Greta has started a conversation about racial inclusivity in the atheist and skeptical movements.
We talked about how, as difficult and painful as our community’s conversations about gender and sexism have been, at least we’ve been having them — in a way that we haven’t been, nearly as much, about race. The community has done a lot more work on gender diversity than we have on racial diversity, and we’re a lot further along in making practical progress. We talked at this lunch about some of the reasons this might be. (Some ideas floated: Our society is often racially segregated, and white people can ignore race in a way that men can’t ignore gender. Also, liberals and progressives often see race as a minefield, and are often scared to even talk about it for fear of starting a fight, opening old wounds, or saying something stupid.)
We talked about some of the obstacles to increasing racial diversity and making people of color feel more welcomed in the atheist movement. And we talked about what specific, practical action items people could take — individuals, local groups, national organizations, thought leaders, etc. — to improve this situation. I wanted to share that list, and talk about it, and solicit other ideas.
The reaction to that conversation should not surprise anyone who’s been following the gender inclusivity discussions. Greta specifically made that comment thread off limits to those who want to question the existence of a problem, but that hasn’t stopped people from doing so elsewhere.
The Twitter account for the MySpace Atheists & Agnostics group covered the gamut yesterday. There was the “How do you know underrepresentation is a real problem” response.
There was the the “It isn’t a problem for me” response.
There was the “Attack all the pieces without acknowledging the pattern” response.
There was the “But the problems are all in the past and everything is better now” response.
There was the “Let’s define the problem out of existence by concentrating on extremes” response.
You get the picture. It’s all so familiar that it shouldn’t surprise anyone that this user has been retweeting anti-Rebecca Watson accounts and unironic #FTBullies tweets.
Eventually, Greta put up a post requesting examples of the racism that people of color face in the atheist and skeptical movements. She’s received a number of interesting answers to date. One that has come up a couple of times is something that I’ve seen myself, both on my own blog and on science blogs that address racial categorization. That something is scientific racism.
To be specific, there is a current of thought among some atheists and skeptics that differences in the living conditions of various ethnic groups are due to unchangeable (e.g., genetic) differences between those groups. More blacks arrested than whites in the U.S.? Blame a “propensity” toward violence. Socioeconomic inequalities? Blame group differences in IQ and claim that they’re inherited. You get the idea.
Now, there are published studies that have been done that claim to support these ideas. Of course, they’re generally old and frequently not well-designed or well-controlled. They ignore other documented causes of inequalities. They can’t explain the magnitude of the differences observed. But that doesn’t stop atheists and skeptics from hauling them out and masticating them publicly–exactly the same way they do with studies that purport to show that gender inequality is some fixed, unchangeable thing.
Now, admittedly, the fact that these people comment on the blogs of atheists and skeptics isn’t enough to tell us that they are members of our communities. Nonetheless, if these arguments are held on our blogs, this is still something that people of color who want to participate in our movements have to deal with. For some, it may be enough to see communities arguing against scientific racism. Others will turn away, because they can get the same crap in places where people don’t expect them to be activists on the behalf of those arguing for their racial inferiority.
But there are easily identified members of our movements who make these arguments too. One of the most vocal people around these parts on the topic of genetic determination of IQ is Bryan Pesta. He’s published one study on racial IQ differences. He comments on Steve Sailer’s blog. He likes to ask what qualifications I have to argue with people who have published dozens of crap studies instead of explaining why those studies aren’t crap.
Atheist? Oh, yes. He’s spoken at conferences in the past. He gained some measure of fame when the MySpace Atheists & Agnostics group he founded was suspended. In fact, he appears to now be tweeting up a storm as an easily identified atheist (see tweets above). Update: Pesta says that it is simply a coincidence that a MySpace group tweeting under the name Atheists&Agnostics, that this is not his Twitter account.
So, when he wants to know what kinds of racism people of color face in our movements, tell him to go look in a mirror.