Racism: it ain’t yesterday’s problem

Yesterday I mentioned that I don’t have a specific goal for these writings. Mostly they are a signpost for me to be able to look back and see how my thought process is evolving over time, much like writing one’s self a letter to be read in the future. That being said, people are reading this stuff (and thank you for that, by the way). This means that my ideas must stand up to third-party scrutiny in a way they wouldn’t have to if they were just my random, private thoughts. One of the more contentious ideas I have is my operational definition of racism. I fully recognize that the way I use the word – to describe the attribution of ethnic group characteristics to individuals – is subtly different from what most people think when they use the word. My position remains that my definition is superior because it adequately encompasses the ‘classic’ definition, whilst also describing the reality of contemporary ‘polite’ racism.

However, there are occasions where I can go beyond simple rhetorical demonstration and actually bring evidence to bear on why we must shift our understanding of what racism is:

A Texas inmate sentenced to death—in a racially charged case that now-Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) said was inappropriately decided—has petitioned Gov. Rick Perry and his state parole board for clemency, giving the GOP presidential candidate two days to decide whether to commute the sentence or grant a temporary stay of execution. Last week, one of the Harris County prosecutors who helped secure Buck’s conviction wrote a letter to Perry urging him to grant a retrial.

Some quick housecleaning here:

  • I am not calling Rick Perry racist. I don’t know anything about the man’s personal beliefs when it comes to issues of race, or his track record of treatment of visible minorities. Even if Perry were an open and notorious member of the KKK, it would be completely irrelevant to my argument.
  • I am also not interested in debating capital punishment at this time. I am personally against it, and have found all arguments in favour of executing convicts to be lacking in validity. That being said, my personal stance on the ethics or pragmatics of capital punishment are entirely tangential to the issue at hand.
  • I am also not trying to make the argument that Duane Buck, the inmate in question, is innocent and should be freed. By all accounts, he’s guilty and his conviction is a good one. Again, this has nothing to do with the point I wish to make here.

The point I wish to make lives in these lines:

The issue at hand isn’t Buck’s innocence, but the means by which his death sentence was obtained. Prosecutors firmly established Buck’s guilt, but to secure a capital punishment conviction in Texas they needed to prove “future dangerousness”—that is, provide compelling evidence that Buck posed a serious threat to society if he were ever to walk free. They did so in part with the testimony of a psychologist, Dr. Walter Quijano, who testified that Buck’s race (he’s African American) made him more likely to commit crimes in the future.

This is about as stark an example of racism as one could ask for. If Duane Buck had been white, he would have received a sentence of life in prison rather than execution. The psychologist testifying against him made it a matter of science (or at least clinical opinion) that black people are inherently more dangerous, and more likely to reoffend. This declaration pushed the jury to decide against him when deciding sentencing. One can certainly fault Dr. Quijano for abdicating his ethical responsibilities both as a medical practitioner and as a human being by offering racist claptrap as sworn testimony – there’s your classical racism. However, and this is significant – the jury believed him.

Imagine sitting in a juror’s box and having to decide on a land dispute between two neighbours. A shaman is called to testify, and offers his expert testimony that when he consulted the entrails of sacred chickens, they clearly indicated that the border between the two properties should be redrawn so that Mr. Ortiz can expand his garage as planned. When considering the evidence, would you include the shaman’s remarks, or rightly dismiss them as complete nonsense? Because you’re a reasonable person who knows that one cannot derive municipal zoning law from the gastrointestinal tract of domesticated animals, you’d probably ignore the insane ‘evidence’ offered in the courtroom.

That’s not the case in Texas. In Texas, the idea that black people are simply more dangerous – that black skin and heritage is meaningful when trying to predict someone’s behaviour – is something that carries enough traction to carry the force of law. The fact that the jurors weren’t able to immediately dismiss Dr. Quijano’s arguments as meritless means that somewhere in their minds, the predictive power of race on behaviour is a real possibility. This doesn’t mean that they were necessary maliciously racist people, or that they were even consciously aware of the effect that their own nascent racism had on their decision-making processes. What it does mean, however, is that without a fuller understanding of what racism is and how it operates, legal decisions such as the one Mr. Buck is facing are a reality, and will continue to be in the future.

Luckily, for Mr. Buck anyway, the controversy surrounding the sentencing has led to a temporary stay of execution:

The U.S. Supreme Court halted the execution Thursday of a black man convicted of a double murder in Texas 16 years ago after his lawyers contended his sentence was unfair because of a question asked about race during his trial. Duane Buck, 48, was spared from lethal injection when the justices, without extensive comment, said they would review an appeal in his case. Two appeals, both related to a psychologist’s testimony that black people were more likely to commit violence, were before the court. One was granted; the other was denied.

But this brings to light a whole new series of questions. Suppose that, under Texas law, Duane Buck should be executed. Suppose that, without Dr. Quijano’s testimony, the decision would have gone the same way. It is entirely possible that a guilty person is being excused because of complication surrounding the way the justice system handled his race. It’s happened before. Justice has not been served, and it is because of our preoccupation with race, coupled with our seeming inability to chart the way forward when it comes to resolving what is evidently still an open and relevant question.

Racism is not a problem that our parents or grandparents had to contend with, and that we can consign to the annals of history. Racism is very much alive, and failing to understand it will continue to be a millstone around our collective necks for as long as it takes us to get serious in our discussion of it.

