Monday, October 10, 2011

Diversity (and Black people specifically) in the Atheist Movement

This second installment off the recent Texas Freethought Convention takes off from a panel called "Diversity in the Movement" which I was part of together with Dr. Sikivu Hutchinson, author of Moral Combat: Black Atheists, Gender Politics, and Secular America, Jason Torpy of Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers, and Rich Rodriguez, of Rational Response Squad. There are many dimensions to diversity, but this installment will focus on Black people.

The conference as a whole was kicked off by an excellent talk that PZ Myers gave on mutants. PZ, as he is prone to do, made an entertaining and invigorating sport of scientifically refuting creationist bullshit. Almost like a bonus track, he threw in several scientifically rigorous lines of refutation of Spiderman and other comic books.

At a certain point, PZ explained that neanderthals interbred with early humans in Europe (after these early humans left Africa). As part of discussing mutations and how we are all mutants (be very afraid!), he explained that everyone with European or Asian background had some neanderthal DNA woven into our make-up. On the other hand, Africans and African Americans don't (I am sure this is not totally true as most Black people in this country have some European DNA at this point, but the main point he was demonstrating was valid and fascinating).

However, when PZ asked Black people in the audience to raise their hands – part of his engaging speaking style – there was a very long pause as everyone looked around the auditorium... searching... searching... searching for anyone Black. Finally, a young woman way in the back stood up, waved her hand and took a bow.

Now, it turns out there was more than one Black person in the room. But not very many more. This was rather shocking, and in some ways a very important lead-in to the "diversity" panel.

Sikivu Hutchinson & me
at Texas Freethought Convention

While I appreciated everyone's comments and perspective on the panel, I was especially pleased to be sharing the stage with Sikivu Hutchinson. I very much enjoyed (and recommend) her book. I interviewed her for Equal Time for Freethought and you can listen to it here.  She brought alive the reality of the New Jim Crow that confronts Black people; mass incarceration, institutional racism, and a white supremacist power structure. She spoke as well to the degradation and oppression of women, the assault on women's right to abortion and the special demonization of Black and Latina women who get abortions.  

I highlighted a quote from Bob Avakian's Away With All Gods that, "Oppressed people who are unable or unwilling to confront reality as it actually is, are condemned to remain enslaved and oppressed."  Most oppressed people are still denied any real scientific education or exposure to atheism and this is something atheists must take much greater responsibility for changing.   It is a form of profound disrespect for people to think they are too stupid to come to understand the way the world actually is and to fail to struggle for them to take up science and unchain their minds from religious shackles. At the same time, there is tremendous oppression and crimes – from police brutality to mass incarceration to the assault on women's reproductive rights and beyond – that everyone needs to be coming together to fight and to build a movement for revolution to get rid of once and for all.   This fight should include both religious and atheist people.   I posed a different synthesis – of militant atheism but also of not making atheism a dividing line; instead making the fight against oppression and exploitation the dividing line (which actually divides both atheists and religious folks sharply, but in a much more favorable way in terms of bringing about a much better world in this world, the real world, the only world there is).

During the Q&A, one man posed that he wasn't sure that the right questions were being asked. Rather than ask, regarding Black people, "Why don't they come to our events?" and then having Black people always ask, "But why don't you take up our issues?" white atheists ought instead to support Black atheists in taking atheism to Black people.

I want to share my answer to this.

While there is importance to Black atheists fighting – and being supported in their efforts to fight – for atheism among Black people, it is profoundly wrong to equate "them" coming to "our" events (speaking of "them" as Black people and "our" as if all of us at an atheist convention primarily identify as "white atheists") with the notion of Black people insisting that "we" take up "their" issues.

The oppression of Black people is NOT "Black people's issue." The oppression of Black people is woven into the fabric of American society.  "There would be no United States as we know it today without slavery. That is a simple and basic truth." (1:1, BAsics, from the talks & writings of Bob Avakian).  After that, it was Jim Crow and generations of racist terror in which every Black person lived under an active death warrant. It may or may not have been carried out, but it was always there and every Black person knew that any white person could accuse them at any time and they could be lynched, or wrongly imprisoned and sent to a chain gang (an incredible and important book, Douglas A. Blackmon's  Slavery By Another Name), or for no reason at all. Today, it's the New Jim Crow. 1 in 9 young Black men is in prison. Prisons institute widespread torture – by standards of international law (things like years and decades of isolation! – something California prisoners are currently hunger striking against), rampant police brutality and murder, the worst education, the worst health care, and the largest transfer of wealth out of the Black community in history through the recent mortgage crisis.

