About that sermon on the Black Church’s hypocrisy

by D Frederick Sparks

Georgia pastor E. Dewey Smith’s sermon about the Black Church and homosexuality has gone viral.  In the sermon, Smith deems it hypocritical for Christians to condemn homosexuality based on verses in Leviticus without also adhering to the other Levitical injunctions against eating shellfish and wearing blended fabrics.  He also speaks to the large gay presence in the black church, particularly in the “music ministry”, which I wrote about a few years back here, and how it is also a manifestation of hypocrisy to use the talents of queer people while condemning them.

The pastor’s words have been lauded by many for their frankness and  for the call for greater compassion when dealing with gays in the black church. I’ve even seen it declared a great stand for “gay rights.”

For me it doesn’t go that far.  There’s a difference between calling out the black church for hypocrisy, and affirming that there is nothing inherently wrong or sinful about same-sex attraction and same sex relationships.  This “that sin is no greater than anyone else’s sin” accommodation is neither revolutionary nor novel; I’ve seen and heard it offered for years as a rationalization by black gay Christians and others who still love them in spite of their “sin”.  Personally it has allowed for me to, at my choice, maintain relationships with loved ones, despite the degree to which it requires the acceptance of what one commentator has recently dubbed “mild homophobia“.  And against the backdrop of the conservative stance of the Black Church on issues of sexuality, it certainly seems progressive by comparison, though less so than the stance of other Christian churches and denominations that are known as “reconciled ministries” which fully accept the whole experience of gay Christians.

I don’t know very much about Pastor Smith. I don’t know what his thoughts are on homosexuality beyond the hypocrisy analysis.  From what I have read about him briefly, he seems highly intelligent, and devoted to a more compassionate manifestation of religious faith; when a fellow pastor committed suicide, Pastor Smith condemned assertions that the deceased pastor earned eternal damnation through that sad act.  And to the extent that his exhortations call for and lead to less dehumanization of gays in the black church, his words deserve the credit they are receiving.  But they should be kept in context, and consideration must be given to how a particular religious experience or viewpoint either does or does not affirm the entirety of a gay Christian.

Environmental racial disparity and Keystone

by Frederick Sparks

My hometown of Port Arthur, Texas may be considered “famous” for a few things: natives Janis Joplin and former NFL coach Jimmy Johnson, rappers Pimp C and UGK, who collaborated with Jay Z (“big pimpin down in P-A-T”), and for its past as a central point of vice and corruption in Texas; in the late 1950s a special state legislative committee convened to investigate the complicity of law enforcement with open and notorious illegal gambling and prostitution (the actor Steve McQueen once worked as a bouncer at one of Port Arthur’s bawdy houses).

But Port Arthur’s most notorious legacy may be related to its status as home to one of the largest oil refining capacities in the world, and the disproportionate rate of cancer and other diseases and ailments experienced by Port Arthur’s poorest black residents, who live in close proximity to Port Arthur’s refineries.  Now, Port Arthur is the terminus for the Keystone pipeline.

In a 2013 article awarded a prize for social justice journalism, writer Ted Genoways highlighted the health challenges of residents of a housing complex built in close proximity to the refineries:

“Cancer rates among African Americans in Jefferson County are roughly 15 percent higher than they are for the average Texan. Shockingly, the mortality rate from cancer is more than 40 percent higher. And cancer is only part of the story. A study by the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston found that residents of Port Arthur were four times more likely than people just 100 miles upwind to report suffering from heart and respiratory conditions; nervous system and skin disorders; headaches and muscle aches; and ear, nose, and throat ailments.”

The article also notes that while African Americans make up only 12 percent of the Texas population, people of color make up more than 66 percent of residents near the state’s most hazardous waste sites.All of this is of course made easier by state and local officials who receive financial incentives from energy companies in exchange for lax or nonexistent enforcement of environmental regulations.  It took years for the Texas legislature to close the loophole exempting refineries and power plants built before 1971 from regulation.  And in 2001 when the EPA was poised to impose ozone limiting restrictions affecting the Beaumont/Port Arthur area, the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission (TNRCC) carried the water of the energy industry and convinced the EPA that the levels that were being measure represented pollution drift from Houston, not local refining.  Thus additional regulations were delayed until 2007.

