In defense of my bigoted moron brothers

Black Nonbelievers of Atlanta is a non-crazy freethinkers group in Atlanta, and you should check them out.

This morning I went on a bit of a tirade against KD and Black Son, two of the hosts of a public access television show called “Black Atheists of Atlanta” for their completely non-scientific rationalization of their anti-gay stance. I got so fired up about tearing them a new asshole, that I forgot to talk about the original point I wanted to make about the show.

The first point was that being a member of a minority group (whether that be a racial or ideological minority) doesn’t make you immune from being a bigot or an idiot. Similarly, being an atheist doesn’t automatically mean you’re intelligent – it just means you have at least one thing right. KD and Black Son are just as seeped in the heterosexism of their society as anyone else. While we might be surprised to see someone that is a religious skeptic use the same kind of nonsensical “reasoning” we complain about in apologists, it’s not completely mysterious. The challenge is to be skeptical about all claims, and to apportion belief to the evidence – KD and Black Son clearly aren’t very skilled at appraising the quality of evidence.

The other thing I wanted to say but didn’t get a chance to was a response to something that Hemant wrote:

At one point, someone calls in to say that there is, in fact, a biological basis for homosexuality. The response?

KD: “Those scientists were white, weren’t they?”
Caller: “Why does that matter?”
KD: “It matters to me because I’m black… if you’re not careful, even science can be racist.”

(I’ll admit it’s true that black people have been victims in some experiments, but that’s the fault of individual scientists, not science as a process.)

Hemant’s comment represents a fundamental misunderstanding of racism, and the climate from which things like the Tuskegee experiment came. It wasn’t simply a handful of unscrupulous scientists operating outside the norms that were responsible for the atrocities of the now-infamous abuses done in the name of science. Rather, the rationalization for using these people as they were used sprang from the societal idea that black people were little better than animals, and as such could be used as instruments of medical testing rather than treated as people.

KD’s remark about science being prone to racism is not then an indictment of the process of science, nor is it a misplaced criticism of a few people. It is justifiable skepticism about truths that come from the scientific establishment – an establishment that has demonstrated again and again its vulnerability to racism, sexism, heterosexism… all the flaws we see in human beings. Seen from this perspective, KD’s point is entirely justified – one does have to be careful to ensure that science isn’t racist. We see this taking place in clinical trials, where medicines are tested in primarily white, male populations, and then distributed to the population at large without checking to see if the results are generalizable. To be sure, this is getting better, but we haven’t reached the point where we have to stop being careful.

That being said, the correct response is to remain skeptical – not to reject the science. Animal studies of homosexuality have been performed by a variety of scientists in many countries, and they are based on observation. They were also not performed with the purpose of proving that gay sex happens in the animal kingdom, they are based on field observations and followup hypothesis testing. This is quite ancillary to the fact that there is nothing inherent in people of European descent that is pro-gay; white people and black people alike hate LGBT people, in equal measure, and with equally little rational support.

So while I am still appalled and horrified by what KD and Black Son said in their broadcast, and find it just as stupid and meritless as I did this morning, I have to defend that particular comment, because it is rooted in a justifiable and rational response to a scientific establishment that is predominantly white and has a long history of racism. Science, properly applied, leads to the acceptance of homosexuality in humans just as sure as it does lead to the conclusion that black people are equal in all meaningful ways to all other people.

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  1. Riptide says

    Thanks for clarifying that point. My eyes widened a little bit when Hemant originally stated it, but I couldn’t articulate exactly what I thought was wrong with it at the time. But indeed, science (or, perhaps, scientific establishments) is part of society and above all composed of people. We cannot take it for granted that scientific establishments are less prone to the bigoted attitudes of society at large, especially when such attitudes used to be far more pervasive and insidious. (That’s not to say that ‘racism is over’ today, but we *have* made some millimetrical progress in the last sixty years of struggle.)

    We must remain on our guard against that kind of tacit prejudice afflicting our attitudes. Not even the staunchest skeptic is above using reason as a cover for bigotry. Who can honestly look in the mirror and say they’ve never rationalized some fundamentally stupid or unjustifiable position? As a ‘white’ male originally from the South, I’ve had to confront attitudes similar to those expressed in the video in my friends, family, and myself. I’ve found myself wiping my hands after shaking a ‘black’ person’s hand, or shying away from a homosexual sitting beside me on the bus, or hiding my shock when a physics professor turned out to be female. So while the two men in the video do need to be called out, we must not forget that none of us are so different from them. The only difference between people like me and people like KD is that I was able to turn my lens of reason inward to some fractional degree, and he hasn’t yet, though there is hope he might yet be able to.

