Today, February 24th, is the fourth Sunday in February, and as such it is the third annual Day of Solidarity with Black Non-Believers.
In 2011, Donald Wright first proposed holding a Day of Solidarity for Black Non-believers without asking anyone’s permission; he didn’t wait to see if hundreds of people would line up behind the idea before taking that first step and creating a Day of Solidarity in Houston, Texas. Although there doesn’t seem to be much promotion for the Day of Solidarity this year, no one has to wait for permission to celebrate the Day of Solidarity either. If anyone, anywhere, wants to celebrate the DoS, please, go right ahead and create your own event; contact other nonbelievers in your own community and decide how you’d like to spend that time with each other: share a meal; visit an art gallery or museum; go see a movie or a play; go ice-skating; etc. Make some phone calls, post your event on your own Facebook page as well as on the DoS Facebook page; celebrate, and remain an activist—not just a joiner—for the rest of the year; make a commitment to social change. Right now, what society needs are people who are committed to social change; we have enough talkers, and in order to create meaningful change, we must each assume leadership by doing the right thing—with or without company!
The future as well as the integrity of the secular community depends not on people who do as they are told, but on those of us who are both independent thinkers and activists.
So, when I was 12 or 13, I was walking down Main Street, passing the department store, heading for the library, and I saw a group of black boys, high schoolers or college students. I remember noticing how my heart sped up with fear. Somehow I’d absorbed the idea that young black men are extra dangerous – more so than the “average” (read: white) man. This didn’t really jive with my young nerdy embrace of the Vulcan ethos, “IDIC,” Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combination. Difference is not to be feared, so I thought, and so I believed consciously, but subconsciously I feared those young men. It’s a vivid memory, perhaps because the cognitive dissonance was so strong.
My parents were proud of being supportive of the civil rights movement, and emphasized ideas about equality. They were not big on enforcing or obeying gender stereotypes. They spoke approvingly about MLK Junior and beamed with pride when I “went steady” in 7th grade with a cute dark-skinned boy in the 8th grade who won the dance contest at the Junior High Dance, and gave me the blue teddy bear he won thereby as a Valentine’s Day present. And yet there I was, acting out the stereotype that young black men and boys are violent thugs.
That experience is one among many that predisposed me to quickly grasp the concept that racism is a system in which we all participate, sometimes without intending to or even knowing that we are. I think that’s something that white can do to help the struggle against racism – have an accurate understanding of racism and how it works. Embrace the Smooth Model of racism – it’s about the effects, not the intent.
Think about your neighborhood for a minute. Then consider that, concurrent to the public apartheid of Jim Crow, there was also a fully legal and government-sanctioned program of segregation by neighborhood and sometimes by town. This practice was called “redlining” and if you’re not familiar with the practice, basically it meant banks and the Federal Housing Authority collaborating to identify and map neighborhoods that were “good investments” and which were “too risky.” The Wiki page has a pretty succinct description, so I’ll just put it here:
Such maps defined many minority neighborhoods in cities as ineligible to receive financing. The maps were based on assumptions about the community, not accurate assessments of an individual’s or household’s ability to satisfy standard lending criteria. Since African-Americans were unwelcome in white neighborhoods, which frequently instituted racial restrictive covenants to keep them out, the policy effectively meant that blacks could not secure mortgage loans at all.
Emphasis mine. See how skepticism comes into play here? Racism clouded the ability of the white men making those maps to accurately assess reality. And because of that, they did a lot of damage: they made it nearly impossible for several generations of black families to get mortgages for their houses, loans for their businesses, and even supermarkets in their neighborhoods.
That’s just one area in which the basic material substrate of our lives is so heavily influenced by our history of racialized injustice here in the USA. The house you live in, the neighborhood, how far you have to drive to get groceries (whether you have to drive, too), and of course whether your family has generations of wealth-generating home ownership to draw on. Pick a realm of life–education, medicine, environmental hazards, work, whatever–and there’s a similar story of deliberate exclusion, papered over by the pretense that the Civil Rights movement was, like, a million years ago, and slavery was a million years before that, and everything’s copacetic now. This is an attitude that a.) does not withstand critical inquiry; as I just demonstrated, the footprints of racism are everywhere, if you don’t deliberately blind yourself to them and b.) does active harm to the project of achieving equality. When you have one group of people asking, “How can we solve this problem?” and another group is saying, “There is no problem here,” there can’t be any productive dialogue. The question of whether racism, and other bigotries, are a problem in the atheist/skeptic community (as they are in ALL communities, without exception) is a binary question: either it is a problem, or it is not. The correct answer is that there is a problem. As skeptics, we need to stop being patient with those who insist that there is no problem. They should have no more credibility than creationists or climate change deniers.
Eventually this will happen, but we can help it along by not taking discussions of how you may have come across as racist so personally, and by paying attention, getting accurate information, and applying critical thinking. And of course speaking out against racism as often and as loudly as possible, joining actions, donating to organizations such as Sikivu Hutchinson’s Women’s Leadership Project.
This is my very small contribution to the Day of Solidarity with Black Non-Believers this year. Next year I hope to join in again, with a bit more lead time – I think I heard about it just a couple of weeks ago for the first time – and I hope you’ll join in too.