September 26, 2011
To summarize as succinctly as possible, Derek Miller wrote that in order to attract more members of minority communities (particularly, in that case, African Americans — it will be to this group I refer for the remainder of this post, but there are similar barriers faced by members of other ethnic groups as well) to the secular/freethought movement, the only thing that could be done was to make the movement more friendly and welcoming in general. It’s a sort of Field of Dreams approach to attracting members of communities of color: If you build it, they’ll come.
I was a bit apoplectic because Mr. Miller has clearly not consulted with, or bothered to listen to, anyone who has been talking about this issue from the minority perspective. This kind of laissez faire approach to recruitment is doomed to fail for reasons I will explain. I’ll also offer some of my own suggestions as to what steps can be taken to more actively include people of color (PoCs) into the freethinking discussion.
Why don’t black people come to atheist meetings?
The freethinker community has been struggling with this question of late, as more and more speakers have become sufficiently emboldened to decry the lack of ethnic diversity at things like conferences, Meetup groups, and other atheist-friendly activities. Increasingly, demands have been going up for a simple answer to this question and have not been forthcoming. This was, I think, the general thrust of Mr. Miller’s post — there are no simple solutions to this problem. It does not follow, however, that there are no solutions to the problem at all, and we must simply wait for black and brown folks to get over their shyness and start showing up. There are a number of overlapping potential explanations, and until we can begin to see them as a larger context (instead of trying to tackle them one at a time), we’ll simply be spinning our wheels.
There are a few commonly-cited explanations for why black folks just don’t seem to show up:
- Atheism as a ‘white people thing’
The typical face of atheism is, or at least has been, a white one. It’s intimidating for a member of any visible minority community to walk into a room and be the only dark face in the crowd. Whether or not people actually are staring at you (and yes, people do stare), it’s tough to get over the feeling that you don’t fit. Many black people, particularly those in the sciences, are used to being outnumbered and have figured out ways to deal with it. At the same time, if you’re iffy about showing up to the campus freethinker club or the Skeptics-in-the-Pub event or the atheist book club, knowing that you’re going to be an outlier is certainly not a point in favor of attendance.
- Atheists being racist
If I can echo a statement made by Jen McCreight, it’s not necessarily the case that atheists are more racist than the general population (my suspicion is that we do a pretty good job, by and large), but that it’s more shocking to hear racist talking points from people who pride themselves on rationality and evidence-based decision making. When race comes up as a topic, I’m often mildly amused/horrified to hear the kind of 19th-century “scientific racist” slogans that come out of the mouths of my confreres. I personally have a thick skin about it, knowing that people are well-meaning but just not well-educated. My experience is perhaps a bit atypical, and it only takes a couple of bad experiences to sour the whole idea for you permanently.
- The black church
Much has been made of the disproportionate influence that organized religious organizations have over black folks, which may explain, in part, their (our) reluctance to show up to atheist events. The black church goes beyond simple regular religious instruction — in many communities the church takes the place that the government does as a focal point of organization and a social safety net. It’s the linchpin in many black communities, and distancing one’s self from the church is essentially volunteering to go into exile. To the extent that this prevents many black people from coming out as atheist, this may explain some of the differential participation. However, there are lots of black atheists out there who have already left the church and yet still don’t show, so we can’t simply point at this as the biggest explanatory factor.
- Poverty, education, and access
It is no secret that, as a population, black people (particularly in the USA) experience higher levels of poverty than the general population, and definitely a higher level than the white average. This is due to a whole host of factors that are probably outside the scope of the freethinking movement to solve in a timely manner. That being said, socioeconomic factors may have some explanatory power over why black people are less likely to participate. Not every black individual is going to experience more financial hardship than every white individual — to suggest this would be absurd. However, when we talk about this from the level of the population, there is more disincentive for PoCs than for non-PoCs.
Each of these on their own might dissuade individuals from making the decision to attend, but it’s not hard to see how the pressure against participation can accumulate for those who are doing their personal utilitarian calculus.
So how can we be more attractive?
Identifying the problems facing atheists of color with respect to joining the community is not the same as solving them. One might be tempted to say that these are intractable problems and all we can do is wait until they resolve themselves over time. That’s certainly how I interpreted Mr. Miller’s response (as well as many of the comments that followed it). It’s somewhat ironic to watch a group of people who are actively agitating for great separation of church and state and for greater mainstream acceptance of atheists to turn around and say, “just give it time and it’ll sort itself out.” That line of reasoning coming from an accommodationist theist would be met with derision, and deservedly so. Problems can be solved by committed people willing to take action; we wouldn’t be doing any of this otherwise.
