Radical Humanists in the Hood: Moving Social Justice 2014

CFI parking lot Kim Jenn Darren J

Black Skeptics Chicago, BSLA, Chocolate City Skeptics & Black Atheists of Philadelphia represent

Black Church LGBTQ

“Confronting Homophobia & Transphobia” in the Black Church w/Jenn Taylor, Raina Rhoades, Rev M. Moises & Teka Lark Fleming

By Sikivu Hutchinson

It was fitting that our recent Moving Social Justice conference in Los Angeles coincided with the Week of Resistance in Ferguson and a Week of Action against school push-out of black and brown youth.  In the midst of massive mobilizations around state violence and police terrorism much ink has been spilled over whether or not social justice “conforms” to atheist orthodoxy.  The majority of the naysayers have been white dudebros (and a few status quo POCs) shrieking from their perches of privilege about the corruption of atheism by people of color and white allies who give a fuck about the deepening socioeconomic, racial and gender divide in the imperialist U.S.  With the GOP potentially poised to take over the Senate and further cement its far right neoliberal anti-human rights agenda for generations to come (with the help of corporate Dems) the political stakes for communities of color couldn’t be higher.  Given this climate, the tantrums of first world atheist “purists” are not surprising.  When black people talk about the connection between racist prison pipelining and Jim Crow in STEM education of course white atheists want to deflect with how all black folk need is a trip to Darwin Day.  For the first time atheist and humanist activists of color are getting organized around an agenda that isn’t all about religion bashing and caricaturing black and Latino believers.  This new brand of activist refuses to let the dudebros and POC apologists do their colorblind shuck and jive in the name of some fake atheist solidarity.

That said, Moving Social Justice was a beautiful thing.  It was a multiethnic, multi-regional, intergenerational gathering of atheists and religious allies of color who live, work in and/or identify with “the hood” and POC legacies of resistance struggle.  For the first time ever racial justice—without apology or accommodation to white people’s let’s-ghettoize-this-into-a-diversity-panel reflex—was the focal point of an atheist-humanist conference.

BSLA's Daniel Myatt w/Claremont & Pitzer Colleges students

BSLA’s Daniel Myatt w/Claremont & Pitzer Colleges students

Sponsored by the People of Color Beyond Faith network, Black Skeptics Group, African Americans for Humanism, CFI and the Secular Student Alliance, the conference spotlighted the intersection of secular humanism, social justice activism and interfaith coalition building.  The event was emceed by hip hop artist and Chocolate City Skeptics member MC Brooks. It kicked off with a panel on “Confronting Homophobia and Transphobia in the Black Church” moderated by Teka-Lark Fleming of the Morningside Park Chronicle, the discussion featured Raina Rhoades of Chocolate City Skeptics, Jenn Taylor of Black Atheists of Philadelphia and Reverend Meredith Moises.  The panelist critiqued the culture of religious abuse, black male heterosexism, corruption and the “quelling of unrest” in Ferguson by some black churches.  During the “LGBTQ Atheists of Color and Social Justice” panel, Reverend Meredith Moise, a practicing Buddhist and spiritual humanist, captured the sentiment of the event when she said “I don’t live in the (white) gay ghettoes I live in the hood and I roll with ya’ll.”  Skillfully moderated by Black Freethinkers founder Kimberly Veal, the panel debunked mainstream myths and stereotypes about interracial queer solidarity in an age of rigid segregation and police state violence.  Veal informed the audience that recent CDC grants for HIV/AIDS prevention shafted black organizations.  Panelists Debbie Goddard and A.J. Johnson drew comparisons between white atheists’ fixation on their “underdog” status and that of white gay men.  All four women slammed the hypocrisy of mainstream gay and lesbian emphasis on marriage equality while queer and trans people of color deal with epidemic rates of HIV/AIDS contraction, homelessness, joblessness and anti-trans violence (trans people of color have the highest rates of violent assault among trans communities).