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In case you were getting too comfortable

I don’t have a ‘goal’ for this blog per se. Based on feedback I occasionally get from readers I am introducing anti-racist concepts and vernacular to an audience that hadn’t encountered them much before – that’s a bonus for me. I am reasonably sure I haven’t deconverted anyone to atheism… yet. While I am unashamedly putting my ideas out there for public consumption, I don’t hold any pretense of trying to change the world or start a revolution. I’m just a guy with ideas, and some people seem to find them interesting, which makes me happy.

That being said, I am not above occasionally goosing my fellow Canadians and reminding them that while things are undoubtedly bad in other countries, we have our fair share of problems here too.

Nova Scotia’s black community outraged over Africville hire

Some members of Nova Scotia’s black community say they are outraged that a white person has been hired as executive director of the Africville Heritage Trust and are calling for her resignation. “I find it insulting to all black people,” said Burnley (Rocky) Jones, a local lawyer and well-known human rights activist. “Surely we, within our community, have many people fully qualified to do such a job.” (snip) The trust’s board of directors, which includes six representatives of the Africville community, recently hired Carole Nixon, a white Anglican minister, for the position.

I’ll admit that even someone as outspoken and uncompromising as me had a really tough time coming down on one side of this issue. For those of you who weren’t here in February and aren’t familiar with Africville, I wrote about it during my Black History Month review of Canadian Black History. In brief, Africville was an area of Halifax that was systematically underserved and discriminated against by the citizenry of the city at large because it was inhabited primarily by black people. It was eventually bulldozed, leaving its residents largely homeless.

To head up the museum dedicated to the preservation and exploration of the history of this monument to Canadian exploitation and hatred of the white populace against black citizens, the selection committee chose a white woman. Obviously they made their selection based on her qualifications – Ms. Nixon has a certificate in black history from UofT (although I have no idea what that means). At the same time, she is not a member of the community and has no ties to its history. Beyond the simple poor optics of the choice, Ms. Nixon represents, to many of the community members, the same forces that were responsible for the debacle of Africville.

Montreal students don blackface

A frosh event at a Montreal university has come under scrutiny after students painted themselves in blackface. Students at the University of Montreal’s business school dressed up as Jamaican sprinters, with black paint covering their skin, for the event Wednesday.

Meh, so what? So a couple of frosh dressed up as Jamaican sprinters, and in order to lend their costumes a bit more realism, they ‘blacked up’ (despite the fact that there are lots of white Jamaicans). Where’s the harm, right?

One witness, who is of Jamaican descent, said he felt uncomfortable and was shocked to hear some students chanting, “Smoke more weed.” “They had reduced all of who I am and the history of Jamaica and culture of Jamaica to these negative connotations of weed smoking, black skin, rastas,” said McGill law student Anthony Morgan, who happened to be on the campus at the time and filmed the group.

Oh. Fuck.

This is something that needs to be repeated regularly, it seems – it is never okay to dress in blackface. Not ever. It doesn’t matter if you think you’re being complimentary or paying homage. It doesn’t matter if you’re spoofing a movie or a television show, or a fictional character. It doesn’t matter if you get assigned “dress like an African” as some kind of bizarre theme exercise. It doesn’t matter how funny or clever you think it is, nor does it matter if you don’t mean it “that way”. The history of blackface, coupled with the way black people are portrayed in contemporary media, means that blackface is just one of those things it’s not okay to do.

It’s certainly not okay when your goal is to mock a culture that you clearly know nothing about as part of a frosh week prank, at a school where black students are underrepresented, in a province that has a major race problem. You would think that this kind of thing wouldn’t need to be explained, but of course that’s the great part about white privilege – you don’t ever have to think before you do stuff like this. All you have to do is claim afterward that you didn’t mean anything by it, and maybe everyone should just lighten up.

Miss Canada outfit bizarre misappropriation of First Nations culture (h/t Jen)

Imagine you were inspired and impressed by Canada’s aboriginal history and culture. Imagine you had a world stage with which to express your admiration, and try in your own small way to heal wounds left by generations of exploitation and oppression. Would you do perhaps just a little bit of research to make sure you’re accurately portraying the people whose culture you are paying homage to? Maybe spend some time understanding the history behind the culture, and how it affects aboriginal people today? Would you maybe try to participate in or discuss the cultural practices of the particular band/bands you were emulating?

Or would you just reach for the first handful of cheap stereotypes from a spaghetti western movie that popped into your head?

Yeah... this actually happened

This may not come as a huge shock to you, but if you chose the first option(s) then you can congratulate yourself on being smarter and more insightful than Miss Universe Canada. Well, at least this year’s entrant. Seriously, considering the fact that the way we treat our First Nations people is the great shame of our nation, why on Earth would you think it a good idea to showcase our collective national insensitivity is beyond my limited capacity to understand.

Canada likes to pride itself on being a tolerant country that is open to people of many different ethnicities and walks of life. For the most part, I think we do a good job of that. However, we should never allow ourselves to grow complacent in our quest to model such tolerance. It is far too easy to slip into the easy errors of racism than it is to maintain a constant vigilance; failing to maintain that vigilance will ultimately be our downfall.

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Hate speech: it’s got a funky beat, and I can bug out to it!

 

One of the frustrating things about delving into the world of anti-racism is that you will inevitably run into someone who makes a completely unbalanced equivocation between the racism that people of colour (PoCs) encounter and the discomfort associated with race relations from the point of view of a white person. “I live in an all-black neighbourhood – I can’t even ride the bus without feeling people stare at me!” And while trying to be careful not to minimize their discomfort, some poor sap has to explain that when you get off that bus outside your neighbourhood, it is in every conceivable way better for you to be  white person than the black people who make you feel like the ‘victim of reverse racism’.

