Here is a near-verbatim transcript of Hugh Taft-Morales’ Platform address at AEU Assembly on June 11, 2017 in Baltimore, Maryland. View whole platform event here.
Good morning. In Ethical Culture—that’s this—there are a lot of ways to grow. We take care of each other through life’s ups and downs. But at this time in history we are called on to confront systemic racism. This is not easy. Just ask our friends of color in this room who’ve been doing it all their lives. For those of you, this is for you—thanks for being my teachers.
Another teacher, Michael Eric Dyson, used to say in church, “If the sermon ain’t making you a little bit uncomfortable, it ain’t effective.” In his book Tears We Cannot Stop: A Sermon to White America, Dyson explains, “…if it doesn’t cost you anything, you’re not really engaging in change; you’re engaging in convenience. You’re engaged in the overflow.”
At our best Ethical Culture can do better than that. We are all at different points on this journey, but we have this much in common—we all have much more work to do, as individuals, as Ethical Societies, and as a nation. And I suggest that those of us who identify as white, as I do, have the most work to do.
For people of color, the wounds of racism are painful, often fatal. But racism has infected us all and wounded us all—psychologically and ethically—in manners profound and subtle and obvious and mundane. We must transform those wounds into corrective action and redemption.
For this transformation to reflect Ethical Culture values, it must be grounded on loving, candid, respectful, ethical relationships. We know that. This is the heart of Ethical Culture after all. Anti-racism work for us—the salvation is in our relationships.
But for this transformation to be effective, it must involve working for transformation simultaneously internally, institutionally, and nationally. You can’t wait for one to do the others.
(I) Transforming My Petty Suffering
On the personal level, the work I have to do to transform my personal petty suffering to help me do my anti-racism work is pretty simple for me. I use the term “petty” to describe the wound I have due to racism, intentionally. I don’t mean to be dismissive. I don’t mean to be dramatic. Despite my comfortable life, the suffering is real, as it is for many who lead a comfortable life.
But I use the term “petty” as a relative term. My suffering is obviously petty compared to 400 years of suffering endured by enslaved African and their descendants, and people of color from suffer from racism. I’m not going to go into the multiple and nefarious ways racism continues to wound and kill people of color. You can read Randall Robinson or Michelle Alexander or talk to a number of people in this room.
Transformation began for me growing up on a college campus during the civil rights movement. Martin Luther King Jr. was a hero of mine who epitomized Cornel West’s reminder “…that justice is what love looks like in public.”
So I developed a deep though naïve yearning to end racism. In my adolescent imagination I was walking right alongside the icons of the movement, as some of you did in reality. But in this little imaginary experiment, it helped transform the fear, anger and ugliness of racism into righteous indignation. I didn’t want to be part of the problem. I wanted to be part of the solution.
The day after King was shot that solution seemed a lot further away. My 5th grade teacher gathered us together for something of a public service announcement. She said, “Be careful heading home and over the weekend because the black children are angry—they might take it out on you. Watch where you go in the city.” I was confused, sad, scared.
My confusion grew only more when in 1969 when we moved to Berkeley, California, and I attended 7th grade at Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School, just renamed in honor of the slain moral leader. There the color of my skin, and the correct assumption of my privilege, made me a target. So I was threatened a couple of times, beaten up a couple of times, and I felt paralyzed and unable to process then.
I’m not going to go into the details about the inner work I did as an adult to begin to process my childhood fears and anger. You can do that work. But too often whites get caught up trying to prove to each other who was most wounded, or maybe trying to prove you are “more multicultural than thou.”
Do the inner work, but connect that inner work to the outside work. You can’t retreat and do it alone.
And I connected my inner work with my work in studying history. History frames our current work. In the words of John Hope Franklin, we must “…confront our past and see it for what it is.” One reviewer said of Franklin, he saw that “The past ‘is.’ Not the past was. The past lives on… Only if we understand and acknowledge this past can we grapple with the conflicts of the present and the promise of the future.”
