FROM TIME TO TIME, I’ll receive emails and calls from humanists and atheists thanking me for my work—and in those short exchanges I’m often told that I am an important new voice advancing humanism.
While I appreciate these comments, I can’t help but wonder what makes me a new voice when I’ve been doing this work—writing and lecturing on humanism—since 1995. And I’ve done this work as part of a long history of Black nonbelief. Before me Norm Allen championed Black presence within humanism; and before him, Alice Walker articulated a sense of interconnectedness that served to animate the work of many within the movement. Before her, William R. Jones challenged the theological stranglehold the Black Church had on Black thought and critiqued white humanists for their lack of attention to issues of race. And, before him writers such as Nella Larsen, Lorraine Hansberry, and Richard Wright narrated a take on life that echoes what we have come to name the best of humanist sensibilities; and before Larsen, Hansberry, and Wright, public thinkers like W. E. B. Du Bois expressed a reason-based approach to existence that gave no real attention to supernatural claims—but instead relied on what human effort generates.
In light of this long and public involvement in advancing humanist sensibilities, what is really being said when these comments are made—comments that seem to suggest a rather limited timeframe for Black humanists in public? I believe these good-intentioned comments suggest a type of cultural stirring. The violence witnessed in real time that marks in graphic ways this historical moment has awakened some humanists to the dire consequences we face in a country quickly moving away from even the pretense of democracy and its empty gestures towards opportunity. With this growing awareness of our circumstances is increased recognition that surviving our condition requires attention to what people outside of white communities have to say.
I’m unable to put a date on it, to fix it on the calendar, but a cultural shift has taken place not only with individuals but also within some of our organizations, and this change seems timed with a general call to accountability ushered in by a new generation of abolitionists. If one thinks about it, this cultural shift entails at least soft acknowledgement of systemic entanglement with white supremacy and white privilege. This is how the American Humanist Association (AHA) puts it: “We acknowledge that many of our organizational founders and leaders, past and present, perpetuate and benefit from current systems of oppression. While we may be seen as ‘progressive’ in some areas, we take responsibility for often being on the wrong side of justice. That history cannot be unlived, but facing these difficult truths allows us to do our best work going forward.” Tackling the issue head on, the AHA statement further says, “We acknowledge that our organizational structures were created from and continue to perpetuate these injustices and inequalities.” While an important recognition, it is not simply key figures that advanced white supremacy—although a set of figures may have represented and signaled it in a particular way. It isn’t as if only AHA leadership benefited from white privilege. Still, claiming the wrong done helps avoid what Randall Robinson, author of The Debt: What America Owes Blacks, has labelled “the memory-emptying salve of contemporaneousness. (If the wrong did not just occur, it did not occur at all in a way that would render the living responsible.)” This awakening from a coma of normalized whiteness is to be applauded, but it isn’t sufficient in that it typically takes the form of a call for inclusion. However, I’d argue inclusion (or what might be called diversity) is important, but it is only a first step. It merely constitutes the recognition of a problem.
Our initial impulse is to celebrate—to acknowledge diversification and a more expansive sense of obligation as the look of a new and improved humanism. But such claims exist in the presence of an alternate possibility. One can just as easily claim whiteness has taken a major public relations hit in light of an aggressive and unrefined white nationalism capturing so much attention recently. And therefore, safeguarding white privilege requires reorientation and reframing of whiteness over against its more graphic presentation as xenophobic hate. Softening its harshness through a limited embrace of Blackness serves the purpose—by making whiteness less visible but no less operative. This approach involves surrendering some privilege in order to maintain the larger system.
The role played by Blacks remains the same just presented through a more progressive agenda. Black people are still understood and addressed in relationship to normalized white identity—as the redemption of whiteness to some degree. This is what I mean, Blacks and blackness historically have been used as a type of redemptive presence by means of which whites rethink themselves, reaffirm their goodness, and go about their business with a renewed comfort in the world. This is the presence of Blacks in white humanist community as a type of appeasement not requiring full interrogation of white privilege.