LGBTQ Atheists of Color w/M. Moises, AJ Johnson, Debbie Goddard & Kim Veal

LGBTQ Atheists of Color w/M. Moises, AJ Johnson, Debbie Goddard & Kim Veal

Queer white youth aren’t disproportionately bounced out of school or sent to prison for minor infractions.  Yet these disparities are reflected in the high rates of criminalization of queer, trans and straight youth of color.  At the schools I work at the majority of those who are being suspended, arrested and shipped off campus are African American.  A few months ago Black Skeptics joined the Dignity in Schools campaign, a national coalition to redress the push-out regime in public schools.  During the conference, a panel entitled “Busting the School-to-Prison Pipeline” featured activists from three leading L.A.-based juvenile justice and prisoner advocacy organizations.  Moderated by Thandisizwe Chimurenga, author of No Doubt: The Murder(s) of Oscar Grant, the panel highlighted the destructive impact of mass incarceration on black and Latino communities nationwide.  Tanisha Denard from the Youth Justice Coalition became an activist after being briefly incarcerated for truancy tickets as a student in the Los Angeles Unified School District.  The Dignity and Power Coalition’s Mark Anthony discussed how his organization has spearheaded the effort to create a civilian review board with the power to curb rampant inmate abuse in the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department.

Moving out of the insular world of social media and the Internet, the “#beyondsolidarityisforwhitewomen: Feminism(s) of Color” panel highlighted the work of L.A.-based feminist organizers from working class communities of color.  All of the women on the panel spoke of the need for intersectional alliances and organizing strategies that recognize the complexities of class, geography, sexuality and gender in one of the most segregated regions in the U.S.  Organizer Yolanda Alaniz of the socialist organization Radical Women spoke of the importance of interracial labor activism in a neoliberal economy where public employee unions—many of which are dominated by women of color members—are being gutted and demonized.  There was heated discussion about the implications of respectability politics for black women.  Moderator Angela Plaid of The Feminist Wire and Nourbese Flint of Black Women for Wellness commented that black women have always been constructed as sexually promiscuous “hos” and that the monomaniacal focus on sex-positivity by some white feminists is irrelevant for feminists of color fighting against

Feminisms of Color w/Yolanda Alaniz, Marlene Montanez, Heina D., Nourbese F, & Andrea Plaid

Feminisms of Color w/Yolanda Alaniz, Marlene Montanez, Heina Dadabhoy, Nourbese Flint, & Andrea Plaid

criminalization and economic disenfranchisement in militarized communities.  Considering schisms between black and Latino communities over immigration, jobs and language, the panelists also stressed the need to complicate mainstream views of undocumented communities due to the frequent exclusion of African and Asian immigrants from liberal-progressive campaigns for immigrant rights.  Freethought Blogs writer Heina Dadabhoy reflected on being socialized into the dominant culture’s divisive model minority myth which is based on the stereotype that Asian Americans bootstrapped their way to success in contrast to “less high-achieving” African Americans and Latinos.  Panelists also discussed the media’s portrayal of the Ray Rice case vis-à-vis how sexist misogynist condemnations of Janae Rice intersected with racial stereotypes about black male violence.

In a panel entitled “What’s Race Got to Do With It?” six atheists of color discussed the pros and cons of “inclusivity” versus “accommodation” as well as racism and intersectionality in the atheist movement.  Much of the panel unpacked the constant pressure people of color feel to educate “well-meaning” white people about their investment in racism, white privilege and white supremacy.  Panelists Georgina Capetillo of Secular Common Ground and Frank Anderson of Black Skeptics Chicago acknowledged the insidiousness of white privilege in the movement but argued that white allies need to be actively engaged.  Raina Rhoades, Anthony Pinn of Rice University and Donald Wright of the Houston Black Non-Believers contended that it was incumbent upon white people to educate themselves and stop expecting people of color to play the role of native informant.  Moderator Daniel Myatt of Black Skeptics Los Angeles asked panelists to evaluate the impact of secular organizations of color on social justice versus that of black churches.  Wright argued that, given the relative newness and scarcity of secular POC social justice organizations, it remains to be seen what impact they will have.

Racism & Intersectionality w/Frank Anderson, Georgina Capetillo, Sergio Ortega, Donald Wright & Tony Pinn

Racism & Intersectionality w/Frank Anderson, Georgina Capetillo, Sergio Ortega, Donald Wright,Tony Pinn & Daniel Myatt

This is an important caveat as the backlash against anti-racist intersectional atheism continues and white atheist organizations reveal themselves to be less interested in POC communities than “minority” dollars and “minority” faces at conferences.  Next year’s conference will be held in Houston, Texas.