Within the construct of North American racial relations, there are really very few examples of legitimate anti-white racism. If one comes from the perspective that racism is the product of prejudice and power – that is, that racism must have some real force behind it to be meaningful – then there are essentially none. I don’t personally subscribe to that definition, but it does have a lot of merit in specific contexts (I won’t go further than that for now. Maybe another time). Critics of anti-racism, therefore, conflate the approach with simply being “anti-white”, which is about as accurate as saying that feminism is anti-male (but of course there are many who think that as well).

Therefore I am, in a weird way, happy to present you with the following:

South Africa’s high court has ruled that the anti-apartheid song Shoot the Boer is hate speech and banned the ruling ANC from singing it. Afrikaans interest group Afriforum had complained about ANC youth league leader Julius Malema singing the song, which refers to white farmers. Mr Malema and other ANC leaders had argued that the song was a celebration of the fight against minority rule. They said the words were not meant to be taken literally.

Long-time readers of this blog will be familiar with my sometimes-fraught relationship with hate speech. While I am a proud progressive liberal, my stance on free speech is something of a digression from my fellows, who believe that speech inciting hatred can be and should be legally curtailed. My problem with hate speech controls comes from a variety of sources – first of all I am unconvinced that we can define and enforce a consistent standard of ‘hate’. Even if we could, there is incomplete evidence to suggest that hate speech restrictions reduce the amount of hatred in society, rather than simply shifting it underground (where it is arguably more dangerous).

That being said, I don’t think we should simply call all speech good simply because it exists. There is absolutely hate speech, and it is always deplorable. We should criticize ideas vigorously and unashamedly. We should treat the people who hold those ideas as our fellow human beings, with all the fundamental rights we would like for ourselves and those we love. As much as I am happy to criticize religious zealots, or racists, or climate change denialists, or any group that holds positions that I think are destructive, the moment that someone attempts to treat those people as anything other than humans deserving of respect I will take up a placard and demonstrate for their rights.

Not so for Mr. Malema. My attempts at prognostication are usually simple idle speculation, but having read a bit of his background, I think that when a man like Julius Malema gains real political power, it will be the dawn of a dangerous era for South Africa. While he may not harbour legitimate hatred of white people, he is not above fanning the flames of hatred in those that do, and who see their violent hatred reflected in his speech. While his calls to “shoot the Boer” are, to hear him say it, simply a nod toward the history of the ANC, they are also a very specific call for violence. At that point we have left the realm of political speech and entered into criminal territory.

The song can be heard here (although it won’t mean much to you if you don’t speak Afrikaans):

Whatever you think about the content, you’ve got to admit: it’s catchy.

Like any demagogue worth her/his salt, Malema has managed to frame this censure as an illegitimate organization trying to silence the voice of truth coming from the common man:

Mr Malema said he would push for reform to the court system, which he said had not changed since the apartheid era. “If not being transformed means it’s racist, then so be it,” said Mr Malema, youth leader of the African National Congress (ANC). “Once again we find ourselves subjected to white minority approval. Apartheid is being brought through the back door.” He said he wanted liberation songs to be protected by law. “These were the songs of resistance and they will never die,” he said.

I have no problem with preserving historical artifacts, even if they’re racist. I might go so far as to say we should be more protective of the distasteful parts of our history, since they are the ones we need to learn the most from. If the question was whether or not the song can be discussed and the court ruled that the song must be banned altogether, then Mr. Malema would have a valid point. However, what he is doing instead is using deep-seated racial tension to bolster support for his ridiculous and disastrous social and economic policies – a Southern Strategy for South Africa.

Removing for a moment the discussion of who can claim responsibility for the simmering racial resentment that seems to define the political reality for South Africa, it is trivially easy to highlight this as an example of legitimate anti-white racism. A political case is being built around the exclusion and, apparently, violent suppression of the white minority in South Africa. While there are a million issues to tease out from this story – how much of a minority white South Africans really are, for example – even an anti-racist like myself can point to this as a clear case of racist hate speech.

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Intelligent vs. smart: reflections on ‘racial realism’

As a member of the skeptic/freethinker community, I tend to associate with many people that share my views on things. I am somewhat spoiled by the fact that most people my age in Canada read from the same playbook, and have many of the same fundamental assumptions/conclusions about the world. It is therefore usually a pretty big shock when I meet someone who is a 9/11 truther or a climate change denialist or a hardcore libertarian making themselves known at a skeptic’s pub night or related event.

Many people use the term ‘skeptic’ to denote anyone who ‘opposes the status quo’ – saying that their conspiracy mongering over who really took down the World Trade Center towers is just them being ‘skeptical’. When organized skeptics talk about ‘skepticism’, they generally refer to methodological skepticism – a philosophy wherein all beliefs and truth claims are subjected to scrutiny and apportioned to the available evidence. While superficially those do seem to overlap, the problem with the positions I mention above is that they fail to doubt their own truth claims, instead relying on a combination of ideological rigidity and back-filling to “prove” their validity. As I’ve spelled out before, it is no good to decide something is true and then look for evidence – the human mind is capable of thus “proving” pretty much anything it likes.

Enter “racial realism”.

