Homily, part 1: The Permanence Of Injustice by Dale Ho

2017 March 5
by First U Bklyn

I was furious. It was a Friday night, about a month ago. I broke a Date Night rule and fiddled with my phone on the way to the restroom. I scrolled through the news, and was horrified by what I read: travelers, refugees, even green card holders from 7 predominantly Muslim countries were immediately banned from entering the country. It seemed like our worst fears – echoes of the turning away of Holocaust refugees, of the Japanese internment – were coming true. And so I sauntered back to our table and tried to make nice conversation over a romantic dinner.

But I was a terrible date that night. Or at least, that’s what I’ve been told.

I felt angry and helpless. They were familiar feelings. I’d been feeling them pretty much since Election Night, when I told my wife that I thought that I should quit my job. That may not sound like a big deal, but for me it really was. I had dreamed since I was a teenager of being a civil rights lawyer, and that’s what I am today: I direct the ACLU’s Voting Rights Project, which means that I supervise our voting rights work around the country.

We’re not trying to help one party or another; we just believe that our democracy is best served when more people can participate in it. Between the 2012 and 2016 elections, we won 15 cases in 12 states protecting the voting rights of more than 5 million people. But despite all of our work – turnout was down in 2016. We might have undone some of the worst restrictions on voting, but whether people actually turn out and vote is not something we can control.

Taking off my ACLU hat and just speaking personally, I was angry – at people who didn’t show up to vote; at some of our family who voted for a candidate who normalized the demonization people on the basis of their religion and national origin; and mostly at myself for not doing more.

The day after the election, I stepped into an elevator full of paralegals and legal assistants, mostly in their 20’s. A colleague from our LGBT Rights Project put her arm around me and said, “thank you for everything you did.” And I broke down and started to cry. I pulled myself together and, as I stepped off of the elevator, I turned around and saw some of those 20-somethings wiping tears away from their eyes. And I thought: I let them down. I failed. Maybe it was time to hang it up.

The late civil rights lawyer and NYU law professor Derrick Bell provocatively wrote 25 years ago that “racism is an integral, permanent and indestructible component of this society.” That’s pretty radical, but oppression and systematic inequality along racial lines have always been a part of our history, since before we were even a nation. It’s always been one step forward, one step back. The gains of Emancipation and Reconstruction were wiped out by Redemption and a century of Jim Crow. The Civil Rights Movement was followed by the Era of Mass Incarceration. Why would we think that we are that much more enlightened than previous generations?

But, as you all know – the day after the Travel Ban was announced, something incredible happened. Protests materialized at airports around the country. And – I want to be clear that I had nothing to do with this – my colleagues at the ACLU Immigrants’ Rights Project sprang into action and, working with a number of other organizations, including the International Refugee Assistance Project (which shared offeratory last month), filed an emergency lawsuit to block the deportation of anyone subject to the Ban.

I was inspired, but I still felt helpless. I’m not an immigration or immigrants’ rights lawyer – what could I do? I was having not just a crisis of confidence in myself, but a crisis of faith. The Sixth Principle of Unitarian Universalism is “The goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all.” Can I be much of a Unitarian while harboring doubt about whether such a world is even possible?

In arguing that racism is a permanent feature of American society, Derrick Bell himself did not despair. Instead, he argued that when we clearly apprehend the world as it truly is, we experience a remarkable sense of freedom and elation about our purpose in life, which, in his words, is that “[w]e are here to recognize and fight evil.”

After the lawsuit was filed, I received an email alert that there would be an emergency hearing that night at the federal courthouse a few blocks from here, at Cadman Plaza, and I rushed over. There were already hundreds of people there, but only limited seating in the courtroom. I ended up being one of the last people unable to get in.

So I stood outside with the assembled crowd. I was cold, but I wasn’t in the dark. In this courthouse, most people, including members of the media, must surrender their phone upon entering. But lawyers are allowed to keep their phones, and I was following updates from the legal team inside.

And when I got the news that the judge had ruled against the Ban, I blinked at my phone in disbelief. I was one of only a few people in the world who knew what had just happened. I turned around and, with a fist in the air, shouted out that the court had blocked all deportations – not just in New York but nationwide. No one would be sent back that night. A huge roar came up from the crowd. And in that moment, the anger and despair that I had been feeling gave way to euphoria.

It was amazing. And yet – euphoria fades. The world we live in is still the same world, if maybe a little bit less unjust. But, in some sense, expecting a permanent end to injustice amounts to rejection of our world, with all its imperfections and its fundamental imperfect-ability, in hopes of some unobtainable utopia. That is really just a prayer for a never-ending after-life. It is the antithesis of embracing life, which is continual, constant change – and not always in a positive direction.

The anger is still with me; it bubbles up more frequently than I would like, in ways that I frankly can’t always control or channel positively; and it will be here with me for a long time – 4 years, 8 years maybe; really, probably, my whole life.

Jean-Paul Sartre wrote: “Life begins on the other side of despair.”

My colleagues in that courtroom didn’t put an end to the Travel Ban that evening. They just put a temporary halt on deportations. And yet – Seneca Falls did not end sexism; Selma did not end racism; and Stonewall did not end homophobia and transphobia. The men and women of those resistance movements did not despair, despite facing far worse odds than we do. They found meaning in the fight. If they did not give up, then I have no excuse for quitting.

What I try to tell myself is this: We are not called merely to fight one unjust Executive Order, one law, or one administration. We are called to play our small parts in a difficult, relentless, and beautiful struggle – one that has been going on since long before our grandparents were born, and which will continue long after we, our children, and our children’s children have passed from this Earth.

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