  2. says

    Thanks for your comment, Riptide.

    Yeah it’s weird when you catch yourself performing actions that reveal unconscious attitudes. I find myself doing that a lot with sexism, and I’m still struggling with dropping the word “retarded” from my vocabulary.

    I’ve made the point about the difference between the proccess of science before wrt “Scientific Racism” before, but it’s worth noting that there’s more than one way of looking at the anti-science attitudes expressed on the show.

  3. says

    I’m not buying it. Yes it’s true that KD said something justifiable if you are being generous, but in the context of the statement it was not at all justifiable.

    If the context of the conversation had something to do with science that had racial overtones, or science that was being used as a justification for racist beliefs (both of which we have seen historically, and sadly still comes up), then “science can be racist” is a reasonable response. However, that was not the case here.

    The point made was that science has demonstrated a biological link to homosexuality (ie, not a choice), and KD’s response was “were the scientists white? because science can be racist.” The implications are that white scientists are incompetent so we can’t trust what they say, or white scientists are racist so they fake data that homosexuality is not a choice so they can foist their homosexuality on Africans… honestly his reasoning here is so bad that it’s hard to know exactly what he is really claiming

    What he is clearly NOT saying in the context of this exchange is the very reasonable “scientists are raised in racist contexts like everyone else and this can lead to biases in their work” as you claim.

    I think your discussion would be MUCH stronger if your main point was “KD got this wrong, but he’s a racist homophobe so never mind. On the other hand, HEMANT got this wrong too, for the following reasons.”

  4. says

    Thanks for your comment, jenea.

    If I were to try and jump into KD’s head for a moment, my interpretation of his thought process would look something like this: “Europeans want to find scientific reasons to justify their practices, as they have in the past. Homosexuality is a European practice. If the scientists that discovered homosexuality in animals are white, there is a greater likelihood that have done so by looking for confirmatory evidence.” This doesn’t say anything about the competence of white scientists, simply the potential for inherent biases at work.

    Yes, his conclusions are flawed and based on his own heterosexist bigotry, and then rationalized through a prism of xenophobic stupidity. That being said, there is good reason to be particularly skeptical about studies with racial/cultural implications that come from the dominant social group. He seems to think that this is one of those studies, which it is not. There is a context that goes beyond even simply this exchange over the phone, and I my goal is simply to point out that there’s another way of looking at it. I have no idea what KD actually thinks, but I am acutely aware that this issue will get glossed over as people (rightly) jump up and down on these moron’s heads.

    I intentionally avoided the ad hominem of dismissing KD’s opinions simply because he’s a bigot. He’s wrong because he’s wrong, not because he’s an asshole.

  5. Who Cares says

    He might be right about science being capable of racist overtones but this is a tiered process that starts in society and how it looks at others from which scientists get their prejudices that finally influence how the process of science is handled.
    So instead of dismissing science because it can be racist he should campaign for a less racist society. Which ironically the scientific process he dismisses can help with.
    Then again being negative (the dismissal) is so much easier then actually having to work to bring about a positive change (less racism).

  6. says

    Thanks for your comment!

    I’d argue that he probably thinks he is campaigning for a less racist society. Part of the goal of black nationalism is to remove black people from the victim role and use their (our) collective political clout to effect real change. I also disagree that he dismisses the scientific process – it’s the establishment he’s dismissing. He’s still wrong, but not because he dismisses science.

    What do you think working to bring about a positive change would look like? What things should they have focussed on?

  7. Ballpointpen says

    Well, just to expand on the subject of science normalized to a given background, I’d note that there are a certain number of treatments that really do work differently in people from different groups of descent (black/white is the obvious one, but another area it has been seen is between different castes in India). However, the only effect of taking this into consideration is that fewer people end up dying, so it seems to me to be eminently proper.

    On the subject of racist pseudoscience, there is a very good discussion of it in “Darwin’s Sacred Cause”.