Just to briefly address the above 4 issues I raised as examples:
- We can be more assertive about putting freethinkers of colour in highly-visible positions. I am not talking about bumping Jamal from the mail room to be king of atheism — the assumption that this movement lacks PoCs who are qualified in a variety of fields is 1) wrong and 2) racist.
- We can get serious about talking about race and racism. I’ve long been advocating incorporating anti-racism as a skeptical approach — applying methodological skepticism to racial topics as well as those that are strictly scientific. Just as it took us a while to adopt feminist thought into our lexicon, so, too, does the effort need to be made to add new tools to our utility belt when it comes to talking about race. While it may not be very interesting from a biological standpoint, understanding race is like understanding theology: just because it’s not real doesn’t mean it doesn’t exert a great deal of influence.
- We can, as Mr. Miller may have been suggesting, make the freethinker community a true community that performs the same function that churches do (minus the chants). Above and beyond simply knowing that we atheists exist, we can begin mobilizing our collective strength to look out for each other, much the same way we did for Damon Fowler. This will be particularly challenging because of how remote we are from each other — churches are physical entities that are at the center of both your social and physical community.
- We can take steps to actively reach out to close some of the poverty gap. Major events like The Amazing Meeting or other large-scale events can offer a number of bursaries or scholarships for those who can’t afford to pay. Whether or not you make those tied to ethnic membership is really a decision to be made on a case-by-case basis — there are arguments to be made on both sides. My take on this is that you need to decide how important it is for your organization to have PoCs present, and whether or not you can tolerate doing something that might seem unfair.
Above and beyond these specific remedies, though, there is a larger issue that doesn’t get near enough press. Freethinkers and skeptics have our pet topics: alternative medicine, UFOs, creationism, church/state separation… you know the highlights. I am in no way trying to minimize these topics — they’re all deeply interesting and important. However, these are somewhat esoteric and fringe interests that don’t really speak to the passions of the general public. I know that I personally am more interested in applying skepticism to things like politics, poverty, race, and law. There are many people for whom those interests are part of their daily reality — failing to address those interests means that even those who are technically in your target audience are simply uninterested in debating whether or not chemtrails are more ridiculous than homeopathy.
Concerted effort can change minds.
How do we know that will work?
This is an excellent skeptical question, and I’m glad you asked it. The freethinker movement has, lately, faced two other major fights for increasing diversity. The first was/has been/continues to be the fight to include women. A few forthright women stood up and, despite the pressures against them doing so, spoke out about the lack of female voices in the skeptic community. They challenged many of the assumptions and traditions of the society from which freethought had sprung about the role and abilities of women. We continue to grapple with this issue today, and the fight is far from over, but it’s a lot better than it was, say, 20 years ago.
The second major fight was for recognition of issues facing LGBT persons. Freethought is a natural ally in the fight for gay/lesbian/transperson rights, and while, initially, there was not a lot of enthusiasm for topics that didn’t really fall under the classic “skeptical” umbrella, we eventually (thanks to the hard work of vocal, dare I say ‘strident’, people) made LGBT issues one of the central poles holding up our tent, if you’ll forgive the entendre. To be a freethinker is, now, to be assumed to be queer-friendly. This didn’t happen by accident or by passively making the freethought movement simply a friendlier place; it took effort and active recruitment.
In the same way that we fought and won those battles, we have an opportunity to put in work and solve the problem of a lack of ethnic diversity.
We can learn to speak the language of anti-racism, and we can adopt causes that are friendly to those who might not otherwise feel at home in our midst. But above those, we can put actual programs into place designed to actively draw out those fence-sitters of color who need that little extra ‘nudge’ to get them in the room at the next event. Depending on how well those programs work, we can ask people who come from underrepresented communities what they would do to effect change. Of course, this will also require us to start listening (or, excuse me, get better at listening) when people tell us how we can make things better.
Again, all of these proposed solutions are contingent on the assumption that we, both as a community and as individuals, actually care about the lack of diversity within the movement and wish to see the situation improve.
If our approach is going to be one of passive indifference — wait for sufficient numbers of dark-skinned people to find their way into the room such that we can stop harping on this whole ‘diversity’ issue (what is that, anyway?) — then we can just continue to do little. If we don’t care, then we should just say so and be done with it.