President’s Column: An Interview with Hugh Taft-Morales
By Janet Glass, president of The Ethical Culture Society of Bergen County
Hugh Taft-Morales is currently leader of the Philadelphia Ethical Society and the Baltimore Ethical Society.
He will be speaking at the Bergen Society on Sunday, October 30th, delivering a platform address entitled, “Humanist Anti-Racism Activism.” Following the platform, we will take a short snack break. Our continuing workshop series on “Being White and its Hidden Assumptions” will meet from approximately 12:45-2 pm. Hugh Taft-Morales will attend the workshop.
Janet Glass: We’re looking forward to your talk this month. At the Bergen Society we’ve been doing workshops in a series we call “Being White and its Hidden Assumptions.” I understand both your Societies have been active in these issues. How do you address White privilege in your congregations?
Hugh: Being in Philadelphia and Baltimore, it’s hard to do social justice work without talking about race. The Philadelphia Society has an anti-racism subcommittee. Our education group is committed to Platform diversity, and I personally use the bully pulpit to focus a lot on it. For about 6 months I led a roundtable discussion, but, after a while, it fizzled out. We have a Black Lives Matter banner and we aim to walk the walk. We’re members of POWER, Philadelphians Organized to Witness, Empower and Rebuild, and the largest congregations within the group are Black churches. We do bread and butter issues with them, and we’ve tagged along with them to support issues in Harrisburg.
In Baltimore we’re a member of BUILD, Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development, so that’s another interface. The coalition is mainly made up of faith-based organizations, and they have activities around voting rights, relations with police, and such.
Both Societies have been involved in criminal justice reform. Out for Justice is a group that supports ex-offenders reentering society. We partner with them in Baltimore on a number of projects.
Janet: That sounds like a lot of social action. To what do you owe your successes?
Hugh: Let me temper the results I see as having moderate success. I think part of it is in admitting my own implicit bias. I see it and I try to work on it. Part of the work is to admit it, and to move forward, to work through the self-righteous pity and guilt. I was a Diversity Director in a private school for 5 years. I had to go through my own awareness and my own racist attitudes, fears and assumptions. I also faced it in dealing with children. Children are more victims of the system. When dealing with adults, we tend to blame the adults more. Whites are both victims and beneficiaries of racism. We must all want to end racism. We can look at aspects of systemic racism and see it as a medical plague. It’s like a sickness, but we take preventative measures in sickness so that it doesn’t spread. Of course, self-defeating guilt doesn’t help move us forward, either. But the admission among Whites of responsibility and culpability is important.
Janet: What are your toughest challenges regarding race?
Hugh: Well, everyone is coming from a different place. Sometimes those coming to events are already the committed ones. Also, people want easy answers. Some of the work we have to do in truth and reconciliation efforts is to share the suffering. As Whites, we’re so uncomfortable that it’s hard to get to the empathy part. I’ve taught U.S. history for 25 years and I had to explain slavery, Jim Crow, the civil rights movement, the OJ trial. There’s never been a country with such a deep scar alongside such high ideals. We’ve inspired so many positive things in the world, while we have such a strong system of racial injustice. There’s an inability to hold that paradox in our heads.
Janet: Thanks for your time this afternoon. Your insights will make us even more eager to hear you on October 30th.