    On the subject of his “black nationalist” stance, I will just note that he goes on to advocate genocide. So. It is really not surprising that these types add anti-gay stances to it.

  8. says

    “I’d argue that he probably thinks he is campaigning for a less racist society.”

    Yeah, he might think that, but I think he is failing at it. I was watching last night’s episode, where they suggested white people are atheists because the original god concept was that of a black family. So, white people reject god because of their prejudice against black people; it has nothing to do with lack of evidence…at least that seemed to be the implication. Black Son said something about “They don’t want to know about a black god.” After which, another host (I think his name was Ankh) said, “I am god in the human form.”

    Maybe I’m looking at this from my white privilege, but this doesn’t seem to help. I can’t say I know what the answer is, but they seem to be really going down a path of arrogance. In the episode you posted, there was also talk where they suggested Africans knew about black holes and white holes and other scientific knowledge long before the Europeans. Now there is this most recent episode where they are saying they are gods (not to mention Black Son called himself the king of black atheism in your posted episode). I can’t see this “turning the tables” and making blacks superior to whites to be helpful. I think you have to try to put people on equal footing; we are all of the same race: human. I know that can sound bad coming from a white person where people of my skin color have such a bad reputation, especially when it might remind black people of “separate, but equal,” which is not what I am proposing. Again, maybe these thoughts are all coming from my privileged status.

    “I also disagree that he dismisses the scientific process.”

    I don’t know…when he talks about a “Law of Reproduction,” it seems like he has his own unique version of science, but I admit this could be a biased viewpoint I have developed due to all the bizarre things he said on the show.

  9. says

    Interestingly enough, I’ve done work on a type of drug that, for reasons unknown, works better in people of East Asian descent. The clinical trials totally missed that, and it wasn’t until doctors stated swapping anecdotes that the effect was discovered. It might serve to improve the efficacy of the drug. It’s useful to have a broad spectrum of patients in clinical trials, because it could have just as easily been more deadly to East Asian people, and who knows how long it would have taken to find that out?

    Thanks for the comment!

  10. says

    Yeah, he might think that, but I think he is failing at it.

    Oh undoubtedly. These guys are wrong about everything and I don’t want my defense of this aspect of their broadcast to be construed as me implying that their conclusions are reasonable. I’m just worried about this particular perspective getting lost in the wave of condemnation.

    I’ve known these kind of pseudo-intellectuals before, and black supremacy is as distasteful to me as white supremacy is. It’s tied up in a bunch of mystical bullshit, and claims are made with no evidence to back them up. The problem is that the evidence about pre-colonial black history is so threadbare that it’s really difficult to separate true claims from false ones. It seems as though these guys have read a bunch of woo-woo books about black history and then claimed the bits they liked as “history”. It’s incredibly important to be skeptical of history books written from a European viewpoint, but like Dara O’Briain says – “it doesn’t mean you can insert whatever fairy tale most appeals to you.”

    He’s definitely making up his own definition of science. And history. And African. And a whole bunch of stuff. This would be just another example of a crank saying ridiculous bullshit on the internet, except he’s deputized black people and atheists into his argument, and I’m not going to let him get away with that.

  11. says

    There have even been drugs which have worked differently in Sephardic and Ashkenazi Jews, I seem to recall. Or diseases which are more common in one branch than the other. Or something. Sorry. It’s late; I’m tired.


  12. Ballpointpen says

    Could you let me know which one it is – that is, if the info isn’t proprietary? I’ve been interested in just how much “tailoring” is possible with drugs these days. The ideal is to be able to take a mouth swab from someone, run a couple of PCRs and be able to optimize the treatment that way, and I’m always wondering how far we are from that.

  13. Some Guy says

    I can’t believe I watched almost that entire show, considering it made me rage so damn hard. Regardless of the fact that there is no such thing as the “Law of Reproduction” (even if the underlying concept is true), they seem to be forgetting about the whole concept of recessive genes. If two people with blue eyes could give birth to a child with green eyes, it seems reasonable to think that two straight parents could give birth to a gay child. Not to mention the fact that studies have suggested that homosexuality isn’t purely linked to genetics, but also the fact that as women have more and more children, their bodies become accustomed to them and start to release feminine hormones, increasing the likelihood of the child being gay.

