The Trouble with Those Atheists

WLP STEM & Humanities Scholars 2012-2014
WLP STEM & Humanities Scholars 2012-2014

By Sikivu Hutchinson

Until it was revived by the activist-minded Benjamin Jealous, the NAACP was widely viewed as a staid throwback coasting on the glory of the civil rights movement.  Under Jealous’ leadership, the organization set out to demonstrate its political relevance, ramping up campaigns around mass incarceration, the death penalty, voter suppression and marriage equality.  Predictably, these initiatives often drew on its strong ties to the African American faith community.  A few months ago, I attended a local NAACP community service awards lunch where these ties were on vivid display.  My mother, activist educator Yvonne Divans Hutchinson, was among the recipients.  The honorees read like a roll call of educated, accomplished black America—a pioneering judge who is the granddaughter of slaves, an esteemed choreographer who’d been turned down for admission to UCLA, an activist teacher whose groundbreaking pedagogy challenged institutional racism and discrimination in Los Angeles public schools.  Most of the women who spoke at the event offered moving counter-narratives to the marginalization of the “everyday/ordinary” activism of women of color.  Each told tales of low expectations fiercely debunked.  Coming on the heels of a Women’s History seminar I’d conducted with my students, the lunch was a welcome antidote to mainstream fixation on Rosa Parks as the only example of black feminist activism.  Nonetheless, my mother appeared to be the only humanist being honored, as many recipients gushed about god and “his” guidance.  Some elicited rapturous call and response “amens” and “that’s rights” with every reference to the Lord’s supposedly divine inspiration.  Several of the women’s biographies cited deep involvement in their churches.  A recurring theme was the paramount importance of education.  Through their church leadership these primarily Baby Boomer generation women supported youth groups, spotlighted juvenile justice issues, provided scholarship assistance, spearheaded tutoring programs, developed college financial aid resources, mentored foster care youth and gave legal aid counseling.  The performance of religious fervor reconfirmed what I’d already known about black women’s organizing—namely, that social justice through faith-based communities was still the foundation for not just activism, but identity, self-affirmation and self-determination.

In an article on black non-believers in Orlando, Florida, the white head of an atheist organization expressed surprise that black atheists didn’t embrace his organization with open arms.  For white folk, centuries of racial apartheid, de facto segregation, and white supremacy in education, housing, employment and the criminal justice system are a source of “invisible” power, privilege, advantage and identity.  Nonetheless, many white atheists believe non-believers of color should just be able to roll in any environment, regardless of whether the local research university employs more black service workers than it enrolls black students or whether white families have fled public schools for elite charters and private academies.The pervasiveness of white supremacy in every institution of American economic and social organization is a “blind spot” for white organizations precisely because they rely on this regime of power and control for the illusion of universality.  As Toni Morrison remarked in her book Whiteness and the Literary Imagination “Statements insisting on the meaninglessness of race to the American identity are themselves full of meaning.  The world does not become raceless or…unracialized by assertion.”  Similarly, white claims about embracing colorblindness or believing “everyone should be equal” in the face of the New Jim Crow of “invisible” segregation does not translate into atheist or humanist solidarity.  As I argue in my books Moral Combat and Godless Americana, the ardent expressions of religious allegiance that I observed at the NAACP lunch are a byproduct of structural racism.  Ultimately, they exemplify the supreme value of heritage in the face of apartheid conditions in which the racial wealth gap translates into real benefits for whites; especially in the field of education.

For example, although many white atheists profess a commitment to “science and reason” there are still no atheist STEM initiatives that acknowledge the egregious lack of STEM K-12 and college access for students of color.  In their zeal to brand predominantly religious communities as backward, unenlightened and unsophisticated in the exceptionalist ways of Western rationality, white atheist organizations are MIA when it comes to discussions about racism in STEM college pipelining, STEM literacy as well as culturally responsive recruitment and retention of STEM scholars and professionals of color in academia.  In my recent article “The War Against Black Children”, I detail how the lack of access to Advanced Placement classes (through unofficial tracking policies, racial stereotyping and unavailable courses) undermines African American college preparedness in STEM fields.  Contrary to popular belief, many black religious organizations and churches support higher education initiatives such as STEM pipelining and scholarship programs.  In collaboration with other community-based organizations, large congregations may provide mentoring programs and college travel funds while actively recruiting African American youth for college enrichment programs.

