The Sterling Shuffle: Unpacking White Jewish Racism


By Sikivu Hutchinson

Every Sunday for the past several years the mug of real estate mogul and L.A. Clippers owner Donald Sterling has commanded prime ad space in the Los Angeles Times. Touting Sterling’s philanthropy, these ads often feature grinning photos of prominent African American politicians, religious leaders and other glad-handing public figures who’ve received hefty donations from his financial empire. After TMZ revealed a recording of Sterling’s racist comments about black people to girlfriend V. Stiviano, President Obama and other dignitaries were swift to condemn him. On Monday it was “shockingly” revealed that Sterling, who is Jewish, went the extra mile with his racism in the recording, contending that “the blacks are treated like dogs” in Israel to Stiviano. Responding to her criticism of this claim, Sterling reiterated that “the black Jews” are “less than” white Jews and that that is the way it should be.

Anti-black racism among white Jewish people is a seldom discussed, controversial aspect of the complicated arc of black-Jewish relations in the U.S. Yet, Sterling’s comments are noteworthy because they not only highlight the white supremacist bent of Israeli anti-African sentiment but the social construction of Jewish whiteness. Echoing rancher Cliven Bundy’s recent references to blacks thriving under slavery, Sterling expressed the paternalistic view that he “supports” blacks on the team by giving them clothes, houses and cars. He then blasts Stiviano for comparing anti-black racism and discrimination to the Jewish Holocaust.

Implicit in this shutdown is the notion that Jewish suffering under the Holocaust precludes consideration of how white Jews have benefited from institutional and systemic racism.
The illusion of lockstep black-Jewish solidarity on liberal political coalition-building has long masked the reality of white Jewish privilege and investment in white supremacy. This is especially relevant to Sterling (who tellingly changed his name from Tokowitz to the more Anglicized Sterling) because he is a multi-millionaire developer who has also been the subject of two federal racial discrimination lawsuits involving tenants of color. In her book How Jews Became White Folks, Karen Brodkin notes that Jews contrasted themselves with the specter of a “mythic blackness”. Deeply ingrained racial stereotypes of shiftless, lazy, culturally pathological and mentally enslaved blacks—versus “hard working” immigrants streaming through Ellis Island in search of opportunity—have always been a subtext of the American dream. Hence, “mythic blackness” implicitly signified social dysfunction and downward mobility—i.e., the antithesis of American notions of rugged individualism and bootstraps uplift. This divide allowed Jewish, Irish and other reviled, provisionally white ethnic immigrants to highlight and capitalize on their (relative) whiteness. As Salomon Gruenwald notes in a review of Brodkin’s book, “Jews did not become white because they succeeded in spite of racism, rather, they succeeded because of white racism. Economic and social shifts following WWII reconfigured whiteness in such a way as to allow them—particularly Jewish men—the entitlements that being white brought (like the G.I. Bill and access to the suburbs).”

The long term economic legacy of these entitlements has been amplified in the post-civil rights era. African Americans of all income levels are hyper-segregated in urban communities heavily impacted by foreclosure, joblessness, predatory lending, subpar schools, racist policing and mass incarceration. And, relative to white working class homeowners, even the most wealthy African Americans are segregated into neighborhoods that have high poverty rates. As the most segregated racial group in Los Angeles, the socioeconomic divide between blacks and white Jews couldn’t be more profound. Like other European Americans in the post-World War II era, Jews took advantage of New Deal FHA, VA and GI Bill loans (which were denied to African Americans) to flee South L.A. and East L.A. neighborhoods and move to wealthier enclaves in West L.A. and the Valley. Once upon a time, predominantly Mexican American Boyle Heights was a thriving Jewish enclave. New Deal era affirmative action policies for white people, coupled with the Great Migration of African Americans from the South, facilitated white Jewish upward mobility and assimilation. As Ryan Reft writes on the transformation of Boyle Heights, “the Great Migration led others to rewrite the rules that kept whites separated from non-whites. As a result, definitions of whiteness shifted. Jews now found themselves increasingly included as part of the metropolitan area’s…conception of whiteness, and many took advantage of new housing opportunities.”

