Instead of hating on social justice, atheists should tackle STEM segregation

As a racially polarized nation awaits the grand jury decision on the officer who killed unarmed teen Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, atheists and Humanists must step up on addressing STEM segregation and racism.

Today’s guest column is written by Sikivu Hutchinson, founder of the Women’s Leadership Project and author of Moral Combat: Black Atheists, Gender Politics, and the Values Wars.

(RNS1-aug14) Left to right, Keith Lovett, Melik Smith, Victoria Smith, Linda Smith and Antonio McDonald, hold candles during a gathering of people at the QuikTrip in Ferguson, Mo., on Thursday (Aug. 14). For use with RNS-FERGUSON-VIGIL, transmitted on August 14, 2014, Photo By David Carson, courtesy of St. Louis Post-Dispatch. - See more at: http://chrisstedman.religionnews.com/2014/08/21/ferguson-atheists-care-can/#sthash.fwf9dkzJ.dpuf

(RNS1-aug14) Left to right, Keith Lovett, Melik Smith, Victoria Smith, Linda Smith and Antonio McDonald, hold candles during a gathering of people at the QuikTrip in Ferguson, Mo., on Thursday (Aug. 14). For use with RNS-FERGUSON-VIGIL, transmitted on August 14, 2014, Photo By David Carson, courtesy of St. Louis Post-Dispatch. – See more at: http://chrisstedman.religionnews.com/2014/08/21/ferguson-atheists-care-can/#sthash.fwf9dkzJ.dpuf

One of the most evocative images from the protests in Ferguson, Missouri this summer was that of demonstrator Angela Jaboor wielding an “I Am a Woman” sign.

Jaboor’s sign was modeled after the historic “I Am a Man” signs displayed by male civil rights activists in the 1960s. By centering black women’s agency, she challenged traditional narratives associating liberation with heroic masculinity.

Paying tribute to the invisible black women who’ve been victimized by state violence, feminists of color continue to push back against civil rights movement orthodoxies that privilege the plight of young men of color while ignoring the impact race, gender, sexuality and class-based oppression has on cis, straight, lesbian, bi and trans women of color. To paraphrase African Americans for Humanism director Debbie Goddard, “intersectionality is our lives.”

As a racially polarized nation awaits the grand jury decision on the officer who killed unarmed teen Michael Brown, some atheists and Humanists are still hating on “mission creep,” intersectionality, and the “corruption” of white bread secularism by so-called “social justice warriors” who apparently just don’t get why the U.S. is the world’s greatest beacon of freedom and justice.

Expecting nonbelievers of color to hew to a limited secular agenda that fetishizes creationism and the separation of church and state, they seem to ask, “Why aren’t you people who come from woefully religious ghettos content with our table scraps?”

At this point it’s a cliché that white “New Atheist” elites love to saber rattle against the inclusion of social justice in atheist organizing. Yet, when it comes to anti-racist social justice, even the “kinder, gentler” Humanist community often nods its head in well-intentioned sympathy, issues a press release, then shuffles into oblivion.

Indeed, even in the vaunted arena of science education—in which the secular humanist and atheist communities claim to have the greatest investment in improving—Humanists are woefully missing in action on the issue of STEM segregation.

Last weekend I gave a talk at the Institute for Humanist Studies which linked the skyrocketing rates of incarcerated youth of color with their under-representation in STEM majors and careers. Despite being 34 percent of the U.S. young adult population, African American, Latino, and Native American youth receive only 12 percent of engineering undergraduate degrees. While white conservatives are fond of proclaiming that the U.S. is a “colorblind” and “post-racial” nation, STEM fields are the most blatantly segregated in the country.

Nationwide, STEM careers are still dominated by white men (51 percent), with white women (18 percent) and Asian men (13 percent) having the next highest representation. As educational achievement and scientific literacy decline in the U.S., the nation’s juvenile prison population burgeons.

Just as STEM innovation has an overwhelmingly white face, mass incarceration has an overwhelmingly black face. The prison pipeline is driven by the same militarizing and criminalizing policies that contributed to the deaths of Brown and countless other African American youth who did not receive national media focus.

Yet, even though they do not offend at higher rates than other children, black children of all genders have the highest school suspension and expulsion rates in the nation. For a child of color, being harshly suspended or expelled at the K-12 level is one of the greatest predictors of future incarceration.

In low income communities of color, high incarceration rates mean fewer job opportunities, less access to college and housing and the potential for lifelong economic instability. The pursuit of a STEM major in college requires extensive preparation in high school, but college preparation classes are in short supply in many high poverty schools. As a result of this disparity, the U.S. Department of Education found that the majority of African American students who pursue college STEM majors either wind up dropping out of school or switching to non-STEM majors.

The intersection of race, gender, and educational inequity undermines Humanist education and consigns talented youth of color to the nation’s jail track. These are some of the most urgent civil rights issues of our era.

But educational apartheid and its relationship to state violence are not a priority for white Humanists because their children’s bodies are not on the 24/7 frontlines of racist profiling. Until the Humanist community steps up on anti-racism and intersectionality, it will continue to be the “kinder, gentler” cipher mopping up behind the “New Atheist” haters.

Sikivu Hutchinson; photo courtesy Hutchinson.

Sikivu Hutchinson; photo courtesy Hutchinson.

Sikivu Hutchinson is founder of the Women’s Leadership Project and author of Godless Americana: Race and Religious Rebels and Moral Combat: Black Atheists, Gender Politics, and the Values Wars. Her novel White Nights, Black Paradise, on the Jonestown massacre and Peoples Temple, is due in 2015.