Rising economic inequality and the “racial entitlement” of the Voting Rights Act

By Frederick Sparks

rosaparksstatueOn the day the statue honoring civil rights icon Rosa Parks was unveiled in the U.S. Capitol,  stark reminders  of persistent socio-economic disparities between blacks and whites remain.  And comments from a sitting Supreme Court justice show inexcusable blindness in high places.

A Brandeis University study found that the gap in racial wealth has tripled since the Reagan era, The gap between black and white wealth rose from $85,000 in 1984 to $236,500 in 1989, with the median net worth for white households at $265,000 versus $28,500 for black households.   The research reveals that the disparity in home ownership is a significant factor, with the homeownership rate for whites being 28% higher than the comparable rate for blacks. The study notes the higher rate of home equity growth for whites is attributable in part to the historical wealth advantages that make it far likely for white homeowners to receive family assistance or inheritance that allow them to both purchase their first homes sooner and make larger down payments and upfront payments which lower interest paid, as well as residential segregation which places a cap on home equity in majority black neighborhoods.  The disparities have also been exacerbated by the Great Recession and accompanying meltdown in the housing market.

Against this backdrop the Supreme Court is in the process of considering the constitutionality of provisions of the Voting Rights Act that require states and municipalities with a history of racial discrimination to seek preclearance from the Justice Department or a federal court before making changes to their voting laws.  Despite well-known voting problems during the most recent presidential election that appeared to disproportionately impact black voters, the plaintiffs are arguing that these enforcement positions are no longer necessary.  And Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia called the repeated reauthorization of Section 5 of the voting rights act  “a perpetuation of racial entitlement” which creates a situation that would spell political suicide for any poor politician voting against it.   Scalia’s comments so shocked fellow Justice Sonia Sotomayor that in the final moments of closing arguments she asked one of the lawyers for the challengers if he agreed with Scalia’s description of “racial entitlement”;  the lawyer declined to endorse Scalia’s statement.

Sotomayor also had perhaps the best comment of the day, directed towards attorneys representing Shelby County, Tenn, which is seeking to overturn the enforcement provisions : “Assuming I accept your premise, and there’s some question about that, that some portions of the South have changed, your county pretty much hasn’t,” Sotomayor said of Shelby County, which is 90 percent white. “In the period we’re talking about, it has many more discriminating -­- 240 discriminatory voting laws that were blocked by Section 5 objections. … You may be the wrong party bringing this.”  Thank you, wise Latina.

Handicappers however place the odds fairly high that Shelby county will prevail, given the 5 “conservative” justices who appear lined up to rule in their favor.

Black Atheist characters revisited

by Frederick Sparks

A few years ago I wrote a post overviewing the (limited) portrayals of black atheist characters in popular television and film. In it, I argued that more numerous portrayals of black nonbelieving characters (particularly in a positive light) would go a long way in normalizing the experience of black nonbelievers, in the same way that I believe increasing portrayals of gay characters in popular culture both reflects and influences growing gay acceptance.

Well, we certainly aren’t there yet, as the Friendly Atheist describes in his post about a recent episode of “Belle”, a sitcom offering on TV One, a black oriented cable network. In the episode, the daughter of the main family brings home a seemingly perfect beau who reveals one “flaw”..he’ s an atheist.

As Hemant points out, the writers pass up the opportunity to challenge the traditional thinking around this issue, instead choosing to easily dispatch of the controversy by having the young woman doubt her beau’s “heart” because he’s a nonbeliever.

Black Skeptics Los Angeles observe Day of Solidarity

By Frederick Sparks

day of solidarity 1Black Skeptics Los Angeles observed the Day of Solidarity for Black Non-Believers with a visit to the California African-American Museum (CAAM) followed by lunch at a south Los Angeles restaurant.

CAAM is located in Exposition Park, part of a complex of museums  (including the science museum that now houses the Space Shuttle Endeavor) near the University of Southern California, and began formal operations in 1981 with the mission to “research, collect, preserve and interpret for public enrichment the history, art and culture of African Americans with an emphasis on California and the western United States.”  The collections toured by the group included one titled  “Go Tell it On the Mountain” , which focused on the role of Christianity in black American life, including a commentary on religious hypocrisy that has apparently solicited negative reactions from some of the museum’s religious patrons.   Also of note was an exhibit devoted to the history and art collection of the Golden State Mutual Life Insurance Company, the largest black owned insurance company in the western United States, which was established in the mid 1920s to offer life insurance policies to African Americans otherwise unable to obtain policies.

