Are Robert’s Rules of Order Racist?

Actually, is everything racist? In a word: yes.

This happens to be a weekend of conversations, trainings, and reflections on dismantling White Supremacy (Wait. You don’t have those?) Kidding/not kidding. This weekend is the virtual 22nd White Privilege Conference.

[Note: This is not a diversity training event or even anti-racism training. The WPC is more about changing the culture.]

My colleague JC (not Jesus Christ in this particular reference) mentioned to me that the congregation he serves is going full bore ahead on assessing the inherently racist practices of their congregation. And then he mentioned Robert’s Rules of Order.

Are Robert’s Rules of Order inherently racist? Is it possible that this Mainstay Of Order, this Ultimate Authority of Parliamentary Procedure, this Revered Guide to All Things Decent might in fact perpetuate White Supremacy in our culture?

Umm – yes?

A little background:

There was a Robert and his full name was Henry Martyn Robert. He was born in South Carolina in 1837 but his family relocated to Ohio because his Baptist preacher father was so deeply against slavery. In fact, his father became the first president of Morehouse College, the famous HBCU which is also the largest all-men’s liberal arts college in the United States.

(So far, nobody sounds racist in the white Roberts family.)

Henry Martyn Robert was an army officer and being orderly was his favorite. He published his Rules in 1876 just 11 years after the end of the U.S. Civil War. According to this wonderful source, Mr. Robert was a 25 year old Army engineer stationed in New Bedford, MA when he was asked to moderate a meeting in the Baptist Church he was attending.

Meetings can be lively, heated, even rancorous affairs,
and church meetings,
as anyone who has attended them can attest, are no exception. Source

Amen.

The experience of moderating the Baptist meeting made Mr. Robert offer this comment: “One can scarcely have had much experience in deliberative meetings of Christians without realizing that the best of men, having wills of their own, are liable to attempt to carry out their own views without paying sufficient respect to the rights of their opponents.”

Amen again.

He wrote his Rules in San Francisco while stationed there and to no one’s surprise, church meetings could be testy in San Francisco too. And so were work meetings. And so were secular community meetings. Mr. Robert wrote a guidebook hoping “to enable assemblies of any size, with due regard for every member’s opinion, to arrive at the general will on the maximum number of questions of varying complexity in a minimum amount of time and under all kinds of internal climate ranging from total harmony to hardened or impassioned division of opinion.

And here’s where White Supremacy seeped into the mix:

  • Formerly Enslaved Blacks and Free Blacks had not been allowed into White Spaces in the late 19th Century, and in the 20th and even the 21st Centuries, People of Color have not been welcome in White Spaces . . . like business and other meetings. Therefore Robert’s Rules have traditionally been the realm of White People, generally speaking.
  • Black, Indigenous, and other People of Color (i.e. not the dominant culture) have been historically stifled, undervalued, and invalidated by the system which keeps those in the dominant culture unchallenged. Therefore BIPOC people might be invited to participate in a gathering, but their contributions are not taken as seriously.
  • When the system/culture has taught BIPOC to stay quiet and humble (You are so lucky White People have included you) and there is a single person with the power to decide who gets to speak and for how long and how often, it’s possible that some voices will be less likely to speak – unless the Moderator of the meeting is skilled at including everyone.
  • Plus there is a long list of other characteristics of White Supremacy Culture that keep this culture dominant. Read Tema Okun’s list here.

We give thanks to the Lord for people like Henry Martyn Robert for his attempt at reigning in chaos. And at the same time, as Nelba Márquez-Greene is credited with saying first, “White Supremacy is not the elephant in the room. It’s the room.”

Yes, Robert’s Rules contributes to our racist culture. Almost everything contributes to our racist culture because White Supremacy is the air we breathe, the ground we stand upon, and the burden we carry. And so we try to understand it and dismantle it, not in order to create chaos, but to establish what God has ordered: that all human beings are created in the image of The Divine. I’m thankful to congregations like my colleague’s willing to grapple with this because it’s holy work.

[What’s not holy work: arguing about chancel flower arrangements, sabotaging the Pastor’s authority, bullying parishioners, taking money from mission to fix the air conditioning, telling neighborhood children they aren’t allowed on the church playground, making new people feel left out in meetings, assuming everybody knows church language, loving the church cemetery more than Jesus, believing you own the church building because you are a third generation member . . . . . . . .]

Have a good weekend, friends.

6 responses to “Are Robert’s Rules of Order Racist?

  1. Specifically to split hairs – and being a clerk of session, so someone with an interest in this – is the main problem here the rules, or the way we apply the rules? I ask because it seems like our answer there might affect how we try to solve the problem, assuming we perceive a problem. Do we need to scrap Roberts and start over from scratch? Or is there some value in the framework, to be modified in the direction of even greater egalitarianism? Or do we need to look into consensus decisionmaking models – invite the Mennonites or the Quakers in for some consultation here? Or what? Completely serious question, as how we run meetings, whoever “we” are, has pervasive practical consequences, as you clearly know.

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  2. Sally Herlong

    Thanks! A great lesson.

    Sally ________________________________

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  3. Cyndie Warner Crowell

    I agree with HAT above. I also believe we need to consider the ways in which we apply the PCUSA Book of Order in addition to Robert’s Rules. While recent changes have made it more “user friendly” in some areas, some of the shoulds and shalls don’t translate well or don’t make sense to many other cultures. This was something I never thought much about when I lived in predominately white Upstate NY, but it became very real when I moved to Southern CA and was serving as a Synod Commissioner. I believe that the Presbytery in which I serve (San Gabriel) worships in about 10 different languages. As a Committee on Ministry chair, I have learned over the years, the need for flexibility — even if I personally don’t like something.

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  4. After watching 25 years of Presbytery meetings and witnessing the varying styles of the Moderators and their varying grip on Robert’s AND watching session meetings proceed, I saw Roberts being used well to give all a chance to speak AND used as a club to overpower. I have questioned whether Robert’s is the natural, embedded “language” of cultures other than the white male culture.

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  5. Our church, Lutheran ELCA, uses Robert’s Rules of Order and I don’t find that it helps to keep order. We still have angry arguments breaking out and I am the first person of color to be president and using Robert’s Rules feels overly formal and unnatural. Others seem more comfortable with it and love to correct others about how to use Robert’s Rules during the meeting.

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