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

Hollywood’s Tea Party

American hustle doll test updated

By Sikivu Hutchinson

Ah the splendor of black music.  What would white supremacist civilization do without it?  Homegrown, soulful, it is the forbidden spice in a thousand scenes of white folk romancing, cutting loose, getting it on and minding the empire’s business. Black dynamism has always been a wellspring for white theft.  For many people of color, going to 21st century movies is a soul-sucking exercise in being trained to see power through white eyes, often with the strategic pomp of a black soundtrack.  Death by trailer, it is the masochistic pleasure of being bludgeoned into mental submission by the narrative of white heroism (in the form of Mark Wahlberg, Matt Damon and George Clooney), white hetero-normative romance (in the form of faceless anorexic white girls and boys slobbering over and devouring each other) and white domesticity in white picket fence communities.

Generations after psychologists Kenneth and Mamie Clark’s 1947 doll test experiment on racial identification (which has been updated several times over the past decade), children’s images of whiteness remain rigidly framed through the lens of humanity, civilization, ingenuity, genius, beauty and morality. When children of color see themselves at all in American film it is as ethnic exotica, sidekicks for the enterprising white boy/girl protagonist or fly-in-the-buttermilk diversity mascots fleshing out a classroom scene. According to a 2012 study by the USC Annenberg School, 76.3% of all speaking characters in American film were white while whites comprise 56% of U.S. ticket buyers. By contrast, Latinos comprise 26% of ticket buyers and 17% of the U.S. population, yet account for only 4.3% of speaking roles in film.

In 2013, the American film industry raked in over 10 billion in profits, plowing over people of color who now comprise the majority of California’s population.  In the new film American Hustle blacks, Latinos and Arabs are the colorful backdrop to the ribald shenanigans of a cunning yet endearing white couple cruising toward redemption and nuclear family-hood in New Jersey. [Read more…]

The War Against Black Children

 kingdrew boys

By Sikivu Hutchinson

In a predominantly Black South L.A. continuation school class packed with eleventh and twelfth grade girls, only half want to go to college, few can name role models of color and virtually none have been exposed to literature by women of color.  Demonized as the most expendable of the expendable, Black continuation school students are routinely branded as too “at risk”, “challenged” and “deficit-laden” to be “college material”.  Coming from backgrounds of abuse, incarceration, foster care and homelessness, these youth are already written off as budding welfare queens and baby mamas.  They are at the epicenter of the war against Black children. 

State-sanctioned terrorism against Black children is commonly understood as murder, harassment, and racial profiling–overt acts of violence which elicit marches, pickets, mass resistance and moral outrage.  Last week, Republicans and Democrats alike fell all over themselves to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the tragic murder of four African American girls in the 16th Street Church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama.  Such overt acts of organized white supremacist terrorism against Black children have largely receded.  Instead, they have been replaced by the socially acceptable state violence of school-to-prison pipelining, racist low expectations and the illusion of equal educational opportunity in the “post Jim Crow” era of re-segregated schools.

 Last spring, in an offensive commencement speech to Morehouse College graduates, President Obama launched into his standard refrain about personal responsibility, sagging pants and absent fathers.  Checking shiftless Black youth has long been one of his favorite presidential past-times.  As progressive Black pundits have noted, this narrative not only plays well in Peoria, but on the global stage.  For a nation brainwashed into believing the U.S. is an exceptionalist beacon, the underachievement of black students has become both shorthand for and explanation of its low standing in academic rankings.  According to this view, the achievement gap between (lazy) Black and (enterprising) white and Asian students “drags” down the U.S.’ global academic standing.  Steeped in a culture of pathology, native-born African American youth “squander” the opportunities seized upon by newly arrived immigrant students of color.

 As a 2013 high school graduate and first generation college student of mixed heritage, Ashley Jones is well acquainted with toxic anti-black propaganda.  She says, “Being Black and Thai…if I do well on a test or in class, then some people will comment, ‘that’s your Asian side.’”  Jones comes from a South L.A. school where it is not uncommon for teachers to reflexively track students into college prep, honors and Advanced Placement (AP) classes according to race and ethnicity.  She comments, “If you were to ask these same people about race, they would tell you we are all equal and anyone can achieve anything they set their mind to, but when you listen to them talk at nutrition and lunch, you hear Blackness constantly associated with violence,  ‘being ghetto’, and a lack of intellectual abilities.” A recent L.A. Times article about Kashawn Campbell, a high-achieving African American graduate of South L.A.’s Jefferson High School who struggled to get C’s and D’s at UC Berkeley, exemplifies these sentiments.  The over 700 responses on the article’s comment thread were relentless: the young man’s plight was due to inflated expectations, laziness, outright sloth, and the natural intellectual inferiority of African Americans.  Even the National Review picked up the piece and dubbed it an example of a “Devastating Affirmative Action Failure.” Why, many commenters howled contemptuously, didn’t Campbell’s slot go to a “real” achiever, i.e., a hardworking Asian or white student who genuinely deserved it? Missing from the near universal condemnations of affirmative action was the fact that Campbell’s freshman performance at UC Berkeley reflects the deficits of a neo-liberal public education system in which even high achieving students of color may be grossly under-prepared [Read more…]