The group followed the museum visit with lunch at Post and Beam, a welcome addition to an area of South Los Angeles that suffers the distinction of being a “cuisine desert” of mostly fast food restaurants despite being adjacent to one of the largest concentrations of affluent African Americans in the state. A collaboration between former Spago chef and Inglewood native Govind Armstrong and Los Angeles restauranteur Brad Johnson, Post and Beam also features a patio area with a herb and vegetable garden that provides ingredients for the restaurant’s selections.

South L.A. Scholar Karly Jeter: Busting STEM stereotypes

Karly Jeter

Karly Jeter

Women’s Leadership Project (WLP) student and Gardena High School senior Karly Jeter recently won a prestigious Posse Foundation Scholarship to attend the Hobart and William Smith Colleges in the fall as a pre-med student.  She is a cancer survivor, and her experiences have inspired her to be an oncologist.  Although she is passionate about science and medicine, Karly is typically only one of two or three black students in her Advanced Placement classes at Gardena.  Reflecting back on her junior year, she recounted when her AP English teacher excluded her from a list of students (all Asian and Latino) he predicted would pass the mock AP exam.  When she was one of the few who passed he accused her of cheating.   In her chemistry class she and other African American students were routinely criticized by their teacher as having no other ambition in life besides playing sports.

What are your career and college ambitions?I’m excited about going to a small campus and having small classes.  I feel that I’ll be able to talk to professors more easily.  I’m looking forward to studying abroad.  I want to go to Korea or Japan.  I took Japanese for two years.  I don’t believe that Gardena has prepared me to go to college.  Going into a medical program I’m expected to already know Calculus and Physics.  Although GHS has these courses, the teachers were mediocre.  It will be complicated for me.  Most of the students in my Posse are of color so they have similar experiences.
How has being in WLP shaped your perspective on the issues that confront young women of color?It has opened my eyes to new realizations and allowed me to understand social issues better.  I feel as though women of color are still downgraded.  Today I interviewed a woman who was in the Iraq War and she was demeaned.  I think that being African American has a lot to do with the way I’m perceived as not being capable enough.  My teacher was shocked that I wanted to be an oncologist; he expected me to be a pediatrician.  I’m not that fond of children anyway.  I get that kind of prejudice very often.  I only have one female oncologist and she is not taken as seriously as she should be.  I feel that tension and I know that I will feel that in college because of the stereotypes that women of color don’t have those aspirations.

“We” Only Do “Diversity” When We Want to: Atheist Silence & the Day of Solidarity for Black Non-believers

Donald Wright book

By Naima Washington

It is a sad fact that people of color, particularly African American nonbelievers, are alienated within the secular community.  Among the ‘faith’ communities, even those with the most racist and sexist doctrines, continue to do whatever it takes (and make no apologies) as they aggressively recruit and make space in their communities for people of color.  Based on their disinterest in any recruiting efforts, the leadership of the secular community is apparently very proud of the fact that they, on the other hand, have few people of African descent in leadership positions as well as very few members.  While there is no genuine intent or concerted plan to change this situation, many attempt to explain this phenomena by claiming that black folk are just too addicted to religion; otherwise, those of us who aren’t addicted to religion are either nominal or closet atheists, and therefore, need not be taken seriously.  During the past 25 years, I belonged to many secular organizations; it was indeed a challenge to remain in them.

When African American atheists attempt to expand their visibility and participation in the secular community by organizing with other nonbelievers—especially those who have been historically ignored by the leadership of the secular community—to publicly celebrate their freedom from religious dogma; when we ask everyone in the secular community to celebrate along with us, and we set aside one day out of the entire year to do so, there’s a problem! Last year, some very intelligent and insightful atheists declared efforts to organize a Day of Solidarity for Black Non-believers as segregation! Those same people are otherwise dead silent about the segregation, hostility, and alienation directed towards black atheists within the secular community year-round.

In 2012, author Donald Wright and I sent out nearly 400 written requests to secular organizations as well as individuals asking that they support the Day of Solidarity by posting a promotional piece on their websites and asking that they plan a Day of Solidarity in their own communities.  Over 90% of those requests were met with silence, not only from white atheists, but from people of color as well. There were also positive responses to the Day of Solidarity. And, quite frankly, the secular community is better off because of those responses and the entire secular community ought to celebrate not only independent thinkers but independent activists as well. Yet the current trend is to support inertia, self-promotion, and those who aren’t particularly motivated to make waves.

