January 2020 400 Year blog – On “Family”

Posted in: Leader's Blog
Ethical Society Leader Hugh Taft-Morales’s 400 Years project included weekly blog posts through 2019. He argues that our 400-year-history of owning, torturing, and oppressing people profoundly affects many Black Americans today.
Now, in 2020, he is writing monthly blogs intended to: (1) explore how historic and systemic racism makes navigating the world today particularly challenging for many people of color; and, (2) share how those who identify as white can oppose racism in ways both obvious and subtle.
Hugh will explore a different theme each month, beginning this month with “family.”
January 2020 Blog – On “Family”
As we conclude our seasonal gatherings, it seems appropriate to begin with “family.” In celebrating Kwanzaa, many Black families emphasize its first principle, Umoja. This term celebrates the unity of family, community, and race, resilient despite centuries of attempts to destroy this unity. One such attempt is described by the New York Times as “The Grim History of January 1.” Enslaved families were haunted by the fact that on New Years Day plantation owners would settle their debts by “hiring out” or selling off their human chattel. While slavery constantly broke up families and separated children and parents forever, it happened most on “Heartbreak Day,” as it was called by African-American abolitionist journalist William Cooper Nell.
As a parent, I shudder at this emotional horror surrounding a day celebrated for new beginnings. Is it too much to imagine that such trauma has trickled down through history to today? Is it why Ta-Nehisi Coates said that, “Black people love their children with a kind of obsession?” White supremacy held families hostage, leading Coates to confess to his son, “You are all we have, and you come to us endangered.”
Though slavery ended, Black children were segregated into poverty for over a century, remaining endangered by violence, crime, and addiction. Salt in this wound was Assistant Secretary of Labor Pat Moynihan’s 1965 document, “The Negro Family: The Case For National Action.” Though originally intended to heal black communities, the report ended up blaming Black families for, in the words of professor S. Craig Watkins, the “tangle of pathology… capable of perpetuating itself without assistance from the white world.” White moderates were given license to exclaim, “What’s the problem with Black people?”
No wonder Nixon’s Southern strategy worked, channeling white frustration into racial hostility. No wonder the “welfare queen” myth helped elect Ronald Reagan. As Ibram Kendi explains in Stamped from the Beginning, Reagan drew on this false narrative, “convincing Americans that there was something wrong with Black welfare mothers.” (p. 439)
George Bush gained the White House in 1988 in part because his campaign stirred up racial animus using the case of convicted criminal Willie Horton. Ann Coulter described a Willie Horton TV ad as “the greatest campaign commercial in political history.” As I explored in blogs #29 and #30, such tactics advanced the political career of many presidents, from our founding to today.
Try taking some of these actions:
Action #1: Support the unity of the Black family, such as in celebrations (like Kwanzaa) or – more importantly – by promoting the educational opportunities and economic security of Black Americans.
Action #2: Call out the use of stereotypes about Black parents and Black families.
Action #3: End the racist criminal justice policies that go to extremes to destroy the parent-child connection in Black families, such as by incarcerating of many young Black fathers in jails away from their families and charging exorbitant rates for phone calls home.
Continue the discussion:
Once you have made the commitment, you can join the discussion on the 400 Years Project Facebook page, or contact me directly to be added to a listserv discussion via email.
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