Interview: Sikivu Hutchinson, Humanism at Work Speaker


SikivuHutchDA2In anticipation of this year's Humanism at Work conference, to be held in Boston on July 25, we are interviewing some of the people who will be speaking there. Up now is our Keynote Speaker, Sikivu Hutchinson. Her speech is entitled “Colorblind Lies and Meritocracy Myths: Moving Secular Social Justice”

Sikivu Hutchinson is the author of Moral Combat: Black Atheists, Gender Politics, and the Values Wars and Godless Americana: Race and Religious Rebels. Moral Combat was the first published book on atheism by an African American woman. She is a contributing editor for The Feminist Wire and was named 2013’s “Secular Woman of the Year”. In 2010 she founded the Women’s Leadership Project, a feminist humanist high school mentoring program in South L.A. which she continues to direct. Her novel, White Nights, Black Paradise, based on Peoples Temple and the Jonestown massacre, is due in Fall 2015. She is also a lead organizer for the Secular Social Justice conference, an annual atheist of color  conference that focuses on the intersection of humanism,  atheism, and anti-racist organizing.

1. Do you think there is a connection between religious belief and racial inequality in America?

In the U.S., high levels of religious belief are a symptom of structural inequities with respect to the intersection of race, gender, class and geography. For urban communities of color, the lifeblood of organized religion is economic injustice (true to Marx’s chestnut “religion is the sigh of the oppressed”) as well as the historic dehumanization of black and brown people under white supremacy. The domino effect of de facto segregation, job discrimination, unemployment, foreclosure, mass incarceration, and educational apartheid has bolstered the influence of religious institutions in many black and Latino neighborhoods where storefront churches line every block. Certainly the experience of surviving racism and racial terrorism has greatly affirmed the role of religious observance in the lives of many African Americans. For example, in the absence of equitable government programs, the Black Church has traditionally been a social welfare resource in African American communities. Social welfare programs such as funding assistance to poor families, food supplies, housing and utilities services, prisoner reentry programs, and day care provision are among the many resources that community-based churches offer. If there is no engagement with how economic injustice and capitalist exploitation shape hyper-religiosity in communities of color then humanist/atheist critiques will be irrelevant for the majority of people of color.

2. What role do you think social justice, and especially the fight for racial equality, should play in secularism/humanism? What do you think humanist organizations can do to foster more diversity?

Again, because it is perceived as being narrowly focused on church/state separation mainstream humanism has limited relevance when it comes to the realities of people of color. In order to be culturally and politically relevant beyond the white elite, humanist organizers must adopt an explicit social and economic justice agenda in the next decade. Our recent Moving Social Justice conference was attended by nearly one hundred activists and educators involved in reducing juvenile mass incarceration, developing resources for queer youth of color, reproductive justice, unionization and creating community-based media. One of the primary goals of the conference was exploring how humanists of color can begin developing social welfare and educational infrastructure that challenge the dominance of organized religion in our communities. I work in schools where youth of color are disenfranchised by criminalization, low academic expectations, lack of college preparation, sexual harassment and homophobic /hetero-normative policing, to name but a few. This environment severely limits their life prospects and opportunities. Yet, with all of the lip service given to “critical thinking” in the atheist and humanist movements there is zero attention to the devastating impact prison pipelining has on preventing youth of color from having basic access to college preparation, advanced placement classes (so-called inner city schools have fewer Advanced Placement math and science classes than do more affluent, predominantly white schools), financial aid and mentoring resources. There is no attention to the narrowing of curriculum caused by high-stakes testing, “charterization” and the neo-liberal corporate agenda (brought to you by the Obama administration and billionaire philanthropist allies like the Gates, Walmart and Broad foundations) to gut public education. As a result of this regime many high school students simply don’t know how to construct a coherent essay, place contemporary events in historical context and analyze texts based on critical literacy. This, and racist/sexist low expectations of teachers and administrators towards students of color, are the primary reasons why so few black and Latino youth go into STEM fields. But the movement isn’t focused on these intersectional issues because they don’t directly affect middle-class white children. Conversely, progressive atheists of color are interested in building institutions that support culturally responsive humanist curricula, instruction and youth leadership development programs which will facilitate college access, activism and critical literacy amongst youth of color. Last fall the Women’s Leadership Project feminist humanist mentoring program co-sponsored a STEM youth of color conference with the Level Playing Field Institute (LPFI) at USC. The LPFI coordinates STEM immersion programs for students of color in California high schools, and at USC and UC campuses. I’ve advocated for atheist and humanist involvement in these kinds of initiatives because they significantly improve access to and agency in STEM academic disciplines and careers for youth of color who are systematically excluded due to institutional racism, sexism and under-resourcing. In 2013, Black Skeptics Los Angeles spearheaded a First in the Family Humanist scholarship for LGBTQ, homeless, foster care and undocumented youth in South Los Angeles schools. These young people are at the highest risk for school push-out and incarceration. When they become homeless, placed in foster care and/or incarcerated they must often find resources through local churches and faith-based charities. Organized humanism needs to develop a platform for addressing these disparities.

