Race, American Atheists and “The Movement”

By Sikivu Hutchinson

Skeptic Ink News is reporting that former American Atheists’ development director AJ Johnson is suing AA for racial discrimination and wrongful termination.

“The suit alleges that [A.J.] Johnson was ‘forced to listen to various racial jokes and was subjected to unprovoked, unwarranted, vicious and persistent verbal attacks on everything, including her competence.” It claims “unfounded complaints” against her competence and that this was in spite of excellent performance, citing “dramatically” increased donations which it was her job to solicit. It also indicates that Johnson, the sole African-American employee of American Atheists at the time, was “forced to support” a billboard stating “Slaves obey your masters” which she expressly disapproved of.”

American Atheists’ president David Silverman has vigorously denied Johnson’s charges–even producing a memo Johnson wrote urging her (redacted) email contacts to challenge my March 2012 article criticizing AA’s naked slave billboard.  Although Johnson’s lawsuit will be adjudicated in court, her allegations should be taken seriously, especially within the context of a movement that has actively sought to discredit people of color who call out racism and has made little more than a token effort to engage people of color in positions of leadership.  Despite frequent tokenistic calls for “diversity” within the “movement”, there are virtually no people of color in executive management positions (notable exceptions being leader-activists Debbie Goddard of CFI and Maggie Ardiente of AHA) in any of the major secular/atheist/humanist organizations.  Further, when people of color are constantly bombarded with bullshit claims from Internet cowards about separatism, reverse discrimination and “self-segregation” when they point to the absence of social justice, anti-racist community organizing, coalition-building and visibility (outside of white suburbs and gentrified urban centers) amongst secular organizations, it merely underscores the burning need for authentic real-time grassroots organizations of color beyond the mainstream atheist power structure.

Race, American Atheists and “The Movement”

34 thoughts on “Race, American Atheists and “The Movement”

  1. 2

    That definitely sounds like a hostile environment to me. I hope she gets a fair day in court, and good-faith trust from the atheist community that smoke frequently suggests fire, just as we’d hope that any of us would be taken in good faith if we described such a situation.

    Thanks for reporting on it, I’ll be watching how it comes out. If her allegations are true, it’s not good enough. If we can’t walk the walk on anti-racism within our own walls, how can any POC outside those walls (of the atheist movement, I mean) trust that we’ll look out for their atheism too? If we want the strongest movement possible, we have to deal with these situations when they arise, every time. It’s frankly irrational to do anything else.

  2. 3

    the burning need for authentic real-time grassroots organizations of color beyond the mainstream atheist power structure.


    I’m hoping to hear AJ Johnson’s own perspective.

    Reading this also makes me check the tendency to tribalism – I’m appreciative of Silverman for being confrontational about the sexual harassment issue. That’s great. And maybe it’s true or not about the billboard – but there were lots of other elements of an unwelcoming atmosphere mentioned besides that. And it’s hardly extraordinary to find people doing relatively well on one facet of the struggle against inequality, and falling down badly in another fact of it. I want for us to be doing better, is all – it’s so disheartening that this idea meets with such resistance so much of the time.

  3. 4

    What SC was alluding to above is that Skeptic Ink is affiliated with a notorious harasser and advocate against addressing social justice within the atheist and skeptic communities. What was that guy’s name again…?

    Anyhow, the story rings very true, but it will be nice to hear it from a less sheisty source when we can.

  4. 5

    I do want to hear A.J. Johnson’s take on this, because I consider the source (Skeptic Ink) unreliable, and the timing, well, interesting.

  5. 6

    Skeptic Ink News

    Funniest thing I’ve read all week!

    We’re talking about a platform for a bunch of disgruntled anti-feminists here, no news to be had in that place. One of their bloggers just had his ass handed to him by Dave Silverman. In that sense, very interesting timing indeed, and as Stacy says, in no way a reliable source of information.

    Not that I doubt that AA may harbor the odd racist.

  6. 7

    This is very sad. I have to wonder if this problem is endemic to AA, in particular. After all, Madalyn Murray O’Hare and others were accused of racial insensitivity, telling racist jokes, etc.

  7. 8

    Well, clearly non of the commenters here have been paying attention, because AA responded to this lawsuit on their website. The court papers are a matter of public record. It’s real.