While I can think of none, there may be legitimate reasons to not support the Day of Solidarity; however failing to support it because it represents independent actions on the part of independent thinkers in the secular community isn’t a legitimate reason. The Day of Solidarity can be celebrated by anyone who cares to do so; and while it is hoped that many people celebrate it, that fact is that its ‘success’ isn’t dependent on any one group and whether two people in 20 communities or 20 people in two communities plan events is irrelevant. Its success lies only in the fact that those who want to mark the fourth Sunday in February—Black History Month—will do so in their own community in their own way. Who would be harmed by these independent actions?

In 2011, Donald Wright first proposed holding a Day of Solidarity for Black Non-believers without asking anyone’s permission; he didn’t wait to see if hundreds of people would line up behind the idea before taking that first step and creating a Day of Solidarity in Houston, Texas. Although there doesn’t seem to be much promotion for the Day of Solidarity this year, no one has to wait for permission to celebrate the Day of Solidarity either. If anyone, anywhere, wants to celebrate the DoS, please, go right ahead and create your own event; contact other nonbelievers in your own community and decide how you’d like to spend that time with each other: share a meal; visit an art gallery or museum; go see a movie or a play; go ice-skating; etc. Make some phone calls, post your event on your own Facebook page as well as on the DoS Facebook page; celebrate, and remain an activist—not just a joiner—for the rest of the year; make a commitment to social change. Right now, what society needs are people who are committed to social change; we have enough talkers, and in order to create meaningful change, we must each assume leadership by doing the right thing—with or without company!

The future as well as the integrity of the secular community depends not on people who do as they are told, but on those of us who are both independent thinkers and activists.

South L.A. Teacher Activists

Melanie 2

By Sikivu Hutchinson

Melanie Andrews is the director of the internationally acclaimed Washington Prep High School theatre program in South Los Angeles.  A native of Compton, California, she received her MFA in theatre from the University of Southern California and has worked as a director in China, Germany, Canada, and Mexico, as well as at regional theatres in the U.S.  A documentary on the Washington Prep theatre program’s Shakespeare in Watts (a rendition of Romeo and Juliet) production is screening on Sunday, February 17th at Los Angeles’ Pan African Film Festival.  Dr. Andrews is also a teacher-partner for the L.A. County Human Relations Commission’s Washington Involving Neighborhoods program and Black Skeptics Los Angeles’ 2013 scholarship fund.

What is your background in theatre?

I got into theatre by accident.  I was a state champion debater for Compton Unified.  As part of a work study program in high school I got a job at the Ebony Showcase theatre (now the Nate Holden Company) in South L.A.  I started with the production Norman is That You (with Redd Foxx and John Amos).  The girl that was playing a prostitute had an accident and I decided I would fill in for the part.  I got the laughs and fit the suit and that is how I got the part.  I was also encouraged by Ethel Waters when I performed at the Pasadena Playhouse.  I taught at CSULB, Compton College, and Emory University in Atlanta.  I am also involved in using the arts for the peace movement and human rights, especially as it pertains to human/sexual trafficking and violence against women.  For the past several years I’ve been engaged with helping girls and women understand the impact of prostitution and sexual trafficking in local communities of color from a black feminist perspective.

What is the climate of local youth theatre in South L.A.?  Washington Prep is the little school that could.  We have won over forty awards in theatre competition.  I found kids that were hungry to do theatre.  I’m classically trained and have brought that training to this school.  It’s not necessarily in line with the norm of high school drama.  Some of our acclaimed productions have been Zoot Suit and Positive Secrets, a drama on HIV/AIDS based on the voices and experiences of youth of color.  We also mounted ‘Stop” a production on the sex trafficking of girls.  We won five awards at the California State festival.  Our other claim to fame is that 90% of the students involved in this program go to four year universities like Fordham, NYU, UCLA, etc.  This program has boosted their academic success and college matriculation prospects.

What other productions are in the works?  Unfortunately, none of our productions are being funded.  We don’t necessarily have the support of the administration.  We’ve been told that our stuff is “nice” but that it doesn’t make money.  The school has decided to go in a more “hip hop” direction.  We got zero funding for Black History month.  Like many teachers I’ve had to go into my own pocket to fund these productions.  However, I believe these productions are necessary for students to know the Eurocentric canon in order to survive, navigate higher education and be culturally literate.  Our students will be able to perform in different contexts and know their craft.  Several years ago, I realized we had an excess of talent and a dearth of funding and that’s why I partnered with the British Academy program.  I’ve had the pleasure of working at numerous Shakespeare festivals (in fact, I’m one of the few African Americans that has worked as a stage manager, dramaturge, actor and director for virtually every Shakespeare play in the Folio).  The cast of Romeo and Juliet was mentored by members of the BA program.  The students were able to learn the language of Shakespeare from actors that were immersed in it.  They also received training from actors in the Royal Shakespeare Company.  These professionals saw them as being important and the students lived up to those expectations.  Now we have over one-hundred mentors. 