MC Brooks closes with original work

MC Brooks closes with original work

Godless Americana: Race and Religious Rebels NOW AVAILABLE

Godless_cover (2) 

Over the past several years, the Right has spun the fantasy of colorblind, post-racial, post-feminist American exceptionalism. This Orwellian narrative anchors the most blistering conservative assault on secularism, civil rights, and public education in the post-Vietnam War era. It is no accident that this assault has occurred in an era in which whites have over twenty times the wealth of African Americans. For many communities of color, victimized by a rabidly Religious Right, neo-liberal agenda, the American dream has never been more of a nightmare than it is now. Godless Americana is a radical humanist analysis of this climate. It provides a vision of secular social justice that challenges Eurocentric traditions of race, gender, and class-neutral secularism. For a small but growing number of non-believers of color, humanism and secularism are inextricably linked to the broader struggle against white supremacy, patriarchy, heterosexism, capitalism, economic injustice, and global imperialism. Godless Americana critiques these titanic rifts and the role white Christian nationalism plays in the demonization of urban communities of color.

 
Godless Americana is a MUST READ!” Kimberly Veal, Black Non-Believers of Chicago (GOODREADS REVIEW)

 

 “Hutchinson notes that being an atheist is not enough to affect any real change. One can be an atheist in isolation simply by not believing in God. Becoming a humanist, by contrast, entails working for social justice. For blacks to make atheism relevant to the larger African American community they cannot simply emphasize science and critical thinking but must instead help feed people, train them for jobs, and offer assistance to prisoners trying to reenter society, among other issues.” Chris Cameron, University of North Carolina
 
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Leaving Jesus: Women of Color Beyond Faith

Mandisa Thomas

By Sikivu Hutchinson

The 24-hour prayer sessions are the true test of a warrior for Jesus.  They require Herculean stamina, the patience of Job, the rigor of elite marathon runners hitting the wall in a fiery sweat pit at high altitude, primed for God’s finish line. In many small storefront Pentecostal churches these “pray-a-thons” are women’s spaces; hubs of music, food, caregiving, and intense witnessing.  My student Stacy Castro* is a bass player in her Pentecostal church’s band.  She is also the pastor’s daughter and a regular participant in the pray-a-thons, a mainstay in some evangelical congregations. Much of her weekends are focused on church activities. And though she is an intelligent gifted speaker, up until her participation in the Women’s Leadership Project she thought little about pursuing college and wanted to go to cosmetology school.  Stacy’s aspirations are not atypical of students at Washington Prep High School in South Los Angeles.  In a community that is dominated by churches of every stripe only a small minority go on to four year colleges and universities.

Over the past decade, Pentecostal congregations have burgeoned in urban communities nationwide, as Pentecostalism has exploded amongst American Latinos disgruntled by rigid Catholic hierarchies, alienating racial politics, and sexual abuse scandals.  The gendered appeal of Pentecostalism is highlighted in a 2008 American Religious Identification Survey which concludes that, “Latino religious polarization may be influenced by a gender effect, as in the general U.S. population, with men moving toward no religion and women toward more conservative religious traditions and practices. Two traditions at opposite poles of the religious spectrum exhibit the largest gender imbalance: the None population is heavily male (61%) while the Pentecostal is heavily female (58%). Italics added.”[i]

In my book, Moral Combat: Black Atheists, Gender Politics, and the Values Wars, I argued that the literature on secularism and gender does not capture the experiences of women of color negotiating racism, sexism, and poverty in historically religious communities.  The relative dearth of secular humanist and freethought traditions amongst women of color cannot be separated from the broader context of white supremacy, gender politics, and racial segregation.  Harlem Renaissance-era writers Nella Larsen and Zora Neale Hurston are generally acknowledged as pioneering twentieth century black women freethinkers.  Yet what few women’s freethought histories there are celebrate the political influence of prominent nineteenth century white women non-believers, [Read more…]

Return of the Welfare Queens: Feminism, Secularism, Anti-Racism

By Sikivu Hutchinson

The percentage of white feminists who are concerned about racism is still a minority of the movement, and even within this minority those who are personally sensitive and completely serious about formulating an activist challenge to racism are fewer still.  Barbara Smith, Home Girls: A Black Feminist Anthology

