By Sikivu Hutchinson
“If you’ve seen a black or Latino person portrayed as a criminal on TV within the past twenty-four hours, stand up. If you’ve seen a black or Latino person portrayed as a professional on TV recently, stand up.” These were the two powerful icebreaker questions my students asked the audience in a room packed with 9 – 12th graders during a recent Youth of Color college panel at Washington Prep High School in South Los Angeles.
Virtually everyone in the room stood up for the first question. Six people stood up for the second. One student wanted clarification on what a professional was.
According to the Education Trust-West, only “20 percent of African-American ninth-graders who graduate from high school four years later do so having completed the A-G coursework needed for admission to the University of California or California State University.”
The report estimates that “if current trends continue” only one in twenty black students in Los Angeles County will go on to a four year college or university. Massive sequestration-generated cuts to early childhood education, and K-16 will only deepen these disparities.
At the college panel, young African-American and Latino first-generation graduates of Princeton, UCLA, UC San Diego and the California Institute of the Arts spoke candidly about the high-stakes climate students of color face in higher education.
A decade of racist anti-affirmative action propaganda has sanitized public discussions about racial politics in higher ed. Indeed, many education activists predict that the ultra-conservatives on the Supreme Court will strike down affirmative action policy in a landmark case involving the University of Texas. But, for many student activists, pretending like the racial playing field is level, and that white college students face the same conditions as students of color, is no longer an option. Skyrocketing unemployment amongst African-American college graduates has permanently stymied upward mobility for many working class blacks struggling to “make it” into the middle class.
According to a 2005 Princeton University study, even white, former felons got offered jobs at slightly greater rates than black job applicants with no criminal records.* The cultural presumption of white innocence, despite a criminal past, coupled with the stereotype of black incompetence/untrustworthiness, is still deep and intractable.
During the forum, Princeton University graduate and community organizer Brandon Bell talked about the assumption some white biochemistry instructors had that he wouldn’t be able to cut the rigorous coursework. Coming from the highly-regarded King Drew Medical Magnet in Compton, he was saddled with the perception of being an affirmative action admission, while his white legacy peers skated by with their meritocratic silver spoons in their mouths.
Undocumented youth activist Edna Monroy spoke of being one of only three Latinas in her graduating class to go to UCLA. California’s draconian Proposition 209 prohibited affirmative action at public colleges and universities and dramatically reduced black and Latino admissions to elite UC’s. Even though she had been a straight-A student in high school, Monroy struggled during her first year at UCLA because she hadn’t had college caliber coursework before.
Graduate student Diane Arellano spoke of being viewed as less than competent because she was the only Latina in the photography department at prestigious Cal Arts – where high profile disciplines like directing and animation, fount of the Pixar empire, were almost exclusively white male.
Bell and Monroy’s experiences highlight the institutional challenges that often prevent students of color from even getting to college – i.e., inadequate preparation at the middle and high school level, overcrowded classrooms, low caliber teachers and racist/sexist stereotypes that translate into low academic expectations.
The Ed Trust report criticizes racially disparate suspension policies that disproportionately “pipeline” black students to juvenile detention. Coupled with federal policy such as the Obama administration’s Race to the Top “accountability” initiative that mandates high stakes tests and relentlessly promotes charter schools, the over-suspension of black students is a national travesty.
Following a national trend, billionaire outsiders like Michael Bloomberg, the Walton Family Foundation, and the Broad Foundation have poured millions into Los Angeles charter schools.
Charter privatization is a major driver of school re-segregation. Charter re-segregation buttresses disparities in home buying, home ownership and employment amongst African-Americans of all class backgrounds.
A recent Brandeis University report concluded that the wealth gap between blacks and whites has increased dramatically from 1984 to 2009. White wealth derives from greater home equity, investments and inheritances from family. By contrast, the bulk of Black and Latino wealth comes from one place – home ownership. Because whites of all classes live in higher income neighborhoods than do African-Americans, and have benefited from lower interest rates, longer term home ownership, greater access to social amenities, living wage job centers and better-resourced schools, white privilege continues to be the engine for white upward mobility.
