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Atheism and social justice: Sikivu Hutchinson on the first People of Color Beyond Faith conference

"Despite frequent tokenistic calls for 'diversity' within the 'movement,' there are virtually no people of color in executive management positions in any of the major secular, atheist, or Humanist organizations." Author and activist Sikivu Hutchinson tells RNS how a new conference is working to change that.

Sikivu Hutchinson; photo courtesy Hutchinson.
Sikivu Hutchinson; photo courtesy Hutchinson.

Sikivu Hutchinson; photo courtesy Hutchinson.

“What is secularism without social justice in a nation where whites have over twenty times the wealth of people of color?”

That’s one of the questions posed by organizers of a new first-of-its-kind conference for atheists and Humanists. This weekend, People of Color Beyond Faith will host the first annual Moving Social Justice conference at Center For Inquiry – Los Angeles.

To learn more I spoke with one of the organizers: Sikivu Hutchinson, founder of Black Skeptics Group and author of Godless Americana: Race and Religious Rebels and Moral Combat: Black Atheists, Gender Politics, and the Values Wars.

Below, Hutchinson, who is currently working on a novel exploring the Peoples Temple movement and the Jonestown massacre of 1978explains the significance of Moving Social Justice in a movement where “there are virtually no people of color in executive management positions” and shares advice on addressing white privilege in atheist organizations.

Chris Stedman: How did Moving Social Justice come together? 

Sikivu Hutchinson: Motivated by the vacuum in secular social justice leadership, Kim Veal of Black Freethinkers and Black Skeptics Group, Raina Rhoades of Black Freethinkers, Donald Wright of Houston Black Non-Believers, and I formed the People of Color Beyond Faith network. People of Color Beyond Faith is designed to amplify the social justice worldview, platform, and community context of radical and progressive nonbelievers of color. We’re not only interested in working with nonbelievers and secularists of color, but also with progressive faith organizations that share a similar vision.

[tweetable]Moving Social Justice is the first atheist conference to address social, economic, gender, and racial justice from the perspective of communities of color[/tweetable]—and it will bring together atheist of color groups from across the nation along with local CBOs, nonprofits, and community activists.

CS: What are your goals for the conference?

SH: The conference is designed to bring social justice activism to the fore of radical Humanism and atheism as it relates to the particular struggles of people of color within the context of hyper-segregation, downward economic mobility, mass incarceration and the neoliberal privatization of public education in black and Latino schools. These systems have had the most devastating impact on our communities and have only intensified the grip of organized religion precisely because there is no comprehensive social welfare safety net that addresses these disparities.

We hope that secular participants will come away from the conference with community contacts and action items to pursue within Humanist advocacy. We’re also looking for greater traction with community-based and progressive faith organizations to coalition-build around these issues. These are the kinds of organizations that I’ve worked with over the past several years on transit racism and school-to-prison pipeline education for youth of color in South L.A.; but the issues they address are not deemed to be central to secular Humanism because secular Humanism has traditionally been defined by white elites.

CS: Earlier this year, you published a piece in the Washington Post comparing the work of some faith-based institutions against what you called as the “markedly different agenda” of white atheists. Can you say more about this?

SH: [tweetable]Faith leaders and churches of color have been involved in virtually every civil rights and racial justice issue in the country.[/tweetable] Recently, black church leaders—in partnership with local human relations groups—condemned the racial profiling and harassment of a middle class African American family in upscale Yorba Linda. Similarly, black church leaders and faith organizations have been involved in protests around voting rights rollbacks, immigration reform and rights for undocumented immigrants, affirmative action, police violence, raising the minimum wage, job training and health care access. Simply put, churches—for good or ill—are a political and social platform for people of color in the absence of the kind of secular institutions that provide white people with political leverage, visibility, and validation.

CS: The most visible “faces” of atheism are generally upper class, heterosexual, cisgender white men. What can be done about this? 

SH: [tweetable]Despite frequent tokenistic calls for “diversity” within the “movement,” there are virtually no people of color in executive management positions in any of the major secular, atheist, or Humanist organizations[/tweetable]—notable exceptions being Debbie Goddard of Center for Inquiry and Maggie Ardiente of American Humanist Association. People of color are constantly bombarded with claims of separatism, reverse discrimination, and “self-segregation” when they point to the absence of social justice, anti-racist community organizing, coalition-building, and visibility among secular organizations. After the Washington Post article, the vitriol and denialism among the “We are All Africans” white atheists was off the chain. This illustrates yet again that sticking a few of us on conference panels or secular boards is nothing but cheap appeasement. [tweetable]The only way to change the narrow politics of “inclusivity” is to change how secular Humanist and atheist agendas are shaped and framed.[/tweetable] Moving Social Justice is a part of that strategy.

CS: How can white atheists better address white privilege in atheist organizations?

SH: One of the first things they can do is get educated about what white privilege is and how it connects to white supremacy in their everyday lives vis-à-vis where they live and work, where their children go to school, the media they consume and their cultural and social histories. [tweetable]People assume that becoming aware of white privilege means taking a “diversity” workshop[/tweetable] or reading a few articles by Tim Wise, but it’s a lifelong process that doesn’t result in a nice shiny certificate of completion at the end.

If we’re talking about organizations that are lily white then there needs to be an assessment of leadership vision, management structure, decision-making power and the history of the organization. What is the vision of the organization? Does it have explicit goals and objectives that relate to social justice as it is defined by communities of color? How can the organization be restructured to actively work with community-based organizations that are initiating programs and policies which directly impact communities of color? What ongoing training and human relations professional development need to be embedded in the organization’s strategic plan to ensure a culture and climate shift vis-à-vis its professional identity, the identities of its leaders and staff, and how it is perceived in the community?