The addition of the pipeline only adds to the risk of environmental degradation and related health consequences.  And Port Arthur is not unique in that there is nationwide pattern of the poor and people of color being far more likely to live close to environmental hazards and to bear negative consequences from that exposure.

So it is particularly disheartening to see Congressional Black Caucus members Sheila Jackson Lee (Texas) and James Clyburn (Florida) cross party lines to vote in favor of the pipeline.  I suspect their votes were influenced by big money energy constituents (particularly in the case of Lee) and by the promise of “job creation”… though as it has been noted, the State Department review shows that only 35 permanent jobs would be created by the pipeline.  Thirty five.  How many cancer deaths are those jobs worth?


Resisting the white washing of Mandela

young Mandelaby Frederick Sparks

As with Martin Luther King, Jr., we see in the remembrances and tributes to Nelson Mandela a certain oversimplification, appropriation, and white washing of not only the complexity of his political history but of his comprehensive social justice philosophy.

Former senator and failed Republican presidential candidate compared his party’s fight against Obamacare to the “great injustice” Mandela fought against, apparently unaware that South Africa has universal health care.  The infamous man-on-man candidate would also take issue with Mandela’s support of LGBTQ rights, as the post apartheid South Africa enshrined in its constitution discrimination protections on the basis of sexual orientation and gender, something the U.S.A. has yet to accomplish.

We should also accurately recall the U.S.’s reluctance to fully support the struggle against apartheid.  Until 2008, our country labeled Mandela’s ANC a terrorist organization.

And just like King’s comments about economic inequality and in opposition to the Vietnam are glossed over for the safer parts of the I Have A Dream speech, largely ignored in the last few days have been Mandela’s critiques of American racism, warmongering and imperialism, and his unwavering support of the labor movement.

Moving beyond the superficial lip service tributes involves support of the comprehensive social justice philosophy Mandela embraced.

Why I’m not a fan of “Jesus shaming” the Republicans

by Frederick Sparks

In the wake of Republicans in the House of Representatives voting to cut the food stamp program by $39 billion, I’ve seen a lot of memes attempting to point out the hypocrisy of Republicans, who so explicitly embrace Christian religiosity on the campaign trial, yet seem at odds with the liberal socialist progressive Jesus of the gospels when it comes to their position on government spending for social safety net programs.  I have a negative reaction to this meme (especially coming from fellow skeptics), not just because I think it may misrepresent the character of Jesus that emerges from the biblical text but also because I ultimately find it to be an ineffective argument.

For one, I do not take Jesus’ admonition to give everything you have to the poor as a call for socialist wealth redistribution, but as a call to a life of religious asceticism by an eschatological preacher who saw the end as nigh.  I mean, this is the same Jesus who told a parable in which a servant who refuses to enrich his unjust master is the bad guy. And yes, I understand that the point of a parable is the not the explicit story, but the implicit message. Still, I think the choice of the explicit story matters.

Jesus also blithely asserted that “the poor will always be with you” (a repeat of Deuteronomy 15:11 by the way). If there is anything that progressive political philosophies have in common, I would think it is the idea that poverty can be eradicated, even if it involves the overhaul or overthrow of a current economic system that seems to necessitate a poor class.

But of course the inconsistent gospel narratives complicate any definite assertions about Jesus’ character and philosophy.  The larger issue is that I’m not sure how this argument will effect changes behavior, if that is the point.  For one, it seems to assume that bible quoting politicians actually sincerely believe what they say, a dubious assumption to say the least. Also, if the attempt is the change the mind of voters who have supported these politicians, I doubt if this will cut it.  Those who vote against their own economic interest have demonstrated their obdurate voting nature, particularly given the fact that food stamp usage increased in counties carried by Romney in 2012.