Unfortunately, we’ve seen numerous instances where a focus on the supposed “ultimate” outsider status of atheists has become a rallying cry for white New Atheists who want to disavow their white supremacist privilege despite the fact that white people have over twenty times the wealth of African Americans, Latinos and indigenous people. White America will never have to fear being interrogated, brutalized, dehumanized or executed for breathing, walking, talking or driving while white. This fundamental difference in reality hinders movement around intersectionality and racial and economic justice in organized atheism. Some white atheists will argue up and down that atheism shouldn’t have a social justice agenda while not knowing a damn thing about living in a community without parks or recreational centers where churches are some of the only safe spaces around. These same people also vilify all black Christians as backward, primitive and complicit with white supremacy. In addition, when the public face of atheism is Richard Dawkins making offensive pronouncements about rape and sexual assault this further alienates progressive women of color. They may be questioning or even deeply critical of institutional sexism and misogyny in organized religion yet see organized atheism as reactionary on women’s rights and social justice. In Dawkins’ world, straight white male experience is the universal template for scientific inquiry, rationality, aesthetics, morality and ethics; anything that doesn’t conform to that is framed as other. This mindset reflects a segment of New Atheism which thrives on denigrating progressive American feminism as a collective tantrum that white Western secular saviors can squelch by showing how much they’ve done to redeem all those poor, backward genital circumcision survivors in Muslim countries.

3. What are some of the most important public policy changes we need to make to bring about more racial diversity and equality?

Diversity in and of itself is a merely a palliative, stopgap “solution”. I’ve discussed many of the policy issues that I believe are most critical above but redressing social inequity requires an intersectional approach. Clearly there should be a more equitable distribution of wealth that taxes the super-rich and corporations at a rate where they won’t be allowed to profiteer off of poor and working class people. Public colleges and universities should be free and culturally responsive education that instills critical writing skills, critical analysis and social obligation to community activism while pipelining young people into college should be the norm. Universal access to government subsidized reproductive health care, contraception and abortion should be institutionalized. Given that African Americans have disproportionately high rates of homelessness and foreclosure policies that expand affordable housing and gentrification “abatement” to ensure folks are not displaced and priced out of their existing neighborhoods are paramount. Ensuring that black and Latino youth are not criminalized on pre K-12 campuses (for example, black students have the highest rates of preschool suspension and expulsion in the nation and queer and trans African American and Latino youth are disproportionately pushed out of middle and high school) via zero tolerance policies and a glut of police with weapons and military hardware is critical. For the past year Black Skeptics Los Angeles has been a part of the Dignity in Schools Campaign, a national network of educators and activists challenging the policies that lead to high push-out rates among youth of color.

4. What are some of the specific lessons you think we need to learn from what happened in Baltimore and Ferguson?

The uprisings in Baltimore and Ferguson were the direct result of generations of state violence, not only vis-à-vis policing and criminalization but with regard to racial segregation, wealth inequality and educational apartheid. These are forms of state violence that don’t get the same play or coverage as police murders of unarmed people of color because they are so deeply embedded and normalized. While Ferguson is an example of white imperialist control of a middle-to-working class black community, Baltimore is an example of how black elites have kowtowed to an overarching corporate neoliberal power structure that disenfranchises working class African Americans. The fact that Baltimore—with a black mayor, black police chief and predominantly black city council—is one of the most poor and segregated urban communities in the U.S. with staggeringly high unemployment and sexual violence rates is an indictment of the “diversity means progress” myth. The “lesson” that white America should take from these uprisings is that it can no longer hide behind the sop of colorblindness and that de facto segregation is just as insidious as the overt racial terrorism of the Jim Crow era. The wealth gap between whites and African Americans is the most gargantuan in modern history. Much of this has to do with disastrous pro-capitalist Democrat and GOP-backed deregulation policies that undermined the equity and savings of communities of color, in addition to racist policing and criminalization policies (i.e., “mandatory minimums”, the economic disenfranchisement of ex-offenders in housing, employment and education, etc.) and the privatization of public education.

For more information on the Humanism at Work conference, including speaker biographies, how to register, and hotel details, go to our blog. There are only 100 tickets available and they are going fast. Make sure you register early to get yours!