Tag Archives: Race

We White Atheists Need to Start Giving A Damn About Racial Justice

Jeremiah Traeger

Jeremiah Traeger

White atheists, it’s past time we get real.

 

And with this first sentence I’m already foreseeing the push-back. For those who have already written me off for playing in “identity politics”, or who think I’m just a self-loathing man trying to spread white guilt, I suppose it may be a lost cause to try and reach you. For the rest of you still reading and who aren’t yet on board, allow me a chance to appeal to your morals and ideals in our mutual quest to make a better world.

 

Yes, atheism doesn’t lead to any moral conclusions; anything without deities is technically compatible with an atheist’s worldview.

 

Yes, merely being white also doesn’t require you to behave in a moral way, and being white doesn’t mean you have done anything wrong. Furthermore, your race or any privilege that comes along with it shouldn’t be sources of guilt.

 

I’m neither appealing to your atheism nor your whiteness, I’m appealing to your morals and sense of duty to your fellow humans. I am doing so within the context of secular and humanist activism, and where society places us based on these identities. I’m recognizing our differences and encouraging your use of privilege. I am appealing to your morality within the context of how atheist activism is currently structured. And right now, we have a lot to work on.

 

By now, you’ve already heard much of the news of the Charlottesville march filled with neo-nazi and KKK marchers. Were you aware that an expert in the alt-right describes this population as more secular than the general population? This includes Neo-Nazi and famous punch recipient Richard Spencer, who is a self-described atheist.

 

The more prominent and famous figures haven’t exactly done much to disavow or even separate their activity from this movement. Their behavior can appear ostensibly benign, such as Sam Harris’ platforming of “race realist” Charles Murray, which ultimately ends up endorsing prejudice under the guise of scientific inquiry. This promotion of white supremacy   blatant revisionism and whitewashing, like when Dave Rubin promotes a woman seeking a “final solution” for Muslims and elevates far-right xenophobic voices such as Tommy Robinson and Lauren Southern, throwing softball questions at them with only the smallest hint of pushback possible.

 

By contrast, what is happening in our own communities to combat alt-right behavior, or to push back against scare tactics? There are a good handful of secular organizations that have explicitly condemned the march (American Atheists, American Humanist Association, Freedom From Religion Foundation, and more), which is good. Are we doing more than trying to distance ourselves from the problem?

 

Black atheism certainly has a presence in the movement. Black Nonbelievers has been around for around six years, and has other affiliated groups specifically to build communities and address concerns specific to the experiences of black atheists. In 2016, the American Humanist Association developed alliances based on doing more social justice based activism, including the Black Humanist Alliance. However, the AHA received plenty of pushback for having the audacity to bring humanist efforts to these specific focuses. When racial justice activists spoke at the recent American Humanist Association conference, they received walkouts on their talks and pushback that other white presenters didn’t receive, as speaker Trav Mamone documents. Speakers like Alix Jules and Mandisa Thomas have both had a history of being treated differently than other speakers at atheist conventions, simply due to being atheists of color.

 

But somewhat equally importantly, whenever issues such as police brutality and racism are brought up within atheist circles we are met with knee-jerk pushback. We are met with cries of “identity politics” and pandering to the “regressive left”. We get Pepes in our Twitter mentions, coming from the same alt-right news sources and communities that fuel the aforementioned white supremacist marchers. Meanwhile, the ostensibly “non-racist” liberal atheists who profess to hold progressive values do little to combat blatant bigotry, and are likely to dismiss any problems simply because being an atheist has nothing to do with race (as if the entirety of our values and behavior must stem merely from our nonbelief).

 

We atheists often pride ourselves on being free of religious dogma that reinforces hatred and bigotry to our fellow humans. We often claim the moral high ground on issues such as gender and sexuality (often rightfully so), since we no longer have the chains of gender roles prescribed to us arbitrarily. But how can we as humanists claim moral superiority on race issues if we not only don’t take any action to combat racism, but we are actively tolerant of those who spread harmful race-based beliefs?