But also, conservatives already have a counter to the argument that they are not being “Christlike” with respect to the poor.  Jesus didn’t say the GOVERNMENT needed to feed the poor.  Republicans are not (supposedly) against charity, they just think it should be performed by churches and private individuals.

We have far more recent and coherent sources and justifications to argue for a progressive compassionate approach towards the less fortunate.  More time should be spend on articulating those arguments, not arguments based on the inconsistent bronze age book of mythology.


JT Eberhard lectures Black Woman on How to Respond to Naively Racist Questions

By Frederick Sparks

I was just about to write something on this when I saw that Jen McCreight said pretty much everything I was going to say, to a word, so read her post.  I will emphasize that , speaking of naiveté, the assertion that anyone who attends an atheist conference is an “ally” to every member of a marginalized social group is STEEPED in naiveté.

The Politics of Respectability, System Justification and those sagging pants

by Frederick Sparks

Ever since the Zimmerman verdict was announced, there has been a steady stream of black talking heads vying for the Bill Cosby Call Black People Out on Their Shit award. These sociopolitical observers embrace their task of exhortation to remind black people that we are indeed responsible for not only the verdict, but ultimately for most of the challenges plaguing our communities, because we are complicit in promoting images that justify the profiling and stereotyping of young black men, and otherwise make bad choices.

Actor Romany Malco, known primarily for the television show Weeds and the movie 40 Year Old Virgin penned a piece for the Huffington Post, in which he at one points laments the lack of critical thinking, yet follows up (in a section specifically addressed to young black people) by attributing the Zimmerman trial outcome to the fact that we lost the verdict by “using media outlets (music, movies, social media, etc.) as vehicles to perpetuate the same negative images and social issues that destroyed the black community in the first place. When we went on record glorifying violent crime and when we voted for a president we never thought to hold accountable.”

Once again, the responsibility for the outcome is put squarely on the shoulders of black people. As if there is no American historical precedent for the de-humanization of black men and the characterization of black men as criminals that NEVER needed a valid excuse.

CNN anchor Don Lemon got in on the act, deciding that in the wake of the Zimmerman verdict (apparently enough time had passed) it was time to give black America some ” tough love”. Lemon went on to say that Bill O’Reilly hadn’t gone far enough in recent comments about the problems of black Americans, and set out to enumerate 5 things that could be done to “fix” the community: 5) pull up your pants 4) stop using the N word 3) Don’t litter in your neighborhood (apparently white people don’t litter) 2) Finish school and 1) don’t have children out wedlock. On the surface nothing much seems wrong with these statements (though the litter one is strange, I’ve seen plenty of white people litter). The problem is elevating some of the issues, in particular sagging pants and negative mass media images of black Men, to a position of primacy in the hierarchy of causative factors for persistent racial socioeconomic inequality.

It’s all well and good to say “finish school” but how about examining the factors that attribute to high dropout rates, including punitive corrective measures such as expulsion and detention that are applied disproportionately to African American students for the same offenses as white students. When we have a criminal justice system that through the war on drugs, imprisons young black man at rates that are several multiples of that of their white counterparts, despite the fact that blacks and whites both sell and use drugs at similar rates (Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow should be required reading for anyone even attempting a discussion of contemporary racial disparity), when we have continuing joblessness in inner city communities that started with the shift from living wage paying manufacturing jobs to an economy based on financial services, when we have persistent wealth disparities between whites and blacks largely traceable to disparities in home ownership which are explained by far more factors that gangsta rap and sagging pants…when we have all these causative factors that are far more prominent in magnitude and far more insidious…this compulsion to always turn the conversation back to black behavioral choices is particularly short sighted, reductionist and troubling when it comes from black commentators.

And not only are many of these personal responsibility exhorters guilty of reductionism, they often make blithe assertions, backed with very little evidentially, about the nature of the African American community. Like “Black people are the only ones out here killing each other “, when murder is largely an intra-racial crime and most white murder victims are killed by white people. Or “Black people don’t care about/aren’t doing anything about black on black violence and crime in their own communities”, when blacks have always been active in efforts to curb violence in their communities.