Inclusion assumes something unconfirmed about the space being offered—that the space is fundamentally welcoming. And why is it welcoming? In a word, this space of humanism is believed welcoming because Black people now occupy its corners. Why else would they be there, and why else would they have been invited to participate? The presence of difference is assumed in and of itself to constitute freedom from the taint of white privilege and white supremacy. But, might this logic not suggest a misplacement of the problem? This way of thinking—that the physical presence of difference is enough to dislodge white privilege and white supremacy—assumes the problem of racism rests in mere absence, that it is simply a negation. And so, if they are invited in, racism is addressed…if not ended. However, personhood, collective importance and substance long denied aren’t recognized simply through inclusion in the organizations that once sanctioned exclusion. More is required.
We need to consider a greater disruption than mere inclusion can afford. Inclusion doesn’t enable a radical shift in organization and processes of engagement, but is a deflected call for Blacks to forgive—a forgiveness not necessarily spoken, but performed through their new involvement in organizations and activities that once excluded their presence and opinions. White-dominated organizations say through inclusion—you’re with us now, a part of our community, and that must mean you forgive us. What those who look like me have typically experienced within the humanist movement is the ebb and flow of guilt, apologies, and promises.
Because it has some relevance here, I call attention to what Charles Blow says about diversifying neighbors, in his book, The Devil You Know, “…one of the problems with diversity as a living experiment,” he writes, “is that white people in America view diversity as a mirroring concept, in which an ideal diversity reflects the demography of the country as a whole: they are the majority, and minorities are present in ratios correspondent to their national share.” He continues, “in white people’s vision of diversity, they must still dominate. ” With respect to the community of humanism, how do we prevent the posture of sanctified dominance suggested by Blow?
We might start by rehearsing a difficult truth: The debt owed isn’t satisfied through apology and a call to “come join us…come sit at the big table.”
“Blacks and blackness historically have been used as a type of redemptive presence by means of which whites rethink themselves, reaffirm their goodness, and go about their business with a renewed comfort in the world.”
Questions must be asked: Did humanist organizations—did the humanist movement—actively pursue the disregard of Black populations, and in ways that involved more than just keeping Blacks out? What have attitudes and accompanying practices related to inclusion and exclusion afforded the contemporary humanist movement’s agenda? We can argue over these two questions; we humanists like a good debate. Yet, recent humanist pronouncements and publicly expressed commitments make clear the humanist movement benefited from white privilege made available through the restricting of Black life. How many white humanists—relatively unchecked by the organizations and gatherings they frequent—have espoused theories of cultural pathology, as Ta-Nehisi Coates names these theories, that situate the fault for troubling life circumstances to poor cultural habits on the part of Blacks? How many have questioned the utility of Black Lives Matter—or lamented the disruption that movement has caused, instead espousing something along the lines of All Lives Matter? How many Black humanist speakers at various gatherings have argued the difference between the two—Black Lives Matter and All Lives Matter—only to be met with polite silence and then business as usual, until the next year when they are invited back to address the same issue?
It is true that humanists and atheists as a whole have been marginalized in a country that pretends theistic morals and values. Yet, while not dismissing or belittling the ostracizing of all humanists and atheists, this condition needs to be measured against the advantages of whiteness held within a white oriented country. The social narrative and logic of racial inclusion used during the period of slavery still hold an unspoken authority. Poor whites during the period of slavery were told, you aren’t wealthy; you don’t own land; but at least you are not Black. And we see signs of such a mode of social inclusion at work with the supporters of Trump, who vote against their economic and political interests but in line with their social position as white in a whiteness-privileging nation. And while progressive humanists might reject the cruder elements of such an association, it remains a social fact that while they are ostracized for their disbeliefs (or lack thereof), they maintain the benefits of their whiteness. Reason and logic aren’t safeguards against playing a role in this theater of white dominance.
To really tackle the problem of white privilege and white supremacy requires decentering what re-enforces whiteness as normative, and replacing it with a praxis that makes such normalization of white experience more visible and less tolerable. This isn’t simply replacing white privilege with black privilege, but rather working toward the development of a movement—a realized humanism—in which there is no advantage based on one’s relationship to particular social codes. In addition, we must challenge the culture of comfort that has long served as the litmus test for humanist activism. I’ve often said—and I stand by it and say it again—radical transformation related to issues of difference produces discomfort, which is to say patterns of white privilege can’t be dismantled and those who’ve benefited from them be at ease. To the contrary, such comfort re-enforces a cyclical consciousness punctuated by grand moments of relief and self-satisfaction to the degree it involves remaking those who have been marginalized in the image of those who dominate our social world. Changing the orientation of an organization, changing the thinking and behavior of individuals and communities, should produce cultural dissonance—a disruption of world views and life assumptions. How can questioning of what has been assumed culturally real and socially true not produce discomfort? How can the demand that the privileges held for so long by white Americans be exposed and interrogated not produce discomfort?