Sterling’s racist references to shiftless black untouchables are simply yet another snapshot of how caste, ethnicity and the bootstraps mythology play out in “post-racial” America. And in a country in which the racial wealth gap is most powerfully reflected in corporate real estate and apartheid-level access to private space people of color in particular shouldn’t be shocked or surprised.

The Sterling Shuffle: Unpacking White Jewish Racism

Call to Action: Greta Christina discusses “Coming Out Atheist”!


Greta Christina’s timely, insightful new book Coming Out Atheist: How to Do It, How to Help Each Other, and Why? dropped a few days ago! Black Skeptics interviewed her on the intersectional issues she addresses in the book, including the Atheism Plus phenomenon, feminism and social justice:

BS: In the book you stress the value of engaging in debates about religion with believers to encourage questioning and coming out. However, as you acknowledge, debating the validity of religious belief is only one part of the equation. For example, the vast majority of LGBTQ people of color and straight people of color are faith-aligned/identified precisely because mainstream America is racially segregated, faith (for many) is a form of cultural “home space” and social welfare resources in communities of color are extremely impacted. What further “intersectional” steps need to be taken to promote humanistic communities beyond just “coming out”?

GC: I’m surprised to hear you say that — I don’t think I did stress the value of debating with believers all that much. I mention in the book, but I don’t give it much space, and I mostly mention it because I actually advise against having those debates while you’re in process of coming out to people. I think that’s the wrong time for those debates. It is true that I think debating believers can be useful and valuable: a lot of atheists rag on other atheists for getting into those debates, insisting that they never work and are always a waste of time, so I think they deserve defending. And it can be difficult to draw a clear line between simply explaining your atheism, and explaining why you think religion is bunk. That’s one of the main reasons I talk about the topic at all. But it’s certainly not something I think everyone should do, I don’t think it’s a moral imperative or anything, and I think lots of other forms of activism are valuable.

So, with that being cleared up. The answer to your main question: Yes, for lots of people of color, faith is a home: it’s where people get social services, social support, a sense of identity and continuity and stability and history, and more. (It does seem that it can be a toxic home — that’s one of the takeaways I got from Candace Gorham’s book, “The Ebony Exodus Project,” I kept being struck throughout the book by how so many black women found their churches unsupportive and actually undermining. But it’s still a home.) So one of the biggest intersectional steps that godless communities can take is to make atheism a safer place to land for these folks. We need to look at what people of color are getting from their faith communities, and do more in our own communities to provide it. It wouldn’t suck if we did more to make some of these needs less necessary while we’re at it: to do political work on poverty and safety nets and institutional racism and so on. And no, that’s not “mission drift”: if local atheist communities can do blood drives and roadside cleanups and so on, there’s no reason they can’t do this sort of political work, too. And we need to be willing to take a hard look at the ways that we actually make our spaces unwelcoming: not just with racism of omission (e.g., failing to recognize what these folks need and provide it), but with more overt racism of commission. And all this actually does go back to the question of debates about religion: there’s not much point — strategically, poltically, or indeed morally — in arguing people out of religion if we don’t provide them a safe place to land if we succeed.

BS: What are your thoughts on “Atheism Plus”? Is it more than an online phenomenon and if so what concrete inroads are its proponents making in social justice organizing and coalition building?