So in this context of such historical suffering, my own subjective discomfort began to paralyze me less. Because I learned from the context, from slave narratives, historical analysis, and stories from people many in this room who have been victimized by racism. I learned by stories from Dan Smith, who often attends the Washington Ethical Society, whose father was born a slave. Let me repeat that: whose father was born in slavery. It wasn’t that long ago—don’t let them tell you that.
Dan shared with my students and my school how racial injustice lives on today—literally embodied in him as it is embodied in many in this room. He taught me that racism wasn’t just my problem—it’s historical, it’s institutional, it’s systemic…and it’s my problem. So that scared little boy in me began to grow up because of those stories.
The personal is the political—inner work supports outer work. I hope it helps me in my work in Ethical Culture. So let me talk about the institutional transformation we need.
(II) Transforming Ethical Humanism
When I ask the question, “How can generally majority white communities—which happens to describe Ethical Societies—do authentic, respectful, and effective racial justice work?” Recently I’ve wondered if that was the right question to ask. In contemplating the next step in anti-racism work for “dominantly majority white communities,” perhaps the answer that I was looking for is, stop being “dominantly majority white communities?” Might we ask not about what “we do,” but about who “we are?”
This existentially institutional question is challenging, I know. Most Ethical Societies are wrestling with this question in the context of their own strengths and weaknesses and opportunities and threats. You know that. We make mistakes all the time. We may forget to assure diverse voices on our boards or on our platform programs or in our Assembly programs. For those of us lucky enough to be in relatively racially diverse areas of the world, we can begin by opening our doors and developing inclusive organizational cultures. Some Ethical Societies are doing this organic transformation.
What can happen when an Ethical Society near diverse populations truly reflects their community? It changes them. And change is scary. We know that. It can evoke a sense of loss—the loss of the familiar; the loss of unquestioned assumptions; a loss of the ability to ignore the ugliness of racism and the work that it calls us to do. Because no longer are racial issues “out there.” They’re in our communities. And once they are in our communities, they’re in our hearts. Transforming our Societies brings the discussion into our community.
One small step in transforming one of our Societies was when the Board of the Philadelphia Ethical Society voted to display a “Black Lives Matter” banner on their windows. By itself, it was very modest. But it reminds us why we organize and fund Camp Linden that serves primarily inner city children of color. It reminds us why we joined POWER (Philadelphians Organized to Witness Empower and Rebuild), an interfaith organization that focuses on issues of concern to communities of color in Philadelphia. It reminds us why we formed a task force on confronting systemic racism. It reminds us why we host racial justice discussion groups, workshops, talks, and art installations. And, most importantly, it reminds me of how much more work we have to do.
At the Baltimore Society we are reminded of the work we have to do every day just by looking at the local paper, every day. We were reminded by the death of Freddy Gray, just a mile or so from here in Sandtown. He didn’t die from just one fall in a police van. He died because of the economic and social burdens that are simply dumped on communities of color. It’s not just about individuals. It’s about the system. It’s about us.
The Baltimore Ethical Society was so moved by the work that Free Your Voice, the Elliott-Black winners, were doing [nominated by Baltimore Ethical Society]. These teens were fed up with toxins being thrown into their neighborhoods. And as was mentioned by our speaker Saturday morning, Freddie Gray, according to the Baltimore Sun, may have struggled in school and fallen into being a target of the police because of the lead poisoning that infected his body, moving from one lead-infected rental apartment to another in Baltimore. Experts say that his impairment might have been severe. Records indicate that Gray picked up harmful levels of lead as his family moved from one lead-laden rental home to another. Experts say that his impairment may have been severe. You wonder how many more people have been so harmed?
On top of environmental issues, many neighborhoods suffer from cuts to school funding and after-school programs, unequal housing opportunities, lack of jobs, educational disparities, housing, etc. This led us to join BUILD, Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development, that’s our local Industrial Areas Foundation group. [Hosted our 2017 Assembly Ethical Action Project.]
One of the reasons why we joined that group is we are too small to do it by ourselves. But we also found BUILD’s values and process were similar to our own. BUILD’s website says, “You’ll find us working for change on front stoops and in living rooms, and in churches and classrooms, in City Hall and at the State House.” The secret of the organization’s success is its “commitment to identify and develop leaders in every community where BUILD works.” We don’t assume we have the answers at BUILD. We seek common space to share experiences and knowledge about what communities need to heal. Ethical Societies can be those spaces too.
