Interview with Hugh Taft-Morales — Leader, Philadelphia Ethical Society & Baltimore Ethical Society

by | July 31, 2019

By Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Hugh Taft-Morales  is the Leader of the Philadelphia Ethical Society & the Baltimore Ethical Society.

Here we talk about some new stuff with the community, Hugh, and more.

On the 400 Years Project:Beginning January 1, 2019, marking the 400th year since the first people were brought against their will to the North American mainland from Africa, I will: write and distribute 400 weekly words, offer 400 lessons, create an annotated bibliography of 400 writing, and get 400 commitments from 400 people who pledge to confront systemic racism more directly through concrete action.Hugh Taft-Morales

Scott Douglas Jacobsen: What is new with you? What is new with blog writing? How much is recommended for blog writing for you?

Hugh Taft-Morales: I told myself that at the beginning, that every week of this sad 400 year anniversary I intended to write a blog. I said a 400-word blog. I have been told that is too long, which stuns me.

I’ve been told by somebody. I’ve got a coach who does blog coaching. They said 250. Lots of photographs, lots of links. You can link to other work that you have that you provide more words, but to get people to read them, she said 250.

Obviously, if people are interested, they’re going to read the 2000-word blog that sometimes people write, but she is recommending me to do this differently. I’m writing a blog every week. I’m collecting suggestions for and then annotating very brief annotations for a bibliography of books, articles, and films. I am trying to gather commitments.

Let me back up. The entire project is based on history and the fact that 400 years of history is an incredibly weighty amount to take in, to understand how the history of racism in America has sunk into every crevice, into the air we breathe, and how we have to be much more intentional to deconstruct white supremacy.

Everybody can be a part of it, and everybody can read the blog, and make suggestions, and take the commitment, the pledge that I’m asking people to take, but it’s aimed mainly at people who identify as white and believe that systemic racism has privileged them, and want to do more anti-racism work.

I’m looking for people who want to make more of a difference in this and are looking for hints on how to do that.  History can help motivate us, and give us an understanding about contemporary issues, and language, debates, like the governor of Virginia right now, people not understanding why everybody’s so upset. Most people can get the KKK costume as being offensive, but many people don’t understand the history of blackface.

I want to use history simply because it affected me and affected my students. I had over 25 years of conversations about race with high school students You must look hard at these issues and look inside yourself. How do I translate them in ways that people who don’t have experience of being racially marginalized understand, and don’t get defensive, and so forth?

The commitment I’m asking people to make is that they be more actively and concretely engaged in anti-racism work. Then I’m going to ask them to tell me what they’re doing, what are the specific things they’re doing.

I hope to collect a list of what specific things, in particular, whites who want to be allies or want to up the level of commitment, accomplices but what they would like to do, what are they actually doing to make a difference.

It’s more using the history to motivate online, getting a community, letting people ask questions, getting over white fragility, white guilt, and be a little more proactive about changing the system.

The link to humanism to that I think is important. That is only going to be a tiny part of this but I think it is important. That there’s a lot of humanists that assume that if you declare the inherent worth of every individual, if you embrace enlightenment, and liberty, that that is the basis for all social reform.

I think we may have even touched on this, but it overlooks the social constructions to a degree. It overlooks how identity is often culturally contextual, and that you’re born into a context where who you are is greatly determined by where you are in the society, what history you’re born into, what cultural stereotypes you will be subject to that others won’t.

I think there’s a lot of friction within the humanist community because that aspect of traditional humanism, of somehow that enlightenment individualism is all you need to push.  This misses a lot of issues that have to do with identity as defined by culture – a different way of understanding what authenticity is, that quite often it’s culturally bound. I don’t know how deep down that rabbit hole you want to go, but that’s one connection to the issue of race that I could suggest.

Underlying all of it is the assumption that we, “we” primarily being whites who identify as having privilege and want to work against it, have to be more willing to listen, to hand over the agenda more to people who have been marginalized due to racism, to take our cues from that, to develop relationships, and then come up with what we’re going to do. We must learn, must listen, must open to people, rather than being white saviours who come in and say, “I know how I’m– going to fix racism in our society.”

It is also about reallocation of resources, which makes a lot of people uncomfortable. Obviously, there’s a political connection to that.

Jacobsen: Does the one aspect of that come into play with American sociocultural perspectives of economics, where someone’s coming in saying, “We’re going to require some form of redistribution,” even redistributive justices, as some have called it?

This might get seen as Marxist, Communist, outright socialism, in American society. Among some of the seculars who have typically more of a free market-oriented perspective on economic policy and economic life in America. Would there be a backlash from that, or is there one?

Taft-Morales: I think that’s an appropriate read of a lot of what our culture is in America now. I think you can deal with that backlash in different ways.

Take the expression, “It takes a village to raise a child.” This has been said by progressive voices, from Jane Addams onward. It implies that there is greater interdependence among the various units in the community than many believed. That requires a greater sharing of resources and a greater equity in distribution of resources.

So yes, the people are going to blame progressives for being “socialist,” but nobody can deny that some of Marx’s analysis was correct. When you say that people are being turned into machines, when you say that their labour is being alienated from them because they put in certain value added into materials and they get back a pittance of that value added, and so on, – you’re going to get pushback.

I do think, though, that you can also go to places like the Republican platforms of the 50s in the United States, which indicated the importance of government-subsidized housing, which indicated the importance of guaranteeing employment for people, so job training for folk, which emphasized the importance of public education, and loans that the government gave to people.

There was a much greater appreciation from mainstream Republican conservatives. Let me say conservatives rather than Republicans, but it is in the Republican platform. Conservative and mainstream people realized that if individuals are going to “carry their own weight,” if there are going to be examples of individuals, they need government support.

