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

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...]

Atheism for the New Millennium

By Naima Cabelle Washington

In his autobiography, Mirror to America, Dr. John Hope Franklin writes, “From the very beginning of my own involvement in the academy, the goal I sought was to be a scholar with credentials as impeccable as I could achieve. At the same time I was determined to be as active as I could in the fight to eradicate the stain of racism that clouded American intellectual and academic life even as it poisoned other aspects of American society…. While I set out to advance my professional career on the basis of the highest standards of scholarship, I also used that scholarship to expose the hypocrisy underlying so much of American social and race relations.”

During his career, John Hope Franklin encouraged his students and colleagues to embrace both scholarship and activism. On October 7, 2011, I thought about those words while listening to Sikivu Hutchinson, author of Moral Combat: Black Atheists, Gender Politics, and the Values Wars, as she made her presentation at the 4th Annual Texas Freethought Convention in Houston, Texas. I have no doubt that Dr. Franklin, who is the recipient of hundreds of awards including the Presidential Medal of Freedom, a prominent historian and noted African American scholar, would agree that Sikivu is using her own scholarship, her credentials, and her professional career in her fight to eradicate the stain of racism that is clouding the vision of the intellectual, academic, and secular communities.

The content of her talk presented a secular audience with America’s historical inequities, as well as a contemporary picture of America, and it is not a very pretty picture. The grim unemployment figures, the housing crises, the lack of access to a quality education, the abysmal health care crisis and the frontal assaults on the human rights of people who are denied access to basic services have all served to further marginalize the already oppressed or under-served segments of our society: people of color, women, children, the poor, sick, elderly, and disabled. In the most professional, eloquent, yet no-nonsense fashion possible, she delivered some very bad news to her audience. I was proud to be in that auditorium and to witness a presentation that met every standard of excellence. Here was an activist and a scholar who was at her best, yet privately she expressed doubts as to whether the audience, which was virtually all-white, really heard and understood what she said, or if her message, had in fact, fell on deaf ears. She said the members of the audience appeared to be uniformly unresponsive; that their faces were blank and expressionless. I have tried to picture an audience as it listens to the recounting of the social, physical, and economic horrors inflicted on human beings who lived in the past. I’ve tried to picture an audience that has also been made brutally aware of the continuation of those horrors even in the year 2011, and frankly, I can only imagine faces that may appear to be expressionless. The audience members who were already aware of some of the things she spoke of were certainly confronted with a new awareness as she explained with a new clarity how race, class, gender, and religion are issues that are connected, interwoven, and are literally devastating hundreds of millions of people in America and throughout the world.

Whenever these issues are raised, I’m reminded that I must assume both the collective and personal responsibility for aiding and abetting in the ultimate dismemberment of these anti-human power structures. The content of her presentation failed to mirror that of the usual hand-wringing lectures concerning the religiosity of African Americans. Instead, her presentation put each member of the secular community on notice; and let them know that beyond the challenges to theism, they also have the responsibility to challenge all anti-human power structures. I happen to believe that the members of her audience were serious people because frivolous non-thinkers won’t attend, much less pay to hear, thoughtful discussions. If the members of the audience were hearing for the first time the genuine “state of the union” spelled out for them in unapologetic language, then they had good reasons for looking expressionless. There was much to think about, and there is even much more to do!

Religion has certainly taken a toll on humanity. The cultural and psychological wounds will remain long after the stranglehold of religious instutitions on society is broken. But religious institutions clearly have not functioned without the assistance of nearly every corrupt secular institution; and over time, religious institutions have interacted with, replaced, and certainly worked in concert with secular institutions whenever possible and whenever necessary. Yet, breaking religious institutions’ stranglehold on society (which will indeed be a cause for celebration) will still leave much of our ethnic, gender, and class issues unresolved. Currently these issues are scattered throughout the social landscape just like landmines ―- hiding in plain sight as they readily explode as though connected to motion-detectors. A presentation that notes how most forms of oppression reinforce one another; cites historical data; uses contemporary models, and points to an even more horrific future should we fail to address all power structures designed to deny social justice and universal human rights, certainly delivers the psychological equivalent of physical blunt force trauma.

We must have a total transformation of values that informs all relationships ―- a system which evaluates and improves how we deal with societal ills; a system that leaves little room for the exploitation, violence, and inhumanity which is currently taking place. We must all elevate our private and collective consciousness if we are to effectively answer this urgent call. Having open, respectful, and honest dialogue in the secular community would be a good place to start; educating ourselves about the issues is a must; collaborating, working in concert with people both inside and outside of the community is also a must; toward the development of a collective leadership within the secular community. There are no easy answers and no shortcuts for transforming our society. There is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ solution, and the process will last as long as humanity lasts.

After our boldest and most influential critical thinkers in the secular community have confronted and confounded the enemies of reason; after they appear to have said all that there is to say, Sikivu Hutchinson has stepped forward to demand the expansion of the discussion beyond the separation of church and state by illuminating the conditions that exist in America, especially with regard to oppressed and marginalized people. She is a disciplined, first-rate intellectual and speaks with authority on the issues of race, class, gender, and religion. She represents the role model for the atheists of this millennium who are ready to work towards a total societal transformation and who reject a piecemeal approach. With respect to her ability to accurately articulate the totality of the problems that we must face as well as outline what must be done to move towards the achievement of social justice and universal human rights, Sikivu Hutchinson has no equal.

Naima Cabelle Washington is an atheist, feminist and socialist activist who currently serves on the board of the Washington Area Secular Humanist Board of Directors and publishes the D.C. Atheist Advocate.