Atheist group appropriates slavery, apologizes

This billboard by Pennsylvania Nonbelievers has sparked outrage

One would have thought organizations have learned by now that appropriating and reducing the impact of slavery and the subjugation of black Americans will mostly likely be met with outrage, skepticism and down right disapproval. Pennsylvania Nonbelievers apparently never received that memo and put up many billboards with a similar messages in Harrisburg, which has prompted the organization to apologize for the billboards.

From the Huffington Post article linked above:

Now, the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission is investigating and is meeting with both the atheists who sponsored it as well as leaders of the NAACP who found it offensive and racially charged.

The atheists behind the sign said they were trying to draw attention to the state House’s recent designation of 2012 as “The Year of the Bible” — an action by lawmakers that the atheists have called offensive.

But there were concerns that erecting such a billboard is playing with fire.

“If this had been Detroit, there would have been a riot,” said Aaron Selvey of Harrisburg, who visited the billboard site last Wednesday (March 7), the day after the sign was put up and later torn down.

“We don’t want things to escalate into violence or community tension, so we try to address situations like that right away,” added Shannon Powers, spokeswoman for the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission. “We would not recommend tearing down because it could lead to escalation. It hasn’t, and we’re tremendously thankful for that.”

The billboard was quickly replaced with an ad for the Harrisburg Symphony Orchestra.

Ernest Perce V, the Pennsylvania state director of American Atheists, said he won’t press charges against whoever damaged the billboard he designed, and said he, too, is a victim after receiving death threats.

We hope people can see just a little bit of discrimination we get,” said Perce, who offended local Muslims last year when he dressed as a “Zombie Muhammad” in a Halloween parade.

Perce and the atheist sponsors of the billboard said they are dismayed that people were offended by the image instead of what he called injustices in the Bible and legislators naming 2012 “The Year of the Bible.”

Perce said he will proceed with a 25-billboard statewide campaign against the Bible and the legislation.

We ask that you turn your anger toward the (state) House of Representatives,” he said, adding that his group does not support or condone slavery while the Bible, which he called “evil,” does.

Brian Fields, president of the Pennsylvania Nonbelievers, understands the image was provocative.

I want to say that I’m truly sorry that many people have misunderstood this billboard. It was never our intention to use race as our message itself,” Fields said.

“I don’t know if that would have had the impact, the same meaning if it wasn’t tied into something visceral. The picture shows the consequences of the statement that the Bible makes.”

The organization in question first presented an FAQ on the billboards, which addresses issues on using the Bible and whether slavery was ethical. It also addressed if the billboard was racist, to which it responded:

Only if you would claim that pointing out a cause of slavery is racist. In this country, slavery was primarily of a particular race. To ignore that history would be irresponsible. Additionally, the Bible (specifically the verse highlighted on the billboard) was used in this country in support of slavery in the south. This is the pernicious problem of dogma – Slavery in the Bible justified slavery in this country. To forget that history means giving us the opportunity to repeat it. So, what is racist here is not the billboard, but rather the practice of slavery that the billboard condemns.

Racism equals power and privilege, both of which allows for majority to appropriate the experiences of the marginalized to push its own agenda. With that said, one would be a fool to argue the billboard isn’t racist due to its overt appropriation of slavery and the shared black in America experience.

The problem with the billboard is not only is it racist, but that it reduces the act of slavery by equating it to following a Bible and Christian. That act itself, in my opinion, is offensive as it’s a reflection of an organization appropriating the marginalization of people of color to further its cause.

As an aside, let me say this: As an atheist, this among other reasons is I refrain from touching the atheist movement with a 10-foot pole. Not only do I find the movement sexist and anti-woman, the movement has historically been insensitive and oblivious to race and racism in America. To be quite honest, I don’t see this movement (much like the feminist movement) coming to grips with its privilege, which means the attempt to include racial/ethnic minorities among their ranks will remain futile. I have not and most likely will never endorse or support this movement as many of its leaders are all too willing to minimize and erase women and people of color.

The idea that any organization would have to co-opt slavery is not only offensive, but down right insensitive to what black families in this country had to endure in the name of Christianity, promoting whiteness, protecting white womanhood and enhancing American democracy.

Slavery not only subjugated African-Americans into involuntary servitude for hundreds of years, it also broke up families, passed down white patriarchical traditions that have been harmful to African-Americans, created harmful stereotypes of black men and women that continues to haunt us to this day and has left a racial stain on the American psyche. Slavery also perpetuated the alleged otherness of African-Americans, particularly African-American women, who were subjected to not only physical brutality at the hands of their masters and mistresses, but also rampant sexual violation and degradation by those same masters.

White Christians used slavery to justify their warped belief that, once let free, black men will lead an all out assault on white womanhood, raping and pillaging white homes and families. White Christian used God and the Bible to promote whiteness and racism, both of which have stymied racial progress in the good ol’  U.S. of A.

To incorporate such a historic, devastating practice into an anti-religion campaign is cruel and insensitive to the shared experiences people of color who may identify as atheists have in this country.

The president of the organization said it wasn’t his “intent” to use race as part of their message. Sadly, you can’t dismiss slavery and race in the good ol’ U.S. of A. Fields, blinded by his white privilege and cut off from the world of racism people of color have to contend with each day, naively thought he would be able to pull this stunt off without the implication of race, even though the billboard has a drawing of what appears to be a black man in the billboard above. Never mind that slavery was primarily used in the good ol’ U.S. of A. to enslave black Americans. Never mind that slavery has had the most devastating legacy on African-Americans, despite the practice being eradicated nearly 150 years ago.

Equating an atheist’s struggle to that of slavery and racism in this country erases the African-American experience in the United States and reduces our struggle to a mere debate on religion and the increased blurring of the separation of church and state. Equating an atheist’s struggle to that of slavery mocks what black folks have had to face for 500 years and is a slap in the face to our struggle to overcome the oppressive tactics of whiteness of racism.

If this organization was even *thinking* about reaching out to people of color to  join their ranks, this reckless and insensitive billboard will most likely serve as a significant setback. Furthermore, the half-ass excuse apology by this organization’s leaders is yet another example of people with white privilege failing to understand how their appropriation is yet another example of whiteness’ erasure of the African-American experience in the United States.

2 comments on “Atheist group appropriates slavery, apologizes

  1. There are some interesting things happening in atheism/skeptic movements these days. The split between people who do not get it at all and folks who consider the humanities worthwhile is becoming more apparent with each incident. Having major blogs by POC on freethoughtblogs is a big change from just 5 years ago. The stregnth of atheist groups is that people thoughtfully discuss things and changes do occur, slowly of course, but much more rapidly than I have experienced in any other political space.

    I am not trying to tell anyone to join up, I quit face to face gatherings because of many of the issues raised here. I just wanted to throw in my 2 cents as a person who does identify strongly with the political causes of athiest and skeptical groups.

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