But there is no federal policy that specifically addresses these disparities.
The Obama administration’s “colorblind” remedies for the mortgage meltdown have been piecemeal, fragmented and grossly inadequate for the economic crisis of communities of color. Even as President Obama forges ahead with a more “liberal” second-term agenda, the administration’s robber baron race-to-the-bottom corporate education policy and its indifference to the scourge of mass incarceration underscores the lie of the American dream.
It means that students like Bell, Monroy and Arellano know that they will have to work ten times as hard as their white counterparts who can still bank on earning a nice wage of whiteness in a “post-racial” age.
*The study was based on testers, some posing as ex-offenders, applying to nearly 1,500 job openings in New York City and concluded that “black job seekers fare no better than whites just released from prison.”
Sikivu Hutchinson is the author of Godless Americana: Race and Religious Rebels, due out on March 30.
African-Americans are significantly more religious compared to the rest of the U.S. population, but a growing community of black atheists, like the Black Skeptics of Los Angeles, are steadily increasing each year.
The American Religious Identification Survey of 2008 found that from 1990 to 2008 the number of blacks without any religious affiliation nearly doubled from 6 to 11 percent. Among Americans, that number also jumped to 15 percent from 8 percent in 1990.
“There have always been African-American free thinkers, humanists, agnostics and atheists who have really foregrounded the connection between eschewing religion and the liberation struggle, particularly as it pertains to women and the LGBT community,” said Sikivu Hutchinson, founder of Black Skeptics of Los Angeles.
Hutchinson is part of a national advertising campaign that was launched this year by the African-Americans for Humanism. Her photo was featured next to writer Zora Neale Hurston on a roadside billboard in Los Angeles with the phrase, “Doubts about religion? You’re one of many.”
“If you have an ethos that says black women should be self-sacrificing, should not question male authority and patriarchy…those kinds of things need to be questioned. In my mind, it does emanate from this biblical context,” said Hutchinson.
Nicome Taylor, member of Black Skeptics of Los Angeles, joined the group in September and has seen its membership grow.
Taylor said she recently started a Meet Up group in January from the website meetup.com, and it has now blossomed into 30 members.
“I just feel good about meeting other people that thought like me. I mean kind of going through the whole process makes you feel a little crazy, a little bad after being indoctrinated with [religion] for a while,” said Taylor, who was raised in the church and believed God.
The Inglewood native said she always questioned her faith. It was after she came into contact with people who challenged her beliefs that she started on a quest for more knowledge.
“I had no idea, previously, who wrote the Bible. Even attending bible studies in church, they don’t teach you from a very objective standpoint,” said Taylor.
Through her research, she began to see falsities in the Bible and disagreed with passages on slavery and genocide.
“Without pointing the finger, [the church] is doing it indirectly by saying everyone else is wrong, and Jesus is the only way. There’s other people in the world that are brought up with their belief system as well so what makes us more right than them,” said Taylor.
Before coming out openly about her disbelief, Taylor discussed it with her family and friends. Growing up in a religious family, she said it was difficult for her family to accept the news. Some relatives even stopped talking to her.
“Leaving the faith can be difficult for anybody,” said Taylor. “In the black community, a lot of them don’t want to do that…it’s devastating for some people because it’s all they know,” said Taylor.
Life is a little bit easier for her now because she said her way of thinking has been freed. Yet, Taylor said she still faces challenges because atheists tend to be demonized within the church and among religious groups.
This can be attributed to the overwhelming number of blacks who claim to be religious.
According to figures from the Pew Research Center’s Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, 87 percent of African-Americans belong to a religious group, and nearly eight in ten or 79 percent of African-Americans say religion is very important to them compared with 56 percent of adults in the United States.
Out of those figures, 59 percent of African-Americans attend historically black churches like the National Baptist Convention and the American Methodist Episcopal Church.
Pew’s research also found that historically black Protestant groups were among the most religiously observant based on several factors such as frequency of prayers and church attendance.