But rather than coalition build with STEM organizations and activists of color to seriously address the race/gender “opportunity gap” in the STEM fields atheist organizations are content to posture about the need for “science and reason” to elite white audiences.  Recognizing the dire need for STEM pipelining instead of prison pipelining, the Women’s Leadership Project, Black Skeptics Los Angeles and Wisdom from the Field are partnering with African American STEM professionals at the California Science Center and Drew University for a series of South L.A. high school panels on debunking STEM stereotypes, developing STEM mentoring, college preparation, and navigating racism, sexism and homophobia in STEM academia.  For further information, contact [email protected].


The Trouble with Those Atheists

8 thoughts on “The Trouble with Those Atheists

  1. 1

    Congratulations to your mother, she sounds an impressive woman indeed.

    the Women’s Leadership Project, Black Skeptics Los Angeles and Wisdom from the Field are partnering with African American STEM professionals at the California Science Center and Drew University for a series of South L.A. high school panels on debunking STEM stereotypes, developing STEM mentoring, college preparation, and navigating racism, sexism and homophobia in STEM academia.

    Is there a central site about the panels/speakers that I could point to in a signal-boosting post, or should I just link to the organizations taking part?

  2. 2

    First, I just want to say I’m looking forward to reading ‘Moral Combat’ for a future book club reading.

    Secondly, thank you for this post. While I know the issues that face Asian-Americans in America’s hierarchy of racial privilege differ to a large extent from the African American community, I still felt that a lot of your points mirrored my own concerns regarding atheism. I have the sense that certain atheist/skeptic orgs seem to hold a “let them come to us” attitude, whether overt or subconscious, without regard for the very real challenges and obstacles in place for marginalized groups (though I’m lucky to have found a local group that is actively aware of diversity issues and proceeds admirably on that awareness). It’s frightening in its implication for secularism in this country .

    I’ve just started on this daunting road of potentially growing an Asian-Am atheist community, and I hope we can build enough critical mass to show visible solidarity and lend real support to these vital issues for the black community that so far still lack a great deal of traction in atheist activist circles.

    1. 2.1

      Thanks for your response michaelnam and your points are well taken. I hope that MC resonates with you and keep me posted about your book club. Building solidarity amongst POC atheists and humanists is a big part of Black Skeptics work here in L.A. and beyond. We’re in the process of planning a 2014 POC atheist/humanist social justice conference that focuses on anti-racist, anti-sexist, anti-homophobic coalition building. Drop us a line if you need any resources for your work. [email protected]

  3. 3

    This post reminded me of something that is going on here in Atlanta. As you may have heard, the city wants to build a new football stadium on the site of two historic black churches, including Friendship Baptist Church, where Spelman College was established. The two churches were essentially pressured by the city and the media to sell, as they were they threatened with eminent domain if they refused the monetary offers. Now, as an atheist, I’m not a fan of the outsized influence the black church has, but at the same time, it seems like blacks are just supposed to sit around and let the rich use our historical places as their personal Monopoly boards. This is not the first time a situation like this has occurred in Atlanta. Every time a new stadium has been proposed (e.g., Atlanta Fulton-County Stadium, Turner Field, the Georgia Dome), blacks have been told that it would provide economic opportunities for the community and each time it has led to more urban blight. If possible, I would like your opinion on this issue,

    1. 3.1

      Good points and yes this seems to be a national phenomenon. Urban communities of color are constantly being sacrificed at the altar of eminent domain and gentrification. The uprooting of churches and other faith-based institutions to make way for supposedly revenue and job-generating multi-million dollar development boondoggles is yet another form of spatial apartheid.

  4. 4

    Having managed STEM education programs that serve underprivileged students of color, this article resonates loud and clear. So far, mainstream atheist efforts have done little to address or acknowledge racial and class hierarchies. They tout science as if it’s the last frontier that, once discovered, will clear a path towards utopia. I’m glad to hear about what you all will be doing in South L.A. and can’t wait to hear more about it. I just signed up to the FB page and am looking forward to hearing about the conference as well.

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