 

The day after the Charlottesville White Supremacist march, I went to Denver and attended a resistance-focused march in solidarity with Charlottesville, where thousands of other people showed up to send a strong message against White Supremacy. Speaking at the march were at least three religious leaders, all encouraging their fellow marchers to take action in their communities. I don’t share their supernatural belief and felt excluded to some extent by the prayer given that day, but at the same time I recognized their capacity for mobilizing their faith communities towards positive action.

 

My local Boulder and Denver areas have little excuse, as they both have secular organizations that meet regularly. It’s possible that some members of these organizations attended, but if so they weren’t as visible as the multiple churches that attended with large signs. Furthermore, neither group made any public show of support on social media.

 

If we white atheists supposedly care about combating racism and want to fight for justice, what’s the point if we aren’t showing up? I understand that our time and energy is limited and many of us want to focus on specific causes to make our efforts as individuals more effective. However, you would think that there would be some secular representation in issues of justice. This is barely the case, especially from white secularists, and as it currently stands humanists of color tend to be rebuffed whenever they want to create change from an evidence-based humanist perspective. What ends up happening is that many religious folks show up, and the atheists don’t.

 

To be clear, religious culture is largely responsible for racism and xenophobia in the world. We cannot pretend that Christianity has clean hands in the issue, and it’s certainly one of the largest factors in far-right terror. After all, religious symbolism and scripture ties deeply into Nazi and KKK ideology. But at the very least, we can say there are religious communities that are actively working to reverse that behavior (particularly in black churches).

 

We could sit in the theoretical abstract and recognize that being an atheist doesn’t directly tie to caring about racial justice, but why does this excuse not matter when there are atheist organizations helping the homeless, doing community service, helping disaster recovery, and performing international service? None of these tie to being an atheist either, yet all of these are active areas of humanism. Why is the race an issue that is so hard for us atheists to overcome? It should be obvious.

 

Finally, it’s worth saying that if we try to create a “big tent” inviting anyone in merely by being atheist, we are actively breeding the alt-right culture that is already fairly nonreligious. Karl Popper’s paradox of tolerance tells us that by being tolerant of any and all persons involved in our communities, then that gives license to accept anyone’s intolerant behavior within the community.

 

It is no longer good enough for white atheists to be “not racist” (to whatever degree we can be non-racist). By making space for racism and bigotry in atheist and humanist circles, we are actively breeding the culture that was alive in Charlottesville and threatens to spread across the world. We are complicit in incubating the same nihilistic anti-humanistic attitudes that we see on 4Chan and r/atheism, ones that lead to hatred and intolerance. If we white atheists truly care about diversity and humanism, we can no longer be content with simple non-bigotry, we have to take steps to combat it. It may be the case that we can’t prevent these attitudes from spreading in other areas, but we should feel morally obligated to do what we can in areas we do have control over.

 

In the words of Angela Davis, “In a racist society it is not enough to be non-racist – we must be antiracist.” Let’s apply that to our own communities, and take the log out of our own eye.

 

The fact that many of us speaking about this now only after Charlottesville speaks to our privilege and complacency with the world as it currently exists, and I include myself in that criticism. Racial justice activists and atheists of color have been speaking about this for years. If you read many of their works or listen to their talks, there is little surprise that Charlottesville was little more than a logical conclusion of our current societal structure at work. Let’s correct that mistake and actively listen. If we are truly critical thinkers and skeptics, we should undergo this collective endeavor towards truth and justice by hearing voices from all perspectives and life experiences. While the truth is independent of who says it, we will get the fuller picture from those who have those life experiences rather than those who can merely describe it.

 

For starters, I recommend this year’s “When Colorblindness Isn’t the Answer: Humanism and the Challenge of Race” by Anthony Pinn, which paints a thorough picture why humanists need to care about racial justice. Continue to listen to humanists of color. I recommend Sincere Kirabo and Ashton P. Woods, as well as Alix Jules. If you like podcasts, listen to Angry Black Rant, with my friend Ishmael Brown.

