In Defense of Black Atheists Groups

Racist graffiti found in the restroom of a Bor...
Racist graffiti found in the restroom of a Borders in San Mateo, California. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Ready for what will strike some of you as an uncharacteristically pro social justice rant? You should be. As I've said repeatedly, I distinguish between social justice activism/advocacy and social justice warriorism, supporting the former while condemning the latter. And why do I condemn the latter? Because it undermines the former. Away we go!

Can we discuss issues of race and racism in a calm and reasonable manner? And if we can, should we? While I tend to disagree with those who claim that atheism has a race problem, I do believe that race is still relevant in the United States and that racism is alive and well. I don't see this as a problem with atheism per se but as a problem with the culture made up of atheists and theists alike. That is, we all have a race problem. It is a problem that trying not to talk about has not solved.

Since the topic of race and racism is so broad, I think it helps to focus on specific issues. With that in mind, I'll pick one that has come up repeatedly in conversations I have had with some conservative White atheists. It can be expressed as a specific question:

Why is it that we are far more accepting of a group calling itself Black Atheists of [insert various location here] than we would be of a group calling itself White Atheists of [insert various location here]?
Some people insist that both of these groups are inherently racist and that they are racist to an equivalent degree. This argument is often based on dictionary definitions of racism while ignoring context and denying oppression and sometimes even racism by Whites toward Blacks. It is an argument with which I strongly disagree. I acknowledge that I am far more likely to be accepting of the Black atheists group than the White atheists group, and I suggest that there are valid reasons for this difference.

We have both a historical and contemporary basis for being wary of Whites only groups. One need not go back very far in our history to find plentiful examples of institutional racism along these lines. And while institutional racism is less blatant than it once was, we can still find plenty of modern examples of Whites only organizations in the form of various White power groups. For many of us, seeing a White Atheists of somewhere sign is going to bring an immediate association with these groups.

Those of us who recognize that racism continues to be problematic today will have trouble denying that it might make sense for members of an oppressed group to come together in mutual support. We recognize that members of the Black atheists group have something important in common that isn't true for members of the White atheists group: they face negative attitudes from others because of their race. That is, they are far more likely to experience race-based discrimination, prejudice, and even oppression than their White counterparts. Atheists of all races often benefit from coming together because of the oppression we face for being atheists; Black atheists are subjected to an additional source of oppression, one from which they cannot hide.

I know that some White conservatives want to deny the existence of racism altogether, pretending that it magically ended with the election of President Obama or even before that. They clamor for evidence of racism but then dismiss it when it is provided (e.g., segregated neighborhoods and schools, the racially disparate impact of unemployment, the over-representation of Blacks in the prison population, the manner in which police keep treating Black men). And conservative media continues to fuel this narrative.

On a personal note, I have lived in several regions of the United States and worked in a number of jobs, ranging from part-time custodial work to teaching at a public university. I have personally witnessed blatant racism in every region and every place of employment. I heard the racial slurs while growing up in a liberal region from peers and adults. I have seen the cross burnings and the men in white hoods with my own eyes during the late 1980s. I remember the Black family who had two different homes burned to the ground before fleeing. I saw the bruises and cuts on my friends' bodies after they were released by the local police. I remember the nooses tied around the doorknob of the African exchange student in our college dorm in the early 90s. Racism exists.

The racism I encountered during graduate school was more subtle but still present, expressed by the undergraduates I taught, a few of my graduate student peers, and a few of our faculty. I even come across it now at times in academia. The conclusion I've been forced to draw is that racist statements, including practically every racial slur you've heard, seem to come out of the mouths of many White people when there are no persons of color around. As much as I'd like to deny this, I can't. And so as much as I'd love to deny that racism is still an issue, I can't.

The racism I have encountered has certainly not been limited to that coming from White people. I have known Blacks who hated Asians immigrants for being Asian, Mexicans who hated Blacks for being Black, and so on. I reject the claims made by some on the left that being a person of color makes one immune to racism. Everybody appears capable of racism, though it is undeniably true that much of the worst I've seen has come from Whites.

Given what I've experienced, I am inclined to believe the Black, Hispanic, Native American, and Asian friends I have had over the years when they tell me about the racism they have experienced and how it affects them. I suspect that what I've seen has barely scratched the surface of their experience. That they would seek support from those who shared similar experiences does not surprise me in the least, especially given how much self-segregation we all seem to be doing these days. Sure, it would be nice if this was no longer necessary, but the fact that it is necessary isn't exactly their fault. To point fingers and accuse them of racism strikes me as yet another example of why they need for groups that include an emphasis on racial identity.

To insist that our Black atheists are racist because a White atheists group would be racist only makes sense if one denies the entire context of racism, discrimination, and oppression. In other words, it is a conclusion that only seems possible by willfully ignoring reality. I think it would be wonderful if we could reach the point where one's racial identity was no longer salient enough that Black atheists groups were necessary. And yet, I recognize that we are a hell of a long way from that point. Maybe we'll get there someday, but if so, I don't think it is going to happen by denying uncomfortable realities or presenting oneself as blameless.