Regular readers may recall a number of months ago when I had a white supremacist show up in the comments section. It triggered a somewhat unusual and surprising reaction in me – one that I myself wasn’t really prepared for. That aside, while I stand by my characterization of that person as a de facto white supremacist, he would probably prefer the term “race realist”. Race realism is, generally, the position that observable racial groupings are biologically valid, and are so beyond simply superficial cosmetic traits. The video linked above was created by someone who describes herself in such terms.

It may surprise you (it certainly surprised me) to learn that there are many points of agreement between myself and the author. Insofar as race has a biological component, I am certainly happy to admit that genetic differences account for phenotypic differences. I will also agree with her assertion that many people (most often those on the political left) misuse the term ‘racist’, often in an attempt to introduce emotional weight to an argument, sometimes in lieu of actually refuting the claims made. I will finally agree with her closing statement that noticing racial differences is not, in and of itself, racist.

That is probably the beginning and the end of the places where the author and I would agree with each other. The rest of the video is (despite the catchy musical accompaniment) is utter nonsense. Her basic position is that because races are inherently different, that “noticing” racial differences is only natural. The problem with her position specifically, and racial realism generally, is twofold. First, the statement that racial differences account for the type and magnitude of differences in access/achievement seen between racial groups is unsupported by the scientific evidence, and fails to take into account the multitude of other demonstrated, observed factors.

Second, the video uses the word “noticing” in a profoundly different way than we would colloquially. When the author uses the word ‘noticing’, she means semantically what most of us would use the word ‘explaining’ for. Noticing that there are disparities between racial groups is, indeed, not a racist action. Explaining differences between groups by attributing them to something as demonstrably superficial as race certainly qualifies as racism – almost by definition.

I’m not going to spend too much longer on the myriad of reasons why I disagree with the author. Friend of the blog Will has done an unbelievably thorough job of skewering the specific claims about race that the author makes:

Ruka also demonstrates a complete lack of understanding of social constructivism. The fact that race is socially constructed does not mean it is not real. It means that it is not reducible to biological traits. Race is a very real idea and has real, tangible implications on peoples’ lives. So, of course racial hate crimes exist, but they are based on the way people define race (e.g., skin color), not based on biology. I will close with a typically anthropological discussion. The definition of “race” varies cross-culturally, across time, and across space. This fact is evidence for a social construction of race. An excellent example of this can be seen in the changes of the race category of the United States national census over the last two centuries and in comparing the American categories of race options to the race options on other countries’ censuses.

Tim Wise has similarly taken his quill to the position of racial realism, saying that even if it was true it would be morally inarguable:

 In other words, in order to uphold the notion that people should be treated like the individuals they are — not merely as individuals in the abstract — considering the way that racial identity may have limited opportunities for job or college applicants (and thus, taking affirmative action to look more deeply at what goes into an applicant’s presumed and visible “merit”) would be morally requisite. And yet, making assumptions about individual IQ based on group averages, and then doling out the goodies accordingly would be morally repugnant. Both look at group identity, but for very different reasons, with very different levels of ethical justification, and with very different practical results.

I don’t think I could do a better job than they have of taking on this absurd position. My utter contempt for it is such that I am loath to run the risk of elevating it above the adolescent brain-fart it is. What I would like to do is offer some perspective on why I think the author, and those like her, should be particularly addressed by the skeptical community.

Smart vs. intelligent

Back in early 2009, I re-posted a brief essay I had written delineating the concepts of “smart”, “wise”, “intellectual” and “intelligent”. I have a tendency to redefine terms for my own purposes, and I wanted that page to serve as a reference in case I ran into someone who objected to my describing of something as ‘stupid’. Simply put, “intelligent” refers to one’s ability to adapt to novel situations, “wise” includes the application of previously-held knowledge, and “intellectual” refers to one’s willingness to process things cognitively and through the application of logical processes. “Smart” is the confluence of all three of these attributes, whereas ‘stupid’ is its polar opposite.

I have no doubt that Ruka, the author of the video above, is intelligent. I am sure that, in her own way, she is “intellectual”, except insofar as she ignores contradictory evidence and refuses to address the flaws in her position, preferring instead to bloviate about how mean everyone is to her when she’s ‘just asking questions’. None of her intelligence, however, protects her from being profoundly stupid. I cannot really speculate about whether she is intentionally introducing straw man arguments and red herrings into her position, but I can conclude that, intentional or not, her arguments are sloppy and borne of an unbelievably arrogant reliance on her own perception of her cognitive abilities.

This kind of unwarranted self-assurance is also what is at play in 9/11 truthers, climate skeptics, Holocaust deniers, and other non-methodological ‘skeptics’. While it is most often an unfair straw man characterization foisted upon us by our opponents, it is also occasionally true of those who call ourselves ‘freethinkers’. Skepticism, as I’ve mentioned variously in previous posts, is an ideal to be pursued; not a goal to be reached. The only reliable path to truth is to test our beliefs against observed evidence, and (more importantly) to change them when necessary. While this can be done without ridiculous hang-wringing and false modesty, one must always keep in the back of their mind the statement “what if I’m wrong? How could that be demonstrated?”

Failing to do this, or only pretending to do it, as Ruka does (she apparently blocks comments unless they agree with her or  insult her – presumably so she can paint her opponents as lunatics as she does in the video I link above), will inevitably lead us into positions like hers, where our inherent beliefs about the world are ‘justified’ through a convoluted process of back-filling and denial.