  8. 9

    I didn’t see anyone here claim that the lawsuit isn’t real. What’s been suggested is that the person they linked to and the site at which he blogs are not reliable sources of information (see Matt Dillahunty’s comments here), and it’s a little surprising to see Hutchinson linking there (at least she didn’t give him a huge hat tip, and for that I’m glad).

  9. 10

    I doubt AJ Johnson will be speaking about it at all. Any public statements she makes would be evidence, and she is probably advised by her attorneys to keep quiet about it. Bridget Gaudette is a possible witness and has said she would like to keep quiet because she may be deposed, though she seems generally supportive of the article.

    1. 10.1

      Good point, Edward; when I say I want to hear her side, I mean in the lawsuit. That billboard thing was horrific to watch from out here, I can’t imagine being her in that situation, in her first career job (y’know, as opposed to the ones that paid for your dates or your university or whatever), how hard it would have been, both to speak up and to stay silent. I can think of how I’d feel about similar things (were it, say, a trans*-related fuckup), but they’re not the same.

      That, of course, is my privilege (not being able to imagine), which is why I hope she gets to air her side. And also partly why I tend to support her as likely to be telling the truth; I can’t think anyone would want to go through this, the freakout that she’s going to face from all the haters in our movement, the pain and expense of a lawsuit, without having something serious to talk about.

  10. 11

    With respect to the billboard… I don’t see any inconsistency between Ms. Johnson’s supportive memo and her claim that she was “forced to support” the project.

    Silverman notes in his rebuttal that this was her first professional job after college… if so, I can readily understand why she might have publicly supported a project she “expressly disapproved of” behind the scenes. That first professional job is a vitally important stepping stone in one’s career – so she would be strongly motivated to be a “team player” – at least up to the point where she was fired. IMHO, the wording of her memo suggests this… it stops waaaay short of full-throated support.

    AA seriously stepped in it with the billboard incident – the fact that they failed to anticipate the strongly negative reaction to it speaks volumes. As such, it’s easy for me to believe that Ms. Johnson faced a hostile work environment there, even if it wasn’t intentional.

  11. 14

    beyond the mainstream atheist power structure.

    Be there.

    As some of the the larger atheist organizations seem to be conveniently providing examples at the moment, I renew my personal objections to power structures in general. Structures, even in the best organizations, eventually tend to enable the wrong sort of people and not the grassroots.

  12. 16

    The few people saying that something isn’t reliable because it’s on Skeptic Ink seems to me as silly as saying the same thing with regard to FTB. Also just flat-out false (and terribly insulting) to say that it’s a “platform for a bunch of disgruntled anti-feminists” or that it “advocates against addressing social justice”.

    Whatever your beef with one or two of the bloggers there, let’s not start dismissing a whole network. Yes, I’m aware that people do the same thing to FTB. Yes, they are wrong to do it.

  13. 17

    Sorry, retaining a guy whose major goal in life is fighting against social justice in atheism can be seen as advocating that yourself. If it became public that a highly placed person at Microsoft was in the KKK, they’d fire him (probably with generous provisions, but still…).

    I know some people on FTB aren’t on board with A+, for example, but no one here is half as much of a shit as that guy. Now where do I recognize your name from? Ah yes, it’s coming back to me…

  14. xyz

    Thank you so much for addressing this Sikivu. I know it sucks to have this come up at the same time as American Atheists seems to be doing so well on feminist issues, but really, people shouldn’t have to weigh whether they are going to support the “Slaves Obey Your Masters” org or the one that didn’t get past “expressing its unhappiness about the controversy” generated by its own damn CEO… these are all serious issues. I am disappointed you’re the only one I’ve seen posting about it on FTB.

    1. 20.1

      You’re welcome. AJ was one of the few prominent African American women with a paid position in the “movement”. Black women are among the lowest paid workers in the U.S. and have some of the lowest promotion rates in private sector employment. It is not surprising that her suit and the issues raised in my piece elicit deafening silence and deflection from the atheist establishment because it is comprised of white male and female elites who are perfectly comfortable flying the diversity flag out of expedience and pretending (like the majority of mainstream America) that being down with “women’s issues” magically exempts these institutions from white supremacy and entitlement vis-à-vis hiring, workplace climate, retention and promotions.