In the American imagination, Black women are the poster children for disreputable irresponsible motherhood and Latina “illegals” a close second.  From birth to adolescence every girl of color must navigate a political climate in which Ronald Reagan’s racist welfare queen caricature casts long shadows.  Ending its noble boycott of covering black women, the L.A. Times recently served up some red meat for welfare queen watchers.  The front page featured an extensive profile of 27 year-old Natalie Cole, a jobless unmarried unskilled black mother with four kids.  Entitled “Caught in the Cycle of Poverty” the article trots out an expert from Harvard who sagely proclaims that “poverty is bad for kids”; offering no further analysis on how the richest most militarized nation on the planet pimps out its children.  Instead, we are regaled with Cole’s hot mess of personal failure and pathology.  Coming from a long line of young single mothers, by the time she was 17 she was raising two children.  She can’t be bothered to do a résumé or use birth control to avoid having a fifth child.  The prayer “God in heaven, hear my prayer keep me in thy loving care” is taped to her bedroom wall.  Needless to say she will not be getting her Oxygen, TLC or Lifetime reality show any time soon.

The article was especially timely, tragic, and enraging because I recently found out that one of my most inquisitive students is pregnant at 16.  Several of my Women’s Leadership Project alums, who worked their asses off to become the first in their families to go to college, speak of friends that have had children shortly after graduating from high school.  As budding feminists they are overly familiar with the “validation” pregnancy supposedly provides working class young women of color inundated with media propaganda that hyper-sexualizes black and Latina bodies and demonizes abortion.

In this South Los Angeles school-community only a small fraction of the student body goes on to college and many youth are in foster care, often having to raise themselves.  Small evangelical store front churches grossly outnumber living wage job centers, God and Jesus are touted as some of the biggest “cultural” influences, and high teen pregnancy rates are a symptom of the expendability of “other people’s children” (to quote education activist Lisa Delpit).  Thirty years ago scoring a living wage job with benefits was still a possibility for a South L.A. teenager with only a high school diploma.  Now, having a college degree is the bare minimum for getting a decent paying job.  However the regime of mass incarceration has made the barriers to college-going even higher for youth of color.  One in six black men has been incarcerated and in some instances whites with criminal records elicit more favorable responses from employers than do black or Latino applicants with no records.  Mainstream media focus on the staggering unemployment rates of men of color has eclipsed attention to the economic downturn’s equally devastating impact on black women.  Deepening segregation, diminishing job prospects due to the gutting of public sector employment (23% of black women are employed in public sector jobs) and mental health crises have pushed more women of color into the church pews, or, alternative spirituality, with a vengeance. [Read more…]

2011: Year of the Black Atheists

By Frederick Sparks

OK, the title may be a tad hyperbolic, but in 2011, we have seen increased media coverage of black nonbelievers.

Sikivu Hutchinson’s must-read Moral Combat: Black Atheists, Gender Politics and the Values War was published in February, garnering rave reviews and enhancing the demand for the author as a speaker on the topics of race, feminism, sexual orientation, and politics as brought to bear on the secular movement.

In July, long time black publication Ebony magazine featured a piece by Alix Jules, director of the Fellowship of Freethought in Dallas, TX.  Jules emphasized that freethought involves taking full accountability for one’s life.

But the last few weeks saw a rush of articles, starting with a New York Times piece on black nonbelievers in late November.  Following the Times article, The Root, an African American focused online magazine conceived by Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates and Facebook chairman Donald Graham, commenced a series (to the chagrin of some of their regular readers) on black atheists.   And finally, CNN’s religion blog posted a radio interview and accompanying write-up concerning the experience of Black atheists in the American south.

The exposure, incremental though it may be, has an impact.   The Black Atheist Facebook group (discussed in the NY Times article) has seen a 25% increase in membership over the past few weeks. And as I noted in a previous post, fictional depictions of black atheists help to normalize the experience of black nonbelievers .  It follows that the presentation of real life black atheist experience is even more useful.

But none of this exposure would have taken place without the hard work of many people over the past several years. A well deserved thanks goes to the local group organizers, writers, lecturers, online group organizers and administrators, and others who provide a space for black atheists to connect, share ideas and be active.  Let’s keep it going!