 

In addition to that, start taking action. Even if you take little steps, it’s an improvement towards positive change. Call out racism in your family and communities (including your atheist and freethought groups). If you have a platform, elevate voices of color. Look for black businesses to support. Call and write your congresspeople in your local community regarding laws and policies that target people of color. Follow racial justice organizations for events you can volunteer and contribute to. SURJ is a fantastic organization where we white folks can become educated and learn where to take steps towards progress.

 

Hopefully we white atheists can learn these lessons and turn them into positive change. Let’s get over the fact that atheism doesn’t dictate what actions we should take. Atheism in itself doesn’t dictate that we create nonreligious communities and fight for separation of church and state, yet we do it anyway. We already take action beyond just being “merely atheist”. Let’s take action to prevent the spread of white supremacy.

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Fighting Against the Trump Presidency: Racism

While I tend to focus on general topics on this blog, I’m trying to post resources this week on how to focus your dollars, activism, and efforts on reducing the harm from this year’s election. This will be a multi-part series of short entries, focusing on a variety of causes that you can get involved in to mitigate some harm.


Jeremiah Traeger

Jeremiah Traeger

There appears to be a meme going around that Donald Trump isn’t really a racist, the media just calls him a racist. I’ll let you be the judge here:

He refused renting homes to black tenants, violating the civil rights act.

Trump promised to hire local minorities for a riverboat casino, later breaking his promise, hiring only majority Caucasians and relegating black employees to service jobs.

He led the birther movement for five years, alleging that Obama was born in Kenya and demanding his long-form birth certificate.

Trump picked a white nationalist as a delegate in California.

He has, of course, claimed that Mexican immigrants are drug dealers, criminals, and rapists. He has claimed that “Mexico doesn’t send their best”.

You could also count many of the things listed against Muslims. Islam is not a race, but Muslims are largely racially targeted, and even brown skinned non-Muslims are targeted with anti-Muslim bigotry.

In line with his anti-Muslim bigotry, he has spread complete misinformation that thousands of Muslims in New Jersey celebrated 9/11.

He attacked a Judge overseeing his lawsuits for having Mexican heritage.

Trump Plaza lost an appeal of a discrimination penalty from New Jersey when they moved black card dealers away from the floor at the request of high-spending gamblers.

Trump refused to rebuke endorsements from KKK leader David Duke four times.

He questioned how “Native American” certain tribes could be when, “they don’t look like Indians to me.”

Trump condoned the beating up of a Black Lives Matter protester at his rally, stating, “Maybe he should have been roughed up because it was absolutely disgusting what he was doing.”

Trump pointed out a black person at his crowd, calling him, “My African-American.”

During the debates, Trump advocated for stop-and-frisk, which is a practice that targets racial minorities.

Trump has picked Jeff Sessions for attorney general, a man who has been repeatedly accused of racism throughout his career and is anti-amnesty.

He has also chosen Steve Bannon, head of Breitbart Media and White Nationalist figurehead, as chief strategist.

While candidates can’t control the people who endorse them, I’d be leery of someone who has earned the support of the KKK.

There’s more, of course, but people often have a hard time accepting anything other than overt racism as racist.

What can I do?

If you’re concerned about you or people you care about being deported, search for a legal resource for immigrating. Check out this directory. One large advocate for immigrant rights is the National Immigrant Law Center, who fight for the rights of immigrants and work to affect policy in their favor.

If you’re worried about authoritarian policing by a candidate who has threatened to be the “Law & Order Candidate” and who has no problems with measures such as Stop & Frisk, consider joining Campaign Zero, who are working to eliminate police violence in America.

If you are interested in organizing for racial justice, consider volunteering or donating to Showing Up For Racial Justice, as well as their black-led groups. I joined in a phone banking campaign with them recently, and I hope to participate in more actions in the future. Some of these groups include the Movement for Black Lives, BYP100, and Southerners on New Ground.