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Movie Friday: How to hit on an Asian girl

I live in Vancouver, which is a city that has a very large population of east and south Asian people. Having spent a number of years in Brampton, Ontario, and having done a degree at the University of Waterloo, I am more or less used to being in an environment with a large minority population. Some people, however, seem to have a difficult time dealing with the diversity, and retreat immediately into crude stereotypes when interacting with non-white people. If you think you might be one of those (and you are attracted to women), here’s a few handy tips:

Many people (mostly white people) express a great deal of incredulity when people of colour (PoCs) share stories like this. “How could anyone be so stupid?” they ask. Or, more commonly, “you’re exaggerating”. Life as a PoC in most cities in North America is emphatically not a non-stop barrage of racial insensitivity and adversity. However, it doesn’t take a lot of these kinds of comments to make you feel as though two things are overwhelmingly true:

  1. Your race/ethnic identity is the most important thing people see when they look at you
  2. You are the ‘other’ – a person who is tolerated but not part of the group

Now I don’t get hit on a lot (and when I am, most of the time I can’t hear the comments over the sound of me saying ‘yes’ and high-fiving myself), but it’s a pretty safe bet that when I’m flirting with someone who seems interested, at some point I will hear either “I just love black guys”, or “I’ve never been with a black guy before”. I’ve yet to hear “I’ve never been with a viola player before” or “health economists are so sexy” (and we really are – we’ve done extensive studies proving it through the use of computer simulation). It’s not a huge problem, but it’s just one of those things.

While it’s tough enough for women to walk down the street without being openly and unapologetically objectified by strangers, when you add race to that equation, life becomes even more difficult.

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Privilege: making it up as we go along

 

I’m not sure how much background everyone reading this has had in the concept of privilege. I recognize that atheists, for example, have been recently introduced to the term as feminist voices within organized atheism have become more vocal. Those of you coming from anti-racist or feminist blogs could probably teach me a thing or two about privilege and how it manifests itself. Those who stumble on this blog from somewhere else may be facing the term for the first time (if that is legitimately the case, you should probably start with this article). Privilege, briefly, describes the set of advantages that one has merely by being a member of a group, operating through how society perceives that group. So if, for example, you are a man who is firmly trying to make a point, you are seen as ‘assertive'; if you’re a woman, you’re ‘bitchy’. Those two evaluations for identical behaviour put one group (men) at a significant advantage compared to those others, due to nothing more than how we stereotype that group.

One of the most insidious aspects of privilege is that, if you have it, it’s practically invisible. Privilege is most often held by the majority group, meaning that it is simply seen as ‘normal’. Whenever you look around, your explanation of the way the world works matches pretty much everyone else’s. It’s what’s in the media, in the classroom, it’s the way your friends and family see things – there’s very rarely any disconfirming evidence. Unless someone takes the time to point it out to you, there’s really no reason to suspect that there’s any other way of looking at the world.

On its own, privilege might not be so bad. Yes, it represents an inaccurate and nuance-free view of the world, but that on its own isn’t necessarily a problem. Where the negative aspect arises is when we use our privileged position to explain the world around us. If we’re trying to construct a narrative about how we came to be where we are, and by extension where we are headed or how we should behave, we need to ensure that we have our facts straight. When all of our facts come from a single perspective that necessarily neglects the number of other valid perspectives in existence, we get an incomplete picture. Thus, any narrative we build is going to neglect big chunks of information.

Even that on its own isn’t that dangerous. Any narrative is going to be missing pieces of information. After all, we can’t possibly know everything. What’s the big deal if we’ve missed a couple of perspectives, so long as we keep our facts straight?

Earlier this year [Michelle Bachmann] told an audience that the United States, at its founding, was a bastion of fairness and opportunity for “different cultures, different backgrounds, different traditions.” She went on to say (in an awkward sort of way) that the U.S. was a “resting point from people groups all across the world. It didn’t matter the color of their skin … [or] language … or economic status.” She was on a roll: “Once you got here, we were all the same.” Even assuming that she was talking only about the men, I still say, uh, no.

It’s easy (and fun!) to pick on Michelle Bachmann, because her relationship with reality is one of those late-night booty call arrangements where they don’t see much of each other, and when they do there’s nobody else around. It’s fairly unnecessary to pick on her specifically, since I’m sure everyone reading this already more or less agrees with my stance on her. What I will do, however, is use her as an illustration of exactly how dangerous it is to be so blissfully unaware of your privilege.

Bachmann’s positions are polluted by ‘research’ from ‘historian’ David Barton, who had an idea fixed in his head and then went out and found evidence to support it. Her approach is the same as his: decide what is true, and then backfill an explanation for how it came to be. Of course, my position on backfilling is pretty clear: if you do it, I stop listening to you. This is something we all do from time to time, out of convenience. After all, we’re not all historians, and we don’t always have all the facts. It’s a useful heuristic when used sparingly and only in cases where the stakes are low. However, when trying to decide national policy that will affect millions of people, it’s probably a good idea to make sure you presuppositions are accurate.

In Bachmann’s case specifically, and in the case of privilege generally, there is the potential to do serious damage when employing this tactic. After all, if Bachmann’s assertion of fundamental equality upon arrival in America is true, then we have to assume that everyone who isn’t successful is that way through their own laziness (which is certainly the way those on the right explain racial disparities). And when you are as ignorant of history as Bachmann is, then you wind up saying really stupid stuff:

Bachmann says that European immigrants “did not come here for the promise of a federal handout … or a welfare payment.” Instead, they came here for the “limitless opportunity” that the “most magnificent country” in history afforded them.

