we needed to see that Sewanee is racist, you just have not been paying attention. Ever since I have been at this University, people of color have been talking about the microaggressions and downright racist acts that have been perpetrated against them in and outside of the classroom. But it did not matter, because no one was paying attention.

Do you want to know what it is like to be a person of color on this campus? It is sitting in a classroom and when a fact or figure happens to pertain to your skin tone, the entire class is waiting for you to speak for your race. I am not the one with the doctorate, nor do I wish to be. It is giving a tour to incoming students and their parents asking me how much money I received in financial aid when I have never even mentioned being a Posse Scholar.

It is strangers crossing the street and following you in the middle of the night just to stop you and ask, “Can I touch your hair?” It is my white peers assuming that I listened to the newest rap album, and being shocked when I haven’t. It is having last year be the celebration of 50 Years of Women at Sewanee, but also the 50 Year Celebration of the first Black student at the College of Arts and Sciences with no recognition.

It is knowing that at any point you may be a victim to explicit racism. It is consistently having to unteach to my colleagues the stereotypes that they have learned about me in the media; because for some reason, all general senses of how to treat a person walk out the door once I arrive. It is being treated like a caricature of my race in my everyday life. But that would just be a normal year for me.

Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and Ahmaud Arbery were all murdered within the same season, and I saw an outcry of support from social media after we went into lockdown. For once, I felt important to the people on this campus. But soon after in a conversation with a friend, she said, “I just really hope that this keeps up. I am so nervous that the Black Lives Matter movement is only getting all of this support because of COVID, because people have nothing better to do.”

Peggy Owusu-Ansah (C’23) stands among gowns in Convocation Hall, which hosts several portraits of Confederate founders of the University of the South. Behind her are portraits of Vice-Chancellor Telfair Hodgson (left) and Chancellor James Hervey Otey (right), both Confederates. Photo courtesy of George Burruss (C’22)

I saw emails of support and statements from individuals calling themselves out; statements that all magically disappeared once we got back. All summer I saw posts of allyship and people reeducating themselves and all kinds of powerful forms of allyship. It was amazing to see people wanting to better themselves and claiming to call out casual racism.

But all of that went away when in retaliation to the drug policy, I heard students saying, “Well it is not fair to have this policy because it will disproportionately affect Black and brown students.” That is a statement that wrongfully perpetuates the misconception that Black and brown people are more likely to be involved with drugs, which is statistically unproven on this campus.

When Sewanee athletes were not allowed to travel to play against other schools in the NCAA, certain players decided to quote Maya Angelou, a prominent Black poet and activist for Black rights, to air out their frustrations. Many students claim that everything that has happened to the Vice-Chancellor thus far has nothing to do with race. But if you look at the record, no other Vice-Chancellor has been spoken to or treated like this, even when our previous Vice-Chancellor was initially against stripping Charlie Rose, a known assaulter, from his honorary degree. You do not have to believe me, but it should make you wonder why you refuse to.

I have a lot of love for Sewanee. But everyday it gets harder to stand up for a school and a culture that does not respect me, does not allow me to take up space in everyday life, and honestly, does not love me and my peers back. One of the hardest things that I have to do, not only as a tour guide, but as a student, is look Black and brown parents in the eye and have them ask me, “Will my child be safe here?” I have never lied to a single parent, but every time I get asked the question, my heart gets a little heavier.

I am tired of having conversations about how EQB or the Honor Code is supposed to help me, because right now it isn’t. I am tired of having conversations of how people are finally “waking up” to racism. I am tired of us acting as though racism cannot touch the Mountain. I am tired of people asking me how I feel at this moment, as if I do not feel this way everyday.

I am tired of being so mad that at this point I can only feel sad. Sad that this community refuses to change no matter how much trauma we share or bridges we burn along the way to make Sewanee seem like a beacon of light. I am exhausted because I feel like so often racism is seen as a BIPOC problem. That we consistently have to bear the brunt of the load and create our own solutions even after we have identified the problems to administration.

Racism at Sewanee is everyone’s problem, and it did not start with this lacrosse game.

Do I think that this message will get to the people that actually need to read it at Sewanee? I don’t know, but if you take away anything, please take this with you. Your peers of color did not sign up to be your teacher or your punching bag; and we are especially not meant to be your test run on how to act towards people of color. We are here as students, same as you, and we should be treated as such.

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Colin Ross

Doesn’t religion reinforce so many wonderful ideas!!! How we could ever justify hating our neighbor without the church?