Even the largely accepted assertion that the black community pervasively celebrates violence and criminality and has no shame around these issues is a dubious one. Michelle Alexander cites the work of law professor Donald Braman on the experience of families in Washington DC affected by mass incarceration. Contrary to popular belief, young men returning to these predominately black communities after serving prison terms faced a high degree of shame and stigma in their communities, stigma that extended to their families.

Even pointing to the popularity of gangster rap as evidence of pervasive black community celebration of violence and criminality is problematic. For one, as we know, the majority of the consumers are white. And has there not been a persistent celebration in popular culture, across racial lines, of criminals, rebels and counterculture figures? Does the love for the Sopranos and the Godfather and Bonnie and Clyde as works of art and fiction indicate a celebration and endorsement of the values of these characters? Are these images problematic? Sure they can be. And far from wholesale endorsement of these images among black people, there has been a long discussion and critique within the community about these images. I’m not convinced by the argument that these images therefore reflect cultural values or that they are the predominant contributor to the racist stereotyping and profiling of African American men. There’s too much historical precedent for the existence of that phenomenon without the need for a valid reason.

There’s also historical precedent for this type of critique by African Americans about African Americans. It’s the Booker T Washington-esque Politics of Respectability. Washington exhorted newly emancipated African Americans to prove themselves worthy of the franchise, worthy of being treated equal, by demonstrating thrift and industry, and eschewing indolence and wantonness ( Isn’t it amazing how even back then before gangsta rap and sagging pants the black masses somehow still managed to drag down the upwardly mobile blacks?) Then as now, the problem apparently was not continuing racial hostility and discrimination in a land that had been decimated economically by a war, but was instead traceable the behavioral choices and character flaws of black Americans.

I also believe the cognitive roots of this type of critique are explainable by System Justification Theory. People exhibit a tendency to defend the status quo, even if one belongs to a group disadvantaged by that the status. There is a psychological imperative to believe that one does exist within a just system. Implicit in these critiques of dysfunctional black behavior I see the embrace of the idea that America is at heart a true meritocracy, perhaps with a few racial distortions here and there. Yes there is some discrimination, but really the lived experiences of the masses are predominantly dictated by their behavior and choices. This is incredibly psychologically useful for the individual African American, who, while cognizant of racism, still needs to feel like the worse can’t happen to them because they are educated, professional, wear their pants at an appropriate level on their waist and in general made the right choices.  When a person’s “in group” status is precarious I think there is even more of tendency to dump on the marginalized (as we saw with virulent white ethnic immigrant opposition to racial integration) and to reinforce in one’s own mind the ultimate justice of the system.

There need be no false dichotomy between the recognition of continuing structural inequalities and the recognition of the need to be personally responsible and avoid counter-productive choices. But this discussion needs to be based in a context of comprehensive understanding of the issues facing the communities discussed, not on convenient rhetorical touchstones.  And I am bemused by the characterizations of these criticisms of black Americans as somehow novel or brave.  We exist within a social-political and media framework that repeatedly pushes the notion that the disadvantaged are largely responsible for their own plight, that victims must have played some role in their own fate, that those who are better off are better off because they are better people. Nothing new or brave about that.

Disparate rulings and intersectionality

by Frederick Sparks

After gutting the preclearance requirement of the Voting Rights Act, sending the Texas Affirmative Action case back to the lower court with instructions that almost surely guarantee a ruling against the University of Texas’ diversity admissions program, and raising the bar for demonstrating workplace discrimination, today the Supreme Court ruled that the Defense of Marriage Act is unconstitutional and the plaintiffs in the Proposition 8 case lacked standing, leaving in place the lower court ruling invalidating California’s ban on gay marriage. Now same-sex couples can marry in California, and same-sex couples in states who recognize their marriages will now receive equal federal benefits as other married couples.