GC: It depends somewhat on what you mean by “Atheism Plus.” If you mean specifically the online community that was founded a couple of years ago, I’m not actually that involved with it right now (not for any particular reason, I’ve just been focusing on other things), and I’m not the best person to ask about it. But the term “Atheism Plus” often gets used to refer to anyone (well, any atheist) who wants organized atheism to work more on social justice stuff: anyone who thinks organized atheism needs to work on making our communities more diverse and more welcoming to a wider variety of people, and anyone who thinks we need to work more on issues where secularism intersects with other social justice issues (like reproductive rights, megachurches and religious frauds preying on impoverished neighborhoods, ways that voucher funding of religious schools is undermining public education, skepticism applied to economic policies and police procedures and the drug war, etc.). And the term gets applied to anyone who thinks we need to be willing to clean our own house around this stuff: to pay attention to our own racism, sexism, classism, etc., and to work to get better around it.

If you mean that, I think we have had some success, although we sure as hell need more. When I travel around the U.S. to speak to local communities and student groups, I’m seeing a lot more diversity in the memberships and leaderships, a greater consciousness about these issues, a greater committment to taking action on them and more effectiveness in that action, than I did even just a few years ago. That’s especially true in the student groups. Whenever I get disheartened by racist/ sexist/ classist/ transphobic/ etc. bullshit in organized atheism, I try to remember that the student groups are way better about it than their elders are. When I talk about diversity with student groups, they’re almost always already on board — they don’t need to talk about “Why?”, they just want to talk about “How?” I’m not sure I’d credit that to Atheism Plus specifically, though — it’s more that this has been on a lot of people’s radar for a while, as has the pushback against it, and the genesis of Atheism Plus was a flash point for that.

GC: In the book you note that there has been an uptick in the numbers of African American participants in atheist/humanist conferences, however there is still no emphasis on social and racial justice issues by the majority of the leading atheist/humanist organizations. What can “white allies” do to help the leadership of these organizations get out of their church/state separation bubble?

You tell me. What would you like white allies to do? Seriously. I get asked questions like this a lot, and I try to answer as best I can (and I’ll try to answer you), but if you think there’s specific stuff we’re not doing that would be useful, I for one would like to hear it.

So, to answer your question as best I can. Some things I think white allies can do to shift the leadership: Speak up. Keep this stuff on our leaders’ radar. Give our leaders shit when they fail; make it clear that this is a priority for us. Give financial and other support to organizations that are doing a better job of it. Withdraw financial and other support from organizations that are seriously and consistently screwing it up. Give strokes when people get it right. Support up-and-coming leaders who are better on this stuff, and let organizations know which up-and-coming leaders we support and would like to see move up in the ranks. Give financial and other support to organizations that are specifically dedicated to this intersectional stuff (like Black Skeptics, to pick just one example completely at random).

And I think it might be useful to frame some of these other social justice issues as church/state separation issues. Attacks on abortion rights and access, religiously-inspired bullying of LGBTQ kids and teenagers, defunding of public schools for voucher funding of religious schools, abstinence-only sex education — these are church/state separation issues. We need to make that clearer. I keep hearing these fears about mission drift, fears that organized atheism is somehow going to drift into areas that have nothing whatsoever to do with religion or secularism. But nothing I’ve seen advocated by the social justice crowd looks like mission drift to me. It’s all in the wheelhouse of atheism, humanism, skepticism, secularism, and making safe homes for a wider variety of non-believers. It’s not like we’re trying to get funding for model railroad societies or something.

BS: In the book you use the phrase “women and people of color” often, however white women have a privileged position and power base in American society relative to women of color. In the atheist and humanist movements this has been reflected in the emphasis on sexual harassment, sexist language and sexist discrimination without a corresponding emphasis on the specific ways queer and straight women of color are marginalized, criminalized and shut out of leadership positions. Do you see the need for more feminist humanist dialogue across the racial/class divide?

GC: Absolutely.

I’m certainly not going to harsh on anyone for fighting against sexual harassment and assault in godless communities, and against online harassment and abuse and threats against feminists in the godless communities, and other major firestorm issues. I think this stuff is important, and I don’t think social justice is a zero sum game. But just as atheism in general needs to focus more on the needs of atheists who aren’t white, feminists within atheism need to focus more on the needs of atheist women who aren’t white.