  14. mchezo says

    “That being said, there is good reason to be particularly skeptical about studies with racial/cultural implications that come from the dominant social group.”

    You should always be particularly skeptical about studies with racial/cultural implications regardless of which social group the author/authors come from.

  15. says

    Definitely. I used the word ‘particularly’ there intentionally. While it’s ideal for us to be equally skeptical of all claims, it is highly impractical. I’m not going to go to the source literature every time my dentist tells me something about dental health. If a naturopath tells me the same thing, I’m hitting PubMed.

    Thanks for your comment.

  16. says

    Reactionary Black Nationalism has been a problem for a long time. It can fester in the minds of theists AND non-theists. This sort of group-think causes all kinds of intellectual problems. For example, KD and Black Son are critical of Greek culture, yet they have adopted the term “atheist,” which is Greek for “without belief in God or gods.” One of the most disturbing problems with Reactionary Black Nationalism is the nationalists’ insistence that they are somehow Blacker than their critics, and therefore more likely to know what they are talking about. This, of course, is a common logical fallacy. True freethinkers from all backgrounds deserve better.

  17. says

    Thanks for your comment.

    I think it’s not hypocrisy to be critical of Greek culture without being critical of the Greek roots of the English language. Would you suggest they invent a new word for atheism, and for every other English word with a Greek root? That would be a bit cumbersome.

    I have some sympathy for the ideals of black nationalism, but like anything it must be guided by critical thinking and evidence-based decision making. Making up a narrative of history that suits your biases is not a step toward any nation that I would want to be a part of.

  18. Who Cares says

    What do you think working to bring about a positive change would look like? What things should they have focussed on?

    I consider this a really good question (two actually). Wrote down a few things. Then went looking around and what I’ve come up with is already being tried/done. That said if a random blog commenter like me could figure out a solution with just a snap of my fingers, then people who’ve been looking at the problem for years would have found them too (and most likely better solutions too).
    At present I can only offer what I can do myself. What I can do is to not add to the problem and if seeing discrimination (In the Netherlands, where I live the problem is more based on country of origin but still tied to skin color) call out the person(s) doing it.
    Would be a tad hypocritical to call out to someone who is trying (even though I consider the way they go about it wrong) to be positive, then sit back and do nothing.

  19. says

    And that’s pretty much the only thing that an individual can do, short of political action. I think having more people be part of the conversation is the way to go about it, even if I think they’re dead wrong. Part of that requires us to be unflinchingly self-critical and willing to admit when we’re wrong, and to have the intellectual courage to be vocal in our failures, as well as those of others.

    I’m going to be in Amsterdam in a couple of weeks. Have to find a Canadian flag to sew onto my backpack.

  20. MarsNova says

    I’m so mad at these clowns I could spit. Here I sit, a brother in Seattle–a place where you won’t find many black atheists, as we need MORE BLACK PEOPLE here for that–just on the verge of coming out as an atheist to my family and friends and looking for resources online to help me out with the process. I come across the local “Ask an Atheist” show, which ultimately led me to these man sandal-wearing asshats and their…I can’t even call it a “point of view.”

    They remind me of this guy who used to stand around in the shopping malls back home in Memphis. This guy wore a varsity jacket with sewn-on patches representing every religious system you can think of, and all he would do is debate people on religion. All day, with arguments full of holes. It was like, that’s all this guy did. That’s who these clowns remind me of–and, as a freethinker of African descent, I feel they owe the more rational of our crowd a damn apology. Hell, they owe the ENTIRE freethinking community an apology, AND a name change. F–k those twentieth-century, liquor-store-philosopher-assed…arrgh!

  21. says

    Thanks for the comment, and fist bump for the phrase “liquor store philosopher”.

    The thing that really stands out to me is how easy it is for these guys to tarnish all black people in one stroke. Ray Comfort stands up and says something stupid – nobody says “man, white people are nuts”. Maybe it’s because he doesn’t claim to represent the whole race, which these guys do. But yeah, these are the first atheists I’ve seen talk this kind of crap – I’ve come across pseudo-intellectuals of this type before. They are irritating, but they’re kind of like Ayn Rand – there’s a point in there if you’re patient enough to sift through all the bullshit.

    I’d be really interested to hear your experience coming out to your family, if you feel comfortable sharing it.

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