In particular, because on the BUILD website they describe the following as their most “radical tactic.” It says, our most radical tactic is: “We meet people face-to-face and build relationships that help to re-knit the frayed social fabric… We don’t seek justice and social change for people, we seek change with people.” That’s Ethical Humanism.
At our best Ethical Culture, like BUILD, embraces what I like to call “relational integrity.” And for me integrity implies wholeness—wholeness of every individual, wholeness of our communities, and wholeness of our country.
(III) Transforming the Nation
Which brings me to our country. When we seek to transform how we build racial justice in our country, we have to know the history and tell the truth—this bizarre juxtaposition of 400 years of democratic idealism and white racial supremacy.
In my very first history course my Professor, Ed Morgan, explained the interweaving of idealism and brutality was commonplace. He said, “The men who came together to found the independent United States, dedicated to freedom and equality, either held slaves or were willing to join hands with those who did. None of them felt entirely comfortable about the fact, but neither did they feel responsible for it. Most of them had inherited both…slaves and their attachment to freedom from an earlier generation, and they knew the two were not unconnected.”
Ta-Nehisi Coates says it a little bit more succinctly: “America begins in black plunder and white democracy, two features that are not contradictory but complimentary.”
So we can’t only continue to embrace one half of our national story. We can’t only embrace on half of our communities. We can’t only embrace one half of ourselves.
After the Civil War, those denied equal protection and a fair share of the American pie, contributed to our continued power and glory. To deny this—to intentionally distort the facts or to feign historical amnesia—is bad faith. That’s why we passed the resolution this morning to study and move toward reparations in this country. Thank you.
In order to transform, we can’t wash our hands of the blood. We can wash our hands of denial, evasion, and amnesia. We can put aside unproductive guilt and get to work. In the words of James Baldwin: “I’m not interested in anybody’s guilt. Guilt is a luxury that we can no longer afford. I know you didn’t do it, and I didn’t do it either, but I am responsible for it because I am a man and a citizen of this country and you are responsible for it too, for the very same reason…” [Wise, p. 15 quoting James Baldwin, from “Words of a Native Son”, 1964]
It’s not easy work; of course it’s not. Racism is ugly. But we can face the ugliness more fully if we work to transform ourselves. As individuals and Societies. We use our Societies to support our individual transformation and we use ourselves to change our Societies.
The ugliness that was described by Martin Luther King Jr. from behind the bars of the Birmingham jail scrawled on the edge of a New York Times newspaper said that the violence that he was accused of stirring up as he moved through the south, he explained, it was already there, underneath the surface, described by “law and order.” Is it described in our Ethical Societies as “what is convenient” or “what is comfortable”?
Violence is in the civic body. King said, “Like a boil that can never be cured so long as it is covered up but must be opened with all its ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light, injustice must be exposed…” That’s when the work really starts.
At times of uncertainty and weakness many people—many people in this room, myself included—may think we don’t have the resources to repair the harm. But how complex and difficult and how many resources were necessary to create 400 years of systemic oppression based on race? How many resources had to be diverted to enslave our fellow human beings? How many justifications had to be created to make us feel that we can sleep at night? If we can do that for 400 years, we can begin to repair the harm of racism in this country. We cannot retreat from being change agents.
So to conclude, are we not giving ourselves enough credit as human beings? Can we raise the bar on racial justice? Can we listen and learn from the victims of racism and become more effective accomplices in this work? Can we transform our relationship with racism so we accept responsibility to change the country?
Dyson writes, “What I’m talking about is more than recompense for past injustices—more than a handout, a payoff, hush money, or a reluctant bribe. What I’m talking about is a national reckoning that would lead to spiritual renewal.”
We are in a position to lead that spiritual renewal. Small in number, through loving, candid, ethical, respectful relationships, we can change at all levels: inside ourselves, in our Ethical Societies and in the nation. If we can lead a joyous transformation we can help become more ethical human beings, more inclusive Ethical Societies, and a more racially just country.