Jimmy Thompson said his first experience at church was as a child on Easter Sunday. He said he was in church for seven hours and after that day he never went back to church.
“I don’t talk about [religion] with people because I know people hold their beliefs very true to their heart, and it could turn into a vicious conversation because you challenge their belief,” said Thompson.
See a video of this story:
He said religion was never discussed in his family and the only time they went to church was on holidays like Easter and Christmas.
For Daniel Myatt, a self-proclaimed skeptic who revealed he is one sermon away from being a minister had a very different upbringing.
“To say I embraced religion or the faith would be an understatement. It was just a part of me from my existence as far back as I remember,” said Myatt.
Myatt said he was raised in Chicago in a neighborhood where every corner had a Baptist church. His sisters are missionaries and their husbands are ministers.
Growing up, Myatt said his family would pray every Wednesday and teach them regular bible studies and lessons.
“I remember saying in my Sunday School class that I wanted to be a scientist so I can really prove God,” said Myatt.
He remembers that one of the first things he did after moving to California was watch Martin Scorsese’s film “The Last Temptation of Christ,” a film that his minister banned the congregation from watching. After the film, he worried God would carry out retribution on him.
“If I drive back to my city and my car stops my first thought would be God is punishing me for something I did wrong,” said Myatt.
Yet, living in California made him think in a different way. He said it was the first time he saw black people who did not go to church, which was unheard of in Chicago.
“My parents used to say Sunday morning you have to be in church, anybody’s church,” said Myatt.
He began to ask questions like why God’s word must be filtered through a pastor who is just a man, and why his marriage had to first be approved by a pastor who was divorced several times.
According to Myatt, it has been difficult for him to depart from his religious background and become comfortable with being a skeptic. The rest of his family knows he does not go to church or believe in God, but his father still does not know.
“It’s a revolutionary act to say I’m not going to church or I’m not a believer. I think a lot of people play the game and stay in it…because it’s socially safer to do so…culturally it’s expected,” said Myatt.
Religion and black churches play a pivotal role in the black community. Their prominence has become so well-known that it is even a frequent conversation piece in films like those by Tyler Perry. Even the preaching style of black pastors is caricatured in popular culture.
Javon Johnson, a postdoctoral teaching fellow at the University of Southern California’s Department of American Studies and Ethnicity, pointed out that the black church has played a historically vital role.
“On the one hand Christianity was certainly used to justify slavery, but on the other hand Christianity was also used to sort of move away…from slavery. It’s a double edge sword…but I also think it allowed political access that was denied by legitimate means,” said Johnson.
He attributes the possible growth of black skeptics to a changing political landscape. The way blacks were fighting for equality 100 years ago is drastically different than now, and it may also have something to do with the ebb and flow of history.
“Leaving the black church could be seen as deviant by many, but I think history has shown us that…what constitutes deviant changes over time depends on the cultural milieu at the particular moment,” said Johnson. “If history is indicating that it’s more and more OK for folks to speak out against the church, even in this god fearing country it’s safe to say that, it might become more pronounced over time.”
Pastor Seth Pickens of Zion Hill Baptist Church said he has noticed people moving away from the church but has seen more individuals claim that they are spiritual instead of religious.
“They’re very turned off by the church. Some of the politics and some of the scandals and everything that happens in the church, it turns people off,” said Pickens.
He said it should be a concern for pastors because it tells them what they are doing wrong. In order to remedy the situation, Pickens proposes that the core teachings of Christ, like love and self-control, should be taught.
In the three years he has been a pastor at Zion Hill, the congregation has grown from 87 members to over a couple hundred. He said the favorite part of his job is making the Bible more understandable to his congregation.
In February, Pickens and members of the Black Skeptics group held a roundtable at the church to discuss African-American humanism.
According to Pickens, many Christians are unwilling to engage with atheists in a civil way and have a dialogue, but the event revealed that many of them actually share one belief and that was building up the community.
“Whether you believe in God, whether you confess Christ or not if you see someone hungry you should feed them and many of the black atheists feel the same way. So, I don’t see why we can’t work together,” said Pickens.