Well, actually, European immigrants did get special federal handouts in the form of white-only citizenship rights: Germans, Greeks, Jews, Irish, Poles and Italians were never barred from the “white only” military, voter rolls, juries or federal jobs, unlike people of color. Keep in mind that citizenship itself was limited to “free white persons.” When more than 90 percent of black people were enslaved in the U.S., the Homestead Act of 1862 gave millions of acres of land to white immigrants. Yep, federal handouts.

The bootstraps myth is a pervasive and powerful one. Its appeal is that it removes the onus of having to do anything to reduce disparities from those who are at the top. Despite their repeated calls for “personal responsibility”, this myth requires everyone else to be “personally responsible”, while allowing the myth-holder to hang on to all the advantages they’ve gained through privilege. It permits us to crane our necks such that we don’t see the scales as tilted in anyone’s favour, despite all the evidence to the contrary.

So we can (and should) deride people like Michelle Bachmann and David Barton for their eager willingness to abdicate any professional responsibility to ensure their depiction of history is based in fact rather than ideology. But we should also use them as an example of what happens when we allow our own privilege to run away unchecked. The picture of the world that remains when we remove the blinders of privilege might be much different from the one we’re used to seeing.

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No True Nigerian

My dad’s side of the family is not entirely  sure about our heritage more than a few years back. Whereas my mom’s side can trace our heritage to emigration from Germany and Ireland, my dad’s ancestors were not immigrants to the Caribbean; not voluntarily, anyway. While lamentable, this is a fairly common story. The truth is that we may never know where we are from aside from the generic ‘Africa’. Still, it is hard not to feel some personal sorrow when I read a story like this:

Gangs of armed youths in the Nigerian city of Jos attacked Christians as they gathered to celebrate mass, killing a number of them and burning their cars, witnesses and the military said…

Witnesses said Muslim youths set up road blocks and attacked Christians as they gathered in Jos’s Gada Biu and Rukuba areas, shooting a number of them dead. Muslims involved in the clashes spoke of revenge for a string of bombs that exploded in Jos at the end of Ramadan last year that left at least 80 people dead. Nigeria has a roughly equal Christian-Muslim mix.

I have friends who are Nigerian. I know Nigerians to be a peaceful people who are highly tolerant and loving. Nobody who was truly Nigerian would commit such an atrocity. It is inconceivable. Anyone who would do something like this may call themselves Nigerian, but it is abundantly obvious that they are not. There is more to being a Nigerian than simply being from Nigeria, or being a citizen of Nigeria, or living and working in Nigeria. The laws of Nigeria specifically outlaw this kind of violent attack, and if people simply followed the laws to the letter, there wouldn’t be any such immorality. The fact that some people claiming to be Nigerian committed these crimes is simply precluded by this fact: a true Nigerian would not do such a thing.

Okay, ham-handed and obvious. Obviously everyone recognizes the stupidity of this argument. And yet, we’re called to accept it as legitimate when pressed into the service of religion. We are reminded endlessly that Christian ethics specifically preclude this behaviour or that one, and therefore those who engage in those behaviours are thereby precluded from the label ‘Christian’. It’s not just Christians that try to weasel out of their bad deeds either. Following every terrorist attack in which the perpetrator is Muslim, we are ‘treated’ to a chorus of evasive language (often from non-Muslim politicians) telling us how this isn’t “true” Islam.

Daniel Fincke over at Camels with Hammers takes this idea on:

Can we make a similar distinction between normative “true” religions and historical “pseudo-religions” which should be acknowledged as truly existing historical manifestations of religions but not be confused for “religion itself”—just as we say a past morality was a genuine historical instance of a morality but is not “true morality itself” or that a past science was a genuine historical instance of science but is not “true science itself”? How could we do this with religion? How could we say there is any truth in something so historically enmeshed with ludicrous falsehoods?

His conclusion is to judge the validity of the existence of a religious traditions in terms of how well it aligns with positive morality and pro-social development. If the purpose of religion is to provide a framework upon which civilization can be built, then any religious belief or practice that undermines such progress is, by definition, not a true religion.

It is an interesting idea, but any religion that encourages ‘faith’ (which I put in quotes to distinguish it from belief supported by evidence) inherently undermines social order. Encouraging people to suppress their critical faculties, even if it is only for certain claims and not others, is the mechanism by which these atrocities are justified. I am sometimes tempted to simply agree that those who commit violent acts in the name of their religion are just ‘really shitty Christians/Muslims/Buddhists’, since they ignore huge swaths of their own scripture. However, I cannot get past the fact that while committing those acts, the perpetrators always feel the hand of God justifying their endeavour. They don’t see themselves as breaking their religious laws, and their subjective experience of ‘feeling’ the Holy Spirit is all the reality check they need to ‘know’ that their acts have divine license.

Oh shoot. I screwed up the quote from the news article earlier. Yeah… replace ‘Christian’ with ‘Muslim’ and vice versa in that paragraph. It was, in fact, a group of Christians that attacked a group of Muslim celebrants of the end of Ramadan in Jos. The point of this clumsy switch is to highlight my central thesis when it comes to religion: I don’t care what banner you fly or what label you ascribe to yourself – they’re pretty much all the same to me. Any philosophical position that asserts its superiority based on belief without evidence is destructive, and I will oppose it. Whether that’s a cult or a world religion, whether you are a fundamentalist practitioner or a ‘moderate’, they’re all the result of the same faulty thought process.