Generally, I do like to see this framed, not so much as “Why are you focusing on (X)?,” but as “Why aren’t you also focusing on (Y)?” I think when people are volunteering time and energy and money on something they’re passionate about, and they get ragged on for doing it because we’d rather see them do something different, it tends to just be demoralizing. As a writer, this is one of the many thousands of bees in my bonnet: I write about stuff I care about, and I hate it when people say, “Why are you writing about atheism and feminism and fashion and sex when people are dying in Darfur?” And if we get too deeply into the “my issues are more important than yours” thing, I think it eventually takes us down a rabbit hole, where we’re going, “No! We have to work on slave labor in China! Female genital mutilation! The AIDS pandemic in Africa! State-sponsored torture!” Pretty much no matter what issue we’re working on, a case could be made that some other issue is more important. (In my opinion, if we seriously evaluated the ultimate value of different political issues, then every single political activist should stop everything we’re doing right now and work nonstop on global climate change — if we don’t fix that, then game over, end of civilization, nothing else any of us are doing will matter.) I think, ultimately, people need to do whatever activism gets them excited, and I don’t like trying to talk them out of that excitement by telling them that the thing they’re excited about is trivial. But I do think we can work to get people get excited about different kinds of activism than the ones they’re currently engaged in — including activism about race and class. And I think we can get people excited about the ways that the activism they’re already doing intersects with the activism we’re trying to get them to care about. That certainly happened with me: I wasn’t focusing nearly as much on this stuff until the last few years. And it’s happening with a lot of other writers and activists.

BS: What impact would you like your book to have within the “activist” atheist community?

GC: Is this a trick question? 🙂

The main impact I want the book to have is the obvious one — I want more atheists to come out to more people, and I want for that coming out process to go better for more people, with better results. I think coming out makes atheists’ own lives better: when I was researching the book and reading the hundreds of coming-out stories for it, I was struck by how overwhelmingly positive people are about it. Even if they had a hard time at first with their families and communities, it usually turned out mostly well over time; they often had less of a hard time than they’d thought they would; they often found other closeted atheists among their friends and family who they had no idea about; and even the ones who did end up alienated by the people they care about still think coming out was the right decision, and are still happy they did it. And all of that was true across color lines, gender lines, class lines. Of the hundreds of coming-out stories I read, literally just one person said they regretted having done it.

I think coming out makes atheists’ own lives better — and I think it makes things better for other atheists. The more we come out, the less alone other atheists will feel, the less stigmatized atheism will be, and the less strong a hold religion will have. Coming out makes it easier for other atheists to come out — and it makes things easier on other atheists who really don’t think they can come out safely right now. And of course, coming out is how we organize. It is a hugely powerful political act: that’s been true for LGBTQ people, and it’s true for us. Of course I recognize that it’s harder for some people than others — for reasons of race and ethnicity, economic class, culture, gender, geography, as well as simply for reasons of personality and people’s personal situations. I certainly don’t encourage anyone to come out if it’s going to seriously screw up their lives. But I want every atheist who wants to come out to be able to do it — and I wrote this book to help make that happen. I want to help atheists come out. I want other atheist activists to help atheists come out — and to give them a safer place to land when they do. I’m hoping that this book makes that work easier. I think that it will.

Call to Action: Greta Christina discusses “Coming Out Atheist”!

Support the 2014 First in the Family Humanist Scholarship Fund

Last year, Black Skeptics Los Angeles (BSLA) spearheaded its First in the Family Humanist Scholarship initiative, which focuses on providing resources to undocumented, foster care, homeless and LGBTQ youth who will be the first in their families to go to college. Responding directly to the school-to-prison pipeline crisis in communities of color, BSLA is the first atheist organization to specifically address college pipelining for youth of color with an explicitly anti-racist multicultural emphasis. We were pleased to receive the support of individuals and organizations in the secular community.

