Responding to a Hate Crime in
Althea Bernstein, 18-year-old Black woman living in Madison, Wisconsin, was driving to her brother’s house Wednesday morning at 1am, waiting at a stop light. She had her window rolled down. She heard a racial slur being spoken outside her car. Four men appeared, two in black and two in Hawaiian shirts. One sprayed her with a substance later determined to be lighter fluid. Then a flaming lighter was thrown at her and her face and neck caught fire. She quickly pulled through the intersection, doused the flames and continued home. At her mother’s urging she went to the emergency room where her burns were treated and she was told she would likely need plastic surgery to repair the damage to her skin.
This was an opportunistic hate crime that happened against her because of the color of her skin. Though there were violent protests happening at the time, she wasn’t involved. And even if she had been involved, there is no justification for this kind of harm except the latent racism still corrupting the minds and hearts of too many Americans.
Members and friends of Albany UU must all condemn this crime motivated by racism and advocate for efforts to prevent this kind of violence from happening in the future. We must stand with our Unitarian Universalist sibling congregations, our Association, and our commitment to Black Lives Matter.
While we do not live in Madison, we are connected to Althea because she is a member of the UU congregation in Madison. We can offer her our care and support so she knows that we denounce the hate crime committed against her. We can let her know Unitarian Universalists are committed to ending the systems of oppression that permits and even encourages the supremacist attitudes behind their actions. We can surround her with love to protect her from the marginalizing violence she experienced.
To Black members and friends of our congregation, I recognize that every time such an act of hate happens, it touches old wounds and exposes old trauma from the past. It begs the question, when will all this ever end? When will I be free of the fear of this kind of random violence that could happen at any time and any place? The attackers didn’t know her, they only knew her skin color. How do you protect yourself against a categorical crime? My heart aches that Black people must live in an America where this kind of hatred simmers under white skin. This is not the world I dream about perpetuating. Let such hate crimes, energize those identified as white to deepen their commitment to dismantle systems of oppression in our midst.
May we come together in solidarity to bring racism to an end and liberate all of us from fear and hate. This is the promise of our religious tradition – discover and grow a liberating love that transcends our differences while honoring and including them. We inherit from our Unitarian and Universalist ancestors a love that crosses creeds, embraces multiple revelations, and celebrates differences as life enhancing. Dismantling white supremacy is holy work for us because racism and white supremacy contradicts the values and beliefs we hold dear. Life can only thrive when there is sufficient diversity that keeps the whole healthy. In a thriving ecosystem, every part is needed to maintain the interdependent balance.
We have been asked by Althea’s family to write cards and letters of support to:
Althea Bernstein c/o the First Unitarian Society 900 University Bay Dr, Madison, WI 53705.
Althea and her family have asked that donations go here:
Through a national effort to support these organizations that counter oppression and hate, we send a strong message to those who committed or support this hate crime that many of us, including the UU religious community, reject racist violence and hateful actions like what happened to Althea.