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Double Whammy

We, as a civilization, had a long and dismal period that we call the ‘Dark Ages’. Generally speaking, this refers to a time when, for a variety of reasons, we had little by way of practical knowledge of the world and took a giant step backwards in terms of not only technology but of philosophy and thought as well. It took us hundreds of years to regain the ideas and developments that our historical predecessors had developed. In that intervening period, there was massive and widespread suffering among all classes of people, particularly the poor. What knowledge we had about medicine, climate, mechanics, and the the basic tools required to gain and test such knowledge was not available to the ‘common’ people, who through a combination of practical necessity and active oppression at the hands of those that didn’t think such people were ‘ready’ for scientific truths, were kept in the dark.

Through heroic courage and dedicated study, European civilization was able to pull itself out of its tailspin and re-establish itself. This was not necessarily to everyone’s benefit, but many of the principles espoused by post-Renaissance Europe are sound and admirable, and I am satisfied that Enlightenment principles, whatever their source, are the way forward. However, it seems as though in the ghosts of the dark ages are re-emerging:

Black scientists in the US are much less likely to be awarded funding than their white counterparts, says a US government research-funding agency. The National Institutes of Health said that out of every 100 funding applications it considered, 30 were granted to white applicants. This compared with 20 to black applicants.

The study, published in the journal Science, found the gap could not be explained by education or experience. It suggested small differences in access to resources and mentoring early in a scientist’s career could accumulate, leaving black researchers at a disadvantage.

Now, to be sure, this is not the same situation as medieval Europe. Black people today, even as statistically disadvantaged as they (we) are, are far better off than the vast majority of medieval Euroopeans. I am not trying to forge some kind of equivalence between the entire collapse of a society and failure to receive grant funding. However, what this does put me in mind of is the seemingly-intentional exclusion of a group of people from those pursuits that can have the biggest impact on improving their lives. I suppose now that I should state unequivocally that I don’t think the National Institute of Sciences is being intentionally racist or actively discriminating against black scientists – what I am saying is that the proof is in the outcome. There appears to be a systematic bias at the NIH against black scientists:

We investigated the association between a U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) R01 applicant’s self-identified race or ethnicity and the probability of receiving an award by using data from the NIH IMPAC II grant database, the Thomson Reuters Web of Science, and other sources. Although proposals with strong priority scores were equally likely to be funded regardless of race, we find that Asians are 4 percentage points and black or African-American applicants are 13 percentage points less likely to receive NIH investigator-initiated research funding compared with whites. After controlling for the applicant’s educational background, country of origin, training, previous research awards, publication record, and employer characteristics, we find that black applicants remain 10 percentage points less likely than whites to be awarded NIH research funding. Our results suggest some leverage points for policy intervention

Those who deny the existence of systematic racism often make the argument that the differences observed between the ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’ is due to real and meaningful differences in things like education. It is entirely right that scientists who are less qualified to conduct research (lacking in practical research experience, lacking in credentials that demonstrate scientific competence, lacking the infrastructural capacity to guarantee quality data collection) should not receive the same number of grants. However, this study controlled for education and other related qualifications, so we can’t use that as an explanation of the disparity. It also controlled for the quality of application itself, as evinced by the quality score that each application received, so that’s off the table as well.

The next obvious culprit is that because these NIH grants are really difficult to get, what we might be seeing is simply black applicants giving up more easily. After all, many of these kinds of things are only awarded on repeat resubmission. Maybe black scientists, thanks to the culture of poverty put forward by the welfare state and affirmative action, are simply expecting things to be handed to them. When they don’t get it, they give up. Perhaps white scientists, used to having to work for their success rather than getting a hand up from ol’ Uncle Sam, show the kind of perseverance, dedication, and willingness to adapt that is required to be a success:

Next, we examined the average number of grants per person, the proportion of investigators submitting single and multiple grants, and the likelihood of application resubmission. On average, investigators had three to four Type 1 R01 grant applications each. We found that blacks and Asians resubmitted more times before being awarded an R01 (2.01, P < .06 and 1.85, P < 0.001, respectively) compared with whites (1.58), and at the same time blacks (45%) and Hispanics (56%) were significantly less likely to resubmit an unfunded application compared with white investigators (64%, P < 0.001) (table S6)

Nope.

The one factor that seems causally linked with success that the authors could find in their exploration of the data had to do with differences in having received training programs on writing NIH grants, but even when that effect is ‘controlled for’ statistically, black scientists still trailed by 10 percent. The damage, of course, goes much further than simply the individual scientists. Science and critical thinking is the path to greater success and innovation in the black community, and if black scientists are, as the data seems to suggest, discriminated against based on their race, then this disparity will only become more deeply entrenched.

So what are they doing about it?

NIH director Francis Collins said it would take action to address the potential for “insidious bias” in the grant process. Mr Collins said it was possible that reviewers could guess the race or ethnicity of an applicant by looking at names or where they trained. He said they would look at reviewing grants on the basis of scientific merits alone, without requiring information about an applicant’s qualifications or background.

This is the kind of response I like to see. Not a bunch of denials, not a bunch of arch-liberal hand-wringing over “how could this happen in this day and age?”, just a clear plan of action. Say what you like about Francis Collins’ wacky justification for his theism, but never deny that he’s doing the right thing here. I will be interested to see the follow-up study to see whether this improves the situation, or if there is yet another explanatory factor.

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Why do you need to be a ‘black atheist’?