Prayer Warriors and Freethinkers (on the Texas Freethought Con)

 

by Sikivu Hutchinson

Excerpt From: The New Humanism

The prayer warriors have descended on the Crenshaw parking lot in South L.A.
The first sentry, a slight man in athletic shorts, weaves through the parked
cars on an old Schwinn. He flags down the driver of a T-Bird. They exchange
quick greetings then bow their heads and join hands, oblivious, for the moment,
to the crash of street traffic, the manic dance for parking spots, the rustle of
grocery bags and runaway shopping carts. On this hallowed plot of blacktop time
is suspended and God vibrates through the chassis of each parked car, as the men
bond in the simple bliss of scripture.

I caught the parking lot prayer warriors a week before I was scheduled to
speak at the Texas Freethought Convention, an annual October gathering of non-believers in
Houston. It was an ironic send-off for my pending trip, reminder of the visceral
grip of everyday Jesus and the unique challenges of black secularism. Five years
ago, two men holding hands in this particular lot might have elicited homophobic
double takes or a beat down. But now, the public performance of prayer, street
preaching and proselytizing in urban communities of color is back with a
revivalist vengeance borne of the vicious arc of recession.

Long before it became fashionable to lament the demise of the American dream,
joblessness, foreclosure and homelessness were a fact of life for many in
predominantly black and Latino South Los Angeles. Indeed, it has been said that
when America catches a cold black America gets the flu. The titanic wealth gap
between white and black America means that fewer young African Americans will be
able to meet much less exceed the standard of living enjoyed by their parents.
Over the past decade, socioeconomic mobility for black college graduates has
actually declined. At 8.7% of L.A. County’s population, African Americans are
50% of its homeless and 40% of its prison population. MORE@ http://thenewhumanism.org/authors/sikivu-hutchinson/articles/prayer-warriors-and-freethinkers

Standing with Troy Davis as a Non-Believer

By Sikivu Hutchinson

This is a day of outrage for all who believe in justice and morality. The pending execution of Georgia Death Row inmate Troy Davis is an egregious reminder of the vicious cycle of immoral lynch mob justice that masquerades as due process in the United States, the exceptionalist “Christian Nation.” With 25% of the world’s prison population, the U.S. has devolved into the largest penitentiary on the planet. For poor people of color, the revolving door of incarceration often starts in K-12 schools that disproportionately suspend, transfer and expel black and Latino youth. But the media framing of black youth as violent lawless criminals influences their sense of self-image much earlier. When it comes to black youth, mainstream images of urban communities as crime-ridden cesspits with dysfunctional families shape the cultural perceptions of teachers, administrators, policymakers and law enforcement. These images disfigure the psyches of very young black children who see white lives humanized, prized and valued in the white supremacist American TV and film industries. Clearly, If Davis had been a white defendant the international outcry over his death sentence would have led to clemency. But in a nation in which African Americans are presumed guilty until proven innocent, the recanted testimony of seven witnesses is not enough to spare the life of an innocent black man.

Over the past several weeks, many prayers have been offered for Davis, his family and other Death Row inmates who may have been wrongly convicted. Certainly humanist atheists like me believe that the atrocity of Davis’ pending execution is yet another example of Epicurus’ caveat about the impotence of “God.” But the national visibility and leadership of the faith community around this issue highlights the need to develop explicitly secular humanist culturally responsive traditions for coping with death, mourning and grief in communities of color. It also highlights the continued need for the so-called secular movement to speak out on state-sanctioned human rights abuses perpetrated upon communities of color right here in the U.S.

At 9% of the Los Angeles Unified School District student population, black children are over 30% of those suspended. At 9% of the L.A. County population, black children and adults are nearly 40% of the County’s incarcerated population. In the final analysis, segregation, white supremacy and economic disenfranchisement—as well as heterosexism and patriarchy—keep many blacks and Latinos beholden to the faith community and faith traditions. Secularists who can’t wrap their mind around that, and continue to bemoan the lack of “diversity” in the movement, are a waste of crucial time and energy.

As activists across the globe stand for Davis against the all-American death machine, it should be clear that true justice has no faith and no religion.