If current prison pipelining trends persist the Education Trust estimates that only “one of every 20 African American kindergartners will graduate from a four-year California university” in the next decade.

With your support, we hope to award at least four youth $1000 scholarships to assist with their books, tuition, housing and other living expenses. Last year’s scholars went to UC Riverside, Cal State University Long Beach, Babson College and El Camino College and are thriving in their first year in college!

Support the 2014 First in the Family Humanist Scholarship Fund

Abortion Rights Emergency! Nat’l Speak-outs/Webcast & Protests

April 11 & 12th: Abortion on Demand & Without Apology
From Stop Patriarchy: Abortion rights are in a state of emergency, and headed for disaster. Already, women in this country who cannot access safe abortions are attempting to self-abort by inserting sharp objects in their vaginas, taking pills, asking their boyfriends to beat them up, and more. Others are being forced to bear children they do not want. This is the future for women everywhere if this war on women is not massively resisted and defeated.
Forcing women to have children against their will is a form of enslavement.
Join Sikivu Hutchinson, Carol Downer and others at the emergency speak-out in Los Angeles on Friday, April 11:
7pm at United University Church
USC Campus, 817 W. 34th St., Los Angeles
AROUND THE COUNTRY, tune into the LIVE national WEBCAST:
Friday April 11, 7-9:30pm EDT
Abortion Rights Emergency WEBCAST
Host a viewing party and tune in wherever you are at
In New York City: Advent Lutheran Church, 93rd & Broadway, 7-9:30 pm
Speakers include:
Dr. Willie Parker, award-winning doctor at the last abortion clinic in Mississippi
Sunsara Taylor, writer for newspaper, leader of the Abortion Rights Freedom Ride, and initiator of
Merle Hoffman, CEO of Choices Women’s Medical Center, which has provided abortions and other health services to women since 1971
Donna Schaper, Senior Minister of Judson Memorial Church, on her own abortion and why we must defend this right
Marge Piercy, poet, novelist, memoirist, via video message: “It was a time when falling in love could get you killed.”
Louise Bernikow, author, historian, long time activist
Bill Baird, reproductive rights pioneer who was jailed eight times in five states in the 1960s for lecturing on abortion and birth control
David Gunn, Jr., son of first abortion doctor to be assassinated, via video message
Testimony from:
Susan Cahill, owner of the Montana abortion clinic that was destroyed and closed on March 3, 2013 about how this is an attack on all women
Dr. Susan Robinson, one of only four doctors in the U.S. who openly provide late-term abortions; featured in the acclaimed documentary After Tiller
True stories of illegal abortions before Roe v. Wade
More to be announced.
Saturday, April 12th: PROTEST!
2pm: Gather at NW corner of 49th St. & Fifth Avenue
3:00 pm: Procession to St. Patrick’s Cathedral and silent protest
In Los Angeles:
1pm: Santa Monica Pier & Ocean Ave.
2:15pm – March through 3rd Street Promenade
Check for protests in other cities or to plan your own.
Silent protests at institutions behind the war on women that raise bloody coat-hangers (representing the fate of women when abortion is illegal) and shackles (representing female enslavement). After an hour, break the shackles and pledge to resist until we defeat and reverse these attacks and win the full liberation of women.


Abortion Rights Emergency! Nat’l Speak-outs/Webcast & Protests

Black Feminism & Atheism: A Talk at Pitzer College

Pitzer talk

Black women who refuse to remain silent about sexism, misogyny, patriarchy and religious control are deemed to be race traitors.  Girls of color learn very early on from the Black Church that allegiance to boys and men of color supersedes their allegiance to themselves.  They learn that there will be no “My Sister’s Keeper” initiatives to “save” them, nor will national attention be given to the epidemic rates of sexual assault, intimate partner violence and HIV/AIDS contraction and criminalization that put every black community in jeopardy.  In her landmark novel Their Eyes Were Watching God, Zora Neale Hurston describes Black women as “de mules of de world.”  It is a cautionary truth voiced by the grandmother of Janie, the novel’s lead character.  Janie’s grandmother is a deeply religious woman and former slave who is the moral pillar of her life.  Janie’s struggle to self-determine has become a classic symbol of Black women’s struggles to exercise power, control and agency over their own bodies and destinies in white supremacist capitalist patriarchal America.