Yet sadly I think a colleague of mine is correct when she says that these “disparate” rulings will inspire more black vs gay resentment, in a way that of course marginalizes black gays and lesbians. When perhaps the more cogent analysis is that marriage equality doesn’t threaten the oligarchy in the way that full voting, employment and educational access do.

Now it is important for the (white) LGBT community to stand with communities of color and other marginalized people on the broader issues of social justice.


Alton Lemon, civil rights and church/state separation activist, passes away.

Alton LemonBy Frederick Sparks

Alton T. Lemon, a civil rights activist who lent his name to a landmark Supreme Court case, died on May 4, 2013 in Jenkintown, Pennsylvania. He was 84

Mr Lemon, who held a degree in mathematics from Morehouse and was friendly with fellow Morehouse alum Martin Luther King, Jr., was the lead named plaintiff in Lemon v. Kurtzman, which found unconstitutional a 1968 Pennsylvania law authorizing public funds to be used for secular courses at religious school.  The decision later came to be a part of the “Lemon test” used to in cases alleging violations of the Establishment Clause through government support of religion.  The test requires that the Court  “consider whether the challenged government practice has a secular purpose, whether its primary effect is to advance or inhibit religion, and whether it fosters excessive government entanglement with religion..”   The test was used in the Dover intelligent design case, as well as cases dealing with school prayer.

I studied the Lemon test in law school but do not remember learning much background about the plaintiff involved, or the racial context related to resistance to public school desegregation which was behind the push to shift resources to private religious schools.

Mr Lemon had more recently lamented the erosion of church/state separation: “Separation of church and state is gradually losing ground, I regret to say.”

Professional basketball player Jason Collins comes out

by Frederick Sparks

“I’m a 34-year-old NBA center. I’m black. And I’m gay.”

Jason-CollinsIn case you hadn’t heard, NBA journeyman center Jason Collins has declared to the world that he is a gay man.   Collins entered the NBA twelve years ago, along with his twin Jarron, after the two played collegiate basketball at Stanford.  He is being hailed as the first out active male athlete in a major professional team sport in the U.S. (though some may argue that late baseball player Glenn Burke was the first).

Collins says he was inspired to come out after his former college roommate, current Massachusetts congressman Joe Kennedy, marched in a Boston gay pride parade:

I’m seldom jealous of others, but hearing what Joe had done filled me with envy. I was proud of him for participating but angry that as a closeted gay man I couldn’t even cheer my straight friend on as a spectator. If I’d been questioned, I would have concocted half truths. What a shame to have to lie at a celebration of pride. I want to do the right thing and not hide anymore. I want to march for tolerance, acceptance and understanding. I want to take a stand and say, “Me, too.”

The reaction across the twitter verse and blogsphere, with some exceptions, has been positive, with Kobe Bryant and other current and former players and coaches offering support.  ESPN analyst Chris Broussard, apparently troubled by Collins’ reference to his Christian upbringing and respect for Jesus Christ and how that fits into a viewpoint of tolerance and acceptance,  stated (on a sports show) that Jason couldn’t be a Christian and an “active” homosexual at the same time.  Also, some seem to believe that the fact that Jason’s twin Jarron is not gay means that homosexuality is a choice.

Collins is a free agent (meaning not under contract with any team), having done stints this season with both the Boston Celtics and Washington Wizards.  Now the question moves to whether his coming out will affect the decision making of team owners who would otherwise be interested in adding Collins to their rosters.   Golden State Warriors coach Mark Jackson, who works for an openly gay team President, felt the need to point out that he is a Christian man with a sense of right and wrong before saying that Collins would be welcome on his team “if he had game. If he could help this team”.

Beyond the reaction of people in the sports world, what intrigues (and annoys) me is the reaction of commentators who wonder why this is a big deal and throw out inane chestnuts about how straight people don’t announce that they are straight.  This is the blind spot of social privilege..not recognize that straight people quite often announce their sexuality in many ways (wearing wedding rings, referring to wives and husbands) that go unnoticed because it is the expected norm.  It also smacks of the sentiment that the problem is not with bias, but with discussing bias, and with discussing issues of identity that are related to bias.