The American Atheists 2011 Convention


By Naima Cabelle

I tend to dislike conventions, large conferences, etc., as opposed to smaller groups where there’s a greater possibility for more individual interaction. Had I not understood that an unprecedented number of people of color and women were invited as convention speakers at the April 2011 American Atheists convention, there would have been no incentive for me to go. Even so, I had to justify my attendance after considering the expense and time commitment. I decided to go because I certainly wanted to be present as well as support other women and people of color. However, I also wanted to do more than just passively listen to the convention speakers or endlessly bump shoulders with hundreds of strangers. Since I’m a member of AA, I decided to distribute a statement [DC Atheist Advocate] expressing my concerns as well as expectations about the organization. I also added another paper [Ideas for Expanding the Secular Community]. Because I am also a member of the Washington Area Secular Humanists, I thought it would be good to let others know about our work by distributing back issues of WASH’s newsletter, the WASHLine as well. I also decided to meet as many people as I could, have a little conversation with them and tell them a little bit about WASH before finally asking if they’d like a copy of the newsletter. Generally, I’d rather stay in the background, and I was clearly stepping out of my comfort zone, but I needed to shun the easy route. I took over 50 copies of all of the materials with me, and after 2-1/2 days, I returned to DC with very light travel bag and laryngitis!

I tried to meet every African American present and I think there were approximately 15 in attendance. As I recall, they came from Lincoln, NE: Atlanta and Macon, GA; Sterling, VA; St. Louis, MO; Chapel Hill, NC, and Washington, DC. I also met several people from India as well as a few Hispanics. From what I could gather, there were approximately 30 people of color at the convention.

Approximately 5-7 people protested the presence of American Atheists outside of the hotel, including one person who was “hell-bent” on being confrontational. On Friday, the mayor of Des Moines was one of the speakers who offered opening remarks at the convention. He enthusiastically welcomed American Atheists to the city of Des Moines, let us know how much they appreciated our business, and asked that we try to see as much of the city as possible. He said he hoped that we would return as a group as well as individuals. For a very Christian city, 5-7 protesters represented a poor showing especially since the convention has received a considerable amount of advanced coverage in newspapers along with TV and radio coverage. Our presence wasn’t a secret however the god-fearing in Des Moines apparently realized that they had nothing to fear from the godless!

A Few Convention Highlights: The convention was well-planned and the convention speakers ranged from interesting to excellent. I do believe that having the convention addressed by an African American woman, in this case, Jamila Bey from Washington, DC, may have been a first for the secular community. Not to take anything away from the other speakers, my two favorites, Hector Avalos and Greta Christina both earned five stars. Both gave very powerful, captivating, and insightful presentations. Many of the individual speakers who addressed the convention were given approximately 45 minutes to make their presentation. There were five people on the Diversity Panel and when several panelists attempt to share 45 minutes of time for a “discussion,” the value of what is offered is simply going to be limited. The panel was comprised of nonbelievers who were women, Hispanics, African Americans, lesbians, etc., and frankly, none of the challenges faced by any one of the groups represented on the panel could have been intelligently addressed during a single panel discussion. Because I know very little about secularists in the Hispanic community, I would have preferred a “dialogue” between Ms. Indra Zuna, who moderated the panel, and Prof. Hector Avalos and for them to explore the issues facing the Hispanic community and well as the challenges of Hispanic nonbelievers. While, I think this would have made for a more focused discussion, I heard many people say that they enjoyed the Diversity Panel. I was rather disappointed with the presentation which was to explore the reasons behind the lack of women in the secular community. I think it lacked depth. Although, many people lined up to ask questions after this presentation as well as after the Diversity Panel, there simply wasn’t enough time to entertain many questions.

Secular & Social Networking:I did have an opportunity to meet a blind African American who came to the convention from Lincoln, NE, however I wasn’t able to get back to him for a meaningful discussion. I was able to talk to three African Americans from Georgia who belong to Black Nonbelievers of Atlanta: blacknonbelievers.org. All were friendly, upbeat, and intelligent. Mandisa, a founding member of Black Nonbelievers of Atlanta, said she came to Iowa primarily to network, and at different times she could be seen talking to people at the convention, exchanging contact information and ideas. She also described some of the challenges regarding the work in Atlanta: the need to develop better and more positive means of communication between members of her organization as well as those outside of the secular community. Fund-raising and creating financial stability are also challenges since the organization will need to have money to support its work.

Maurius, from Macon, GA said he came to the convention to make connections with other atheists as well as to get ideas and inspiration from other attendees. He said that he was getting a great deal of both from being in Iowa. He explained that in Georgia there is a very active Facebook community of nonbelievers as well as monthly meetings which attract 15-20 people. He’s looking forward the group being able to do work in the community.