Sikivu Hutchinson is the author of Moral Combat: Black Atheists, Gender Politics, and the Values Wars.

A Long Overdue Tribute to Black Women Non-Theists, By Norm R. Allen Jr.









One of my great regrets as a full-time secular humanist activist is that I never started my proposed pamphlet of quotations from African American women non-theists. Compared to when I first became involved with organized humanism, there are quite a few African American women that have come out of the closet and are eager and willing to make their voices heard.

Why not begin with Sikivu Hutchinson of the Black Skeptics? Hutchinson is the author of the excellent book Moral Combat: Black Atheists, Gender Politics, and the Values Wars. She has taken an impressive leadership role with the Black Skeptics. Her strong focus upon feminism, LGBT rights, and other progressive causes makes her refreshing among Black women non-theists.

Hutchinson and other Black women non-theists are able and willing to critique biblically based patriarchy, sexism, and misogyny in ways their religious counterparts never would. (NEWS FLASH: The biblical writers were primarily patriarchs living in a rigidly patriarchal society. How could biblical teachings regarding women not be sexist to the core?) Hutchinson has demonstrated that paradoxically, the same Bible that gives so many Black women solace is the same book that is responsible for so much of the suffering from which they seek solace. That is to say, the Bible causes the sickness and then suggests a cure.

Debbie Goddard has taken an active leadership role in organized humanism for quite some time. Even during high school she founded a philosophy group that appealed to atheists. While at Temple University she started a freethought group, and she eventually became a major leader in campus outreach throughout the U.S.

Goddard is an “out” lesbian that has been engaged in LGBT activism. She now heads African Americans for Humanism (AAH), the organization I founded in 1989. She and I shared offices near one another for many years, and we were usually the last ones to leave the building. It seems unlikely that anyone in the humanist movement has a stronger work ethic than Goddard.

Ayanna Watson heads the Black Atheists of America. She has conducted and broadcast interviews with Black atheists from all over the U.S. She has made her thoughts known on You Tube. She hosted a conference in New York. She has generated much controversy as a result of her biblical critiques.

Elayne Jones was one of the first African American tympani players with a major U.S. symphony. She rejected religion as a young adult and sought a sense of community with the Ethical Society. She has strong roots in Barbados, and she and I made attempts to start a humanist group there. Jones started a humanist group in a retirement community in Walnut Creek, California, where she has lived for several years.

Crystal Coleman was actively involved with the Black American Freethought Association (BAFTA) headquartered in Albany, New York. Coleman worked closely with McKinley Jones, the group’s founder. Coleman and Jones did research to uncover the history of Black American humanists in the Civil Rights movement.

Jamila Bey of Washington, D.C. has become a major humanist spokesperson in recent years. Bey has written about the need for African American women to come out of the closet and openly acknowledge their unbelief. She has spoken at conferences in Washington, D.C., Indianapolis, Boston (at Harvard), and other cities. She has been featured on major radio programs, including National Public Radio with me.

Mercedes Diane Griffin is the former managing director of the Institute for Humanist Studies. She writes a blog titled “Unscripted.” She is attempting to attract more African Americans, women, LGBT people, and young people to organized humanism. Her outreach includes combating HIV/AIDS among African Americans, in particular. For Griffin, an emphasis upon social justice will do far more to attract African Americans to humanism than mere atheism or scientific issues. As a full-time African American humanist activist, like Goddard, she is in rare company.

Carolyn M. Dejoie is a professor emerita at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She is a former Catholic, who, out of a sense of frustration and a need for community, joined the Unitarian Universalist Society. Later, she founded the Secular Humanist Society of Madison, Wisconsin and networked with like-minded people throughout the U.S. She might have been the first African American woman to have established such a group.

Last, but not least, is the atheist Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Ali, a Somali author and activist, now lives in the U.S. She has written such books as Infidel, in which she castigates Muslims and glorifies Western civilization. Not surprisingly, she was warmly embraced by the Bush administration and the ultra-conservative American Enterprise Institute. Still, her critiques of Islam have often been on the money.

I hope to one day start and finish my proposed pamphlet for African American women non-theists. Meanwhile, let’s honor these women and hope that, soon, Women’s Studies scholars will do likewise.