In the past few months, I have occasionally been invited to write posts on other people’s blogs. Phil Ferguson has invited me to post occasional guest spots on Skeptic Money, I had a post up on Skeptic North, and Hemant Mehta asked me to contribute something to Friendly Atheist. You can probably notice a trend in these sites – they’re all atheist/skeptic friendly blogs that discuss religion in the same way that I do. However, last week I was invited to cross-post one of my pieces on anti-racism blog Racialicious. I have been a Racialicious reader for 2 years now, and so it was a really exciting opportunity to open my writing to a new kind of scrutiny.

And boy howdy, did that happen:

Atheists can be just as preachy and dogmatic as any other group. And the idea that an atheist is a “freethinker” by virtue of being atheist is just as disingenuous as the idea that some white ex-Christian is an oppressed religious minority.

Are there things that bug the ish out of me around the black community’s relationship to the church? Definitely! But I’m not on a mission to educate, encourage or “liberate” black folks of color from Christianity because that feels too much like organized religion to me.

Something about having to join a meeting and band together with other people in a set location to discuss a lack of religious beliefs feels a little, well… church-like to me. And convincing other people of your train of thought, atheistic or otherwise, and passionately wanting more people of color to join your side strikes me as very… evangelical.

Once again, one can see a pattern emerging. I am well-versed in defending anti-racism among discussions with atheists. Having to defend atheism, particularly my active form of it, among a group of anti-racists was a new experience for me. It was made a bit more frustrating by the fact that the post wasn’t even about why people of colour (PoCs) should be atheist, or why they (we) should be abandoning religion. It was simply an examination of some of the issues that might be keeping PoC who are atheists away from joining the mainstream movement. While a couple of the comments dealt with the issues I had raised, the majority of them were like the ones above – variations on a theme of “why bother to be part of an organized atheist movement?” or “why bother to be an atheist?”

Funnily enough, this is a conversation that I’ve had with atheists a number of times, but from the other side – “why do you need to be a black atheist? Why can’t we all just be atheists?” or the ever popular refrain that racial differences will cease to exist when we just stop paying attention to them. My usual response to a question like that is usually something flippant – “why do we have to call ourselves atheists? Why can’t we all just be bipeds?” The point being that labels are useful when there are real differences between groups or positions.

As with all things on this blog, I am not going to pretend that I can give a definite answer to either of these questions. I will, however, provide you with my own reasons for why I am black, atheist, and a black atheist.

Why call yourself black?

As I’ve alluded to before, I’ve struggled with my racial identity for most of my life. Where I’ve settled, for now at least, is that since the world treats me like a black man rather than a mixed-race person, I might as well call myself black. I can (and do) draw a great deal of strength and existential context from my African heritage. While everyone has their identity as individuals, it is more or less inevitable that we will also find a way to place ourselves in groups. I embrace this rather than trying to continue a futile struggle to assert my unique snowflake-ness.

Why call yourself an atheist?

This question usually has more to do with being a vocal atheist – what some people continue to insist on calling ‘militant’. (Just a caveat here: until someone begins to use violence to intimidate others, they are not militant, and you’re just using the word to score cheap rhetorical points.) Why get together with other atheists and talk about being atheists? This is the subject, surely, for an entire post of its own, but there can be great value – socially, politically, and in terms of security – in banding together with like-minded people. I am a vocal atheist because I recognize the harm that religion does in the world, and the privileged position it holds that allows this harm to continue apace. Religion needs people who are not afraid or too apathetic to criticize it and bring the conversation into the mainstream.

Why call yourself a black atheist?

I have actively chosen both the labels ‘black’ and ‘atheist’ for myself. It is not simply a question of passive de facto categorization – both of these labels meaningfully inform my outlook on life. In a reciprocal way, each of the labels affects the other. My lack of belief puts me at odds with most of the black community. At the same time however, the skeptical tools that I use in my discussion of religion have helped me immensely in my discussions of race. Being black makes me an outlier within the atheist community, but I can readily reach for examples when discussions of privilege come up, and the civil rights struggle is perfectly mirrored in what the atheist community is attempting to achieve now.

So far from simply being the accidental collision of my race and my beliefs, I take great pride in being a black atheist. Not only do the labels describe me meaningfully on their own, they operate in parallel to reinforce each other. I don’t see any problem in this kind of self-identification. Some do not choose to see themselves that way, and I can’t make the decision for them. However, I have little patience for those who would attempt to minimize or trivialize my own choice simply because they do not choose it for themselves.

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Movie Friday: Thank You…

It’s my birthday today, and I usually take this time to reflect on the things that have happened over the last year. One of the things I’m most proud of is the way this blog has established itself. Obviously I will take the appropriate amount of credit for the success, but I’m not shy about saying that you readers are a major source of inspiration and motivation. I honestly wouldn’t have been able to do this without you, your comments and feedback, your e-mails, and the fact that there’s more of you every month.

But there’s someone even more important that I have to thank…

Fun fact: the guy who sings this song also sings the theme from Pokemon:

Obviously this is a joke (well, I hope it’s obvious but with some people you never know). I don’t believe in Satan, or any kind of supernatural force of evil. I leave such fantasizing and personification of human folly to theists. I’m not even really a big believer in the Satan of the LaVey church – the worship of the human spirit and individuality as supreme. But it is fun to see someone take the piss out of the cheesy gospel music that gives credit to a different deity for all the good things, without putting the corresponding blame on that entity for the bad stuff. Consistency is clearly not a virtue.

If there is a pro-Satan song that I like on its own merits, it would be this one by one of my all-time favourite bands. I’ll leave you with it for the weekend, and proceed to get my party on.

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