I had an opportunity to speak to Charone Pagett from Atlanta at length. She described herself as an organizer, a queer, and a disabled person. As a problem-solver, the focus of her work is on social justice and human rights issues. She’s also a feminist who is very much influenced by the work and life of Audre Lorde whom she quotes as saying, “Make human rights your religion.” Charone actually cleared up a point for me because I’ve been unable to get a fix on “gay Christian congregations,” which have formed as a result of gays being made unwelcome in the established church particularly in African American communities. I just couldn’t figure out how those congregations deal with the anti-humane directives which are not only in the Bible but are part and parcel of religious dogma. Charone, as it turned out, is very critical of these churches and thinks that the “queer church had de-radicalized” the queer community. Where many queers may have once openly challenged religion and anything connected to it, Charone says that the “queer church has acted as a silencing agent and caused the queer community to become complacent” even though its members are still oppressed. Again she quoted Audre Lorde caution against attempting to dismantle the master’s house using the master’s tools. Charone doesn’t see how religions, whether they accept queers or not, can fully engage in social justice, nor engage people in the community in ways which will cause them to ask the hard questions and to demand more from leaders. She sees critical thinking as the tool which will help people ask those hard questions and in turn hold people in positions of leadership accountable. Charone is also in broadcasting and does the LAMBDA Radio Report on Tuesday’s from 6:00-6:30pm on WRFG 89.3 FM in Atlanta.

Ronnelle Adams also from Washington, DC was in Iowa to introduce his children’s book entitled Aching and Praying, published in 2011 by American Atheists Press. Ronnelle certainly displays the experience, talent, and personal insight required to create a book dealing with the Middle Passage, slavery, and the forced Christian indoctrination of African people which took place in the New World. Although he’s written the book for children, I found it very to be something which adults can appreciate and learn from as well. His creative use of Bible verses demonstrates how many of those soothing words stood in brutal contradiction to the reality of slavery as ropes, whips, and chains were utilized to keep millions of Africans in bondage. The book is also beautifully illustrated. As an added bonus, Ronnelle was invited to recite one of his poems at the convention; a poem which cleverly spells out the divisive and destructive nature of bigotry, especially religious bigotry. To learn more about his work, book a speaking engagement, or purchase copies of Aching and Praying, please contact him on Facebook or through Atheists.org.

Wrap-up:I recently received a message from the American Atheists saying that nearly 800 people attended the convention. The number of women as well as people of color may have been amongst the largest as well. There were many information booths, scheduled book-signings, and because only one event occurred in each time-slot there were no conflicting presentations. Once the main hotel quickly filled up, I along with other attendees stayed in another hotel several blocks away. While I was happy to have an opportunity to stretch my legs before going to the convention, other people may not have felt the same way. But, there was a shuttle bus which transported people between the two hotels and provided a safe way of quickly getting around. The full-length feature film, The Ledge, produced by Matthew Chapman (the great- grandson of Charles Darwin) was shown, and was well-received by an appreciative audience. As far as I could tell, every effort was made to make it an excellent and meaningful convention. In spite of the very upbeat tenor of the convention, there was clearly one very somber presentation in the form of a letter addressed to members of the convention from Christopher Hitchens. His illness forced him to cancel his appearance at the convention, but his very dignified letter was filled with hope for the future as he encouraged us to continue our work in the secular community.

The new president, David Silverman, is a human dynamo! No resting in the wings for him. He could be seen throughout the entire convention, moving around, talking to people, handling logistics, etc. and he delivered such a powerful speech! I had a few moments to speak with him and to give him my paper. I also mentioned that I thought it would be a huge mistake for American Atheists to allow such a dynamic group of people to leave the convention only to not have any contact with them until next year’s convention. I suggested that AA make it a point to contact each attendee as soon as possible to find out what kind of work they are doing in their hometowns around secular issues; to determine what challenges they face or if they aren’t active because they lack the means for doing so. The American Atheists have over 20 state directors and these directors ought to be in contact with every convention attendee in their state. The fact is that not everyone at the convention belongs to American Atheists, and being in contact with them would be a way to expand the work of the secular community.

Finally, the fact is that the more diverse secular organizations become at every level—committees, state directors, grassroots activities, membership, local and national leadership—the less need there will be to cram and/or attempt to address diversity into annual one-hour panel discussions. American Atheists as well as all other secular organizations must make sure that diversity exists at both the top and lower tiers of the organization.

The American Atheists President also announced preliminary plan which calls for having 12 of the national secular organizations working with American Atheists to prepare for the 2012 convention. I hope to be able to host a few reunion type activities and get together with some of the people I met in Des Moines. The next convention which sounds like it will be the mother of all secular conventions is scheduled for July 2012 in Washington, DC!

Naima, an atheist, feminist and socialist activist, currently serves on the Washington Area Secular Humanist Board of Directors. She can be reached at naimanomad@yahoo.com