Lincoln had a very “white working man approach,” He believed that what was important is that white men, primarily, were able to make their own living. It’s the old homestead vision, that you give people land, free. The government was handing out land, constantly, to people to move, immigrate out West, to grow crops for the cities, etcetera. There was a lot of subsidisation. The government virtually handed over an area the size of Texas to the railroads, so that they would develop.

So, the idea that somehow government support and government “handouts” are going only to the poor at the expense of the economy is historically false.

Jacobsen: I’m going through several human rights documents oriented around women’s rights, some of them dealing with some of the more severe aspects of the violations of women’s rights, to do with violence against women. Continually, in the context of the recommendations, of the data, of the stipulations, of the conventions, the declarations, and the documents, I continually find statements about acknowledgment, about recognition of it.

In other words, there is the first step, which is what you were noting about the historical context, becoming informed, which is about actually learning something about the real history of what is going on, in the case documents I’m going through, violence against women, the reality of it.

Also, when it comes to some of this anti-racism work, you’re doing, with regards to the historical context of people not wanting to redistribute wealth in some way, but in fact, in the United States, it’s not giving. There was an obvious enfranchisement of specific populations. The very founding, as I understand it, was white land-owning aristocrats, males.

By putting one sector of people, a minute sector of people, on the platform, it, of course, puts the rest of the people not in those categories, on a decline, comparatively. If you play that over several generations, you’re going to have obvious effects. I think this is all very relevant commentary.

Taft-Morales: I agree with you. I saw that on your website, you’re doing a lot of work around feminist issues.

One of the things that recently got me thinking about this more is Ta-Nehisi Coates and Michael Eric Dyson’s work on reparations. They focused on the fact that African Americans never received the promised 40 acres and a mule after the Civil War, as promised by the government. If they had received that, and they invested their earnings, the descendants of slaves would have had tremendous economic power.

It doesn’t take much. If you have a little bit of money in 1870, and you invest it, even with the stock market crash, you’d be middle-class today. It’s not that they were robbed every year, but the compounding of interest that was racially funnelled into different races is astonishing.

Jacobsen: Ironically, the white supremacists may be the largest anti-humanist organization.

Taft-Morales: Yes. Absolutely.

Jacobsen: Thank you very much for your time today, Hugh.

Taft-Morales: That’s good. All right. Keep watching after yourself.

Jacobsen: Take care.

Taft-Morales: You too. Bye-bye.

More on the 400 Years Project from Taft-Morales:

Since 1619, when the first Africans were brought against their will to the North American mainland, systems of race-based oppression have evolved from indentured servitude through chattel slavery, post-Civil War wage-slave sharecropping, Jim Crow segregation, lynching, housing and loan discrimination, the prison-industrial system, and more.  As a history teacher for a quarter century, I am continually challenged to acknowledge and seek ways to heal the devastating wounds caused by systemic racism and white supremacy in the United States.

Given the 400th anniversary of the arrival in Jamestown of approximately 20 African men and women, I am undertaking a personal project that I invite you to join.  While there are many others working to commemorate this anniversary, like “The Angela Project,” I felt compelled to take action myself.  Beginning on January 1st, 2019, I will make a part of my daily work as an Ethical Humanist Leader the following:

1) Collect and distribute an annotated list of 400 history books and articles, primarily by people of color, on various aspects of systemic racism and the efforts to repair the harm done;

2) Write and post 52 weekly blogs of approximately 400 words in length about the 400 years of oppression in the North American colonies and the United States (I have created a subscription link for all those who would like to subscribe to “400Years” and automatically receive my blog postings.  Go to this link to subscribe:

3) Gather pledges from 400 people, especially those of us who consider ourselves “white,” to make the following pledge: “To mark 400 years of racial oppression in colonial America and the United States, I pledge to confront systemic racism more directly and take concrete steps to repair the harm done;”

4) Share 400 ways, big and small, to help repair the harm done by slavery and racism.  They can include individual acts and public policies that address racism, and empower and provide resources to descendants of slaves and people of color.

Here are some important caveats about “400 Years.”  I undertake this project:

1) With gratitude for numerous mentors, teachers, and friends of color who continue to advise me; 

2) Aware that my privileged position in our society affects my perspective on this issue, both theoretically and practically, and aware that I must continually educate myself by reading works of people of color who address this issue; 

3) Aware that I must avoid the bad habit of assuming that the people of color I know personally want to help me solve the oppression which victimizes them;

4) Acknowledging that “race” is a social construction that affects many people who are not descendants of slaves, and that racism is clearly not simply a question of black and white;

5) Acknowledging that there are many other forms of oppression and injustice – such as sexism, classism, and hetero-normativity – that effect many groups, which we must address as well.  In this regard, we must educate ourselves about “intersectionality;”

6) Admitting that this project is modest – particularly in comparison to the depth and breadth of systemic racism in our nation today. This project is meant as part of the larger, more challenging paradigm shift towards a more radical reallocation of public and private resources to help repair the damage already done to countless people and communities of color; and,

7) Acknowledging that reparations to descendants of slaves is complicated – that it is difficult to identify precisely who has been most harmed by race-based oppression and to decide how to repair most effectively.  I hope this project contributes to a national discussion with African American cultural leaders to determine the form that reparations will take.

Will you join me in this project? You can read and recommend books,

share my blog posts, take the pledge, and take deliberate concrete action. 

After 400 years, let’s bend the arc of the moral universe towards justice.

Scott Douglas Jacobsen is the Founder of In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal and In-Sight Publishing. He authored/co-authored some e-books, free or low-cost. If you want to contact Scott:

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Other Resources: Recovering From Religion.

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