Transformation is disruptive in that it requires a break with the normative story through real recognition of participation in the problem, and a correction that changes one’s relationship to the structures of power. If one is comfortable in one’s social justice efforts, the work produced is too safe, and it allows too much of the old patterns of thought and conduct to remain. In the arena of social transformation, discomfort is a marker of substantive work being done. Meaningful and lasting change might just render realized humanism unrecognizable to some—but more welcoming for all.
How do we gather the words capable of holding us accountable in new and provocative ways? How do we orient ourselves beyond mere inclusion, and toward what this historical moment actually demands? Mindful of stated desires and aims of organizations like the AHA, maybe we are at a point in our humanist history when we need the challenge and guiding logic of an abolition humanist manifesto offering accountability that goes deeper than a commitment to inclusion expressed through a decontextualized rehearsal of humanist ethical values.
I invite you to think about this short essay as an initial effort to give some substance to what an abolition humanist manifesto might entail and what it might demand. To be sure, this manifesto doesn’t signal the end of power dynamics, but rather an exposure and redirection of power for the benefit of those who suffer most. It’s power working against power. It entails exposing power that has been hidden too long with its outcomes assumed a matter of hard work rather than the theft that actually occasions those benefits.
Those familiar with the history of Black humanism might assume I’m restating Norm Allen’s important “African American Humanist Declaration” published in Free Inquiry Spring of 1990. To be clear, there is a shared push for visibility as a way to disrupt the humanist status-quo that begins with a firm acknowledgement of an anti-black legacy, and an effort to insert Black people not into the convenient corners within the humanist movement, but rather to address their aims as fundamental to the self-understanding of US humanism. Allen and I both seek recognition that the humanist movement isn’t free from participation in the advantages of white privilege and destructive practices of anti-black racism. However, and this is important, the concern of Allen’s Declaration is inclusion—which is a mild, very mild form of disruption—and it focuses on making humanism attractive to a diverse population by announcing the arrival of “African-Americans for Humanism”. This effort to increase the appeal of humanism is important, but it isn’t enough to serve as a long-term solution in that it doesn’t change the standard of white normativity. It leaves unchallenged an underlying assumption that humanism is for whites to offer—that there is some sort of intrinsic connection between white humanism and humanism that gives them authority to offer participation or promote exclusion. Instead, Allen’s Declaration serves to make room for others as opposed to reconstructing the movement in such a way as to avoid the centering of any given group. And such work, the work of inclusion, isn’t very costly. With this last statement—the work of inclusion isn’t very costly—I want to highlight the idea of the movement having a significant debt to pay.
In 1990, Norm Allen raised a very good question: How committed is white America to equality and the elimination of racism? Related to this question, however, the Declaration talks about economic development but does so as a challenge to biblically driven notions of wealth. In essence, the document offers a critique of Black churches but says little in detail concerning the guilt of humanism and the method of restitution desired by Blacks. The manifesto I am encouraging aims for a more fundamental disruption through a more demanding resolution. And this is the big difference between Allen’s groundbreaking declaration of inclusion and what an abolitionist manifesto calls for—payment of a big debt. That is to say, if humanist organizations historically held the benefits of white privilege, there’s a debt to pay to the community of those whose oppression made possible those benefits.
Shouldn’t there be a reckoning with the cost of humanist participation in white privilege and white supremacy? Shouldn’t the acknowledgement of short-comings offered so freely now in the humanist movement entail, or at least be met with, a call for reparations as a corrective?