Also, make sure to contribute to public resources like libraries and universities, which often give free information and sometimes free classes for those wishing to immigrate and work towards a better future.

Please feel free to share this piece with others who are concerned with relevant issues.

 

The Worthwhile Problems Part II: “That Shit Isn’t As Bad As THIS Shit”

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Jeremiah Traeger

Last week I wrote a piece about the importance of giving a damn about yourself and your local problems. The purpose was to comfort those in times of loss and struggle, even though the problems of the world seem like much bigger and much more important problems. It’s advice even I struggle to listen to. That being said, it’s not that hard to arrive at that conclusion logically: we won’t be able to make the world better if we ourselves are not in a position to do that effectively in the first place. Usually the only people who are going to solve your individual struggles are you and the people close to you, so you might as well work on the problem if you’re one of the people who can fix it. This does not, however, only apply to immediate problems within our local everyday lives; this philosophy extends to much larger collective movements and many struggles that we fight against.

Many times when we advocate for a cause, we are met with pushback with the transparent purpose of derailing our fight because we aren’t solving “the real problems”. When last week’s murders of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile at the hands of police officers prompted justified outrage, status quo defenders came out of the woodwork to say, “Black-on-black crime is a much bigger problem. Why aren’t you focusing on that?” The atheist community in America often gets backlash from conservative apologists, who will chide us by stating, “Atheists have it pretty easy in America, why don’t you care about the ones in the Middle-East that are killed?” A similar tactic is used to dismiss feminist causes, since any injustices that women face in America are not nearly bad as honor killings and female genital mutilation that appear in certain countries as a result of religious hegemony.

I already brought up the quote by Richard Feynman in the aforementioned piece, but since I find it such an immensely useful quote, I will bring it back up as an example of wonderful advice from one of history’s most rational minds.

“The worthwhile problems are the ones you can really solve or help solve, the ones you can really contribute something to… No problem is too small or too trivial if we can really do something about it.”

The problems we focus on are the ones we choose because we can do something about it. Let us not delude ourselves that every cause will be equally fruitful with the same amount of effort we put in. Furthermore, since we are finite beings with finite energy and finite time without an omnipotent force on our side, we will always have to pick our battles. As such, there is no shame in using our finite resources on apparently small potatoes, as long as we get some fruits out of our labor.

Black-on-black crime is absolutely a problem. So is white-on-white crime, since crime overwhelmingly tends to be intraracial, especially due to housing patterns where people of similar color will gravitate towards the same neighborhoods. White-on-white crime is the same problem as black-on-black crime, which is violent culture. This is a pretty hefty problem in a country that worships guns and the military. I’m absolutely not saying that it’s an impossible or unworthy problem to solve; changing hearts and minds is something many of us work on everyday as atheists and secularists. However, solving this problem is a large and abstract task. Racial justice advocates have very concrete plans that can be written into laws and justice system policies for police reform, and how to educate and advocate for these causes . Don’t get me wrong, this will hardly be an easy battle to fight, but we have a much more direct course of action with clear ways of achieving our goals than just attacking “violence” in general.

The same goes for any societal hurdles that atheists and women face at the hands of religious hegemony. Groups like the American Humanist Association (AHA) and Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) are known for filing lawsuits against seemingly frivolous offenses such as prayers at public school graduations, exclusively Christian representation in government meetings, or religious symbols on public property. There are certainly more harmful offenses being committed at the hands of religion such as religious-based workplace discrimination, public school indoctrination such as the teaching of creationism, and fucking Hobby Lobby. However, the aforementioned groups certainly seem to spend a lot of time focusing on apparently smaller issues. Certainly America is a great place for religious freedom already! We have no blasphemy laws. We have no rules against apostasy, unlike a variety of middle-eastern countries. We have no Raif Badawi over here. Why are we so focused on things as harmless as a mere cross in a park when ISIS still exists? Why are women so focused on silly and relatively benign gender roles in the United States when women in Saudia Arabia get lashes for being raped? These are BIG problems, why are we focusing on the small ones?