As a freethinker and religious skeptic, Hurston nonetheless understood the seductions of god for black people in a nation where their humanity is still (sitting up here with the first Black president) violently contested in the 21st century.  So any appraisal of Black women’s relationship to atheism or humanism must begin with this seeming contradiction.

Black Feminism & Atheism: A Talk at Pitzer College

Thank God for Abortion: What’s At Stake for Black Women

By Favianna Rodriguez
By Favianna Rodriguez

By Sikivu Hutchinson

Thank “God” for abortion.  More specifically, thank the Christian god, the vengeful omniscient one that white anti-abortion terrorists ritually invoke to justify the murder, mayhem and fear they inflict on thousands of American women in the name of Jesus.

At each of the two clinics where I gratefully got abortions in the 1990’s lone white men were stationed outside with bloody signs of fetal apocalypse.  As white men protesting in predominantly black and brown communities their presence was unchallenged, their bodies unhindered by the policing and criminal surveillance that all people of color in the public sphere face.  This was the high water mark of Operation Rescue, the radical anti-abortion group which laid the groundwork for the current wave of anti-abortion militancy.  Then, as now, mainstream pro-choice activists ceded the moral high ground to the anti-abortion regime, wavering between whether to frame abortion as a matter of personal choice or as an inalienable right.  It’s a legacy that has had grave consequences for intersectionality as the “post-feminist” trope of sluttish immoral women recklessly using birth control and abortion has become legion in American political discourse.

As a black atheist already damned to a smokin’ Christian hell it’s gratifying to know that the Christian god has failed to completely prevent women from exercising their basic right to self-determination.  But the Christian soldiers, fascists and terrorists of the American right have doubled down with hundreds of new restrictions on birth control, abortion and clinic access which have the most insidious implications for poor and working class women of color.  In Texas, Mississippi and Montana, clinic closures, vandalized clinics, restrictions on abortion physicians and providers and the GOP’s refusal to expand Medicaid further jeopardize the socioeconomic sustainability of communities of color. These attacks, concomitant with the Supreme Court’s pending decision on right wing retailer Hobby Lobby’s “religious freedom” challenge to the Affordable Care Act, could gut the rights American women have taken for granted for decades.

Pro-death, anti-abortion public policy and protest are a form of race, class and gender warfare disguised as religious morality crusades to “protect” innocent “babies”.  Challenging the abortion as “black genocide” billboard campaign mounted by right wing foundations a few years ago, reproductive justice activist Loretta Ross said, “We decided to have abortions.  We invited Margaret Sanger to place clinics in black neighborhoods.  We are part of the civil and human rights movement.  We protected the future of black children, not our opponents.”  Despite their high levels of religiosity, a solid majority of African Americans support safe and legal access to abortion.  And African American women have the highest rate of abortion amongst all groups of American women.  The reasons are not mysterious—black women are disproportionately poor, under-employed, single and living in highly segregated communities with limited health care access which have borne the brunt of the economic depression.  Due to slavery and the violent legacy of Jim Crow, black women have a history of coercive control over their reproduction.  Thus abortion is an essential right in a white supremacist capitalist economy that neither supports nor values women of color and their children.

For black women, the radical push for abortion on demand is not an abstract concept.  Abortion on demand cannot be separated from the conditions of racial apartheid that black women find themselves in, especially vis-à-vis the wealth gap and the criminal justice system.  Continue reading “Thank God for Abortion: What’s At Stake for Black Women”

Thank God for Abortion: What’s At Stake for Black Women