Regarding social justice, we often frame resolution in terms of a mind-set—e.g., respect, compassion, solidarity, partnership, and conviction that takes seriously the needs of those who have been marginalized. Ideas are powerful when they motivate convictions upon which one is willing to stake all. Patterns of thinking shape patterns of doing—no doubt. Still, race is an idea with felt consequences, and so thinking a new and realized humanist way of being in the world must be attached to new ways of doing within the world. What of the more concrete dimensions of this racial disregard—the practices, and the monetary debt generated by those practices? Of course, there has been a financial commitment on the part of the humanist movement to help support its racial justice initiatives. Yet, are these expenditures sufficient to recognize the size of the debt owed? Perhaps it’s time to talk about reparations?
It would be an oversight not to say this: I appreciate that organizations such as the AHA have stood behind and lobbied in support of H. R. 40—legislation proposed by some within the House of Representatives calling for $14 million to establish a fifteen-member commission to study and develop reparations proposals. This speaks to a national debt. But there’s more to consider, more to address on the micro-level of benefit. It’s time to speak clearly and plainly about this debt, and a payment plan that recognizes the obligation of particular organizations that have benefited from the “American way of life” beyond easily identified fiscal entities such as banks and insurance companies. One such debt-holder is the humanist movement.
Changes to mission statements, re-envisioning the accompanying goals and objectives, as well other types of org chart shake ups are necessary, but constitute what I’ll call symbolic reparations—i.e., payment of a debt through rituals of good will that leave in place the deeper dimensions of an organization’s self-understanding and logic. These untouched elements can be understood as the genesis—or cause—of those more apparent elements that do receive attention. What needs to be discussed are more substantive methods of paying this debt.
An abolition humanist manifesto changes the nature and consequences of obligation because the debt isn’t named and determined by those benefiting from white privilege; but rather, it is set by those whose presence had been denied but used. Not the majority writing its aims for those who’ve been marginalized, but those who’ve been marginalized stating demands and the cost attached to those demands.
Some might read this and think the Black Manifesto delivered at Riverside Church in 1969 by fellow non-believer James Forman. While decades apart, these two manifestos—the Black manifesto and the abolition humanist manifesto I’m calling for—do share a cultural-political sensibility by means of which they name the debt owed by organizations. The Black Manifesto held religious organizations obligated financially to pay a debt for their racism. And while the humanist movement isn’t a church or a denomination, there is little reason to assume theistic organizations are the only organizations—the only communities of the likeminded—that have advanced and benefited from whiteness and the construction of Blackness as a problem. Too many humanists publicly have acknowledged the movement’s guilt for any claims of innocence to stand. If the public confession of organizations like the AHA doesn’t offer you sufficient proof of this involvement, simply think back through the history of anti-blackness in the modern West, and you’ll surely find that theological arguments weren’t the only arguments that positioned people of African descent as inferior—and therefore open to all forms of abuse. To the extent the contemporary humanist movement and its earlier formulations embraced the anti-black views of figures like Hume (e.g., “Of National Characters”), Hegel (e.g., “The Philosophy of Right”) or Thomas Jefferson (e.g., “Notes on the State of Virginia”), the humanist movement has accepted and advanced thinking that served to render Africa a cultural and intellectual void, a point of value based only on raw materials, and to expose its stolen children to various forms of violence.
Black humanists have borne a burden sanctioned by a movement that long denied the significance of their origin and instead cast all that is good as coming out of Europe. This crafting of narrative even infects how Black Americans have understood themselves and their relationship to these states somewhat united. Has the movement positioned Black humanists to think themselves and tell their story in a way that isn’t defined by lack and recent discovery—in a space assumed Blacks can only hope to borrow? The psychological harm experienced by Black humanists, as many of us recount in our personal narratives, can come from those who assume theism as the only worthwhile marker of morality and values. Yet, these theists (Black and white) aren’t the only source of vile disregard. Humanists and the humanist movement, over the years, have done their share of harm—one need only listen to our stories as we recount our Black experience. Hear us, actually hear us, rather than passively nodding while preparing the counter argument consisting of a litany of the work you did during the civil rights movement, your support for Blacks Lives Matter, your moral outrage at those conservative Christians causing harm, and the other individual acts that feel good but don’t serve to pull down the structures of privilege out of which these acts of solidarity are occasioned. There is an evasive ethos that assumes white normativity and privilege, and that grounds the injustice we proclaim wanting to eradicated. And all this is to say anti-black racism is structural—marked out in the very DNA of this nation, and no one living in the United States is outside its reach. “For Blacks,” writes Randall Robinson in his book, The Debt, “the destructive moral crime that began in Jamestown in 1619 has yet to end.” Addressing this reality in a substantive, or radical way, requires reparations.