Simply put, because we can win them. I’m obviously firmly against the laws against religious freedom in the Middle East. While there are organizations that can help, we can only be so effective overseas. In comparison, FFRF clearly wins battles. If you give right-wing evangelcals an inch, they will try and take a mile, and we are far from having true religious equality in the United States as it is.

We should protest and speak out against laws in Saudi Arabia that prevent women from driving or walking around without a chaperone, but it will be difficult to make that change from here. By contrast, challenging traditional gender roles in the west is one of modern feminism’s best endeavors (in my opinion). When you begin to challenge people on things women cannot do compared to men, the arguments get pretty silly. Just look at some of the things said against Mad Max: Fury Road or having a woman president (not just against Hillary, women in general). I’m not saying that it’s a guaranteed win; fighting some of these battles can be just as fruitless as arguing against certain religious apologists. At the same time, our society is slowly becoming more egalitarian over time, and that’s a result of our efforts in these conversations.

Consider, then, that whenever you want someone to focus on a “bigger” problem that you come across as tone policing. Everyone fights their battles in their own way. Unless someone appears to be actively causing harm, I tend not to police people’s way of changing the world. It’s worth talking about why someone would choose to fight in one way and not another, and maybe both people involved in the conversation can learn from each other. But by being dismissive of a cause you are diverting the conversation away from where solutions are being developed. You are actively putting your energy into preventing problems from being solved, whether or not that is your intention.

Some reading this may protest, stating, “It’s only logical and reasonable that we focus on big problems? Why should we waste time on ones that aren’t as important?” I have to mention that you are also committing an informal logical fallacy when you make this appeal. The dismissal of certain concerns due to the presence of more pressing concerns is known as the Fallacy of Relative Privation. If we can’t care about prayers at board meetings because Saudi Arabia beheads people for blasphemy, then there are a lot of problems we can’t solve here anyway. We aren’t allowed to get food for our family because children are starving around the globe, we can’t care about violence in America because there are still bombings in the Middle East, and we can’t care about whooping cough while there are still AIDS epidemics in Africa. If you think this is a valid conclusion, I’m no longer concerned with your opinions because I think they are ludicrous.

There are pragmatic reasons to focus on the small issues. For one thing, change tends to  be more effective the more local the problem is. Not only will there be fewer institutional and legislative hurdles to overcome at the local political level, but we are far more motivated to be involved with problems that affect us directly. This doesn’t only apply to issues that hit close to home geographically, but also ones that directly affect our identities and the people close to us. If a trans person faces discrimination or they can’t even pee where they work, you bet your ass they are going to have a much stronger fire lit under them to affect change in that area compared to other problems. If they’re going to be effective at changing one particular thing for the better, why would you ask them to focus on something “way worse”, such as gays being thrown off of buildings in Iraq? If you are interested in diverting their focus, you are acting like the parents who want to force their child to be an engineer when they have no math skills or interest in that type of field. It’s simply not going to work.

And ultimately, there’s nothing preventing us from caring about multiple causes. While we have finite resources, we are capable of caring about crosses at public parks as well as blasphemy laws. Both are important causes. Both are worth discussing and doing something about. You may only have the resources to focus on one, or enough to focus on both, or neither, and all options are ok. Join FFRF or The International Humanist and Ethical Union if either seem like good causes to you. I’ve only put money into one, but that doesn’t mean I don’t value the other. And that’s because I’ve come to the conclusion that it isn’t really up to anyone to decide what cause is important for anyone else (unless that cause is actively doing harm). I am always willing to “sell” why what I care about is important, but I think dismissing someone else for focusing on something I’m not as personally motivated for is misplaced. I have no good reason to say X is bad because Y is better.

So please do not police causes you see as pointless or useless. Chances are, they are serving a purpose. After all, if a problem can be solved, the important thing is that it can be solved. Someone will have to do it, even if it means taking time away from your favorite cause. That’s ok, because the best problems worth solving are the ones that can be solved, however small.

 

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