Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Humanists on race

I'm interested in determining how well (secular) humanists do social justice.  Many people want to support social justice, but whether their actions and positions are really in favor of social justice is a different question.  Therefore, I proposed that I look at humanists' expressed opinions on a particular concrete social justice issue: colorblindness.

So here's my definition: Colorblindness is the view that the solution to racism is to immediately stop making any distinctions based on race or ethnicity.  It is the view that the only racism worth fighting is the explicit kind, rather than the systemic, structural kind.

In my opinion, colorblindness is counterproductive, because it leads to ignoring problems rather than solving them.  I am far from alone in this view (here's one example).

I will conduct this sort of like a controlled experiment, not because I'm being all precise and scientific.  Judging whether something is expressing colorblindness is hopelessly subjective.  I'm imitating experimental procedure because it is more fun that way, and because it has the best chance of changing my mind (since, after all, I will agree with my own subjective judgments).

The procedure: I will search for race and ethnicity on The Humanist (a magazine by the American Humanist Association), the Council for Secular Humanism (CSH) website, and the AtheismPlus forums (for control).  I will select articles at random from each site, and try to categorize them as "The colorblind", "Colorblindness rejectors", and "other".  This will not be just based on explicit positions, but implied ones.

The Humanist

After trying a few search terms (race, racial, racism, ethnicity, ethnic), I decided that The Humanist's search engine is not very good.  I settled on "racial", because it seemed to have the most meaningful results.  There were 10 results, and I picked 5 of them with a random number generator.  One article only used the word "racial" once, without discussion so I replaced that one with another random one.

The colorblind:

Colorblindness rejectors:
1. The Humanist interviewed Gloria Steinem, and in my opinion she indirectly rejected colorblind ideology several times.  For instance, she talks about how black women are more likely to be feminist; this is inconsistent with the view that black and white makes no difference.
2&3. Two articles are by Sikivu Hutchinson, who I already know would oppose colorblindness.  I think she founded the Black Skeptics group.
4. In an article about Thomas Jefferson, the author says, "As a society, we routinely deplore racial violence and say we are not prejudiced, but racism still exists."  Sounds like an explicit rejection!

1. A review of Less Than Human talks about race, but I don't think it mentions colorblindness in any way.

The Council for Secular Humanism

A search for "Racial" gave me 100 results!  I tried picking them at random, with little success.  I looked at 15 articles, and only one seemed relevant.  It seems that many writers like to list race alongside other things like class, ethnicity, and sex, without elaboration.  Since this wasn't working, I picked the last articles by looking at those with the top relevance scores (skipping 1 which I felt was not actually relevant).

The colorblind:
1. One article compares anti-atheism to historical racism, and I got a colorblind vibe based on what things it emphasized.  When anti-atheism is compared to racism, it's only the discrimination aspect of anti-atheism that comes up.  It's also sort of triumphalist about the nearing end of racism, speculating that "anti-atheism may well go the way of racism."
2. A manifesto by Paul Kurtz (founder of CSH) calls for "a new global ethics that transcends the ancient religious, ethnic, national, and racial differences of the past."  It asks us to "rise above parochial national and multicultural perspectives."  It also recommends "concrete practical reforms to achieve these aims", none of which include explicitly addressing race.  I am not sure how Kurtz intends to transcend issues of race without addressing them explicitly.

Colorblindness rejectors:
1. A short article credits the "growth of justice" to "the boldness of minorities that have demanded rights instead of merely bowing to commandments."  That sounds a bit like a rejection, since the author thinks speaking up, rather than ignoring differences, solves problems.
2. An article announces the founding and endorsement of African Americans for Humanism.  I consider creating specialized groups to be a rejection of colorblindness.

1. An article laments the "regressive" view that we should censor speech " deemed offensive and hurtful to presumptively vulnerable or historically oppressed groups".


Because AtheismPlus is a forum, rather than a series of articles, I can't use exactly the same procedure. Instead, I searched for "racial", and got 76 posts. I randomly picked a few posts, and looked at the pages containing them.  I tried to enumerate the number of unique users who seemed to be espousing colorblindness, vs those who were not.  As usual, I ignored a few threads which came up in the search but I felt were irrelevant.

1. Does "We are all Africans" Co-opt Black Identity?: For the sake of this experiment, I won't take a position on that question.  But some people criticized the statement for colorblindness.  I counted 4 who explicitly rejected colorblindness, and 11 who didn't explicitly mention it.
2. How to be more than a "White People's Movement": One commenter endorsed colorblindness, saying "As long [AtheismPlus] is inclusive and openly so, then there is no problem," and, "instead of thinking of it as a white people's club, just think of it as a people's club."  11 unique commenters made a point to disagree with this.  Only a couple commenters I wasn't sure about.

Conclusions (TL;DR)

Because of my prior negative view of Humanist organizations, I thought that they would take the naive, colorblind stance towards racism.  I was mostly wrong.  The Humanist takes a very progressive stance.  CSH has a somewhat regressive stance (and coming from the founder too), but perhaps this is a characteristic of CSH rather than humanism in general.  AtheismPlus got highest marks, as expected.

Perhaps- perhaps I was wrong about humanism.  When I reflect back on why I have such a negative view of humanism, one of the things I recall was reading an article by Paul Kurtz which I deeply disagreed with.  Maybe I just had a problem with Paul Kurtz and CSH!  What an epiphany.


Unknown said...


I'm the director of African Americans for Humanism, mentioned above, which is a program of the Council for Secular Humanism (also mentioned) that was created with support from Paul Kurtz—and I share some of your concerns.

In my opinion, the colorblind attitude crops up too often in humanist discussions, although it seems that it's not reflected in the pages of the magazines you examined. Check out the comments on this forum, for example:

I'm glad to see more writing about this.

Debbie Goddard

miller said...

There's probably something to be said about the difference between the views expressed by magazine articles vs the views expressed by readers vs the views expressed by self-identified humanists who aren't necessarily attached to any humanist organization. I am still happy to see the magazine articles addressing race maturely, and it made me feel more optimistic about humanism.

PS, I love what you do, Debbie!

sz said...

Shabby choice of control group. You can't compare pieces by one author with a forum thread with multiple participants. Better would have been to choose an established platform of an anti-racism movement as control. But I know why you did it anyway. ;-)

In the depths of the colorblindness water I see treacherous semantic currents, but I'll tip-toe into it anyway:

Colorblindness as a default policy is good.

In fact, it's better than anything else you can come up with. The notable and in this context quite relevant example where this does not apply is organizations which focus on racial justice. But rooting out racial prejudice (or changing people's mind in general) is not the activity persued by most of society. So give the colorblind some slack...

You did not link to Paul Kurtz's Manifesto, but only to something by him that quotes it. I can understand how you did not actually read his piece. Neither did I, even though I tried to, but I instantly share your dislike of his writing.