What is the most rewarding part of working with youth at Washington Prep and how can the community help with this work?  Having them in class you get to see that everything that exists in the microcosm of the community exists here too.  Everyone has a “heart light”—you just need someone to turn it on.  In theatre we activate it with high academic expectations and the students rise to the challenge.  They start going to class, they become community activists, they learn that they have power, and they demand things.  Most of our kids are now in the top ten of their classes.  They are focused on college, realizing that they not only have a future, but that they have a gift.  So I welcome community members who can come and be mentors.  We have costumes to design and sets to build.  We need fundraisers, we need sets painted, and most of all we need the kids to be supported.  We have kids in foster care, kids who are homeless and surfing on couches, and we have kids that are dealing with the random death of loved ones.  Sometimes in rehearsals we’ll deal with death, rape, and other hard issues and they are able to connect their life experience with that.  Romeo and Juliet is so real to them because they are living through it.  I grew up in Compton.  My father was murdered when I was young, and because of your mother, Yvonne Divans Hutchinson, and others guiding me I made it through that.  Teachers like her told me what a difference I could make.  I could have become suicidal or a drug addict.  I’ve had multiple careers, but I come back to teaching because we are needed more now than ever.  My students have gone on to be professionals in theatre, film, business, and politics and that is one of my greatest rewards.

Secular Community Steps Up for South L.A. Scholars

Ariana DayofDialogueGroupShot DayofDialogueSierra DayofDialoguebibleref GSApresentationMoore2

“Perhaps adults believe if they just don’t talk about gender or racism, then they won’t exist in our lives. The truth is that we see the effects of racism and gender bias everyday on television, on the Internet, in the beliefs of teachers, friends, and ourselves.”

–Ariana Mercado, 12th grade scholar, Gardena High School

“As an African American teacher it is important for me to constantly address and affirm all of my students as scholars, activists, intellectuals and visionaries.  Black and Latino children are never viewed this way in mainstream American classrooms — to many teachers, and the world, they are potential drop-outs, they are f–ups, they are discipline problems.”  –Markham Middle School teacher, Watts

Over the past week, members of the secular community have stepped up mightily and helped Black Skeptics Los Angeles exceed its fundraising goal for the First in the Family Humanist scholarship fund. Because of the generous sponsorship of individuals and organizations like Foundation Beyond Belief, the American Humanist Association, Black Non-Believers of Chicago, Debbie Goddard of African Americans for Humanism and Ian Cromwell of the Crommunist Manifesto, BSLA will be able to offer four $1000 scholarships to college-bound South Los Angeles students. We at BSLA also appreciate the tremendous boost given to the effort by blogs from Skepchick, PZ Myers, Crommunist and others.  For our recruitment outreach we are proud to partner with exemplary teacher-resource providers like Dr. Melanie Andrews, Angela Rodriguez and Shirley Van der Plas of Washington Prep High School; Debbie Wallace and Diane Schweitzer of Gardena High School; Tabitha Thigpen of King-Drew Medical Magnet and Marlene Carter of Dorsey High School.  It is largely because of the efforts of these unsung teachers, mentors, health providers, and scores like them, that homeless, foster care, undocumented and LGBTQ seniors make it to college.

Recently, the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) issued annual “report cards” for all schools. Washington Prep has a 44% graduation rate and Gardena has a 52% graduation rate; far lower than that of the district average. With the exception of King Drew Medical Magnet, and a few other outstanding high schools, the four year college-going rate at most South Los Angeles schools is abysmal. These scholarships will reinforce the work of first-in-the-family student activists like Jamion Allen, Destiny Davis, Ariana Mercado and Leticia Patton (pictured above). As youth leaders in the Women’s Leadership Project and Gay/Straight Alliance, these young women are engaged in critical humanist work that addresses homophobia and sexism on their school campuses—despite the fact that gender and sexual orientation issues are deemed “less important” than those that involve racial conflict.

The support of secular allies is an important step toward making secular, atheist and humanist social justice organizing visible in communities of color where there is little to no history of an activist non-believer presence. We are immensely grateful to everyone who stepped up to move this groundbreaking effort forward and will be compiling a list of individual donors for public appreciation.

Scholarship awards will be awarded and celebrated in June in Los Angeles.

 

Black Skeptics Los Angeles,
Sikivu Hutchinson

Elizabeth Ross

D. Frederick Sparks

Nicome Taylor