Our efforts to be better humanists are fantastic, but they need a robust and firm grounding that ties practice to payment—which is to say, a grounding that recognizes humanism being its best self comes attached to payment of a significant debt. This includes, but isn’t limited to monetary damages premised upon humanist organizations having benefited from and/or worked to advance white privilege based on, for example, the consequences of white privilege in organizational growth and advancement not afforded Black organizations and groups. Still, this is only one consideration in that reparations address an expansive array of practices. Reparations are about a radical effort to confront white supremacy and privilege by turning its very tools on it. Something of what I mean here is found in Ta-Neishi Coates’ definition of reparations as “the full acceptance of our collective biography and its consequences.” And reparations so conceived, Coates continues, “is the price we must pay to see ourselves squarely.”
An abolition humanist manifesto guiding a plan for reparations can’t be organized, developed, and pronounced using the same processes and practices that have given us our previous calls for justice. Those have invited folks in, but without the type of fundamental change that sustains advancement. Efforts to this point have worked, at best, to expose white supremacy, lament it—leaving some embarrassed but the system relatively intact. Randall Robinson also says, and I agree, because reparations work against the logic and interest of those who benefit from white privilege and its child white supremacy, “the initiative,” he concludes,” must come from blacks, broadly, widely…” What I’m proposing here involves more than following the lead of those who have been marginalized. Instead, it is surrendering the process and the terms of engagement.
“A realized humanism— more equitable and more responsive to the value of difference— requires not simple inclusion in the existing frameworks of humanist thinking and doing. It’s more demanding and more expensive than that. In a word: reparations.”
Drawing from such thinking, Black humanists need to take the lead in these discussions. Doing so speaks to self-worth, value, and historical significance—all part of a mindset committed to restitution consistent with the humanist movement’s historical involvement in racial disregard vis-à-vis anti-black racism and the embrace of white privilege. We must push beyond our patterns of good will otherwise, as Charles Blow notes, we end up awarding “laurels for doing the least bit of labor to lessen the pain of an affliction rather than cure it. They focus on mitigating the impact of white supremacy rather than eradicating it.” If we see this, and we understand the significance of what Blow highlights, there’s no going back to a racial naiveté.
Reparations outlined by an abolition humanist manifesto aren’t about harming white people. Keep in mind, the goal of this abolitionist manifesto is reparations not retribution. The litmus test for advancement demanded by the manifesto I’m calling for isn’t how white humanists feel about the issue at hand. Rather, the determining consideration is how Blacks have experienced white privilege within the context of the humanist movement—and the larger social world with its white supremist practices accepted by that movement. This is a reckoning—the possibility of which we must confront and address. A realized humanism—more equitable and more responsive to the value of difference—requires not simple inclusion in the existing frameworks of humanist thinking and doing. It’s more demanding and more expensive than that. In a word: reparations.
Acknowledging and dealing with this cost need to be a part—a substantive dimension—of our work toward a realized humanism. The times, and our public commentary, demand disruption—more substantive than our thought experiments of the past and our invitation for inclusion in what can often amount to “more shades of the same”. We need to speak reparations. And this precise language must be used because it forces us to confront the practices of hypocrisy that shape the self-image of organizations and populations that benefit from white privilege.
If nothing else, a discussion of reparations serves to surface and address the nature and extent of humanism’s involvement with and benefit from the modes of disregard that have hampered Black (humanist) life. The history of humanism and humanist organizations can be rewritten in light of what is learned. And maybe this will prevent what is now a periodic rehearsal of lament producing limited change—difference without robust impact.
It doesn’t matter if reparations seem unreasonable, fanciful, or delusional. What call for radical transformation in a society like ours isn’t fanciful? Mindful of our political context—an oligarchy masquerading as a democracy—can any call for a dismantling of power dynamics and an end to white privilege seem anything other than ironic? Still, without attention to, real attention to this humanist debt, our aims are aimless, our work self-serving, and our outcomes smoke and mirrors.