The retrenchment, in new forms, of the longstanding oppression of Black people in the U.S. is one of the great moral questions of this era. If this is not "your issue" then you are not leading a moral life. There is NO EXCUSE for white people (or other people not of African descent) in this country to treat this like someone else's problem.

To underscore further the problem with the kind of thinking reflected in the question posed, a bit more...

Black people don't owe any atheist organization their participation. I believe it would be very good if more Black people were atheists and if more Black atheists were involved in atheist organizations and activism. It would be even better if more Black people and more atheists (and the two are not mutually exclusive) were getting into the movement for revolution and transforming themselves in the course of coming together to transform the world. But this would be good because it would benefit Black people as a whole and humanity as a whole. That's why it's important. Not because Black people have an obligation to atheists organizations.

On the other hand, everyone on U.S. soil has a responsibility and a moral obligation to fight against the not-merely-historic but present-day-reality of profound and systematic oppression of Black people in the U.S.A.

Troy Davis was just recently legally lynched:  Overwhelming evidence of his innocence. 7 out of 9 witnesses recanted. No physical evidence linking him to the crime. A million people worldwide petitioned for a new trial. Thousands protested. Former prison wardens called for the Georgia prison officials to refuse to participate in the execution.  Former FBI Chief William Sessions called for commuting Davis' death sentence.  But Troy Davis was murdered by the U.S. State. I feel like screaming as I type. This is everyone's responsibility.

Okay, fine – a lot of white people (and frankly, a lot of immigrants from every part of the world) are kept ignorant of this reality.   But, you who are reading this – and those of you who had enough heart and interest to attend the diversity panel over the weekend – it is not acceptable and there is no excuse for remaining ignorant.  Follow the links in this article. Read up. Learn. Here is an excellent place to start, a special issue of Revolution dealing specifically with, "The Oppression of Black People, The Crimes of this System and the Revolution We Need."  

“The young man was shot 41 times while reaching for his wallet”…“the 13-year-old was shot dead in mid-afternoon when police mistook his toy gun for a pistol”… “the unarmed young man, shot by police 50 times, died on the morning of his wedding day”… “the young woman, unconscious from having suffered a seizure, was shot 12 times by police standing around her locked car”… “the victim, arrested for disorderly conduct, was tortured and raped with a stick in the back of the station-house by the arresting officers.”

Does it surprise you to know that in each of the above cases the victim was Black?1

If you live in the USA, it almost certainly doesn’t.

Think what that means:"
* * *
Another point that I want to highlight was a comment from Naima Washington during Sikivu Hutchinson's presentation later that day. She said a number of things, building off much of what Sikivu spoke to about how Black people are viewed still in animalistic terms. Naima spoke to how Black people have been viewed as able to tolerate higher levels of pain, able to work harder without fatigue, and in other ways being physically predisposed to enslavement. She detailed how these myths continue in myths, including through myths of innate athletic super-prowess. (An important aside, Dorothy Roberts recently exposed how Black people are systematically prescribed significantly fewer pain-killers for the same medical procedures out of prejudices and assumptions about Black people.)  Then, at the tail end of her remarks, Naima commented that, while she is concerned about the number of people of color in the room, she is more concerned with the number of people of conscience.

Excuse my religious language, but A-Fucking-Men.

The participation of Black people (and other oppressed people) matters. It matters a lot. But even more – and frankly as a foundation to whether there will be an increasing basis for attracting and involving Black atheists – is whether there is a foundation of conscience. Once again, and as a conclusion to this entry, there is no foundation of conscience that does not include a firm stand against the oppression of Black people as "everybody's" issue.

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posted by Sunsara Taylor at 6:25 PM


Blogger BeautifulBlackAtheist said...

Sikivu H is GAWD! I love her! Wish I could've attended!

10/10/11, 7:02 PM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Simply awesome post!

10/18/11, 11:04 PM


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