Do Black Lives Matter—to Humanism? That was the question the editors of The Humanist magazine posed for its July/August 2015 edition. On the one hand, I was encouraged to see the official magazine of our national movement address the thorny issue of racism in our country. On the other hand, I had to uncomfortably admit that even broaching the topic would be met with apathy and/or dissent by some within our ranks. Not because our movement has been infiltrated by racists. Hardly. Most self-identified humanists aspire to be people of goodwill and egalitarianism, but many white folks—especially those of us living in Minnesota—just don’t see how we have much responsibility for the problems of racism locally or in the country at large.
Racism is just not our problem—as Minnesotans. Or so all-too-many-of-us think. We watch multiple versions of white-on-black violence or black-on-white violence around the country and breathe a sigh of relief that we don’t have to deal with overt in-your-face racism here. But some folks want to make it our business to think about racism—uncomfortably, for instance, at the Mall of America. Hello! Black Lives Matter here, too, in Minnesota. And, the local chapter of the ACLU recently released their case study of policing in Minneapolis and hosted a conference at the University of Minnesota on the same topic. Having attended the conference, I saw first-hand how “implicit” or unconscious racism is being taken more seriously now in Minnesota. It’s about time.
To humanists and people of goodwill everywhere, all lives matter. That’s the ethical core of humanism. But to state unequivocally that black lives matter, or to stand with the movement “Black Lives Matter,” is to acknowledge the reality that life is not fair, justice is not a given, and that selected people have been exploited, mistreated and neglected throughout history. “Not anymore!” Surely I am not the only one who has heard these Minnesota-nice protestations: “We’re not oppressing anyone. Everyone in Minnesota has equal opportunity now.”
There are many things to commend about Minnesota. It’s got a lot going for it—a robust varied economy, a stellar urban park system, beautiful and abundant natural resources, well-educated residents, access to great health care, a relatively low crime rate. Kudos to us. But racial equity is NOT among our virtues. Study after study reveals our infamous racial and cultural disparities. As Ben Johnson posed in City Pages last February: “Minnesota is great, but for whom?” Our evolved social structures—here and throughout the country--have historically favored some folks and devalued others—creating polarized mindsets, unhealthy social ecologies and intractable social problems that are not easily mitigated. Structures and systems that foster implicit racism.
We as humanists in Minnesota (and around the country) also have work to do to articlulate and practice a self-correcting humanism for the 21st century. The Western Enlightenment thinkers—upon whom many within our movement rely for inspiration—do not have the final word on equality, democracy, or human well-being and happiness. The “Founding Fathers” fought for their own liberty and individual rights only to deny these to others. The evolving humanism of the 18th century was progress for its time. But we must not get stuck there.
Humanism understands itself as a work in progress. We have a lot yet to learn about building respectful, egalitarian relationships in a multicultural global world today. Perhaps we should explore the burgeoning humanist philosophy coming out of Africa—Ubuntu: “I am what I am because of who we all are.” Or embrace more fully Gandhi’s maxim popularized by Paul Wellstone: “We all do better when we all do better.”
Do Black Lives Matter to Humanists of Minnesota? Not just in theory, but in practice? What alliances and collaborations might we forge with those who share this metropolitan region, this state, this country? Can we as a humanist organization partner with others who are attempting to bridge the divides of race, culture and class and ensure our organization is a place of welcome for those searching for a 21st century philosophy of inclusion? It's time to deepen our reflection and expand our vision.