  15. 22

    Why is it this is the only blog on FTB that even mentions this?
    Did Silverman get a pass for his apparent racist behavior because he is buddies with PZ and has been trashing the “evil slymepitters”?

    1. 22.1

      People write about what they are interested in. Unfortunately, it doesn’t appear many are interested in this. I’m not sure why – it seems like the biggest story in the atheist community at least recently. There are so many avenues to of this story that would seem to attract people – harassment, privilege, racism, sexism, employment, atheism, etc. etc.

      Racism in employment is a real thing. I certainly don’t know Dave Silverman or anyone at American Atheists, but one issue is a persistent thought that black people in jobs didn’t earn their way and therefore have seven or eight extra steps to prove themselves.

      I would like to see some good discussion on this issue. I think this community keeps boxing itself in with having major disputes over relatively minor issues. Then, when a major issue hits, it’s almost a no-win situation. If you are going to quit CFI because you don’t like Ron Lindsay, you pretty much have to excommunicate David Silverman if it turns out he is “guilty” of what’s alleged. I would hope to see a little less on the judgments and a little more on the discussion. American Atheists may very well be guilty of some racist acts, that makes them human beings who made mistakes, not some sort of remake of the KKK.

      The one thing that really does no good is ignoring the issue entirely and “letting the courts decide.” That kind of double standard just speaks loudly at how little this community cares about minority concerns.

      1. If you are going to quit CFI because you don’t like Ron Lindsay, you pretty much have to excommunicate David Silverman if it turns out he is “guilty” of what’s alleged.

        Wait, what? I was with you up to this point. “Don’t like Ron Lindsay?” Seriously? Talk about minimizing legitimate complaints.

        1. I’m not trying to minimize complaints (though in truth I don’t have any complaints about Lindsay). Regardless, it’s tough for me to see how anything Lindsay did is on the same level as firing someone based on her race. I think not “rushing to judgment” is fine, but the net result of the barrels of internet ink being spilled about Lindsay and a small dribble for this lawsuit gives the impression that this issue isn’t important.

          1. It’s not about being on the same level, it’s about the secular community as a whole having a tendency to minimize complaints.

            But i think you’re right that this issue needs more attention than it’s getting. Seriously, what the fuck, atheists?

  16. 23

    David’s response post, seems in very poor taste from how I understand it. Basically he is calling AJ a liar(that she never expressed anything but support for projects) but only points to external or public statements where AJ basically HAD to be supportive (since that was her job) as his ‘evidence’ that she is lying. Someone in AJ’s position is supposed to remain supportive publicly, and express concern privately.

    Secondly, David’s claim, that basically AJ was never qualified for her job seems like bullshit. If that was indeed the case, it is almost always apparent within 60-90 days of someone starting, AJ being on an ‘extended review period’ sounds like pure BS as well. ‘Extended review periods’ are for employees that have been not performing well, and AJ would certainly have been aware that this condition existed. Contract to hire or 90 trial periods are typical for new hires.

  17. 24

    I’m disappointed in David Silverman. While he’s saying all the right things about feminism, this shows there’s still a long way to go on issues of race. We have to break this movement of the whole “White Men only” stigma. And our supposed leaders have to lead by example.

  18. 25

    Thanks Sikivu for staying on the front line and keeping us aware of these issues. To the secular community, being atheist doesn’t mean non-racist. Nor does it mean support for all other social justice issues. Being an atheist doesn’t make you a quality person.

  19. 27

    I hadn’t see anyone mention the actual docket number or legal details for the case, so I’m adding them here.

    The current case status can be found (during the day) through the website of the New Jersey state court, here:

    The case county is Hudson; the docket type is Law (L); docket number 002088; docket year 13.

    There are three named defendants: American Atheists, David Silverman, and Amanda Knief.

    The case appears to currently be in discovery, which started on June 11, 2013, and is scheduled to end on Sept 4, 2014.

    Only three documents have been filed — the complaint, on April 30, 2013; an answer, with counter-claims, on June 11; and a answer to the counter-claims on June 28.

    The pre-trial judge is a Judge Rodriguez.

    The plaintiff is represented by Hunt, Hamlin & Ridley, while the defendants are represented by Bruce I. Afran.

    The text of the documents does not seem to be available online. It might be helpful if someone would request them from the court and make them available.

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